Dragon Tale

There’s no bet­ter way to ex­plore the is­lands, wa­ters and wildlife of Ko­modo National Park than aboard a lux­u­ri­ously appointed sail­ing ship rem­i­nis­cent of the old spice traders, writes Chris Wood

Hong Kong Tatler - - Contents -

There’s no bet­ter way to ex­plore the is­lands, wa­ters and wildlife of Ko­modo National Park than aboard a lux­u­ri­ously appointed sail­ing ship rem­i­nis­cent of the old spice traders

The big male Ko­modo dragon has turned its back on the half-stripped deer car­cass that hangs invit­ingly from a tree. Now he has eyes only for me. My fel­low trav­ellers show signs of amuse­ment but, as he swag­gers my way and guides shep­herd­ing small tourist groups edge back, ner­vously de­ploy­ing their crooks, I’ve an inkling the threat might be all too real.

Grow­ing up to three me­tres in length, Ko­modo drag­ons are the world’s largest lizards and have been known to knock down pigs and deer with a swish of the tail, but it’s the other end that wor­ries me: jaws said var­i­ously to con­tain ven­omous glands and a nox­ious con­coc­tion of bac­te­ria that will bring down a wa­ter buffalo.

The name Ko­modo con­jures images of a lost jun­gle-cloaked is­land king­dom and Fay Wray in the clutches of a great ape as he bat­tles a fear­some rep­tile, and it was in­deed W Dou­glas Bur­den’s 1926 ex­pe­di­tion to Ko­modo Is­land that pro­vided in­spi­ra­tion for the 1933 movie sen­sa­tion King Kong. The Bugis peo­ple be­lieve these fa­bled beasts are de­scended from a fe­male lizard born of a hu­man mother.

This dragon, per­haps cal­cu­lat­ing the dis­tance be­tween us and sens­ing the prox­im­ity of the park guides’ po­tent crooks, lifts his chin high in the air, pumps up his chest and with a dis­dain­ful flick of the tongue turns back to the kill. The mo­ment and the op­por­tu­nity to col­lect the ul­ti­mate tro­phy in my selfie cab­i­net have passed.

Just 3,000 drag­ons re­main in the wild, in­hab­it­ing the In­done­sian is­lands of Ko­modo, Rinca, Flores, Gili Motang and Padar. Ko­modo National Park, estab­lished in 1980 to pro­tect the rep­tiles, was de­clared a Unesco World Her­itage site in 1991. The ar­chi­pel­ago is part of the Coral Tri­an­gle—the trop­i­cal wa­ters span­ning In­done­sia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Pa­pua New Guinea, East Ti­mor and the Solomon Is­lands—and the drag­ons are far from the only en­dan­gered species to be found here. The once pristine and still crys­tal-clear wa­ters, now sadly blighted by a ris­ing tide of plas­tic, har­bour some of the rich­est ma­rine bio­di­ver­sity on earth, along with div­ing sites that are the envy of the world.

An air­port on Flores serves as a gate­way to the re­gion and the start­ing point for our ex­pe­di­tion. Re­sem­bling a space­ship landed in

the jun­gle, the new ter­mi­nal, which opened in De­cem­ber last year, stands as tes­ta­ment to the ex­pec­ta­tion of a large in­flux of tourists, rais­ing ca­pac­ity from 150,000 pas­sen­gers to 1.5 mil­lion a year. On ar­rival, though, ours is the only plane on the tar­mac and it’s soon ap­par­ent that the lo­cals have yet to mas­ter the art of air­port hos­pi­tal­ity. Af­ter five min­utes hang­ing around the plane on the run­way, we wan­der over to the ter­mi­nal. This, we know, can only be a good sign for those in search of an un­spoiled travel ex­pe­ri­ence.

While the is­lands and coral of Ko­modo National Park can be ex­plored from a grow­ing num­ber of lux­ury re­sorts, the best way to dis­cover the re­gion is by boat—and our ship, it seems, has come in. The Amandira is a pur­pose-built, two-masted sail­ing ves­sel con­structed on a beach in the tra­di­tional way by the Konjo tribe, closely fol­low­ing the de­sign of the phin­isi ships that have long plied In­done­sian trad­ing routes, which them­selves are based on the pinas in­tro­duced by the Dutch East In­dia Com­pany to fa­cil­i­tate the spice trade in the 1600s.

Two years in the mak­ing, com­mis­sioned at an es­ti­mated cost of US$5 mil­lion by a Swiss ty­coon whose iden­tity our Scot­tish cruise di­rec­tor de­clines to di­vulge, the 52-me­tre craft is op­er­ated by Aman and has been de­scribed as a lux­ury div­ing char­ter boat. I pre­fer to think of it as the pi­rate ship of my boy­hood dreams and waste lit­tle time in scal­ing the mast and tak­ing the plunge from the bow (two ex­pe­ri­ences that might have proved less un­nerv­ing a decade or two ago; Peter Pan, it seems, I am not).

Big­ger than its com­mer­cial cousins, the boat of­fers co­pi­ous space, with large deck ar­eas for din­ing, dive prepa­ra­tion, mas­sage and re­lax­ation—space that over the next five nights and six days we utilise to the full. The five cab­ins in­clude a lux­u­ri­ous mas­ter suite above deck so tan­ta­lis­ing that it pro­vokes good-na­tured squab­bles be­tween mem­bers of our party vy­ing for its en­vi­rons. Two deluxe cab­ins pro­vide sim­i­lar ac­com­mo­da­tion be­low deck, while a pair of bunk cab­ins hosts four more guests. When one of our com­pan­ions asks to sleep on deck un­der the stars, that too is arranged.

An itin­er­ary for the voy­age is tai­lored prior to ar­rival or on em­barka­tion. Ours in­cludes cham­pagne sun­sets and moon­light-bathed din­ners on deck, sun­rise is­land trekking and gourmet beach din­ing in se­cluded coves lit by hun­dreds of can­dles, ac­tiv­i­ties on the wa­ter and ad­ven­tures be­neath the waves, breath­tak­ing en­coun­ters with wildlife and the rare chance to stargaze and pon­der na­ture’s beauty from the com­fort of our deck loungers. It is a once-in-a-life­time ad­ven­ture. Just don’t get eaten by a dragon.

OUR VOY­AGE IN­CLUDES CHAM­PAGNE SUN­SETS AND MOON­LIGHT-BATHED DIN­NERS ON DECK, SUN­RISE IS­LAND TREKKING AND GOURMET BEACH DIN­ING

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MYS­TERY IS­LAND Ko­modo National Park, which lies within In­done­sia’s Sunda is­lands, is a World Her­itage site and home to the Ko­modo dragon

ONE WITH NA­TURE Clock­wise from top: The Amandira is built along the lines of ves­sels that have plied In­done­sia’s trade routes since the 1600s; large deck ar­eas pro­vide space for al­fresco din­ing, dive prepa­ra­tion, mas­sage and re­lax­ation; a water­fall is one of the at­trac­tions on Moyo Is­land Ko­modo drag­ons are the world’s largest lizards, grow­ing up to three me­tres long

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