Dragons


The first animal we went to look for, three years later, was the Komodo dragon lizard. This was an animal, like most of the animals we were going to see, about which I knew very little. What little I did know was hard to like.
They are man-eaters. That is not so bad in itself. Lions and tigers are man-eaters, and though we may be intensely wary of them and treat them with respectful fear we nevertheless have an instinctive admiration for them. We don't actually like to be eaten by them, but we don't resent the very idea. The reason, probably, is that we are mammals and so are they. There's a kind of unreconstructed species prejudice at work: a lion is one of us but a lizard is not. And neither, for that matter is a fish, which is why we have such an unholy terror of sharks.
The Komodo lizards are also big. Very big. There's one on Komodo at the moment which is over twelve feet long and stands about a yard high, which you can't help but feel is entirely the wrong size for a lizard to be, particularly if it's a man-eater and you're about to go and share an island with it.
Though they are man-eaters they don't get to eat man very often, and more generally their diet consists of goats, pigs and deer and such like, but they will only kill these animals if they can't find something that's dead already, because they are, at heart, scavengers. They like their meat bad and smelly. We don't like our meat like that and tend to be leery of things that do. I was definitely leery of these lizards.

Mark had spent part of the intervening three years planning and researching the expeditions we were to make, writing letters, telephoning, but most often telexing to naturalists working in the field in remote parts of the world, organising schedules, letters of introduction and maps. He also arranged all the visas, flights and boats and accomodation, and then had to arrange them all over again when it turned out that I hadn't quite finished the novels yet.
At last they were done. I left my house in the hands of the builders, who claimed they only had three more weeks work to do, and set off to fulfil my one last commitment an author tour of Australia. I'm always very sympathetic when I hear people complaining that all they ever get on television or radio chat shows is authors honking on about their latest book. It does, on the other hand, get us out of the house and spare our families the trial of hearing us honking on about our latest book.
Finally that, too, was over and we could start looking for giant lizards.
We met up in a hotel room in Melbourne and examined our array of expeditionary equipment. "We" were Mark, myself and Gaynor Shutte, a radio producer who was going to be recording our exploits for the BBC. Our equipment was a vast array of cameras, tape recorders, tents, sleeping bags, medical supplies, mosquito coils, unidentifiable things made of canvas and nylon with metal eyelets and plastic hooks, cagoules, boots, penknives, torches and a cricket bat.
None of us would admit to having brought the cricket bat. We couldn't understand what it was doing there. We phoned room service to bring us up some beers and also to take the cricket bat away but they didn't want it. The guy from room service said that if we were really going to look for man-eating lizards maybe the cricket bat would be a handy thing to have.
"If you find you've got a dragon charging towards you at thirty miles an hour snapping its teeth you can always drive it defensively through the covers," he said, deposited the beers and left.
We hid the cricket bat under the bed, opened the beers, and let Mark explain something of what we were in for.
"For centuries," he said, "the Chinese told stories of great scaly man-eating monsters with fiery breath, but they were thought to be nothing more than myths and fanciful imaginings. Old sailors would tell of them, and would write "Here be dragons" on their maps when they saw a land they didn't at all like the look of.
"And then, at the beginning of this century, a pioneering Dutch aviator was attempting to island hop his way along the Indonesian archipelago to Australia when he had engine trouble and had to crash land his plane on the tiny island of Komodo. He survived the crash but his plane didn't.
"He went to search for water. As he was searching he found a strange wide track on the sandy shore, followed the track, and suddenly found himself confronted with something that he, also, didn't at all like the look of. It appeared to be a great scaly man-eating monster, fully ten feet long. What he was looking at was the thing we are going to look for the Komodo dragon lizard."
"Did he survive?" I asked, going straight for the point.
"Yes, he did, though his reputation didn't. He stayed alive for three months, and then was rescued. But when he went home, everyone thought he was mad and nobody believed a word of it."
"So were the Komodo dragons the origin of the Chinese dragon myths?"
"Well, nobody really knows, of course. At least, I don't. But it certainly seems like a possibility. It's a large creature with scales, it's a man-eater, and though it doesn't actually breathe fire, it does have the worst breath of any creature known to man. But there's something else you should know about the island as well."
"What?"
"Have another beer first."
I did.
"There are," said Mark, "more poisonous snakes per square metre of ground on Komodo than on any equivalent area on earth."

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