If you love the idea of walking with the dinosaurs, you don't have to star in a Hollywood blockbuster. Because the real-life Jurassic Park exists, writes Sangeeta Kocharekar, and it's beautiful.
Komodo National Park in Indonesia is a short hop from Bali and if you're keen to walk with the 'dinosaurs', it's well worth the trip.
But 'walk' is the operative term here. The islands are full of Komodo dragons. Dragons that have killed many people.
My guide Ramli advised me "Don't run" as soon as I arrived. He should know.
Having lost friends to the huge dragons, while making a living as a tourist guide, he knew the risks well.
"It's better you walk with me", he added.
I was on Rinca Island, one of the 29 islands that make up Komodo National Park in the Indonesian province of Flores. More relevant to his command, however, it's one of only three in the world home to free-roaming, people-killing Komodo dragons.
Until I'd seen signs for tours to it while on an extended trip to Bali, visiting the park hadn't even crossed my mind. Like most people, I'd thought it difficult to get to and expensive to stay. Some Google researching later and I'd discovered it was neither.
I'd booked a flight from Bali's Denpasar to Labuan Bajo for $100 return, while a private room at a place called Le Pirate Boatel would set me back only $40 a night. But, I'd wondered while packing, was the chance to see large lizards — as thrilling as it sounded — worth an entire trip?
Arriving in the afternoon, I'd spent the night at the Boatel, an anchored barge with a chic teal and white colour scheme, before booking a two-day trip on a liveaboard — a boat I'd eat and sleep on. With a squatting toilet and floor mat for a bed, it was far from glamorous. But, with stops at Komodo, Rinca and what looked to be other attractions, all meals, and a price tag of $80, it would do.
I'd been lingering behind the group before our tour of Rinca had begun. Rushing along the dirt path to catch up with them, I'd forgotten where I was until Ramli's reminder.
Now, slowing my pace, I reached the others who'd stopped just ahead. And that's where I saw my first Komodo dragon. Well, five of them to be exact. Despite being solitary creatures, they were clumped together, basking in the sun, outside of the island's national park station. The smell of food inside had drawn them there, Ramli later explained.
"I have many friends that got bitten by Komodos," he told us, as we watched them in wonder.
We all wanted to ask, but none of us did.
"Some survived," he answered.
Though the dragons are well-fed and the guides well-trained, the risk is real. In May 2017, Lon Lee Alle, a 50-year-old Singaporean man who had been staying with locals on Komodo, had gone out to see them alone one morning. He'd found one and had been taking photos of it when another had come up behind and chomped into his calf. Miraculously, he'd survived.
More recently, in separate incidents, two workers had been attacked. One is still in the hospital; the other had tragically succumbed to the injuries.
Yet, here we were strolling among them. We reached a gazebo at the top of the path and took in sweeping views of Rinca's grooved green hills snaking along the vast expanse of blue. Without a boat or human in sight, the feeling of remoteness was overwhelming.
But it increased tenfold when Ramli told us his story.
After successfully fending off a dragon striking a worker while visiting the park 14 years ago, he'd been invited to volunteer as a guide. Not knowing any English, he'd learnt by listening to Adele and Coldplay and by scribbling words he'd hear visitors say in a notebook. He gave tours for 10 days straight before walking five hours to get back to his village. There, he'd spend his 10 days off with his family. To earn money to support them, he'd fish.
Why did he do it? Someone asked.
"David Attenborough told me: 'To be successful, you have to love what you did'," he said.
Later that afternoon, the boat docked again and I finally got to see what I'd come for: Komodo Island itself. A cross between real-life Narnia and Jurassic Park, the island was unlike any place I'd been before. Docile deer lounged on its pebbled beaches; wild boars darted between its forest trees; and dinosaur-like Komodo dragons crept all around.
But scenery and wildlife so outlandish it was nearly fictional wasn't limited to Komodo and Rinca, I discovered over the course of the next few days in Flores. The second day of the boat tour, I hiked Padar Island to see a view of more beaches than I could count; waded on to the rosy-coloured shores of Pink Beach; and saw jumbo-sized starfish while snorkelling off Kanawa Island. And, on a dive trip the next day, I passed by a reef shark; watched a turtle swim up for air; and ducked under manta rays gliding over my head.
Like many others, I'd been drawn to Komodo by the dangerous dragons. And, while the exhilarating experience of seeing them alone would've made the whole trip worthwhile, I'd been stunned to find they were just one of many rare natural masterpieces in the area. For a place so easily accessible, it had seemed very far from anywhere else.