by Emma Dowson
White, red and black said the battered signpost at the summit of the Keli Mutu volcano, but the colourful crater lakes they pointed towards were still shrouded in cobwebs of early-morning mist. I watched as the rising sun tore the mist to swirls and tatters, gradually uncovering what looked like three giant inkwells set deep in the rocky mountainscape. They were filled with inky black, brilliant turquoise and pale green liquid.
“The lakes have changed colour so often during my lifetime,” said Amina Moe, our sprightly middle-aged guide, “no one bothers to alter the signposts any more.”
Keli Mutu’s chameleon act defies scientific explanation. It was eerily quiet as I stared at the black lake, still and mesmerizing as a glass eye, almost tempting me to believe, as the locals do, that these lakes contain the souls of the dead. Or perhaps it was just that the afterlife was something I’d contemplated often on the three-day journey across the remote Indonesian island of Flores towards Keli Mutu.
Flores is 375 km long; the single potholed road which loops and snakes from one end of the island to the other, almost twice that length. Many sections have been swallowed up by earthquakes or monsoon floods. Buses which ply the route are held together with string, and loaded like exotic supermarket carts, with ripe fruit and meat so fresh it squealed or clucked. Passengers clutched rosary beads. Bus drivers, presumably trusting in divine protection, slalomed along knife-edge mountain ridges, halos of clove-scented cigarette smoke hovering above their heads.
Part of Nusa Tenggara, the island chain stretching east of Bali towards Australia, Flores is a skewed cocktail of lush paddy fields, arid plains, rugged hills and dense jungle. Vast volcanoes, fourteen of which are active, make Flores one of the most geological unstable places on earth. Shifts in scenery are sudden and dramatic, as if the landscape is being distorted by a fairground hall of mirrors.
A boat from neighbouring Sumbawa dropped me off at Lahubanbajo, Flores’ most westerly point, where the bay was filled with the candy-stripped sails of outrigger fishing boats and encircled by bougainvillaea-festooned houses. Lilies and sunflowers grew from cracks in the dusty streets. It was easy to see why the sixteenth century Portuguese, who came here to trade in sandalwood, named the island “the cape of flowers.”
But flowers were hardly what came to mind in Ende, a larger town in central Flores, which reeked of drains and rotting fruit. Here minibuses (“bemos”) with their names – “love muscle” and “groove king” – emblazoned in flashing lights, lurched along dusty streets of crumbling, earthquake-damaged buildings, spilling jangling music.
Bajawa, where I stopped to break the journey, was different again. This friendly hill town is the centre of the Ngada people, one of the most traditional of Flores five tribal groups. Each has its own customs, languages, beliefs and distinctive dress made of hand-spun ikat cloth, intricately patterned and coloured with dye extracted from plants and minerals.
At Bajawa’s market locals wore earthy colours and out-of-towners were clearly distinguishable – most striking were the Manggarai people in their black sarongs embroidered with pastel coloured stars, flowers and diamonds. Rickety stalls were piled with lengths of cloth fashioned into sarongs, blankets and long burial wraps called “kapita.” Spare scraps were ingeniously transformed into children’s garments and shopping bags by antiquated sewing machines.
The market was filled with local delicacies – eggs which were drunk raw from the shell like shots of tequila, and rows of giant fruit bats hanging upside down by gnarled claws from bamboo poles.
“Enuk” – delicious – called the stall holders, but much more tempting were the restaurants surrounding the market-place, their windows filled with immaculate pyramids of tiny bowls. This was traditional Indonesian padang food – spicy meat, fish and vegetables served tapas style, with huge servings of rice which proved excellent fire-fighting material!
Places to Stay
Most visitors to Flores stay at family run “homestays,” the Indonesian equivalent of “bed and breakfasts.”
“Sunflower” in Bajawa was basic, clean and extraordinarily cheap.
I breakfasted on thick, black coffee and freshly baked donuts – the owner’s teenage daughter slipped leftovers to a hairy black pig in the garden, which was to be sacrificed for her wedding, a few weeks later.
Although 85% of Flores population are Catholic, a legacy of the colonizing Europeans, Christianity is fused with traditional beliefs. “I’ll get married in the local church” the girl told me, “but my family will also make an offering to our ancestors for good luck – the fatter the pig the better!”
Christianity has made few inroads into the smaller villages like Nage near Bajawa, where age-old Ngada beliefs and practices have been preserved. Here, symbols of this continuing tradition – “bhaga,” which resemble miniature thatched roof houses, and umbrella-shaped “ngadu,” with carvings of axes, cassavas, dragons and flowers twisting around their wooden stems – were displayed between two rows of tall, thatched houses and stone tombs, said to contain hoards of treasure.
Gory buffalo sacrifices, agricultural fertility rituals, take place in Nage, but the village seemed very peaceful the afternoon I visited. Women swept their porches laconically with bamboo brushes, and children kicked a coconut husk around, using the stilts supporting their homes as goal posts.
Journeying across Flores I caught occasional, tantalizing glimpses of the coastline – surely I couldn’t leave without hitting the beach at least once! Riung, on the north coast, was recommended as a laid-back, developing beach resort, but its muddy strip of sand was initially disappointing. “Look, a handful of tiny Balis,” said Charlie, an enthusiastic local. He pointed towards the dozen or so islands tossed into the ocean like blobs of vanilla ice-cream, rippled with palm trees. “But the crowds are underwater, not on the beach.”
A few minutes later, I bellyflopped from the side of Charlie’s wooden catamaran into a carnival of colours where designer-dressed fish paraded and seahorses floated, erratic as drunken tourists, around electric blue starfish and neon coral. The only sign of human life was a lone fisherman hanging his stripped and spotted catch out to dry on a wooden rack as if they were exotic beach towels.
Back on dry land, Charlie promised to show me something even more otherworldly – the legendary Komodo dragon. The world’s largest monitor lizard, “ora,” as they are known locally, can reach 12 feet long and weigh up to 330 pounds. Around 3,500 exist on the islands surrounding Flores, the largest and most visited population on neighbouring Komodo island. These unique creatures are extremely rare in Flores, but Charlie told me that he had dragon-wise eyes and eternal optimism, so I followed him.
“Ora prints, ” he said, pointing to the soft cusp of a muddy puddle. Squatting beneath a palm tree with leaves ridged like corrugated iron, we watched for a glimpse of cactus-sharp claws or the swish of a mighty tail in the sun-scorched grass. As we waited silently a flock of red-tinged parakeets fluttered around us. My legs began to ache.
I was about ready to give up when I heard the rustle of something crawling through the undergrowth. Suddenly an enormous dragon paused in front of me, raised a tapered head from a crumbled scarf of wrinkled flesh, and gazed at me with myopic eyes. Then it yawned disinterestedly and poked out a forked, sulphur-yellow tongue. The creature’s scaly, ochre coloured skin was sun-mottled with shards of pink, green and silver. A couple of second later it shuffled away, long, dagger-shaped tail lifted delicately off the ground. But it was worth the wait.
Travelling through a dry, dusty stretch on the way back across the island after visiting Keli Mutu, it felt like I had reached the end of the world.
A teenager waving a machete flagged the bus down, engaging the driver in animated conversation. It looked as if they were talking money and murder.
As we lurched over a dip and into a stream, I realized that I was the bus’ only passenger. Then a ragged group of children appeared with buckets and cloths. “This is the local car wash ” the driver told me by way of explanation.
Having already seen mythical dragons and magical coloured lakes, nothing on this island should have surprised me.