This is what theme parks are trying to sell you with their roller-coasters and bungee jumps and thrill rides: a completely controlled moment of heinous fear and vulnerability in the face of total destruction, something to make you value being alive.
Except the theme park is carefully engineered to not actually kill or injure you, whereas the carnivorous and often grumpy Komodo dragon is subject to no more restraint than a big pointy stick with a fork in it.
This distinction, I should note, is somewhat underplayed in all the travel guides.
When we disembarked from the boat at Rinca, our guide met us at the entry way to the dock, which has a wooden entryway that somewhat resembles a low-rent Jurassic Park gate. Which is entirely the right atmosphere to convey when you are willingly entering the domain of prehistoric lizards that want to eat you. In fact, paying good money for the experience.
After a confusing few minutes of figuring out which park entry fees to pay – the tickets, camera fee, and guide fee are all separate and must be divvied up by use of complex theoretical equations, or it seemed that way — our guide led us to one of the buildings near the ranger station, where a small group of Komodos was lying docilely in the sun.
“We don’t feed them, but they smell the food cooking and they come here,” he said. The guides were making sure to keep the tourists well away from the Komodos. “They can move very fast when they want to.” The forked sticks were held at the ready.
“Are they particularly hungry this time of year?” I asked, watching as one big male dragon opened and re-opened its eyes, regarding the tourists with what seemed like profound disinterest.
“They are always hungry,” he said, darkly.
As we walked through the low-lying jungle of Rinca, the guide told me and the Swedish couple accompanying us that he had in fact been bitten by a Komodo dragon in May of last year. He freely admitted that it really hurt. “Enough pain to last me a long time,” he noted. They washed it out with antiseptic and he was OK, but he remained a bit — jumpy.
“How long have you been here?” I asked him, dancing around the “Why in the hell do you do this for a living?” question.
“I studied hotel management, but I worked in a hotel only two months. It was very boring. So I came here.”
In fact, three rangers had already been bitten this year, and last year featured a well-documented incident wherein a Komodo crept delicately into the office and took up residence under a desk — surprising the man who returned to occupy it with a flash of large and pointy teeth. Another man who came to his rescue was badly bitten as well in the ensuing man-on-lizard brawl.
Suddenly, on the path ahead of us, there was a Komodo Dragon —moving at a rather impressive clip for such a low-slung creature. “Goooo back,” the guide said, brandishing the stick, sounding worried. I went back, shooting (mediocre) photos as I went. “Gooo back further!” the guide said, and I moved rather faster as the dragon picked up speed, flicking its khaki colored tongue into the wind.
“After I got bit last year, i am a little…traumatized,” admitted the guide. I felt this was eminently understandable.
“They look so much like the palm fronds and logs,” I said, myself afflicted with a spot of jumpiness after seeing a Komodo Dragon actually *move* for the first time in my life. Move faster than I wanted them to move, really.
“They have very good camouflage,” the guide said. Ruefully.
“Do you have any snakes?” I asked. We had moved into an area of thicker jungle, interspersed with numerous plops of water buffalo dung. Megapod birds chased each other through the trees, and small lizards scattered at our tread. Every log was manifesting into a Komodo.
“Oh yes, we have three kinds of venomous snakes,” the guide said.
“You have a lot of problems here,” I said.
“Yes. Yes, we do,” he said.
We turned a corner and the guide suddenly stopped. “There’s a green tree viper!” he said. What timing!
The emerald-green snake was draped languidly over a bush and staying very still, perhaps hoping that we wouldn’t see it. Green tree vipers, unsurprisingly for such a malicious sort of place, can kill you. Most things on Komodo, it appears, can kill you. We all took photos, including the guide, as apparently such snake sightings are rather rare.
Two encounters with potentially deadly reptiles in a mere half-hour! What a bargain!
What the hell is wrong with us?
We went up to a hill and looked out over Rinca and the little sheltering bay where the boats moor. I stood on the grassy hill overlooking the Jungle of Certain Death and wondered about early human explorers on Rinca. I imagine they must have sheltered here, in the grassy outcroppings where hungry Komodos would likely find it hard to hide. Did they have pointy sticks, at least? How many of them got eaten?
The rest of our walk back was uneventful, though all four of us reacted with somewhat unusual attention to every mysterious sound and crackle of bush. We had all been jolted into the reality that we are small and soft and eatable: this is the peculiar, rather dark appeal of a visit to Rinca.