I’ve always dreamed of visiting Flores, Indonesia and seeing Komodo Dragons in the wild. When I knew I was returning to Indonesia on assignment last year to visit Raja Ampat and Yogyakarta I decided it was finally time to make this dream come true. It might have also been my last chance to do so as rumors were swirling that the Indonesian government was considering shutting down tourist access to Komodo National Park. This is how to be a responsible traveler in Komodo Island.

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT KOMODO DRAGONS

You’ve surely heard of these deadly beasts. Komodo Dragons, officially called Varanus komodoensis, are the largest lizard species that still roam the Earth. They’re a type of monitor lizard and only live in Indonesia. They have no predators—though eagles sometimes eat the babies which are about a foot long when they hatch. The prehistoric creatures are an endangered species but tourism is credited for helping with the preservation of the species as visiting Komodo National Park is strictly regulated. Park rangers are with guests at all times to protect the animals and visitors.

Komodo Dragons can kill humans with a single bite that delivers a venom ridden with toxins that cause blood clotting and the body to go into shock. Komodo Dragons hunt everything—even each other and their young. Komodo dragons can grow up to 10-feet-long and weigh up to 300 pounds but they can still outrun humans. Unless you can run 13 miles an hour? Their tail is more dangerous than their venom as it’s the strongest part of the body and often used to beat prey.

The park rangers won’t let you get close to the dragons but they also don’t allow any weapons on the island. It’s not recommended to go if you’re menstruating as they can smell blood as far as five miles away. Don’t take your chances. There is no anti-venom for a Komodo Dragon bite.

WHY KOMODO ISLAND WAS GOING TO CLOSE

Indonesian authorities were going to close Komodo Island to tourists for a year after they said over 40 Komodo dragons were stolen and sold for $35,000 each. The park rangers I interviewed at Komodo Island said that they weren’t convinced any of their inhabitants had been stolen. They showed me the data scientists had pulled on a recent visit which proved that the numbers of the endangered animals were increasing at a healthy rate. At the time, they were anxious about what the closure would mean for their jobs. Everyone in the village relies on tourism for their income.

Ultimately, the government enlisted a limit to the number of visitors that can enter the Komodo National Park daily which seems quite sensible as it’s a fragile place and the natural habitat of an endangered species. In 2018, Komodo National Park had 176,000 visitors.

SAILING WITH WANUA ADVENTURES

As a responsible traveler, I had to consider my impact. Often humans prioritize our bucket lists over considering the destruction we may bring upon a destination. I’d always dreamed of seeing these creatures that are distant relatives of dinosaurs. Was my need to see Komodo Dragons more important than the preservation of the archipelago?

I consulted with some friends who had done liveaboard boat trips from Lombok to Flores (which is one of the Komodo islands). This trip can be treacherous. Some local ferries and budget tour boats have had horrific occurrences of their boats breaking down, or worse, capsizing and guests drowning at sea. It was also important to me that if I were to make this trip, I do it with a locally operated company that is mindful of both environmental and social sustainability.

Wanua Adventures was the best option I could find within my budget for cabin class—this was not a press trip but a travel experience I was paying for myself out of pocket. It’s especially important to support local tour vendors in Indonesia as many entities are suffering as a result of a decrease in tourism after the earthquakes and volcanic activity that has plagued the archipelago in the last few years. As a bonus, they always prepare a few vegetarian dishes at each meal and most are vegan-friendly.

The private cabin was 3.0 million IDR. While it was nice to have my own space, the cabin is very basic and the fan didn’t work at night as it required the generator so it was incredibly hot, stuffy, and claustrophobic. However, I do think I would have been more uncomfortable sleeping like sardines next to strangers. Not all of their boats have lockers and I didn’t feel secure leaving my camera and laptop in the open so having a private room to lock them seemed worth the cost. I spent most of the days on the very top of the boat (avoiding drunk teenagers) just taking in my surroundings.

FIRST STOP: KENAWA ISLAND

After boarding the ship will take off for a few hours at sea towards Kenawa Island. You’ll arrive in time for sunset. There’s the option of doing a mellow hike to the top of a hill but I was enticed by the empty beach and decided to have some time alone to do yoga and soak up the beautiful nature that surrounded me. To reach the shore we had to swim through the sea which was quite joyous after an afternoon cooped up on the boat.

SECOND STOP: MOYO ISLAND

The next day will take you to Moyo Island. Here you can take a short 10-minute hike inland to a beautiful waterfall. There are many natural baths you can soak in or you can use the rope to trek up the sticky waterfall. After the waterfall, head back to the shore before the boat leaves for a chance to snorkel along the reef wall that surrounds the lush island. The rest of the day is spent at sea. The landscapes are incredible and the sunsets are otherworldly.

THIRD STOP: SWIMMING WITH MANTA RAYS

The third day you will begin your day swimming through wild waters that are common feeding grounds for manta rays all year long. December to March is said to be the best time to see them but I saw plenty and it was the end of May. I’ve swum with manta rays before in Bali’s Nusa Islands. The manta rays I’d seen before seemed tiny in comparison. Somewhere on the way to Flores, I saw the largest manta rays ever—they seemed to have a wingspan larger than the width of the boat. I felt like I was in Jurassic Park. It never ceases to amaze me the way these gigantic creatures glide so gracefully through the ocean.

I swam in the water with a pair of manta rays and quite a few spotted eagle rays. It was an incredible experience and the staff was very mindful of making sure everyone respected the space of the marine creatures. We also spotted dolphins and sea turtles en route to Komodo National Park.

FOURTH STOP: KOMODO NATIONAL PARK

On the third day, you’ll finally arrive at Komodo National Park, a 420,000 acre UNESCO World Heritage Site. The initial visit to the park is at Komodo Island but Rinca, Padar, and other small islands are also part of the National Park. We’re guided by a ranger who is native to the island and says there are 3,000 Komodo Dragons within the park with the largest population in Komodo Island with 1,300 lizards. We saw four adults and one baby lizard on Komodo Island. Komodo Island is one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature.

There are many regulations in place to preserve the delicate ecosystem. Boats are not allowed to drop anchor at Komodo National Park, they must dock on the jetty. Smoking is not allowed. Visitors are expected to follow the leave no trace policy and signs warn not to take even a grain of sand.

The lizards roam free. Keep your wits about you and follow your guide’s instructions at all times. As you walk through the park the guide will tell you about how Komodo Dragons mate, live, and hunt. They’ll point out tracks, nest, and other markers to help you learn how to spot a Komodo Dragon.

Although the lizards are huge it’s quite hard to spot them when they are in muddy and grassy areas as they camouflage quite well. The young ones are the hardest to spot and they’re the deadliest as they haven’t learned how to distribute their venom yet. You’ve been warned!

As we left Komodo Island a gigantic school of stingrays swam along the jetty. Komodo National Park truly is out of this world and a mecca of natural wonders.

FIFTH STOP: KOMODO’S PINK BEACH

It’s a bit hard to conceptualize how such deadly dragons share an island that is also home to a pastel pink beach. No, it won’t be a vibrant magenta color like you’ve seen on Instagram—those pictures are doctored. But the pastel color is stunning, and albeit a bit hard to capture on camera.

The pink beach in Komodo is the result of red coral mixing with pure white sand. At the beach, there’s a small hike you can take to a vista over the crescent-shaped shore. I opted to find my own space and do some yoga as I was craving solitude. I posed for these pictures but went through a sequence afterward and soaked up the feminine energy of the rose-hued sand that surrounded me.

Don’t forget to grab snorkel gear and go for another swim here. The coral reef is phenomenal and there are lots of small colorful fish to admire. This evening we anchored down somewhere near Padar Island. Local men on a wooden boat paddled up to sell us beer and left us with an astonishing site—Bioluminescence! It was mystical to see the stars shining above us and the bioluminescence twinkling in the sea around us.

SIXTH STOP: PADAR ISLAND

Hiking in Padar Island is like being inside a screen saver. The photos you’ve seen at this place won’t set you up for disappointment. Indeed, they don’t do the vistas justice at all. The hike is short but a bit strenuous at 4 AM in the dark.

Keep going all the way up for the best views of the three bays. The sun will rise to the right over the tiny island. Color fills the sky as if you’re inside a painting. It’s truly mesmerizing.

As the new light shines on the coast you’ll be able to see the beaches are all different colors—black, white, and pink. The 360-degree views of the landscape are truly breathtaking. It’s one of the most stunning viewpoints in all of Indonesia—and the world.

SEVENTH STOP: RINCA ISLAND

This lesser-visited island is also home to a large population of Komodo Dragons. Again, a guide will take you around. You’ll go for a bit of a long up-hill walk through some grasslands. It’s a bit underwhelming as most of the lizards are on the low land by where the boat docks.

We saw 12 adults and one baby Komodo Dragon on Rinca Island. Some were lounging by the ranger station which makes me a bit nervous that perhaps they’ve been fed by humans.

There was a stack of about eight Komodo Dragons lounging on top of each other. They seem eerily comfortable around people. Our guides reassured us that these lizards were just full. They can eat some 200 pounds in one go and then stay full for a month. Maybe there had been a big hunt recently?

It’s astonishing to watch Komodo Dragons move. They walk as if it’s a serious chore to lift a leg. I only saw a baby run and it was shockingly fast.

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