Discover fantasy in real life in Komodo National Park
WHEN you come face to face with a Komodo dragon, you no longer feel like you're at the top of the food chain.
They may not be the fire-breathing kind, like on Game of Thrones, but dragons really do exist and you can see them for yourself at Indonesia's Komodo National Park.
The UNESCO World Heritage Site is just a short domestic flight from the tourist hub of Bali, but it feels like another world.
The park is made up of the Lesser Sunda Islands - the three larger islands of Komodo, Rinca and Padar as well as 26 smaller ones - in the border region between the provinces of East Nusa Tenggara and West Nusa Tenggara.
Unlike Bali, this region is arid and only receives enough rainfall to be green for one month each year. With scrubby vegetation and sandy soil meeting cobalt blue waters, it feels more like the Mediterranean than the tropics.
Under the water there are vibrant reefs teeming with life, but more about that later.
Komodo dragons were an exotic, mythical-sounding animal I read about growing up, but I didn't think seriously about going to see them until I heard Sir David Attenborough speak in Brisbane five years ago on his A Life on Earth tour.
He recounted his adventure going to film them in the 1950s for Zoo Quest. It was a truly wild place back then and he had to convince a nervous fisherman to drop him off on Komodo Island.
Nowadays, there's no shortage of operators willing to give you passage to Komodo National Park, where coming face to face with these formidable lizards is big business.
After the hustle and bustle of Kuta, the Loh Buaya visitor centre on Rinca Island feels remote and quiet, considering it's one of only a few designated spots to see these animals in their natural habitat.
Even before we are assigned a guide, who carries a large wooden stick as a means of shooing away any overly curious dragons, we see what I estimate to be a two-metre lizard lumbering across a dried floodplain.
They may not be as big or heavily armoured as crocodiles, but Komodo dragons are still an impressive sight.
Even when they're laying flat out like, well, a lizard, there's a sense that they can really move when they want to.
We learn it's the younger individuals who make most of the kills, and that the larger males then muscle their way into get a feed.
The dragons, technically the world's largest species of monitor lizard, do have venomous glands in their lower jaw but it's not believed this is what they rely on to hunt their prey.
Seeing them in the flesh is a bucket list experience. It can be done in a day or an overnight trip from Bali but travelling all the way to Komodo just to see the dragons would be like going to Paris to see the Eiffel Tower but ignoring the Louvre, Notre-Dame and the Arc de Triomphe.
A short but steep hike at Padar Island reveals one of the most stunning views you'll find in Indonesia.
There's not much in the way of plant life here, although there's enough to support a local species of deer - the Komodo dragon's main food source.
It's in the water that you'll find a dazzling array of biodiversity. Most boat operators offer snorkelling, but for the more serious underwater explorer a liveaboard vessel for scuba divers is the best way to Komodo's marinelife.
The region is known for some of the strongest currents in the world, so during many of our dives we drift with the current, rather than fighting it, and our tender follows our bubbles.
The most exhilarating experience was at a dive site called Shotgun, in the narrow channel between Komodo Island and Gililawa Darat. When timed correctly, the water moves so quickly through the channel that you feel like you are flying through the water.
Rocks and coral whiz by and there's barely time to take a few quick shots of a manta ray that has no problem hovering in the current.
Most of our other dives are more relaxed. It's a chance to take in these relatively untouched reefs, which are home to everything from turtles and sharks to cuttlefish and colourful soft corals. Only about 3200 people live in the boundaries of the park and there's been a crackdown on destructive fishing practices.
We certainly don't see the plastic pollution threatening many other areas and even though we see plenty of other dive boats, when we gear up we seem to have every dive site to ourselves.
There's so much more to Komodo than the dragons that bear its name. If you're adventurous enough to go off the beaten path, then you'll be rewarded with a truly wild experience.