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Salesmen, Komodos and other dangers

Life on land

"Above us a blue sky and the green hills of Komodo Island, below us the forest canopy stretches to the sea".

Peter Hylands, Andrea Hylands

October 30, 2022

Indonesia, nation of islands, there are more than 17,500 of them. Indonesia, nation of great biodiversity and vanishing fast. There are now around one quarter of a billion people inIndonesia, across a diverse range of cultures, languages and traditions.

Captain Tafric

Crossing the Wallace Line

Crossing the Wallace Line once more (we are now to the east of the line), I am going to take you on a journey from Labuan Bajo to Komodo Village, a journey that takes us across the Flores Sea in a small Indonesian fishing boat. Labuan Bajo, to the west of Pulau Flores (Flores Island) is a place that we are very fond of.

Labuan Bajo

Labuan Bajo with its small shops and nestling harbour, its street activity. A small bay of boats nestling in shelter here, traditional fishing boats and elegant looking sailing boats all together at anchor in the peaceful water. It is a beautiful place.

It is the wet season, the monsoon, this is also a time we like to travel. There are fewer people around and the sometimes vast amounts of water coming from the sky shape the landscape, all green and lush. The odd warm soaking is worth it. The wildlife thrives at this time of year. We have spent so much of our time in the dry places on earth, in droughts, that all this water is a great joy to us.

The cycle of the seasons, the monsoon that is so important to the region, shaping patterns of agriculture and the culture of these islands. This monsoon is something that Indonesia and parts of Northern Australia share, a coming together in a sometimes needlessly fractious relationship.

Keeping these cycles of the seasons healthy is now one of the most important things. It will take the sensible behaviour of both countries to make sure this happens, a shared responsibility.

The journey to Komodo Island

We stock up with Bintang for our water journey and make our way to the quay and join our crew, Captain Tafric, master chef Ahn and engineer Jakir, on the small blue, green and white fishing boat. We are accompanied by Elfrid from Labuan Bajo. What we did not know is that we had just discovered one of Indonesia’s best cooks and that he was right there on the boat with us.

Soon lunch is ready and served on the small deck with its typical raised section and overhead canopy of plywood providing shelter from the midday sun and the frequent rain. Lunch over we make a start on our journey passing the gently bobbing boats in the harbour and then out in to the Flores Sea.

Andrea Hylands

Away from the shelter of the island, here the currents are against us, the large waves rolling in from the Flores Sea from the North East give our little boat a roll, sometimes pitching the boat sideways, sometimes pushing up the prow skywards, then dropping it back into a trough. The fresh sea air is welcomed by our lungs.

The landscape and seascape that unfolds around us is stunningly beautiful, the small volcanic islands, all monsoon green on steep slopes, with their little row of stilt houses hugging the shore. The occasional tree, a squiggle silhouette, in the bright light.

Our captain knows this water, every inch of it and what lies just below the surface, from the years of fishing here. During the last Ice Age this was mountainous land, the tops and plateaus of the highest now islands. Occasionally we can just make out the very top of a now submerged hill, its rocks protruding above the waves as the white foam circles these places.

The islands to our north now give us some shelter as the sea changes its rhythm. Now not rolling but a bobbing and boiling surface to be navigated. The waves are smaller now but more chopping and the water splashes over the boat.

We cover our cameras. Everything is wet now and the afternoon tropical air is moist as the storm clouds gather above. In the tropics weather changes fast. Now it rains and rains hard. On the small deck we get both sea spray and rain, fresh and salt water in combination. In the warm and clinging air this is a joy.

The changing colour of the sea and islands, the sea from blue to green and then to metallic grey. The green islands around us fade soft in the mist as the landscape turns to black and white, a trick of the light filtering through the darkening clouds. We started late on this journey, later than we had planned and it is now getting dark. Komodo Village is still distant.

The small islands surrounding us are now black shapes, blacker than the sea. Is that an island or is it our imagining? The stars obscured by the storm clouds, it is the lightening that lights our way. We travel slowly now, the sea calming.

Out of the darkness now we can see a faint twinkle of lights – this is Komodo Village. Half an hour later we are close and moving very slowly now, to our starboard are the lights of a squid boat, we pass by and drop the anchor.

Komodo Island

The water around us, in the shelter of Komodo Island, is a millpond calm and inky black. We can now switch on the lights. Our chef is busy cooking again in his small kitchen, more good smells coming from the back of the boat. Soon dinner is ready and after a very long day we are hungry again. Time to open the Bintang.

Master chef Ahn

It is then we learn that it is not the Komodo Dragons we need to be careful of but the super sales team Komodo. Our boat rocks and there, silently and suddenly, are three of the villagers standing on a canoe alongside clutching handfuls of pearl necklaces shining white in the darkness. It is hard to escape these things, not really needing pearl necklaces we decide to buy one from each man to give the village economy a small boost. Eventually we are left to finish our meal. The necklaces bound for England as presents. Goods to a very different world.

Komodo Village is typical of fishing villages in the region, the strip of houses hugging the shore, close together and jostling for space. Beautiful though. This is predominately a Muslim island of course, so centre stage is the Mosque. It is early morning prayers at around 4am that wake us up, the loudspeaker from the Mosque stutters, then silence, then the loudspeaker sparks to life again, the cockerels start to crow, adding their voice to the early morning sounds from the village. Nothing for it but to watch the dawn, we buy some fish from a local fisherman as he steers his boat home after a long night at sea.

The Komodo Dragons

Not everything here is typical however, something very large is waiting for us.

Komodo Island is of course the home of the Komodo Dragon. It is the Komodos that we have come to visit. Soon we are off again, this time heading to the jetty of Komodo National Park. It is here we meet friend and ranger Octavianus Gagu as we plan our walk to meet the Komodo Dragons.

Elfrid and Oktavianus on Sulphurea Hill, Komodo Island

Our walk takes us through the soft woodland of the lower lying parts of the island with its deer and a range of introduced species. It is not long before we come across a giant lizard, slowly lumbering towards us, this is a very big male.

There are very few visitors here today.

We break from the soft dappling light as we climb out of the forest into the bright sunlight. Above us a blue sky and the green hills of Komodo Island, below us the forest canopy stretches to the sea.

The earth is wet from the previous evening's heavy rain. Butterflies are all around us, their tropical wings, flashes of colour in the tropical air. The birds break from the canopy below, a cockatoo squaks on a tree just below us and is soon joined by others, all dressed in white feathers.

I will write about the ecology of Komodo Dragons at another time, but this is a smart animal, like all of us adapting to a rapidly changing planet, its habitat diminished by human population pressures, accompanying habitat destruction and the like. Let’s hope for all our sakes that this ancient reptile makes it. The rangers of the park will do their very best to see that it does.

Evidence of plastic formed part of the Komodo's meal

The rangers here have done a great job in keeping the more densely visited parts of the island free of rubbish, free from the endless amount of plastic that seems to dominate the roadsides, rivers and beaches of India and Indonesia.

The sea however still throws up its toxic cargo, thrown from cruise ships and careless individuals in the towns and villages of the region and carried by rivers and streams to the sea and oceans for us all to share. We come across a regurgitated Komodo meal full of plastic. The problem for us is similar, the difference is the plastic we eat is in minute particles from the broken down rubbish from our land, waterways and oceans. This problem gets worse each year as more and more plastic is produced and discarded.

We meet Komodo Dragons in several places, the beach is popular today. Here Komodos lie stretched in the sun, nearby their prey, the deer of the island, stand warily by water’s edge.