From man-eating Komodo dragons to Mount Kelimutu’s coloured crater lakes, a speculative sea voyage from Lombok to Flores demands a sense of humour as well as stout sea and land legs
The Indonesian archipelago comprises over 17, 000 islands, so it’s best to choose a select few and explore them at a steady pace. The great Spanish writer Jorge Luis Borges once wrote, à propos of his life as a journey, ‘My life is a flight and I lose everything and everything belongs to oblivion, or to Borges.’ Perhaps in this respect one enjoys travel far more, and discovers more aspects of oneself, if one simply relaxes, allows events to occur rather than forces them to fit a tight itinerary.
Moreover, patience and a good humour are essential in Indonesia, where transport in Sumatra is a case in point: groaning axles on buses and bemos here only seem to cohere through grease and the grace of one’s God – be he Muslim or Christian. Meanwhile, cheesy synthesised music in the nation’s ‘pop-Sunda’ style grates through the machine’s very fabric, whilst atop the baggage rack the ‘conductor’ hangs on for dear life, only releasing a hand on perilous corners to pass cigarettes to the driver.
At Labuhan Lombok we assessed our home for the next four days, an ex-fishing boat of around 45 feet called Petra Tunggal. This proved a sturdy vessel, although I would be loath to imagine conditions in stormy seas, not least because of the absence of lifebelts. As interesting and interested was a basket of ducks with taped-up beaks on the quay; we wryly amused ourselves by wondering whose table they would grace on Flores, if not ours?
The ducks survived the trip, where for four days our fare was limited to boiled rice or nasi campur, punctuated with onions and peppers. One of Petra Tunggal’s crew from Lombok, Ramelan, initially told me, beaming, “We catch fish – eat!”, which was great, providing we caught something. We didn’t, which made the fish feast we subsequently enjoyed on a small offshore island near Labuanbago several days later all the sweeter, when Ramelan prepared a native Indonesian garnish of shallots, garlic, ginger and soy sauce.
For the moment our accommodation was as spartan as the cuisine, a raised deck with a four-foot gunwale at the vessel’s rear, with tarpaulins for mattresses and blankets to keep out the night-time cold of the Indian Ocean. But the advantage of such a low-key trip is that one’s itinerary is fluid, and where the boat’s shallow draught allowed the crew to anchor near deserted cays and atolls, we snorkelled off the reefs. Here I enjoyed the delicious, cool caress of the ocean on one side of my body as the ocean shelf fell away.
The motion of our vessel was too much for one of my fellow passengers, a German called Boris, who proudly introduced himself to me on the first day by thumping his chest and declaring, “Ich bin ein Berliner!” We hadn’t got much further than that since, and Boris spent most of the second day heaving over the vessel’s side. I advised him to fix his eyes on the horizon, but he rounded on me with reproachful puce features: “That’s easy for you to say… but the horizon… also moves.” I left him to it.
Here be dragons
Komodo Island itself was a letdown, and our first ‘sighting’ of a dragon with our guide turned out to be a wooden imitation of one, presumably planted there to make fools of tourists, or perhaps what residents of the fishing kampung here give their children in lieu of teddy bears. We walked on to Banunggulung, a riverbed where the two-metre long carnivorous lizards, which weigh around 70kg, congregate. Nothing.
However, no sooner had we stepped ashore at Rinca than we found three large adult lizards dozing in the sun outside the park headquarters. This inanition is partly a ploy to disarm prey, where the dragons pose a very real threat. A Komodo boy was killed by a dragon as recently as 2007, and the lizard’s bite contains 80 strains of bacteria, which means that even escaping victims will die of septicaemia. In the guide’s company we felt relatively safe, but his only defence seemed to be a stout stick with a forked end, which is used to prod marauding lizards in the neck in the hope that they will run away. Apparently this is more sensible than attempting to outrun a dragon, which can turn in a respectable 20 km/h – faster than most Indonesian buses.
Music and mountains
After our fish supper at Labuanbajo on Flores, we headed east by public bus to Moni, a peaceful village in the shadow of Kelimutu. Here we stayed at Hidayah Bungalows
, where the proprietor seemed particularly addicted to a CD featuring Lobo’s Me & You & A Dog Named Boo
, which, with its ramshackle guitar track and spirit ("travelling and living off the land!”), seemed as good a musical metaphor as any for my somewhat halting progress across Indonesia.
At four the next morning we piled sleepily into a bemo and were driven to a trailhead from where we hacked up the remaining five kilometres to Kelimutu, whilst our sinewy guide in his woollen shawl ceaselessly extolled the virtues of some sickly ‘3-in-1’ coffee he was selling. As the pre-dawn hike is both chill and challenging, it was actually a welcome accompaniment to the bewitching views one enjoys as the rising sun strikes varitones from the mountain’s blue, black and brown crater lakes – coloured due to chemicals in soil beneath.
Local tradition holds that the souls of the damned reside in the black lake, something I saw fit to ponder, given our party’s debauch on Bintang beer and rice wine in Moni the previous evening, as we descended Kelimutu on our 13km trek back to town, passing a brilliant white church and local women ikat weaving on the way. “Perhaps,” I thought, “given Flores’ animist background, I will be reborn as a Komodo dragon…” I shuddered, and hastened back to the guesthouse to grab a Bintang and my current read: Norman Lewis’s Southeast Asian travelogue, A Dragon Apparent.
Where to stay
Verve Villa Resort
, Senggigi, Lombok. A five-star seaside villa with a small pool several kilometres north of Senggigi, with great views over to Bali and Mount Agung. Three private suites all have spa baths, kingsize beds and outside bathrooms – for singing in the rain perhaps?
, Moni, Flores. ‘Luxury’ in Flores tends to mean mosquito nets are included, as they are here. This is just as well at this budget choice, where the local bugs will keep you company. However, the breakfast is spot-on and bamboo huts with decent views are clean.
Where to eat
, Senggigi, Lombok. This smart restaurant attached to a hotel is small but perfectly formed, like its menu, which serves Asian and international eats with verve. Some good wines are available and you can also dine al fresco
by the beach. Mains start at Rp 50,000.
Perama Tours & Travel, Kuta, Bali. This well-established firm runs the full range of tours around Nusa Tenggara, although more intimate sea voyages can be booked through most agencies in Bali and Lombok – just be careful who you hand your money over to!