A week before our Flores trip, Mount Rinjani located just across the Straits from Bali erupted and caused flight diversion and Bali airport closure. The situation was not optimistic and we thought that we might have to cancel our holiday again. Fortunately just one day before our trip, the volcanic activity subsided, Bali airport reopened and our flight to Flores resumed. We boarded the plane happily without worrying whether it was really safe to fly near an erupting volcano.
We flew in to Labuan Bajo from Singapore with a transit in Bali via Garuda Airline. The flight from Bali to Labuan Bajo took about 1hr 30min. For this short flight, we were expecting to take a small propeller plane but to our disappointment it was a jet plane instead. The plane cruised at a relatively low altitude throughout the flight, we could see dozens of pretty small uninhabited islands and even some volcanic peaks (including the smoking Rinjani) through the plane window. Komodo Airport in Labuan Bajo was a very small airport with only 1-2 planes in the field; giving us the impression that we were really in for some outback experience. To our amazement, there was a taxi booth inside the airport with a list of fares to the various hotels in town. The fare to Golo Hill Top Hotel (http://www.golohilltop.com/) was 60K IDR per vehicle. It was quite expensive considering that it was only 10 min drive to the hotel. However we took the cab without much complaint for we knew that it was a “wholesale” rip off rather than a tout rip off which we experienced ample times in Bali. The driver was conversant in English and was very friendly. He even stopped along the way to allow us to take some nice photo of the scenery. Golo Hotel ran by two friendly Dutch ladies was about 10 min walk from the town center but its location on top of a hill overlooking a tranquil and scenic bay more than offset the slight inconvenience. The room was very clean with air-conditioner and reliable hot shower – something which most Singaporeans can’t do without.
We went to the town area to look for tour package for Cunca Wulang Canyon and Komodo/Rinca Island. The prices offered by the various agencies were more or less competitive but we couldn’t tell their quality and reliability till we tried them. After asking around for more than 1 hr, we finally decided on one agency based on some traveller intuition and physiognomy – though it turned out wrongly many times:( We patronized the number 1 restaurant in TripAdvisor – Sushi Banana. We ordered a maki roll and a bento for only 230K IDR. It was surprisingly refreshing considering where we were at. After dinner, we took a private taxi back to hotel for 40K IDR.
The agency driver picked us from the hotel around 7am. It was a 1hr 30min drive from our hotel to Wersawe Village where the trailhead of the trek was located. There was an official booth at the trailhead where we made payment for the hiking permit. We hired one of the villagers (who couldn’t speak any English) as our trekking guide. The trek to the canyon took about 45min along relatively flat terrain. At the river, we saw two villagers catching fish in waist deep water. Their fishing tackle consisted of a long and thin flexible grass stalk (which served as the fishing rod) with a small string loop at one end. No bait was used at all. When an unsuspecting fish swam into the loop, the angler would cast the rod upwards thereby trapping the fish within the loop. It was an ingenious but painstakingly slow fishing method.
We climbed to the top of the canyon which was about 10m above the water surface. The canyon was famous for cliff diving – one of us jumped down from the edge of the canyon into the water below. Instead of this daredevil act, i entered the river from another side of the canyon where the water touched the bank (yeah, i am a scaredy cat). We swam to the plunge pool of the waterfall and enjoyed some jacuzzi massage under the falling water. The waterfall was not especially impressive but the surrounding beautiful landscape and nice cooling swim more than made up for it.
In the evening time, we walked from our hotel to the waterfront in town There were many street food stalks selling BBQ seafood. The laid out their fresh seafood in front of their stalks. A decent size red snapper (about 400g) cost about 50K IDR. We ordered a BBQ red snapper, calamari sambal kangkong and two big bowls of bakso soup noodles. It was quite an authentic local dining experience as most of the diners were locals. After dinner, we went over to the mini mart across the road to buy our desert – magnum ice cream. Exactly the same magnum as you get in Singapore but at half the price! Along the way back to our hotel, we saw a very bright shooting star streaking across the sky.
Komodo National Park consists of the three main islands of Komodo, Rinca, and Padar Islands and numerous smaller islands. The highlight of the Park is the Komodo dragons – the largest lizard species in the world. A full grown dragon weights up to 70Kg and can be more 2-3m long. The dragon is endemic in Komodo National Park which means that it cannot be found in other parts of the world. Komodo and Rinca islands are the best sites within the Park to see the dragons. We signed up for a private tour which combined a visit to Rinca Island with snorkeling in Kelor Island and flying fox (bats) watching in Kalong Island. The tour agency picked us up from the hotel to the boat pier around 8am. The boat was a wooden boat with passenger seats in the front and a toilet at the back. The boat crew consisted of our tour guide Nei Gui, the boat captain and his helper. To our astonishment, there was no life jacket provided even though Nei Gui told us earlier that life jacket would be provided. Nei Gui apologized to us for the overlook and tried to assure us that the boat ride would be safe even without the life jacket. We refused to set sail without the life jackets as we had heard of many tragedy boat incidents around the Komodo region. The boat captain rode the boat to a quiet corner of the pier and jumped aboard a group of anchored boats. He disappeared for about 20 minutes and then came back with some life jackets. Apparently he had “borrowed” the life jackets from some other boats. About 30 minutes into the journey, we saw something jumped out of the water – it was a school of 2-3 dolphins. We were exhilarated as the dolphins were very near us and we didn’t expect the dolphins to appear so close to the mainland. Kelor Island about 1.5 hrs boat ride from Labuan Bajo is a very small uninhabited island with a hill that overlooks the surrounding vista. There is a small trail that leads to the top of the hill but we didn’t go for it.
The waters around Kelor Island were very clear, shallow and teaming with fishes and life corals. We had to constantly keep ourselves afloat so as not to step on the corals. The moment i stepped onto the coral, i had a slight feeling of guilt and felt instantly that there was no such thing as ecotourism – once you enter the ecosystem, you will bound to destroy a part of it no matter how careful you are. We saw many colourful reef creatures including nemo fish, nudibranch, urchin and starfishes. Interestingly, the shallow water gave way to a deep trench about 20 m from shore.
There were 4 different permit/entrance fee which we had to pay in order to see the dragons in Rinca; entrance fee (150 IDR), trekking permit (5 IDR), wildlife observation permit 10 IDR) and trail permit (80 IDR). It was quite an amusing fee system. Perhaps they should simplify things by combining them into 1 or 2 fees. There are three hiking routes in the park; short (45 min), medium (1.5 hrs) and long (3 hrs). We signed up for the medium hike hoping that we could see more wildlife if we hiked longer. It turned out to be a wrong decision. The weather was very dry and scorching hot and there was no shelter along the way. Along the trail, we didn’t see many animals except for 2-3 dragons, a deer and some animal skulls. We saw a group of lethargic dragons lazing underneath the huts around the national park office. They didn’t look as menacing as i though probably because they were less active at noon.
Next, we sailed towards Kalong Island to see the flying foxes. But it was too early so we dropped the anchor and waited for the sun to set and the bats to appear. Slightly after 7 pm, we saw some bird-liked creatures flying out of the mangrove swamp. There were more and more of these creatures till the sky was filled by tens of thousands of them. From a distance, they looked more like birds than bats. When they flew overhead us, we could see the shape of the skeletons in their spread wings. Interestingly there was barely any screeching sound even though there were thousands of them. They were flying towards the Labuan Bajo (16km away) to look for food. Imagine if you have to travel so far to look for food everyday:) It was really an amazing sight if you don’t mind the possibility of guano dropping from the sky.
We took a public bus from Labuan Bajo to Bajawa with a transit stop in Ruteng. It took us more than 10 hours to reach Bajawa including a 2 hrs lunch stop in Ruteng. The bus was non-air-conditioned and packed with passengers and their belongings. There was even a motorcycle strapped to the back of the bus. According to the driver, sometimes there might be animals like goats and chickens on board as well. We were quite impressed with the road conditions in Flores; it was generally well maintained with very few potholes. Nevertheless, it was still a bumpy and winding ride as the road was laid across the mountainous terrain. The bus would stop at the villages along the way to drop off and pick up passengers.
In Ruteng, we went to one of the best restaurants in town – Rumah Makan Chacha – for lunch. The owners Johan and Yayuk spoke very fluent English and very friendly. From them we came to know that most of their food ingredients were sourced from their family’s farms. On the way back to the bus station, we walked passed a school where the students had just ended school for the day. Some of the students smiled and said hi to us while others ran away giggling as we walked passed them. We felt that we had became an instant celebrity. However some of the older boys assumed an air of nonchalance with well-gelled hair, tuck-out shirts and model-liked standing posture – reminded us of some backstreet boys.
The public bus stopped at a bus stop at the edge of Bajawa town. We called the resort reception who sent a driver to pick us up from the bus stop. It was quite a long drive (30 min) to the base of Mount Inerie where Manalulu Resort is located.
We woke up early in the morning not to the sound of singing birds but to buzzing of cicada. It was like an incessantly loud alarm clock with no snooze function. We found them everywhere in the resort and some of them even “sneaked” into our bedrooms causing a mass hysterical among the girls. Our guide tried to allay their fear by catching one of them and and hold it between his mouth. He told us that he used to eat them as TV snacks when he was a kid! Along the trail to the surrounding villages, we saw many interesting crop plants like candle nuts, cashew nuts, cloves, coffee, cacao, cotton etc. The most interesting and funny looking crop is the cashew plant; its nut actually grows outside its fruits. The fruit known as cashew apple is actually edible and is considered a delicacy in South America.
The area around Bajawa is inhabited by the Ngada people who speak the distinct Ngada language and practice catholicism with a tinge of animism. Unlike their neighbors in other parts of Flores, the Ngada poeple havea matriarchy social system in which the mother or oldest female heads the family and inheritances are passed down only through woman. We visited the traditional villages of Luba, Bena, Tololela and Gurucina which are famous for their unique architecture. The villages consist of 2 parallel rows of high thatch-roofed houses where the families live. In between the 2 rows are pair of shrines – ngadhu and bhaga – one for each clan of the villages. The ngadhu which symbolises the male ancestors is an umbrella like structure crowned by a human figurine holding a parang (harvesting knife) in one hand and a javelin in the other. The bhaga which symbolises the female ancestors is a small hut with a thatched roof. Other than the ngadhu and bhaga, there are also megalith structure which serves as a means for communicating with the supernatural and ancestors. (https://www.wmf.org/project/ngada-villages-flores). Another interesting feature of these villages was the presence of big catholic tombstones in the middle of the village square. They probably belonged to the deceased clan or village heads. Outside the village square, a group of locals were working together to build a school for the children.
In lieu of entrance fee, there was a donation box inside each village where visitors were encouraged to make some money contribution. Even though the villages are well-known tourist attractions, we didn’t see any touts around and the villagers who sold handicrafts were not pushy at all. There was even a prominent signboard at the village entrance which reminded tourists not to give any gifts to the children without their parents’ consents. This is sustainable tourism at its best.
After the village visit, we went to the Malanage Hotspring to soothe our aching muscles. The river consisted of two streams of water (one hot, one cold) which joined together to form a wider river downstream. We met a group of friendly basques who helped us to cross over to the other side of the river. I asked one of them whether he was from Spain and he replied without any hesitation “…we are from Basque which is a totally different country from Spain. We speak Basque which is unintelligible to Spanish…”
We set-off from the hotel at 4am for the Mount Inerie (pronounced as “inner ear”) trek. It was a 20 min car ride from the resort to the trailhead at Watumeze village (~1100m). The first 30 min of the trek was along flat terrain with ample tree cover, after which we emerged out of the tree line and saw Inerie’s Peak smiling at us under the starring sky. There was very little trees; most of the vegetation were either grass or shrubs. It was a steep up-slope climb all the way to the crater rim (2,115m). The afar mountains and meadows slowly revealed their features as daylight crept down from the horizon. We saw the beautiful conical volcano – Mount Ebulobo – in the distance. It looked extremely steep to us and were relieved that we didn’t go for Mount Ebulobo only to be corrected by our guide that Inerie was even steeper than Ebulobo.
It took us about 3 hrs to reach the 1st peak. From the 1st peak, the trail to the 2nd peak (summit) looked incredibly steep and precarious. The final push to the summit took about 45 min. We were basically trekking along the crater rim to the summit but interestingly the trail didn’t seem as steep as it looked like. The crater which looked like a deep abyss loomed menacingly large in front of us along the narrow trail. The summit was a small flat ground with a flag pole and an Indonesia flag on it. We trekked back to the 1st peak and from there we took another route – a fast lane – down the mountain. It was a long scree-covered slopes leading from the top to the mid point of the mountain. The slope with the small rocks, peddles and sand was very slippery and we had to literally skid down the exposed slope and adjusting the angle of our feet to slow down the slide. It was quite fun initially but after sometime we got really tired and the hot sun and with all the debris inside our shoes. After the fast lane, we continued via the same route which we used to climb up the mountain. It took us almost 3 hours to get back to the trail head from the summit. Rest of the day was spent on bed resting our resting our sore muscles:)
We took a public transport to Moni the last destination of our trip. We set off around 8am and reached Moni around 2pm. The bus did not dropped us directly at Kelimut Lodge Eco Lodge so we had to haul our luggage down the road to the lodge. After checking in the lodge and a quick late lunch, we arranged for a driver to bring us to Kelimutu National Park. Kelimutu is a volcano complex containing three striking crater lakes of varying colors. Tiwu Ata Bupu (Lake of Old People) is usually blue and is the westernmost of the three lakes. The other two lakes, Tiwu Ko’o Fai Nuwa Muri (Lake of Young Men and Maidens) and Tiwu Ata Polo (Bewitched or Enchanted Lake) are separated by a shared crater wall and are usually green or red respectively.
Proper payment and railing were installed by the national park around the viewing platform. The scenery was still top-notch though it lost some of its rugged feel with the man-made structures around it. The park was very quiet with a few souls as most tourists visit the park in the early morning instead of afternoon to catch the beautiful sunrise. We could not make it for the sunrise view as we had to catch our flight back to Bali in the afternoon. Due to road widening project, the road leading out of Kelimutu to the airport would be blocked daily from early morning till late afternoon.