Labuan Bajo is frequently the first stop for visitors to the beautiful island of Flores. Mark Eveleigh reports from the prettiest town on the island that Portuguese conquistadors named the ‘Cape of Flowers’.
‘You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.’ The words, painted on the steps to the terrace of a waterfront bar in Labuan Bajo, seem particularly fitting in this most westerly port of Flores. The island, part of the province of East Nusa Tenggara, stretches out eastwards for almost 500km from here in the great fiery volcanic ridge that has created some of the most beautiful landscapes in Indonesia’s dramatic ring of fire.
Arriving on the top step of the staircase I can see the whole bay of Labuan Bajo spread out before me. It is the sort of natural harbour that you can imagine would have seemed irresistible to the early voyagers who first came to settle here. I estimate that there are well over a hundred boats in the harbour, taking advantage of the natural protection offered by the tree-covered hillocks of the little group of uninhabited islands that lie close to the mainland. Along with the scores of fishing skiffs and modest passenger ferries that supply the remote communities farther out in the islands, there are half a dozen sleek Bugis-style schooners with their elegantly sweeping prows facing uniformly to windward. These classic timber sailing ships seem to give the harbour an atmosphere of wonderful timelessness; it’s easy to imagine that the view has changed little since buccaneer William Dampier anchored his man-o’-war in these waters in 1699.
These days the conversation on the terrace of the waterfront bars is far from topics of swashbuckling and piracy, but adventure is still constantly in the air in Labuan Bajo. I pour a splash of sophie (Flores’s traditional palm-tree arak) into my soft drink and eavesdrop shamelessly on the talk around me as I gaze out over the bay. At a table along the balcony to my right, two men are discussing dragons. They seem to be naturalists – one with a German accent and the other distinctly American – and, as befits their scientific background, they never actually use the word ‘dragon’ when they refer to the mighty reptiles that haunt the nearby Komodo Archipelago. Farther off, at a table to my left, I can hear the raised voices – in Spanish this time – of a group of divers discussing the various merits of some of the countless dive sites that pepper this tangle of reefs and sheltered coves. Even from way up here on the high balcony, you get the impression that the crystal waters in the harbour are swirling with schools of bright tropical fish.
Off-shore from here, divers are lured by the chance to see giant manta rays and the opportunity to dive with dolphins and whale sharks. Most people who come to Labuan Bajo do so either for the world-famous dragon-spotting or the diving in Komodo National Park. Lonely Planet recently described Labuan Bajo as ‘Indonesia’s next big eco-travel hotspot’, and the town has grown dramatically in the last decade with more bars, quality hotels and excellent seafood restaurants opening all the time. I first visited at the start of a long ten-day road trip along the Trans-Flores Highway all the way to the eastern port of Larantuka, and Labuan Bajo has been the first step on several long trips around the region for me during the past few years. Next I used the town as a base-camp for a trip to Komodo National Park, where I trekked among the dragons and snorkelled among coral formations where small schools of juvenile reef sharks swam around me like curious puppies.
Lonely Planet recently described Labuan Bajo as ‘Indonesia’s next big eco-travel hotspot’, and the town has grown dramatically in the last decade with more bars,
quality hotels and excellent seafood restaurants.
For most people Labuan Bajo is the first step on an ongoing Indonesian adventure and the town has become an increasingly important transportation hub. But this pretty little town is also worthy of being considered a destination in its own right, and increasing numbers of tourists are now being lured to this hilly fishing town, which seems to have been designed as a series of terraces so that from almost every hotel and restaurant you can enjoy wonderful views of that hypnotically beautiful bay. “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single footstep,” said Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu. Just occasionally that first footstep can turn out to be one of the most exciting.
5 Senses – Sight
Experience the heart-pumping thrill of a trek through dragon country on nearby Rinca Island. Responsible Travel (price from US$300 per person for 5 days) offers tailormade trips through Komodo National Park by private boat. You sail through the most scenic parts of the archipelago and snorkel on remote reefs before trekking among the majestic dragons. www.responsibletravel.com
5 Senses – Sound
Lie back and listen to the ripple of the waves on Bintang Flores Hotel’s private beach or soak in the beautiful infinity pool. This hotel on the outskirts of Labuan Bajo boasts a dive centre that is the stepping stone for an exploration of the Komodo Archipelago. Room prices start at US$130 for a double. www.bintangfloreshotel.com
Samantha Brown travels to enjoy the sounds, scents and sights of Bima – one of Garuda Indonesia’s latest destinations, served by its new island-hopping ATR 72-600 ‘Explore’ aircraft.
It’s a rainy day at famed surf stretch Pantai Lakey (also known as ‘Lakey B’ and Lakey’s Peak), a long arc of sand boasting pounding breaks, reached in just two hours by car southwest from Bima, Sumbawa’s main western city. But never mind the weather. At one of a cluster of laid-back hotels and guesthouses sprawled along the coast, we’re tucking into plates of carpaccio and sashimi made from marlin plucked from the ocean an hour ago, dipping the tender morsels into sides of wasabi and soy. The view of surfers slicing up the waves is panoramic, obscured just a touch
by a bobbing red hibiscus and a spray of pink bougainvillea. Australian surfers first trickled here in the early 1980s, but these days the crowds descend for an annual Rip Curl Gromsearch event at Lakey’s Peak, one of five intermediate reef breaks easily reachable from the beach. “Nowhere else in Sumbawa has such a high concentration of consistent world-class breaks,” says English photographer David Burden. “I’ve been coming here since 2000
– and it’s the perfect escape from crowded Bali waves.”
More adventurous surfers head off, looking for their own breaks – but good luck getting any of them to tell you where they are. Back along the beach, we take shelter as the monsoon rains fall. Picnicking locals proffer roasted sweet potato and hunks of sweet mango; in the distance, the towers erected out at Lakey’s Peak for surf judges provide a focal point for photos, and white-zinced surfers pad out across the sand for a session. When the skies clear, we hire a motorbike to explore further along the coast, snatching glimpses of deserted beaches lapped by the Indian Ocean, spotting an occasional local fossicking over rocks and reefs revealed by a low tide. The road peters out at a bridge where a waterfall rushes towards the ocean. A monkey scampers away; we feel like we’re on the edge of the world watching storms play out in the distance. If the sun wasn’t setting, we’d want to keep riding along the dirt path to see what we’d find. With Bima now on Garuda Indonesia’s domestic flight network, it’s possible that more adventurers will be heading here to do just that.
The other key lure for travellers to this corner of Sumbawa to date has been climbing 2,722m-high Mount Tambora, where the largest volcanic explosion in recorded history occurred in 1815. While we can’t climb it in the wet, during the dry season it’s a challenging but not technical climb, with incredibly rewarding views awaiting you. Heading back through Bima, we’ve decided to check out the beachside village of Sangiang, where a Bugis community originally from Sulawesi still works building traditional pinisi boats. To reach the village, it’s another two-hour drive through soaring green mountains crisscrossed with paddy fields, past stone-filled creeks and colourful wooden-stilted homes.We poke around one of the semi-finished wooden pinisis resting on the black volcanic sand, and Praska, who goes by one name, tells us he’s one of five boatbuilders who have been working on the traditional Bugis boat for four months, and that it should be finished in another eight months. The boat will fetch US$200,000 and be used to transport wood from Kalimantan to Java. This particular boat is 27m long at its base and 9m tall before a mast of 7m is added. It’s a dwindling industry though, and Praska says of building the boats: “Before, there were a lot.
Records of the Bima kingdom are quite sketchy, but conversion
from Hinduism to Islam occurred around the 18th century, with the
final sultanate ending in 1945.
Now, just a few.” Bima itself offers a glimpse into long-remote Sumbawa’s history. Records of the Bima kingdom are quite sketchy, but conversion from Hinduism to Islam occurred around the 18th century, with the final Bima sultanate ending with Indonesia’s independence in 1945. The 1927-built palace of the final sultan, Muhammad Salahuddin, is now a museum flanked by lawns and gambolling deer. On our visit a caretaker scrambled in through a window to let us in, shoes removed, guiding us past dusty display cases housing everything from musical instruments to bird-catching equipment. You may not understand much, but the timeworn wooden floorboards underfoot, furnished royal bedrooms, flickering single-globe chandeliers and fading photos speak volumes themselves. Nearby is a pretty mosque from the same period, with a slightly crumbling shingle roof and empty water fountain at the front; we meet a friendly teacher and gaggle of five-year-olds here who, like many in Sumbawa, want their photo taken with us. Bima makes a great base for genuine adventurers looking to uncover Sumbawa’s secrets; when the crowds of south Bali get you down, Bima is just over an hour’s flight away, offering plenty of uncharted territory to check out.
5 Senses – Sound
Rural life is always near at hand on Sumbawa. Even in Bima and the surrounds you’ll hear the melodic clunking of cowbells from cattle grazing by the side of the road, the click-clack of horses’ hooves ferrying passengers around and the startling maa-ing of the ubiquitous goats. When you go exploring outside town, you’ll hear cicadas chirruping in the heat – Sumbawa lies on the eastern side of the Wallace Line, meaning the fauna starts to become more Australian than Asian.
5 Senses – Taste
Fresh seafood is a Sumbawa speciality, but in Bima you’ll find the greatest hits of food from across the Indonesian archipelago, such as sate drenched in peanut sauce, martabak with cheese and sweetened condensed milk, and excellent Padang food. When it comes time for picking up a souvenir, raw Sumbawa honey collected from the island’s wild jungles is an excellent choice – look for a jual madu asli sign to buy as close to the source as possible. And, well, if you’re adventurous, we found a roving salesman selling horse milk in our hotel lobby. It’s lower in fat than cow’s milk, and according to our salesman, “It makes you strong!”
With Flores, most attention seems to be lavished on the island’s west and its stars, Labuan Bajo and Komodo National Park, so much so that the capital, Ende, tucked away on the southeast coast, seems to be an afterthought.
Flying over Flores Island and its startling emerald-green coral fringes and misty peaks, we land at Ende’s minuscule airport and find ourselves deposited upon an exotic peninsula surrounded by the Savu Sea, with a twin volcano backdrop of the flat-topped mountain Gunung Meja and the active volcano Gunung Iya. First impressions running around the broad streets of this sleepy port town, however, reveal that there isn’t much going on, especially after 9pm. Hotels and restaurants are low-key and geared – for now – towards domestic tourists. Decimated by a 1992 earthquake, old architecture is uncommon – yet there are a few exceptions, like the 1930s Catholic Cathedral. But Flores’s capital still exudes a rare innocent charm, with genuinely friendly residents (a combination of indigenous Lio and Ende folk) who, judging by their boundless excitement and wide smiles, aren’t used to seeing too many foreign faces around. I didn’t notice many either during my stay. School kids, or anyone driving past, gave a celebrity-worthy
welcome, hollering out “Hello Mister!” even if, like me, you’re a ‘Miss’.
Get your bearings and head to central Ende Beach, a crescent-shaped, volcanic black-sand beach, the place to hang out come late afternoon. Groups of youths play football down on the sand, while ramshackle open-air beach cafés come alive with the locals. Sit with a chilled drink watching the fishing boats bob out to sea and the spectacular scarlet sunsets illuminate the distant volcanoes. Directly south of here is Ende’s old harbour; in the early hours, you can see those fishermen return with their night catches, later sold at the bustling morning fish market. Undeniably, Ende’s trump card is the almost uncharted beautiful surrounds of nature in this regency. Roads leading out from any direction offer little in the way of traffic, just impossibly sublime landscapes for the ultimate road trip. Rent a motorbike, hit the road and take in the views. Ende generally serves as a launch pad for Mount Kelimutu and its mystical tri-coloured lakes at the summit (1,641m). A bucket list ‘must-do’ and one of Indonesia’s most jaw-dropping natural phenomena, the crater lakes are reached by a 50km drive through magnificent highlands: the journey is almost as mesmerising as the destination. Steep winding roads reveal idyllic scenes of jungle-clad mountains, luscious jade vegetation skewered with waterfalls, and river valleys unravelling unexpected rice fields and tranquil villages. You may pass the odd car, goat and local dressed in traditional garb.
Within Kelimutu National Park, a 20-minute amble up hillside steps transports you to the three neighbouring lakes, nestled within the volcano’s caldera, best viewed from the peaceful lookout point. The colour of the water-filled lakes changes regularly – anything from chocolate brown and red to emerald and turquoise – caused by volcanic gas sources and varying mineral contents. In Lio culture, these sacred lakes are believed to be a purgatory-style ‘waiting room’ for spirits of the dead – the lakes allocated ‘Young’, ‘Old’, or ‘Evil’. A park purification ceremony held each August sends ancestral souls on their way to heaven… or hell. There’s more to explore out west on the Trans-Flores Highway. Heading out towards Bajawa along this coastal road, snaking its way around cliff heads, and you’ll find shimmering black-sand beaches fringed with coconut palms, and quaint hamlets dotted with mosques. Be sure to stop off at Mbuliwaralau Beach, hidden behind dense coconut plantations; like the other beaches, it is naturally wild
and usually deserted.
Outlying traditional villages in Ende regency are worth exploring too, not only revealing a time-honoured rural lifestyle but also a hotbed of Lionese ikat weaving. Local women handweave ikat textiles outdoors on simple looms, with their distinctive end results draped for sale on roadside stalls. Take the climbing coastal road 12km east to Wolotopo (a lofty vantage point provides panoramic views back across Ende Bay), a picturesque Lionese community stacked up favela-style into seaside hills. The top ridge is dominated by a couple of adat traditional ceremonial thatched dwellings and tiny stilted keda kanga structures containing ancestral bones; a scene juxtaposed with TV satellite dishes and present-day residents busily weaving!
Returning to Ende, stop off at the riverside Ndona Village, where its ikat weavers cooperative is famed for a unique Lionese ikat. Cloth here is entirely organic and hand-made from scratch, including the unmistakable natural dyes. The fabric is sold to collectors worldwide; take your time selecting the ultimate souvenir from the cooperative family homes. A few days exploring and charmed to oblivion and suddenly I’m hooked on what initially seemed like a frontier town in the middle of nowhere. Parting from this endearing heartstealer is made harder as yet more adorable
children give a final “Goodbye Mister!” and wave as my departing plane taxis down the runway.
5 Senses – Sight
GETTING THE BLUES
Ende is noted for its striking turquoise and pastel blue stones, naturally unique to the area and a geological marvel. The official Blue Stone Beach, a 25km drive westward, was up until recently a veritable carpet of these magical stones; but, steadily recognised as a prized commodity, many of them have now been plundered and exported. Huge storms and serious sand erosion hasn’t helped either. Look closely, however, along Ende’s beaches or cut-away cliff faces and there are still plenty of these unusual blue stones for everyone to enjoy.
5 Senses – Taste
SPICE IT UP
Out in the surrounding hills, there are plenty of farming plots with organically-grown cloves, red-hot chillies, peppercorns and ginger. Of course, Flores is famed for its robust and aromatic coffee beans, and coffee plantations are also evident here. Kopi Ende, a speciality here, is ginger coffee, a wicked but unexpectedly good combination of coffee beans and spicy fresh ginger, for the ultimate morning kick-start. Try it at one of the many local rumah makan (literally ‘house eat’) restaurants.