how to see komodo dragons

How to see Komodo Dragons [Rinca and Komodo Islands]

This is the only place in the world to see Komodo Dragons – so we’ve taken a 6-day boat trip to the UNESCO World Heritage Komodo and Rinca Islands.

We’re anchored off the island of Kenawa Island for the second time in a week.  There’s a brisk breeze and a strong current. The sea is choppy and I’m snorkeled out, so we’re doing our “relaxing” on the boat. In reality, we’ll probably drift off to sleep, as there wasn’t much sleeping last night. This has to be the least sleep I’ve got on a boat EVER. And that would include when I raced a sailboat across the Atlantic. We’ve been on board Floressea, a fifty-passenger traditional Phinisi two-masted sailing boat,  with an engine and generator.  We’ve been with the Kencana Adventure company for 6 days now and this is how to see Komodo Dragons on both Rinca and Komodo Island.

THIS POST MAY CONTAIN COMPENSATED AND AFFILIATE LINKS MORE INFORMATION IN OUR DISCLAIMER

Travel Tips for Exploring Indonesia

We left from Labuan on the west coast of the island of Lombok and headed off on our adventure towards the island of Flores. Our true destinations were the islands of Komodo and Rinca, where the prehistoric Komodo Dragons live.

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Options to see Komodo Dragons

We’d investigated several options to see the dragons

  1. Fly to Flores and take day trips individually to each island
  2. Take a boat one way and fly back
  3. Take a boat both ways

Flights were expensive when we finally got around to looking.  So as we wanted to go to both Komodo and Rinca, we booked a boat trip.  We opted for the 5-night, 6-day trip that would bring us back to Lombok.  From there where we’d head off to the Gili Islands to chill out a little more.

Companies that Run boat Trips

There are two main companies that run this trip, Perama, and Kencana.  There are also a host of small boats plying this route. Reviews of sinkings, of bad conditions, of dreadful sea states, abound. TripAdvisor is literally full of them. Blogs of shipwrecks and permanent seasickness had us considering whether this was for us. In the end, Permana had no space, Kencana did, and so that’s why we’re on the Floressea with them.

You can book a trip to see Komodo dragons here.

Get a Cabin or Sleep on Deck?

When we’d picked our company we had two further options. Either sleeping on the deck on a thin plastic-covered mattress with about 30 other folks or in a cabin.

Cabins are 9,000,000 IDR for two people, with a double bed.

Deck space is 3,500,000 IDR (each) for the 5 night, 6 day trip.

So the cheapest for two of us was GBP 314, US$488, and the cabin option was GBP 404, US$627.

We opted for the cabin.

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What’s the Boat Like?

There are three decks. The upper deck is smaller but has better views and no windbreaks.

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The middle (main) deck has wind breaks and a front wall that protects from the weather and the sun.  It has two toilets – with showers, the food prep area (it’s hard to call it a galley/kitchen) and three cabins plus crew quarters.

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The lower deck houses the engine, the generator and more cabins.

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We are in a cabin on the main deck, backing onto the food prep area.

Directly above the generator and engine.

The Ticket Includes a Return Transfer

The cost includes return transfers from Sengiggi to the departure port on the other side of the island of Lombok.  There are also three meals a day, endless tea and coffee and 1.5l of bottled water per person.

For those in cabins, there is also a small bottle of beer, a can of coke, and a tiny bag of crisps provided each day. The most expensive free beer we’ve ever had.

Meals are buffet style – rice accompanies all but breakfast and we (all forty-something of us) sit mostly on the main deck floor to eat.

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What’s it like on the boat?

There are 8 cabins on board Floressea and they’re full. The deck is pretty full too, we are 44 passengers in total on our return trip, we were 48 on the way out. On this return we also dropped off 5 folks on the island of Gili Laba, to make their way who knows where.

There are two toilets and a freshwater shower in each. If you time it right, you can manage a toilet trip and a shower without having to line up. (you have to get back from snorkeling first).

Those on deck complain of being cold at night, those of us in cabins are lying in a pool of sweat each night, despite the fans that we have in our rooms. We’ve had one reasonable nights sleep out of five and our experience has been shared by everyone else.

In July and August explains Abdul, one of the crew with a perennial smile, it’s very rolly when we head to the west, but better when we head to the east. It feels like we have headed west for the entire trip then.

I’d hate to be on one of the smaller, narrower boats that ply this route and I’m glad we’re on the main deck, rather than the top.  I wonder if the lower deck cabins are better, despite having no air down there, they’d be most stable, but perhaps right next to the engine instead of on top of it.

We’ve slept all but one night inside our tent like mosquito net (it has a bottom as well as sides and a roof).  We were woken on the first night by several cockroaches exploring Nigel’s face, he kindly flicked them off onto me. Our cabin is next to the kitchen area. The same happened the next night, so we put the tent up and retreated inside over night.

It’s been an experience..

Our trip has been an experience. On day one we were collected at 10:30am (our timetabled 10am collection was a portent of what was to come).  The bus filled and we got to the Kencana offices to pay our balance and order our additional drinks.

We opt for large bottles of Bintang beer for 35,000 IDR each. It’s not clear at this point if there’s any other opportunity to buy more beer on the trip. (there is, but not from Kencana).

It’s 11:45 before we leave the Kencana offices and it’s a bum numbing trip across the island, with a lunch stop, where we’re told “last chance to buy snacks for the boat”.  Then we’re provided with a packed lunch which we all scarf down while bouncing the last few miles to the boat.

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Food on the Boat

While there’s been plenty of food on the boat, meal time is hard to predict, and snacks (even pots of IndoMee noodles) are well worth the investment.  Some days we get breakfast at 07:00, lunch at 14:30 and dinner at 18:00.

There are power sockets on the boat, so charging phones and cameras works.  In our cabin we have a socket, so we’re never far from a coffee with our “kettle”.

Arriving on the Boat, Luggage Storage

Loading is quick and easy, we’re to go barefoot while on the boat.  Our bags are stowed in our cabins for those with, and down below for those who sleep on deck.

Those who are sleeping on the deck keep small bags with them on the deck area, well actually they’ve mainly stowed on the seating area.  We all end up sitting on the deck. Those who have cabins can lock their stuff away, those who don’t, well, bring a padlock.

Our exit from the harbor is amusing, one wonders how dangerous fishing might be in this area…

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Kenawa Island

We set off pretty smartly, heading for our first (which is also our last) stop,  Kenawa Island.  Here, we’re offered the opportunity to “hike, hike” or “snorkel, snorkel” or “swim, swim”.

We have a “guide” who accompanies us on each trip ashore.  His purpose appears to be to herd us at the right time and to make sure the snorkeling gear returns.  There’s little information flow, even when Diandra speaks to him in Indonesian.

As we’re anchored off the shore, some folks jump in and swim to shore, we wait for the tender to be lowered and head off for the hike. There’s a hill and we’re going up it.

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The island is ringed by a beach of sharp dead coral, the route up the hill rises sharply.  It becomes a scramble rather than a hike, up a sandy escarpment, but the view, well it’s pretty nice. While one barefoot guy makes it up the hill several in flipflops just slide back down.

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We have about an hour on the island before we’re ferried back.

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There’s an Honesty Bar, for the beer you’ve already bought

Our free beer and snacks are provided and we dive into the first of our paid for beers. It’s an honesty bar. A scrap of paper with a pencil is provided to note down what we drink. Of course I trust the 46 other people on the boat that I’ve never met before.

This is bound to end in tears. Or thirst. Probably thirst.

On this first night we get a reasonable nights sleep. Until the cockroaches arrive, then it’s an uneasy slumber until we’re woken with breakfast. Almost in bed.

Breakfast on the boat this first morning is a Banana Jaffle.  For the uninitiated, it’s a kind of toasted sandwich.  Which has been kind of fried.  There’s no photo, because, well I was hungry and by the time I realized I hadn’t taken a photo all was left was teeth marks..

Satonda Island – A Freshwater Swim

Some time after breakfast we arrive at Satonda Island, where the highlight of the day is a swim in a freshwater lake inside the crater of a volcano.

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It’s refreshing, fresh, deep, and dark. As we’re here on the island for about 90 minutes there’s also time for snorkeling off the beach.   The boat has masks and snorkels that we can use, although not enough for one per person.  You have to get in early to grab the kit.

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It’s a pretty good place for snorkeling – coral and fish off to the right of the bay.  Nigel even spots a sea snake (and yes we wish we’d bought an underwater camera.)

I last 5 minutes before a tingling on my ankles brings me to the shore. Within a few minutes, it’s been decided that the rising blisters circling my ankle are jellyfish stings. Our guide applies a local remedy that I chose neither to smell nor identify. It works, that’s enough and by the evening all that remains is a faint red mark.

Satonda is also memorable for the fact that there’s a small cafe-cum-store here – selling instant noodles, water and beer. None of us in the small group we’ve now formed with Sandy (a Brit immigrant to Australia), Andy (a Brit ex-pat working in Jakarta), and Diandra (an Indonesian lawyer) have brought money, but our guide on board is willing to provide interest-free loans.

Sailing from Satonda to Komodo

It’s a long sail now onto Komodo. It’s a long sail westwards, on very rolling seas. Some folks don’t manage lunch.  Eat, Eat says Abdul, it’s better to have something in your stomach to puke. The temple (see more about this in our guide to Indonesian food) that’s provided is excellent and I wish I could eat more, but I stuff in as much as possible and then retreat to the cabin.

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Prone, and feeling very glad that we have this space to lie down until it’s time to eat again and lie down again for the first of our hot, humid, sleepless nights.  We’re safe from the cockroaches in our net tent, although we get another couple on the floor it’s better thanon  our faces.

On day three we get another breakfast almost in bed. The world’s heaviest pancakes are in residence in my lower stomach, it probably makes them harder to bring back up again.  As we approach Komodo Island, the water is calmer.

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Komodo Island

Our entrance fees for the island have been collected, they AREN’T included in the boat trip rates.  If anyone doesn’t want to pay, they can stay on the boat while we’re onshore. It’s 275,000 IDR per foreign tourist, and this includes the mandatory ranger guide fee.

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The Komodo Dragon is a large species of lizard found only on the Indonesian islands of Komodo, Rinca, Flores, Gili Motang, and Padar.

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It’s the largest living species of lizard, growing to a maximum of 3 metres in length and weighing up to 70 kilograms.  July and August is the mating season, so our chances of seeing the big boys and girls were low.  They live to be 30 years old, are known to eat deer and look so darned prehistoric.

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The dragons have two glands in their lower jaw which secrete toxic proteins and an anticoagulant.   You don’t want to get bitten, it will hurt and likely prove fatal.

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We split into two groups, but still have more than 20 in each group as we troop off crocodile style heading on the “long” trek, which will take around two hours.

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Trekking on Komodo Island

There is a short briefing at the beginning of the trek, which consists of asking if we want the medium or long trek (we all say long) and then we’re off.

Each ranger guide carries a “dragon fighting stick”, to pin the dragon should any attack us.

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The trek is not particularly interesting, but it’s nice to be off the boat and we do get a little bit of a view. We also see a few creatures and small dragons.

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There’s no real further interaction with the ranger guides until we’re returning from the mid way point of the trek.  Then our lead ranger guide spots a dragon in the brush off to the right.

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Brush is the right word. These are small quite densely packed bushes, painful to go through, hard to see through, but there’s almost a charge.  Its seemingly led by the ranger himself, who’s followed by the selfie stick men.  They’re group of perhaps three guys toting cameras and phones on selfie sticks determined to get that fabulous close in shot of these prehistoric creatures.

Chasing Komodo Dragons is not cool

It looks like a rout. It’s certainly a chase. There’s crashing in the brush and I wait (almost hopefully) for the scream that indicates that they’ve caught the dragon.  Or rather that the dragon has caught them. My hopes are in vain.  They all return safe enough to harass the dragons that we find close to the end point of the trek.  They’re sitting under trees close to the food supplies here on the island.

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The rangers here are ineffective with their cries to “stay away”, which the selfie men ignore and get closer and closer. It’s only when the son of one of the selfie men gets too close that they seem to take the slightest bit of notice. I wish for metal fatigue.

I mentally project to the dragons to “take em out”, but just leave the island, glad that we’ve seen the dragons.  Incredibly sad, though,  that we are unable to give them their space or protect them effectively enough.

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Komodo to Labuan Bajo, Flores

There’s another sleepless night and day at sea and we arrive as the sun sets on the island of Flores, in the dive “resort” of Labuan Bajo.

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I’m glad we only have the few hours here. While we grab internet access at a great little coffee shop it’s closed by 9pm.  We drink beer from the supermarket while eating BBQ’d fish at the opposite night market.  We object to the stall we’ve chosen dropping our prawns on the floor and then just handing them over to us as though nothing happened.

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My standards may have lowered, but I’m not eating food off the road. We buy more snacks from the supermarket to take with us.

We lose some guests, gain some more

By the time we return to the boat (we have to be back on board by 10:00pm, we’ve lost three of the selfie stick men (they were only on the outward trip).  Their group spent the trip since Komodo drinking constantly and chain smoking on the main deck, sending Sandy running for air elsewhere. Andy & Diandra kept to their cabin as did we.

We’ve also gained some new folks, a family from Wokingham, Berkshire who’ve traveled the length of Flores, a French family and a few more folks. The few more folks have helped themselves to the beer supplies without either pre-ordering beer or making a note of what they’ve drunk. Between them and the now departed selfie-stick men it’s obvious that the pre-orders outnumber the remaining beers. We notify the crew, but there’s little that they can do.

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Flores to Rinca Island

Still, we’re heading East now. That means the going should be better. Should is the operative word. It remains hot, and humid, and decent sleep remains elusive.
Rinca Island is what I hoped Komodo would be like.

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Visiting Rinca Island

We’re anchored in a glorious bay, the tender takes us to the dock and we take a short 10-minute walk to the Ranger Station.

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We spend three hours on the island in total.

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A short briefing in good, but broken English is followed by us splitting into a much more manageable three groups.

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And while two of the three groups join up en route, there’s actually a dialogue from the Rangers.  We hear explanations that this is the breeding season, so the dragons we see might be much smaller than usual.

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Other wildlife is pointed out.

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A snake high and tucked into a tree.  And dragons.

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We’re shown the dens where the dragons live and the rangers are MUCH more forceful with us and our remaining selfie stick man when they try to get too close.

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We’re almost back to the ranger hut, when we walk into an ambush.

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There are dragons to the left of us, to the right and one charges up behind us.

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If anyone was having an issue listening to what the Rangers told us it finished at that point.

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We’re lamb like in our observance of their guidance.

Most of us find the guide with the largest dragon fighting stick and make sure we’re behind him.

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Would I do this trip again?

If I had the choice again, I’d take the boat one way – making it the way that got me to Rinca Island, rather than Komodo.

The guides were much better organized, it was more informative, the fee was slightly less (250,000 IDR per person versus 275,000 IDR).  However, I also felt as though the guides were doing justice to the dragons at Rinca – protecting them from us as much as us from them.

And so, objective achieved, there’s “snorkeling, snorkeling” at the Pink Beach (where the sand is actually pink), there’s also “hiking, hiking” for those that want it and we drop off five guests, including our last remaining selfie man and his family.

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Heading to the Waterfall

Now we cruise, another hot, sleepless night and we’re bound for the waterfall. Of course it’s the dry season. And there are already five boats moored off the beach, we walk through the wooded area to the Waterfall.  It’s hard to near the trickle for the crowds and so we head back to the beach, having acquired snorkeling gear BEFORE we left the boa.  We wait out our time here eyes down with the fish.

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Gili Bola

There’s another “snorkeling, snorkeling” stop at Gili Bola and another , where it’s also possible to buy a coconut from the shack on shore. We contemplate swimming to shore, but watch the current for a while and decide against it.  One of our Indonesian tourists is rescued by the tender while trying to make it to shore, so after exploring the island, we snorkel up-current, then strike out for the boat, calculations slightly out, but arms and legs managing to make up the shortfall of strength versus tide.

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Fight, there’s a fight..

Entertainment is provided by two members of the crew, who, going ahead in the tender, make it to the shore and then have a fight.  Abdul dives in and swims to shore to break it up.

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The afternoon brings us to Kenawa and our final stop, where I started, chilling out on the boat, we’ve climbed that hill and have no desire to snorkel the dead coral near the shore.

It’s been a good, but not great trip. Too long by about two days and several nights sleep. If I were to do it again, I’d actually get off where selfie man and his family did – because seeing both Komodo and Rinca was interesting, even though Rinca was so much better. I’d definitely go for the cabin option (assuming I could afford it), especially if the sea state conditions were unsettled, as being surround by others being sick would for me only have one unfortunate outcome.

Oh, and the beer. If you didn’t get all you paid for, then you have to take it up with the Kencana office, which of course none of us went back to. We hopped off the bus mid-way back to Sengiggi and shared a broken-down car driven by a chain smoking serial braker to Bangsal to take the public ferry to Gili Air.

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