The island of flowers, as the Dutch named it, or the island of snakes as the Indonesians named it, is one of Indonesia’s developing islands. Offering beautiful landscapes, traditional culture and, in certain areas, developed tourism. We chose to go to Flores for some diving in the nearby Komodo National Park, but once we started reading about the culture, scenery and hiking we had to visit a little more than just the port. For most tourists there are two main options to get in and out. Flying into Labuan Bajo or one of the easterly aiports at Maumere or Ende, or getting on a ferry from Bali or the Gili islands.
We opted for the flight to Maumere, since it would allow us to travel two thirds of the island’s length along the trans-flores highway, and then end up in our jumping off point for our liveaboard. Nam Air was pretty good and the flight smooth. Hassle only started as we tried to get out of the airport, when we were bombarded with transport offers and could not even get through the gates because of the number of taxi drivers. There is however a small but helpful info office in the terminal that assisted us with the onward travel.
We were offered many private cars to Moni (almost every tourist arriving in Maumere goes there first), but as we were on a budget, we decided to go for a challenge and opt for local buses. Trying to find a taxi to the bus station was tricky, as all the drivers wanted to take us, amd we ended up negotiating with multiple drivers simultaneously. Being persistant about getting to the bus station, made prices (for private/shared cars) drop miraculously fast. We got a really good offer for a private car (sharing with two other tourists) when we walked to our taxi, but our driver told the guy off harshly for undercutting everyone and then he would not take us anymore. Just before we reached the bus station, our driver managed to sway us into a shared car and we haggled the price down. A few kilometres outside town we stopped and had to switch cars. We ended up with the same people from the airport who snatched up the super cheap deal and we bargained our fare down to the same rate.
Three hours later, we arrived in the village of Moni. It’s main reason for being on the tourist radar, is its proximity to Mount Kelimutu and the three colour changing lakes. We managed to find some cheap and cheerful accommodation for two nights (no accomodation on Flores is as cheap as Java) and went to stretch our legs and explore a nearby waterfall. It was quite impressive after the heavy rainfall earlier that day.
With thick and heavy clouds densly packed around all surrounding hills, there was no point in getting up early to try and see sunrise on top of Kelimutu. We also learned that the sunlight does not reach the lakes until around 9.30am, which makes their colours sparkle. Instead, we set off casually after breakfast on a trip to the weekly market (every Tuesday morning). After stocking up on food and water we turned towards Kelimutu. There is a lovely footpath for those who feel like hiking up instead of driving. It leads past two villages before reconnecting with the road inside the national park about 500m before the car park. There are no National Park signs and no ticket gate this way, but it is only signposted downwards so a map is handy. Otherwise every local can tell you the way, including old Johannes who we bumped into and he insisted on giving Zoë a kiss on the cheek. It was a picuresque walk with great views (had it not been for the clouds) and great and easy to walk. Halfway up more clouds moved in and it started to pour it down. Despite our raingear we were soon soaking with very wet feet, so we stopped at a small shelter for lunch. Eventhough we enjoyed walking in the rain there was no point going to the peak in the clouds. An hour later it stopped and we went to see the lakes. At first we could not see anything because the clouds had not cleared and it was eerie to hear rocks roll down the hill into the water. Again we decided to wait and about half an hour later wind drew the cloud curtain away and revealed a mesmerisingly turquoise and an emerald green lake below us. We were super happy that our patience had paid off and we got to see the famous lakes. The third lake stayed hidden for longer but came out eventually. Its colour was somewhere between a very dark green and black. Delighted, we headed back down towards Moni. Choosing the road for the first half which meant passing the NP gate. A man stopped us and asked for tickets and even wanted to check our cameras to see whether we had been at the lakes. He was not an official ranger and so we insisted on just having been for a walk around the village. We would have paid an official person but we suspected he would just share the money with his mates.
After a tasty dinner we fell into bed super tired after a big walking day. We prepared ourselves for the next travelling day towards Ende. Catching the bus from the main road was easy and we were on our way.
Our original plan was to spend a night in Ende, but after an hour of walking around we changed our minds. We read in a few places that Ende is worth a stopover, thanks to it’s market and nearby blue stone beaches. Our faith in Lonely Planet has decreased to nothing since we saw the ‘intriguing grittiness’ of Ende. Quite frankly, it is a grimy port town where hotels have high prices for gloomy rooms (even by Flores standards). The black sand beach could be nice if it wasn’t half sand and half rubbish and it is possible to see the blue beaches from the road to Bajawa. We did however have a nice cup of ice tea by the beach before we walked west out of town to the bus station. We had to wait almost an hour till the 2pm bus. When the bus arrived we found we would be sitting with our knees close to our chins thanks to around 600kg of antibiotic growth promoter chicken feed and several shop and petrol station deliveries. Thankfully, there weren’t too many other passengers to squeeze in amongst all the cargo. The bus journey was very scenic, especially when we took a turn to go the long way and deliver the chicken feed and petrol. We watched a spectacular sunset over Mount Inerie as our bus took ever smaller roads. Riding along in the dark up gravel tracks into the forest made us wonder if we were ever going to make it to Bajawa, but our driver and cargo loaders were friendly and we trusted them to deliver us too.
We finally arrived into a dark Bajawa and checked into our homestay. We were both hungry after our long journey and somehow ended up in the restaurant with the most people and therefore longest wait for food. It always seems to be that the hungrier you are the longer it takes for food to arrive. Once fed, we rolled to our bed and slept like logs.
The next morning we asked about a tour (run by our homestay owner himself) to the local traditional villages and lucky enough for us another couple staying at the homestay wanted to go too. It was nice to have some Canadian company for a change and it was interesting to hear about their travels which were coming to an end. Our tour took us first to Luba, a Ngada ethnic minority village where we learnt about the matriachal society and traditions. There aren’t many places in the world where men are expected to move to the woman’s village and live in their house. Interestingly, each family also maintain two shrines: one dedicated to the husband and the other the wife, which are used for ceremonies of marriage, birth, funerals, harvest and lots of other reasons.
Next up was Bena village, which is a lot more touristy. The villagers benefit from tourism by sellling their goods, but the entrance fee has also paid for electricity, running water and fire extinguishers (very useful in an all wood and straw village). The best part of the village was the viewpoint over the nearby landscape and volcano. Our guide belonged to one of the local minorities himself and therefore had no problem answering all our questions.
With our fill of culture, we drove to our lunch stop and tucked into a huge picnic lunch of rice, fish and vegetables. We were stuffed but had only one more thing to do: bathe in the river. The river here is a little special, it is actually a confluence of two rivers. One river is steaming hot (thanks to volcanic activity) and the other chilly, but when they meet the water mixes to a lovely hot bath temperature. We were in heaven bathing in hot water for the first time since we arrived in Flores. When we eventually got too shrivelled we climbed out and our guide took us to a local sunset spot. When we arrived the clouds were covering everything, but as the sun sunk in the sky the clouds disappeared and we got a fantastic view of Mount Inerie and the sea. A great end to a fantastic day.
Our second day in Bajawa was a little less spectacular. We decided to go for a walk to see an area known as mini Kelimutu. The walk was quite a nice one, but once we left the road our map and navigation skills failed us. There were so many paths not marked on our map and one or two less than helpful people. We ended up lost a few times, but eventually made it to the summit overlooking the crater lake. The lake itself was muddy and unimpressive, but we met a nice guy who was looking after his 6 cows on the hillside. With the rain clouds pressing in, we hurried back to Bajawa and grabbed some takeaway dinner from a makasan.
The next day we skipped the local taxi and walked the 2km along the road out of town to the bus station. It was easy to find the bus to Ruteng and we even had thr company of a chatty man who insisted on taking selfies with us at the lunch stop.
Our bus arrived in Ruteng quite early and we were very happy when the driver didn’t stop at the terminal outside the town. Instead they closed all the doors and windows and passing by, dropped some money to a guy who approached our minivan. To us a typical mafia-like thing to do. We guessed he did that because he had cargo in the van which he had to deliver in town. They were very helpful and dropped is of near our homestay. Our hosts welcomed us very warmly and were quick to arrange scooters for us and another couple to go and visit the local sights. Most people visit Ruteng to see the spiderweb rice fields but we were more interested in learning more about the Homo florensis, a hobbitlike branch of mankind who grew to around 140cm and lived in a nearby cave. The amazing fact about them is that they lived there only 18,000 years ago. At the time the way more advanced Homo sapiens lived less than 40km away. It is still not fully understood how this sideline arrived in Flores and survived so long and scientific excavations are still ongoing in the cave. The roads were pretty rough and bumpy towards the end but Matthias did a good job and all went well. In a small yet informative museum near the cave we learnt more about the ‘Hobbits’ and other long extinct dwarf animals that used to live on Flores.
Ongoing excavations at the hobbit cave
The other couple was very keen to go to the spider rice fields, but since we had seen enough rice paddies recently and didn’t fancy racing the sun we opted to ride around the local airfield. It sat above two valleys and so we still got lovely views. One of the valleys also has rice paddies arranged like a spider web, but our vantage point wasn’t so great.
Back in our homestay our hosts recommended two yummy warungs for dinner and the wife went as far as driving us to them. Their recommendations were great and we had awesome gado gado and beef rendang.
The next morning we had our last fight with the local car transport mafia to get to our last bus in Asia and on to Labuan Bajo. We completed our final Asian bus journey without too much hassle (once we were on the actual bus) and our bus drivers dropped us in the centre of town. At the first glance Labuan Bajo is a dusty port town without much of a soul. We were cursed and blessed with Ramadan which meant extra long exuberent singing from the mosque minarets (100m from our hostel) and ladies selling sweet treats each afternoon. We had arrived a day earlier than planned and although we thought about going for a walk, we ended up catching up with laundry and postcards in between bakery visits. We spent two relaxing evenings watching the sun set over the tour boats in the harbour. Then we checked in for our dive trip and waited for the boat to be ready.
Overall our trip through Flores was the perfect mixture of nature, culture and wonderful people. From hiking Kelimutu, to admiring another culture in Bajawa and discovering another species in Ruteng, Flores has it all. We really enjoyed our time and the friendly people we met along the way. We would wholeheartedly recommend exploring the island, and that is without starting on the life underwater…