Here Dwell Dragons



Komodo Island, December 1973

I awaken just after dawn in a bony corner of the hut of the kepala desa (village head), surrounded by a chattering clump of staring children. Groggily, I remember my arrival here late last night by outrigger canoe from Labuan Badjo, a tiny port on the Indonesian island of Flores, fifteen miles east.

After three weeks of very slow overland travel through Flores (five miles per hour was fast), here I am at last on Komodo Island, less than a speck on a South-East Asia map, and home to the Komodo Dragon, the world’s largest living lizard. My grasp of Indonesian, a language unburdened by tenses, is firm enough to understand the kepala desa as he tells me that, for the right price, I can this very morning see the buaya darat, as he calls the Komodo Dragon.

He displays an unusually strong distaste for bargaining, so I pay him his price, and we boat over to a nearby curve of beach. The land is gaunt, the vegetation thin and parched, far from the remarkable lushness of Flores. The only trees are a few coastal coconut palms.

For a few minutes, we sit on the beach in silence. Then he points to the sea, saying something about tourists. Tourists? He points again. On the misty horizon squats something improbably large…

An ocean liner! Pale and immaculate, too solid to be a mirage but still surreal. After a few minutes, it silently ejects two black doughnuts that soon are noisily zooming toward the shore, leaving a wake of dramatically arching foam. They skid into the sand not far from where we’re sitting, their outboard motors winding down, and empty their contents: several dozen tourists, pasty-faced and squinting knowingly at the terrain, their hands clawing for cameras and sunglasses. Most appear to be in their sixties.

We stare at each other. I imagine that I appear to them as an exotic refugee from their species, in my skirt-like sarong, long hair, and native demeanor. I feel as though I’ve climbed. with considerable difficulty, a great mountain and have found a helicopter-deposited group of sightseers at the summit. My surprise overrides my judgmentalness. The ship is the Lindblad Explorer, fresh from Antarctica, stopping here to view the Komodo Dragon enroute to Bali.

Accompanying the tourists is a Javanese official who struts forward, asking to see my permit for viewing the dragons. Hearing that I don’t have one, he laboriously explains that I must have one. Okay, I say, how much? Hoisting up his dignity, he announces that I must go to Jakarta, roughly 900 miles west, to apply for the permit. I protest, and receive only more and more of the patiently impenetrable bureaucracy that flourishes throughout Indonesia. Finally, some of the tourists persuade him to let me join them in viewing the dragons.

We hike up to a grassy plateau, part of which overhangs a dried-out riverbed. On its cracked and stony surface lies a freshly killed goat tied to a small post. Bait to lure the dragons forth. We wait in a silence undisturbed by the occasional whispers and camera concerns of some. I stretch out on my belly, my head just over the rim of the plateau, feeling excited.

A few thoughts loiter in my mind: the dragons have killed natives, have poor eyesight, can climb trees, are good swimmers, and are up to ten feet long. The silence is shattered by a snap-crackling of savanna brush and scrub, crashing ever closer.

The flicker of a forearm-long yellow tongue, and a dinosauric head emerges, sniffing, swaying in a prehistoric rhythm, followed by a three-hundred pound body that lurches out on thick, splayed-out legs, as cameras stir and whirr. The Komodo Dragon, and living only on this bleak little volcanic island (and a few even smaller nearby islands) of looming, mostly treeless hills and sudden orchids.

As the dragon tugs at the goat, four other smaller ones arrive, and all five fight for the carcass, easily ripping it apart with rapid jerks of their huge jaws.

I feel this drama more than observe it, spontaneously slipping into deep resonance with the primeval struggle below me. As my need to separate viewer from viewed grows more flimsy, I vaguely sense something dark and hidden in me being brought to light. The largest dragon swallows half the goat in one mouthful; the others gorge on what is left. I barely notice the tourists leaving.

Their guide, a biologist, remains with me. There is, I suddenly realize, a dragon up on the plateau with us, maybe twenty feet away; we don’t move, and neither does it, its great head rising out of the grass. When the guide and I finally leave, he invites me to have lunch aboard the ship. For more than a month, my diet has mostly been boiled rice, fruit, fish, and chilies, usually eaten in steaming heat. Soon I am aboard, gorging on a twenty-course Swedish smorgasbord, in air-conditioned plushness.

Later that afternoon, as I watch the Lindblad Explorer drift away, I know that I need to leave Komodo very soon. The barren, depressed mood of its one village is rapidly permeating me. The fact that my every move seems to fascinate the invasively peering locals is now more burden than souvenir to me, especially after an abundance of similar scrutiny on my way through Flores to reach Komodo.

The huts, perhaps twenty-five in all, are broken boxes sprawled atop crooked stilts, drab enough to be forever denied postcard immortality. The women work steadily, cleaning and mending and cooking. The men mostly sit in a semi-stupor, idling, smoking constantly. Children ply me with bits of polished mother-of-pearl and tiny pink-mouthed cowry shells.

Time to make a deal with the kepala desa. For an Indian jade ring, two Australian T-shirts, and 8000 rupiah (about twenty dollars), he agrees to arrange a ride for me tomorrow to the next island west, Sumbawa, on a prau (or fishing boat).

The next morning the kepala desa leaves for Labuan Badjo before I can speak with him. His brother, wearing one of my traded T-shirts, tells me there is no prau going to Sumbawa, but that there will be a sampan going that way, a sampan being a fifteen foot long canoe with a parallel stabilizing pole, or outrigger, projecting about four feet from either side. The sampan seems small and flimsy, especially considering the deep and possibly turbulent strait we will have to cross, but I’m desperate to leave Komodo.

That evening I leave on the sampan with four Indonesian men. Through the silken night we glide, our sail up, softly slicing through the barely rippling sea, smooth as a whispered lullaby. The hulking silhouette of Komodo gradually shrinks. A sea of incredibly bright stars stud the sky. We stop for three or four hours at a tiny island (which has its own population of Komodo Dragons) to get some sleep, but I remain awake, having no desire to drift off on the beach (Komodo Dragons frequent beaches and can swim).

Shortly after sunrise, the ripples hump up into large unruly waves that slap hard against the sampan, rocking it in a jerky, very rough rhythm. Fear burrows about in my belly; I feel like I’m riding on a tinkertoy. There’s no land in sight. To my astonishment, the Indonesians take down the sail, and proceed to build a fire at one end of the sampan. With a slightly reassuring nonchalance, they cook a pot of rice over the fire. They eat, but I can’t. As I look at what we have to cross, ten miles of deep, open sea, I long for solid ground beneath my feet.

Up goes our sail, and we veer and swerve and roll our way toward Sumbawa. The outriggers start to loosen. And it gets worse: The sampan begins to fill with water, not just from the breaking waves, but also from one or more unlocatable leaks. The Indonesians are now also frightened. If I was in survival mode before, now I’m really at the edge. No, I’m past the edge…

Plunked down — as if viewed from high above — are we in the midst of a bizarre scene at once horrifying and beautiful. It seems to me to take place in a single hugely elastic moment, but probably lasts at least seven or eight hours. I am both in the scene and apart from it, viewing it from afar through a lucid yet dreamy lens.

At the center of the scene is a sampan carrying five men, one sitting motionless, one working the sail, one attempting to secure the almost detached outriggers with vines — vines! — and two rhythmically using foot-long baler seashells to quickly scoop out the water that’s just as quickly leaking in. Around the sampan loom larger and larger waves, wind-whipped, curling up, peaking, crashing, glittering blue, madly historied with frothing white. Some waves break over us. Five or six large black triangles cruise around the sampan, each triangle the fin of a shark. The sun blazes down from a cloudless sky. I’m the man sitting motionless.

Having realized for a while how very easily I could die out here on the open sea, I gradually and effortlessly settle — and I recall none of this for 8 years — into an acceptance spacious enough to vastly dilute my fear. My thoughts, be they of drowning, shark jaws, tragedy, or things not-yet-done, are of no concern to me. A coolly sobering ease slowly fills me, an ease that seems to exist independent of all circumstances.

I feel far more intimate with the whole scene and its unfolding choreography than I do with my conventional self — which has shifted from a tempest in a me-knot to a faint shadow in the back bleachers of my mind. Whatever sounds I hear only deepen the silence. I’ve perhaps never felt so alive and so still at the same time.

It would be an understatement to say that my journey is no longer just from Komodo to Sumbawa. It has become peripheral to an unsuspected journey of being, a passage from here to here, from now to now. If my silence could speak, it would sing yes, yes, yes! to all of this, though I, at the ripe old age of 25, do not yet have any context for what is happening, and won’t for some time…

Death is so near… But when is it not?

Life is, among other things, a Near-Death Experience. Only in dying, Life. Are we not dying to live, to really live? Time disappears. So do I. All that remains is the Real, nakedly present…

As we near Sumbawa, my eight-hour moment is suddenly over. Time kicks in. The clockwork of everyday activity nibbles at my attention. The fact that we have actually made it and that I am alive only partially registers.

Thoughts of what next, food (I’d eaten only a tiny bit of coconut during the entire trip), where to sleep, what happened, buzz through me with compelling insistence. Once again I’m busy being a traveller. Personal survival hogs the foreground. The sea is now much calmer, the sampan is somehow still in one piece, and the coast of Sumbawa is coming into focus. I can see the vague outline of a dock.

The details of my adventure are now but latent fodder for my mind, as I finally anticlimactically stagger out of the sampan, exhausted, very hungry, shaking, my lips sunburned raw.

I walk three long miles to the nearest village, Sape, and survive an evening that includes eating the only available food, fried bananas and fried dog, and being stoned, with rocks, by a mob of Muslim locals (they took me for an infidel), before a policeman intervenes. Colorful details for later recounting, but now just more sensory overload for me. I reel with the impact of my sea-crossing, and gratefully sink into a deep sleep.

Again, it was not until 8 years later that I actually recalled the full import of my journey from Komodo: I had blanked out the transpersonal elements, not remembering them until I first wrote of my Komodo adventure for a travel-writing contest. I’d died many little deaths in those in-between years, but only rarely had opened myself to the deeper death, the dying into Life, that I’d known on the sampan…