Indonesia has become one of the world's major emerging economies, but 10% of the population still lives below the poverty line.
Indonesia faces demands for independence in several provinces and increasing attacks by Islamist armed groups, so travellers need to stay alert. There are also frequent, sometimes unexpected, volcanic eruptions to watch out for.
Nearly all the islands are diverse and rewarding. There are amazing temples and other historical sites, inedible scenery, beautiful beaches and diving/snorkelling. There is hand to mouth existence village life and then the urban sprawls. You may not want to spend long in Jakarta. And don't forget the orang utans - and the Komodo dragons.
Flores was named by the Portuguese, in 1544, "Cabo de Flores". In Indonesia and Malay the island is called "Pulau Bunga" (Flower Island). although it seems there are no more flowers growing here than in other parts of Indonesia, It is however, a spectacularly beautiful island and has enough interesting sights to warrant a much longer stay. It's ribbonlike, long (220 miles) and incredibly narrow, (only 7 miles, at one point and up to 40 miles ) so we are zigzagging back and forth, sampling its delights.
Maumere, on the north east coast of Flores to start, a fair sized city with a lovely beach and great sunsets. Snorkelling and a massage already. I would be in heaven, except someone has stolen my sandals, which I foolishly left on the veranda of my bungalow. VCFA rounds up possible suspects and threatens an identity parade. They are returned. Close to Maumere is Sikka,, centre of the legendary Ikat weaving industry. Loom demonstrations are enthusiastically given.
Through winding roads to Moni, in the centre of Flores, TSFA has already thrown up twice, bravely waiting for a gap in the trees and a scenic stop, by the lush mountains and rice terraces. To Kelimatu village at the base of Mount Kelimatu. To say they are basic is an understatement. But I have heart shaped embroidery on my pillowcase and there is plenty of atmosphere. There's the chill of the mountain air, the scent of woodsmoke and the babble of voices. A wander through unkempt rice terraces and lunch for 50 cents each. In the evening, the whole village performs a harvest dance, for just the four of us, following up with an Ikat sales pitch.
We are here for the volcanic lakes, of astonishing jewel like colours, sapphire and emerald. It's mandatory to get up early to see them, driving up Mount Kelamuta's hairpin beds in the dark - now John's vomiting - and it's bracingly cold up there at that time of the morning.
Back down to a flood and a vibrant tented market, spread below the mountainsides. The vendors punctuate their sales pitch with betel nut spitting through their stained gapped teeth.
A bus to Ende, next, on the south coast - more spectacular volcanic scenery, complete with iconic cones. And piles of filthy rubbish. There are very few tourists and we are definitely the centre of attention. 'Hey Mister'. Here, we reach the beach on the southern coast and some very bad Chinese food. The local coffee “Kopi End”'. is coffee beans and ginger roasted together. The sunsets are astonishing, capturing the fishing boats beautifully in silhouette.
Today's bus, weaving back up to Riung, on the north coast, has a goat and a small boy ion top and bags of rice and live chickens inside. The luggage rack is crammed full with engine spare parts. People hang off the back - there's not much room inside.
Riung is a fisherman's stilt village, surrounded by, banks of spiky red ginger. Clouds of fruit bats (flying foxes). roost in the mangroves, recreating scenes for Hitchcock's The Birds, whenever they are disturbed.
Happily, Riung faces The 17 Islands Riung Marine Park . Despite the name, there are actually 24 virtually uninhabited islands, with white beaches and some excellent snorkelling. Delicate spirals of coral, flamboyant fish, fin flapping deadly lion fish among them. I’m pursued through the clear water, by three errant tuna.
Today, the bus windows are open and branches ping in as we proceed. I'm trying to duck. One nearly takes out the driver. I'm covered in a fine spray of leaves. A woman is sleeping on my shoulder surrounded by fumes of clove and tobacco. Locals whispering:' White people on the bus!' Outside, clouds of orange daisies and royal blue morning glory. The hangers-on (literally) leap off the bus as we arrive, south again, at Bajawa.
Bajawa is a small village clinging to the mountain slopes and circled by more classic volcano cones., clouds sitting on top emulating smoke. Here. the attraction is the hot springs. Cascades of piping hot water, take the form of aquamarine rivulets winding through a deep gulley, via rapids, into inviting turquoise pools. The current just whisks you along. It’s a hugely enjoyable natural water park.
We’re invited to watch boxing. It’s part of a wedding ceremony - we’ve already viewed the parade winding down the main street, parasols bobbing and drums banging.
Next day, a bema trip to a traditional village. Thatched houses on stilts in a stunning sub volcano setting There are stone dolmen plinths for sacrifices. And all manner of crafts on display. Ikat weaving, of course, grinding and winnowing corn
Back on the bus, west to Ruteng. Today's cargo is coconuts and baskets of tiny bird’s eye chillies on the bus today. oozing oil escapes, sliding down the bus and over our bags. It's a tortuous journey. We are jammed in. Three men are squashed in the stair well. The air is heavy with unwashed bodies and clove tobacco. I feel nauseous for 5 hours. trying to focus on Mount Inerie, as its cone zooms in and out of view. A lodging with hot water, at the town of Ruteng! I shower, climb into bed and sleep till the next morning.
Just time to visit the vibrant market before our bus arrives.
Back on the bus in Flores for the last time, to the port of Labuan Bajo, on the west coast, the gateway to Komodo National Park. The eight o'clock doesn't turn up. It's broken down. The 9 a.m. turns up at 9.30 and leaves at10.30. The brakes are failing, we have a flat tyre and there are numerous pot holes filled with rocks.
But more beautiful scenery. tiered rice fields and green hills thickly clothed in abundant vegetation, children run out to stare every time we stop. And we stop a lot. The sun is setting, as we arrive, creating yellow dapples on the water. There's no electricity. I meet Nick here, at our 'hotel' playing cards on the veranda (see Myanmar). Further excellent snorkelling across the straits, towards some islets with attendant jelly fish - I still have the scar.
Then we're off to see the whip-fighting,. The Caci whip-fighting ritual is unique to Flores Island. It dates from harvest celebrations and to settle conflicts. Now it's used at national celebrations, births, weddings and deaths. One person attacks, the other defends. The leather and rattan whip, represents the phallus, The bamboo and buffalo hide shield, symbolizes the female womb. The masks represent water buffalo, to give strength. The fight is introduced with music and gongs and is relentlessly aggressive, though good natured when combat is resolved.
There are three small islands in the park, Rinca, Komodo and Padar. By boat, from Flores, to Rinca and Komodo, where the snorkelling is whatever the next grade up is from excellent. Our SFMA is not a good sailor and has to be mollycoddled by the VCFAL. Our crew of six are on better form. They feed us gado-gado and coconut curry and we all sing till our tongues are in ribbons.
The Komodo National Park is the home to the Komodo Dragon, the world's largest living lizard and the stuff of legends. Sailors even reported them as fire breathing. I'm worrying that I might not see one of these creatures, but they are marauding around on both islands. queuing up by the jetty on Rinca. They are indeed huge.
We walk on both islands, along walkways, and atop ridges. The palm trees here are like tall sticks with pom poms on top. I am persuaded to pose for pictures, brandishing a forked prodding stick behind one. Next week, I read an article in the paper about an attack by a zoo based Komodo dragon on Sharon Stone’s husband; he has lost some of his toes and is thought to have come off lightly. Tourists are not allowed to stay on Rinca, so we're sleeping aboard. There are no lights on the boat - they use torches.
We bypass Sumbawa on our vessel – we’re told it’s not very interesting and the roads are bad. SFMA may not be a good sailor, but he has got very good at whining. VCFAL is admirably patient. but we do stop at Mojo Island. More wonderful snorkelling. The crew find some arak and their behaviour deteriorates markedly. We have an impromptu disco on deck. It doesn't help when we finally arrive at Lombok and the dinghy leaks. Jo almost ends up in the water
We eventually land at Labuhan Lombok, the island's easterly harbour. We're still in the Lesser Sunda Islands, but this is now West Nusa Tengarra. Lombok is roughly circular, with a tiny tail. Inland to Tetebatu, a hill retreat in the centre of Lombok, at the southern base of Mt Rinjani. The mountain is a giant that stands guard over the whole island .
Close by is Masbagik Village, known for its pottery products, with demonstrations. And weaving, of course. And we stroll through the gorgeous, tranquil rice terraces. Transport around here is by cidema - horse cart
Kuta is Lombok's burgeoning answer to Kuta in Bali. Now I'm encountering tourists again, of the beautiful people type. And the beaches here ae lovely. Most notably Tanjung Aan, stunning white sand, palm trees and limestone pinnacles. The waves tumble into the entrance of a circular bay. The other upside is, we have a hotel with hot water – and a swimming pool. Another cidema ride, more artisans to barter with. I've acquired 11 lengths of beautiful striped cloth so far and a mother of pearl inlaid triangular chest, with three drawers
And Lombok offers more cultural delights. Here we have a stick fighting contest to attend. The regalia is less splendid then whip fighting, but it’s more brutal. Presean (stick fighting) again involves two fighters with rattan sticks and leather shields and a referee with a loud whistle. This martial art is accompanied by traditional music and a commentator. It gets extremely ferocious. I'm told that it's part of traditional rain ceremony;. the more they bleed, the more it will rain.
There's also a wedding procession wending its way through the village to enjoy. Colourful noisy and enthusiastic, but definitely more comfortable viewing.
Damian, yet another Australian, who I meet at Danny's Lombok Lounge, persuades me to take to the pillion of his motor bike and I get a bumpy view of the rural island. Damian (I should have been more wary as soon as I heard the name) can’t decide if he wants to come with us to Bali or not, so I say my farewells.
Another boat, a ferry this time to Bali and the tranquil rice terraces and extravagantly, gorgeous temples. We start at Lovina and an Indonesian banquet on the beach. The highlight is spiritual Ubud, with its cafes, health food and furniture shops. This is our last stop, where our hotel is a resplendent carved idyll surrounded by paddy fields. Damien is waiting to welcome us. But he’s not sure if he wants to stay in touch when I leave or not. (See Australia for more on this story!).
More on Bali here
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