Header image courtesy of Nanda Haensel
There is something about Flores that is rather unearthly. This diverse island in Eastern Indonesia with its savannah landscape, pristine oceans, impressive volcanoes, and turquoise crater lakes resemble a wilderness that seems to belong to another place and time. Though it is just an hour’s flight from internationally-acclaimed Bali, Flores remains in relative obscurity.
Travelling in Eastern Indonesia is to drift into another universe. Obsessed with the world’s largest archipelago, I explored its untouched beaches, wildlife, and exotic cultures multiple times. I have cruised in different areas across the region, from the Flores Sea, taking in the islands of Komodo, passing by the beauty of Mount Kelimulu and its lakes, to the furthest reaches of the remote villages near Bajawa. It is so diverse that every time I return to Flores, it feels I am charting completely new territory.
It all started two years ago in Labuan Bajo. I first landed in this small fishing village on the westernmost tip of Flores. From there, I boarded an elegant, white-painted former cargo boat. I sailed on Alexa, perhaps the most beautiful boat I have ever seen, across the Flores Sea, including Komodo National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
I dived with giant manta rays, walked amongst dragons, hiked on barren mountains, and admired peaks of green and mangrove forests. At night, I saw a world of phosphorescence and flying fish catching the moon in silver flashes, without even the light of a single fishing boat on the horizon. For three days, I travelled like this, onboard of an original Phinisi sailing ship, on my way to one of the best dive spots on earth.
Then, some months later, I find myself on Ende, on the southern coast of the island, this time on a motorbike expedition across the in lands of Flores. As I kick off a new adventure, my memories still bring me back to remarkable encounters with giant animals in the Flores Sea. But Indonesia’s diversity is hardly limited to wildlife.
From the back of a motorbike, I travel across black and white sand beaches, rice paddies, and traditional villages around Ende. The landscape stirs the imagination with its exotic hillsides covered by dry savannah and green vegetation, contrasting starkly with the brilliant blue water beaches.
Our guide, also driving a motorbike, is called Rio, a young friend of the man who rented us his own bike. He knows the empty roads by heart as he drives us along villages and then towards Maumere, on the north coast of Flores. It is not surprising that each stop ends up involving religion and traditions—a precious part of life almost everywhere on the island. We enter inside villages for an intimate glimpse into the locals’ way of life and discover the distinctive architecture of traditional houses, and, more importantly, we discover the people.
We disembark in Moni, a little village surrounded by rice paddies and landscapes dotted with palms and banana trees. The vibe is relaxed, and we take pleasure in staying in simple accommodation near local houses. We are at the foot of the volcanic Mount Kelimutu, a popular spot for travellers (by Flores standards), whose lunar landscape is beyond comprehension. The main attraction happens during sunrise when one can appreciate the brilliance of the three lakes inside the crater of the volcano. Depending on the oxidation state of the lake, the waters change colour, ranging from bright red through green and blue. This lends a surrealness to the whole area that has led to many myths and speculation about the origin of Kelimutu. Only later do I learn that, to the Flores people, Kelimutu is considered a resting place for souls.
Just when I thought I had seen enough of Flores, I was invited a year later to join an assignment in the archaeological grounds near Bajawa, a city in the central highlands of Flores. Once again, I land in Ende. With a team of filmmakers, we drive the coastline of the Savu Sea, reaching the settlement where the local tribe Nagakeo lives. Moving inward, the interior of Flores is a lost world of tribal cultures and archaeological sites. The feeling is remote, as we were in one of those holes on the map where no one else had ever been and, possibly, never would.
I am accompanying the Indonesian artist Kinez Riza, who is filming a documentary about human origins. Flores is home to a wealth of archaeological findings and our primary purpose on this journey is to document the fascinating work of archaeologists in search of real-life “hobbits”. Around ten years ago, scientists excavating a cave in this area discovered evidence of pre-hominid people smaller than pygmies, known as Homo Floresiensis. They are thought to have lived on the island some 20,000 years ago, an extinct species of human.
We stay at one of the houses belonging to the Nagakeo tribe at the Mangeruda village. We sleep on mats and take bucket showers. I enjoy evenings with archaeologists. One of them arranges a day-trip for to me to Riung (a proper blue water beach paradise two hours ride from the village) on the back of a motorbike. If Indonesians have one thing in common, it’s that they welcome foreigners with open arms. I take the opportunity to learn about their traditions as I hear stories about wild pig hunting with poisoned spears, bamboo blowpipes, and religious rituals. In front of each house, there is a grave set for the members of the family. The tribes have retained its traditions despite the widespread influence of Catholicism on the island, courtesy of Portuguese colonisation.
Flores is a multi-faceted melange. Every time I descend onto the island, it feels like I am stepping back in time. It doesn’t matter if I’m heading deep into its waters, or to its remote, ancient villages in the dry savannahs. Eastern Indonesia is where Asia gets more interesting—especially for those who are open to embracing the wild side.