Heading West: Kupang to Flores

Timor Leste/West Timor border. Friday 8th September.

While it would have been nice to linger a few days longer in Dili, mainly to rest my back, the validity of my Indonesian visa was swiftly drawing near. My rib and back were still sore but I knew I could ride without problems. I also knew that in time it would all be OK. So this will be the last mention of that sorry incident.
You just never know what border crossings are going to be like, especially in third or second world countries. Travellers will often describe corrupt practices or seemingly pointless hassle from immigration or customs. Up to now I’ve never had a problem, except the one time in Kazakhstan, when I hadn’t registered my presence and he made me sit around for an hour and a half before letting me out. But, like the road from Dili to the frontier, this time is was as smooth as you like. A helpful young Timorese showed me where to get my passport stamped and then where to get my carnet stamped too. At some borders I’d faced a 5-10 kilometre dirt road ride between leaving one country and entering the next. This time it was 300 metres of concrete, with not even a pothole in sight. The Indonesian officials were equally helpful and efficient, although customs did insist on me removing my panniers so they could go through the x-ray machine. Not a problem, just a nuisance. But I felt better about it after they’d let me sit in their air conditioned customs hall while I ate some lunch.

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There’s even a better quality of town centre statue in West Timor.

Setting off into the twenty first country of my trip, the difference was immediately noticeable. The villages were better laid out, with buildings constructed from breeze block rather than bamboo. They appeared to be more prosperous but even so, I still saw people carrying buckets of water into houses. The terrain was, as you might expect, just the same, but there was more obvious agriculture. The traffic was no different though, with small scooters or bikes everywhere, mixing it with the heavier traffic with he usual Asian panache. Best of all, the roads were great. Twisty, windy and mountainous, of course, but I always had the feeling that whenever I went round a bend there’d always be a good surface all the way through. Not that I abandoned caution. I was still in Asia after all.
Kefamenanu, and the Victory hotel, were my overnight resting place. Evening meal at a cheap and cheerful warung (café) just down the road, followed by a good night’s sleep. The only problem was that I forget to say ‘Tidak Gula’ – no sugar, when I ordered my tea. I’d got used to tea with no milk, but adding in sugar makes it undrinkable. I get the impression people in these parts have a very sweet tooth.
It was a nice ride to Kupang, the capital of West Timor. Good roads, nice weather and nice views too. There was a fair bit of traffic around, with the occasional overtaking manoeuvre taking place halfway round a blind bend, but slowly enough not to pose a threat. I was often amused by some young pup on a scooter, overtaking me seemingly just below my elbow as I rounded a bend. Obviously keen to show the foreigner on the big bike how it’s done in those parts and taking advantage of local knowledge and lack of fear. I stopped for petrol in one of the towns, joining the long queue of small fry to fill up, but pleasantly surprised that it was only 7,500 Indonesian Rupiyah per litre – about 0.40GBP.

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A similar sign to those I’d seen in Japan. Where to run to in the event of a tsunami.

Once in Kupang I found the Lavalon Seaview hostel, up on a cliff above the beach. The owner, Edwin, spoke good English and was renowned among travellers for his knowledge and helpfulness. It was here that Elisa had left her bike, and I sent her a photo of it just so she knew it was OK. There were plenty of shops nearby, including one that sold SIM cards. Best of all was an evening fish market in one of the side streets, were I could go and choose the fish I wanted to eat, watch them BBQ it, then have it served at the table along with rice, vegetables and tea. It was delicious. The area was very atmospheric, with the illuminated stalls, all the fish laid out for inspection, the smoke from the BBQs, all on a warm, pleasant evening.
I made contact with Elisa and she told me that Dan, an Aussie friend of hers, would be arriving in Kupang to take her bike to Bali, where it could be safely stored. When she was well enough she would fly out to collect it and continue her travels. Dan was already on a long holiday in SE Asia, so he agreed to extend his time and ride her bike to Bali. The obvious thing was for us to ride there together, so that was agreed on. Likely to take about three weeks, it would be a different experience for a solo traveller like me. But I was looking forward to it.
Various people drifted in and out of the hostel while I was there. Thomas is Finnish and had been on the road eleven years, including four in India riding a Royal Enfield. Lee had been travelling for four years and they planned to ride their small Indonesian registered Suzukis into Timor Leste, then across to Indonesian half of Papua, where they would sell them. The next stage would be to go into Papua New Guinea, buy a dinghy and take it across to Australia, about forty kilometres away. It sounded totally mad.

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Thomas, a new bike and a mad plan.

Kupang, and this hostel, seem to be a gateway in and out of Timor Leste as well as a jumping off point for ferries to nearby islands where there’s good surfing and diving. Edwin used to be an actor, a journalist and, more recently, a professional photographer. His claim to fame is his involvement in the making of the Channel 4 drama which replicated the journey made by Captain Bligh when the Bounty’s crew mutinied. It began near Tahiti but ended in Kupang, on the beach below the hostel. He was an advisor on the programme and feels the history so strongly that he wants the beach officially renamed Bounty Beach. I asked why there were no stairs down from his place to the beach and he just said “Crocodiles!”

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Pick it, cook it, eat it. Delicious.

I went for a walk down to the old port area one morning and strolled around the market. Lots of fish for sale, fresh or dried, vegetables, spices and some fruit. Plenty of clothing and dry goods too. Busy, noisy and a bit smelly, but nothing that tempted me. I jumped on a Bemo, Kupang’s version of the small, fixed fare microbus, and went to the museum. Very small entry fee and I was shown around by two high school students who act as guides so as to be able to practice their English. It was interesting enough to make the visit worthwhile, focussing on local culture and artefacts. Cotton weaving and wicker boxes for betel nuts seem to be very important. In a separate building was the skeleton of a Blue Whale, which had been washed up on a local beach in the 1970s. I was surprised to read that one of the local islands carries out an annual ceremony where they catch and kill a Blue Whale, which is then cut up and divided between all the families. It’s part of a ritual of some kind but I’m surprised such a thing still goes on in this era of conservation. They showed me some ancient skulls, found in a nearby cave and reckoned to be 60-70,000 years old. It seems ancient humans got about a bit, aided, no doubt, by the land bridges that linked many of Indonesia’s 17,000 islands before sea levels rose.
A short walk took me to the Lippo Mall, a big, Western style shopping centre. I was in a hardware stall when I spotted another European, a Swiss guy names Matthias. He’s ridden across to Indonesia from home on a BMW GS1200, a choice of bike he said he regrets. They weigh in at 220kg unladen, so I didn’t need to ask him why. He was in the company of Radin, a Czech guy currently living in the USA, riding a KTM 990. They’ve met on the road a couple of times and have teamed up for the journey to Darwin, at least, where they’ll stay with Dave while their bikes are cleared through customs. We had a long chat about the dreaded AQIS and I warned them to expect it to be a slow process. Radin had ridden through Myanmar as part of a group. It can only be done with a guide and he was full of praise for the way this worked out. I’d heard similar stories before so I wasn’t too concerned about there. Thailand is a different matter but Radin had managed to avid the permit/guide requirement on his way back from Laos. He’d also managed to get his big bike into Vietnam, something I’d heard was impossible. If only Thailand would drop their new regulations my life would be so much easier.

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Matthias and his BMW Behemoth.

Friday arrived and so did Dan. He flew in from Bali and we started to make our plans to ride back there. He had a visa deadline to meet but we had plenty of time, reckoning three weeks should be enough to island-hop westwards. Dan is very easy to get along with, a typical laid back young Aussie. He’s between jobs and took an extended holiday before he returns to throw himself into the family plumbing business. We hit it off straight away and I was confident we’d enjoy the trip together.

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Dan, my new Aussie riding companion.

Ferries from Kupang to Larantuka, in Flores, leave on Thursday and Sunday, at midday. We decided to take a reconnaissance ride to locate the port rather than put ourselves under pressure on Sunday morning. It was just as well we did because we had to try three times before we found it, despite the ‘assistance’ of mapping software. We parked our bikes and took a walk round, checking where to buy a ticket etc. Then we were approached by Daisy, a thirty something local woman who’d worked in the tourism industry and spoke excellent English. She took us under her wing and showed us where we needed to go for everything. She is a delightful young woman, very helpful, and once we’d finished at the port she offered to show us a couple of local sights. She jumped on her 50cc scooter and we followed her – slowly – to the Crystal Cave. We walked down between some houses, then down a rocky slope, where we found the cave on the side of a limestone rock escarpment. Scrambling down the slope into it we came to a very deep, crystal clear pool, apparently very cold too. On a thirty plus degree day, it looked tempting. It’s popular for cave diving too and her cousin rents out cameras to visiting tourists.
Next we followed her to the western beach, popular for sunset viewing, where her cousin (a different one) sits up in a watchtower guarding the oyster beds out in the bay. Two big searchlights for spotting potential thieves, but no sign of the machine gun the tower looked like it ought to house. Daisy kept apologising for her slow scooter. She used to have a bigger bike but her family pressured her into giving it up for something more ladylike. She’s worked abroad and was in Kuala Lumpur for five years, but it seems now that family pressures prevail. We followed her back to her house and said our goodbyes to this lovely, cheery woman, before heading back to base.

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Our lovely guide and assistant, Daisy.

We decided to have an eve-of-departure meal out so walked down to the local market area looking for a place we’d been recommended. It was closed but we found a great alternative, with good, cheap food and cold beers. A large dining area with a band due to be on later. We got chatting to the owner who was telling us that Kupang was a big Aussie tourist area until the late nineties, when flights from Darwin were suspended. It seems that Indonesia and Australia had a falling out over the situation in Timor Leste, around the time of the referendum there. The direct flights have never been resumed. It was noticeable how few Europeans there were in Kupang although Edwin’s hostel seemed to attract plenty. But the city isn’t that much of a tourist place anyway.
By 9am we’d left for the ferry terminal. On the way I spotted Daisy waving at us from the side of the road. She came with us and really made life so much easier. She showed us where to buy the tickets, made sure we got charged the correct amount (there was a risk of being cheated here,it seems) and accompanied us onto the boat. We strapped our bikes down as best we could within the confined space we’d been forced into. So tight, in fact, that we had to use the side of a truck as an anchoring point. It’s a sixteen hour journey and I’d been warned that we should get up on deck as quickly as possible to be at the front of the queue for bunks. Once the doors to the bunk room are opened it’s everyone for themselves and devil take the hindmost. But once again Daisy came up trumps and took us straight into the sleeping area, aided by yet another cousin who was a crew member. I’ve never met anyone with so many useful cousins!

The sleeping room. Not wonderful but better than the alternative.

We claimed a couple of bunks then waited around until the doors were opened and people flooded in, accompanied by all their goods and children and, in one case, a box from which a cheeping noise emanated. This was placed on the floor at the head of Dan’s bunk although it later disappeared, for reasons we didn’t bother to ask or want to know. Daisy waited around until we’d had our tickets checked and had paid for the bunks, before heading ashore. What a lovely woman.
How was the voyage? At sixteen hours long, very wearing. But it could have been worse. There were fifty bunks in the sleeping room but everyone got settled in, with their bits and bobs packed around them. The room was air conditioned so didn’t become the sweaty, smelly hell that it might have been, and smoking wasn’t allowed below decks. Indonesians are considerate and tidy people. The toilets remained clean, unlike some cross channel ferries I’ve been on, no doubt helped by the absence of alcohol. There was a small café for drinks and snacks, mostly pot noodle. We spent most of our time lying around, chatting, reading and so on.
Up on deck there were people sat on every seat or laid down on mats under the available shelter. Calm and hot, the weather was ideal for being on a boat. This one was nearly thirty years old and the exhausts for the twin 650hp Perkins diesels were noisy enough to make conversation difficult while on deck. This inconvenience was fully compensated for by the finest sunset I’ve ever seen. Unlike others, where the sun’s last rays are shining through the clouds on the horizon, this one had no clouds to obscure it. Dan and I watched the fiery disc slip gradually behind the edge of the sea, starting with the edge resting on the water then sliding down until there was only a tiny sliver left. Then it was gone. Wonderful.

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See you tomorrow Sun.’

The ferry docked on time at 4am. Dan and I waited a while before following the crowd down to the car deck. We managed to unhook our bikes from the side of the adjacent truck a few minutes before he pulled away, then we followed the crowd onto dry land and out of the port. We’d already worked out a route across the long, thin island of Flores, so we headed west, off into the dark, planning to overnight in Ende, another mucky old port town.
With the buildings now left behind the road started climbing upwards, twisty, steep and challenging. My LED headlight and spotlights threw a goodly amount of light ahead of us so I took the lead and we made good but wary progress as we followed the coast. We stopped for a break after an hour or so, next to an inlet where we decided to watch the sunrise. While we waited we could see large shoals of fish swimming around feeding. They presented a solid mass as they wheeled around, rather like a flock of starlings, hoovering up their food. The early fisherman out in his boat seemed unimpressed though. A routine event for him, no doubt.

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The strange sight of feeding fish, en masse.

Rather than go to Ende we stopped at Moni, the step off base for visiting Kelimutu, with its three crater lakes. We found a restaurant with nice home stay rooms, which we got for a good price. We chatted to some women who were staying there too, with Dan agreeing to take one of them, Charlotte, up to the crater on his bike when we went up there to see the sunrise. Sunrise happens early, departure for the crater would happen even earlier, so after a good meal it was time for an early night.
Another 4am start. “Why can’t we watch sunsets,” I wanted to know. “They take place when I’m not in bed!” Charlotte wasn’t feeling too well, so she cried off. Which was just as well really. The road up to the national park entrance was even steeper and bendier than that of the previous day and I know that Dan would have seriously struggled with a passenger on board.
We left the bikes in the car park and walked up the path to where we could see the lowest lake. Then we walked up the steep steps to the higher level, with a couple of pauses for breath on the way, in my case. Was it worth all the effort? You betcha! We’d heeded the advice to dress warmly and that advice was good. There was a very keen breeze up at the top. There’s an obelisk there, with a variety of people selling hot drinks and snacks. All of their goods had been carried up there and I did wonder at what time they must have started in order to get there ahead of us. Looking across towards the volcano (extinct now) we could see two of the three lakes. The odd thing about them is that they all lie inside the caldera but are separated by jagged rock walls. Each has its own mineral content and will show different colours when the sun shines on them. One blue, one turquoise and the third a reddish colour. We weren’t going to get that effect at sunrise unfortunately, and we had neither the time nor the inclination to climb up in the hot afternoon sunshine to do so.

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It’s a long, hard walk up to see the sunrise.

The sunrise was spectacular, with the sun slowly creeping over the far edge of the crater and illuminating the deep waters inside. It was a bit cloudy, sadly, but we felt it had been worth the hard climb just to see the start of a new day in such a special place. It’s easy to understand why ancient peoples revered such places and events so ardently.
Back in the car park we enjoyed a rather expensive glass of tea and chatted to two of the women who’d been at the hostel the previous night. They’d been told of a path that led down the side of the hill, back down towards the village, allegedly a nice two hour walk. We had our bikes to ride so we left them to it.

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What we’d climbed all that way up to see.

Our next destination was Bajawa where we planned to visit one of several nearby traditional villages. As we rode through the very busy town of Ende I felt my clutch cable give a bit, right in the middle of some seriously heavy traffic. We managed to get clear but as I pulled in to check it, that’s when it snapped. “No worries here, I have a spare,” was my thinking. I pushed the bike across the road and into some shade where the usual crowd of onlookers gathered to watch as I fitted the new one. All done and adjusted up, I got on the bike to pull away and promptly dropped it. Why? Because the idiot who fitted it misrouted the damn thing and the front forks wouldn’t turn, that’s why! All credit to my audience, who where too concerned that I’d hurt myself to laugh, but helped Dan and me to pick the bike up. Once I’d done the job properly we set off again.
The road followed the coast for the most part and was a pleasure to ride. We’d noticed that as we’d come further west the whole aspect of Flores improved. Villages where much neater; houses where more modern and built of block and tile rather than bamboo and thatch; the roads were excellent and seemed to have been recently resurfaced. It may seem like a cliché to talk about coconut trees and banana plants, but they were everywhere and mostly seemed to be growing wild. Bananas were always on sale, often from street sellers, although they tended to be small. We didn’t see coconuts for sale much, but their main use is in cooking, so I wasn’t surprised.

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Lots of pretty blue pebbles, on Blue Pebble Beach.

We had a lunch stop at Blue Pebble Beach, which lived up to its name quite well. Local people gather up the stones, bag them and sell them on. We saw stacks of bags at the side of the road, awaiting collection. I believe they get sorted, polished and then sold as art or jewellery. They come from a pale blue rock, which lines the coast in this area. I don’t know how the colour gets into the rock, which seems to be limestone, probably from a mineral source. The café where we had lunch also seems to cater for larger parties, judging by the rather odd arrangement of umbrellas strung out along a section of the beach, which we presumed were to provide shelter from sun and rain. Strange but pretty.

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Mary Poppins was nowhere to be seen.

After a couple of false starts we found a nice hotel, close to ‘restaurant alley’, where finding a good place to eat should be easy. We went to acafé on the first floor of a building, remarkable mostly for the fact that the wooden floor bounced every time somebody walked across it. It was like trying to eat a picnic on a bouncy castle and I felt slightly seasick by the time we’d finished.
The nearest traditional village is Bena, a nice, twisty ride through the exceedingly green countryside. We paid our entry fee and had a walk around. The houses reminded me of a similar place I’d see in Japan. Very high and steep roofs, thatched with reed, built around bamboo frames. Nothing like as well built though, or as decorative. People sit on the verandas, under the extensive overhang of the roof, working on crafts: weaving for the women, carvings for the men. Most of the women had very red mouths and teeth, a sure sign that they ate Betel Nuts. Their juice stains the whole mouth and looks, to my eyes at least, horrible. But they’re an important part of Asian culture and we could see them laid out on mats, drying in the sun, as were several other nutty type fruits. These are part of the cash crops that help support the village.  Betel Nuts are so important that decoratively woven storage boxes are often included as part of the exchange of gifts between bride and groom at weddings. The red stain is considered to be a thing of beauty but the nut also gives a nice buzz and can become addictive. The major downside is that they cause various oral cancers and can contribute to other health problems too. I hadn’t seen them in use up to now, but in a place full of tradition I suppose it wasn’t so surprising.

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How things used to be.

The village rose up a slope, with the roofs of the houses tiered upwards on each side, like any row of terraced houses you’d see in a British city. There was a large compound in the centre where villagers gather for ceremonies and the like. At that time it was full of the previously mentioned drying mats but we also saw arrangements of jagged, upright stones, surrounding some flat rocks which had space for fires beneath. We couldn’t quite puzzle out what these were for – cooking for village feasts, maybe? – but it turned out that they’re simply where offerings are placed as part of ceremonies. Although generally Catholic, it’s common for villages such as these to follow their ancient rituals where they maintain contact with their ancestors, who they believe are still with them. There were some curious, small huts at one end of the largest compound, which were clearly used as schoolrooms, judging by the pictures drawn around the frieze above the open walls. One of them contained the skulls and horns of water buffalo, but we couldn’t guess at their significance. There were several homes which had these outside too, so clearly they’re culturally important.

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The women weave this cloth. The patterns have cultural significance. Some are men only, some women only.

It was easy to see that this is a ‘living’ village, not just a tourist site. Yes of course they make some of their income from entry fees, and the sale of cloth and carvings, but they don’t go home at night to somewhere else. Their facilities match those of most other rural villages and we were amused by a couple of incongruous modern touches, such as a fire hydrant (very sensible) and some corrugated iron peeking out from beneath some of the thatching (cheating!). There was a new house being built, seeming to use traditional methods but with timber beneath the rattan walls. But that fire hydrant seemed like a really good idea in a place so full of flammable materials.

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Ceremonial offering site.

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This information summarises how the village functions.

Talking of water, we rode further down the same road and found Mangeruda hot springs. This is a wonderful place where geothermal springs rise out of the ground and then join with a normal mountain stream. You can choose to go hot, cold or a mixture of both. I was able to sit in a pool where I could alternate between the two just by moving across slightly, from one rock to another. It was bliss. The hot water has minerals in it. I don’t know of what type but the water tasted rather sour, like milk that had gone off. The kind of thing that Victorians would have paid a fortune to drink down at Tonbridge Wells, or somewhere similar.
After some lunch we rode back to the hotel where the two Dutch women we’d met at the car park at Kelimutu had now arrived. Sitting around in the late sunshine was very pleasant, as was the meal we all enjoyed later. Then they taught us a Dutch card game, whose name I forget, but which kept us amused for the evening. Such are the pleasures of life on the road.

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Lotte, Flo and Dan. Chilling in the sun with a beer. It’s just about culture you know.

Up on the north coast lies the town of Riung, where the main attraction is to go on boat trips out to the Seventeen Islands. We then planned to ride along the coast, and inland to Ruteng, home of the Hobbit cave. When we told this to the hotel manager he threw his hands up in horror, telling us that the road along the northern coast from Riung was really, really bad. Dan looked at him and thought of the fun he’d had on rough tracks on a KTM out in Cambodia. I looked at him and thought “You’ve clearly never been to Timor Leste mate.” But we just assured him we’d be OK and headed off. About 30kms north of town the road turned into patchy, potholed asphalt, as if to give us a training run for the ‘terrible road’ that was to come. The villages were starting to get poorer and I noticed steel poles lying at the side of the road, looking like street lamp posts. My curiosity led me to realise that, unlike other areas we’d ridden through, there was no obvious electricity supply. That explained the steel poles then. Although Riung did have power, it came from a very noisy generator. What with the state of the road, it seems that the north of Flores still needs modernising.

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If you want fuel, you join the queue. It can take a while, in the hot sunshine.

The first thing we did in Riung was to book a boat trip for the next day. We were the only two on it but the guy said that the price would come down if we could find people to share with us. We found a really nice hotel and restaurant and, by dint of good luck we found six other people to join us, some of whom had come to the hotel to eat. One of them even gave us a lift down to the harbour in the morning.

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Nice boat, blue sea, beach BBQ. Wonderful.

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A hungry clam.

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Cheeky face among the coral

The point of the trip was to see, and admire, the very pretty islands out in the bay, and to enjoy some snorkelling. The sea here seems to be more saline so it was easy to float over the coral, almost with no effort, and admire the different types and colours, and the very pretty fish that swam among them. Add into that a very nice lunch of freshly BBQ’d fish and fresh fruit, and it’s easy to say that it was a terrific day out. On the way back we stopped by some mangrove trees, which were full of roosting fruit bats, and our boatman swam over to roust them out of their slumbers. He soon had them all wheeling around the trees, reminding me of flocks of starlings on an autumn day. These bats are strange creatures, very noisy and smelly, and I’ve no love for them, but I felt rather sorry for them as they were forced to perform for the tourists.

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The excellent La Mar hotel and restaurant.

Once we’d found the right road out of Riung we soon discovered why the manager down in Bajawa had reacted that way. It was dreadful! Rocky, sandy, washed out and broken up. Dan was in his element. Even on a heavy bike like the DR650 he was having fun. I was more cautious, the memory of my last fall still fresh, but we enjoyed the challenge and the surrounding countryside was very nice, with some spectacular coastal views to enjoy. But that road reinforced how much development work the north of this island still needs.
Eventually we turned inland, onto better roads, and tried to find the Hobbit cave. I’d marked it on Google maps but I missed the turning so we tried to follow a different route. In the best traditions of this usually useful software, it led us along ever smaller roads, through villages where the inhabitants stared at us as if we were mad, until we eventually left the sealed road and took to a stony track. After one particularly tricky uphill climb we turned round and saw that the track we should have taken just beforehand was nothing more than a narrow, muddy trail wandering across the hillside. Tolkein wrote “The road goes ever on and on” but we quickly decided we weren’t going to be finding any Hobbits along that particular goat track and turned back. The villagers enjoyed their second chance to stare at the mad foreigners as we regained the main road and headed into Ruteng. Heavy tropical rain accompanied the last part of our journey. We were very pleased that we found a nice hotel so easily and began to get warm and dry.

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A crowd of curious schoolkids. They’re always happy to pose.

As we walked back to the hotel after our meal a group of lads suddenly approached us out of the gloom. Slightly startled, we wondered what was about to happen, as might be expected. But all these teenagers wanted was to talk to us briefly, then ask us to sign their contact books to confirm we’d spoken with them. It seems they’re tasked with speaking English with tourists, whenever they can, as part of their school work. We were happy to oblige these pleasant young guys.

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Flo’s skeleton. She’s just over a metre tall.

Next day we found Liung Bua (the Hobbit cave) very easily, simply by following the signs from the town centre. Although the mapping software shows several routes to it, there’s only one that actually goes all the way there. So we were on a hiding to nothing yesterday anyway. Homo Floresiensis lived in the area from around 100,000 up to about 12,000 years ago. The archaeological digs revealed a layer of volcanic ash below which the remains of Flores Man, and various now extinct animals, were found. The cave was later used by modern humans, with modern animals, suggesting that it was volcanic activity that caused their extinction. Other research suggests that modern humans may have lived alongside Flores Man and may have been part of the reason for their demise. It’s a confusing picture. What is fairly certain is that they moved out of Africa around one million years ago, along with many other branches of the Homo Erectus species. Their main feature is their size. At just over a metre tall they are the smallest known humanoids. Scientists suggest that evolution shrunk these people because the available food wasn’t good enough to support their original height. Their prey was fauna such as the Giant Stork and the Stegodon (a small elephant), both of which went extinct at around the same time. Although their brain was only one quarter the size of Homo Sapiens, the section that controls cognition was the same, suggesting they would know how to use tools and to control fire. Ultimately there’s almost as many theories as there are scientific groups studying them. Wikipedia lays them all out, if you want to have a read through. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homo_floresiensis
The museum told the story, with lots of information to see, described in English too. There are copies of all the skeletal remains and two versions of how Flo, the almost complete female skeleton, might have looked.

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How Flo might have looked.

The cave itself is large, with a floor that used to be much lower than it is today. They had dug down several metres when they found these bones and were initially searching for evidence of modern man’s migration to Australia. The workings have been filled in now but the cave has a definite air of mystery to it. There are stalactites and stalagmites but instead of the needle-like formations normally found underground, these are misshapen lumps of rock, hanging around like monsters at a beauty pageant. I’m guessing the reason is that the cave is open to the weather. All in all, a fascinating place.

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The rather atmospheric cave where the remains were found.

We left Hobbiton behind and continued across country towards the west coast. This part of the island is definitely more prosperous, with agriculture taking place on a more industrial scale. Huge paddy fields climbed up hillsides and there were other crops growing too. The villages all had electricity and the houses were of a much higher standard. Best of all were the roads. Instead of being steep and twisty they were fast flowing and in great condition. We even got into top gear sometimes, a real contrast to the first and second gear climbs back in the east. We saw some large churches too, although not so many mosques. Like West Timor, Flores is largely Catholic. As we got close to our destination the clouds rolled in over the hills we were riding through but this time we stopped and joined a dozen or so other people in a roadside shelter, clearly built for wimps like us. We sat there and watched the rain hammer down for the next two hours, very pleased we weren’t riding. It would have been quite dangerous anyway. Eventually the rain slowed down and the clouds started to clear a little, so we donned our wet gear but soon rode away from the bad weather and made it to the port town of Labuan Bajo, right at the western end of the island.

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I believe we were right to shelter from this.

We made our way to Dragon Dive hostel, another diving orientated hostel recommended by Kate. The price seemed rather high so we only booked in for one night, but after we’d made enquiries at some other places we decided it was probably the best option and we stayed for three. It was full of Europeans and it had a wood fired pizza oven too. A taste of home and a benefit of being among tourists again. The quality of the dorm was good, with thoughtful things like a USB charge point, socket and reading light for each bunk. Dan and I had been using hotels but had kept the cost down by sharing a room. If a hotel didn’t have a twin room then we simply found one that did. This is a slack time of year for tourism so it was never very difficult.
Our early wake up call next morning came from three sources. The Muezzin at a nearby mosque; the bells from a nearby church (it was Sunday); and the bloody cockerels right outside the door! The muezzin and the bells eventually stop, the cocks seem to want to crow forever. I’m surprised that none of the religions use these birds for gathering in the faithful. Let’s face it, they’re very reliable, very cheap to run and they definitely don’t need a loudspeaker.
The day was spent organising a boat trip to see some Komodo Dragons, checking where we needed to go for the ferry to Sumbawa and just generally chilling out. We had a choice of two boat trips: one to Komodo Island, the other to Rinca island. We chose the latter, having been told we’d see more dragons. We’d also get to do more snorkelling. There are dozens of places selling these trips and we’d enquired at lots of them. They all quote the same price, more or less, but the place we chose was cheaper and the people seemed better organised. This town has an evening food market so we were delighted to enjoy some BBQ’d fish once more.
An early start saw us down at the port, clutching our packed lunches, where we joined our fellow passengers. No beach side BBQ today. This boat was much bigger than the last one so we had plenty of room to spread out while we chugged our way across to Rinca Island. The two islands form a national park so there was a fee to pay, but that included a guide who told us all we needed to know about these ancient creatures.

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Hanging around, hoping for a handout.

They are a type of Monitor Lizard, grow up to three metres long and live off wild deer and carrion. Humans are sometimes attacked, especially by nesting females. The warning was, Don’t Get Too Close! They kill their prey by means of bacteria from their mouths (up to fifty different varieties) and an anti coagulant. The victim will run away but will slowly die from the infection. Ironically the Komodo that killed it may not actually get to eat it if the animal managed to get out of range of its sense of smell. They also have a bite strong enough to kill smaller animals outright. If they can catch something like a goat they will swallow it whole then slowly digest it and not eat again for a month. They’ve been known to dig up recently buried humans too. We saw plenty of them hanging around the lodges at the visitor centre, where they are happy to live on kitchen scraps. On our walk round the island we were shown a nesting female. She would have dug, or adopted, several holes but laid her twenty or so eggs in only one of them. They take about eight to nine months to hatch and then the young live in trees, eating insects, to protect themselves from predators, including cannibalistic adults. Once widespread throughout Asia and Australia, they now only survive on Komodo, Rinca and Flores islands. If I’m honest, they’re nothing special to look at. Just a dull, grey, scaly lizard, lying around in the sun. But it’s their size, rarity and that they’ve been around for about 40 million years that makes them fascinating. Guess what? There’s loads more info here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Komodo_dragon

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Definitely not a good idea to get too close to this nesting female.

After some great snorkelling we enjoyed a sundowner beer with a couple we’d met on the boat. They both come from Birmingham. Justine came to Australia as a young woman and now lives in Bali. Her friend, Cameron, is deputy editor of the Daily Telegraph website and we had a great time putting the political world to rights while the sun set over the bay.

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A Batman Fish.

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Some rather strange looking coral.

It was time to leave Flores, a fascinating island showing us a real variety of Indonesian life. It’s a place of great beauty and friendly people. The name is the Portuguese for flower although we didn’e see too many of them. But Indonesia has 17,000 island so we needed to move on and explore the next one.

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Cameron and Justine, enjoying a cold one while the sun sets.

10 thoughts on “Heading West: Kupang to Flores

  1. trishnainbris says:

    Very, very interesting read and certainly a read that will surely entice to undertake something like this themselves. All credit to you mate!

    • Hi Phoenix.
      I’m very pleased that you enjoyed it. I’ll be delighted if my blog inspires anyone to step out of their front door and explore their surroundings.
      Geoff

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