We had come all this way, so were intent on visiting the interior of Flores Island. This proved to be more tricky and time-consuming than expected, mainly due to the absence of effective public transport on the island. ‘Bemos’ only do small distances, advance very slowly and do not offer the flexibility to visit places ‘en-route’, especially when travelling with bags. We finally opted for a private-driver, this was the only way we could visit the island from west to east in 4 days. We contacted a few companies/guides online, entering into hard negociations which lasted a few days. We chose an all-inclusive deal with a driver/English-speaking-guide for 3,7 millionRupis (apparently a good price), from Labuan Bajo to Maumere in 4 days, 3 nights. We did not regret the ‘all-inclusive’: not having to look for accomodation every night made a nice change and proved to be very convenient in the high tourist season.
Our driver was Vincent. We set off soon after he picked us up in Labuan Bajo, late morning on the first day. We were just returning from our paradisical retreat on Seraya Island. We headed straight inland, following the 2-lane ‘Flores Highway’ through mountain roads, lush valleys and green plantations. Rural villages lined the road, each boasting no more than a few ramshack houses equipped with individual satellite dishes. A trans-island high voltage power line was under construction. The road was in very good condition. Vincent was chatty, and we were curious: we wanted to learn more about his life and family, and the history, position of religion, work conditions and politics of Flores, and Indonesia in general. We were talking to the right guy: in his youger days, Vincent was involved in the student union of his University in East Timor, defending access to education for all. After working for a Japanese NGO on development projects in Flores for 10 years, he started his own business. He now drives tourists up and down the island 7 days a week, to afford private school for his young son. Like all Indonesians, he is proud of his country and it’s moto ‘Unity in Diversity’. He deplores the corruption and inertia that unfortunately plagues the government, praising the actions of the current president which, according to him, would be more effective if he could concentrate more power.
That day we stopped at a few viewpoints, and the aptly-named spiderweb rice fields. This configuration is quite unique due to the land being flat and the way it’s distributed between the various communities in the area. We stopped at Ruteng for the night, our abode would be a room in a charming villa with a view of sunset over the ricefields.
The next morning we caught our first glimpses of Enery (or Inerie) volcano, which would be our objective for the day. We passed through surprisingly dry lands in the valley, before heading back up into mountain roads.
We stopped at Bena Traditional Village.
It was hard to tell how traditional or current this village was. It was almost deserted, save for a few young children, cute puppies, two elders who spoke English and invited us in for a coffee, and women with long silver hair, weaving and chewing on a red substance that made they teeth look bloody. When we got a closer look, it did not seem like the women were really weaving, or at least not the same motifs or material as the scarves and blankets they were selling.
Interacting with the community was nonetheless an enjoyable experience. We also walked up to the look-out over the village and it’s oddly-shaped grass roofs, and the lush valley below, leading up to Enery volcano.
That would be our only stop for the day, before our guesthouse in Bajawa. It was Saturday night and the locals had organised a street party with foodstands and live music. Once the local band exhausted their Bob Marley repertoire, they started playing more variety of raggae and rock, ending with a local song that got the audiance dancing to the steps: ‘Flores Island, my Paradise Island’. Some locals cohersed us into tasting Indonesia’s notorious aniseed-based spirit, Arak, which warmed our bodies and loosened our limbs.
After church for Vincent, and breakfast for us, we headed out early the next day. On the way out of Bajawa we noticed disparities in development between neighbouring plots of land: derelict bungalows with coffee, clove and cacao seeds drying out front, opposed modern, spacious, 2-story houses. This was the queue at the petrol station:
Further along, we ran into Flores’s increasingly popular annual cycle rance: the Tour de Flores. Vincent, like most locals, had no qualms in making traffic management impossible for the police and race staff. This was justified by the unfair financing of the race, mostly from Flores communities who are given no choice, and benefit very little from the event, unlike the banks and international businesses who gain high visibility for very little contribution. Trucks, bemos and cars were ordered to pull over by police on motorbikes. They obeyed just long enough for the police to be out of sight, and would be on their way again. This gave us a good opportunity to admire the colourful geometric designs and accessories which adourned these vehicles: from wheel rim to windscreen wiper, these babies were pimped! They even had show-off names: Savior, Dear Diary, Night Song, Born Again, Marco Polo, Perfection. When the race was 5-minutes away, the police pulled out the big guns: a military tank! The motorists got the message, and pulled over for good this time. The race passed in a blink, and we were off again.
Our next stop was beautiful Blue Beach, which gets it’s name from a unique mix of black volcanic sand and multi-coloured pebbles. As an avid sand/stone/rock/seashell collector, this place was my (Steph’s) paradise!
I had to tear myself away so we could head for our next destination, another traditional village of the Ngada group this time, called Wologai. This village seemed more inhabited, and the locals did not take much notice of us. We admired the different shape of the huts, and murals carved in their wooden panels. We saw ‘candlenut’ for the first time, which can be eaten, or crushed to make wax used for candles and other purposes.
On the way out, a volleyball match was underway in the courtyard of a house. This sport is very popular in Indonesia, and it was nice to see it bring together all generations, friends and family, guys and girls playing together.
We got to tonight’s pit stop, the village of Moni, in record-time, thanks to Vincent’s expert driving skills. Throughout the journey we were in awe at the tacit ‘beeping language’ that driver’s share on the Flores Highway. Beeping or double-beeping can mean anything from ‘I’m overtaking’ to ‘I’m behind you’, ‘I’m coming round the corner’ and ‘Thanks’. We were glad to get out of the car, after the whole day on dizzying mountain roads, listening to Vincent’s slightly limited playlist for the 10th time: the integral ABBA collection and German pop from the 80’s! For the sake of his next passengers, we donated music to him, and even he was happy for the change.
Before dinner, we quickly checked our Moni’s local attraction: a hot-water waterfall.
The next day was an early start. Like many natural attractions in Indonesia, it is custom to visit them at sunrise or sunset. And the Kelimutu Volcanos, the highlight of our roadtrip, were no exception. The drive from Moni took about an hour, and the easy walk up to the viewpoints over the colourful crater lakes, just half an hour through quiet forest. There are 3 craters lakes side-by-side in this location, each of a different colour depending on their algea, chemical, oxygen and rainwater composition at a given time of year. We had a dark blue lake, a turquoise blue one, and the last was hidden in the shaddows and clouds, but looked black, and is supposed to be dark red. They were spectacular, and the soft rays of the early morning Sun did accentuate their colours, although we did feel visiting the viewpoints at any other time of day would offer just as amazing views, with the added advantage of there being less people.
After breakfast back in Moni, we snoozed in the car while Vincent drove us to our last destination. On route, we stopped at a market to taste some local fruit, a Maraka: it looks like brains but tastes like pomegranate, very juicy and acidic.
The villages we passed were abuzz with children in uniform starting the new school year after the annual summer break, practising anthems and routines in school courtyards.
Our destination, Koka Beach, is not famous for nothing! It is actually 2 pristine fine-sand beaches, seperated by a tiny vegetated peninsula. On one side the sea is calm and you can catch a few water sprays as waves crash onto the rocky area at the end of the beach, and on the other side, the water is deep and rough, of an amazing turquoise colour.
We had limited time, so just walked and enjoyed the view from the shade as our lunch was being prepared at the local family-run restaurant. Despite being worried by the sight of roosters and chickens flying and walking all over the restaurant tables and furniture, this lunch turned out to be our best meal of our whole time in Indonesia! It was a healthy feast of fresh grilled fish, rice, spinash and bamboo in a garlic broth, tomato salad, mangos, pineapples and watermelon!
That lunch marked the end of our Flores roadtrip. We did not regret having travelled Flores as we did, especially considering the little time we had left in Indonesia. It gave us a different perspective on Indonesia, other than the beaches, islands, boats and snorkelling we had experienced thus far. There are so many other regions we did not get to explore (Java, Sumatra, Sulawesi), but with only a 30-day Visa, this can’t be helped. One of the greatest travel lessons we have learnt throughout this trip is that it’s better to explore one location well, than 10 in a rush, mindlessly going from one tourist attraction to the next. And most importantly: no FOMO (heads up to our travel-buddy, Will)!
Vincent drove us to Maumere, a big coastal town on the east of Flores. He arranged a pretty guesthouse on the beach for us. We said our goobyes, and expressed our admiration at his unfailing good mood and hard work: despite missing out on his son’s first day at school, he was off to escourt another group of tourists across the island. We spent the afternoon relaxing in the garden hammacks and exploring the black volcanic beach. There, we met a young local who was curious about us.
He was an English teacher but since the beginning of his career has had a hard time finding a descent-paying position. He said, like everything else in Indonesia, the school system is corrupt and without the proper connections, there is no hope for an aspiring teacher. But he was persevering and working hard, for a miserable pay of 50 euros a month! Today, the first day of school, was especially hard as he had to design a whole curriculum and get it approved by the headmaster. Talking about the difficult work conditions in Indonesia got us on the depressing subject of poor Indonesians, like many friends of his, who emmigrate illegally to Malaysia, looking for work, only to end up paper-less and vulnerable, indebted to human smugglers and at the mercy of crime rings. A very interesting and moving encounter.
That evening was our last in Indonesia. We ate and drank at the guesthouse with 2 other guests, Spanish girls, exchanging stories and travel tips from our time in Indonesia. We had an early flight to Singapore, via Bali, the next morning. We caught a Bemo to the airport, adourned with unique interior decor. On the plane, we weren’t reassured by the prayer cards in our seat pockets.
This blacklisted airline flight was just another of the dangers in Indonesia we would have to face! We had already survived Indonesian roads on a rented scooter, a 3-day cruise in a wooden boat in Indonesia’s rough seas, snorkelling through strong currents, trekking up a volcano, not ending up in Indonesian jail after taking mushrooms, and Indonesia’s diahrea-inducing Bintang beer! This would be the last on the list. Jokes aside, all went really smoothly. The views from the plane were clear and beautiful: we could see all across each island we had travelled through and volcano we had seen close-up or from afar: Kelimutu, Ebulobo, Enery, Rinjani, and the cluster of all the islands between Flores, Komodo, Lombok and Bali.
At Bali airport, we ran into 2 French girls we had met on the boat trip. Despite having fallen in love with all Indonesia has to offer, and vowing to return one day, we were looking forward to enjoying a few days of comfort and civilization again, in our next destination city: Singapore.