First stop: Rinca Island
The Lonely Planet warns that dragon sightings are not guaranteed, so I was trying to temper my expectations. However, as we pulled up to the dock on Rinca, monkeys running around on the dock, trying to swipe bits of the lunch from the other boat crews reminded me why traveling places is cool.
Dragon and Monkey Greeters
As luck would have it, there was little suspense before our first dragon sighting, as a small female dragon was hanging out not 10m from the dock. A welcoming party apparently drawn to the smell of fish and food that comes with the boats.
We headed to the park hut to pay the park camera fee and get a ranger to lead our trek. Our guide told us there is some dispute between the locals and the government and some private conservation company on the island. I didn't quite follow it all, but apparently the conservation group is just keeping all the money it receives. Not really knowing the difference, we just took his word for it and paid the camera fee but not the conservation fee (or something) and headed out with our guide and a park ranger each carrying long Y-shaped dragon fighting sticks.
Buildings on the island are all on stilts to prevent dragon invasions
In the camp near the ranger hut we were greeted by a much larger committee of dragons. Nine of them just hanging out by the kitchen. The just laze about and certainly don't seem very threatening, but it's easy to imagine how this can lull someone into a false sense of security that quickly ends when you carelessly leave the kitchen and find that a dragon has attached itself to your calf. Which apparently happened just a few weeks ago.
I find it completely fascinating that there isn't consensus about the danger of dragon bites. It's been long assumed that the primary risk is infection that comes from the hordes of bacteria that live in the dragon's mouth. Recently, though, some scientists claimed to discover a venom gland in the dragon. The guide said there were scientists investigated not so long ago and they hope to have the results before too much longer. It just blows my mind that this is still in dispute. I would think you could just cut a dragon open and figure it out pretty easily. I mean, what do biologists even do?
Outside of camp we saw another dragon lumbering about. Not moving too quick, but at least proving they can walk.
I might be poisonous, but science is dumb
We left the camp and headed towards a watering hole where an injured Water Buffalo had been hanging out. The ranger told us a dragon had bitten it a couple of days ago and now it was just a matter of time before the infection weakened it enough for the dragons to feast. He also told us the dragons cam smell prey like 2-5km away or something similarly ridiculous. Whatever it was, the buffalo apparently smelled enough to draw about 10 dragons to hang out around it.
A bored dragon stares at a buffalo
They are incredibly patient animals. If they see opportunity, they'll bite, then retreat while the venom/infection does its thing. Whenever the buffalo finally gets too weak to really pose a threat to them, presumably the dragons will descend and turn the watering hole into a bloodbath. A meal like that will then tide them over for a month or so while they slowly digest the bones to crap out in white, chalky piles.
The dragons get a little frisky, but don't attack
We hung out at the water hole for a long while and were briefly excited when the two dragons closest to the buffalo got up and started hissing a bit. Unfortunately, they decided not to kill for our entertainment. the guide said sadly, "maybe tomorrow they will have their dinner party". So close, but no blood. Still, ~20 dragons on our first stop is a win.
The photogenic one
Back on the boat we set sail to anchor near Komodo for the night. While this was ostensibly to get to Komodo early for a morning trek (best time to spot dragons), we moored next to a mangrove grove that houses hundreds of 'flying fox' fruit bats.
Shortly after we arrived, the bats began to wake up and started chattering in the trees. The racket of their squawking picked up intensity until just around dusk the 1st bast emerged from the trees. In short order, hundreds of these giant bats were streaming out over our heads to raid fruit trees on Komodo Island. While they lack the insane number of the bats in Austin, TX, they make up for it with a 3 foot wingspan (wikipedia says they can get up to 6 foot, not sure where I got 3). Flying overhead they look just like Batman logos cruising above you. As the stream of bats died down, we stayed on the roof of the boat watching the stars peak out from the sporadic clouds. Rinca did not disappoint.
Rinca, with a Dr. Seuss tree