Island hopping, traditional villages and sunrise at Kelimutu – Our final days in Indonesia

James was feeling pretty revolting in the morning, having slept about 15 minutes, but Caro felt perky enough to go for a run, the first one in a long time. Whilst the run wasn’t fun at all, the beach was awesome at sunrise, and the volcano that had been shrouded in cloud the day before was completely clear against the sky.

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We were served 3 different styles of banana for breakfast before getting back in the car and driving towards Bajawa. In order to reach the town we had to drive up to and then around the volcano making for the wibbliest day’s driving yet and the first time that Caro started to feel a bit queezy. It took about two hours to reach Bajawa, which serves as a launching off point to the surrounding traditional villages. There are several that you can visit but, as Vinsen said, they all look the same so you can make do with one. We went to Bena which is a 45-minute drive from Bajawa. Despite being close to a reasonable sized town, Bena feels like it is in the middle of nowhere as you wind down through enormous bamboo trees to the village entrance.

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We were firmly on the tourist trail; the village receives plenty of visitors every day of the year. We paid the entrance fee, donned the scarves that we were required to wear for the duration of our visit and set off around the edge of the village.

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It was a hive of activity; a new house was being built and the whole village had come together to help to carry and split the bamboo that makes the structure. Each of the houses is raised on stilts and the edges of the platforms are beautifully carved and the pillars are decorated with collections of animal horns.

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We toured around the edge of the village, the scent of drying cloves following us around, until we got to the far end. The view out of the back of the village is gorgeous, the volcano towers above you to your right and mountains dot the landscape to your left.

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We’d seen all that we needed to in about 20 minutes and strolled back to the entrance to return our scarves. As we were leaving a man came running down the hill with a young horse trotting behind him. Vinsen informed us that the horse would be sacrificed as part of a ceremony for the new house, information that we could happily have lived without.

Our next stop was Malanage hot springs. Vinsen brought us to this one specifically because the hot and cold sources both pour in to a single pool so you can find a spot where the temperature is just right for you.

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The hot water had temporarily revived James but after half an hour he was starting to feel really ropey again, and we decided to pass on lunch and get straight to a hotel where he could sleep. Fortunately, we hadn’t planned to do anything else that day so James had the afternoon to sleep it off and Caro mostly watched Netflix.

A much better night’s sleep followed and James was progressing back towards human as we hit the road for what Vinsen had said would be a long driving day. We took a circuitous route; east, then north, then west around another volcano, Ebulobo. This was the first one on the main island of Flores that we have seen smoking. You could also see the scars of the most recent eruptions.

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The topography and climate changed several times as we drove across the island from green sided mountains to rolling hills of desert scrub. We were only out of sight of the sea for about 45 minutes as we drove from coast to coast.

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After lunch, the road turned into what we had been expecting from day one: a rutted road/dirt track that was more pothole than tarmac. The bridge that we needed to use to get across the river was closed so we were diverted down a dirt track to a half-constructed stone crossing. Vinsen’s car is certainly not a 4×4 but it made it across the flowing water and we bumped our way for another hour or so along the potholed track and road to the village of Ruing.

Ruing is tiny, but tourism has gradually been on the increase due to the popularity of nearby Seventeen Islands Marine Park. Vinsen told us when he first came in 2013 there were 4 guesthouses, now there are 9. That evening we had an excellent meal with Paulo, the owner of our guesthouse; barbequed fish with mountains of rice and vegetables.

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The next day was our first wedding anniversary. We planned to celebrate spending a year more or less exclusively in each other’s company and not killing each other by exploring Seventeen Islands Marine Park (which has 23 islands).  After breakfast, we set off to the harbour to meet the crew and board our boat for the day. Vinsen joined us, as did a boy who lodges with Paulo, so that he can attend school nearby. Vinsen had decided to teach him how to collect trash, one of his passion projects.

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We saved a bit of money by having Vinsen negotiate with the captain and we were soon chugging out of the harbour. And we mean chugging; the boat had to be hand cranked to start and it was a very steady, noisy journey once they got her going. It wasn’t the most relaxing experience whilst the boat was actually in motion, because the engine was bone-rattling, our teeth were literally chattering in our heads.

Our first stop, and the first stop of all boats is to see the flying foxes. You don’t actually disembark, you just sail close to the island where they live. The boat crews then make a racket to get the foxes to fly. We weren’t big fans of the approach, but there were certainly an impressive number of them and it was quite cool to see.

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We were ready to do some snorkelling and motored off to find the first spot. The marine park is filled with vast areas of shallow coral, mostly surrounding the island. The water is so shallow that you have to be careful not to kick anything when jumping off the boat. We snorkelled three times in total; the park is not as pristine as Komodo, there is evidence of dynamite fishing and also large swathes of coral which have been bleached. There were still some lovely patches and thousands of fish to enjoy, and the water was lovely and warm.

Snorkelling makes up a nice aspect of a day at Seventeen Islands, but we wouldn’t recommend making the journey there if you are only interested in what is below the sea. If you want to laze on white sand beaches and swim in warm turquoise water as well, then it is definitely worth the effort.

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The fish BBQ that the crew cooked up using palm fronds over a coconut shell fire was absolutely delicious.

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Each island we stopped at, Vinsen and his new assistant set off collecting rubbish along the beach, sadly there was quite a lot on those islands that were popular lunch stops and a fair bit in the water too. On our final snorkel, we spent more time swimming just offshore, collecting all the rubbish we could carry out of the sea, than we did looking at fish. Even with armfuls we hadn’t made a huge dent. It was really quite depressing, and it would be such an easy fix to simply ban people from bringing any plastic packaging in to the park, but with one man on a ticket counter they don’t seem to have the resources to do anything except send someone out to burn all the rubbish on the islands every once in a while. So, whilst it may look perfect in pictures, it certainly isn’t that, but it is beautiful in parts and if you have a guide who knows how to avoid the “crowds” (never more than 4 other boats) it is a lovely peaceful way to pass a day.

We were back on the road the next morning, bouncing our way slowly back to the Trans Flores Highway. Caro has the tiniest bladder in the world and constantly needs to pee. Flores is a bit short on roadside services so Vinsen pulled up and asked a local family if we could use their facilities. This seemed to make their day and we ended up posing for many pictures with the family and their neighbours. We could just see them showing their friends the photos of the bule who had once used their toilet.

We made it to the coast and stopped at the famous Blue Stone beach for lunch. Unfortunately, a large proportion of the stones are now piled on the side of the road for sale but the ones that are left are quite pretty.

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After devouring an enormous and incredibly cheap BBQ tuna for lunch we kept going east, stopping in Ende for supplies before making our second traditional village stop in Wologai. The village was small and, with no explanation of what we were looking at, we didn’t have the desire linger after taking a couple of photographs.

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The final 5km leg to Moni took over an hour because of roadworks and we were grateful to get out of the car and settle in another average homestay for the night. With an early morning ahead, we ate early at the same restaurant as all the other white people in town, listened to some dubious covers by the local band and were tucked up in bed by 9pm.

Caro had been steadily developing James’s hideous cold and when the alarm went off at 4am the next day she was in no mood to get out of bed to watch another flipping sunrise from the top of a hill. Vinsen didn’t look too keen on the prospect either. Unfortunately, sunrise at Kelimutu was the whole reason that we were there so we wrapped up warm, wound our way up the mountain, paid the extortionate entry fees and, leaving Vinsen behind with the car, stomped the 1km up the mountain to the summit. It was busy, but nothing on the scale of Bromo, and we settled down with tea waiting for the sun to peak over the hills. Luckily there was a strong breeze clearing the mist and by the time light broke over the horizon the view pretty clear.

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As the sun climbed higher it revealed a landscape of crater lakes, volcanoes and rolling hills. Even though she was a hideous snotty goblin, Caro agreed that it was another worthy sunrise.

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As usual there was some cock with a drone ruining everyone’s peace and quiet, and idiots who climbed through the safety railing to get the perfect “gazing in to the distance” Instagram photo, but these people are unavoidable. That being said, there is still something magical and a little bit scary about having your surroundings slowly revealed to you. It turns out the path we had taken up was a fairly narrow strip between two craters and not a little precarious looking.

We had a quick breakfast back at the guest house and made for Paga Beach, our lunch stop for the day.  We parked up in a little restaurant, ordered tea and settled under a tree to read, being interrupted only by the odd caterpillar falling on us. We ordered another enormous amount of tuna for pennies and enjoyed lunch with the local cats in close attendance. Once we had finished the cats descended and demolished our leftovers straight off the table.

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Our trip ended in Maumere. We had chosen to stay on the beach, rather than in the city centre, because we thought it would make for a quieter evening. We weren’t wrong. Not for the first time on this trip, we found ourselves in a Scobby Doo-esque abandoned resort. It appeared that there were 30 or 40 rooms and only us staying there. It was also one of the worst places that we have stayed yet. The AC cooled the room after about 12 hours, there was no light in the bathroom, the restaurant served dry packet noodles as a meal and just when Caro thought a gin and tonic may help to alleviate her cold they announced that they didn’t have any gin.

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It was a sorry end to the trip, but we put it out of our minds the second that we left, and reflected on the trip as a whole. We’d had a good time, despite the fact that we had both felt revolting at times. We’d gotten off the beaten track and learned a lot more about the island and its culture than we would ever have done if we had set out alone. It wasn’t a beach holiday and it wasn’t a particularly active trip either, mostly we sat and looked and listened. We also ate a lot of barbequed fish. Which was awesome. Flores was fascinating and the scenery was undoubtedly beautiful, but we probably wouldn’t rush back now, we’ve seen it and there’s so much of Indonesia that we haven’t had the opportunity to visit yet.

Looking ahead, we had wonderful familiar faces and home comforts waiting for us in Hong Kong.

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