About the book

The journey is the reward

Isn’t it curious how many things we forget over the years, yet certain events imprint themselves in our hearts and minds forever?

From forming deep ties with Indonesia, with nature, and with the Komodo dragons, this personal journey has gifted me with nearly three decades of magical moments.

First setting foot on Komodo Island in 1989, I had no clue that entering this “Jurassic” world of giant reptiles would set the stage and serve as the backdrop for my own remarkable tale of transformation…

A moving meditation

If I close my eyes, I can be transported back to 1993 and that bumpy bus ride from Padang in Sumatra to Jakarta. It was my second backpacking trip to Indonesia and at 36 hours, the longest and most exhausting trip ever.

As I gazed out of the bus window with absolutely nothing to do, I slipped beyond boredom, entering a kind of bus-ride-meditation-mode: maybe some of you know what I mean, especially back in those days without the easy distraction of a mobile phone.

In that lull, I discovered a new space inside of me; a deeper layer that felt peaceful, calm and spacious. And gradually, I realized that nestled in that space, one solitary intention existed: the desire to delve deeper into photography.

Inside looking out

Back in Germany, I was accepted to The Mathildenhoehe Design School in Darmstadt. During my studies, I completed an internship at GEO magazine that was truly inspiring, informative and rewarding. It turned out that for my final thesis the Komodo dragons would bring me back to Indonesia for my first comprehensive photography project.

On previous visits to Komodo National Park, I had actually connected more with the beauty of the island world than with the animals themselves. This time, spending several slowly-lapsing days at different park locations gave rise to an illuminating change in perspective: from that of an “outsider” to one of wholehearted engagement.

I was enthralled. By getting intimately familiar with the animals and their behaviour, my entire experience shifted. Ultimately, this prolonged period in the field soon taught me another life-altering lesson.

For my photography, it was crucial to set aside my idea of how I thought things should be, and instead remain receptive to what nature (and the universe) would graciously offer me.

The path of no resistance

The more I dove into the subject, the more my heart started pounding; the bigger my heart became, the more boundless my enthusiasm.

Most of us know from experience how meeting the right people at just the right time can influence or even completely alter the course of our lives… Now I know that this is also true for animals having met my spirit’s guides…

It was a welcome disruption: a seed was planted, an addiction on the rise. I loved being out in nature so much that just two weeks after graduation, I was once again off to Komodo National Park for more adventures in the wild.

I believe that when we discover where our heart belongs and that which is truly aligned with our innermost desires, there is a feeling of ‘knowing’, a soulful and innate wisdom. For me, it became apparent in the complete absence of doubt or any kind of resistance: I was simply fulfilled by what I was doing.

On the hunt for action

A portfolio full of “portrait” shots seemed strangely subdued for the subject matter – so this time I set out to capture the Komodo dragons in action. Aiming for deeper insight into their fascinating lives, my patience was ultimately rewarded with some of the most incredible encounters in the wild.

Situations like the buffalo hunt, the discovery of the dead deer and the interaction with the baby dragon further fuelled my enthusiasm for these eccentric outliers of the reptile family.

Fully captivated by Indonesia’s nature, my life’s path followed suit. Magazine publications and a post-graduate scholarship funded my returns to the archipelago where I expanded my Komodo portfolio to – what at the time – was my heart’s fullest content.

But venturing beyond Komodo to different islands and into other national parks meant entering new territories and with that came new challenges. What followed were uneasy reflections compelling me to make definitive decisions about who and what I wanted to be.

Inevitable confrontations

Wherever I went – on Java, Borneo or Sulawesi – I was tested. Whereas before my focus was mostly on capturing the beauty of places, I was now exposed to the disturbing evidence of environmental threats, the disappearance of habitats, deforestation and pollution.

At first, my reaction was an abstract accusation, complaining about, “How could nobody be doing anything about this?”. Then a somewhat impersonal imperative stating, “Well, somebody definitely needs to do something about this.” In the end, I asked myself, “What am I going to do about this?”

A quote came to my mind: “Who, if not we? When, if not now?”

A new mission

Nevermind that I had no background in grassroot development activities – once the decision was made to be a part of the change, things began to move quickly.

Through a non-profit initiative that friends and I had founded in Germany, we worked on setting up a solid waste management project in the south-west of the island of Java, home to the last Javan rhinos. I quickly learned enough to coordinate the set-up of a waste pick-up system and composting site. And the larger the project grew, the more my focus shifted away from pure photography to voluntary NGO work.

After the devastating earthquake and tsunami hit the north of Sumatra in 2004, people with community development experience were in high demand. An opportunity arose with a German government organisation and I gradually transitioned into the life of a freelance consultant for photography, graphic design and solid waste management. As I became more and more involved in the professional life of development aid work, Komodo and its enchanting allure slipped further and further to the back of my mind.

Dragon dreams

I had established a comfortable lifestyle but some days sitting in my office in Banda Aceh feelings of nostalgia would come in waves. I remember it becoming increasingly harder to ignore the lure of being out there in nature surrounded by and living life among the ‘wild things’.

Despite having built a house in Labuan Bajo, the gateway to Komodo, I wasn’t really spending any time there. Only occasionally, when friends were visiting or when my longing for nature became too pressing, did I return to the park for a daytrip, or every so often, spend a few nights.

In the end it was a dream about the dragons that provoked me to seriously consider creating a Komodo book. It was one of many, but that particular dream was so intense that it made me surrender to the strong ties I had built with these fascinating animals. It seemed preordained and was my destiny – it was truly the “call of the wild”.

Plot, plan, publish... an author is born

I dug out my travel diaries and compiled what I considered the most remarkable episodes. I added the dragon attack stories, looked into some of the latest scientific research about the giant reptiles and slowly put the pieces into some sort of structure.

Writing down the stories was actually fun. I relived many of the situations that helped form my deep connection with Indonesia, but this book wouldn’t be complete without mentioning my life’s other loves – some found, then lost, and others hard-won.

Year over year, the project gradually evolved until July 2018 when the book’s acceptance to the Ubud Readers and Writers Festival greatly accelerated the push to final production. What lies between the pages transcends a purely biological look at the dragons’ life – it is a testament to how immersion in such a comprehensive experience goes far beyond the physical challenges and lessons learned.

In essence, such an encompassing endeavor is an opportunity to conscientiously curate our own intimately rewarding journey of a lifetime.

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Distributed by

Volker Kess, Germany

©2020 The Komodo Book. Volker Kess Photography

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