I was staring down a full grown and unhappy Komodo Dragon on an island no one has heard of which happens to be home to more poisonous residents than humans.
Rinca Island, just off the coast of Flores, Indonesia, is one of only a few islands where you can see one of the dwindling Komodo Dragons in the wild.
Rinca Island is one of the lesser known islands in the Komodo National Park and most tourists go to Komodo Island hoping to find dragons in the wild. With the crowds pushing the elusive creature deeper into the bush, many only manage to see the handful of lazy Komodos that hang around the camp, which seem less of a threat than the resident monkeys.
The sun-scorched island of Rinca is the perfect habitat for such a mysterious animal. Many species of poisonous snakes, including cobras, inhabit the island and to get there you have to cross some of the most dangerous currents in Indonesia on a boat that probably should have sank years ago. Getting there is part of the adventure but once on the island the opportunity for adventure permeates the humid air!
Getting there on your own:
To reach Rinca, you must first get to the village of Labuanbajo either by a short domestic flight or a long, multi-day boat. In Labuanbajo, you can book passage to the island either at the Gardena hostel or by taking your chances down on the waterfront talking to the boat captains. The cost can be around US $40 for the 3 hour ride, so it is wise to team up with some other travelers.
On the island:
There is a small canteen in the camp offering drinks and snacks, but take your own food and water with you. Leave your food at camp, you don't want anything that smells edible in your pockets! You will be required to purchase a $15 three day pass to the National Park (also required to do any diving) as well as pay an entrance fee and hire a guide. It is strictly forbidden to enter the forest without a guide and even though most budget travelers are used to doing things on their own, you need one here!
If you manage to get into a small group (you can always decline and wait for another group) your guide may be willing to get off the trails which most of the dragons avoid. In my case, it was only myself and my young guide armed with a long stick, so we went all over the desolate island and only returned home when we were both too hot to continue. A normal group tour is only 1 - 2 hours, but in the heat that may be about all that you can handle.
Some groups only spot a couple of dragons in the wild but we were lucky enough to find a dozen, many hidden in tall grass which makes them even more of a threat. Listen to your guide and pay attention, it is easy to practically step on one of the animals - which could really make for a bad day!
The Komodos may seem slow and awkward, but don't be fooled, their favorite meal is buffalo so they can run faster than you can. The Cobra snakes are responsible for far more fatalities, but luckily they can't handle the heat of the day and are only active at night.
After a long, hot day of seeking out the strange and elusive Komodo, it is best to negotiate sleeping on the deck of one of the boats under the stars before returning home early in the morning. This offers the opportunity of taking a dip in the water to cool down and spending some time with very friendly and interesting locals. It gets chilly at night, so take something warm.
If you are in Indonesia, avoid the tourists and make your own way to the far more rugged and less visited Rinca Island for a real adventure - you'll be glad you did!