The Dragon King (Smithsonian)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell


It didn’t seem prudent to bring two small children along. We had just docked at a remote island in southeastern Indonesia, and the five-hour hike would traverse a rocky, exposed ridge in the baking heat of the dry season. My companions—a blond Frenchman named Fred, his wife and their two kids—were dressed for a game of shuffleboard. My concern heightened when I saw he had a single water bottle for the four of them. Also, there were dragons.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” I asked Fred, glancing at his sockless feet and leather loafers. We had just met at the tourist dock on Flores the day before.

“You are the one who proposed it,” he said, marching onward.

True. I’d come to Indonesia on my own for a month, and I wasn’t about to miss this opportunity. Komodo Island and its nine-foot-long monitor lizard, the Komodo dragon, were once about as far off the beaten track as you could get. But Komodo National Park has become Indonesia’s hottest tourist spot this side of Bali. Our starting point in Labuan Bajo, on the island of Flores, was packed with hip cafés, hostels and diving shops. Cruise companies offer a two-day expedition to parkland on Komodo and Rinca islands. Komodo, about five times the size of Manhattan, got a makeover in the late 1990s, when the Indonesian government asked the Nature Conservancy and the World Bank to help it protect the island’s biodiversity, develop hiking trails and build a visitor center.

Even with these amenities, the destination’s popularity is surprising. Whale-watching may appeal to our spiritual side, while a glimpse of an orangutan or other primate cousin tugs at an evolutionary heartstring. The Komodo dragon, I believe, taps into our basic fears: a living incarnation of the fictional monsters that haunt our imaginations.

Read the full story in the February issue of Smithsonian