We had been trekking for a few hours when we stopped to take stock of our surroundings. Overhead the sun beat down on us and in the distance, the sea shimmered as palm trees waved listlessly in the breeze. It was a classic paradise island setting.
And yet the mood was one of slight trepidation. We were on the island of Rinca hunting for Komodo dragons, the giant lizards synonymous with Indonesia, and we weren’t entirely sure what we’d find.
Mr Da, our guide, had done his best to stoke up the anticipation. He explained a great deal about the beasts’ history, their importance to the national park’s ecosystem and their place on the threatened species list.
But, for the intrepid explorer, only four details stood out: Komodo dragons can grow up to 10 feet long, they weigh an unusually large amount, they can reach speeds of 20mph and they are carnivores. I looked at my shoes and made a mental calculation of the quickest I’ve ever run. It wouldn’t be enough.
Soon enough we descended into the creatures’ den; or, more likely, the island’s administrative centre. Wooden huts encircled a courtyard, in the centre of which lay three gigantic forms.
We had found our dragon killing machines and it looked like they were asleep.
Mr Da turned to us and shrugged: “They rest in this part of the day. It’s too hot.” The cloudless sky backed up his point. The dragons’ place was in the cooler mornings and afternoons; the relentless midday sun sapped their energy.
However, even sprawled on the ground it was clear they were capable of causing immense damage.
Their thick tails, as long as their bodies, were perfect for swiping, and despite being spread out in a grey bulk their sunken black eyes scoured the surroundings with an obsidian intelligence, ready to launch themselves into action at a moment’s notice.
And as a smaller one idled toward us on squat, powerful legs, its forked tongue swatting away a fly, the world seemed to melt away and transport us back to a prehistoric time where survival, and only survival, mattered.
Another of Mr Da’s lessons sprang to mind – that Komodo dragons rarely, if ever, attack humans – and put us at our ease, although we were still of no mind to move closer and test the theory, however apocryphal, of the beasts’ poisonous bite.
Soon enough they roused themselves and sloped off, moving with the calculated instinct afforded by millions of years of evolution into an apex predator. We watched in respectful silence as they departed before heading in the opposite direction.
Come the day’s end, I found myself on the deck of the boat heading back to our base at nearby Labuan Bajo. Drawing heavily on an aromatic clove kretek cigarette, I watched Rinca’s receding peaks and wondered if the Komodo dragons weren’t heading in the same direction over the horizon and on to extinction, another lost link to the planet’s ancient past.