Not tourists

0620/23rd August 2022 a murky morning

It’s one of those days when each moment brings another interruption. Including a visit from the State Police.

No need to go into what prompted that, but it’s nice to know the system works.

However, my mind is now more scattered even than usual. So I’ll fall back on the dragons I mentioned.

A news item caught my attention the other day because the name took me all the way back to 1985, the very mid-point of my life.

My thirties. Those were my travelling days that I look back on fondly and somewhat sadly.

Long ago, I had made a sort of mental deal with the Universe: “If I ever get to Tibet, I’ll give up travelling.”

Which is precisely what happened.

Life took a side turn in 1986 and after that incredible journey to Tibet, there would be no more travel adventures for me.

There were several holidays and I even enjoyed myself at times, but those trips were for the benefit of my father who always made me uncomfortable..

Instead of travelling, I took up a long-distance romance, something I have never regretted.

May 3rd, 1985.

Of all the creatures I have ever met or seen pictures of, the Komodo dragon is probably the least endearing, but as a human being, who am I to criticise?

My friend Tim, who seemed to have endless resources, got us a heavily discounted trip on the ship in this photograph. Sadly, on 23rd November 2007, she went to rest forever in the Southern Ocean.

Fortunately, it was not the tragedy is could so easily have turned into. But that is someone else’s story.

This day in 1985, we were very far from the Antarctic.

We had dropped anchor off the Indonesian island of Komodo in the Flores Sea, slightly east of Bali.

Prior to this trip, I’ll admit I had never heard of the Komodo dragons, but the visit was part of our voyage through these amazing islands and I am always keen to see another animal, especially in its wild habitat.

What I did not care for was the fact that a goat or goats had to be sacrificed for our benefit, in order that the dragons would focus on feasting from them, rather than on a bunch of fat tourists.

We went ashore in our rubber boats and were escorted through a village that we noted was on stilts.

Clearly, living in proximity to the dragons, one took certain precautions. Although the villagers were a fishing community. The goats and pigs that roamed the island were left to the dragons and they seemed to share their island in peace.

Tourism had not yet upset this happy existence.

“Oh God. Not more tourists!”

Perhaps she sensed an unwelcome change coming.

We met many, very different people in the islands of Indonesia. They were charming and friendly. Tourism will have affected them all. Some more than others, including the people of Komodo and Rinca Island.

These people, who live adjacent to the Komodo dragons are descended from convicts that had been banished to these barren islands and who later mixed with the Bugis people of Sulawesi.

(Not my photograph)

As always, we were well briefed before leaving the ship.

Komodo dragons can out-run a human being and their bite, if not itself fatal, is likely to result in your demise, so poisonous is their saliva. They can smell fresh blood from a distance of 5 miles.

A full-sized dragon can measure 10 feet and weigh up to 300 pounds. Their scales resemble medieval chain-mail. They are very competitive. Bad tempered.

We did not need to be told to “stay on the path!”

komodo dragons on the beach

At the top of a ravine, our ill-fated (already dead) goat was attached to a rope and suspended from an over-hanging tree.

The dragons threw themselves at it.

Within something like five minutes, the only thing left was the rope. It was quite stunningly awful.

It was not suggested that these animals may have had food deliberately withheld, prior to our visit, in order to provoke the frenzied feeding we witnessed.

As far as we could tell, the animals were free-roaming but we did not see other wildlife, so it is a possibility and when starved any species will fight for food.

In the wild there are about 3,300 Komodo dragons left and they live only in these islands.

Would I have gone out of my way to see such rare creatures? No. Yet I felt tremendously privileged to have had the opportunity.

Our brief visit is unlikely to have disturbed the balance of things, but people like us were beginning to set a trend.

These islands are now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

There have been “concerns” about environmental impact and disruption to the community.

In 2019, there had been plans to close the Island to tourists but as a compromise the number of visitors was restricted.

In my opinion very much a matter of too little, too late.

The recent news spoke of an increase in the tourist tax, from $14.50 to $252, which caused protests from the guides and ferry operators who had already been suffering great losses from Covid restrictions.

The Komodo dragons became a big deal after 1985.


The following photos were taken on 2nd May, 1985 at Savu Island, the day before our Komodo visit.


My days of travel had started when I accompanied my parents to Cambodia in 1956, aged 8. It gave us the opportunity to visit some fascinating places that were within easy reach. Though I was very young, I loved finding myself in strange places. I was intrigued by the many different people we met.

In 1964, when I was sent to live with relatives in America, my wings were clipped. It was six years before I had the chance to travel again. No doubt the yen to travel was what prompted me to seek employment with an airline.

Even with flight benefits, my travelling was not extensive, mostly limited to visiting far flung relatives.

Then for some seven years, I went travelling with Tim who liked going off the beaten path which led us to some very interesting places. (Camping in Sudan).

Mostly, it was the two of us, or sometimes another couple came along. We rarely suffered discomfort, but we avoided tourist hotels. Tim said we were travellers, not tourists. And that seemed fine. Our visits supported a few people in a minor way, without leaving much of an imprint.

We were low profile.

Then Tim established a relationship with a tour company that ran “adventure cruises”. The company was respectful of the environment and their ships were tiny.

We loved those two ships. We got to know many of the personnel and we had so much fun.

But it all began to trouble me. We went to places that had had very limited contact with the outside world.

It was thrilling to meet such people, but I tried putting myself in their place and I asked myself how I would feel if a gang of strange looking, noisy people suddenly turned up in my village, pointing and often laughing, or seeming to look down on us. Taking photographs.


Generally, the passengers we met on those ships were good travellers, who appreciated their great privilege. At most, there were a hundred and shore visits were staggered into smaller groups.

It wasn’t these two small ships that were going to be a bother. It was the larger ships and the bigger, less disciplined tourist groups that I was sure would follow.

It really hit home when we went to the Asmat in West Irian, part of Indonesia. They were the most remote people I ever met. I shall remember their faces for the rest of my life.

It was, I believe, the beginning of the end for those people. Life would never again be the same for them. And no, it would not be better.

They should have been left untouched. As delighted as I was to meet them, I felt I had not had the right.

Within years, much bigger ships would arrive with far greater impact. Tourism became big business, world wide, accelerating beyond restraint. There are few places I would want to visit again, for fear of the changes I would see.

The people of West Irian were ethnically very different to the Indonesians who transmigrated from islands in Indonesia that were becoming over-populated. At best, a very difficult human situation. Much of the dense forest of the island has been decimated.

The lovely gentlemen in these photographs were village elders, wise men.

I wonder if they could foresee our bleak future.

This is not where I intended to go today and I feel I have not expressed myself very well.

9 thoughts on “Not tourists

  1. Whether you intended this journey, or not, it was very enjoyable, and thought provoking. We have always seemed intent on spoiling and, often, destroying what is good in this marvellous world of ours. When I retired from the army, at the age of 45, my wife and I decided that we would never go abroad again but would discover and explore our own country. Having lived in various places overseas it is vastly different from just visiting as a tourist. Over the centuries well-intentioned people have gone to all areas supposing that they could do some good for the local populace. The majority of “help” was actually exploitation for the enrichment of those who pretended to have the best interests of the indigenous people at heart. Progress has done as much harm as it has done good, and we continue to mess things up!

  2. I like Tim’s words of “being travellers and not tourists”…that’s how we like to travel. But yes, it is probably a sad reality that we have an impact on places and people who make their living in far-off places. We have visited a few such places in our own country and one feels almost guilty to enter these people’s environment… that’s when you hope you just leave your footprints there … but ultimately, I don’t think that’s the case. Coming back to those dragons – I don’t think I would like to come face to face with them – they look quite scary!

  3. The Komodo dragons are a wonderful hangover from the time of dinosaurs, and I think they should be left alone to live their lives. That said, your travelling was very unusual and exciting, and far removed from tourism as we know it.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    1. I quite agree. I am happy to know that rare species exist and are described by the scientists that discover them. But they should not be disturbed. Likewise the very few remaining humans that have been untouched. Tourism, in my book, has become a dirty word. And I realise this makes me seem like a hypocrite. Unfortunately many people travel just to be able to brag that they have done so and they complain about food and lack of facilities that satisfy them. I have seen and heard so many of this kind and it always made me cringe. They are not just ugly Americans or Brits or Germans….they come from all over. It’s like Pandora’s box.

  4. Now, it’s not just the tourist dollar that entices many. Indonesians form a substantial part of unskilled and semi-skilled migrant labour in countries near Indonesia, all drawn to the promise of a better life. I guess much has changed to bring them to this point. The Indonesians fiercely love their land; they would not leave it unless they had little choice.

    1. Very true. The crew of those little ships were largely Indonesian. They are away from home for long periods of time. And as you say many take overseas jobs. The big problem they have is over-population.

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