Meeting modern dragons By Carol...

A MEMORABLE PLACE

March 24, 2002|By Special to the Sun

A MEMORABLE PLACE

Meeting modern dragons

By Carol Foutz Stephens

SPECIAL TO THE SUN

To see Komodo dragons in their natural habitat, you need to visit Indonesia's Komodo Island.

It's not an easy trip because commercial airlines don't fly to Komodo. So my husband and I took a plane from Jakarta to the neighboring island of Sumbawa, where we and nine other people met a boat.

Our wooden vessel, a 100-foot schooner, was modeled after ships from the days of the spice trade. As we set sail that night, I developed a new respect for the mariners of old. The sea was so rough that everyone retired early rather than watch the stars above deck. In our cabin below, the teakwood beams moaned and creaked all night from the waves that knocked incessantly against the hull.

The next morning, we rose in time to be welcomed by an enchanting green gateway of lush, hilly islands sparkling on the horizon. An hour later, we stood at the entrance to Komodo National Park in search of dragons.

Surprisingly, the park rangers do not carry guns. The best way to thwart an attack from a Komodo dragon, we learned, is to strike its Achilles' heel -- its nose. Our rangers were armed only with two-prong walking sticks that when pressed on this delicate area, in theory, should send a dragon running.

Possessing a powerful tail, enormous claws and serrated teeth, the dragon is covered with an impenetrable hide everywhere but its nose. Looking utterly prehistoric, these monitor lizards have poisonous saliva, and their modus operandi is to bite their prey and then wait for it to die.

Seeing the world's largest lizard (some are 10 feet long and weigh more than 300 pounds) in the wild with just a two-prong stick for protection is disconcerting. Fortunately, our group probably did not look like an easy take-away dinner. Still, the dragons have killed local residents.

Generally, park visitors are lucky to come across one Komodo dragon, and we saw five. Two dragons, looking just like rocks with their brownish-gray hides, were taking naps and were only a few feet from us.

Later, near an old feeding station, two more creatures lumbered by. But my favorite moment was when we spotted our last dragon. Younger than the rest, it was only 50 feet away when it crossed our path. Catching our scent, the Komodo raised itself up on its hind legs, eyeing us curiously as it cocked its magnificent head to assess the danger we presented. It might have stayed longer but for the frantic clicking of 11 cameras.

Carol Foutz Stephens lives in Jakarta, Indonesia.

MY BEST SHOT

Desert dawn

By Michael Stanley Cole, Baltimore

During a trip to India last year, I went to the Pushkar Camel Fair. All the tribes of Rajasthan gather once a year to trade camels and supplies. One morning, before the desert sun came up, I trekked into the sands to catch this image of a herder and his camels coming to camp.

READERS RECOMMEND

Lisse, Holland

Maggie Sydnor, Towson

"It's April in the town of Lisse, and the fields are ripe with hyacinths, daffodils and tulips. Everywhere you look, the fields are bursting with acres of springtime bulbs, from crocuses to jonquils. The air is perfumed with their fragrance. It is a sight to satisfy the soul of any gardening enthusiast."

New Zealand

Madeleine and Vinnie Niedzwiecki, Bel Air

"The Franz Josef Glacier is on the south island of New Zealand. In the summer the glacier's valley can reach temperatures of 85 degrees. Tourists get an exhilarating -- and hair-raising -- experience as they climb the glacier. Our group began the steep ascent using steps chopped out of the ice by guides. The steps have to be redone several times a day."

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