Komodos the buzzword

Go somewhere exotic where real dragons roam, take a camera and you can dine out on the experience for ages. John Bantin does
Where to go - DIVER HOLIDAY GUIDE 2002     How to pick the perfect buddy      Free-wheeling in the Med      Sur lautre côte      Still a great barrier reef      Avoid the donkey work      Trigger-happy      Smiles in the Summer Isles      The joy of mobility

Next year, Im going to Komodo... There is certainly an element of one-upmanship about diving, and I can only think that it is the recent popularity of the diving destinations in North Sulawesi, such as Manado and the Lembeh Strait, that has put Komodo in the spotlight. Its an island that is just that bit further afield and just that much harder to get to.

Where is it If you look at the major islands of the Indonesian archipelago and follow them across in an easterly direction where they form a barrier to the Indian Ocean to the south, you will eventually reach the major islands of Sumbawa and Flores. Jammed between them are the tiny islands of Rinca and Komodo, the only islands where the Komodo dragon can be found.

Komodo dragons are not the products of mythology, but these gigantic carnivorous lizards are the stuff of nightmares. Armed with a deadly toxin in their saliva, they can take down a water buffalo. Seeing one of these beasts for the first time, you instantly understand the Eastern culture of the dragon.

The islands are virtually uninhabited, so must be reached using a liveaboard diveboat. Leaving behind the now-frenetic pace of the bustling holiday island of Bali and travelling east by boat past Moyo and Banta, it can take a day and a night to reach Komodo. Its almost at the eastern extremity of Indonesia.

The journey is by no means dull. The volcanoes look menacing and dramatic. From time to time huge pods of spinner dolphins leap from the water, the occasional minke whale spouts and you might even see enormous sunfish basking near the surface of the sea.

These are the most prolific seas in the world. The warm tropical water is nutrient-rich with cold upwellings that push past the islands from the Indian Ocean.

Marine life is more profuse here than almost anywhere else, with thousands of species catalogued, and new and undescribed animals discovered almost daily. The occupants range from giant whale sharks to minute skeleton shrimps and colourful nudibranchs. You will dive in calm conditions in which poor visibility is made up for by the abundance of macro wildlife. Its perfect for underwater photographers - loads of brightly coloured little things you wont see anywhere else.

As the sun sets, the sky between the smaller islands (gilis, as they are known locally) and the large island of Sumbawa can turn prematurely black as a million fruit bats commute between their daytime roosts and the fruit-laden trees across the water. If they were seabirds it would still be quite a spectacle, but these are flying foxes, the largest of the bat family. As big as seagulls, they glide on Dracula-style wings. They are furry and really seem to have dogs faces.

Travelling east, the palm-fringed islands give way to a drier, starker landscape, more akin to the Australian outback. Mangroves at the waters edge contrast with the parched volcanic lava of these islands.

Komodo is a national park and a World Heritage Site. Access is by way of a US $50 fee, and you walk escorted by a park ranger. Stout shoes, to avoid any accidental contact with that poisonous dragon saliva, and keen eyes are essential.

Boats moor in Horseshoe Bay, an ancient submerged volcano caldera at nearby Rinca Island, where the crews tie fish-heads as bait to a tree, in the hope of attracting a dragon. Families of wild pigs, complete with tiny offspring, browse for fragments dropped, and pigs make an ideal meal for a dragon. Monkeys roam the beaches oblivious to the danger.

Nearby lies Cannibal Rock, named because a TV documentary crew discovered a dragon with the rear half of another dragon of almost the same size still protruding from its cavernous mouth. It seems that Komodo dragons will eat anything.

Cannibal Rock is even more significant for divers. Jack Randall, the eminent marine zoologist and fish-spotter, is reported as saying that he can find examples of nearly every Indo-Pacific species at this one dive site alone.

It is washed with a gentle current and covered in the featherstars, sponges, nudibranchs and sea-apples that make it a riot of vibrant colour. Its the sort of place where anything can be encountered, from the smallest pygmy seahorse to the largest whale. I saw several giant female cuttlefish promiscuously flashing their colours at a smaller male, while they carefully positioned each egg well into the coral with a sensitive tentacle.

Stargazers and stonefish glared impatiently up from the seabed where they lay half-buried in the sand, waiting for a smaller meal than me. Mantis shrimp lunged pugnaciously from their holes. Scorpion leaf-fish and frogfish in all their endless variety of colour and form caused the macro-photographers among us to break out in a flurry of activity.

No one seemed to take any interest in the barrel sponges big enough for Ali Baba to hide in, elephant-ear sponges as big as, well, elephant ears, or great shoals of grunts and yellow snapper. All were far too ordinary in this very extraordinary underwater world.

Because of troubles elsewhere in Indonesia, many charter vessels have retreated to the safety of Bali as a point of departure, and the choice is yours. Typically there are wooden sailing barques with rather basic facilities, or spacious yet ethnic sailing schooners such as sy Pindito, locally built in Kalimantan in Pinisi-style from ironwood.

Passengers aboard the Swiss-run Pindito enjoy the romance of sailing, the smell of tropical timber and the characteristic movement and sounds of a wooden vessel at sea. Sixteen passengers share eight spacious cabins with en-suite facilities.

A similar vessel is the Peter Hughes Komodo Dancer, a 30m long, 9m wide locally built wooden motor-sailor. Ocean Rover, the latest vessel from Thailands Fantasea Divers, will also operate from Bali to Komodo in 2002.

And there is an upmarket alternative to these three vessels, probably the most luxurious diving liveaboard boat in the world. Its 35m long and has recently been refitted to its original condition, when it was called Radiant and was the personal Mediterranean motor yacht of a Middle Eastern oil magnate. When it has finished its present tour of Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia in mid-2002, the US-run mv Pelagian, as it is now called, will be on station again to operate diving charters to Komodo from Bali.

Seaview of steep-sided Komodo
sweetlips with glassfish
A tempting sea apple
The well-named stargazer


GETTING THERE: Fly to Bali via Singapore with Singapore Airlines.
DIVING AND ACCOMMODATION: Cruises mentioned are on Pindito (Explorers Tours, 01753 681999); Komodo Dancer (Scuba Safaris, 01342 851196); Ocean Rover (Fantasea Divers, 0066 76281387); and Pelagian (Scuba Tours Worldwide, 01449 780220). A cost-effective local option is offered by Grand Komodo, which runs four converted fishing boats as liveaboards - for details contact Symbiosis Expedition Planning (0207 9245906). Also try Divequest (01254 826322) and Pearls of the Ocean (020 7932 0108)
WHEN TO GO: May to December.
MONEY: Credit cards not thought to be safe, so take US $ and Indonesian rupiah. Money exchanges at Bali airport.
DIVING SUITABLE FOR: All levels of diver.
FOR NON DIVERS: Avoiding being eaten by Komodo dragons!
COST: A seven-day trip aboard Komodo Dancer costs £1885, a 10-day trip ££2370, including return flights from the UK, transfers, one night in Bali, full-board and diving.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Indonesian Embassy, 0207 499 7661, www.tourismindonesia.com

Where to go - DIVER HOLIDAY GUIDE 2002     How to pick the perfect buddy      Free-wheeling in the Med      Sur lautre côte      Still a great barrier reef      Avoid the donkey work      Trigger-happy      Smiles in the Summer Isles      The joy of mobility

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