By Jillian Kramer
August 13, 2018
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We board the vessel Atika Putri, a lanky wooden boat painted bright turquoise to match the sea, with two stiff benches and a hole in the ground where a toilet should be — an indignity its six passengers are willing to endure for the three-and-a-half-hour ride through choppy waters to Komodo National Park, where real life dinosaurs — OK, dragons — still live.

We’ve bartered down to the bargain price of 450,000 Rupiah ($32) to take the trek from Labuan Bajo, Flores, to a 150-square-mile enclave, Komodo Island, where just part of Komodo National Park lays claim. The park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is home to the largest living lizard in the world, the Komodo dragon, a beast that can grow 10 feet long and take down a deer.

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They are today’s dinosaur, surviving some 4 million years on Earth, according to fossils.

Our boat pulls beside a cement pier. Without a ladder, we’re left to leap from the boat’s tip to the top of the walkway, a tough stretch for small legs, to make it to this land of dragons.

Here, a 250,000-Rupiah fee rents us a park ranger, who walks us along a dusty dirt path lined with bushes and palms and towering tamarind trees. As we amble along, we spot a deer, several chickens, birds, and two pot-bellied pigs before we reach our first dragon, a female our ranger estimates is some six feet long. “She’ll live to be 50 years old,” he says.

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I ask the ranger how he knows this dragon is a female. “Because she is so small,” the ranger replies — and we laugh because we know she is almost as long as the shortest NBA player.

Komodo dragons can run at up to 20 miles per hour, but that doesn’t mean they're apt to go for a jog. As the ranger explains, this dragon often lies still for hours as it waits for its prey to approach. Hearing this, I step a few feet farther away from the reach of the dragon’s finger-long claws, which she uses to slice animals as big as adult water buffalo.

Related: Three Dragons, One Unicorn: Four Places That Claim to Hold the Remains of Fantasy Creatures

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I study her hands. With her palms-up, they look like a human’s — a human who’s gone approximately 17 years without clipping her nails or using running water and a bar of soap.

After 10 more minutes along the trail, we spot a baby who, our ranger says, will live in trees until it’s five years old. Then, it will be big enough to hunt the deer and pigs of the island. Until then, he says, the dragon will survive on the insects and small reptiles in the branches.

At the end of the trail, we mistake a male dragon for a tree root, a lizard lazing with his hind legs splayed out in the exact way a dog lays in the grass. The dragon opens one eye to take in his audience, then shuts it to resume his nap. We take the opportunity to crouch behind it as the ranger instructs us to stretch out our hands, just so — an illusion so that in a photo, it will appear as if we’ve pet the animal, when in reality, we’re still several feet from its tail.

Another dragon emerges from beneath a stilted building as we end our walk. As it lumbers along, its body curves in an “S” shape and its tongue, thin and forked like a snake’s, darts in and out.

We’re lucky, the ranger says, to have seen so many dragons on our trek. (We are here in June, which is mating season for these reptiles.) The land of dragons did not disappoint. One man in our group buys a T-shirt from a vendor beneath a tent near the pier. But our memento will always be the photo of us touching a real-life dinosaur... OK, a dragon.

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