It was with a heightened sense of anticipation that I made my way to Flores (pronounced Florez), which had come highly recommended by friends in the know about unspoiled islands, world class diving and prehistoric creatures. Just a short flight east from Bali is the buzzing town of Labuan Bajo. The jumping off point for diving in Komodo NP, the main street is wall-to-wall dive shops offering day trips or the more alluring 3-4 day ‘live aboard’ experience. Fortunately, I had a recommendation from my friends at Guy’s Trust to book with Dive Komodo, otherwise I’d probably still be cruising up and down the street deciding which one to pick.
The appeal of the live aboard is that the boat takes you to the more remote dive spots i.e. those that can’t be reached in a day, plus you have the opportunity for early morning and night dives. Throwing my budget to the wind, I booked a 3 day/2 night/9 dive trip.
Somewhat randomly my six fellow divers were Canadian but didn’t know each other. Luckily they were all really nice, and more importantly, experienced divers because Komodo is no picnic. The meeting of warm and cold waters result in, strong currents, rip tides, whirlpools and several danger spots where you can get into deep water (!!) if you don’t pay heed to your instructor. I stuck to mine like glue! The trade off is nutrient rich waters bringing manta rays, sting rays, whales, sharks, dolphins, giant wrasse, cuttlefish, octopus, turtles, millions and millions of brightly coloured fish and nudibranch (both large and small) attracted to the incredible coral, making it one of the top diving spots in the world.
I’ll spare you the details of each of the dives other than to say that hooked onto a rock on the sea bed (to stop the current from pulling you away), ogling at majestic manta rays goes down as one of the most memorable experiences of my life. These enormous pelagic can have a 7m wingspan and with their huge grill-like mouth could be intimidating, yet they are the most harmless, playful of all marine life. Watching a male courting three or four females is like watching a slow-mo ballet as they swoop, glide and dance through the waters. I must have seen at least 30 of these beauties including pregnant ones, babies and the rare Ninja (black) manta.
As well as the sublime diving, it was wonderful being on the boat far up in the quiet north of the national park with its stunning scenery and flaming sunsets. On our last afternoon we stopped by Rinca (Rincha) Island to see the famous Komodo Dragons. Being mid-afternoon they were a bit sleepy but a couple of them obliged by stirring from their slumbers to wander about a bit. They look like a mixture between a dragon and a lizard and think nothing of catching a buffalo for dinner or indeed eating their new born babies. A species not to be messed with!
Back on dry land I lasted a couple of days lounging around in a beautiful villa overlooking the bay before the lure of the waters got to me again and I did another full day’s diving, this time with a friend who lives in Jakarta and had flown down to organise a beach clean up for World Oceans Day. Unfortunately, this diving paradise suffers from a ridiculous amount of trash (thankfully not so much in the remoter spots), which gets washed up on Laban Bajo’s beaches. The authorities and the dive operators try hard to educate the locals – particularly the fishermen, while school children are taught the importance of preserving, not polluting their greatest asset. Apparently it’s getting better but, from the amount of trash we collected on, there is still a long way to go.
After 20 dives in 10 days my body needed a bit of a rest so I hired a local driver for a few days and set off to explore the rest of the island. A few hours in and it became clear why, unlike Bali, there’s no self-drive car rental. The roads are poorly maintained and torturous. However, zigzagging up through misty mountains with views across to the ocean then hurtling back down through coffee, banana, macadamia, vanilla, tamarind and pepper plantations before cruising along roads so close to the sea that the spray splatters the windscreen was fantastic.
My moonshine drinking, chain smoking, guitar playing driver Matteo not only had to concentrate on the wiggly roads but he also had to contend with kids (both 2 and 4 legged species), cows and dogs continuously wandering into or sleeping on the road. Thankfully he was very experienced if a little moody, especially after I politely declined his offer to share my bed during our road trip!
Looking down in spiderweb rice fields (sadly already harvested so brown rather than vibrant green), stopping off at black volcanic beaches to collect sulphur-rich blue stones, body boarding through breakers and lazing on hidden glistening white sand coves with crystal clear waters, I began to fall under the spell of Flores.
About 85% of the 1.8 million inhabitants of Flores are Catholic though in rural communities this is welded onto ‘adat’ – animist rituals for marriage, birth and death ceremonies. We drove eight hours on rough roads and then I hiked up through dense forest for 2 hours in the pouring rain to reach Wae Rebo, one such village with about 120 people living in 7 extraordinary homes encircling a sacrificial alter. Having made a small (financial) offering to the head of the village and in return received a ritual blessing, I was permitted to stay overnight in the village. Much like a longhouse, families live under one roof, cooking and eating together but have their own sleeping areas behind doors off the communal area. The main difference is that these homes are circular, whereas longhouses are long!
I visited another Bena and Luba; similar villages, accessible by car, where I didn’t overnight but walked around (again, despite it being dry season, in the pouring rain), communicating with the villagers as best I could in bad Bahasa Indonesian, at least showing respect by trying. They spoke equally bad English but we laughed – especially when people kept saying ‘hello mister’, a greeting I have now become used to and find endearing.
A ritual which stuck in my mind for being so graphically told was that practiced on the first new born son of the chief of the village to determine if he will be a good successor. The baby is firstly placed on a high platform in the home. If he doesn’t cry he may not be wise so the next test is to place the raw heart of a chicken on his lips. No reaction is a bad sign, so the final test is to place a mark on his forehead and knock it three times against a banana tree. If the baby still doesn’t cry he is deemed stupid and sent away from the village. The same process is carried out on the next in line until a wise boy is found. The old woman who told me this is the daughter of the current chief who is the second son. Believe what you will!
Being a small island,the few fellow travellers there are stop off in the same places (not Wae Rebo due to it’s inaccessibility), so our paths often crossed in a guesthouse or up a volcano which was nice. The most popular destination was Kelimutu National Park outside a tiny village called Moni with possibly the worst food but best coffee on Flores. Kelimutu is an inactive volcano with three different coloured lakes, which naturally have to be hiked up to for 05:30 sunrise. Is there ever a spectacular vista which doesn’t require a middle-of-the-night wake up?
Well, Kelimutu disappointed at dawn as thick clouds draped themselves over the lakes. So, back down the mountain for breakfast and somewhat bizarrely an end of year high school church service which I was drawn into by the glorious singing, before going back up, this time with the clouds dutifully lifting to reveal the reddish brown, milky blue and turquoise lakes. It’s believed the souls of the good ancestors are in the turquoise lake, the souls of the bad ancestors in the brown lake and the souls of the sometimes good / sometimes bad (a.k.a young people) in the blue lake. Every year the villagers process to the lakes with ritualistic offerings for the souls of the dead…….incongruous when at the bottom of the mountain they’re singing hymns and taking holy communion!
One of my favourite memories of Flores was sitting in a hot spring in the middle of a rice field with a family of about 30 people spanning 4 generations, washing themselves and their clothes and generally relaxing and enjoying the steamy mountain water (sadly no phito). A few travellers drifted by but decided against getting in. Not me. Okay, so I didn’t do my washing but I had a good soak and a fun chat with the teenagers. As the sun went down I drove 10 minutes back to my homestay, whereas they were facing a perfectly normal 2 hours walk to their village up the mountain.
Having driven about 500km from west to east, I felt I had had a genuine, non-commercial experience. I was struck by the huge number of children women have, in some villages it seemed every woman had a baby slung across her back. Children seem to be independent from a very young age, which means it’s not unusual to see 4-5 year olds playing in the sea, by the side of the road, on bridges (yikes) and 7-8 years olds in school uniform carrying scythes and machetes to help out in the fields. Children of all ages, including usually recalcitrant teenagers, are really friendly and happy.
Adults too seem to enjoy life and are always welcoming. Walking anywhere takes quite some times because people insist on shaking hands and are keen to know your name, age and nationality – answers I know by heart in Bahasa. They tend to have two names, one Indonesian (every man and woman has the same name depending on if they are the first, second, third etc child), and one western, typically biblical man from the days of Portuguese and then Dutch occupation. The only shame is that almost every male from the age of about 15 seems to smoke – with Marlboro at 75p a packet it’s no surprise, while older women in rural villages chew betel which stains their mouths and what few teeth they have, a dark red.
I cant recommend Flores highly enough. It doesn’t have the sophistication of Bali nor the lovely Hindu temples (though it has disproportionately big churches everywhere), but it has bags of charm and is still a relatively hidden gem.
Next on my agenda is the province of Tana Toraja in Sulawesi.