Well, it makes a change from dragons!
We bid a fond farewell to the fantastic crew of the MV Mermaid, to our brilliant leader, Chas, and to our travelling companions, although it so happened that 2 couples, Cait and Emma, Rod and Rachel, were travelling on with us for a few days. We were all going to stay at Kelimutu Volcano Lodge. It was a tiring three hour drive from Maumere but immediately we could see that the landscape of Flores was interesting. The island was colonised first by Portuguese in the 16th Century in an attempt to control the lucrative spice trade. It is they who named the island, ‘Flower’. They were later kicked out by the Dutch. But, of course, the island already had an indigenous people, who had an ancestry going back far beyond their conquerors.
The lodge was set in some beautiful grounds with a river running close by and rice paddies next to it. It was a little way out of the village of Moni which is the access point for visiting Kelimutu Volcano. Most people, including virtually all of the guests at our lodge, take a pre-dawn tour up to the volcano to watch the sunrise. However, this means that the crater viewing points are crowded and Chas had told us that he didn’t really think the views really justified getting up at 4am just to get up there with the crowd. So we took his advice, hopped into a taxi at 7.30 and had the place virtually to ourselves.
Kelimutu has three crater lakes and they all change colour from time to time due to changes in oxidisation levels. Colours can be shades of blue, red or green. There are three crater lakes at the summit, one being called the Lake of the Old People and it was a blue colour when we visited. The other two lakes are separated by a shared crater wall and are called Lake of Young Men and Maidens and Bewitched Lake. Again, when we visited they were differrent shades of green – rather like a couple of the Farrow and Ball shades, we thought. They certainly are a very interesting sight.
We thought that we would hike back down the volcano and perhaps do some birdwatching on the way rather than just taking a taxi back down. At the start the walking was pleasant enough even if birds proved elusive. However, they were doing a lot of construction work at the visitor centre, beginning work on a 100 room hotel, and are widening the road so for several kilometres we had to hike through dusty, noisy roadworks which rather spoiled the enjoyment. We did manage to take a shortcut which avoided the rest of the roadworks but it wound its way down the steep sides of the volcano and, whilst not difficult, it proved a hot, tiring hike so we got back to the lodge quite exhausted.
Cait and Emma had left for the airport by the time we returned and we said a final goodbye to Rod and Rachel the next morning when our driver turned up. We had arranged for Yance (pronounced Yanchay) to drive us from Kelimutu in the East to Labuan Bajo in the west over the following four days. No sooner had we set off than we hit yet more roadworks. Flores essentially has only one main road which connects the east and west. Any other roads simply spur off this one. But it needs maintaining and on the section near Moni they are blasting out rock to make it safe from further rock fall. This necessitates closing the road in both directions, sometimes for an hour or more at a time. We arrived at the road block probably 5 minutes after the road had been closed, which was frustrating, but we settled down for a wait. In fact I got down to writing my previous blog but the road reopened before I could finish it!
The drive from Moni to our first stop, Bajawa, was a long one but it gave us time to get to know Yance. Married with 4 girls (two of whom are twins) he lives in Labuan Bajo but was originally from a village near Ruteng, which would be our second stop of the trip. He’s a lovely, gentle guy with a great sense of humour and we seem to have got on right from the beginning.
We passed through some wonderful scenery on our way towards Ende on the South coast. There were bright green rice paddies, rolling hills, volcanoes and a winding river valley. It reminded us of Bali as it was so many decades ago.
At Ende we travelled along the coast and took a lunch stop at Blue Stone Beach. The stones here really are shades of blue with grey and black mixed in. It’s a lovely sight.
Lunch was a 2Kg tuna grilled over coconut husk coals and was delicious, though it was far too big for the two of us and we couldn’t get through it all even with Yance digging in.
We eventually got to Bajawa Roo Hotel about 5pm. It was an interesting place. The manager, Moses, spoke with a sort of Aussie accent even though he’s Indonesian. He apparently changes his accent from time to time and will probably be speaking with an English one now we’ve been there. His staff are all trainees – he takes kids who maybe can’t get jobs elsewhere and trains them up – so they are all enthusiastic and eager to please and the hotel itself was very pleasant. At dawn the following morning we had a superb view of the nearby volcano so were up early packing the bags ready for the drive to Ruteng.
On the way to Ruteng Yance took us to Bena, a traditional village situated at the foot of Mount Inerie. It’s probably the most visited village in Flores, although as we got there early it was relatively free from other tourists.
One of the residents of Bena, Emeliana, has been trained to be a guide and Yance arranged for her to give us a tour. She first of all insisted that we make the tour anti-clockwise as it was bad luck to go around the other way.
There are a number of these traditional villages dotted about Flores and they all share the same pattern of settlement being part of the Ngadhu culture. The wooden houses have high thatched roofs and are set in parallel lines.
In the centre of the village are ngadhu and bhaga, pairs of shrines – one for each clan of the village – representing the clan’s ancestors. The ngadhu is an umbrella like structure and represents male ancestors.
What looks like a miniature house is the Bhaga and this represents the female lineage. Emeliana was delighted to tell us that Bena runs on a matriarchal system – “The women are boss!” she told us with a laugh. Many, though not all, Floresian traditional villages are run this way.
The shrines are used during ceremonies, as are the megalithic structures on which they sit. These structures are regarded as a means of connecting with the supernatural realm and thereby communication with the clan’s ancestors, usually by means of animal sacrifice. Each clan has a stone altar at which they perform their ceremonies. Apparently, if you just happen to be in the village when a ceremony is taking place, you will be welcome to watch. But you need to be aware that this will invariably involve the slaughter of a buffalo or a pig or both so you would need to have a strong stomach for such things.
Also around the ceremonial ground are large flat rocks called lenggi. These represent a court where clan disputes, say over land rights, can be settled. In the distant past there would have been some clan warfare (yes, even in a matriarchal society) but these don’t happen now. At least, that’s what we understood Emeliana to say.
Outside each clan home (which may have been rebuilt a number of times) is a display of both buffalo skulls and pig jawbones. These are a way of counting back how many ceremonies that clan has held in the village and hence how long it has been there.
The Ngahdu worship the spirits of their ancestors and believe in the supernatural so you might presume them to be animist. But in one home we spied a photograph of Pope Francis smiling down from the wall. Most of the villagers (indeed, most Floresiens) are catholic having been converted by the conquering Portuguese. Indeed, at the end of the village is a small hillock with a shrine to The Virgin, from where you can get a bird’s-eye view of the village and the surrounding valley.
The villagers now largely make their living from the tourist trade and every house has crafts for sale hanging outside. But the people are not in the least bit pushy. They want you to buy their wares but you could easily make a visit without doing so.
Whilst it seems the men largely do carvings out of wood and bamboo (a much used and very useful resource) the women carry out Ikat cloth weaving. Emeliana explained that the brightly coloured sarongs we saw hanging at some homes were dyed with chemical dyes – something she and her family avoided. She only uses natural dyes and here the colours are much more muted but all the more beautiful for that. She showed us a cotton bush from which the raw material is spun. She then took us to her clan house where one relative was spinning the yarn to make thread. The whole or her mouth was bright red from the betel nut she was chewing. Emeliana made a joke with her, probably at our expense, and she hooted with laughter.
Emeliana showed us the dye which was used – all of it natural materials; tree bark, leaves from the forest, nut shells, leaves, anything. And finally we saw another clan member weaving the cotton into a lovely pattern using a simple frame braced by her feet using, I think, a piece of coconut shell for a shuttle.
Emeliana took us back to her house to show us her own wares. You can buy organic, naturally dyed, hand woven cloth in this country but here we were able to buy directly from the wonderfully entertaining and interesting guide who had shown us around. We can now hang it up at home and remember our visit.
Moving on from Bena we drove through some wonderful scenery – jungle clad hills, river valley and rice paddies. Rice terraces really are an eye catching feature with their vivid greens and the waters reflecting the passing clouds. Flores does have some very attractive scenery and it’s no wonder that tourism is on the increase though whether the infrastructure can cope remains to be seen.
We were heading for the town of Ruteng, an area which Yance knows well for he was born nearby, for it is here that the Flores Hobbit was discovered. Yes, once more we were chasing a figure of myth and legend.
Back in 2004 a team of archaeologists from Indonesia were digging in the Liang Bua cave looking for signs of Homo Sapiens when they discovered the remains of a small homonid. They eventually unearthed an almost intact homonid fossil only 3ft 6inches (106cm) high. It was later classified as Homo Floresiensis but would become known to the world as the Flores Hobbit.
The remains were extremely fragile and the team had to dig out the sediment in which the bones were encased, take them back to the hotel and carefully extract them. In order for the remains to be transported to Jakarta they needed to be strengthened and the best locally available material for this was acetone – or nail varnish remover. So the team had to scour the shops and beauty salons of Ruteng buying up all of the town’s supplies.
Their problems still weren’t over. They couldn’t fly the skeleton back to the capital because that would have meant leaving it to the ministrations of baggage handlers. So they boarded a boat to Bali and from there made a 25hr bus journey to Jakarta, buying ‘Flo’ her own seat on the bus.
Further analysis showed that the skeleton was that of a female, hence the name Flo, who would have been about 25 at the time of her death 68,000 years ago. This means that Flo would have shared her world with megafauna, including our old friend the Komodo Dragon, who still live in small pockets on the north side of the island.
Annual digs still take place in this unprepossessing cave and further remains of Homo Floresiensis have been found. Liang Bua cave would have been an ideal place for these diminutive homonids to shelter from giant lizards, turtles, crocodiles and a giant rat which can grow up to nearly 18 inches in body length and almost 4ft if you take its tail into account. That is one, big rat.
There has been much debate as to whether Flo and her kind would have mated with our immediate ancestors. Many Floresians are certainly of diminutive stature but DNA evidence seems not to support this, at least as far as current research has been able to determine but it is well established that H.Sapiens mated with Neandrethals so why not hobbits?
Apparently, the Tolkein Estate object to their fictional character being the moniker for a pygmy but I think it’s too late for that. A hobbit she will remain and it was fascinating to visit her home and imagine what her world must have been like. On the way back Yance saw one of his pals who is also a guide. We were immediately invited into the house for coffee and to meet the family. Floresians are very friendly and hospitable like that.
It was a pleasure to spend time with Yance and he became very keen on spotting birds for us. His eyesight and hearing are both very keen even if his patience is not. We will stand quite still by a bush or a tree for many minutes listening to a calling bird in the hope we might spot some movement but Yance gets bored after a while and lobs a stone to make the bird move and show itself! We did explain this is not recommended guiding behaviour but we also encouraged him to consider studying birds as there is a need for local birding guides on Flores and it would increase his employability.
We also encouraged him in one other thing. He told us he was trying to give up smoking, having done so and failed before. So we both exercised Allen Carr psychology on him. ‘No, Yance’, we told him. ‘No one starts out in life smoking and there are no advantages to smoking so you are not giving up anything. You just need to stop smoking. You’ve stopped before so you haven’t failed, you’ve simply started again. So, don’t give up, stop.’
And it seemed to work because the next day he told us he had stopped. And he did not have another cigarette for the rest of the trip. If it works for the future that’s one thing we will have given back to him.
Our final ‘top ten things to see on Flores’ was the Spider Web Rice Fields. Rice is planted everywhere there is suitable land on the island. Simple rows of rice paddies look beautiful and add a hillside and you get a waterfall of terraces. But many villages also lay out their fields in a spiderweb pattern which looks particularly impressive from above. And close to Ruteng there is a strategically placed hillock which, for a very small donation, you can climb (usually accompanied by a small boy) and get an oversight. It certainly makes the effort of climbing worthwhile when you get to the top.
We journeyed on through increasingly arid countryside until we reached the western end of the island, the large town of Labuan Bajo and the end of our sojourn with Yance. He really is a super guy and we enjoyed every moment of the time we spent with him. He is knowledgeable, witty, and fun but also sensitive and caring and we wouldn’t hesitate to recommend him to anyone wishing to travel like us.
As for Labuan Bajo, perhaps the less said the better. It’s where all the dive shops, tour operators, backpacker hostels gather, all offering trips to Komodo. It’s a rather scruffy, pungent town, though perhaps our views are coloured by the fact that, by the time we got there, I was incubating Campylobacter (to be fair, probably caught before I reached the town).
We thoroughly enjoyed exploring Flores and saw many wonderful things. To be sure, there is much for the authorities to sort out if they wish to expand tourism but it was a rewarding place to journey in and the people are incredibly kind, helpful and gracious. And the Hobbits are – well, not hobbits after all, apparently.
See you all next adventure.