They always watch the children. Fourteen years ago, here, they got one child. He had been helping his father on his fishing boat then he went home and asked his mother for some money to buy sweets. She told him, “no”, so he went off into the forest and found a fruit tree. He ate and ate. But the fruit was not ripe yet and it gave him stomachache so he pulled down his trousers and began to poo.
But he didn’t notice the dragon behind him. It leaped from the bushes and bit him on the bottom. They have teeth like razors and slice off flesh.
Two other children heard his screams and came running but were too frightened of the dragon to help. Instead they ran back to the village. When the villagers came, the boy was gone but they followed the blood spattered on the bushes and grass. The dragon was carrying him away, still alive.
Some of the villagers beat at the dragon with sticks but it would not let go. Then some men grabbed the child by the arm and pulled him away and they ran, ran, ran back towards the village. But the dragon chased them. It grabbed the boy again, this time by the stomach and as the villagers tried to pull him away, it ripped him open in their arms.
He died thirty minutes later in his mother’s arms. He was only seven.
Our guide looked round at us, clearly pleased with his anecdote. Janet was wide-eyed and pale. I could feel the incredulity spreading across my face. In what way was it possibly a good idea to tell this story to a family containing three already-nervous children?
“What was that story about?” asked Scarlett. Thank goodness. She hadn’t been able to penetrate the guide’s thick accent.
“I’ll tell you later,” I assured her, rather hoping she’d forget to ask.
I really didn’t want to repeat the story, standing, as we were, in a remote forest clearing on Komodo island, out hunting for the largest lizards in the World. We knew already, of course, that komodo dragons could be dangerous, how their mouths are filled with over 50 types of bacteria so even a small bite is fatal, and how, as they’re a protected species, the guides who take tourists out looking for them are allowed only a forked stick with which to defend themselves and their charges. But out in the forest, several hours from the small ranger station we’d set off trekking from, it all seemed a lot more real.
I suddenly wished I had even a forked stick.
“How do you use the stick?” I’d asked the guide back at the station. His reply had not been encouraging: “We push it away. But better to run away. But dragons are fast. Up to 20 kilometres per hour. And they can jump, so not easy to climb tree. And swim very fast. But don’t run until I say or they will chase. Especially children.”
I searched the bushes around us with my eyes. We’d seen two dragons already and their camouflage and the fact that they stand completely motionless makes them almost invisible in the dry scrub of the forest. I made sure my kids were very close by and continued to catalogue which nearby trees looked climbable. One hour of trekking down, only two more to go.
He’d been right about them watching the children, too. The dragons we’d seen had stared at them, impassive, like looking at so much meat.
“If you go up this path,” the guide went on, oblivious, “you get to Padang Valley. There a Swiss tourist – Baron Rudolf von Reding– went missing. He was at the back of a group and stopped to take photos. They didn’t realise he hadn’t caught up with the group until they reached the boat many hours later. There was only a guide at the front, you see…” And he set off into the jungle.