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Komodo Pop King

Heard of Komodo? An intriguing and relatively unknown holiday destination for some, but did you also know that this magical part of Indonesia inspired the legend of King Kong? It all started in 1957 with a 26-year old Sir David Attenborough (doesn’t it always?). OK, so it actually started millions of years before via a number of volcanic eruptions pushing land from sea. Attenborough simply put the UNESCO-listed Komodo National Park on the map; its ridiculous beauty kept it there.

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Image credit: Arturo de Frias Marques

The story goes like this: As part of the BBC series Zoo Quest, Attenborough was commissioned to sail the world filming and collecting animals for the London Zoo. He took the long journey to the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). Awkwardly large cameras on hand, Attenborough and team were the first ever to capture on film the famed Komodo Dragon and introduce their scaly heads to the rest of the world. The budding naturalist left Komodo sans reptile and was quite happy about this given the ferocity of the seemingly lazy lizards.

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Image credit: Mats Stafseng Einarsen

Now, some 50 years later and neatly tucked away from the chaotic crowds of Bali, it is still home to 5,700 lizards, sharing the space with a comparatively mere 4,000 people over three large islands and a smattering of small ones.  Jutting islands sprout from the ocean; large handfuls of volcanic masses sprinkled in a mix of green forest and dry savanna. Tiny villages dot the seaside.  Think King Kong, because this is exactly where the inspiration came from. Grumpy dragons with poisonous saliva roam free among the huts. It’s a rugged paradise.

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But let’s get back to the story of King Kong. In the 1920’s, a filmmaker by the name of Merian Cooper read comrade W. Douglas Burden’s book on his expedition to the region. It was Burden that renamed the lizard a dragon; as ‘dragon’ works much better than ‘lizard’ in terms of adventurer street cred. Burden carried two live dragons back to America where they unfortunately died soon after returning home.

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Illustration by Todd Tennant

Meanwhile, Cooper also became obsessed with gorillas. So he started playing around with the film idea of a gorilla embroiled in battle with a komodo dragon. Nifty, right? His 1920’s technological limitations, while at that time cutting edge, saw him splice together footage of both gorilla and lizard in fits of rage, perhaps the inspiration for the ever-terrible 2005 B-grade film Komodo vs Cobra. But this wasn’t working so well so he ditched the lizard in favour of a giant gorilla, and used the same plot as Burden’s expedition to Komodo. And finally, instead of the ape dying unspectacularly in a zoo somewhere (akin to the dragon’s demise in captivity), he made it go on a destructive rampage through New York City. He even threw a love story in for good measure. And presto, King Kong was born!

So Komodo teaches us that beauty in nature always wins. And nature’s link with pop culture means she breeds some pretty mean film and documentary ideas. Come and see for yourself.

If you want to travel to Komodo, a short one and a half hour flight from the island of Bali will take you there. http://www.komodo.travel

Alex Brown is a writer. Based in Perth, Australia. 

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