Hobbit people, giant rats and battling man flu with the local rocket fuel – Part 1 of our Flores road trip

Foreword: If you want to know how we managed to find Vinsen, our tremendous driver, please take a look at our blog: Exploring Flores – Some tips to help plan your trip

On day one of our road trip we were up and fed early and were soon piled in to Vinsen’s car ready for our trans-Flores adventure. Labuan Bajo is a small town and we quickly left it behind us and started to wind up through the hills past all manner of exotic plants. Vinsen pointed out of the window as we drove: papaya, mango, banana, coffee, cotton, tobacco, durian, pumpkin, sweet potato, jackfruit, cloves, coffee and, of course, seemingly endless paddies of rice. We stopped at the top of the hill and looked back towards the town on the coast.

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Off we set again, back down the hill and up another winding our way towards the spider web rice paddies. All the while Vinsen chatted to us, explaining what the people we saw were doing, talking about his family, his many projects, culture and religion in Flores and pretty much anything and everything that came to him. In short, it was exactly what we had hoped to gain from having a private driver and guide, a local insight into life in Flores. Air-conditioning and not sharing our seats with livestock were peripheral benefits. After about 3 hours we made it to the spider web rice paddies. We gave a small donation and then set off up the crumbling concrete steps to the viewpoint at the top. The steps run around the edge of a local mining operation which is nothing short of a death trap. They are essentially digging in to the hill without any means of shoring it up. There is a very real possibility that the entire pathway is going to collapse down the hill.

 

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We took our chances that it wouldn’t happen just then and clambered to the top, puffing more than we care to admit after an 8- minute climb. There are two viewpoints with the second being slightly higher and offering a slightly wider view than the first. It’s a pretty cool view.

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There had been a bit of a dry spell when we were there so there was a fair bit of brown around but the whole matrix was still visually impressive. We tramped back down the hill and hopped in to the car. James’s man flu had transformed in to a truly nasty cold was really but he soldiered on.

Another hour’s drive brought us to the city of Ruteng which, with a population of 35,000, is considerably bigger than Labuan Bajo. Vinsen offered us “tourist” or local food and we immediately opted for the latter. We were served huge mounds of rice, deep fried veg, a stringy green leafy thing (which we later learned was cassava leaf) and potato cakes. James opted for a Flores speciality, jackfruit curry, which Caro eyed distrustfully after reading online that it tasted really sweet. It turns out that jackfruit curry is delicious and not particularly sweet; we thought that it was a bit like artichoke. Our enormous portions cost us less than £4 in total and temporarily revived James.

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That’s Vinsen sat behind Caro; he was too cool to sit with us.

Next up was Liang Bua or the Hobbit Cave, 12km north of Ruteng. It took 40 nearly years from the time that a Dutch archaeologist discovered ancient stone tools for someone to go and have a good dig around at Liang Bua, but when they finally got around to it they landed on a treasure trove. The remains of an 18,000 year old skeleton of a female Homo Floresiensis, were uncovered in 2003. “Flo” and her compatriots have been described as Hobbit men due to their tiny stature, aged 25-35 Flo stood at just over 1 metre tall. The discovery changed the whole basis of our understanding of human evolution, as it transpires that Homo Floresiensis evolved in complete isolation from other human species across the world; the species is unique to Flores. How cool is that?! So, the cave itself is really just a cave but it’s amazing to think of the tiny Homo Floresiensis hanging out there 18,000 years ago and likely for many thousands of years before that.

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We were shown around by a sweet man who answered our questions as best he could, but really you have to pop in to the information centre to get a good understanding of the place. Fortunately, this is about 50m away and we spent about 15 minutes reading through the boards and examining the replica skeleton housed there, the original is now in a museum in Jakarta.

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Despite its rough-around-the-edges appearance the little room actually packed quite a punch, there is heaps of information and the English translations are very good. We were saddened to learn of the demise of the Stegodon Florensis, a miniature ancestor of the elephant. Bones of this and a number of other species were found as part of the excavation process. Sadly, all are now long extinct save for the giant rat, which is the same size or slightly bigger than your average domestic cat. You can just make out the size of it from the photograph on the information board in this picture.

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Apparently local people hunt them for meat; Caro instantly regretted having “beef” with her lunch and decided to revert to our trip vegetarianism.

Speaking of beef, we were generally impressed by the treatment of the livestock that we passed as we drove along; the cows looked to be in excellent condition and the chickens roamed free. The only slightly discontented animals were the goats who had long sticks shoved sideways through their collars to prevent them from squeezing between the gaps in fences and munching their way through vegetables patches. It is always the simplest solutions that are the most ingenious.

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Our last stop for the day was Ruteng market. It wasn’t one of our favourites because it is absolutely filthy, we would highly recommend trainers because our flip flops and feet looked revolting by the end. On the plus side, it was much more interesting visiting with a guide as Vinsen talked us through all of the different fruit, veg and spices and what they would be used in.

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James was fading pretty fast at this point and we got to our hotel, FX72, and got him tucked up in bed, where he remained until the next morning. Caro chilled out for a couple of hours and caught the sunset over the rice paddies from the hotel terrace. It was one of the better ones.

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A bit later on Vinsen gave Caro a lift in to town to pick up some dinner. It was on this journey that she found out that Vinsen’s name is actually Vinsensius and we’d been getting it wrong all day. At least we figured it out on day one rather than day seven. We’re going to continue calling him Vinsen here because it’s quicker to type.

It was nice to be up in the cool of the hills again and we slept pretty well, save for the 12am wake up because the room of drivers next door had been piling in to the arak (local palm spirit) and got a bit rowdy. The next morning, we set off east again along never ending wobbly roads. Whilst the quality of the roads has been significantly better than we were expecting they are very windy and car-sickness sufferers would do well to stock up on preventative measures. Despite the bends the drive is a really beautiful one. To our right the mountains rose steeply with the volcano Ranakah nestled in their centre.

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To our left, the hills fell away to terraced rice paddies in the valleys.

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Our first proper stop of the day was at Lake Ranamese which literally translates to “Big Lake”, which was accurate if a little unimaginative. The lake is about 90 minutes from Ruteng and there is a viewpoint a couple of kilometres before the formal entrance where can take pictures for free. The view is nice, the actual spot is pretty horrible; it’s filled with rubbish and smells distinctly of urine so take your picture and run.

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The lake is within a National Park and so you have to pay to get in. It’s 7k for locals and 100k for foreigners. We are all for locals being given a discount, but in this case the disparity between the prices really was ridiculous, and the people on the gate seem to agree, as Vinsen was able to get us a 50k discount which took some of the sting out of it. There’s a paved walking track which takes you down to the lake, loops past a waterfall and then back up to the park office. It would only take about 20 minutes to do the whole loop if you didn’t stop but you want to leave about 45 minutes to enjoy it properly. It’s likely that the price has something to do with this, but Ranamese is not top of the tourist itinerary, so if you go on a weekday you are likely to have the entire place to yourself and it is quiet, peaceful and beautiful.

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We were still at quite an elevation and at mid-morning the air was cool in among the mossy forest that surrounds the lake. The waterfall is surrounded by concrete pathways but is still a nice spot to stop and relax for a couple of minutes.

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We were taking our time to get across the island but on most overland tours you would have about half the time and therefore drive straight from Ruteng to Bajawa. This makes for quite a long day of driving so stopping at the lake for a leg stretch and some fresh air would make a nice detour to break up the day. We personally thought that it was a bit on the pricey side but still a nice place to visit.

For the next two hours we wound back down the hills right to the south coast and the black sands of Stone Pile beach. There was absolutely no one there and having paid a nominal 5k each we went for a stroll and settled on some rocks to read and enjoy the view for half an hour. Unfortunately, there is a little bit of a litter problem at the beach and whilst it was a pleasant break we wouldn’t advise going out of your way to see it.

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We drove another hour or so to a nameless village that we can’t even find on google maps where Vinsen took us to visit a local distillery. When he had first mentioned this stop on the itinerary we had conjured up images of a small but officially looking building with a few uniformed workers and perhaps a distribution truck. Of course, we were wrong, Vinsen took us on a tour of what was essentially someone’s back garden, albeit a very well swept one.

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Arak is made from palm sugar which is collected by hand from the palm trees on the property. The juice is fermented overnight and then distilled in to jerry cans through bamboo tubes.

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The greater the number of distillations the more potent the alcohol and we were offered samples of everything from single distilled 15% through to 50% which has been distilled many times and is like rocket fuel.

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Suffice to say that arak will not be making it in to our drinks cabinet anytime soon. From the distillery it was a quick 5-minute drive to Gomo Beach Cottage, our homestay on the beach, which also doesn’t seem to exist online.

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It was a little hidden gem and we were the only people staying there, although some other people stopped in for lunch on their way through to Bajawa. From about 3 o’clock we had the place to ourselves and we spent the next few hours sat on the terrace overlooking the beach working out the next stage of our trip. Once the heat had gone out of the day we took a stroll along the beach and it really was an idyllic spot. If you are looking to get away from it all for a couple of days wifi and phone signal free, this is most definitely the place to go.

 

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All of their clientele seem to come through drivers and word of mouth, so it makes for a sublime off the beaten track destination. The homestay lost power twice during the evening but it came back on within the hour and also meant that we had a nice romantic candle lit dinner with Vinsen.

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