For Years, Flores Has Been One of Indonesia’s More Mysterious, Undervaluedgems, But Ende, Tucked Away In The South-Central Region, Is Even Less Recognised. With Its Pandora’s Box Of Natural And Cultural Wonders, Expect That to Change Soon.
A far-flung island on the east of the Indonesian archipelago with heavily forested, rugged volcanic interiors, Flores (Flowers in Portuguese) has stayed under the tourism radar for too long. Although its very obscurity is the reason why its extraordinary cultural and natural diversity have remained intact, this jaw-droppingly beautiful island is fast emerging as Indonesia’s “Next Big Thing”.
A far-flung island on the east of the Indonesian archipelago with heavily forested, rugged volcanic interiors, Flores (Flowers in Portuguese) has stayed under the tourism radar for too long. Although its very obscurity is the reason why its extraordinary cultural and natural diversity have remained intact, this jaw-droppingly beautiful island is fast emerging as Indonesia’s “Next Big Thing”. Travellers lucky enough to make it here mainly head to Labuan Bajo, on the island’s far- west, a booming maritime gateway to Komodo National Park and Komodo and Rinca islands – the wild habitat of Flores’s iconic Komodo Dragon and one of the planets richest, most diverse marine areas. I, however, pushed on further east, to the south- central region and Ende, flying above emerald-green coral fringes with mist shrouded mountains beyond the airplane’s wings. We soon descend into a narrow peninsula surrounded by theSavu Sea, against the dramatic backdrop of flat-topped Meja and Iya Mountains. The beauty of it almost upstages Ende itself.
Flores largest city isn’t what I expected. It has a refreshingly innocent charm and a sleepy, frontier town feel. Hotels and restaurants are decidedly low-key, geared mainly toward domestic tourists, while the heartbreakingly friendly locals (some of them the indigenous Lionese highland folk) don’t appear accustomed to foreign faces. Thus I’m greeted with a welcome worthy of a celebrity, wide smiles and “Hello Mister!” (although I’m a Miss). At the central night market, I cause quite a stir – in the nicest possible manner. On the city’s broad streets there’s a harmonious mix of churches and mosques (including an imposing 1930s cathedral, one of Ende’s few buildings that survived the 1992 earthquake). Flores is predominantly Catholic, but Ende and its self-named Regency is also home to a considerable Muslim population.
Late afternoon, Ende’s volcanic black sand beach comes alive with youths playing football and other locals filling up ramshackle, open-air beachfront cafés. This is a relaxed spot to watch scarlet sunsets explode behind volcanic peaks. Directly west is Ende’s harbour, where, at an ungodly early hour, fishing boats return with their night’s haul, promptly offloaded for sale at the waterfront morning market.
Ende’s raison d’étre for most travellers is that it acts as a launch pad for Mount Kelimutu, secluded in Kelimutu National Park 51 kilometres eastwards. Part of Indonesia’s “Ring of Fire” volcanic belt and one of 17 volcanoes spanning the island, Gunung Kelimutu is arguably Flores’s most spectacular natural phenomena, with its fabled, tri-coloured crater lakes and surreal lunar-like landscape at 1,690 metres up.
The most popular starting point is Moni, a tranquil village several kilometres downhill from the Trans-Flores Highway and Park gates. Moni conveniently provides basic to mid-range accommodation for a pre-dawn ascent, when you can catch the sunrise at Kelimutu’s peak and golden shafts of early-morning light illuminating the surrounding lakes – before cloud cover spoils the show.
With limited time, my guide and I drive direct from Ende. Arriving around 8am we miss the sunrise, but are still rewarded with magnificent lake views after the crowds have gone home –we literally have the place to ourselves. Even the two-hour journey here is breath-taking, as we drive along a virtually empty Trans-Flores Highway winding along a ridge and cutting through soaring jungle-clad peaks. We pass agricultural communities and farming plots of organic coffee, peppercorn and bananas, and river valleys with unexpectedly, jade- hued terraced rice fields. Not so long ago, intrepid visitors had to scale some pretty challenging – sometimes impenetrable – terrain to reach Kelimutu’s peak. Now a 12-kilometre paved road from the Highway and Park’s gate snakes uphill through lush vegetation
to a parking lot. From here, it’s an easy 20-minute amble along a well-defined pine forest path, before entering Kelimutu’s eastern summit.
A stepped pathway circumnavigates the neighbouring lakes cradled within the volcano’s caldera – two positioned side by side, separated by a towering crater wall, and a third, located alone uphill further westwards. The path plus the off-trail vantage points offer birds-eye views, but the summit’s look-out allows you to see directly down into the crater lakes and into the valleys beyond.
All three lakes irregularly change colour – from chocolate brown and red to turquoise. This is caused by chemical reactions resulting from various mineral content contained in the lake triggered by volcanic gas activity. This “steamingmountain” is also Flores’s most mystical spot. In Lio folklore, these summit lakes are believed to be inhabited by spirits of the dead. Which lake a spirit enters, be it “Young”, “Evil”, or “Elders,” depends on the age and inclination of the deceased. There’s also a purgatory-style “waiting room” for a spirit to dwell in before being dispatched to heaven or hell.
A small group of us sit at the look-out for what seems an eternity, mesmerised by the lake’s shimmering hues, the all- pervading peace broken only by winds eerily whistling through the valleys. Only when the inevitable clouds roll in do we drag ourselves away. Time stands still here. The only thing that changes are the lake colours – today, 50 shades of emerald green.
NOT THE ENDE
Surrounded by rice fields, Moni is worth staying on for the hiking opportunities it provides within Kelimutu National Park, internationally recognised for its unique mountainous features, high (and rare) biodiversity and indigenous cultural heritage. Amongst the splendour of waterfalls and hot springs, the villages of Pemo and Woloara are fine examples of traditional Lio culture.
Ende too makes a good base from which to explore the naturally sublime, almost unchartered land and seascapes beyond. Sealed roads leading out in either direction have little traffic – save the odd goat or motorbike – and make for the ultimate road trip. Beaches in Ende’s immediate vicinity are generally grubby, but those beyond are naturally wild, picture- perfect and practically deserted, with not a condominium in sight (careful of the strong currents, though).
Head west towards Bajawa. This scenic coastal route snaking around cliff bluffs slowly reveals shimmering black sand beaches. Perhaps the loveliest of them all, crescent-shaped Mbuliwaralau, lies hidden behind dense coconut plantations and shaded hamlets dotted with mosques, before disappearing into misty mountains. Ende is famed for its endemic turquoise and pastel blue-hued stones. Many have been plundered for export, but are still found glistening on these black sands or embedded in cliff faces.
Outlying villages have time- honoured traditions, among them Lio ikat weaving, Flores’s most distinctive handicraft. Hand-woven cloth can be unique to a village and can take months to produce. Local women weaving outdoors on simple looms is a common sight, as are the finished Ikat textiles hanging up for sale outside homes.
One such community is Wolotopo, 12 kilometres east of Ende. This place is striking for its Lionese dwellings tightly stacked favela-style into steep seaside green hills. Only a few adat thatched stilted dwellings remain, perched on Wolotopo’s uppermost ridge. But numerous ocals can be seen hand weaving Ikat fabrics out on stone balconies. When returning to Ende, stop off at riverside Ndona, celebrated for its superior Ikat, hand-woven and entirely organic from the threads to the earthy natural dyes. Several semi-traditional stilt houses form the Ndona Weavers Co-operative, Bou Sam Sam, where you can learn about weaving traditions and order an authentic Ikat piece, highly sought after by aficionados worldwide.
Ende unexpectedly grew on me so much that I found it hard to depart. This wasn’t helped by adorable local kids giving my airplane a final “Goodbye Mister!” and big wave as it taxied down the runway.