I found myself staring down a large and unhappy Komodo dragon which was flicking its tongue out trying to decide if I was edible. My teenage guide had his long stick ready but had already moved behind me while I took pictures.
The tiny, sweltering Rinca Island, just off the coast of Flores, Indonesia, is a rough and tumble little place full of wildlife, poisonous snakes, and of course, the Komodo dragon.
Rinca is lesser known of the islands in the Komodo National Park; most people head to Komodo Island on tours looking for the dragons. The crowds make it difficult to spot dragons in the wild, and I’m not a fan of socks-and-sandals tour groups, so I made my own way to Rinca for adventure.
In 2008, a group of scuba divers found themselves stranded on Rinca Island after they were swept away from the boat by vicious currents. They survived by eating shellfish but found themselves being circled by hungry Komodo dragons.
Sun-scorched Rinca Island is the perfect habitat for such a strange animal. Many species of poisonous snakes — including cobras — inhabit the island as well as wild pigs, buffalo, deer, and eagles.
To get there you have to brave some of the most dangerous currents in Indonesia on a boat that barely floats and probably should have sank years ago. Unless you hire one of the more expensive tour boats, don’t expect there to be any life-saving equipment on board.
Once there, I was the only tourist on the island at the time and had a one-on-one experience with my guide. We were able to leave the trails and found dozens of dragons out in the bush doing their thing. We even slept on the boat deck under stars — something that would have been difficult on Komodo Island.
Getting to Rinca Island
To reach Rinca Island, you must first get to the village of Labuanbajo either by a short domestic flight from Bali or Lombok — or take the popular multi-day boat package.
Once in Labuanbajo, you can book passage to the island either at the sprawling Gardena hostel or by taking your chances down on the waterfront by talking to the boat captains. Their English is limited to nonexistent, but a little patience can save you a lot of money. The cost can be around US $40 for the three-hour ride, so it is wise to hook up with some other travelers to share expenses.
Try to find out up front if there is a “boat docking fee” which is pretty much their way to make some fast extra rupiah at the end of the trip.
You will need to purchase a three-day pass to the National Park (US $15). The money goes to conservation of the area, and a pass is required to visit any of the islands or do some diving.
On the island, there is a small canteen in the camp offering drinks and snacks, but take your own food and water with you. Leave your food at camp — you don’t want anything that smells edible in your pockets!
Hiring a Guide and Joining a Komodo Tour
It is strictly forbidden to enter the forest without a guide, and even though I always prefer to do things my own way, this is one place where you need a guide to survive! You will be required to pay for an entrance ticket and a guide as soon as you step onto Rinca Island — the total is about US $15.
A normal group tour is only one to two hours, but in the heat that is about all that you will be able to handle anyway. Be sure to carry more water than you think you will need; it is unbearably hot in the bush. If you think a group is too large, wait for the next one or negotiate your own way with a guide, a small tip can go a long way.
There are a handful of sluggish dragons that hang around the camp waiting for food or trash, but these hardly count as proper Komodo sightings. Even still, give them lots of room and never feed them!
Some groups only spot a couple of dragons in the wild, but we were lucky enough to find over a dozen, many hidden in tall grass and easy to step on. At one point, we found ourselves partially surrounded on accident — so pay attention, these things can run down and tear a full grown buffalo to pieces so no doubt could really ruin your day!
The cobra snakes are responsible for far more fatalities, but luckily they can’t handle the heat of the day and are only active at night. Keep an eye out for their shed skins in the forest.
After your trek, find out if you can sleep on the deck of one of the boats. The stars are magnificent and it’s a great way to spend some time with the interesting locals. There is limited bungalow accommodation on the island, but it was empty when I visited in May.
Getting to and finding the Komodo dragons on Rinca Island is an Indonesian adventure that you will never forget — these protected creatures will provide one of the most interesting encounters you will have in the wild!
- Please read about my experience with the Komodo dragons on Rinca Island. The story won a Silver Prize from Solas Best Travel Writing of 2014.