Travel Plan: Seeing the Komodo Dragons
Many travellers are searching for that unique experience, something special, something unique. Sometimes everything is much more special when you’ve gone to great efforts to earn the right to experience it, going that extra mile to see something only a select few outsiders have. When it comes to Indonesia, Bali is the only island many people think of. Everyone forgets that a chain of secluded islands on the eastern edge of the country plays host to an incredibly unique animal, a living, breathing fossil from the time of the dinosaurs. Welcome to the land of the Komodo dragons.
This article will be your ultimate guide on everything you need to know on how to to see the world’s biggest lizard for yourself.
Where Is It?
Throughout the entire world, Komodo dragons can only be found on 2 islands. They’re both off the coast of Labuan Bajo on the eastern edge of Flores (or East Nusa Tenggara). One is aptly named Komodo Island and the other, Rinca. Both of these islands are only accessible by boat.
Unfortunately, its not the easiest place in the world to get to and requires a few steps. Obviously, your first need to get to Indonesia. Once you’ve arrived, there are two options on how to reach Labuan Bajo; flight or ferry.
Labuan Bajo has an airport, conveniently called Komodo Airport, with arrivals from across the country’s different islands. The two most popular routes are from Bali (1 hr) and Jakarta (2.5 hrs), with other flights from Mataram, Surabaya, Ende and various points across Flores. For the latest info, check out Flight Connections.
The more leisurely option is taking a ferry from one of many different points across Indonesia, including Surabaya, Lombok, the Gili Islands, Bali, Sumba, Sumbawa, West-Timor, Bira and Makassar. The ferries run on regular schedules, and the ones travelling from a further distance usually have a few stops along the way.
There are also tourist cruise-type ferries that leave from Lombok and the Gili Islands which take up to 4 days to get there, regularly stopping for some sightseeing. Tickets can be bought from hostels or tour agencies and cost about 1,500,000 IDR.
Arranging a Tour
Now you’ve arrived at Labuan Bajo, your next step is getting to one of the islands with the Komodo dragons. The only way to do that is by boat. If you wanted, and had the money to waste, you can charter a boat privately, but expect to pay a fortune. The most likely scenario is that you’ll have to take part in a tour group, so which one should you pick one? This is the hardest decision you’ll make, as there are MANY things to consider. So lets take things one step at a time.
1) When Should you Book?
Your first decision is; should you book a tour before or after you arrive? There are pros and cons for both. Obviously, booking beforehand gives you the security of getting the exact tour you want and being able to read the company’s reviews. The negative is that they’re much more expensive, typically over three times more then booking in person.
2) What Kind of Company?
There are two types of tour companies operating out of Labuan Bajo; ones that offer scuba diving and those who don’t. These are divided fairly between local and international companies. The latter are only permitted to arrange diving tours, where everything else is kept for the locals, to ensure the industry isn’t saturated by outside forces.
If you decided to book once you arrive, all you have to do is walk down the main street adjacent to the port, that’s where they’re all congregated.
3) What Length of Tour?
Next you’ll have to decide how long you want your tour to be. They range from speedy day trips to as long as 7 days and everything in-between. You’ll see them advertised in the “x days, y nights” format. Personally, I’d recommend a maximum of 3 days 2 nights, which gives plenty of time to see everything in the region without wasting unnecessary amounts of money.
4) When Do You Want?
This also has to be considered with the last point. Different tours are arranged to leave on various days throughout the week. This means that you might have to wait for the tour you want, or worse, have to take a different length tour to fit your schedule. Basically, if you’re on a time limit, you have to take what’s on offer, unless you want to hire an entire boat for yourself of course.
5) Check What’s Included
Its very important to make absolutely sure what’s included in the price of the tour. A lot of spots you’ll visit come with their own separate fees, and less reputable tour companies might make you pay for them separately, or worse, overcharge you. To make sure you’re aware of what you might be charged with, all the information can be found here!
The most important advice I can give is BRING MONEY TO PAY THE PARK’S ENTRANCE FEE. Do not make the fatal mistake of assuming that the tour price includes the entrance fee for Komodo Island and/or Rinca. There are no ATMs on the isolated islands so you will have come all that way for nothing. Most tour companies operate like this.
6) Pick the Company
Last of all, pick your tour company. Many local agencies will group their tourists together onto one boat, thus most places advertise and sell the same tours. Prices vary between companies and they’re certainly negotiable. As soon as you have information on the tour boat you boat, you can easily walk between the companies and search for the best deal.
Just as a reference point, I paid 1,300,000 IDR for my 3 days 2-night tour. However, prices for everything in the area rise quickly over time. Some companies might sneakily suggest you’re only able to hire an entire boat yourself at a ridiculous price.
Beware of Scams
As wonderful a country as Indonesia is, its one of the most likely places for a tourist to get scammed, particularly on Komodo Island tours. There are several ways that tourists end up paying more than they have to, and are often caught in a situation where they have no choice. There’s even a possibility of being scammed while you’re already on the tour! Some common scams include:
- Tour agencies suggest you can only charter an entire boat yourself (which is very expensive)
- The crew say you need to pay to visit an attraction (something that should be included in the price). They’ll claim that it goes towards a docking fee or some other bullshit that’s completely untrue.
- You don’t have your own snorkelling gear and flippers? Then pay to use ours.
- Give you a piece of equipment (i.e. snorkel gear) that was already broken and charge you for breaking it.
It’s all a complete scam and some of them are sadly unavoidable, particularly if you’re already on the tour. What options do you have? You’ve already come all this way; are you just not going to pay and miss out on the opportunity? Of course not, you’ll pay. So just bring some extra cash along just in case.
Regardless of how long the tour is, most of them will pass by some common points of interest. The only certainty is that they will all include a visit to Komodo Island and/or Rinca. Each tour will also take you by some of the best snorkelling spots amongst the islands. Naturally, the longer the trip, the more stops you make.
This stereotypical little tropical island is a pure slice of paradise! Surrounded by clear turquoise waters and pure white sands, Kanawa Island is the perfect place for a short tropical getaway. Go ahead and lay back as you enjoy a fruit smoothie from the island’s only restaurant (and building for that matter). Its also one of the best snorkelling spots in the area with clear, calm and shallow waters filled with a nice selection of aquatic life such as clown fish, puffer fish and monstrous sized orange and blue starfish.
Possibly the most commonly visited spot for tours has become infamous as the photo op for anyone who visits the area; Padar Island. From it’s peak, visitors have a spectacular panoramic view of the surrounding islands scattered amongst the deep blue ocean. The island itself is also unique in the respect that it has 5 separate beaches visible from its peak, each of which having a different colour.
Swimming with Manta Rays
This is my all-time favourite. Between September to December, the oceans surrounding the Komodo Islands burst into life with some spectacular marine life. One place in particular gathers more attention than anywhere else, Manta Point. Here travellers are taken for an experience of a lifetime as they have an opportunity to swim side by side with manta rays. Getting to swim along with the peaceful giant as it glides its way effortlessly through the crystal clear waters is a truly magical experience.
On another section of Komodo Island is yet another magical spot, a beach which is completely pink! The illusion is created by tiny broken pieces of red corals which have washed up ashore mixing with the pure white sands, creating a perfectly pink beach. Boats aren’t able to reach the sands, so you’ll have some beautiful snorkelling to do along the way. Also, this is arguably one of the best snorkelling spots anywhere in the region!
We finally arrive at the entire reason for coming all this way. The Komodo dragons are found on two separate islands: Komodo Island (obviously) and Rinca. Tickets bought on either of the islands can be used on both for one day. Not only does it pay for admission to the park, but also pays for a guide to take you around. They take you to the best spots to see some dragons as well as look out for your safety, as they are potentially deadly animals after all.
It feels as if you were arriving at Jurassic Park as you get dropped off at a eerily abandoned concrete harbour which leads to a wooden sign that welcomes you to the national park. The pathway passes through a local market selling simple crafts, most of which are obviously leaning towards the Komodo dragons. It leads you to question where all these people must live. It eventually leads to a couple of concrete offices where you can buy tickets to the park.
Beforehand the guides ask the group what route you’d like to take around the island: short, longer and longest. I’d recommend the longest route as they it really isn’t that long, and you may as well make the most of your time there. The guides lead you along the trail through forests, up onto hillside peaks where there are breaks in the treeline and back to the coast. Along the way you’ll (hopefully) get to see a number of dragons laying around in the hot sun, and perhaps even a nest or two.
Located very close to Labuan Bajo, Rinca makes for the perfect day trip for those on a tight schedule. Some people even claim that you’re much more likely to see a dragon here, though that depends on your luck. Rinca manages to pack a hell of a lot into a small area. Not only the monstrous dragons, but landscapes that include mangroves, forests, a rising hillside and some wonderful beaches.
Which Island is Best?
Longer tours have the privilege of being able to visit both islands, however, shorter tours won’t. The crew might even ask the tour group whether they would prefer to go to the other island or head to another spot e.g. for snorkelling. So in these circumstances, which should you choose?
That’s a very tough decision and not an easy answer. Some people claim you’re more likely to spot a dragon on Rinca, however I ran into plenty on Komodo Island. Like with any animal experience, its just whether you’re at the right place at the right time. Everything else is pretty much identical, same landscapes, same layout, similar experience. Essentially, if you miss one out, it’s not the end of the world.
When Should I Visit
The only real time you should avoid is between January – March, when the monsoon season is in full swing. Many tour companies won’t even operate during this time. Some do, and severely run the risk of being caught in a storm (which has happened) and with some people being lost at sea (which sadly has also happened).
It could also be good advice to avoid going during the high season between July – August. This is when the islands and its surrounding attractions become swarmed with tourists and most companies are already booked out.
Arguably the best time of year is between September – December, which is your best chance of running into some fascinating marine wildlife like manta rays, whale sharks and sperm whales. April – June is also an ideal time to see the environment at its finest with lush green landscapes and a calm, crystal clear oceans.
A Sensitive Warning
Some very important advice for the ladies, and one which is difficult to bring up. Women should be aware of their “time of the month”, as Komodo dragons are capable of smelling blood from over 12 miles away, and can act as a trigger for their predatory instincts. Rather than becoming a target for a very hungry dragon, best keep that in mind.
The Time is Now
My recommendation is to take this trip sooner rather than later. One thing that struck me about my experience is how unbelievably cheap it all was, considering everything I had seen and done during my 3 day trip. However, I was told from another member of my group who had done the same tour a few years prior that it cost double what it did when he went. The prices have almost doubled since my visit. The region has began to realise how much of a gold mine they are sitting on and prices will continue to rise year by year, so get in while its going cheap!