Beneath the "Welcome to Komodo National Park" sign at the island's dock lies a Komodo dragon. It's 8 feet long and has 2-inch claws, scaly skin the color of mud, and eyes as null as a great white shark's. These, the largest lizards on Earth, are carnivorous: They often eat each other, but they've also devoured children and are suspected to be behind the disappearance of some tourists, too. And I am just a few steps away from one on Komodo Island. It slips its pink forked tongue in and out if its wide-rimmed mouth in a kind of greeting: "Hello. Nice to eat you!"
My stomach lurches. What's to stop this cold-blooded maneater from snapping at my ankle and dragging me into the woods, never to be seen again?
"Don't worry," says the park-ranger guide who steps up to the dock. "This dragon is just waiting for some scraps from the fishermen who anchor here."
I step off our boat and race down the dock past the lizard, following in the steps of my husband, Mike, and the 10 other tourists who have sailed with us to this remote Indonesian island to see the dragons. We don't have to walk far to get more of what we came for. Just steps within the park, we see that the dragons are everywhere. Their humongous bodies sprawl across the path to the bathroom, they linger under the steps of the tourist cabins, they gather in groups by the nature center. I expected to have to travel deep into the island's heart to catch a glimpse of one of these beasts; instead, they're lining up at my feet, preparing themselves, it seems, for an all-you-can-eat buffet.
I dodge their long lizard tails as the park ranger leads us up to a particularly large specimen, which appears to be sleeping. "The dragons may look fat and lazy," says the ranger, "but they can move with lightning speed when they attack. Also notice how their bodies blend perfectly with the ground so their prey won't see them until it's too late."
I begin to think of the dragon as an exotic, primeval, island incarnation of a Grimm's fairy-tale monster. It lies in wait -- looking as slow and unwieldy as a wolf in a grandmother disguise -- and then it swallows little girls whole. But not me, I think. I'll be a modern-day, travel-savvy, kick-ass Little Red Riding Hood who sees the big, bad Komodo dragon coming from a mile away. If attacked, I'll knock out the ferocious lizard with a mighty kung-fu kick.
As if reading my roaming mind, Mike pulls me close. We both know that, in truth, I am horribly clumsy, capable of tripping over my own toes and walking directly into closed doors. On Komodo, if I make one misstep, I'll be dragon dinner.
The ranger tells us that even more dragons live near a watering hole a short hike away. So over the trail and through the woods, to the dragons' lair we go. We walk in a single file past palms and tamarind trees. I try to watch my every step, but I'm distracted by the mystery of the wilderness that surrounds me. What untamed creatures might be lurking just off this path? A yellow-crested cockatoo cries out a warning as it swoops between the trees on angelic white wings.
"Holy mackerel!" screams the guy in front of me -- except with a much harsher expletive. The young college student on his first trip outside the U.S. jumps up and down. I see a snake slither off the trail. The ranger sees it, too. "It's a cobra," he says. One bite could be deadly. The young man hasn't been struck, but he tells us in a shaky voice that he felt the snake's skin against his heel. He is wearing flip-flops, and the timing of his steps miraculously allowed the speedy snake to slide between the base of the sandal and the bottom of his foot. If we had been walking just a little more quickly, the cobra would have crossed my path instead of the kid's. What then?
Anxious to move on from the cobra's territory, we continue hiking and soon reach the watering hole. There, the island's wild horses snort at our arrival. They have tangled manes, scarred coats, and eyes full of fear.
"See the bite marks on that young one?" asks the ranger, pointing to a small, skinny horse. "It leaned down to drink, and a Komodo dragon bit its neck. The bacteria in the dragon's saliva will kill it within a couple weeks. The dragons will stalk it that entire time. Once it dies, all the dragons will feast."
I can't take my eyes off the bite marks as I slowly back away, imagining a cluster of dragons attacking the doomed horse as soon as it falters.
"Jennica!" shouts Mike. "Look down!"
At first I don't see it. Then one slip of a pink forked tongue reveals the camouflaged body of a 10-foot Komodo dragon. It is about two feet away from me, and I have one foot in the air headed in its direction. Terror ripples down my spine.
Suddenly the dragon opens its mouth, revealing its fangs.
If I were the fairy-tale heroine I dream myself to be, I might say, "My, what sharp teeth you have!" Then I'd work my magic, pulverizing the big bad Komodo dragon with my punches.
Instead, I stand silent and frozen.
The dragon flicks its tongue, but I know what he means: "All the better to eat you with, my dear!"
Still, the dragon decides to make no other move. And I slowly, carefully walk back toward Mike.
I'm shaking, but I'm also elated. I have stared at my fate in the form of a gigantic killer lizard and walked away unscathed. I may not have been the heroine of my fairy-tale fantasy, but here on Komodo Island, where the monsters are very real, I'm happy just to live to tell the tale.
Jennica Peterson, who lives in Oakland, California, has also swum with piranhas, wrestled a spider monkey and bathed with elephants.