Following our travels along and around Flores, our next stop was Lombok, another island in the Nusa Tenggara Province and the island immediately to the East of Bali.
The island is much less developed than Bali and those in the know reckon its like
the Bali of 25 years ago. If you plan to go then don’t leave it too long as there is
already some quite extensive new development work going on here which will
eventually change the character of the place.
We stayed for 4 days in Senggigi on the west coast followed by 3 days on Gili Air, one of 3 small coral islands just off the coast.We then had 3 days in the south of Lombok at Kuta which is undeveloped but lauded as the most beautiful part of the island with staggeringly beautiful beaches and some Gili Islands of its own.
We arrived at Lombok’s Pulau Airport about 9.30pm following our journey from Labuan Bajo. Unfortunately for some reason there are no flights from LB direct to Lombok and it’s necessary to take a flight to Denpasar, Bali and then take a further flight over to Lombok. This is quite a palaver but thankfully it isn’t an expensive flight and in cost terms is comparable with the alternative mode of transport, public ferry or private boat. We spurned the latter having read a number of tales of horrendous crossings on dodgy boats on choppy seas.
We stayed 5 nights (4 days) at Sunset Lavinia Hotel which sits on a hill
overlooking Senggigi town. There are only 5 rooms at the hotel which is run by Maya, a Indonesian woman from Jakarta and her English husband Dave from Leicester. A great couple and fantastic hosts.
We picked this hotel despite the fact it was well over budget as it seemed to stand out from all the others in town with consistently excellent reviews. The Owners really go out of their way to make their Guests’ stay as enjoyable as possible and their young staff are amazing. Nothing is too much trouble. They arranged our airport transfers, transfers to Gili Air and then to Kuta, stored our big bags whilst we travelled over to Gili Air and back and sorted out our telephony issues getting our phone and internet service re-charged for us. This was a great place to stay and we both rate it as one of the very best hotels we have ever stayed in. We spent the vast majority of our stay at the hotel and dined at the hotel 4 out of 5 nights as Maya’s home cooking was so extraordinarily good. We hope to return.
So we didn’t do a great deal during our stay at Sunset Lavinia but went into town a couple of times for shopping, lunch and once for a massage – excellent at 120,000 rupiah – about £3 an hour!
Senggigi is apparently the most developed resort on the island with plenty of hotels, restaurants bars and spas but although we were travelling in peak season, the place was far from crowded.
There’s a lovely beach with beachfront fish restaurants and you can dine whilst watching a line of fishermen in chinese style conical hats standing up to their waists in the sea with very long fishing poles and all the while hawkers walking the beach selling their sarongs, beads and trinkets, thankfully in a friendly non aggressive fashion.
We quite liked Senggigi except for the fact that like everywhere else we have visited in Indonesia to date, pavements are a mess with often very high kerbs and/or deep drainage gullies which are usually unmarked and unprotected so form a potential deathtrap for anyone unwittingly putting his or her foot down in the wrong place. Worse still, the Indonesians must be the worlds worst for discarding litter – it is absolutely everywhere even in the otherwise most idyllic and beautiful locations. Its horrendous in places – they just don’t care and the government has a major task on its hands to educate the public to change its ways which it must do if the country is to develop its tourism business.
Rubbish aside, the place reminds us a bit of Kalkan 10 years ago – very under-developed, dusty and rough and ready but with lovely hospitable people – literally everyone you pass in the street says “hello” – a word often followed by “taxi?” No doubt in 10 years time the place will be much smarter as more money is invested in the area but hopefully isn’t spoilt by huge holiday developments .
We can probably expect the worse….
Whilst at Sunset Lavinia we hired a car and driver and took a tour of the northern
end of Lombock driving through what is known as the Monkey Forest to the Waterfalls north of Mount Rinjani. Mount Rinjani is an active volcano which at 3,726m tall is the second highest volcano in Indonesia after Mount Kerinci in Sumatra and is itself a popular attraction for trekking tours. The trekking is really a climb and is apparently very difficult but there are a number of operators providing guides, porters etc for the 2 or 3 day adventure. Unfortunately we heard and read reports from some that the views are amazing but the rubbish and s*** left all over the trail is depressing! Since our visit there have been eruptions during October 2015 and the National Park and the area around it is closed.
We enjoyed a nice day out with Wayan. We drove north for an hour or two stopping for photographs before we arrived at the start point of the walk to the waterfalls, known as Sendang Gile and Tiu Kelep Waterfalls. We paid the entrance fees (there are entrance fees to all or most National Parks) and were allocated a young guide to show us the way. It’s an easy 25 minute walk to the first waterfall and a Guide isn’t really necessary but we got the impression that its compulsory to take a guide to provide work for the community which we thought fair enough. In the event we were glad to have the Guide when he helped us make a few tricky crossings through a rocky and fast flowing river and he was also handy to have on the return trip to chase off a monkey which became aggressive as Ann was taking a photo.
The waterfalls were magnificent but this was a Sunday when hordes of locals
descend on the waterfalls to bathe. The place was packed with families enjoying
the day out with a swim and a picnic .We decided not to bother swimming…..
Here are a few pictures from our day tour with Wayan
The Gili Islands is the name given to a group of 3 beautiful small coral islands just off the west coast of Lombok. The islands are called Gili Trawangan (Gili T ) which is very much a party island, Gili Meno which is the least developed and quietest island and Gili Air somewhat more developed than Meno with a well developed local community. We visited Gili Air.
Wayan drove us to Bangsal Harbour to catch the public boat over to Gili Air. He dropped us off a few hundred metres from the harbour itself and throughout the short walk down to the ticket office we were constantly badgered by men wanting to carry our bags. One of our travel rules is to never accept a trolly from touts at airports and never to accept offers of porterage from strange men. I had read a number of stories about touts, particularly in Asia, grabbing travellers bags to carry them a short distance to your transport and then demand an extortionate payment with menaces. These touts are everywhere and a complete pain but I’m always careful to keep a firm grip on our bags and this and a firm “NO ” usually sees them off .
The Gilis have been on the backpacker trail since the 1980s and still are and most of the visitors are indeed young backpackers of every nationality – not a bad thing because my guess is that this keeps prices at a reasonable level and encourages the Happy Hour philosophy that flourishes here. Thus a lot of the accommodation here is cheap and aimed at backpackers (including divers) but there are more expensive resorts popping up here and there. Gili Air is a quiet island but, as on Lombok, we saw enough construction projects to see that the nature of the place will change over the next few years.
The islands are famous for diving and snorkelling. The coral in places has been damaged over the years by various natural and man-made causes including heatstroke, increased sea level due to global warming, pollution and fishing but there is a reef restoration programme in place here as in lots of other places.
We enjoyed 4 nights on Gili Air at Biba Beach Club , an Italian owned hotel and (very good) restaurant. We did absolutely nothing here other than walk and swim, eat and drink – there some very good restaurants and some very nice inexpensive accommodation. This is definitely the place for a chill out laid back holiday (I did see at least one sign offering magic mushrooms!) and we thoroughly recommend a visit before it gets too developed.
After 3 lovely days on Gili Air we returned to Bangsal Harbour to meet up with our driver Wayan. We had arranged to meet Wayan and then drive back to Lavinia Sunset Hotel to pick up our big bags (we had travelled to Gili Air with just back packs) and then south to Kuta. All went well and certainly no chance of Wayan getting lost – turns out he is buddies with Gemma and Made who run the Mimpi Manis Homestay where we would stay for four nights giving us two full days.
Kuta is a chill out place with spectacular pristine and largely empty white sand beaches with mountains coming right down to the coast making for some awesome scenery. It’s predominantly a surfers destination but there’s horse riding and fishing trips to be had.
The town itself is small consisting of a number of streets with dirt roads and no pavements lined by predominantly bamboo and timber built warungs, restaurants and shops selling tourist tat, tee shirts, sarongs etc with a few travel shops selling tours and motor bike hire. The place is definitely undeveloped as far as tourism is concerned although there are a good few homestays and at least one quality hotel. Apparently there is a lot of land speculation going on and the likelihood is that the next 10 years will see a lot of development here. We heard from a few people that this is an area that has an edge to it and although we didn’t have any bad experiences, we felt that edge ourselves and we were careful not to wander off the main streets at night time – that said none of the streets are lit at night and so everywhere is dark. There are no taxis here (although plenty of people offering transport as always, but our hosts at Mimpi Manis kindly gave us free lifts whenever we wanted to go to the beach or into town for dinner and they also picked us up from town after dinner. Very nice folk – Made is Balinese and his wife Gemma is English.
On arrival at Mimpi Manis, Made gave us a tour of the town pointing out the best restaurants and dropped us off in town late afternoon so that we could get a drink and dinner following which he kindly picked us up.
The following morning Gemma gave us a tour of the outlying area and showed us the best beaches. She dropped us off at Warung Turtle owned by friends where we were well looked after by Herman. We enjoyed some cold Bintangs and a lunch of chicken with red sauce which isn’t on the menu but was recommended by Gemma and was excellent. I told Herman he needs to put it on there menu when he next re-prints!
Gemma picked us up around 5pm , returned us to the homestay for a shower and change and then dropped us into town for dinner. Great service !
Kuta Beach – this is Kuta’s main beach where most of the accommodation and restaurants are
Our second full day was also spent on the beach at Warung Turtle. Gemma dropped us off again. A very pleasant lunch and afternoon on the beach with a short walk over the nearby hills to get a look at some more fabulous beaches beyond. Gemma turned up a little bit earlier than planned and ended up having a beer and talked us through the thrills and spills of life in Lombok. She is great company and we really enjoyed our natters.
Warung Turtle is on Tanjung Aan, a huge bay with several beaches west of Kuta. The beaches are stunning and totally undeveloped except for a few bamboo sun shades and a warung here and there. Local women wander round selling their ridiculously cheap sarongs and tee shirts for a few pounds. Unfortunately, as ever, some areas were badly littered – its amazing where the rubbish comes from given very few tourists seem to make it here.
Pictures of Tanjung Aan and other beaches near Kuta
For our final day we had arranged to go out fishing with Made but having got up and out and down to the boat around 6am, the trip was cancelled at the last minute due to high winds that started to build up suddenly. The local boats are not really built for long distance trips out to sea and certainly not in bad weather. I know that Made had a close escape in the past and he and the Captain, quite rightly, take no risks. I was gutted to say the least as Made’s trips are highly recommended. We returned to the homestay and back to bed and then after breakfast, Ann and I went out to town for a mooch around. We managed to spend the afternoon wandering around without buying everything and returned to town later for dinner at an excellent restaurant.
A few more pictures
After a very restful and interesting few days in Kuta, we left to continue our travels to Malaysia on 13th August 2015. Next stop Kuala Lumpur.
Flores is our first sortie into Indonesia so it’s worth a few words of introduction to Indonesia itself. Here are a few facts :
The Republic of Indonesia is an archipelago of over 17,000 islands, over 10,000 of them inhabited.
Population is estimated at 255,000,000
Its capital and largest city is Jakarta with a population of around 10,000,000
There are around 300 distinct ethnic groups and over 700 languages and dialects
87% of the population is Muslim and around 10% is Christian
There are high levels of poverty with economic wealth gravitating towards a central government based in Jakarta .
Environmental issues include large scale deforestation, much of it illegal, forest fires causing wide scale heavy smog, air pollution, traffic pollution and a general lack of garbage removal
Alleged widescale corruption – the rich get richer and the poor remain poor
Indonesia began to be colonised by the Dutch in the early 17th century
Japan occupied the country from 1942 to 1945
Indonesia declared independence in 1945 although it took 4 years before the Netherlanda agreed to relinquish its colony.
Flores is one of a string of Islands called Nusa Tenggara at the eastern end of the Indonesia archipelago which stretches from Bali to Timor. The island offers huge diversity of landscapes and cultures with a volcanic mountain range spanning the length of the island with no less than 14 active volcanoes and multicoloured crater lakes, fantastic beaches, amazing rice fields, Komodo dragons and animist rituals. Nusa Tenggara is otherwise known as the Lesser Sunda Islands.
The island has a long history but little is recorded and known about the place prior to missionaries and explorers arriving. The first settlers, long before Europeans, were Muslim fishermen from South Sulawesi who came to trade and take slaves but settled in various coastal areas. Portuguese settlers came in the 16th century and named the Island Cape of Flowers – Flores. The island was strategically significant for access to the Spice Islands in and the Portuguese were constantly under attack. They eventually were defeated by the Dutch in 1769. Whilst the indigenous population were not exactly welcoming, the island was eventually subdued by the Dutch and a new administrative system was established. With a period of Japanese occupation during World War II, the Dutch remained until Indonesia became an independent nation in 1945.
The Portuguese influence is still very much in evidence with 85% of the population being Catholic and there are many Catholic Churches around the Island. In the area occupied by Sikka people particularly, many of the population have Portuguese ancestors and have Portuguese names – such as our guide, Marleno Lopez. Much of the remaining 15% of the population is Muslim largely living in coastal regions, many of these people being descendants of those settlers who first came from Sulawesi.
Notwithstanding a largely Catholic population, many of these people retain traditional belief systems and effectively have 2 religions. Also, for these people, dead ancestors remain a driving force and need to be appeased with ceremonies and offerings.
There are five ethnic groups on the island with many sub-groups. A difficult mountainous terrain that made travel and communication between communities difficult or impossible until quite recently resulted in some remarkable differences in the various villages and towns to be found here. Probably the most significant is language in that there are 5 languages and even more dialects spoken on this island.
It’s amazing that one can travel very short distances from one town to another and find that a different language or dialect is spoken. As elsewhere in Indonesia, where there is a language difference between the people, Barhasa Indonesian is the common language used by all to communicate with each other.
There are also many differences in the local traditions from place to place with different communities having their own sacred rituals, songs and dance. For example, there are people still living in traditional villages in houses built of bamboo, timber and thatch and other materials gathered from the land. Visiting these places is like being on a David Attenborough film set but these are not tourist attractions although in some cases the life style is maintained with official support to ensure these traditional ways are not lost. The people living in these villages are subsistence farmers who live by growing their own produce for their own consumption but also bartering and trading with other people and villages to satisfy their needs. The community supports itself and people look after each other and share resources as necessary and of necessity in view of the high levels of poverty found here and everywhere else we visited in Indonesia.
We visited 2 traditional local villages and whilst village life apparently goes on as it has for hundreds or thousands of years, it is inevitably changing with children now going to government schools locally and further afield. As the children grow, become educated and leave to seek work elsewhere, there must be a profound effect on the villages as it will leave mainly the older people and very young people to continue village life. Nevertheless, for now at least, the local languages and traditions are still maintained, being passed down generation to generation.
Each village has a Leader and Elders who will make decisions on significant issues in or affecting the village and there will be regular meetings involving the entire village on occasions. Each village community will have its own way of giving thanks to their ancestors, celebrating a new growing season, harvest, wedding, birth, funeral etc. Often this will involve a sacrifice of some kind which might be a water buffalo, a pig or a rooster. The beast to be sacrificed will be provided by one of the village families and it will be a matter of honour for that family. It will be a decision for the Leader/Elders as to which family has the honour but a water buffalo is an expensive animal and so the honour is spread around the village over the years and more often than not the cost will also be shared.
Just another example of different traditions can be seen in relation to marriages. Each community has its own tradition regarding the wedding dowry that must be provided by the groom to a bride’s family. In some villages a dowry of pigs will be required, in others water buffalo or even horses. Several of these animals might be required according to means and in each case there might well be a supplementary requirement of a sack or two of rice; in other cases, only a token dowry will be provided due to lack of funds. Again the cost of animals is often beyond individuals and extended families will help out by providing an animal or two here and there with no doubt a reciprocal gift to be made to others in the extended family when the time comes. Husbands will generally move in with the wife’s family following the marriage with often several generations living under the same roof until such time as the the new family have the wherewithal to buy land and build their own house or until they inherit from someone. Marriages will usually be mixed in that bride and groom will be from different villages thus avoiding in-breeding.
Traditions such as these still apply even to those people living in towns having moved away from the traditional villages and we have since came across similar traditions in different parts of Indonesia. This really is a fascinating place. There is just so much of interest here that I could go on for ever – but I won’t. If interested have a look at
Now that you know as much as us about Flores, we should explain that when starting to research where in Asia we would like to travel, we decided that we definitely wanted to go to the tourist hotspots such as Bali but we also wanted to get to some lesser touristy places as we had done when visiting Vietnam in 2013.
Whilst trawling the internet for ideas, I came across trip reports by a few people who had travelled over several days through Flores travelling from East to West to Labuan Bajo and Komodo Island. The more we researched this journey and this area of Nusa Tenggara the more we liked the idea of doing the trip ourselves. There is a tourist trail through these islands so we would hardly be pioneers but it would definitely be interesting to travel through villages and countryside that are still off the main tourist trail.
Looking at the map when we first started planning, I realised that Timor isn’t a million miles north of Darwin and so Plan A was that we would travel Darwin to East Timor and from there by ferries and overland across a number of islands eventually arriving at Bali.
Unfortunately after more digging around it became apparent that there are no longer any flights from Darwin to East Timor nor are there any ferries. It is possible to get to Timor West and from there to East Timor but we discounted that as a number of travel blogs we read didn’t make that sound an easy way to go.
Plan B was to make our way to Maumere in the East of Flores and then travel west, via a number of towns and villages to Labuan Bajo and from there by boat to Rinca Island for snorkelling and to see Komodo dragons which are apparently more prolific in number than they are on Komodo itself. I contacted Marleno Lopez a guide based in Maumere and we agreed an itinerary and a price for him to guide us with a car and driver for our exclusive service over a total of 7 days.
So on 19 July 2015, we flew from Australia to Bali for an onward flight to Maumere the following morning to meet up with Marleno.
The Air Asia flight to Bali was fine. We landed around 9.30 pm and went through to the VISA area where we were ushered quickly through to passport control as apparently Visa on Arrival (VOA) had recently changed for UK citizens and now gives 30 days in Indonesia free. Ann was quickly through passport control but I went to a different officer who quizzed me on where I was going and for how long. Having established I would leave Indonesia not from Bali but from Lombok, I was sent back to buy a visa as, according to the officer, we would otherwise have big problems leaving Lombok later. We duly bought our visas at USD35 .
Once through passport control we went to pick up our luggage and were quickly through Customs and into the thronging mass that was the Arrivals Hall. We found a Simpati telecoms desk and bought a SIM card to enable us to make phone calls and texts with some data for surfing.
We were to stay our one night in Bali at the Harris Hotel and we soon found the hotel’s
driver waiting for us and were whisked away to the hotel which is literally within 5 minutes of the airport. Once checked in we were in the bar for our first Bintang within 20 minutes of leaving the airport.
Back to our room, with good internet, we spent an hour or so doing stuff on the computer and then got ready to retire. We were up and about around 9 am the next morning for a leisurely breakfast before we went back to the airport to catch our Lion Air flight to Maumere. For our first breakfast in Indonesia I went local with rice, noodles and chicken whilst Ann played it safe with croissant and fruit. All very nice.
Back to Bali Airport we were soon boarding the plane to Maumere. It was a prop plane but it turned out to be a very pleasant flight of around 2 hours.
Maumere is one of those tiny airports that you love simply because you tend to get through them very quickly. We had our bags within 5 minutes and dodged the throng of taxi drivers touting for business to look for our driver from Sea World Club Hotel bearing a board with our name. He wasn’t to be seen but we did spot a Sea World sign with someone else’s name on it so we made a bee line for him. It turned out that the wrong names were on the board but no worries, the guy showed us to his car and off we went. A short but interesting drive from the airport through packed local street markets selling vegetables, fish, tea shirts, hardware etc got us to Sea World Club in around 20 minutes.
The long and scruffy driveway to Sea World Club didn’t look promising but it improved when we got to the resort itself with the timber and bamboo built reception office, restaurant and beach bungalows surrounded by bougainvillea and other beautiful flowering trees and bushes.
We introduced ourselves to the Receptionist but there seemed to be some confusion over our booking and she needed our copies of the booking confirmation to resolve it. Unfortunately that wasn’t the end of the confusion as we were given a standard $45 bungalow instead of the $80 Beach Suite we had booked. Eventually things were resolved and we were given, for our first night only, a premium bungalow being the only superior bungalow available. We would move into the Beach Suite we had actually booked the following day. All was good.
A few pictures of our bungalow and the resort
Unlike many other beaches we subsequently came across in Indonesia, the beach at Maumere was totally undeveloped and clean.
Sea World Club is a dive resort. Accommodation is of mixed vintage with some bungalows older than others. Our unit was directly on the beach and was concrete and timber built with a thatched roof with a table and chairs at the front on a shaded patio with a fan. It had two rooms, bedroom and bathroom. The bedroom was nicely kitted out with comfy king sized four poster bed with mosquito net, two easy chairs, wardrobe, dressing table and chest of drawers. A kettle and fridge were provided along with an electronic mozzy eradicator and the room had an efficient air-con unit and fan.
The bathroom wasn’t quite so good with an old bath with shower fixed loosely to the wall over it. Hot water was provided by a small combi type boiler. The boiler was of indeterminate vintage but it was rusting and at first appeared to be not working but Ann quickly sussed that to have hot water to the bath/shower, the hot tap to the hand basin had to be turned on and left on! We had little doubt we would come across worse bathrooms during our travels.
On that first day of our visit to Sea World we spent the last couple of hours of daylight on the beach. This a lovely long beach of volcanic grey sand around a bay lined with coconut trees. The beach is totally undeveloped. The water is crystal clear and Ann had a swim whilst I had a wander around.
This is only a small resort and there was only a handful of tourists around that afternoon but near to us was a group of local kids who were trawling for fish. Two kids set off from the beach in a long boat and dropped a long net as they rowed out to sea. After 75 yards or so they turned and rowed back to shore still dropping the net so that it formed a semi-circle. There is a long rope either end of the net and a group of kids at each end pulled the rope in to draw the net in and trap the fish in the small mesh. The picture below shows the end result – a catch of sardines which the kids would pull from the net and throw into a hollow in the sand to stop them escaping. The fish would then be threaded through the gills onto short lengths of “string” made from coconut shell fibre and taken off either for Mum to cook or to the local market to sell.
We could see another group of kids doing the same thing further along the beach and the exercise would be repeated a few times during each day with the last one being at dusk – this last trawl would be completed in darkness by torchlight right in front of our bungalow. The one pictured below also produced very few fish.
A much better catch two days later
Early on our first evening at Sea World, as we had just got ready for dinner, we heard someone calling our name from outside and opened the door to meet our guide Marleno Lopez for the first time. He had called just to say hello, introduce himself and to make sure we were all set for our trip. This was Monday and we had arranged to start our trip with him on Friday but before then, on Wednesday, we were to go out with him to see some local sights around Maumere.
We dined on fish curry and sea food kebabs on this first evening. We have had worse food but it was a tad disappointing and we had to remind ourselves that we weren’t there for the food. A couple of G&Ts and a few Bintang beers later, we agreed the food perhaps wasn’t so bad…..
Our first full day at Sea World Club started with breakfast at 9 am, another reminder that we weren’t just here for the food – pancakes and omelettes made to order with options of rice, noodles, bread, cake and fruit. There was also a platter of thinly cut smoked marlin which was actually very good – as was the coffee. Hardly a feast but we would have worse…
The rest of the day was a lazy one spent on the beach swimming, reading and researching accommodation for later in the trip. WIFI here is poor but to be fair they don’t suggest otherwise and at least there is a reasonable signal to be had in the restaurant or in the office good enough for email and surfing the web.
Dinner on our second night was much better. There had been a lot of new arrivals during the day and a buffet had been laid on. The food was varied and actually very good and a group of musicians, Sicka Akoustica, comprising three guitarists turned up to play a great mix of local and western music to a largely disinterested, mostly German and Dutch audience. Ann and I were the last to leave. We really enjoyed the band which was excellent but we also wanted to make the most of the wifi signal before going back to our bungalow – it was past 10 o’clock when we retired – a late night for us!
Here are a few more pictures taken around Sea World Club
Our first day out with Marleno was spent visiting a local market , the nearby fishing village and a batik (local woven fabric) cooperative high up in the mountains.
The market was as colourful and interesting as they always are with all manner of exotic fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices, coffee, cocoa, rice, with plenty of fish but little meat on offer. Needless to say there is no refrigeration; the produce comes from local farmers who bring it to market each morning. People shop every day or even twice a day to buy fresh as of course the food quickly goes off in the heat and is then good only for pig feed. Hardly anyone here will own a fridge.
Whilst the market itself made for good photos, it was sad to see areas piled high with rotting produce and litter being sorted by village kids. There was no attempt anywhere to keep the market clean and tidy and sadly we saw this everywhere we went through Flores, later on Lombok and elsewhere. Pollution generally is a major issue in Indonesia. We could stop the car in the most remote location to take a photograph and find that those who had gone before us had left drink cans, water bottles, fag packets and the like thrown anywhere.
Our next visit was to Wuring, the fishing village we had seen along the beach from Sea World a couple of days earlier. The village is occupied by Sea Gypsies, muslim descendants of the fishermen who came to Flores from South Sulawesi. These people are actually descendants of two different tribes and two different languages are spoken – in a village of only 200 or so people!
These poorest of people live in primitive conditions barely imaginable to westerners in roughly built wooden houses lining scruffy dirt streets but mostly in shacks built on stilts over shallow water in the harbour area. The water is clear but full of rubbish and kids paddle about in it with various animals including goats and at least one cow.
Strangely, whilst the houses are mostly ramshackle affairs, we noticed one or two were of a different style, brightly painted and seemingly of superior construction, presumably occupied by the elite of the village!
The people here are fishermen and live by trading their catch with farmers and others for whatever goods they need. Until a devastating earthquake and tsunami in 1992, the people lived exclusively in this sea gypsy village and were totally self sufficient but some now live inland and receive some support from government with the kids now going to local schools.
Our final visit on our first day was high in the mountains at a place called Watublapi and to get there we drove through stunning countryside with small banana plantations, coconut, fields of fruit and vegetables, rice paddies and jungle passing the odd house or hamlet here and their with people sat outside weaving baskets or other goods from palm leaves or preparing food.
Countryside scenery en route to Watublapi
Watublapi is famous for its traditional ikat weaving. Ikat is a dyed woven material made throughout the region but whereas others have switched to industrially produced spun yarn and chemical dyes , the weavers at Watublapi still use traditional materials and methods.
The thread is obtained from ‘cotton’ bushes and is hand combed, spun and woven and dyed as necessary using tree bark, roots and other vegetable products from the fields and jungle to produce different colours. A single sarong can take many months and even a couple of years for very intricate designs.
The ladies weaving this material comprise a cooperative and they put on exhibitions of their work and demonstrations of the manufacturing and this is one of the most popular attractions in the area. There was to be a performance later in the day of our visit but unfortunately it would be too late for us to stay and watch. Happily on Marleno’s request, the ladies kindly agreed, for a donation, to put on a special demonstration for us there and then. Whilst the materials and methods used might be primitive and handed down generation to generation over centuries, the resulting fabric is indeed top quality with a multitude of colours and designs often depicting traditional stories in the material – the one pictured below depicts a wedding/marriage scene with the groom leading a water buffalo – his dowry.
The following day , our last at Sea World Club was spent doing very little other than enjoying the beach. We had quite enjoyed this place notwithstanding the dodgy bathroom and hit and miss food. We would have no hesitation in staying here again – unless we could find better!
Maumere to Moni – July 24
On 24th July we checked out of Sea World Club and set off on our adventure with Marleno and our driver Filo. Today we would visit the village of Sikka followed by lunch at Paga Beach and finally to Moni Village and Kelimutu National Park, which would be a highlight of the trip.
Sikka Village proved very interesting. It’s about 30km from Maumere on the north coast to Sikka on the south coast but it took the best part of an hour to drive there. This was the original capital of the area (before Maumere) being the area where the Portuguese first settled and where their remaining influences are very apparent. As soon as you reach the outskirts of the village, evidence of the local catholic faith is evident everywhere you look as you drive by with small shrines, gravestones and even religious statues to be seen in many gardens. In the village centre stands the Church which is currently undergoing renovation but was open for us to see. The graveyard is full of grave stones and tombs with Portuguese names which seemed very odd in this place pretty much miles from anywhere .
This village was the centre of the Kingdom of Sikka and home to the Royal Family. There are no longer local kings. The last King died as recently as 1954 and his grave can be seen in the village.
Back in the car after our stop at Sikka, the road took us west along the lovely south coast with a lunch stop at the rice growing fishing village of Paga.
Laryss Restaurant is a tumbledown beachfront fish restaurant rated by Marleno and Lonely Planet as the best restaurant in Flores. It seems to be the only restaurant in the area and so is a regular lunch stop for travellers passing this way. The lack of competition certainly doesn’t seem to encourage any effort to provide creature comforts for the customers – this place is about as basic as it gets with “facilities” best avoided! Chickens and puppies were everywhere and our fish was cooked over a wood fire between two bricks. However, we did manage to get a prime table and stools on the edge of the stunning beach, the Bintang was cold and the freshly caught marinated and grilled tuna was very good indeed.
Our onward drive to Moni after lunch would take at least two hours but that was no hardship. Here are some photos taken en route:
Moni Village and Kelimutu Lakes
We arrived at the village of Moni around 5pm. Moni is the gateway to Kelimutu National Park and Mount Kelimutu, famous for its multicoloured crater lakes. It’s a small remote village in a beautiful location on the lower slopes of the volcano. The village is surrounded by rice fields and fields of fruit and vegetables and at this time of day there was still plenty of activity in the fields with some men but mostly women and children still working away as the day got a little cooler.
We were booked in to stay one night only at Estavana Lodge which Marleno had booked for us as our own first choice homestay had been booked up. We were greeted by the very affable owner who had little english but showed us to our room, a very basic bedroom with a queen bed along with an old plastic sofa. It wasn’t great and the bathroom was awful albeit it met the minimum criterion I had laid down for Marleno in that it had a hot shower and a flushing western toilet, as opposed to the eastern style squat toilet which is the norm. Strangely the bathroom also had a mandy this being a drum (or other large container) of water with a ladle used to scoop out water to shower or to wash following a visit to the toilet – toilet paper isn’t usually found in this part of the world! Mrs Ellis was not impressed but it seemed that we had the last available room and the rest of the town was fully booked out as this was high season. We were stuck with it but consoled ourselves with the thought that we had to be up at 3am anyway to be ready to leave at 4am to climb the volcano in time for sunrise at 6am. We would be in the room for only a few hours…..
We left Marleno to chat with some other guides who were in town and arranged to meet him at the Bintang Lodge Homestay/Restaurant for dinner at 7.30pm.
We had a very pleasant amble around the village. As always here, everyone is very friendly and although there’s mostly no english spoken by anyone middle aged or over, there’s always a smile and a hello.
The people here who don’t rely on tourism, which is most people, are poor subsistence farmers and they really do work hard. Water is obviously crucially important to these people but like many areas around here it has good irrigation provided by gullies and ditches bringing a constant water supply from mountain streams, lakes or natural springs. This means that the farmers are able to grow a second crop of rice even in the dry season whereas areas without such water are limited to a single crop grown during the wet season from November through to Spring. Apart from rice which is the staple diet of all Indonesians (most will eat rice three times a day), all manner of fruits and vegetables are grown .
Here’s a few photos of Moni
After an hour and a half or so we headed for Bintang Lodge and of course, ordered a couple of Bintang Beers. Marleno turned up but had already eaten, so Ann and I ordered nasi goreng (fried rice with vegetables and chicken) which was so so.
After dinner and a few beers, we let Marleno return to his chums and went on a bar crawl for a few more beers – we didn’t want to return to the room too early!
Next morning, having slept fully clothed on the top of the bed we got up for a quick cold shower and joined Marleno and driver Fino who were already outside waiting for us at the car at 4am.
So shortly after 4am we set off for Kelimutu. It took around half an hour to drive up a dark bumpy road to get to the car park and then a short walk to the entrance where we paid our 20 rupiah (about 20p) entrance fee. We then had a half an hour walk up the mountain. It was still pitch black but we had remembered to bring small torches which many people hadn’t. The walk wasn’t too difficult as there was a decent track and then a lot of steps but of course it was all uphill up the mountain. Other people were walking up and set a pace which for some reason we seemed to want to match but being still totally unfit (all resolutions to get fit for this trip had fallen by the wayside) I found it quite tough but thankfully no one spoke to me and I managed to complete the climb without the benefit of an oxygen mask! It was worth the effort. It was still dark when we arrived at the summit but already a couple of dozen or so people were already sat waiting for sunrise along with 2 or 3 hawkers wrapped up in blankets selling hot and cold drinks and snacks.
It was sunrise before we knew it and luckily the heavy cloud that had begun to build up the night before was largely gone.
A visit to the volcano Mount Kelimutu ,which last erupted in 1968, is probably the single most reason why tourists visit Flores. It’s famous for spectacular sunrises and and for its 3 crater lakes the colour of which change from time to time probably due to changes in the mineral content in the water.
Kelimutu to Riung and 17 Island National Park – July 25
After our morning at Kelimutu, our next stop was Riung on the north coast of Flores and gateway to the 17 Island National Park. It was a long drive of over 5 hours but again this was no hardship when travelling through such spectacular scenery.
At one point we were held up for over an hour, part of a long queue of traffic, in a mountain pass where road widening work was taking place. Apparently the work had been ongoing for quite a while and looked as it would carry on for a long time to come as most of the work seemed to be done by men with shovels.
An army of women and kids from local villages had set up camp along the roadside and were selling drinks and snacks at extortionate prices (to Westerners at least) to the hot and frustrated travellers.
We arrived at a viewing point overlooking the 17 Islands National Park soon after 5pm and just in time to see the sunset along with half a dozen or so other tourists with guides who we had last seen in Moni – we didn’t actually see a great many tourists on Flores – we just kept seeing the same ones who were following a similar itinerary to ours.
Riung itself is a very small and quiet village but as we arrived in darkness and quickly drove out of the village in the morning, we didn’t get chance to see it properly. Tonight we were staying at Nirvana Bungalows, a small collection of bamboo bungalows set around a small grassy garden area complete with the ubiquitous chickens and cockerels that guarantee an early awakening wherever you might be in S E Asia. This was another homestay chosen by Marleno who had either forgotten to book or cocked up the booking of the accommodation we had requested at the outset. In the event our bungalow was basic but clean and met our requirements of shower, western toilet, aircon and internet and also came with a mosquito net. A pretty good breakfast brought to the sitting area outside our bungalow in the morning guaranteed this place a vote as one of our best accommodations in Flores although that really isn’t saying much. Dinner in Riung was barbecued fresh barracuda taken at a nearby Warung, Cafe De Mare, which was top notch with cold beer, great music and excellent food. A really good place and contender for best eatery and meal in Flores although again there was little competition for the prize!
The following morning we were up early and out at 8am to go down to the jetty to catch a boat out to the islands. We had a boat to ourselves with a captain and two mates and would spend a few hours on a beach, swimming and snorkelling followed by lunch and then a long drive over to Bajawa.
Our first stop was Ontoloe Island aka Flying Fox Island where we saw an incredible number of huge fruit bats blacken the sky. It was an amazing sight with thousands and thousands of the creatures returning to roost after a night out eating fruit…….
Having seen the foxes, we sailed over firstly to Pulau Tiga one of many photogenic uninhabited islands with white sand beaches and crystal clear water off the coast of Riung. We snorkelled for a while but eventually gave up as the fish, of which there were many, “attacked” and nipped at you as you were swimming along – these fish are used to being hand fed by tourists and so are constantly snapping at and nipping you looking for food – we didn’t enjoy it and so we gave up, had a wander round and did some sun bathing whilst the captain got a fire going and barbecued some fish for our lunch.
After a very pleasant meal we moved on to nearby Rutong Island for more of the same gorgeous beaches and crystal clear water.After an hour or so we sailed back to Riung for a quick shower back at Nirvana before we set off for Bajawa about 2pm.
Riung to Bajawa – July 26
The roads from Riung to Bajawa were the worst we had experienced being unsealed in many places and badly rutted. The journey is largely uphill – Bajawa is 1200m above sea level – winding all the way. The 75 km journey took us around three hours including a couple of rest/drink stops and fag breaks for Fino. We were fine with travelling slow given the scenery for which by now I have run out of superlatives. Here are some photos
Bajawa is the capital of the Ngada Regency and we were visiting the town because we were to visit some traditional villages nearby. It’s a pretty run of the mill mid-sized town with a mosque, a few banks and ATMs and the usual shops and street markets. There is nothing touristic about the town itself and there only 3 or 4 hotels. A couple of the hotels had decent Trip Advisor reviews but those were full and so we ended up staying at a new hotel, the Sanian, which Marleno hadn’t used before but assured us met all our requirements as to facilities. Indeed, he booked us a VIP room meeting our requirements and more and including a minibar! The minibar turned out to be 2 free bottles of drinking water and a teapot but the room was ok even though it did lack the aircon which it was supposed to have!
We had done a little research on restaurants in Bajawa but it hadn’t taken long as there are only 5 and we plumped for Lucas which actually turned out to be very good. Marleno and Fino dined on street food as usual but we had a very nice meal local food accompanied by 3 or 4 other couples and their guides who had been ghosting us around the island.
A few pictures of Bajawa
Ngada’s Traditional Villages – July 27
Next morning , after a decidedly poor breakfast at the Sanian, we set off to visit the nearby villages of Luba and Bena.
We visited Luba first, a very small village of about 200 hundred villagers perched on the side of a volcano with timber/bamboo and thatched houses built into the hillside on several levels.
The houses themselves are basic but in good condition and the village is clean and tidy unlike most of the rest of the villages and towns we saw in Indonesia. Satellite dishes are fixed out of view! The roofs of some houses are topped with the small figure of a man, a warrior with spear or a bow representing a male ancestor. Other houses have a small house like a dolls house fixed on the roof representing a female ancestor. Each house is also adorned with buffalo horns and pigs jaws the remains of animals sacrificed in ceremonies but which also denote the prosperity of the household.
In addition to the houses themselves there are some umbrella-like structures built of carved timber poles with a thatched roof. These are called ngadhu and each one represents a male ancestor of a different clan of the village. Carvings represent virility and strength.
The female counterpart to the ngadhu is another structure called a bhaga which is in the form of a miniature house with carvings representing fertility.
The ngadhu and bhaga structures are connected with different ceremonies and sacrifices take place at the stone base of the ngadhu with the blood of the animal smeared up the pole of the structure.
Whilst animist beliefs with ceremonies and sacrifices continue, the villagers are nevertheless catholic and it seems most odd that yards away from these religious and ceremonial structures are catholic gravestones bearing names which are a mix of European (Portuguese) and local names. The names on two of the graves in the photo below are Veronica Negora Ruba and Vransisca Nero Ruba .
The village was very quiet when we visited. There were very few people around with perhaps half a dozen tourists and a few old women sat around talking, their teeth red from chewing betel nut. Betel nuts and some coffee lay drying in the sun on plastic sheets on the ground. One or two younger women sat weaving, an old man entertained his granddaughter and a few kids ran around playing games. Most of the villagers were out at work in the fields or in the towns or at school. There was nothing touristic about the village although there were lengths of material sarongs and blankets hung out by the weavers and obviously for sale but no sales pitch other than an invitation to us to take a look.
Like other communities around Flores and Indonesia, the people here continue to practice age old traditions. For example, the Ngada people are matrilineal, meaning that children are considered to be members of their mother’s clan – and houses are bequeathed accordingly. It is the women of the family and community that have the power and make most of the important decisions.
Bena village, shown above, is only a short walk of few hundred metres from Luba. The village has existed for over 1,000 years and is in a spectacular setting overlooking volcanic valleys leading out to the sea and itself overlooked by the highest mountain in Flores, Mount Inerie, a live volcano.
Two parallel rows of houses stand facing each other with the space between containing ancient megalithic stones and an ancient stone sacrificial altar. There are also ngadhu and bhaga structures with nine tribes in this village but again evidence of the catholic faith with a shrine to the Virgin Mary at the top of the village.
The village was quite busy when we visited with a new house being built and workmen also busy making a bamboo frame for a large shelter being made in readiness for an imminent wedding.
Whilst there were quite a few tourists about, the villagers went about their daily lives sat weaving it or making baskets on their porches, pounding coffee or preparing food. Inevitably there were goods for sale but again there was absolutely no sales pitch from anyone and so in that sense the village wasn’t particularly touristic . I read later that the villagers are busy ensuring that traditional activities continue with the aim of securing UNESCO World Heritage status which would obviously have financial benefits. The village is already on the “tentative” list and apparently receives some financial support. Quite an amazing place – like stepping into a film set of stone age village life and an absolute high-light of our visit to Flores.
Onward to Ruteng – July 27
We left Bena Village early afternoon on July 27 2015 for the 3 hour drive to Ruteng.
Manggarai Regency is in the west of Flores and Ruteng is its capital. It’s only a small town and like most of the towns in Flores it offers nothing for tourists. It’s a rough and ready place and thankfully we would spend very little time there. The only reason to visit is to see the famous and unique spiders web rice fields.
The accommodation in town is limited to 2 hotels which get awful reviews – and a convent. Maybe we should have gone for the convent! Marleno had booked us into a room out of town in what he told us was a new-ish hotel that would meet our requirements. Hotel FX72 turned out to be fairly typical and actually fell short in a number ways – no hot water, no aircon, no wifi and a very poor breakfast. Thankfully we were staying for only one night and by now we were hardened to crappy hotels and this one did at least have some lovely views.
The following morning, July 28, we were up and around early due to the noise coming from a school playground next door to the hotel – from 7am onwards! We didn’t bother with the breakfast of cold buttered toast and cold fried egg and so we made an early start on the 20km drive to Cancar Village and the Spiders Web Rice Fields. We arrived soon after 9am paid our IDR 10,000 each entrance fee and made the short walk up to the vantage point looking out over the rice fields.
Unlike rice fields elsewhere, the rice fields here in Cancar are unique. When viewed up close, the fields are the same as any others but when viewed from above and afar, the fields in Cancar look like a spiders web.
This spider web effect results from the way that the fields are divided up. The entire land is owned by the community and is divided up by village leaders between the various families according to the size of the families – the bigger the family the more land they are allocated. The division of the land is done from a central point on the land and the result is the spiders web effect.Ceremonies take place at the centre of the web at the beginning of the season and at the end as a thanks giving.
Ruteng to Labuan Bajo
Following our visit to the Spiders Web Rice Fields, we set off late morning on July 28, Ann’s birthday, on the final leg of our trip across Flores to Labuan Bajo, a fishing town on the far west coast of the Island. The journey is around 130km and took us about 4 hours along winding roads which were part good (new?) and part not so good. Scenery as good as ever with some really pretty views over the sea as we got to Labuan Bajo (or Labuanbajo).
Whilst Labuan Bajo is still a fishing village, it is also a tourism centre with lots of dive operators and trips available to Komodo, Rinca and other islands and trips – such as the cross island one that we had done. The town has its own modern airport only 2 km out of town with flights to Denpasar and Sulawesi.
We were booked into the L Bajo Hotel which turned out to be a pretty good place – this one we booked ourselves! The hotel is new and had pretty much everything we wanted (but poor wifi) with great staff who were eager to please even though they didn’t always get it right. We were not too fussed when our free breakfast didn’t arrive at our door on either of our 2 days but when we mentioned it en passant to the reception staff they were mortified at this and gave us a free ride to the airport to compensate.
The town itself is a busy place with lots of people on the streets at all times. Everyone is friendly and says hello and you need never be without transport as every second person seems to be a taxi driver or bemo driver (small vans with seats) or an ojec (motor bike taxi) driver. Vehicles constantly slow down and beep their horns offering “taxi?” or “transport?” and groups of men sat around talking provide a constant chorus of “taxi?” when you walk by. This is the same wherever we travelled through Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand.
Apart from our hotel, we don’t recall seeing hardly any new or newish buildings even though the town has apparently grown considerably in recent years due to the increasing interest in diving, Komodo dragons and travel generally in Flores. That said the building methods here probably make it difficult to distinguish old from new. Truth is that this is a scruffy, ramshackle place with dusty streets with dodgy pavements or no pavements at all which are unlit (as everywhere else on the island) and with deep drainage ditches in places where you least expect them which are uncovered and unmarked and providing potential disaster for the unwary walker or cyclist at night time. Having said all that, I quite liked the place by the time we left; everyone was so nice and friendly and we had found some decent bars and restaurants which all had good wifi. Ann wasn’t impressed and couldn’t wait to escape….
Marleno and Fino left us to our own devices for the evening as we wanted to have an evening on our own to celebrate Ann’s birthday. We wandered through town and down to a night market which was recommended for good barbecued fish. It was certainly a nice spot and with a great sunset was a lovely set up for al fresco dining but we had decided to stick to our rule of no street food fearful of dodgy stomaches for our boat trip to Rinco Island the following morning. We had read good reviews about an Italian restaurant called Made in Italy and ended up having a really nice evening here. The food was excellent though a tad expensive by Indonesian standards.
Rinca Island July 29
The reason for our visit to Labuan Baja, apart from being our exit point from Flores, was to visit Komodo National Park to see Komodo dragons in their natural habitat which means visiting Komodo Island or Rinca Island.
We did a lot of reading up on the different islands and opinions differ as to which island is the best to visit. I suppose one should ideally visit both but we chose to visit Rinca because the boat trip to Rinca is much shorter and the chances of seeing dragons and other wild life are apparently greater. It’s fair to say that some people say just don’t bother as they consider it is an expensive day out (seem to recall it cost us around a million IDR less than GBP50 – and we had a private boat) for the chance to see some big but pretty docile lizards; others, like us, take the view that if you are in the area then it would be a shame not to do the trip.
So on July 29 we made our final trip with Marleno Lopez on our visit to Rinca Island. Even if we didn’t get to see dragons it would be a nice boat and a bit of a walk on the island.
Here’s a few facts about Komodo Dragons :
Otherwise known as Komodo Moniters
The largest living lizards in the world
Males can grow to 3 metres and females to 1.8 metres
Found only on the islands of Komodo National Park
Their long forked tongues are used for taste and smell
They are carnivores and can eat very large prey such as water buffalo or even humans
Although they can run at 20kph , in short bursts , they hunt by stealth knocking over their prey and then use large serrated teeth to shred the flesh.If the prey escapes it will die within 24 hours of blood poisoning because the Komodo’s saliva contains poisonous bacteria.
Attacks on humans are rare but they do happen and humans have been killed.
Here are some photographs of our trip
Our visit lasted around 2 hours throughout which we were accompanied by a park ranger with a pointed stick which he would use to ward off any errant dragon. Thankfully he didn’t need the stick! In total we saw 5 dragons including a couple of very small ones. There are well over 1,000 dragons on the island but of course they are spread out and so theres no guarantee of seeing any although its apparently usual not to find at least one near to the rangers quarters.
In addition to the dragons we saw some water buffalo, deer and macaque monkeys and with some nice easy trekking we had a very good day.
We left Rinca not long after 1pm but a plan to go snorkelling afterwards fell foul of the weather when winds started to lift and low cloud gathered. We decided to return to Labuan Bajo before the storm arrived and got back mid afternoon. After saying our goodbyes to Marleno and Fino we went for a beer and then returned to the hotel before going out for dinner to The Lounge for another western meal for a change.
Our final day on Flores, July 30, we had deliberately left free to do absolutely nothing and we did just that. We mooched around Labuan Bajo and had a nice lunch and dinner and not much else. We packed our bags properly for the first time in almost 2 weeks in readiness for our flight to Lombok the next day and had an early night.
On July 31st we left Flores on a 16.25 flight to Lombok via Denpasar.
Our Queensland beach hopping came to an end on July 14th when we drove back to Cairns to return the hire car and to catch a flight to Darwin. We left Cape Tribulation around 09.00 and seemed to get back to Cairns in no time at all even allowing for a brief and final breakfast pie stop in Mossman. We actually had a few things to do on our final day in Cairns and we ticked these off one by one quite nicely.
Ann wanted to get her hair done before we moved on to Indonesia and as soon as she found an internet connection on her phone she found herself a hairdresser and made an appointment in Cairns for early afternoon. Once we got to Cairns, first stop was Pack and Send. We had decided to send home a number of books and other bits and pieces, including our beloved Garmin sat nav gadget. Whilst it’s inevitable that we need to travel with a fair amount of kit for such a long trip as ours, we wanted to reduce our luggage as much as possible.We have been travelling with 30kg each plus hand luggage and whilst this isn’t a problem when you’re travelling around in a hire car, it’s a pain in the neck, literally, when you have to lug such a lot of luggage to/around/from airports. We had ditched superfluous/knackered stuff as we travelled but with the help of Pack and Send we got down to around 24kg each and I still got to keep my fishing tackle! We had called in to Pack and Send whilst in Cairns the previous week and within 20 minutes or so we were done and off back to the Pacific Hotel for our final night in Cairns. Once checked in and bags dropped in the room, we were back in our trusty Mitsubishi for a final drive to the Apex Car Rentals depot just a couple of Ks out of town. Apex kindly gave us a lift back to town, our chores almost done. Whilst Ann went off for her hair do, I found a bank to exchange some Ozzy dollars to USD which we would need later to buy visas for Indonesia and then I went for a haircut myself. All nicely coiffured we had a final mooch around the shops managing to resist a couple of urges to make purchases before returning to the hotel to change for dinner. This night we made the quickest decision on a restaurant ever and went to a well reviewed Italian which turned out to be excellent. The following morning, Wednesday July 15th, we checked out of the Pacific and took a short taxi ride to Cairns International Airport for a Jetstar flight to Darwin for our last few days in Australia.
Darwin wasn’t on our original itinerary for this trip as it seemed so far out of the way up there in the Far North but having read TripAdvisor, Lonely Planet etc on the region, we decided to include a few days to visit a couple of the National Parks, Kakadu and Litchfield. This region is so big with distances so huge that you could easily spend 2 weeks in Northern Territory and still not see it all but a couple of days we gives a chance to see the highlights. Also, Darwin fitted in very well with our itinerary which would take us from Australia to the Eastern end of the Indonesian archipelago although later our plan to fly Darwin to East Timor was frustrated -more on that later.
Within a couple of hours of leaving Cairns on a Jetstar flight we had landed at Darwin and with a 50 dollar return airport shuttle (why are these so much cheaper everywhere than the UK?) we were dropped at our hotel within an hour of landing. The Mediterranean All Suites is a middle budget motel type property handily placed at the edge of the CBD. We chose it because the rooms appeared to be of a reasonable size and came with a full kitchen which would give us the opportunity to cook a meal or two for ourselves if we wanted to. It also has a swimming pool although we didn’t get to use it.
We checked in, dropped the bags and went straight out to have a look around town. I must admit our first impressions weren’t great but after a couple of days visiting Kakadu and Litchfield, we spent our last day in the city and definitely warmed to the place.
Our visits to Kakadu and Litchfield National Parks would involve long trips. It’s possible to combine both Parks and more in a 2 or 3 or more day trip with overnight stays in the Parks but this would involve either camping or staying in hotel accommodation that didn’t look great so we opted for day tours.
Next day, July 16th, we were up early to be collected at 5.30 am by Offroad Dreaming, one of many firms offering tours to the NT National Parks, for our trip to Kakadu.
Our Guide for the day was Tanya who was excellent in terms of explaining what was what as regards the fauna and flora and the history of the park and the Indigenous people who still live there and on the adjacent aboriginal Arnem Land.
Kakadu National Park is yet another World Heritage Site. It is 170 kms from Darwin and is Australia’s largest terrestrial national park covering almost 20,000 square kilometres. It’s an enormous, biodiverse nature preserve which has the greatest variety of ecosystems in Australia including wetlands, savanna woodlands, mangroves, tidal mudflats, coastal areas, rivers, monsoon forests and sandstone escarpments. It’s home to over 2,000 plant species and wildlife from saltwater crocodiles and Flatback turtles to hundreds of bird species. Aboriginal rock-art paintings dating to prehistoric times can be viewed at a number of places within the park.
The land has been continuously occupied for over 50,000 years by the traditional aboriginal owners who still manage the land along with the Government. The National Park was first created, after much negotiation, in the 1970’s as interest grew in conservation and also the land rights of the Aboriginal people. Additional parcels of land have been added since the park was first created.
Our trip would start with a visit to a wetlands bird sanctuary which was a tad disappointing in terms of numbers and species of birds due to low water levels as Australia was in drought conditions at the time.
We then moved on to Ubirr Rock, an escarpment which looks out over the huge Nadab floodplain towards Arnem Land. This site is sacred to the aborigines and includes some of the oldest rock art in the world. This was a fascinating place. There are interpretive signs around the area but Tanya was excellent in terms of explaining some of the stories told in the pictures.
Some examples of the rock art at Ubirr
Next, following an excellent picnic lunch, we moved on to the East Alligator River to join the Guluyambi Cultural Cruise. The river is one of three Alligator Rivers erroneously named in the early 1800s by an English explorer who mistook the crocodiles he saw for alligators !
The firm running this cruise is aboriginal owned and the benefit of this is that access is gained to the aboriginal Arnem Land which requires permission from the aboriginal owners. The cruise was first class and definitely another highlight of our trip.
Our aboriginal host, tour guide and boat skipper was Neville. He has a deep knowledge of the river and how the traditional aboriginal owners lived on and beside the river. He explained the history and culture of the people and how things are now in the modern world. His stories were both interesting and amusing but his commitment to the wellbeing of his people and the land is clear to see and he explained his dream that one day, in the area where we stood briefly on Arnem Land, a facility would be developed where visitors could spend time almost “on retreat” to give them a real understanding of the people and their history. As an aside, Ann and I were quite shocked at the ignorance of some of the Australians who were on this tour with us who seemed quite amazed at some of the things they learned on the trip .
The waters here, like much of the water in the north of Australia are infested with crocodiles. Here freshwater crocodiles, found only in Australia, live in freshwater rivers, creeks and pools. They are shy creatures but can become aggressive if disturbed. Estuarine (saltwater) crocodiles live in freshwater and estuarine areas such as floodplains, billabongs, gorges, rivers and coastal waters. Salties are bigger and aggressive and have attacked and killed people in Kakadu.
Between the 1940s and 1960s crocodiles were hunted to near extinction for their skins but by 1971, both species were protected. The numbers of salties increased dramatically and waters previously safe are now not necessarily so and many need to be monitored and managed to ensure public safety.
We got back to Darwin around 7.30 pm. It had been an excellent tour but we were shattered. We got Tanya to drop us on Mitchell Street which is the main street for bars and restaurants and went straight to a Nepalese restaurant. Nepalese is one of our favourite foods and we had spotted this place the day before. The meal was OK but only OK. Next day we were going on a trip to Litchfield National Park and we returned to the Mediterranean for an early night even though we would get a lie in tomorrow – we wouldn’t be picked up until 7.30 am .
We used the same tour company for our Litchfield Tour. This time our guide was Lynne who wasn’t quite as bright and breezy as Tanya the previous day but had a great knowledge of her subject.
First stop of the day was at Batchelor, 100km south of Darwin and the largest town in the area with a population of around 500! There is very little to see here but we stopped to visit the small local history museum which proved to be mildly interesting. The town’s history largely revolves around its role as an airbase supporting the Australian and US Airforces and also as the site of a uranium, mining and processing site following the discovery of uranium at Rum Jungle in 1948. The plant closed in 1971.
After Batchelor we visited the Cathedral Termite Mounds before we drove on to visit a series of waterfalls and swimming holes which without exception were picturesque but also crowded with families. We didn’t swim because of the crowds but we did walk a couple of short trecks before enjoying a picnic lunch.
Waterfalls and swimming holes
Following lunch our final destination of the day was the Adelaide River for a crocodile cruise. A very entertaining hour or two was spent on a boat learning about crocs and watching them jump out of the water for a meal on a stick. We saw well over a couple of dozen crocs, mostly big ones and all very active and very close up! Mine Host, Harry, was a very enthusiastic Guide and the font of all knowledge when it comes to crocs and he was also very entertaining. In addition to crocs, he also showed us some of the local birdlife and put on an unexpected show of hawks diving for food thrown in the air for them. An excellent tour !
Both Kakadu and Litchfield tours had been excellent but although we were expecting Litchfield to be the better, we much preferred Kakadu because of the greater element of stuff relating to the aboriginies. The rock art had been amazing and it had been very interesting to be able to visit Arnem Land albeit briefly. We will look out to see if Neville succeeds in making his dream of a tourist/cultural centre on Arnem Land come true.
The next day, July 19, was our last day in Australia. We were to check out of the hotel at 10.00 but with our onward flight at 20.00, we had a few hours to kill! We spent an hour or two in a last wander around the shops and then walked down to the Waterfront where on a beautiful hot and sunny Sunday we found the place busy with folk enjoying the weekend.
Here are a few pictures of downtown Darwin and the Waterfront
There was live music playing at the Waterfront, the swimming lagoon was full as was the wave lagoon and lots of people were just lazing around on the grassy areas or lunching in the many restaurants and bars. The place had a great vibe and we thought this part of town must be a cool place in which to live. We sat around watching the world go by before lunching at an Irish pub and then walking back to the Mediterranean where I spent half an hour speaking to my credit card company as my card had been rejected for a couple of transactions in the past few days. Seems someone in Peterborough had been trying to buy a camera with my details. The card was cancelled and somehow we needed to get a new one to us for our travels in Indonesia – what a pain!
Our shuttle pick up delivered us to the airport in good time and before we knew it we were on our AirAsia flight to Bali. We had enjoyed an amazing trip to Australia albeit scarred by the tragic loss of our Brian. We hadn’t seen everything by a long chalk; people tell us how fantastic the West and South Australia are not to mention Uluru and Tasmania and perhaps we will return one day to see these places if we can ever manage to save the funds !
We left the Smithfield Terminal of Skyrail around 3pm on July 10th. Our drive north took us back up Captain Cook Highway and then Cape Tribulation Road through the town of Mossman and a few other small settlements along the way and across the Daintree River.
The journey is around 100KM to the Daintree River Crossing. Thankfully the rain that had dogged our day so far cleared as we got further north and it turned out to be a very pleasant drive. The scenery was largely agricultural – the usual sugar cane, bananas and other fruit – with the road in parts hugging a scenic coastline. However, there was a lot of traffic on the road and it was 5:15pm with the light already beginning to fade before we arrived at the Daintree River.
Within half an hour or so we had crossed the river but already it was almost dark. Before long it was pitch black. The road is narrow and winding and although it isn’t sealed everywhere. There are regular speed bumps along the 30-odd KM road to Cape Tribulation and a good few creeks to cross which add to the interest even though they are bridged. Thus it was a slow drive to Cape Trib and it was around 7PM by the time we arrived.
Cape Tribulation is within Daintree National Park and the Wet Tropics World Heritage area where tropical rainforest meets the Great Barrier Reef. It’s as far north as you can get in Queensland without a 4×4 vehicle. In fact, the road from the south we travelled in on didn’t exist until a track was bulldozed through in the 1960s and remained a track until it was sealed in 2002.
This is proper David Attenborough country; one of the oldest rainforests in the world – over 100 million years old – and contains the largest range of endangered and rare plant and animal life in the world. Over 30% of Australia’s frog, marsupial and reptile species live here and there are hundreds of species of birds including 13 which are not found anywhere else in the world. And then there are the bats and butterflies!
Alongside the rainforest, separated from it by stunning beaches, lies the Great Barrier Reef. The GBR, the world’s most extensive coral reef system, stretches for 2000KM and supports the most diverse eco-system known to man which has evolved over millions of years. The stats for numbers of fish species and other marine life are quite incredible but I’ll leave those who are interested to check the stats for yourselves.
The road north from Cape Tribulation to the aboriginal village of Wujal Wujal is known as the Bloomfield Track. This 4×4 track didn’t exist until 1984 and was completed only after years of protesting by environmentalists who blockaded the area to keep out the bulldozers. Eventually the road went through but still remains a rough track with many creeks to cross along its length. We thought all the above would make Cape Tribulation an interesting place to visit although it was disappointing (though came as no surprise) that Apex Car Hire wouldn’t permit us to travel the Bloomfield track even though we had hired a 4×4. In truth our Mitsubishi wouldn’t have had the clearance to tackle the track: it’s deeply rutted in places and having been driven down the track by a Guide, I was quite happy not to be driving it.
This area gets plenty of visitors but isn’t yet fully developed for tourism and is still regarded as off the beaten track although there are numbers of B&Bs, camp grounds, eco-resorts and the like. Many of the visitors drive straight through on a 4×4 Wilderness Adventure to Cape York – apparently a “must do” road trip for Australian 4×4 drivers and we saw many small convoys of half a dozen or so jeeps fully laden with fuel and water tanks and goodness knows what. We had booked a 5 night stay as far north as we could at the only beach front resort, Cape Tribulation Beach House, which the owners in their blurb describe as “a stunning 7 acre beach front accommodation nestled between the Daintree Rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef.”
We arrived in darkness with Reception closed and a key left with a map of the site but we discovered in the morning that this is most certainly the most stunning location on and in the very edge of the pristine rainforest and on the most beautiful beach overlooking what here is known as the Coral Sea in the South Pacific Ocean. The resort caters for back packers with some dormitory accommodation and for non-back packers in rainforest cabins of a variety of styles to suit different budgets. We had one of the more expensive cabins but even so it would be best described as rustic and about as far removed from our Palm Cove resort as it could possibly be.
Our timber cabin (or shed) was about as basic as it gets. In addition to a bed there was an open wardrobe/shelves, kettle for a brew and a fridge. Above the fridge pinned to the wall was a notice to the effect that food must not be stored in the cabin as a small mouse-like marsupial called a Melamy is prone to enter the cabins and seek out food! Luckily we hadn’t brought much by way of food as we had read there were a number of wallet-friendly establishments where we could eat cheaply, including the on-site restaurant which actually turned out to be pretty good and at backpacker prices.
There is no phone signal here and very limited WiFi available only in the restaurant which was directly opposite and very close to our cabin. Somehow we managed to get through our 4 days here although it is a pain to be cut off from the outside world particularly for Ann who manages the bookings etc for our apartment in Turkey. Our days here were spent doing nothing much other than walking the beaches and nearby tracks and reading up on our next destination, the Northern Territory. We had lunches and dinners either at the resort or one or other cafe or restaurant nearby and all were very acceptable. Our one and only tour here was a half day 4×4 tour with a local guide Mike D’Arcy who runs a business guiding tourists up the Bloomfield track to Wujal Wujal and beyond sharing his encyclopedic knowledge of the area with his clients. This was undoubtedly a highlight of our entire journey through Queensland.
We arranged our tour with Mike for our second day at Cape Tribulation. He picked us up early doors and we started with a walk along a forest track down to the beach with Mike all the while pointing out an amazing range of plants and trees that we would otherwise have missed. There are many species of plant here that have symbiotic relationships with other plants, trees, algae or even insects. For example, the very common green ant which build large nests in fruit trees help protect the fruit of the tree by dropping down and biting anything that tries to take the fruit away. There are lots of examples of this kind of thing and Mike has a huge repertoire of interesting facts about the fauna and flora here which we found quite astounding.
Here’s a few rainforest photos taken during our tour with Mike D’Arcy:
After our walk we got back in the car to drive the Bloomfield Track to Wujal Wujal a small aboriginal township about 30KM north of Cape Trib. This is a small community of around 500 people and it’s believed there has been settlement here for thousands of years. It’s a poor community with high unemployment. There are government initiatives to create public service work for the people who have little education and few skills to keep them occupied (and away from alcohol) – this is usually in the form of an odd day of work here and there but not permanent full time employment.
It’s hard to believe this seemingly token gesture at helping this community has any real lasting benefit although we did hear that works completed in the community have had some positive effect on the township. The township is policed but seems to be largely-self governing and its leaders work hard to keep alcohol out of the township – alcohol is prohibited and visitors are barred from bringing alcohol into the township.
There is an Aboriginal Arts Centre/Community Centre here with some interesting exhibits for sale created by the local people and some of the work is really beautiful. More interesting though was our meeting with Kathleen Walker and some of her family, members of the clan which has lived here for thousands of years. Kathleen is a leading member of the community here and well respected for her work as part of the Womens’ Justice Group working to keep youngsters on the straight-and-narrow and away from alcohol and substance-abuse.
Kathleen is the traditional owner of the lands here and she took us on a short walk to see one of a number of waterfalls that are sacred to her community. We were allowed to approach the waterfall but not before Kathleen had spoken to her ancestors who guard the sacred falls! This was quite an amazing experience for us as we were able to chat with Kathleen, a lovely and interesting lady, for an hour or so when she explained the recent history of her people and how she was brought up and how she reared her own children to understand the bounties provided by the land in terms of the hunting and trapping of animals and fish and the use of plants and trees and their roots for bush tucker and goodness knows how many medicinal purposes. We found it amazing that there are still communities of people in modern day Australia who continue to use such ancient natural remedies.
Following our visit to Wujal Wujal we continued our tour with the object of finding a crocodile to photograph. Mike took us along the Bloomfield River and sure enough before and after enjoying tea and home made cake by the river we spotted several of these prehistoric monsters although in each case the beast was some distance away on the far side of the river.
The rainforest, rivers, creeks and waterholes are quite incredible and this really was an amazing tour with an amazing guide – maybe the best tour we have ever been on and one we will definitely repeat if we are lucky enough to re-visit the area.
Here are a few are more pictures these of a riverine nature:
And a few more taken round about Cape Trib:
We had a great few days at Cape Trib. Another day with a guide would have been good to do some trecking but now we were looking forward to our final destination in Australia, Darwin, Northern Territory. We would fly to Darwin from Cairns and so next stop Cairns!
Ann had done quite bit of research before we booked our snorkel trip with Reef Daytripper which is a long standing family business with a boat taking a maximum of 20 passengers – much smaller than most. With such a small number of passengers but 5 or 6 crew members, they offer the personalised service that we were hoping for. We were excited but also a tad nervous about the trip and didn’t want to go with one of the many operators who have big boats catering for dozens and dozens of folk.
We chose well. The boat was great with only a dozen and a half or so customers mostly younger than us but many like us, with no experience of snorkelling. The crew also were great – very welcoming and good fun. After an early morning cup of tea we were given our safety instructions, a demonstration of how to snorkel safely and details of the coral, fish and other critters we could expect to see under water. We were given the opportunity to choose whether or not to wear a wet suit and were then kitted out with flippers. Ann and I had our our own snorkels and masks with us.
We were good to go. We sailed 30KM out to Opulu Reef and then stopped for the first of our two snorkel sessions. This first stop was for an hour and a half or so and the time went by very quickly. We enjoyed it immensely. One of the crew members spent the whole time with Ann making sure she was safe (it’s easy to get dragged away from the boat by the current) and making sure she got to see everything there was to see.
I tried to follow Ann and her new chum around but constantly lost them; my new mask worked a treat and with head under water trying to spot whatever I could, I was constantly distracted and finding myself adrift of the others. Trying to take photographs underwater for the first time was a challenge and unfortunately the results were disappointing.
We saw some beautiful coloured corals and the fish were amazing. The day was sunny but with cloud constantly passing over and of course vision was much better when the sun was out and especially in those places where the water was a tad cloudy due to tide movement. Snorkelling here felt as though you were in an aquarium and swimming with turtles alongside you was a surreal experience; they got very close up and it was difficult at times to keep some distance from the turtles so as not to touch them. One thing that surprised me was how shallow the water could be so far out from shore – in places it was tricky to avoid touching or even standing on the coral – a definite no-no!
After an excellent buffet lunch we moved on to another area of the reef for our second snorkel session. Here again the experience was amazing, possibly even slightly better as the water was deeper. Ann even got the opportunity to swim up-close (but not too close!) to a sole barracuda. Apparently barracuda are generally docile when swimming in a shoal but can be defensive and aggressive when found on their own – something they only told us later!
Our snorkel trip finished with some nibbles and fresh fruit and a glass or two of wine. It had been a fab day out and one we would never forget.