Jakarta - “Wendy, why don’t you tiptoe round the back of this wide - awake, nine-and-a-half-stone, eight-foot Komodo dragon and lift up his tail”, my guide Usman suggested, though not in those exact words.
I’ll stand way, way back here and take a photo.
Squatting at what I believed to be the least offensive end of one of the world s most dangerous animals, I waited while Usman steadied himself, camera pointed in my direction, then reached for the giant lizard’s rump.
That was when I recalled a conversation the previous day during which we’d been told what sneaky blighters Komodos were, pretending to ignore their prey while all the while getting ready to pounce...
The reason most tourists head to this part of the world is to visit Bali, the Indonesian island beloved of backpackers and hippy-types.
Well-off paradise seekers can take their pick of sublime resorts such as Ubud Hanging Gardens, the Four Seasons at Jimbaran Bay, Conrad Bali, the Komaneka at Bisma and The Oberoi, Lombok.
All visitors will probably indulge in a bit of sightseeing, there are some awesome Buddhist and Hindu temples, with monkeys and without - or perhaps a bit of soul-searching with the island’s many spiritual teachers and healers.
There’s shopping - Ubud’s upscale craft and jewellery boutiques are particularly popular - sunbathing and a lot of eating to be done, too. Indonesian cuisine is delicious, especially yummy roast babi guling (baby pig).
For the young, active and sociable, there are sports and bars and nightclubs and all that malarkey.
And now you can also choose to nip across to some neighbouring islands for a couple of days, specifically to see an iconic Indonesian animal with a fearsome reputation.
Found on the islands of Rinca, Flores, Gili Motang, Padar and, of course, Komodo, the Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis), also known as the Komodo monitor, is the largest living species of lizard, reaching up to 10ft long.
As a result of their size, and absence of rival carnivores, these lizards dominate the ecosystems in which they live. No kidding.
They scoff any old carrion lying about, which they may be able to detect from as much as six miles away. They also eat deer, ganging up on them to create an ambush, as well as other Komodos - youngsters must spend their early days up a tree as otherwise even their own mummy dragons might kill and consume them.
If they survive, they can live for up to 30 years. Komodos can run at 12mph when required, dive from a respectable height, climb trees, knock you over with one sweep of their majestic tail, and rip your guts out with their claws.
Should you survive an attack in the first instance, you are nevertheless in grave danger of dying from infection. Komodo dragons are so deadly largely thanks to the flesh-melting killer bacteria with which their gobs are infested.
It is said they will patiently wait for bitten prey to die slowly in this way before eating it. Nice.
New research suggests their bites might be venomous, too. Officially a vulnerable animal in terms of numbers, it is now protected by Indonesian law. There are an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 of them left in the wild, and Komodonational Park was founded in 1980 to protect the lizards on islands, including Komodo and Rinca, both destinations on my trip.
First stop was Rinca, where we had to shell out for assorted passes, camera and video permits and compulsory donations (coughing up for a guide and his tip is of course compulsory). It wasn’t a huge amount, but the time and the number of people it took to process all these scraps of paper was mind-blowing. It was very dull indeed standing around waiting for them to get their act together.
So I was a bit of a grumpy dragon myself by the time our party finally set off . . . and almost immediately halted again at the edge of a settlement of wooden huts, beside which was slumped a sleepy pile of Komodos with all the energy of a clump of deflated tyres.
Why aren’t you taking photos? I was asked. Of what? I replied.
They looked like overfed pets. no, no, they are not fed, the guides protested. I had seen someone throwing things out of the kitchen window. Besides, animals aren’t stupid; they wouldn’t have been hanging around if it wasn’t worth their while.
On a brief tramp through the jungle, we glimpsed a more sprightly lizard darting through the under-growth, but otherwise I was bitterly disappointed.
It was more or less the same procedure on Komodo, although this time we headed straight off into the jungle without the chance to see what was lurking under the huts. It was a nice walk through exotic foliage.
Twenty minutes or so later, though, we were in luck - thank goodness for that: a very fit and handsome dragon, a fine young male with kind eyes and a strong jawline emerged from the shrubbery and let us follow him for a little while.
Then he stood calmly in a clearing, neck stretched, head tilted, showing us his noble profile, while we snapped away.
He seemed deeply unconcerned by our presence, very non-snappy and gentle and not the slightest bit sneaky.
So I did as I was told. Officially, despite my fully licensed guide’s encouragement, you are not supposed to touch the wildlife. do not try this at home.
As I lifted Handsome’s tail, I half expected him to whip round and sink his foul fangs into my arm, but no, not so much as a flinch. Dragon’s tails are very, very heavy, I discovered, their skin thick and dry. In any case, I lived to tell the tale. - Mail on Sunday