Experiencing Flores

Helen and I set off from Denpasar airport on my favourite plane, a Merpati Fokker 27. Unlike previous intra-Indonesia trips, both engines started first time, and we landed in Bima, Sumbawa, about two hours later. We disembarked for the transit lounge. One elderly couple on the plane were fitted out in the best Middle East-style clothing, and were obviously returning from a pilgrimage to Mecca. Most of their village seemed to be there to meet them. (A rough mental calculation estimated about three years' wages for such a trip.)


An hour later we landed in Labuhanbajo, at the western end of Flores. 

The luggage took nearly half an hour to make it the 50m across the tarmac, and ten airport employees stood around and watched one man do the lot by himself. On the outside of the arrival area, pressed against the glass, was a crowd of locals, waving bits of hand-written paper, enticing us to stay at various hotels. Once outside, "Geoffery" assured us that the ride to the Waecicu Beach resort, recommended to us by Cathie, would be free.


The bemo deposited us at the resort "office" in the town, with Geoffery and his friend, Michael. Michael quickly took charge. He took money from the young man at the resort office and paid off the bemo driver. They then invited us across the street to a restaurant, to negotiate a fun-filled stay in Labuhanbajo. 

We agreed on a price of Rp 160,000 (~A$35) for a day trip to Rinca, an island where we could see, amongst other creatures, Komodo dragons. It also transpired that we were the first Australians in the town in living memory, because of the "masalah Lombok" (Lombok problems) and "John Howard".


Once a 50% deposit was handed over, we were led between the roadside shacks to the waterfront, and boarded an outrigger for the Waecicu Beach resort. The half-hour ride was lovely, and the "resort" is situated in a beautiful bay. It was downhill all the way from there. There were three staff. We decided to share a bungalow, for Rp 30,000 (~A$6.50), including meals, each, a night. We were ripped off.


The bungalow was dingy, the electricity generator was "rusak" (broken) and the bathroom, or "mandi" albeit reasonably clean, was as basic as possible. It was attached, but outside the room (usual in Indonesia) and consisted of an Asian-style toilet, and a plastic rubbish bin, which was filled each day with river water. (Helen walked up to the river the second day, and said that she wished she hadn't seen it.) To bathe, one had to ladle cold water over one's self, soap up, and then rinse off.


As the sun set magnificently over the nearby islands, and the insect life arrived, we knocked off a bottle of "Wine of the Gods" dry white on the beach. (A couple of expats have begun importing Margaret River wine in vats, and are bottling it in Bali.) We then strolled to the "restaurant", a concrete-floored shelter with some trestles and stools. Dinner was edible, just. We had greasy omelettes, some sort of local fried vegetable matter, white rice, and some fried tofu. With every meal we were given tea, despite the fact that we said we didn't want it, and didn't touch it.


Our hosts gave us a hurricane lamp, and we went to our bungalow and hit the sack. There was nothing else to do. We were the only guests, apart from an Indonesian chap who claimed to be from the town, and wasn't about much at all.


I was very tired in the morning, when I was woken by the chug-chug of fishing boats as they made their dawn trip across the bay. My kapok mattress and concrete pillow didn't make for a sound sleep. After a mandi, we had breakfast - a fried banana sandwich, a boiled egg, a banana and tea. Coffee was "habis" (finished). Our boat to Rinca arrived, with Michael and Geoffery. We negotiated the outrageous price of Rp 900,000 (~A$195) for a Kijang and driver for four days, to negotiate the trans-Flores highway. We handed over Rp200,000 deposit, and then boarded the boat, sans Michael and Geoffery, for Rinca.


Because meals were included, Helen had asked for something to take for lunch, maybe involving bananas, bread, etc. We received four bananas and some bread, in a plastic bag, which we donated to our boat crew.


The two and a half hour cruise down the west coast of Flores and across to Rinca was beautiful. We saw schools of fish leaping out of the water, and a lone dolphin. We were rained on for a short time, but the sun was back out at Rinca. We walked around to the Komodo National Park office and handed over Rp 28,000 (~A$6). The ranger was delightful, and led us off into the middle of the island, in search of dragons.


We found some water buffalo wallowing beside the track, and, a bit further on, encountered a huge monitor lizard, at least 3m long. The ranger said it was probably the largest on the island. We didn't see any more dragons, except for the ones that hung around the Park office. Up on the highest point of the island we met 20% of the other tourists on the island, a Dutchman called Ricky, who spends seven months a year in Bedugal, Bali, with his Balinese wife. We had an interesting exchange of Indonesian experiences.


On the cruise back the boat took us to a small island for a swim. We were assured that it was private, but there was some sort of local family gathering there, involving at least fifty people. Privacy and personal space have little meaning in Indonesia, and the Florinese seem to have the least understanding of what it means to Westerners. I wasn't well, but jumping into the water helped. We swam for a while, but the gawking, particularly at Helen, with her blonde hair, became a bit much, so we returned to the "resort".


The staff were nowhere in evidence, and the Indonesian guest told us they had all sailed into town. I had to have a lie down, which did me a bit of good. The staff eventually turned up, and we were able to put our bottle of Hattons Bali rose on ice for "dinner". We went for a walk up and down the bay, and then, for a change, sat at a different trestle to dine. This time it was pineapple (which neither of us felt like), more white rice, some fried potato balls and some vegetable of some sort. Again, we eschewed the resort night life, and had an early night.


Breakfast the next morning consisted, surprisingly, of a pineapple pancake, and coffee - the staff outing to Labuhanbajo township had not been in vain. We settled our account, bid farewell, and chugged into town. Michael was waiting for us with a nice vehicle, and Asiz, our driver, whom Michael assured us was very experienced. As it turned out, both the boat crew and Asiz were excellent choices for their roles.


Chatting with Asiz revealed that he had been to Australia. Further questioning elicited the information that he had spent time at Her Majesty's pleasure in Broome, while his boat was being burnt!


Off we set along the trans-Flores highway, the only road across Flores. At best, it had straight bits with a white line and enough room for two vehicles to pass each other normally. Most of the way it was winding, beside seemingly bottomless valleys, and it went through innumerable large potholes and around periodic mini landslides.


After three hours, stopping only to view a nice lake, we arrived, in pouring rain, in the town of Ruteng. We stopped at a restaurant, recommended in our well-known travel guide, and had lunch. In comparison with Waecicu Beach, it was lovely. The rain stopped as we did the next leg to our evening destination of Bajawa. After an hour and a half we asked Asiz to stop so we could stretch our legs. After we got out, Asiz asked if we wanted to visit the arak "factory" opposite.


Under a low, grass-roofed shelter, some villagers were distilling firewater from the fruit of a palm tree. They had two clay pots filled with the fermented juice, and had them submerged in hot coals. The boiling mixture was channelled upwards and along about five metres of bamboo pipe, in which it condensed. It was collected as it dripped from the end. We bought 750ml, decanted into one of our empty aqua bottles, for Rp 15,000 (~A$3). The seventy-one-year-old chap who made it assured us that it never made him "mabuk" (drunk). The other villagers told us he was rarely otherwise.


In Bajawa we visited a few hotels, and decided that the Hotel Korina was the least disgusting. The mattresses and pillows were again concrete, and the mandis, because of the mountain location, were icy. Our host, Phillip, could have been Michael's brother.


A walk around town, and through the market, indicated that the local gene pool had shrunk to a puddle. We dined at the Camellia restaurant across the road from the hotel. The food was okay, and there were a couple of other tourists present. However, every would-be tour guide in the town turned up to tout, including Phillip. Helen's Bahasa Indonesia skills seemed to be, for once, a disadvantage, because they all wanted to talk to her. We eventually got the message across that we were well catered for by Asiz.


The screams from the mandi the next morning were followed by a tolerable breakfast of banana pancake and coffee. We had another walk around the market. We found a nice Catholic church, and had a look inside, and a chat with the Indian priest, who had had the church built during his eighteen years in Bajawa.


Back at the Hotel Korina, we found Asiz and headed out to the traditional Ngada villages, where wooden male and female structures harken back to the pre-Catholic animist religion. The first town, Langda, consisted of some houses around a muddy square, with a few totems in the centre. The few people around appeared to be very impoverished. Further down the side of the impressive Gunung Inere we stopped to collect some gum leaves, from one of the many eucalypts that abound in Flores. Further still, a car coming back up the hill contained two tourists in the back with a driver, and, in the front passenger seat, a grinning Phillip, who waved to show us that he had ended up with a "catch".


Asiz stopped and pointed out a road being constructed up in to the village of Luba. We walked in, and found a much nicer place than Langda. Despite the totems everywhere, a young lady assured us that the villagers were "seratus percent Catholic" (100%). It was a short walk back to the main local tourist attraction of Bena, with a proliferation of totems, and nearly every house selling ikat weaving.


Back in town we had a snack at the Kasih Bahagia restaurant, and another walk around town. We went back there for dinner, and had an early night.


After another poor night's sleep, ice-cold mandis, banana pancakes and coffee, we set out for Moni, the "base camp" for the three coloured lakes of Kelimutu. Enroute, we stopped at Pantai Batu Hijau (Green Rock beach) and got out for a wander. The locals are bagging the beautiful coloured (mainly green) rocks at an enormous rate, and there soon won't be any.


In Ende, ostensibly the largest town in Flores, we attempted to get some money at the Bank Danemon. The ATM (the only one in town) was, of course, "rusak", and wouldn't be usable until at least 4pm - it was 11am. We went inside and inquired about the exchange rate for American dollars. The young lady cheerfully told us that it was Rp 7,600 to the dollar. However, if we actually wanted to change money, it magically dropped to Rp 6,500. We left after a short, futile debate. Later on, at the Bank Rakyat, the manager gave us a more acceptable Rp 7,100.


We dined at "one of Ende's best restaurants" (the well-known travel guide, again), and spent a bit of time wondering what Ende's worst restaurants would be like. An hour or so out of Ende we came across a landslide that we had been told about in Bajawa. Asiz pulled in at the head of the short queue. There were two earth movers repairing the hillside. Apparently it had been rectified the day before, but fell down again. Each time an earth mover stopped, locals scuttled back and forth to catch the bemos running shuttles back to Ende, on our side, and Maumere, on the other. The man in charge told us that we would have at least a three-hour wait. After a short look around, we arranged ourselves across the back seat of the Kijang for a snooze. Again personal privacy had no meaning. A stream of young men kept pressing their faces to the window to gawk, and in the end we gave up trying to sleep.


Suddenly, after an hour and a half, Asiz appeared and started the car. An earth mover had moved out of the way to let a truck through, and Asiz pulled in behind it. The man in charge came running, waving his arms to tell his co-workers to not let anyone through, but we were on the Maumere side. We were the only two vehicles to get across.


In Moni, we booked in at the Lovely Rose homestay. Our delight at finding clean, airy accommodation, with comfortable beds, was tempered by the fact that we had to get up at 4am the next morning. However, after a walk, and a meal at the very basic Mountain View restaurant, we returned to our homestay to negotiate a means of making the 13km trip to the lakes of Kelimutu.


The owner wasn't there, so Helen began negotiating with a relative. The jeep, touted in the travel guide, was, apparently, in Ende, rusak. The bus was on the other side of the landslide in Ende. So was the truck that also made the trip. By this time Helen was getting a bit agitated. She had come to Flores to see the number one tourist attraction of Kelimutu, and it seemed there was no way of getting there.


After we went back to our room, we heard a vehicle outside. The truck had got through the landslide! Because we were the only two tourists at the number one tourist attraction of Flores, instead of the usual Rp 10,000 each, it would cost us Rp 30,000 to make the truck trip worthwhile for the operators.


At 4.30am we rose and dressed. We found the truck, and the drivers appeared. Off we went up the mountain to Kelimutu. A shadow joined us. "Don" told Helen he was going up for a look. Once there, we had a fifteen-minute walk. Don, it seemed, was a coffee and tea seller, and we were joined by another.


Up at the lookout the sunrise was beautiful, and only one of the lakes was shrouded in mist. The silence was terrific, if one didn't count the beverage vendors rabbiting on to each other. We stayed for an hour and a half, drinking only our own bottled water, much to the disappointment of our companions, and then walked back to the truck. On the trip down, the truck collected a few people to go to the market in the town.


We packed and set off for Maumere. Again, when we stopped to stretch our legs, we hit pay dirt. We walked out on to one of the most beautiful beaches imaginable, with a poor village perched along it.


After confirming our flight details at the Maumere Merpati office, the travel guide directed us to the Sarina restaurant, again, one of the town's finest. After we got the owner's teenage son, who obviously wanted to be off with his mates, to take our order, we realised we were in what was probably Indonesia's only non-smoking restaurant. We had quite a wait before the waiter's older sister emerged from the kitchen to abuse him for being lazy and stupid, in front of us and several other customers. The service improved dramatically.


Helen and I walked around the corner to a shop where I bought an ikat sarong and a throw. We hopped into the Kijang and headed out of town, seeking the Nogo resort, recommended to us by Ricky, on our second day. After asking twice, we found it. It was very run down, but the front bungalows near the beach were the second best we'd seen. So, we paid off Asiz and bid him adieu.


We decided to have a swim. In 1992, Maumere was destroyed by an earthquake and tidal wave, and most of its beaches have been wrecked. The water was clear, but grey from the black soil. It was very warm, because it was very shallow out for more than one hundred metres. Also, the beach was filthy, so we didn't stay long.


In the late afternoon we decided to walk along the beach, past the fishing boats. We had gone 10m when I noticed some excrement on the sand near a boat, and, slightly further on, some more. Helen informed me that the Muslim fishermen pull up their boats just before sunset, defecate beside them, and wait for the tide to wash it out. We walked out on to the breakwater instead, and sat and watched the boats and the sunset.


Dinner was served at our bungalows. Ricky had extolled its virtues. We had a simple, but plentiful meal of grilled fish, white rice and beans. The beans had been partially grilled, which gave them a lovely taste. It was the best meal we had in Flores. Again, we were the only guests, not counting the two local high school girls on work experience. We read for a while, and had the mandatory early night.


The kapok mattresses again were not conducive to a good night's repose, so I was a bit weary in the morning. Breakfast was a very plain pancake, but Helen got the waitress to find us some lemon to go with the sugar that came with our coffee, and turned the pancakes into our nicest Flores breakfast.


We packed, paid the bill, and then waited for our transport to the airport. We were there early, and the plane was late. However, it did arrive. (Helen had booked for us to fly back on the Friday because, if it didn't fly, which happens with Merpati, there was another one on Sunday to get us back to Bali.) We got on the 55-seater, with the other thirteen passengers, and enjoyed the two and a half hour flight back to Bali. We even had a meal - mie goreng (fried noodles), bakso (meat balls), an Indonesian cake and coffee; very swish for such a flight.


I risked going to the toilet during the flight. It was, mercifully, fairly clean, but there was no water. Also, a Merpati employee sat in the back seat and smoked for the entire flight. Like everywhere else, the flight is non-smoking. When I asked Helen why he would do that she replied "Because he's Indonesian". When I asked her why the hostess wouldn't say anything to him she said "Because she's Indonesian". I felt dumb for asking such obvious questions.


I noticed, while boarding, that our packs were stowed behind some webbing at the back of the cabin, so we prevailed upon the hostess to lets us take them as we alighted from the plane, rather than have to wait at the carousel. This proved to be a very wise move, because several hundred people from a Jakarta flight were waiting for their luggage as we walked through to catch a taxi home. We had a great time, but it was good to be back in Bali.


Read About:

My trip to Sumbawa

A fabulous Bali International School staff function

Being robbed in Bali

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