As it approached, its gloomy form gradually resolved into great serrated heaps of rocks and, behind them, heavy undulating hills. Closer still we could begin to make out the details of the vegetation. There were palm trees, but in meagre numbers. They were stuck sporadically across the brows of the hills, as if the island had spines, or as if someone had chucked little darts into the hills. It reminded me of the illustration from Gulliver's Travels, in which Gulliver has been tethered to the ground by the Lilliputians, and has dozens of tiny Lilliputian spears sticking into him.
The images that the island presented to the imagination were very hard to avoid. The rocky outcrops took on the shape of massive triangular teeth, and the dark and moody grey brown hills undulated like the heavy folds of a lizard's skin. I knew that if I were a mariner in unknown waters, the first thing I would write on my charts at this moment would be "Here be dragons".
But the harder I looked at the island as it crept past our starboard bow, and the harder I tried to filter out the promptings of a suggestible imagination, the more the images nevertheless insisted themselves upon me. The ridge of a hill that stretched in a thick folding shape down into the water, heavily wrinkled round its folds, had the contours of a lizard's leg not in the actual shape, of course, but in the natural interplay of its contours, and in the heavy thickness of its textures.
This was the first time that I had such an impression, but several times during the subsequent trips that we made during this year the same feeling crept up on me: each new type of terrain we encountered in different parts of the world would seem to have a particular palette of colours, textures, shapes and contours which made it characteristically itself; and the forms of life that you would find in that terrain would often seem to be drawn from that same distinctive palette. There are obvious mechanisms we know about to account for some of this, of course: for many creatures camouflage is a survival mechanism, and evolution will select in its favour. But the scale on which these intuited, perhaps half-imagined, correspondences seem to occur is much larger and more general than that.
We are currently beginning to arrive at a lot of new ideas about the way that shapes emerge in nature, and it is not impossible to imagine that as we discover more about fractal geometry, the "strange attractors" which lie at the heart of newly emerging theories of chaos, and the way in which the mathematics of growth and erosion interact, we may discover that these apparent echoes of shape and texture are not entirely fanciful or coincidental. Maybe.
I suggested something along these lines to Mark and he said I was being absurd. Since he was looking at exactly the same landscape as I was, I have to allow that it might all simply have been my imagination, half-baked as it was in the Indonesian sun.
We moored at a long, rickety, wooden jetty that stuck out from the middle of a wide pale beach. At the landward end the jetty was surmounted by an archway, nailed to the top of which was a wooden board which welcomed us to Komodo, and therefore served slightly to diminish our sense of intrepidness.
The moment we passed under the archway there was suddenly a strong smell. You had to go through it to get the smell. Until you'd been through the archway you hadn't arrived and you didn't get the strong, thick, musty, smell of Komodo.
The next blow to our sense of intrepidness was the rather neatly laid out path. This led from the end of the jetty parallel to the shore towards the next and major blow to our sense of intrepidness, which was a visitors' village.
This was a group of fairly ramshackle wooden buildings: an administration centre from which the island (which is a wildlife reserve) is run, a cafeteria terrace, and a small museum. Behind these, ranged around the inside of a steep semi-circular slope were about half a dozen visitors' huts on stilts.
It was about lunchtime, and there were nearly a dozen people sitting in the cafeteria eating noodles and drinking 7-Up; Americans, Dutch, you name it. Where had they come from? How had they got here? What was going on?