The Land of Dragons, Aliikai Part 1

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Day 1
Time had come for our boat journey to begin. We were to meet our guide Niko at the port around 9 am to get ready to board our ship. We had been playing catch up while in Lubuan Bajo, laundry, blog, art, and web page, and we were now set to be in the dark for five days with no communications. We gathered our gear, and loaded up for the walk down. Yvonne was terribly sun burnt still from snorkeling, so it was out of the question for her to carry her bags. So I put my pack on my back, and her huge pack on my front. It was an amusing sight, I really was just a pack animal now. We trundled down the stairs of our place, said our farewells, and hit the dirt path. This morning people were highly amused by me, walking down the back way with those huge packs. Though their smiles might have been from the knowledge that this intrusive American was probably never going to be seen again in their yards.

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In front of the Mediterranean restaurant was a gaggle of tourists, surrounding a six-foot three dude with blond dreadlocks wearing only a pink swimsuit. This had to be our guide. We headed over and introduced ourselves. I unceremoniously dumped my bags on the ground, breathing a very sweaty sigh of relief to be unloaded. We were still waiting for a few others, so I inquired about picking up some beer. He said that there was time and that he was going to pick some up himself. We were joined with a blond girl from Finland named Pernilla, not that I could actually remember that for at least three more days. We walked over to the store and bought some cases for the journey. Both Niko and Pernilla were looking a little rough around the edges, and it was not long before there was a confession from Pernilla about a wild night drinking and dancing at a sunset bar with some of our future boat mates that lasted till 3:30 in the morning the night before. Niko informed us that there were two groups going to the boat, one was leaving now and the other at noon. We were concerned about loosing our private room on the top deck, but Niko insured us that the agent from Gili’s had locked it in for us and there was nothing to worry about. So we chose to stay at the restaurant to catch up with our family via Skype and work on my blog.

Around noon Niko showed up ready to roll so we walked down to the port, paid our park fees, and waited at the dock. There we met some more of our group, which we had been informed was going to be a group of German twenty somethings. At the dock there were some burly German guys, and a skinny short girl carrying a violin case, an odd thing to be traveling with. She quickly introduced herself as Jessica, another American, (thought I had gotten away from them) and also a grown up, being in her late thirties. She also was a bit concerned being the only old person so was thrilled to not be alone. I’m not sure what she meant by that, old people. The weird case was her traveling guitar, which we were going to become all to familiar with.

Well we set sail in the little long-boat to our ship, the Aliikia. A large, wood sailing ship, with two sails, three decks, all of it painted a dingy dark brown and mustard color. There was a tangible amount of excitement as we rode up to the side of this ship. There was a rope staircase coming down the side, and we had to manage getting our bags on there without tumbling into the sea. Once on board Yvonne and I quickly shot up the steep marine stairs to find our room, which of course was already occupied by three really burly tattooed Germans. Hmmm, as we feared, we might have screwed ourselves by not marking our territory right away.

Never fear, before I even got a chance to speak up Niko came in and informed them that these rooms were taken, and that they would have to move to the lower section of rooms. They were visibly pissed, and you can’t blame them really, they thought they had scored the best cabin in the boat, but, in fact we had. Ha! Turns out there are some benefits to being old. The cabin had three windows, two beds, a chest; all in all, a really lovely cabin. We loved it!

As soon as our cabin was sorted we headed down to grab a beer and explore our new watery home. The group that had arrived much earlier was already deep into their beers. Niko grabbed a beer himself and then began our first briefing, which was to breakdown the rules of the boat, the bathrooms, plans for five days, and all that exciting riff-raff.

There were eighteen of us on the boat, 14 German students, 1 Finish student, 1 American, and of course, an Irish lass and an American lad. Being the people watcher that I was, it quickly became apparent how the groups were breaking down. We had the Jersey Shore crowd, a rather large muscle-bound group of guys all tatted out rubbing sun screen on each others backs, the pseudo intellectuals, playing chess, discussing politics, and such, then there was the couples, all paired off, making google eyes at each other, judging all the single people, and rubbing sun cream on each other. Then there were the floaters, working hard not to be noticed by being noticed. Of course these are all massive generalizations, but they stuck for more than half the boat trip, but over time as often happens, everyone proved them slightly wrong.

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So we were off, we set sail for few hours, going through the islands that we had sailed through the day before for our diving. First on our agenda was snorkeling around a small island called Sebayor. This was going to be a drift dive, where you allow the current to carry you along, and a boat picks you up at the other end. Well 15 snorkelers is a hell of a big group to keep track of. So when the boat did not show up, a few snorkelers got caught in current and shot past the end of the island. A few of us kept our eyes on them, while Niko ran all the way down the island to get the boat. Well the guys that got caught were able to make it back to shore, and after a twenty minutes of stress, one of the boats finally came puttering around the island. Engine problems. Niko had sliced his feet running on the coral to get the boat, but besides that everyone was fine. On this trip I saw little squids, a sting ray, and one of my favorite fish the moorish idol, a black and white fish with a large pendant coming off the top of his head with yellowish back fins.

After all that excitement a sunset was in order, because as I had already explained, there are none better in the world then here. We went to a deserted island and climbed a small bluff to watch the fiery orb go down. There’s a great feeling being the only people on an entire island. Later on a small group of us made our way back to the island to have a bom fire and enjoy some drinks. There was music to be had and swimming with a full moon, and not just the one in the sky. It was a great evening.

Day 2
Next day we woke up at 6am in Rinca Harbour. We boarded two long boats and motored forty minutes to the peer at the entrance of Komodo National park. We were greeted by a few macaques hanging out on the dock, obviously hoping for some handouts. We followed a dirt trail through the underbrush through a brand new, large gateway welcoming us to Komodo National park, with two 12 foot concrete Komodo dragons reared up on their hind legs. It was a majestic entrance to the park, and made me think of the beginning of Jurassic Park. About a hundred meters down we came to some raised stilt houses, a few information boards, and three rangers dressed in green shirts with a six-foot forked stick.

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We gathered around for an informative “How not to get eaten” lecture, mainly common sense stuff like don’t get near them, don’t pet them, keep ranger between you, all the basics. Then they went into how a few weeks back one of the rangers was working in the office and a dragon came in and bit him in the leg. He survived the attack, but many have not. The dragons bite is not venomous, but the potpourri of bacteria in their mouths is recipe for devastation. The infection that results from the bite will start blood poisoning that if not treated will lead to death within days. In the wild they will attack a water buffalo, bite its leg, then back off and follow it for how ever long it takes for the blood poisoning to take effect. Then the feast begins. They can grow to ten feet in the wild, a bit longer in captivity. It was thought that they had a gigantism due to inbreeding, but now it’s thought they might be related to other megafauna that died out thousands of years ago. They eat deer, wild pig, and pretty much anything they can catch. They live on five islands in Indonesia; Flores, Rinca, Komodo, Gili Motang and Padar.

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On one of the boards they have a listing of all the attacks on humans, including deaths. My eleven year old nephew Jake had already given me a dire warning, “Be careful Uncle Mike, they will kill humans in a heartbeat!” So being forewarned, let me tell you, I feel so much safer that the rangers have those pronged poles to protect us. Not a shotgun, not an uzi, not even a little twenty-two, that’s right folks, a big ass fork will save us.

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Well we started our two-hour journey into the dragons territory in one massive group. The landscape was a lot more arid then I expected, palm trees and other tropical flora, but also a lot of dried out grasses and thorny looking bushes and boy was it ever hot too. On the boat with the ocean breezes it feels pleasant, but inland it feels like we’re baking. We went up and down grassy hills, spotting nothing more exciting then song birds for an hour. The guides would branch off, look up and down, smell the air, and other theatrics, but nothing. It was beginning to feel like it was going to be a no-show when we came across an over weight middle-aged English couple sitting on a log sweating like mad and panting like dogs. “Theres a dragon over there, but he’s not doing anything and is blind.” Not sure what got them in such a state seeing’s how the dragon was blind and not moving, but I guess you do have to walk off trail since he was in the middle of it. He had been there for more than a week without moving. He had taken down a large water buffalo but got blinded in the process, then being a fair world, other dragons pulled his meal away because he couldn’t see to stop them. In the gully was the skeletal remains of that meal. So we have one sick dragon. It really was like Jurassic Park with the no-show Tyrannosaurus Rex and sick Triceratops.

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One of the guides wandered off and started squinting towards a grassy hill. “Here comes one.” I step out of the woods and see grass moving in the breeze, and nothing else. I stare till my head hurts, wondering what the hell he is seeing. Most of the group has gone back to taking pictures of Ray Charles, when I notice the grass moving against the wind at the top of the ridge. A gray shape is moving through the tall grasses. My excitement is beyond words at this point. Lumbering is the only word I can use to describe as the dragon comes slowly down the slope. By this time all of us our gathered at the bottom watching. He walks right to us, through the group, and into the gully. The guide warns us to stay back even as he passes through us. He went straight to the buffalo skeleton. He took a few licks with his tongue, posed for some great pictures, then started wandering down the gully. I tried to get Yvonne to pose with me in front of the dragon but something about being bitten made her stay back, missing a great photo opportunity. But after a lot of convincing, she posed for a quick picture. The things I have to put up with, humph.

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After the big male wandered off we spotted another female dragon guarding her nest. The female lays a batch of eggs in a large mound and protects them from animals that might dig them out. Then as soon as they hatch she abandons them and the new dragons are on the menu. The babies shoot straight up into the trees, and live there for a few years till they reach sufficient size not to be eaten by their own kind. She was difficult to see because she was so far back in the trees.

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Our hike was a large loop and at the end we were back at the raised huts. One of the huts was the staff kitchen and there were about twelve dragons just laying around under the platform. You would have to either be very brave or slightly nuts to work in that kitchen. The staircase goes down right in the middle of them. There were all kinds of sizes in this group, and at one point they all took off in a fit, startling everyone. But they quickly settled back down. Back in the day rangers used to feed the dragons live goats for the tourists, but stopped this dangerous act for the sake of the dragons to live a more natural life. They told us they no longer feed the dragons at all, that they like the smell from the kitchen. But one of the dragons had a broken leg that they admitted to feeding. I find it hard to believe that they were there to chill out. It’s far better for tourists who travel so far and bring so much money to see a dragon and feeding them would ensure that they would get that chance. The rangers used to do this at Yellowstone with bears. The bears lost their fear of humans and more human deaths resulted. Now they have strict guidelines against it. I believe strongly that animals should live how nature intended for them to. This is why it was so exciting to see the dragons in the wild on our hike. Otherwise it’s like going to a zoo.

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Back on the boat now, it was not even one o’clock yet, and the day was going perfectly. We moved the ship to a new spot in the national park to snorkel and dive. The amount of divers we had was between 8 or 9, of various levels, some just getting their license. This is really a tough situation for a dive master because you have people blasting through their air in a half hour where advanced divers would last an hour. This is exactly what happened, so the advanced divers had to wait while the newer divers were brought to the surface. This sucks for a lot of reasons, you move slower, see less, and over all are missing out on some great diving. But in the end, you don’t have a choice on the matter, and Nico did his best to give us as much time as possible, and that’s part of going on a boat tour. I was lucky to be partnered up with another advanced diver, Eva, who was like a fish under there. We did see a lot of nice things, from a large sea turtle to a scorpion fish.

Next spot we hit was Gili Lawa. We went to the North side of the island. This time not as many divers went, which I was excited about. One guy was going to go diving, then it was discovered that he did not have his license, but had only done an intro dive. Well Niko pulled his equipment off as fast as could be, this really wasn’t a place for new divers. In fact, though I did not know it at this time, this was the most dangerous diving conditions we had been in yet. The reason being a really strong current, so fast that when you swam with it you felt like Superman. If you panic in situations like this then it is really easy to drown or get nitrogen poisoning. The only way to stay still was to hide behind big boulders, otherwise you end up shooting down the stream. It’s exciting, but not great for watching wildlife. The two other guys were newer divers and shot through their air supply within thirty minutes, making it another short dive. I prefer viewing wildlife and normally find diving to be the most relaxing sport in the world, but not in these conditions. This type of diving is the high adventure aspect of diving, similar to extreme deep diving.

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We had a long haul that night, 16 hours of straight motoring to get to our next destination. With out even planning it, things got a little crazy that night. It started with some good old fashion Bintangs, then a drop of whiskey was added in, plus a gorgeous sunset from the top deck. As often happens on these journeys, there were a lot of open, frank conversations. It’s always those you least expect that have the craziest stories. There was a big debate over how many people cheat, who had cheated, and why. Some people felt that everybody cheats, while the other half believed that if you are in love then there’s no need to cheat. Over the course of the conversation we learned that one of our boat mates had lived in a pseudo polygamist relationship that was two men and one woman. The relationship was successful for a few years, but then one member drifted off, and a few years later the other two had broken up also. I personally think something like this can never work out, because one person always falls a little deeper, and jealousy ultimately will destroy what ever was working. Not to mention how much work it is just to keep your mate happy, let alone two. Too much work for me, No thanks!

3 responses to “The Land of Dragons, Aliikai Part 1

  1. I am so happy to read this. This is the type of manual that needs to be given and not the random misinformation that is at the other blogs. Appreciate your sharing this best doc.

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