Indonesia - Flores - Survivor
Oct 4, 2003
|Few tourists who visit Indonesia ever travel to Flores. The Lonely Planet guidebook calls it "one of the greatest bus journeys in the world because of the stunning scenery". I call it "Survivor, The Fuckarewe Tribe". While at times we certainly did enjoy some spectacular views, more of the time we were asking ourselves ... Where the F--- are we? What the F--- are we doing here? When the F--- are we leaving?
Flores is a long and narrow island, located towards the easterly end of the Indonesian archipelagos. Volcanic mountains, most of them active, run down its middle. It doesn't just rain in Flores during the wet season, it pours buckets! This makes it one of the more lush islands in the neighborhood, but causes all sorts of problems as the torrential rainfall often washes out roads and bridges, and just last season two villages were destroyed from a landslide and many people were killed.
Flores is not a place to be considered if you're looking for a nice relaxing 5-star beach vacation. But if you're looking for a little adventure (you know, something that while it's happening you wish it wasn't), well then this just might be the place for you.
Lonely Planet recommends crossing Flores by public bus, but after seeing a few jam-packed buses with people and animals sitting on the roof and hanging out the doors, we decided to hire a private car/driver. Sure, I know what you're thinking ... a true backpacker would have taken the bus and asked to sit on top with the goats and chickens just for the experience, right? Well, I don't need that much experience, and I was even happier with our decision when I saw two young water buffalo being loaded into the back of one public bus. We still bumped along the road uncomfortably in our private car but at least I wasn't sharing my seat with a barnyard animal!
JP had tried doing this same trip to Flores in April, but days before he arrived an earthquake had wiped out roads and bridges in some areas and the trip had been cancelled. Even now the roads are still in abysmal condition and in some areas roadwork and bridge reconstruction has only just begun, which seems like poor planning if you ask me since a new torrential rainy season is just around the corner.
We followed the same route across Flores as most other backpackers, starting east and heading west, zigzagging across the island from north to south. In hindsight it would've been more efficient to do a loop around the island, because each time we switched from north to south we had to cross the mountain range where roads were more steep, winding and in worse condition, and travel was even slower.
Our speed at best was 15-20 km/h, and we counted an average of 15 curves per kilometer. I'm not kidding, nor am I talking about sissy little bends in the road, but real hairpin curves. By the way, anyone suffering from motion sickness should definitely not consider this trip. At times the road was so narrow and broken that I closed my eyes and held on with fingers and toes, half expecting us to plunge over the steep edge at any moment! Passing other vehicles was even more worrisome, especially the buses with all those people hanging out.
As we meandered back and forth across the mountains, we noticed a significant difference in the landscape between north and south. The south side was lush and green, filled with rice fields, bamboo and palm trees, and coffee and banana plantations. The towns were more developed and clean. On the north side however, the landscape turned rocky and dry, void of much plant life, and about the most godforsaken land I've ever seen. What rainfall Flores gets certainly doesn't fall much on this side of the island. Very few homes had electricity, especially in the rural areas. One small well provided water for an entire village and some people walked for miles to collect their daily water ration. The towns were small, dirty and unattractive. Why anyone would want to live in this desolate place was beyond me. And why we kept crossing those mountains was another Fuckarewe Tribe question!
Now, even though we didn't enjoy the long, bone-shaker days in the vehicle, we were able to find a few things to add interest or humor along the way ...
We hiked up Kelimutu, Flores' most unique volcano and one of its main attractions. Kelimutu has 3 craters, each containing a lake of different and continually changing color. Most of the time the lakes are red, green and black. The day we visited they were black, turquoise, black. Flores people believe that when a person dies their soul meets up with their spirit after passing through the lake. Which lake your soul passes through depends on whether you were young (green), old (red) or evil (black). JP, being a geologist, had a much more logical blah blah blah explanation for the changing colors which I won't bore you with. Aside from the long explanation, it was truly a beautiful sight.
We also visited a traditional Flores village with huts of outward sloping straw roofs and where unique ceremonial rituals still take place. We think ancient Flores people must have been midgets as we could barely crouch down low enough to get under the straw roof, and then we had to climb up some teeny tiny stairs to reach the teeny tiny front door.
Halfway through our trip-from-hell we stopped in Riung, a town with 17 small, beautiful islands just off its coast. We hired a boat and went snorkeling and beachcombing for the morning, a glorious break from the bump and grind of the road.
But I think our funniest moment was in Bajawa. On our way back to the hotel after dinner we came across many locals, all dressed up, heading to a fenced-in area where music was playing. Curiosity juices flowing, we decided to peak over the fence to investigate, and somehow found ourselves invited in by the hosts, as much as we tried to decline. So there we sat, the only Caucasians in a crowd of 300 locals, getting many strange but polite looks, not having a clue what function we were attending. It only became clear to us when the bride and groom finally arrived ... yes, we were at a wedding reception! And of course we had to sit through the whole lengthy process before we could find an appropriate time to thank the hosts and excuse ourselves. I think we learned our lesson ... curiosity killed the cat, right?
Finally, 6 days later, we arrived in Labuanbajo, a sleepy little fishing village on the west coast of Flores, and the blessed end of the Fuckarewe Tribe adventure. Did I enjoy the adventure? ... absolutely, but I'm still glad we didn't take the bus. Would I do it again? ... well, maybe, let me think about it and get back to you.
Stay tuned for next chapter ... Dragons and Thieves!