Strolling toward a Timor deer with my camera aloft like the typical gormless tourist I hear the words "hati hati," which roughly translates as "watch out" in Bahasa, the most widely spoken of Indonesia's 300 languages. Hakim, the park ranger who I have just met, adds "later, later."
I've sauntered off on my own, sleep deprived and idiotic, without noticing the big bull lizard less than ten feet away, charcoal-hued, pink bifurcated tongue flickering past a pendulous rope of saliva. My own reptile brain offers a shot of adrenaline and vocalises the words "oh shit".
It takes approximately 90 minutes by speedboat to reach Komodo Island from Labuan Bajo on the isle of Flores (recently made famous by the discovery of prehistoric "hobbits" coexisting with giant rats and pint-sized elephants).
As twin 250 horsepower outboard motors hum us across Listerine-bright waters, the approach offers Jurassic Park vibes. The island's russet-sere landscape contorts in unlikely rock formations, its ridges serrate as carious teeth, a few solitary palms clinging to the rock, resembling the trees in The Lorax. It's a saurian landscape, as primordial as the lizards that occupy it.
Baked in the kiln of equatorial heat and restive volcanoes, Komodo is populated by just over 2000 humans and 3000 dragons. While the reptiles are a major draw to the island, I found its remoteness and stillness equally captivating. The cicada drone, heat and sun bewitch, lulling the traveller into a torpor easily exploited by a savvy predator.
The scaly beasts laze around in stealth mode, waiting for their moment to strike. At full sprint, they top out at 13 mph, with mouths harbouring a lethal cocktail of venom and prehistoric bacteria that can fell a water buffalo in three days or a human in just three hours. I'm informed that a bite requires an immediate blood transfusion and then subsequent ones yearly for the rest of the victim's life if he or she is to survive. Luckily, Hakim's in possession of a long wooden stick, which he uses to fend them off.
This is only the fifth day I've been in Indonesia, and the fifth island I've visited of the nation's 17,508. Once you arrive in the archipelago it's easy and relatively cheap to pop from one place to another. Garuda Indonesia – the country's premier airline – has launched a non-stop service from London to Jakarta with a Wonderful Indonesia Travel Pass that can be bolted on to make island-hopping even more accessible and inexpensive.
After landing in the capital we're whisked away to Jogjakarta in central Java, where we tour the sultan's palace and witness our first gamelan orchestra and Golek Ayun-Ayun
The former is a traditional ensemble of primarily percussive music with a warbling singer, xylophones, metallophones, hand drums and bowed flutes. It sounds more in line with Four Tet than folk music.
The latter is a Javanese court dance performed for nobility by a woman in a gold and feather headdress, a tradition patronised by the Jogjakarta Sultanate and practiced and taught in the Suryo Sumirat dance school.
Taken in tandem, on a hot, close day with sunlight spilling over the pavilion tiles, the experience invokes an ineffable eeriness that seems to penetrate to the quick of this ancient culture.
It's roughly a 90-minute drive from Jogjakarta to Borobudur, ascending across broad rivers and rolling hills until the roadside shops peter out and verdant rainforest takes their place. During the evening I decamp at the Plataran Borobudur.
Before settling in I borrow a mountain bike and take a quick ride through the nearby Menoreh Hills. The spine of rock is cloaked in thick teak forest and shrouded in late afternoon mist. A few miles later a golden dome emerges amongst the trees. I cycle in its direction and arrive at a small village of muddy lanes and whitewashed buildings with terracotta tiles. As I make my way toward the mosque at its far end I'm greeted with a salvo of 'halo' and 'As-salamu alaykum'. In Indonesia as with many places, the more off-piste you go, the more interested the people are.
After peddling through heavy showers I return to Plataran and am taken aback by the dimensions of the suite. The bedroom for the night is a detached structure double the size of the average London flat. There's a dining pagoda and infinity pool with views of the ridge recently cycled. I opt for a swim as the call-to-prayer crackles across the landscape, competing with the sound of weighty raindrops crepitating in the poolwater, feeling rather unworthy.
The next morning we rise at 4am to the cacophony of the jungle and board an open double-level transport, dodging wet paddle-like leaves that glom onto the top of the rollcage. Candi Borobudur looms into sight through the gloaming: one of the world's largest Buddhist temples, built in the 8th century. It rises in shortening tiers like a flat-topped pyramid, with 72 stupas along the ridges and one outsized stupa rising from its centre. Built to resemble the lotus flower of nirvana in the Bhagavad-Gita, within each hand-carved chamber is a carved figurine symbolising an event from the Buddha's journey.
Lacking the crowds of Angkor Watt, the sunrise at the Borobudur temple is arguably more dramatic
Lacking the crowds of Angkor Wat, the sunrise at Borobudur is sparsely attended yet arguably more dramatic. From the peak of the temple the central Javan sky progressively lightens in pastel pyrotechnics. Eventually the smoke and ash of Mt Merapi become apparent on the horizon. In the basin below a misty congregation of farm plots and paddy fields brightens into view. A yolky yellow sun edges above the horizon – half creepy, half comic. Uninvited, it puts me in mind of Donald Trump's quiff.
A quick restorative kip would have been useful, but we have a couple flights to catch, stopping off at Nusa Dua in Bali for an overnight before heading onwards to Labuan Bajo, gateway to the Komodo Islands. Popular amongst adventurers, there are an abundance of diving companies operating out of the town but the droves of tourists thronging Bali are absent; a welcome change.
I board a van and drive out of town along an unpaved road - a recent hard rain has stripped out ribbons of it. The vehicle teeters over uneven terrain. Looking down over the drive's edge you can see where white limestone sarsens have tumbled into a thicket of eucalyptus, luminous amongst the undergrowth. A few more hairpin turns and we reach Atlantis on the Rock, another hotel operated by Plataran, where we whet our appetites by kayaking across the serene bay to Monkey Island, chiefly populated by crab-eating macaques.
Dinner is lime-marinated grouper served in a sauce of galangal, ginger and turmeric. Chef Berta informs me that the fish are purchased live from local fishermen. Squinting against the sunset, she points out the two-masted pinisi boats that they use to ply their trade. Lubricated with a couple of Bintang beers and with the road obscured in darkness, white knuckles make no appearance on the ride back.
After my misadventure with the big lizard and a quick flight back to Bali, I'm jarred by the juxtaposition of walking through the fashionable district of Seminyak on a Friday evening. My hotel is Katamama, located adjacent to and sharing the same ownership as Potato Head, the island's most famous nightclub. Watching lissom, attractive Westerners knock back classic Italian cocktails on a steamy evening, you could forget for a moment where you are.
Still, it provides a good setting to absorb the kaleidoscope of moments comprising this week in the archipelago. With only five of 17,508 islands visited, it's apparent that Indonesia is a country that you can never experience in a complete sense, which makes it all the more alluring for repeat excursions. As I pack for the flight home I don't have the feeling of wistfulness that often attends the end of a visit. Likely because I have a return trip scheduled in six months.