Flores – a nature’s paradise above and below the sea

In high school we financed a school project in Flores, Indonesia and the photos I saw of this island back then made me curious about this place. I did a bit of internet research in Vienna before I started my trip and thought that Flores could be one of the islands worth visiting while in Indonesia. The difficult thing about travelling in Indonesia is the large number of (sometimes quite big) islands and that you therefore need a loooot of time (and also money) to do island hopping. I also found it rather complicated and sometimes difficult (or at least very time-consuming) to do the planning for and in Indonesia since you have so many options to chose from (where to go? What to do?) and on the other hand you can’t book all the flights online since most of the airlines only accept Indonesian Credit Cards or transfer by Indonesian bank accounts (yes, that is what every tourist has and dear airlines: if you want to make some business maybe you should consider allowing international credit cards as well?!?). Eventually we found a flight from Yogyakarta via Sulawesi to Maumere which is located in the central/eastern part of Flores. The island got its name from the Portuguese missioners in the 16th century, Flores meaning flowers – and with a good reason. The long and narrow island is wonderfully lush, all shades of green covering the mountainous volcanic island. The roads are very windy and snake up and down the many hills so travelling the 550 km from our starting point Maumere to the westernmost town, Labuan Bajo, took us 20 hours by car/bus. With 1.5 million inhabitants Flores was a big contrast to Jogja – and a very welcome one. No traffic, no noise, clean fresh air and jungle everywhere you look.

We spent our first day in a nice little beach hotel in Maumere where I had my first fun experience right as I walked onto the beach: 15 kids of ages between 7 and 20 were swimming and enjoying a Sunday afternoon and since I was the only tourist on the beach they came up to me, screaming “helloooo Mister”. “ I am no Mister, I am a Miss” I said and they started giggling and laughing (I realized during this trip that many people don’t get the concept of Mister and Miss and they also called Franz “miss”J). After a few of the typical conversational phrases of “where do you come from” and “where are you going” they became more ballsy and the first kid asked if he could have a photo with me. While one of the kids was taking the photo and the boy put his arm around my waist the other kids started screaming and giggling like crazy and suddenly they all stormed me and screamed at the same time “I want a photo too Miss!”. I guess that’s what it feels like to be Angelina Jolie;)

The next morning we waited for the taxi we had made a reservation for and which as supposed to show up at 8 a.m. At 10 a.m. and about 5 telephone calls down the road (“when will you be here?” answer: “we are on our way, just 5 minutes”) we were finally told that the driver has a “problem” and will not show up. Patience, Brita, patience. So we were dropped off at the minibus station where we were stormed by a few touts who literally dragged us out of the taxi to get on their minibus. This was our first experience of getting really cuddly with far too many other people who were crammed into the bus but after 3 hours we arrived at the tiny and picturesque town of Moni which is the starting point for Flores’ most important tourist attraction – The Kelimutu volcano. This volcano has 3 crater lakes which are separated only by a shared crater wall. The interesting thing about those crater lakes is the fact that the lakes change their colors on a periodic basis. Sometimes they are turquoise, brown, black, red or blue. When we arrived in the afternoon the town was covered in fog and drizzle so we decided to wait until the next morning to drive up to the volcano. What we weren’t able to forsee was that it started raining that evening and rained non-stop until the next day at 2 p.m. And when I say raining I mean RAINING. The water was pouring out of every crack in the mountains – the little creeks rose all the way up to the streets and every single barrel that collects the rainwater was overflowing. Since we were on a tight schedule and didn’t have any spare days to juggle around with (we already had a flight booked to Bali and still wanted to go diving in Komodo National Park) we prayed to the weather god that it would stop raining – and at 2 p.m. the hostel-guy said “if you want to see Kelimutu, you go NOW! If you lucky then no clouds up there ”. So we hopped on the scooters we had rented and drove the 12 km up to the volcano. The drive itself was already very rewarding as I had a blast maneuvering through deep mud holes, avoiding to run over pigs, chickens, cows and dogs – and along the way there were kids waving again, old ladies with lots of vegetables and food balancing on their heads, giving you the biggest smiles. When we reached Kelimutu we rushed up the 1 km path to the craters to get a glimpse of them before it would start to rain again. As we got up there we were very lucky once again as it started to clear a bit and we saw all 3 crater lakes (this time 2 of them were turquoise and one was brown). First we were the only tourists there and after a while about another 10 showed up – definitely a very small number and therefore all the more enjoyable to have such a beautiful sight to yourself. As soon as we got back we hopped on a bus and made our way to Ende. The drive should have been only 2 hours but by the time we were dropped off at a hotel 3.5 hours had passed. The bus ride was really fun – we were placed in the last row, the seats of the bus were completely worn, the music was playing loud as always (and here I also mean LOUD when I say loud. Loud as in “my earplugs don’t even help with this noise level”) and the aisle of the bus was PACKED with all sorts of things: coconuts, huuuuge bundles of firewood, vegetables, bags with all sorts of food – basically most of the locals who used the bus did some serious shopping and brought everything back home. I love doing that kind of stuff: riding on buses with locals, stopping in the middle of nowhere with a bike to chat with locals or to wave at people, going to markets and exploring all the different things they sell. And on Flores we surely got a lot of opportunities to do that.

The next morning we continued our trip to Bajawa. This town was recommended to us by several locals who all said that Bajawa was THE place to experience traditional villages and tribes so we definitely wanted to pay this place a visit. We hopped on another minibus (I never thought it would be possible to put 26 people in a vehicle that only has space for 16 people and that the speakers in the bus would be able to create such a volume that the whole bus was shaking to the Indonesian rap music!) and made our way to Bajawa. Although the drive was quite long (5-6 hours in a crammed minibus seem much longer!) that didn’t matter because the drive was wonderful, the island is pure nature and shortly before we arrived in Bajawa we drove past 2 perfectly shaped volcanoes that were shimmering in the sunlight. I truly loved Bajawa and would have liked to spend a few more days there. The owner of the hotel we stayed in was extremely helpful and as a former tour guide he drew us a map with all the interesting villages to visit – plus a bonus: a hot spring. Once again we rented scooters and headed off to the villages. And they surely were a huge contrast to their surroundings. The huts are made of bamboo and have no windows, there are open fireplaces and graveyards in the middle of the villages and everything looks extremely rustic – basically it reminded me of the hometown of Asterix (even the big boiling pots looked the sameJ). There are only a few of those villages left and it feels a bit awkward to walk amidst the villagers and their homes but tourists are welcome and after you place a little donation to the village you are free to walk around and get the feeling of being warped back in time. A nice way to end the day was the visit to the well hidden hot springs. 2 big streams (one with very hot and one with cold water) come together in the middle of the jungle and depending on where you sit in the water you can pick and choose your favorite water temperature. While Franz clearly preferred the boiling temperatures I opted for the lukewarm water-although you just had to stretch your toes out to one side and already felt a massive temperature difference. The 360-degree view of banana trees, bamboo trees and lush tropical vegetation made the spring-experience even more enjoyable. While we were driving back the bumpy and muddy road we caught the sunset with the volcano in the background and passed numerous village people who all made their way back to their homes on foot.

The next morning we did our final leg of our Flores route to Labuanbajo, the major town in the west of Flores  – and the gateway to the Komodo National Park. We had booked a 3 day live-aboard dive trip to Komodo National Park which gave us the opportunity to get our gills wet one last time and at the same time see the infamous Komodo dragons. As soon as we reached LLabuanbajo we headed for the dive shop to make SURE that the booking was confirmed (because no matter how many phone calls or emails you have with companies there you can never be sure that they really understood you or that the booking you made is really confirmed). Fortunately our booking was ok and we were ready to head out to the NP the next morning. We were told that we had the boat to ourselves and that there might be other people coming on board in the next few days. There are 2 categories of (dive)boats which operate in the Komodo National Park. 1: the affordable (but by no means cheap) ones and the insanely expensive (and by no means luxurious) ones. We opted for the cheaper ones – and when we boarded I thought that I have never been on a live aboard that was that basic. But it didn’t bother me because there was enough space for us, we got the best cabin (with direct access to the deck and therefore fresh air and light) and the crew and our diveguide were suuupernice. The food was very yummie too and the most important thing and reason why we had come here was absolutely top: the diving. Out of all the places I had already dived (and there are quite a few on my list) the Komodo National Park ranks among the BEST places ever. What made this area so special? It was the variety of corals and fishes and also the amount of marine life. There were several dives where I swam in the middle of schools of fish – thousands of them circling me for 15 minutes or longer (you could spend the whole dive just with being one of the fish-gang!) – something I have never had in such an intensity. Komodo is known for its treacherous currents so it is crucial that you have a good and knowledgeable dive guide which we had. Augustino was a laid back, fun and very experienced guide who gave us plenty of “space” and since it was only the 2 of us in his group we didn’t bump into anybody and this made the diving all the more superb. A manta, turtles, sharks and huge schools of trevally and tuna were definite highlights and I would recommend the Komodo National Park to any passionate diver! During those 3 days we also visited Rinca Island which is one of the 3 islands that is home to the infamous Komodo dragon. While there is no guarantee to see them and July as the main breeding season is making a spotting even rarer we were lucky to see 4 dragons at the very end of our 1 hour walk. They all hung out at the village kitchen where they know that they get food scraps. They give you a little bit of a Jurassic Park feeling but as the biggest of the ones we saw was “only” about 1.8 meters I was not quite as overwhelmed as I thought I would be (possibly also because of the fact that I had seen a lot of iguanas on the Galapagos islands). The 3 days of diving passed all too fast but I am sure I will be back for some more excellent diving in the Komodo NP one day.

Flores and Komodo NP are a beautiful place to visit if you love nature, friendly people and nice beaches and diving. And the fact that there are really few tourists along the way made the visit even more enjoyable.

P.S. Viv and Phil, this posting is for you! Thanks so much for all the tips you gave me! long live action fuuun!

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