Travelblog#19: Mount Kelimutu, Maumere & Wodong – Flores, Indonesia

20th-24th October, 2014

In the early hours of the morning we were driven up to the summit of Mount Kelimutu to catch the sun rising over the rim of one of Indonesia’s most prestigious volcanoes.

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We ended up staying there for four hours, and I spent much of that time sat near the edge of one of the craters with a book, occasionally staring down at the three volcanic lakes. Each one was a different colour and rumour has it the shades often change. On the day that we were there they were blue, turquoise and black.

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It was by far the most impressive sight we had seen so far in Indonesia. As the sun rose higher into the sky the lakes started to glow from the reflected light and we saw some peculiar, almost psychedelic, streaks of yellow in one of them. We could have stayed there all day if it wasn’t for the fact that there wasn’t any food up there and we began to get hungry.

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We strolled down the mountain at a steady and relaxed pace, enjoying the mountain views and passing through a few villages along the way. We actually got a bit lost. It wasn’t until late that afternoon till we found our way back to Moni (the town we were staying in).

When we walked up the driveway of our guest house we were pleasantly surprised to find that Gilles and Bertrand had just arrived and, by yet another fortunate coincidence, checked into rooms which neighboured ours. It wasn’t that surprising, really; this must have been the fifth or sixth time we had crossed paths with the two French bikers, and they were starting to feel like old friends.

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I hopped onto the back Gilles’s bike and we went for a quick trip to a local waterfall which was, thanks to the fact that it is partially fed by a hot spring, lukewarm and great for swimming.

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After that we went to a restaurant which had a decked seating area with great views of the highlands, and Roy and Kate joined us. We drank arak: a locally made palm-based alcohol – the natives seemed to like it, so we thought we would give it a try. It was nice. A little bit too nice, perhaps. By the time Roy and I had finished a bottle of it each it was well into the dark hours, he had his guitar out, and I was singing (or attempting to, at least).

Roy, Kate and I got on a bus heading east the next morning, but before we left we told Gilles where he and Bertrand could expect to find us later that day once they had caught up on their bikes. We were on our way to Wodong – a beach on the northern coast – but first we had to make a quick stop in Maumere to book tickets for a ferry we were intending to catch later that week.

We got into a spot of trouble on our way out of Maumere. A group of bemo drivers didn’t like the fact that we weren’t gullible enough to fall for their hiked-up prices, so they followed us around and intimidated all the other drivers we tried to approach. When we did finally manage to escape them and get a ride out of town, our driver was forced to pull to a stop by a car which had been parked in the middle of the road.

And then dozens of men crowded around us.

They were clearly trying to make both us and our driver feel threatened. Our driver got into a shouting match with them which we didn’t understand because it was all in Indonesian. It was clear though, that they were trying to convince our driver to make us get out of the bemo. Probably so that the three of us would be trapped in the middle of nowhere and be forced to pay for more expensive rides with them.

One of them stepped into the vehicle. I could tell by his calm and self-assured, but yet somehow intimidating bearing, that he was the “leader” of this gang. And probably a psychopath, too. Leaders of these mafia-like cultures usually are, and there was something about him… his eyes were cold – there was nothing behind them.

“Hello,” he said, rubbing his hands together. “Where are you going?”

I think we all knew that we had just entered a situation which we were going to have to tread our way out of very carefully. None of us said anything, at first. Who the fuck do you think you are? I was thinking, but I didn’t let out any of my anger because I knew that this was not the sort of person who would take being shouted at lightly. One does not stay leader of a rabble like this for long, if they lose face by letting others get away with standing up to them.

Eventually we just simply pointed to the road ahead, and then to our driver, questioningly. I think Roy mumbled something, but I can’t remember what it was – only that it was calmly assertive. We then turned away, breaking eye contact and making it clear that we were not interested in getting out of the vehicle or conversing with him.

In the end our driver had to bribe them before they would let us past. And he drove away very fast.

It is not very often that I feel unsafe while travelling around Asia, but that was definitely one of them.

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Despite all the hassle we went through to reach there, Wodong was a very nice place. The sea was calm, the beach was sandy, and there were just a scattering of small villages nearby, so it was quiet. It was also low season, so we managed to haggle for a pretty good price for one of the larger bungalows.

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And this was the view from our balcony:

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Gilles turned up later that afternoon and, by virtue of being on a bike, managed to get past the bemo-mafia without any hassle. Bertrand didn’t catch up with us till the next morning though because he drank little bit too much arak the night before. When the five of us were reunited the next day we arranged to be taken out on a boat trip with one of the local fishermen.

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We were taken to Babi Island, where we put on our snorkels and explored an ocean wall which had lots of coral and fish, and then to another island which had a stunning white sand beach.

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Apart from that, the rest of our time in Wodong was spent playing games of chess, reading books, drinking the occasional beer, taking the odd dip in the sea, and getting to know our new friends better.

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After four days in Wodong, we eventually had to part ways though: Roy, Kate and I had a boat to Makassar we needed to catch, Gilles was heading to Timor, and Bertrand was going to stay in Wodong for one more night before continuing further east. As a parting gift, Gilles taught me how to drive a motorbike with manual gears – a skill I thought might come useful sometime in the future (until then I had only dared to drive automatics).

Our next destination will be Sulawesi, the land of exotic wildlife and the Tana Toraja tribes, where the next chapter of our adventures will begin.

For more photos, please go to my Flickr account, here.

Travelblog#18: Lubuanbajo, Ruteng & Bajawa – Flores, Indonesia

12th-19th October, 2014

At the end of our four day journey at sea we were dropped off Labuanbajo, a charming little port town on the west coast of Flores.

Not long after stepping out onto the streets I bumped into a familiar face; Gilles, a French guy who was staying in the bungalow neighbouring ours when we were in Gili Trawangan a week before. He had a new friend with him; Bertrand – another French biker he met along the road – and the five of us went for a beer at a restaurant which had a great sunset view.

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We took a day to get acquainted to being on dry land again and rediscover forgotten luxuries such as fresh water showers and wifi. The three of us still felt a bit like we were still swaying for our first few hours we were off the boat – I believe they call it “land sickness”.

During our journey at sea we had snorkelled around some spots around Komodo Island and Roy and I were so impressed with what we saw then that we ended up returning there with tanks of air strapped to our backs for some scuba diving. Gilles and Bertrand joined us.

“Manta Point” was definitely the highlight of the three spots we were taken down under. It is a cleaning station for manta rays; where the creatures go to let other little fishes nibble them clean. The currents were very strong so it was classed as a “drift dive” – it was very fast-paced and exhilarating.

Note: Unfortunately, I do not have a dive camera. This is just a photo of a manta ray I lifted from the internet for illustration purposes only.

Note: Unfortunately, I do not have a dive camera. This is just a photo of a manta ray I lifted from the internet for illustration purposes only.

I also saw four bamboo sharks, a grey tip shark, a white tip shark, dozens of parrot fish, lion fish and many other species, as well as lots of turtles, some exotic-looking crabs, and forests of beautifully preserved coral. Komodo Island has some of the best marine life I have ever seen.

The next day we hopped onto a bus and began to make our way east. The locals became nicer and atmosphere began to change, like it always does when you get away further away from the tourist trail.

Ruteng was our first stop and it was a predominantly catholic mountain town. We were a bit confused at first because the place seemed to be swarming with an implausibly high population of school children who all had biblical names like Lazarus, Paul, and John. They kept stopping us to ask random questions such as; “where are you from”, “where are you going”, and “how many brothers and sisters do you have”, and we eventually found out it was because many of them were studying tourism and their teachers were encouraging them to speak to foreigners so they could practice their English.

We also eventually found out why there were so many of them: most of them are actually from surrounding villages and were sent to live in boarding houses in Ruteng to get an education.

On our first morning in Ruteng we went for a little trip to a nearby village so we could see the Spiderweb Terraces.

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We originally planned on venturing out on a trek and overnighting at a village called Wae Raebo we had heard good things about, but a quick search online quickly put us off that idea. Wae Raebo has already been institutionalised and formally converted into a “destination” by some bigwigs in Java, who, by aiding the villagers in setting the place up for tourism, now insist that all visitors must pay 250,000 rupiah for the privilege of sleeping under a blanket on the floor.

It wasn’t just the money that put me off – I have paid much larger sums in the past for things I have wanted to do – it was more that I doubted how authentic an experience like that would be. The three of us eventually agreed to give it a miss.

It was Kate who ended up finding an alternative for us: she got talking to one of the local schoolboys who said that he would give us a free tour of his village if we liked, because he was aspiring to be a guide one day and wanted some experience. It seemed like a good opportunity to catch a glimpse of rural life in Flores so we accepted his kind offer and chartered a bemo. Just as we were about to leave two motorcycles pulled up outside our hotel – it was Gilles and Bertrand.

“Hello again! Where you going?”

“Some kid is taking us to his village. You want to come?”

“Sure.”

They quickly dropped their bags off at the hotel and a few minutes later the five of us – with our guide, Patrick – were on our way.

Patrick was notably nervous and didn’t quite know what he was doing, but he was young and definitely had enthusiasm so we were patient with him. He ended up taking us on some crazy climb down the mountain to see a “cave” which didn’t quite live up to our expectations, but the village was nice and the people were very friendly. They were obviously not used to seeing foreigners there because we ended up with a whole entourage of children following us.

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Patrick also took us to see their church which had a rather interesting interpretation of Jesus.

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When I asked about it, he simply referred to it as, “Jesus with strength of bull”, but I am guessing that his tribe may have once had some kind of bull-like deity before they converted to Catholicism, which they have now forgotten.

When we gave Patrick feedback at the end of the tour we told him that his village was interesting, so he didn’t need to rely upon gimmicks like wild climbs up and down the mountain for people to have a positive experience there. We also tipped him with some money and wished him luck on his future endeavours.

Our next destination was Bajawa, and the journey there was full of twists and turns as we were treated to sights of Flores’ volcanoes and rice terraces from the windows of the bus. Bajawa itself was a quaint little town nestled between forested mountains. It had a cool climate and was a great base from which to explore nearby Ngada villages.

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Bena was the first village we visited and, despite the fact that fronts of many of the houses are now souvenir stalls selling ikat, it is still fairly traditional and picturesque with its thatched houses and megalithic structures.

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There was also a view point just behind one of their shrines which had wonderful views of the surrounding valley.

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We tried to hike from there to a village called Tolelela, but the initial sign we saw at the turnoff might as well have said, “Ha ha. Good Luck!”, as the rest of the trail was not marked and we got lost for a couple of hours. We did see some stunning views along the way though.

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On our way back to Bajawa we called in at a couple of other villages. They were not as visually impressive as Bena but they were a bit less touristy so we managed to meet some locals who weren’t trying to sell us something, which always makes for a slightly warmer experience.

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Go to my Flickr account if you would like to see more photos!

Travelblog#17: Boat from Lombok to Komodo Island – Indonesia

9th-12th October, 2014

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After five days spent relaxing on the beach and snorkelling with turtles on Gili Trawangan it was time for us to move on, so we signed up for “Komodo Adventure”; a four day boat cruise across the Flores Sea which would take us past Sumbawa and stop at many islands along the way, including Komodo and Rinca, where we would be able to see the dragons.

We were now three: Roy and I had been joined by his sister, Kate, who would be accompanying us for the rest of our journey through Indonesia.

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At around lunchtime we reached Labuan Lombok harbour and caught our first glimpse of the boat which would be our home for the next four days.

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We also started to get acquainted with our other companions for the journey; two French girls, an American, seven Dutch, and five locals.

After the crew had safely stowed our backpacks in the cargo hold underneath the deck we swiftly set sail, leaving Lombok behind and heading east. Within a few minutes we were at sea and we could see the mountains of Sumbawa on the horizon.

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Some of the passengers felt a bit seasick for the first few hours. The tide was particularly choppy that afternoon but I also think it was because they were just getting used to life aboard. By the time we reached Gili Bola, where the boat anchored just after sundown, most of us were feeling well enough to eat supper.

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We slept upon thin mattresses on the deck and were each given a pillow and blanket. It wasn’t the most comfortable conditions I have ever lived in, but what can I say? There were twenty three of us on a relatively small boat. The sea breeze was quite pleasant, the sky was starry, and the moon, when it first appeared at the horizon, was red.

In the early hours the engine ignited, bringing a swift end to my brief slumber. The sea was particularly rough for the rest of the night; it swung the boat back and forth, side to side, and water kept sloshing up onto the deck.

We arrived at Moyo Island the next morning, feeling very tired. After a quick breakfast we were told we were going to have to swim to the shore. Some people grumbled over this, but jumping into the water was exactly the kind of wakeup call that I needed.

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Our guide took us on a short walk through the jungle to reach a small waterfall, which we climbed.

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And at the top there was a rather nice pool to swim in.

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Our second stop that day was at Satonda Island, which had both fantastic snorkelling with beautiful coral, and an inner sulphurous lake which was just a short walk away from the beach.

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That evening we witnessed our first active Indonesian volcano; Gunung Tambora, which had a bright red lava flow we could see all the way from our boat at sea.

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I laid back on the bow-deck and watched the stars for a while, feeling very contented. The Milky Way was very visible that night, and the sea was much calmer. Sleep was less challenging.

By the third morning we had, technically, reached Komodo National Park; the boundaries of the protected area actually includes a whole archipelago and a marine area, as well as the three islands that the dragons happen to live on. Before we were taken to see the dragons we first made a quick stop at Laba Island, where we climbed a mountain for some stunning panoramic views.

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And we were also taken for snorkelling around Pink Beach, which was teeming with fish and had beautiful coral.

Then, after lunch, we were finally taken to the Komodo Island’s interior.

It took four rangers, in all, to escort us, and all of them were carrying thick, pronged sticks. They were surprisingly light-hearted and chatty, despite their slightly precarious job, but behind this jovial demeanour they were actually very wary, and their keen eyes were always quick to spot any dragons lurking nearby.

Only five minutes into our walk we saw our first dragon. It was hiding beneath some of the undergrowth – probably hoping to surprise one of the numerous Javan deer which prance around the island.

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The rangers rushed over to show it to us as soon as one of them spotted it, and – while carefully placing the prongs of their spears between the creatures tail to stop it from lashing out – let some of us get close enough to have photos like this taken with it.

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We spotted about ten that day, in all. Although half of that number were ones which just happened to be hanging around outside the kitchens near the headquarters, lured there by the scent of the food. I am not quite sure how “wild” that particular sighting was.

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That night I slept very well. I didn’t even notice the engine starting up when the boat began sailing again, so maybe I was just getting used to it. I woke the next morning and looked outside to see that we were surrounded by a mangrove forest.

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We were at Rinca Island; Komodo Island’s twin, home to the same species of giant lizards. We were taken on another trek and, once again, escorted by several rangers. We saw more dragons that day than we did on Komodo.

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We even came across a group of them busily gnawing away at the last remains of a very smelly buffalo carcass. It was a sight we were, apparently, quite lucky to see.

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After our trek around Rinca, our four days at sea were pretty much over. The crew took us for one last spot of snorkelling at a nearby island – where we spotted some lion fish – and then they steered the boat towards Labuanbajo, where we would get off and the next chapter of mine, Roy and Kate’s travelling adventures would begin.

More photos can be found here. I also stole some photos for this blog from Roy, as he has a much better camera than I do. His photos can be found here.