Outside the administration hut was a wooden sign with regulations all over it, such as "Report To National Park office", "Travel outside visitor's centre only with guards", "Wear pants and shoes", and "Watch for snakes".
Lying on the ground underneath this was a small stuffed dragon. I say small, because it was only about four feet long. It had been modelled in completely spreadeagled posture, lying flat on the ground with its forelimbs stretched out in front and its back limbs lying alongside its long tapering tail. I was a little startled to see it for a moment, but then went up to have a look at it.
It opened its eyes and had a look at me.
I rocketed backwards with a yell of astonishment, which provoked barks of derisive laughter from the terrace.
"It's just a dragon," called out an American girl.
I went over.
"Have you all been here long?" I asked.
"Oh, hours," she said. "We came over on the ferry from Labuan Bajo. Done the dragons. Bored with them. The food's terrible."
"What ferry?" I asked.
"Comes over most days."
"Oh. Oh, I see. From Labuan Bajo?"
"You have to go and sign the visitors" book in the office," she said, pointing at it.
Rather ruffled, I went and joined Mark and Gaynor.
"This isn't at all what I expected," said Mark, standing there in the middle of our pile of intrepid baggage, holding the four chickens. "Did we need to bring these?" he asked Kiri.
Kiri said that it was always a good idea to bring chickens for the kitchen. Otherwise we'd just have to eat fish and noodles.
"I think I prefer fish," said Gaynor.
Kiri explained that she was wrong and that she preferred chicken to fish. Westerners, he explained, preferred chicken. It was well known. Fish was only cheap food for peasants. We would be eating chicken which was sexy and which we preferred.
He took the chickens, which were tethered together with a long piece of string, put them down by our baggage and ushered us up the steps to the park office, where one of the park guards gave us forms and a pencil. Just as we were starting to fill them in, giving details of our passport numbers, date, country and town of birth and so on, there was a sudden commotion outside.
At first we paid it no mind, wrestling as we were to remember our mothers' maiden names, and trying to work out who to elect as next of kin, but the racket outside increased, and we suddenly realised that it was the sound of distressed chickens. Our chickens.
We rushed outside. The stuffed dragon was attacking our chickens. It had one of them in its mouth and was shaking it, but as soon as it saw us and others closing in on him, it scurried rapidly round the corner of the building and off across the clearing behind in a cloud of dust, dragging the other distraught chickens tumbling along in the dust behind it, still tethered together with the string and screeching.
After the dragon had put about thirty yards between it and us it paused, and with a vicious jerk of its head bit through the string, releasing the other three chickens which scrambled off towards the trees, shrieking and screaming and running in ever decreasing circles as park guards careered after them trying to round them up. The dragon, relieved of its excess chickens, galloped off into thick undergrowth.
With a lot of "after you", "no, after you", we ran carefully towards where it had disappeared and arrived breathless and a little nervous. We peered in.
The undergrowth covered a large bank, and the dragon had crawled up the bank and stopped. The thick vegetation prevented us getting closer than a yard to the thing, but we weren't trying terribly hard.
It lay there quite still. Protruding from between its jaws was the back end of the chicken, its scrawny legs quietly working the air. The dragon lizard watched us unconcernedly with the one eye that was turned towards us, a round, dark brown eye.
There is something profoundly disturbing about watching an eye that is watching you, particularly when the eye that is watching you is almost the same size as your eye, and the thing it is watching you out of is a lizard. The lizard's blink was also disturbing. It wasn't the normal rapid reflex movement that you expect from a lizard, but a slow considered blink which made you feel that it was thinking about what it was doing.
The back end of the chicken struggled feebly for a moment, and the dragon chomped its jaw a little to let the chicken's struggles push it further down its throat. This happened a couple more times, until there was only one scrawny chicken foot still sticking ridiculously out of the creature's mouth. Otherwise it did not move. It simply watched us. In the end it was us that slunk away, trembling with an inexplicable cold horror.
Why? we wondered as we sat in the terrace cafeteria and tried to calm ourselves with 7-Up. The three of us were sitting ashen faced as if we had just witnessed a foul and malignant murder. At least if we had been watching a murder the murderer wouldn't have been looking us impassively in the eye as he did it. Maybe it was the feeling of cold unflinching arrogance that so disturbed us. But whatever malign emotions we tried to pin on to the lizard, we knew that they weren't the lizard's emotions at all, only ours. The lizard was simply going about its lizardly business in a simple, straightforward lizardly way. It didn't know anything about the horror, the guilt, the shame, the ugliness that we, uniquely guilty and ashamed animals, were trying to foist on it. So we got it all straight back at us, as if reflected in the mirror of its single unwavering and disinterested eye.
Subdued with the thought that we had somehow been horrified by our own reflection, we sat quietly and waited for lunch.