Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Krunka-delic Komodo-ing

When you're really into something certain activities must be undertaken. It's why  Star Wars fans still camped out for days for those three newer flicks we all knew would probably suck.  It's why today's young-ins (and probably folks my age too, I guess I'm just a luddite when it comes to phones) go ga-ga and wait in line for hours to get a grasp of the new iPhone. And it's why someone who loves lizards (and all herps for that matter) just has to set foot on Komodo island once in their life. Yeah, I worked with Gila monsters (Heloderma suspectum) and while they are the cream of the crop for American lizards, they never even grow longer than two feet.

Alli at the park entrance on Rinca island. Woo-hoo! Dragons bout to get seen.
*** All photos can be enlarged by clicking on them. ***

When I see a fat adult monster walking toward me I get amped and run in its direction, burning inside with an eagerness to see if its a specimen I've had the pleasure of meeting before. I've seen many a video on Komodo dragons (Varanus komodoensis) and read quite a few words on these beasts. I never found that it's a smart idea to run toward them. On their islands these beasts reign supreme, and if I really did jog up into one's personal space, I'd probably look like a much bigger idiot than any Star Wars fan decked out in one of the saga's character's costumes. I also could get dead. 

The Lady and I spent three days looking for Komodos (22 - 24 Nov; a dragon Thanksgiving). Largest lizard in the world. Have killed people and ate children. Live on only a handful of dry Indonesian islands. The lore around these herps could fill up a moldy East coast basement with ease. In reality it's very easy to see them. No romantic trekking through the desert savanna into remote territory looking for colossal lizards was undertaken. Our first day was spent on Rinca island, slightly smaller than Komodo and way less famous. Rinca (pronounced rin-cha) is the Alfred Russel Wallace of the Komodo's range. Everyone knows of Komodo and Darwin. The first two we spotted were a male (below photo) and a female both taking a siesta in the shade of a tree, right next to the visitor center! Komodos seen!

I think most people would be satisfied with this. Me? Hell no! I want to see these lumbering giants walking about, moving around on those flesh-ripping claws and flicking their tongues. Before we even started our guided trek four more dragons were seen taking it easy under the staff's kitchen (two can be seen below). The smell of food draws 'em in. Their sense of smell is beyond impressive.

Our "long" trek on Rinca produced the following: three more dragons, all females. Two were guarding their nests and one was passed out under a sprawling tree, splayed out on a slab of rock. The protective females were a sight to see, alert and watchful. You looked at them and they had their eye on you, with their tongue flicking and head up, knowing intruders were in the area. In an interesting tidbit of natural history the ladies guard the nests for the first 3 months and then says "ahhh, you know what, fageddaboutit," and moves on. Adult dragons will also make a meal out of the juveniles, which is why their first years of life are spent up in the trees, not touching ground. Total dragon count on Rinca: niner.

Dragon nest, non-active though.
Alli about halfway through our trek on Rinca. We had the valley to ourselves.
Two more kitchen dragons - one lady and one man.
Stare off.
The next two days our feet were on Komodo island soil. The first day on their namesake island we got their early (700 hrs or so) and looked like a glorious morning to see 'em out. Recent rain had cooled the weather down and clouds were blotting out the intense Nusa Tengarra sun. Komodo (and Rinca) are not typical tropical islands - they are furnace hot, dry desert-esque savannas. Some large green trees exist but there's no luscious canopy to keep you cool. Hiking in the exposed sun of these islands is just like trotting around the Sonoran desert in July: steamy as my hiccup prone mouth after a plump spoonful of sambal sauce. In other words, my clothes were etched in sweat after we were done walking around.

This and the two photos below are of the first female we saw on-the-go that second day.

This was the morning the dragons, which are actually just big-ass monitors, wowed Alli and I. On our trek we saw two females out walking, eyeballing us and flicking their large snot-yellow-colored tongue repeatedly. It's quite the feeling to have a 2-meter-plus lizard walking directly toward you. Not running or sprinting, just strolling, knowing it's the boss. That or either it's so used to see camera toting tourists at this point it could care less.

The second lady as she walks on by (I was not relaxed to Isaac Hayes at this point, heart was thumpin').
Tongue flick - it's the color of your snot when your sick. Dark yellow.

Comin' at ya!
Me: "Holy shit!!!!" as I'm about to get my squat on. I think Alli was thinking the same thing.
Christmas card?
Overlooking Loh Liang, and not too sweaty.
At the end of our trek, close to the VC kitchen of course, were two bruiser males. These guys were easily over 3-meters (9 ft. in America speak) and chunky to boot. When first seen they were quite spread apart until one got up (very slowly, you almost expect to hear their bones creak) and walked toward the other. Eventually personal space was breached and the marauding male was forewarned by a rumbling breath by the sitting male. The two then sat down and kicked it.

Our faces in this photo and below are priceless.

It's impossible for me to look at this photo and not think of Boddy De Niro's famous Taxi Driver line.
The Lady and I got our tourist on and snapped photos like the paparazzi. You'd a thought we'd a caught Obama having a relapse smoke we clicked so many digital shots. All the while maintaining our distance (don't worry Mom!). Another family had to be repeatedly reminded to move their kids away from the lizards. I don't know how parents can't realize how easily a chunky 3-meter monitor could swallow their under 1-meter child. What morons do to get those "perfect" holiday photos. That brought our second day total to four. We called it after that.

Double trouble.
Up close and personal. Hello good sir.

But right as we were heading to the dock to meet our boat what do we see passed out in the welcome hut to the park at the pier. A dragon of course. Ventral down on the ground and eyes closed. We let this one sleep. Around its back and onward to the boat we went.
Blogger doesn't want to cooperate with this photo I already altered so you get the sideways edition. Our goodbye Komodo in the welcome hut.
 Our last day Alli and I hiked from Loh Liang (the main visitor's center area) over to Loh Sabita (another bay where there is a small national park presence). The valley we passed through is the most famous one on the island. This area is where Walter Auffenberg, an American herpetologist, clocked lots of time studying dragons and producing the Behavioral Ecology of the Komodo Monitor, which delved into numerous aspects of the animal's natural history. Notice the non-sensationalized title used, something I have not abstained from.

Kampung Komodo on the right. The only village on the island. The people actually have a high respect for these lizards even though people have died because of them.
 The hike was about 6 miles one-way, scorching as a July Tucson day. No dragons were seen, but the views were splendid. Sweat poured outta me, I looked like Christian Laettner (the bearded later version) in the 4th quarter, only after 15 minutes or so in the sun. I made enough salt that day, you could have wrung my shirt to season a basket of nachos. Totally worth it. The various valleys of Komodo were finally seen, along with the collection of neighboring islands. And actually walking through "natural" Komodo habitat put a little optimistic dread in my step.

Heading up the hill from Loh Liang.
Sweatiest man on Komodo. Guaranteed.
No other herps were seen either, except one species of Gliding lizard I didn't have time to identify. All the snakes were wise enough to not be out in this heat. Only salty tourists. The bird life was a bonus treat, as we saw several gorgeous Yellow-crested Cockatoo (Cacatua sulphurea, see below for a marginal photo), which are actually critically endangered (boo!), and Black-naped Orioles (Oriolus chinensis). This now concludes my krunk-adelic Komodo ramblings, as I know I've gone on long enough. Enjoy the photos folks!

Overlooking Loh Sebita and islands east of Komodo, including Siaba.
The parched, dry landscape.

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