a journey West from Flores to Lombok
01.12.2006 - 19.12.2006 35 °C
Hello and welcome to another edition of my bumbling journey across the world. A Christmas Special Edition it was meant to be but alas I did not manage to publish the epilogue in time (or even in the same year for that matter). However, it would have been unfair to do so as Christmas does not really exist in Indonesia apart from to entertain the tourist populous and in honesty I skipped the festive season this year completely. In the same vain, nor could it have been a New Year Special as Balinese-Hindu’s celebrate the coming of the New Year in Mid-April (in accordance with their Lunar Calendar). But it is something special, oh yes, the middle and the end of my trek around Nusa Tengarra - the region in the East of Indonesia which encompasses the islands of Bali, Lombok, Sumbawa & Flores.
I left you last time as I boarded the ferry from Sape on the East coast of Sumbawa on my way to the next principal island in the archipelago Flores. The 8 hour journey would take us across the Flores Sea reputedly home to a series of gigantic whirl pools that swallow the odd fishing boat from time to time. How true this is I have no idea and I'm quickly learning to look upon any statement of fact with scepticism - as my friend Lil in Lombok tells me 'don't trust anybody, especially yourself'.
The ferry was more basic than any I’d seen before – the main deck consisted of rows of delapidated wooden benches which occupied the front half and sides, and a raised wooden lattice serving as a communal bed in the center. The lattice proved an ingenious design as peanut shells, fruit peel and other miscellaneuous items could be neatly disposed of without having to leave your resting place, much to the delight of the cockroaches and ants that teemed beneath. Stacked high in every other available space were crates of fruit, vegetables, woven baskets & rugs, chickens, fighting cocks and goats, add to that 300 or so people and you can appreciate the luxury. The ‘executive’ class tickets which I thankfully declined were a little more luxurious placing you in a quieter room furnished with plastic coated benches that became at one with your bare skin after only a few moments of contact, with a TV playing painfully acted Indonesian TV dramas on loop - I was happier nestled amongst the chickens to be honest and away from the affections of a charming yet a little too touchy-feely lady boy that took a shining to me.
With a delay of only 2 hours (they’re pretty efficient in these parts!) the ferry set sail with the backdrop of another beautiful sunset over Sumbawa. As the only Westerner on the boat, I became a point of interest for those wishing to practice their English skills - the extent of the conversations were mostly limited to ' hello mister', ‘hello, what is your name?’ even some as advanced as ‘where are you from?’ which I thought comical until I reflected that my Bahasa was equally undeveloped and I could only return the same (siapa name anda? & beresal dari mana anda?). However, I befriended a chap on his way from his home in Sidioarsa in East Java to Ende in Flores whose English was impeccable which speeded the journey along sharing stories, improving our language and so forth. We shared the culinary delights on offer - sweet kope (coffee), baso (sheep testicle-like meatballs served on neon noodles with spicy sambal) and soggy peanuts still in there shells - I do mock but it was delicious! Over the course of the night, he rather generously offers me a free lift on to Ende on the other side of Flores. Too good to be true perhaps ?!?!? but he doesn’t look a dangerous man so I agree, why not?
We arrive safely in the port of Labuan Bajo on Flores at 3am and my new friend skips off to collect his truck which is (apparently) parked around the corner and I wait patiently at port for his return. After 1 hour waiting in a rather intimidating and practically deserted port except for a crowd of men who look like they want to eat my liver or relieve me of my wallet, there's still no sign of his return and it looks like he’s pulled a Houdini disappearing act on me - it was too be good true it seems! I still have no idea why he would do such a thing - my favourite two theories being he was kidnapped by aliens or his marajuana-induced short term memory loss got the better of him. Nothing lost & nothing gained on my part other than ever-growing distrust of Muslims and amusing story - I am learning it seems. The crowd of men I previously thought to be would-be thieves actually turn out to be the port night security and absolute gentleman at that, with one giving me a free ride to find a hotel for the night, once he had finished rolling around the floor laughing at my story that is.
...meaning 'flower' in Portuguese - an appropriate time for me to add a beautiful photo of a Frangipane, a timeless icon for me of Indonesia.
Labuan Bajo is a ramshackle port on the far West coast of Flores, surrounded by steep wooded cliffs which provide a stunning lookout of the thousands of islands dotted around the Flores sea. It’s rapidly becoming a boom town, having doubled in size over the past five years with tourism and commercial transportation alongside traditional industries like fishing as its main growth factors.
The people here are a real mix. As the gateway to the East (Timor, Sumba and beyond) there are lots of truck drivers from as far away as Jakarta (a grueling 7 day journey away) that are passing through and do so on a regular basis. There's also a suprisingly thriving gay scene which my hotel (Bajo Beach) is seemingly the hub for with Victor my overly keen personal servant (entirely voluntary I have to add) leading the way in the game of 'harrass the westerner' - all harmless I assure you. With a trek up into the hills above the town, I did find an enterprising local chap who I tried to give money for food to (see the pic!) but insisted on cigarettes. He supplemented his pension by collecting and selling rocks to passing road crews which befuddled me as there were rocks strewn as far as the eye could see. It rather reminded me of the scene from Monty Python's The Life Of Brian:
stone seller: Stone, sir?
Mother: There's stones everywhere you fool
Stone seller: Oh, not like these, sir. Look at this! Feel the quality of that, that's craftmanship, sir.
Mother: Ehm...all right, two flats and a packet of gravel.
Despite the harrassment of the gay populous, Labuan Bajo does deliver a laid back vibe with some funky bungalow-style digs which overlook the harbour, and a couple of swanky yet over-priced bars. There’s not much to do except kick back and relax, perhaps explore the port and surrounding villages, and most importantly choose your resting spot for the sunset Bintang for which LB is spoilt - the best of which I found to be The Paradise Bar.
Labuan Bajo is however the launch pad for explorations into the world famous Komodo National Park, both above and below the water. With a taste to check reputedly some of the worlds best dive spots I seek out a reputable dive center for which Bajo Divers fitted the bill. Run by an Austrian chap with a rather warped sense of humour and 2 super friendly Dive Masters - one local, the other an Austrian - they were one of the few dive centers employing local shop staff and boat crew, plus they offered free training for their staff to become dive masters so seemed ethical enough. The town was all but devoid of tourists so suprisingly the shop had no bookings which means big bucks for me (one of the down sides of traveling alone) so I took it upon myself to find some punters. The search bears fruit and I with an extra discount for bringing the extra business I'm all set for 2 days of fun on the luxurious dive boat the 'Im So Gang'.
The first days outing was shared with a quite a group - 3 Spaniards who had just passed their PADI Open Water and an Italian/English couple who were somewhat more experienced and the two dive masters. We tackled 2 dive sites both located in the waters to the East of Komodo island. The journey out there was splendour in itself reminding me that there's more to days diving than simply what goes on beneath the waves - passing by beautiful islands with inlets promising untouched beaches, flying fish cruising alongside the boat (they literally do fly or glide more like it, up to 50 metres or so - incredible!), shoals of Tuna bubbling beneath the surface driven into frenzy by an unseen predator.
The first of the 2 dives for the day was at the notorious Batu Bolong reputed in many dive guides to be one of the best if not the best in the region. 'Only dive masters should attempt this' warned one dive shop for the site presents a very real danger - as the tidal currents sweet over and around the partially submerged coral stack, they create an awesome current that spirals down the sheltered side of the column - stray too far from the shelter of the coral and you will be sucked 80 metres down to a welcoming comittee of hammerheads and bull sharks, not recommended.
On entry the current wasn't too bad not that I would stray too far from the coral to really test it. But what a sight, an incredible coral garden teeming with fish life and easily the most impressive and pristine environment I'd seen yet. Although there were no big pelagics on display apart from a passing shoal of Trevailly and some Napolean Wrasse, there was a huge variety of the usual suspects but the highlight for me was the small stuff with an unthinkable variety of nudibranch and, a new one for me, procelain crabs.
The second dive site for the day was was Tatawan Besar - whilst no where near as spectacular as the first, the current was a little more forgiving meaning you could relax a little more. A foolish error in that I 'forgot' what a Trigger Fish was and I watched for what seemed an age the well known display of this mini-terror of the deep first inverting itself (the 1st warning) then swimming around me in tightening circles (the 2nd warning) before she called in her mate who measured almost 2 feet in length (I exagerrate not) to remove me and possibly a finger or two from their nest site. Once I saw those jaws wide open with razor sharp backward-pointing teeth coming straight for a remembered what these demons can do and in a cloud of bubbles and panic I escaped. The hapless Spaniards who followed my every move unfortunately took the brunt of his anger losing a chunk from his left calf muscle - a valuable lesson learnt nonetheless.
The following day, the Spaniards not suprisingly declined the offer to be Triggerfish food and sat it out and with the couple heading off to Ende I had a new crew for the day - up steps 'Mental Marty' who deserves the title entirely - anyone whose motto is 'you gotta die sometime' is bound to have a screw or three lose - and a german called Phil (nice name!).
The two dive sites for the day were Castle Rock and Crystal Rock, situated on the northern tip of Komodo island. More exposed to tides of the East Flores sea, the current at Batu Bulong seemed like a fart in a bath tub compared to these two. At times you had to hang on with both hands to avoid a one way trip to Autralia or more likely the bottom of the food chain. The strong currents do bring their own benefits with some bigger stuff to see including a number of stingrays, white & black tip reef sharks. I really should stop chasing sharks but it seems that 'kodak courage' applies to the person behind the camera too - I'm almost satisfied with the shot but next time just that little bit closer...
The 2nd dive was finished with a real photographic delight - the normal 5 minute safety stop settled us near a sheer column of coral with this perfectly formed rockfish posing in the brilliant sunlight. He was so well camoflauged I almost swam right by but so glad I didn't. Shot of the trip by far!
Having spent 5 days in Labuan Bajo alone, I was running short on time if I wanted to explore Bali so I had to sacrifice a trip out to the volcano Kelimutu. I felt a little aggrieved to leave Flores without exploring in land and I never really got a feel for what is described 'a land that opimitimises Indonesia as the land of volcanoes' but sacrifices have to be made some times. With an opportunity arisen with Mental Marty to take a boat cruise back to Lombok at a bargain price I decided to head back West.
Flores to Lombok Boat Trip
For a bargain price of 600,000Rp (some nifty bartering on my part) I took a 4 day/3 night cruise on a simple boat, designed for 14 but given the lack of tourists we totalled only 4 including me - plenty of space, tonnes of food and no claustrophobia. The trip began with a short sprint across the East Flores sea to the island of Rinca & Komodo to see the feared Komodo Dragons. The outing involved following an ill-trained guide of 16 years or so who, armed with a flimsy wooden stick, took us on a bush walk into the territory of these much feared monsters, the largest living lizard on earth.
The stories that precede this monolithic monsters are legendary with tourists being attacked and dragged off to their lairs, eaten alive over the period of many hours beginning with their feet pausing only to play catch with the poor tourists testicles (just adding my own bit of folklore ;o). None of this is true but there a couple of documented cases worth mention, the love of all things gruesome being so close to the human heart. The most famous case is of a Swiss chap who decided whilst on a tour of Komodo Island to wander off on his own to get some pictures never to be seen again - all that was found were his spectacles and digital camera, oo err. More recently on Rinca, a child of four years died when whilst playing under the stilts of their house, a dragon sneaked from behind unseen and attacked the child at the mid riff. Her startled father went to her rescue and attempted to wrestle his daughter from the jaws of the beast only suceeding in contributing to disembowelling the child in the foray.
I actually found the dragons to be quite pacified thereby proving that looks can be deceiving. As lizards are cold blooded, during the midday heat when we visited they are all but interested in basking in the sun. On the tour of Rinca (by far the better of the two tours), it was common to find a dragon lying prone in the stream bed alongside a Water Buffaloo that appeared to be quite at peace knowing it's only predator lay 3 feet away - quite a serene scene. The ranger gave a different story in that this is how the dragon 'hunts' it's prey by lying perfectly still and waiting for it's prey to stumble into its jaws. The Buffalo's it seems viewed the dragon as a piece of wood making this blundering beast rank alongside the wilderbeast as one of natures prime cannon fodder. In a similar vain, under the leadership of Mental Marty this homo sapien decided to make test the theory by pulling on his tale. Ah, all those $$$s spent on my education - look how far I've come!
However, 2 hours before and we would have witnessed them tearing apart a water buffalo that they caught the previous day. A close up of their claws reveals what damage they could do if they could be bothered to raise their temper. But never fear, the likelihood of you being ripped to shreds on the first encounter is pretty much nill as the dragons will first bite you, injecting you with a debilitating venom that will slowly paralyse you over the period of several hours. Left untreated you will die a slow and painful death, then be eaten by the dragon, but if you can make it to a hospital back in Labuan Bajo you may just survive.
After all that excitement it was time to relax. The menu for the day entirely depended on the success of our fishing abilities - an empty catch meant a feast of Nasi Goreng (rice and egg) but with natures great supermarket at our disposal we only had to endure this just the once. Our Belgium compadre on the trip took to the task of catching dinner with glee, coupled with the expertise of the boat's crew we ate like kings!
Other daily entertainment ranged from the odd spot of snorkelling/dodging jellyfish, playing cards, and pluging head first off the roof of the boat into shallow waters with only coral for a crash mat (another one of Mental Marty's brainchilds).
Looking back the trip was much fun & most relaxing if not a little expensive if you paid the full 1 mill asking price that is. One concern that sticks in my mind was where exactly the rubbish went to as there was seemingly none on the boat at all at the end of the trip and having been at sea for 4 days there can only be one explanation as to where it went. I read several weeks later a complaint from a guy who took a similar trip with the rival company Perama, who awoke in the night to witness bin bags being thrown overboard in national park waters no less. I didn't see this first hand but it's hard to imagine where else the rubbish went. Indonesia is not so good at looking after it's natural resources to say the least and perhaps I/we should boycott such unethical operators. I voiced my concerns and was met with laughter aand a shrug of the shoulders so what could I do. I wish more but this really is the tip of the ice berg - I didn't see a single landfill the whole time I was in Indonesia, one of the great mysteries, perhaps.
On arrival in Lombok, I headed back to familiar ground to the island's capital Mataram seeking the luxury of a room with a bathroom. En route from the bus station to my chosen digs The Mataram Hotel, and would you believe it but who should pull alongside me on another motorbike but my old friend Lil, quite a coincidence in a town of over 50,000 people. At this time Lil was far a friend as I was feeling cheated by his overpriced tobacco scam at our last meeting but Lil was keen to make up for any grievance. Escorting me to the hotel, he secured me a double room with ensuite and TV for the bargain price of 40,000Rp, by far the most luxurious accomodation I'd stayed in so far on this trip. So far so good.
Inspired by Mental Martys adventures in Java and missing out on climbing Kelimuto on Flores, my next steps were to climb Indonesia's 3rd highest volcano Mount Rinjani rising 3,726m above the highly fertile lowlands dotted with rice, soybeans, coffee, tobacco, cotton, cinnamon and vanilla plantations. For the people of Lombok, Sasak and Balinese alike, the volcano is revered as a sacred place and abode of deities. Segara Anak crater lake is the destination of thousand of pilgrims who place offerings in the water and bathe away disease in the hot springs - whilst I was not diseased apart from some infected mosquito bites it seemed a worthy pilgrimage to get closer to my mum.
Lil 'knew a man' who organised treks so on the back of his hotel performance I agreed to travel with him to arrange a trip to Senaru, a small village located at the foot of Rinjani. After a bumpy bemo ride, we met with his 'friend' who turned out merely to be an aquaitance and it quickly became apparent I was about to enter another scam. The 'friend' insisted that it was impossible (infact illegal was his claim) to climb Rinjani alone and you must take an organised trip through the Rinjani Trek Center for the list price of around 1,000,000Rp - if I did not I should leave town immediately as people would be upset and he would be unable to protect me. Unwilling to become a source of some kind of civil uprising, and after checking that the organisation was bonified it was with great reluctance I agreed but at a vastly reduced price of 400,000Rp.
(I later found out that it is perfectly ok to climb alone and infact the crater rim hike is easily achievable unguided - however I would not recommend the full 3-4 day hike without a guide as this is serious business.)
With money spent the deal was done so I cleared my head with some cerebal relief with Lil at a spectacular waterfall and enjoyed a slap up meal to prep for the next day.
The trek begins at sunrise when I meet my fellow companions for the trip - the guide, a porter and his friend who's coming along for the ride. The first hours climb steeply through thick tropical forest rich in flora like wild orchids and wild raspberiies, bird life and variety of butterflies.
We were lucky to see the rare black ebony leaf monkey, known locally as lutung who stalked us along the main rail for some time then made a sweeping attack for our snack food when we rested at the bayan tree 'bunut ngenkang' that looks like someone standing with their legs apart.
We camped for the night at position 3 at Mondokon Lolak (2,000m) after about five hours climb from Senaru. With a slap up meal of Nasi Goreng that never tasted so good and some traditional Sasak songs bashed out on the guitar that I thought on the climb unnecessary but now saw the reason for, our spirits were soaring higher than the peak of Rinjani that lay hidden behind the final 600m of the climb.
Excitement got the better of me and I insisted that we make the final push that night for a sneak preview of the crater lake. What a sight! It was one of those moments in my life where I was truly lost for words, I could not have expected in all my wildest dreams to be experiencing the natural beauty displayed in front of me - the 6 km by 8.5 km oval-shaped caldera partially filled by a mirror lake known as Segara Anak leading to the towering summit of Mount Rinjani and within the crater, Mount Baru which is an active volcano, last erupting dramatically in 1994. Stunning!
After a night gathered around the campfire fueled with Barum (rice wine) singing Sasak and me returning Western pop songs (I never sing but this night was different), I awoke to find a perfectly clear day. Eager to take in the view one more time I awoke my porter and we practically sprinted the 600m back to the crater rim - it was no less spectacular the 2nd time around. Further more gazing north you could see the Gili Isles where I'd partyed 3 weeks before, and to the west Bali and the mighty Mount Agung.
With the mission accomplished, we descended down the trail down to senaru village through first grassland then back into the shade of the tropical forest for what should have been 7 hours but what took more like 3. Timing was impeccable as as we arrived in the village the heavens opened and I was reminded that this most definately the wet season.
Arriving back in Mataram, I hooked up once again with Lil and we sat down for a long chat to try to resolve our friendship. He admitted he had tried to make some money from me but that he had to do it which I didn't quite understand what he meant - I could accept that yes I had money but there was no need to deceive me - that was what hurt my heart and made me want to flee. To make me understand why, Lil decided to invite me to his home that evening - it was his 4 year old son's birthday so we would celebrate with a meal cooked by his wife and then go party with his friends.
His house was in what I can only describe as the slums in the east of Mataram, a simple 4x4m front room containing a single table on which rested a packet of noodles and a single egg, the floor lined with cardboard; and a single 2x4m bedroom attached. Despite it's size, the rent was for 130,000Rp a month, add to that electricity and money for transport 40,000Rp per month which leaves the princely sum of 40,000Rp remainding from the family income to feed and cloth his son, wife and 6 month old baby. I was beginning to understand why he had overcharged me the equivalent of $8 for that tobacco. I felt like an asshole.
For his birthday, Lil's son received a colouring book and a t-shirt handed down from the neighbours and the child's smile was nowhere to be seen as it was the first year they hadn't had a celebration for his birthday. I asked Lil what he really needed and he replied a bag for school so we headed off into Mataram on a mid-night shopping trip. The bag we bought for the bargain price of 40,000Rp was way too big but would be good until he was 10 or so. The smile on his face when I gacve him his gift was unbelievable. I've no idea what he really thought of this pale faced stranger bringing gifts as my attempts to converse in Bahasa were unanswered but I hope he was happy. It was breaking my heart to watch this and I felt such guilt for my scepticism and distrust of the past few weeks - I was glad to leave to meet Lil's friends for the party.
The night that followed was crazy - 6 plastic bags of Barum (rice wine)were consumed at an exclusive road-side location next to a bridge on the main road to Mataram. Once we were truly sozzled we hopped on the motorbikes (2-3 on each) and sped across town, yelping, standing on the seats, passing smokes betwen bikes. I should have been killed I'm sure but pumped full of adrenalin we arrived at The Strip where all the young things of Mataram had come out to party - hundreds of motorbikes lined the streets as we shared coffees and good times all in different native tongue but all in the same language of laughter.
It was with fond memories that I left Mataram the next morning on my way to the port of Lembar to catch the ferry back to Bali - I felt like I'd gained a brother, lost many brain cells and a few nights sleep in the process granted, but perhaps the closest 'native' friend I'd made since Eroni on Fiji. I promised Id reurn to see Lil, I hope I can live up the promise. Next stop Bali for my last 7 days in Indonesia.