A visit to the primeval reptiles of Komodo Island leaves Grant Bradley awed.
The warning was severe ahead of a visit to the home of the Komodo dragon.
"The reptiles are carnivorous and their sense of smell for blood and flesh is very sensitive.
Guests participating on this tour should not have any open wounds," the tour notice aboard the Silver Muse read.
A scratch on the back of my leg suffered three days earlier had earlier attracted the attention of a few of my fellow passengers. It had healed but we learned from our guide that the world's largest lizard can smell blood from up to 9km away so I could understand their concern.
The volcanic island in southeastern Indonesia was a short, and comfortable tender ride from where Silver Muse had anchored and we again were given a briefing from rangers at what is a national park about the importance of staying on the track and remaining as a group.
"Time to hunt the hunters," he said as our group of a dozen set off through thin forest and into the interior of the island. Guides are armed with long forked sticks they would jam at the dragon's throat if they get too close.
There's close to 2900 of these killing machines on Komodo. They grow up to 3.2m long, weigh up to 166kg and their saliva is extremely venomous.
Our local guide, Mues, explained that their main weapon is stealth. Extremely well camouflaged they look like rocks just off trails in wait of wild animals such as deer and pigs, and the occasional human.
They lunge at a leg, taking a chunk of flesh from it, crushing bones and infecting the victim with a deadly cocktail. While younger dragons can run at up to 20km/h, Mues explained their preferred killing method is to strike and incapacitate, wait for the victim to collapse and then finally kill it by ripping out the stomach. When the kill is on, dragons from around the 35km-long island can get in on the feeding frenzy and devour up to two thirds of their body weight in a single sitting.
These creatures trace their origins to Australia four million years ago and to further stoke our primal fear, we were told they can swim. In the water they use the same hunting method to attack buffalo — lurk under water, pick a limb and rip out 2kg of flesh, infect the beast and then wait for it to collapse.
Our trek to the island just before Christmas was hot; the trail required moderate fitness and cost US$120 each. It was a 3km round trip with some climbing involved. There was dragon dung on the trail and the three guides had a very good idea of where the dragons congregated.
They are reasonably social animals in spite of being cannibals that eat their young. (Baby dragons are immediately deserted by their mothers after hatching from kiwi-sized eggs and have to spend up to five years in trees eating insects and birds to avoid being devoured.)
After about an hour we were led to a group of about a dozen dragons of different sizes gathered around a shallow puddle. First impression was that they just don't like each other and much else for that matter. They had an uneasy relationship, lying on top of each other then challenging each other, with a long, low hiss that sounds like a boiler letting off steam — it was primeval.
There was low-level menace among the pack in the heat of the day but violent fights can break out especially around mating season in June to August.
Their bites are not fatal to each other — they have immunity to each other's venom.
Our group spent about 30 minutes watching and filming this pack from a safe distance of about 5m, guarded by the forked stick-wielding guides.
The dragons watched us back — sometimes right in the eye — and seemed to know the rules; leave the tourists alone. But there was that adrenaline-producing thought that if they wanted to, they would have a go. They didn't seem to like us one bit and the scratch on my leg felt worse.
A few months ago a Singaporean tourist got too close and was bitten on the leg. Mues told us he had survived, but his leg did not — it had just been amputated.
There have been around six fatal attacks on locals.
When it was time to go we were counted back into our group. That didn't happen in 1974, the last known fatal attack on a tourist, when a Swiss man who had separated from his group was devoured. All that was found of him was his camera and glasses.
To borrow a phrase there's something of a terrible beauty about the Komodo dragon with the accent on terrible. A visit to their lair from a luxury cruise ship — where you can retreat to — is a great wildlife encounter.
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