The boat that took me from Lombok and through the Komodo National Park docked in Labuan Bajo, a harbour town on the North Western tip of the island of Flores. Labuan Bajo is the gateway to the famous diving locations around Komodo, and as such has been fairly westernised. There is an odd mix of authenticity and expensive looking newly built cafes and restaurants along the Main Street, some of which extend up into the hills, overlooking the harbour and out to see.
I’d planned on diving here, which would be my first time since doing a discover scuba dive on Koh Tao some four months ago. I’m still not sure why it took me so long to get round to, but I am now PADI qualified, meaning that I can dive anywhere in the world.
There were a whole host of dive centres in Labuan Bajo, I chose to do my course under a recommendation of Manta Rhei, who are run by a Belgian family, as friendly as they are knowledgable. The whole experience with them was fantastic – my instructor Tino made the course seem ridiculously easy and most of all enjoyable, and the long trips out to the dive sites were spent relaxing on the luxurious sun deck of their new boat, whilst eating the incredible home cooked food or chatting to the friendly staff about all things fish.
As a beginner, I missed out on a few of the more renowned dive sites due to the strong currents making them more suitable to experienced divers, but elsewhere in the crystal clear waters I saw plenty of exotic species of fish, turtles, sharks and more. I’ll definitely be back to try out the more advanced sites when I have a bit more experience!
After a group of us from the Komodo boat trip had finished getting our fix from an assortment of various dives and courses, we decided to head in land to the town of Bajawa, located way up in the mountains of central Flores. It was a long drive from Labuan Bajo, but as there was a group of us it meant that we could hire a car for a reasonable price and make a few stops on the way as we wove through mountain passes and along plateaus of lush green rice fields, including the fascinating “spider fields” of Cancar, which are shaped in the form of a spiders web. The scenery was amazing throughout the trip, and the streets on each village we passed through were lined with kids waving to us as we passed. As we stopped for coffee in a small village (I don’t quite remember where) we were soon surrounded by a group of children who just wanted a hi five and a photo. This ended up in a game of foot-volleyball, where by the end the whole pitch was surrounded by what seemed like the whole village, cheering us on and laughing as we fell over and inevitably lost to our opposition, who were no more than ten years old.
Bajawa is a small town and forms a central base to the nearby traditional villages, where bamboo huts are the norm and women with betel stained teeth sell macadamia nuts and hand woven scarves. These electricity free villages seem to be a step back in time, but are home to some of the warmest, friendliest people you’re likely to meet, where family and tradition are the most (or only) important things.
To get to these villages you need to ride a bike through some beautiful mountain roads, which I’d rate better than the Hai Van Pass in my humble opinion. Steep 180 degrees switchbacks are the norm on these empty roads, each one providing stunning views over volcanos and out to sea. The scenery seemed a little more colourful than in other places I’ve been, with reds and oranges sitting in between the vast green jungle. It’s probably why the Portuguese named the island Flores (Flowers) all those years ago when they settled.
We drove down to the towns on the coast, stopping off at the black sand beach and in the hills around the bay, but my highlight was the natural springs, where hot and cold streams mix, giving a perfect place to swim and relax.
We left a few friends in Bajawa and went further east to Ende, a small harbour town on the south coast with a spectacular back drop of volcanos. There wasn’t much to do here, and struggled to even find a cup of coffee, the one coffee shop we did walk past was shut, and looked as though it had been that way for months, if not years.
Ende was a base to travel on to Kelimutu, a nearby volcano famous for its three crater lakes, each a different colour. The colours are also known to change, nobody knows when or to which colour they will change next, but it is due to the bacterial content of the lakes. It is an important place for the locals spiritually, as it is believed that when people die, their spirits remain in Kelimutu forever, and which lake they enter depends on their age and character whilst alive.
Motorbike rentals from Ende were hard to come by, but we eventually left with a small, underpowered yet expensive bike to share between two of us. This caused many problems as we went weaving into the mountains, picking up two flat tires along the way. What should have been a two hour journey took almost 4, meaning we arrived late, after closing time.
We had to sweet talk our way in, and were eventually allowed to go up to the peak after paying the entrance fee (150k for foreigners as opposed to 5k for locals!), where the sun was already setting. Being there after closing time was eerie, we had the whole place to ourselves as the sun dipped behind the mountains and the sky filled red. Two of the lakes were a dim green, but the third was filled a sky blue, looking almost like paint. It would have been great to be there for sunrise, as the sun would come up over the two lakes at the front rather than disappearing at the back, but I couldn’t complain with the atmosphere we had.
We were driving home through the fog, in the dark, on a dodgy bike with a dodgy light, when we had our third flat tire of the day. This time we were in the middle of nowhere, not that any repair shop would have been open at that time anyway. Retracing our steps slightly, we came across a truck full of locals at the side of the road who, as it happened, were on their way back to Ende. In a comical mix of broken English, Bahasa and sign language, we managed to persuade them to put us and the bike in the back of the truck and take us home. A funny end to a memorable road trip.
I left Flores after just over one week, and had one more surprise at the airport. My friend managed to get on board with a cigarette lighter and half a litre of left over fuel that was bought as spare for the motorbike rides. It’s a good job this place is largely unaffected by the problems of the western world.