Volcanoes, churches, trees… not many people!
Following a lovely, long week floating around Komodo National Park (seriously THE BEST EXPERIENCE), I was fueled with some spare time and an eagerness to see what the land version of Flores had to offer. This meant that a quick decision was made to venture from Labuan Bajo in the west all the way to Maumere nearly in the very east of the Indonesian island of Flores.
I had hoped to meet some fellow female travellers who were up for this particular land tour. Unfortunately, the friendly women I met during my recent Le Pirate Komodo boat trip & also some great Dive Komodo adventures were all returning to Bali. My eyes were peeled in Labuan Bajo for possible car sharers; I asked in a few tour shops and kept my ears open in cafes but either people had already come from the east OR everyone was simply in Flores to explore Komodo National Park and that was it. it didn’t help that Labuan Bajo was relatively quiet when I was there in late November.
SO, was it to be a public bus experience from Labuan Bajo to Maumere?
Nope. As I’m travelling with a much better pot of savings than the backpacker days of my early twenties, AND and I find in my thirties I’m just not up for super basic budget travel anymore (I know this is a privileged position to be in to even make that decision) UNLESS I really, really have to (see my Himalayan blog). Also I’m a woman travelling solo who is pretty fed up with the general street harassment on offer in Indonesia (and of course the world in general too) THEREFORE *drumroll* I gently threw money at a private car (still very cheap in comparison to Europe, Australia etc.), briefly wishing I could divide the cost with three other passengers… but then remembering this decision makes me happier and I’m INCREDIBLY LUCKY TO BE TRAVELLING REGARDLESS, so say SELAMAT PAGI to the Trans-Flores Highway!
From west to east over four days:
I very nearly added on two more days as I was keen to veer north to also explore the 17 island marine park off Riung (untouched, remote and beautiful from what I’ve heard), however this would make the affordable private car more UNaffordable and would’ve meant a lot of extra car time with just me and Marcel (the driver I hadn’t met yet), therefore decision made, the 17 islands would be saved for a future trip!
Day 1: Labuan Bajo ➼ Melo Village (Komodo islands viewpoint) ➼ Cancar (spiderweb rice fields) ➼ Ruteng
Day 2: Golo Curu (hilltop viewpoint) ➼ Ranamese (lake) ➼ Aimere (arak wine) ➼ Bajawa ➼ Manulalu (Mount Inerie)
Day 3: Bena ➼ Mengeruda (hot spring) ➼ Nagapanda (Blue Stone Beach) ➼ Ende ➼ Detusoko (hillside rice terrace) ➼ Moni (Kelimutu volcano)
Day 4: Kelimutu Volcano & the tri-coloured lake ➼ Maumere (scuba diving)
The Trans-Flores Highway
Straight out of Labuan Bajo the road climbed quickly and steeply to a viewpoint which looked back on to the islands I’d happily sailed around and scuba dived under the previous week.
Oooh maybe I’m not ready to leave this ocean and these islands…
Don’t worry we’ll see it again, actually a few times during this trip. You can’t drive anywhere in Flores without going up, down and around.
That was Marcel, my driver from Panorama tours (one of many tour companies I inquired in the day before we set off), assuring me on our ascent that the ocean would likely reappear.
There was rarely a straight road on this route. We wound up and around deep valleys lined with eucalyptus trees. Occasionally along the roadside there’d be material laid out, covered in drying ‘candle nuts’ as Marcel called them (similar to macadamia apparently). The descent would be sudden and before I realised I’d be back down amongst the wide, lower plains filled with enormous paddy fields, subtlety tiered with their bright, green plants moving slowly in the breeze.
The road was mainly empty for the entire four days with only a few rickety minivans passing us, bumping along at speed. If I was out of the car taking photos (a common occurrence) the odd hand would appear out of their lowered windows waving brightly to whistle, shout, say hello or exclaim ‘foreigner’.
Men washing their motorbikes as women added a seemingly infinite amount of washing to never-ending bamboo clothes rails. Stereotypical gender roles featured strongly here. As we wound through the mountains Floresian (is that a word??) washing followed us nearly the entire way.
Tin rooves glistened as we passed through villages, well tiny hamlets really, all with the biggest satellite dishes turned upwards facing the blue sky and hopefully TV gold.
I would’ve lost track of what day it was if I hadn’t started this trip on a Sunday, a day filled with roadside families winding their way to church on foot, children running and playing as they went on with their weekly routine. Catholic Churches were the main religious venues along this highway, I believe Catholicism is the largest religion in this East Nusa Tenggara region of Indonesia, originally introduced by the Portuguese in the 16th Century (thanks Wikipedia). A surprising fact really in the world’s largest Muslim populace.
Banana trees, pineapple plants, a couple of ramshackle fruit stalls continued to frequent this route. Unfinished houses with corrugated rooftops balancing in the sun appeared sporadically too.
It wouldn’t be a place with humans without seeing many half buried plastic bottles and other plastic containers and wrappers squashed into the gravel road and soil from weeks, maybe even months and years of rubber tires pressing down on them.
It was market day when I arrived in Cancar, if you wanted fish or chicken this was the place to be BUT you needed a prepared nose as it did absolutely stink.
Cancar and its surroundings are home to the pie chart of rice paddies, just look at the photos, what a sight!
After signing in and paying the small entrance fee at the main viewpoint for the Lingko paddy fields, two incredibly excitable, giggly young girls (I’m talking around 7 years old, seriously), who spoke no English (despite using as much sign language as possibly I just couldn’t learn their names), led me up the narrow, tree lined trail to the first viewpoint for the famous spiderweb paddy fields.
I’d seen these fields online when researching this overland trip, but my jaw still dropped when they came into view, immediately wishing I was a bird so I could fly above them (I suppose having a drone would be a more realistic option). I have never seen anything quite like these fields, utterly unique!! I still haven’t gotten to the bottom of why they are built this way, Marcel just said it’s how they do it in this area, the tour guide children & ticket collector didn’t speak English and there isn’t a Wikipedia page, I really should’ve learnt Bahasa.
The Ranamese Lake is worth a brief stop on the way to Bajawa. Marcel initially stopped at a concrete viewpoint high above the lake which was covered in litter and had such a strong smell of urine that it must have been a popular bus/car/journey break point. This wasn’t great, however wandering to the lake was a nice car breather.
As we got closer to Bajawa there were more flowers amongst all the green, lots of hibiscus bushes reminding me of Malaysia and its national flower. There were a few more trucks and petrol tankers and running kids shouting ‘bule, bule’ as I passed. There was an incredible section where the road had a wide open plain on both sides, with rows and rows of mountains unfolding in the distance, then rice paddies sprawling out on either side.
Church bells and chickens, down into Borong and then immediately back up towards the clouds. Children walking along the roadside from school on their way home, they seemed to follow my journey for a while, they must walk miles!
Bajawa seemed relatively small but still noisy, much of the accommodation looked like it was located along the main road, a night here would’ve been nothing special. Thanks to some free WiFi as I ate a classic mi goreng in Bajawa, I’d read that nearby Manulalu (thirty minutes away) was a pretty place to stay so off we went!
Initially, Marcel drove us through a huge bamboo forest (we could’ve been in Japan) a road that felt quite enchanting, if slightly creepy (a bit like something from a fairy tale, beautiful but secretly deadly, the apple in Snow White). When I inevitably got out to take photos and Marcel drove off it felt like the beginnings of a horror film.
FEAR NOT dear readers I didn’t meet any bamboo loving murdering psychopaths, I made it to Manulalu successfully. You must stay here if you travel this route purely to witness the incredibly imposing, slightly Autumnal looking volcano Mount Inierie which dominates Manulalu’s skyline. Your jaw will drop immediately at its magnificence, the word majestic was made for Mount Inierie. Need I say more? Look at the photos…
Maybe I’m just a sucker for a volcano? Another reason Flores is just simply fantastic.
The views from the restaurant Heaven’s Door were astonishing (and presumably further up the road as it winds higher into the hills)! A great way to end a long day’s drive, beer in hand watching the sun set across the valley.
I didn’t enjoy the earlier stop at an arak wine ‘factory’ (basically a roadside chimney/fire situation), a complete tourist trap (even though I was the only tourist ha), it felt a little seedy too (again that’s from my perspective as a solo female, it was just me and there were lots of men just sat around lazily staring), I’d drive right through this! The road following the arak place was incredibly dusty, even windier and higher than earlier and there was no fence, definitely grateful for non existent traffic in this section!
The traditional village of Bena can be viewed from Manulalu, it’s tiny in the distance but still in view. I spent just under an hour wandering around, it’s set up for tourists and the entrance fee supports the locals who still call it home. Again, a very slightly creepy experience by yourself walking the narrow lanes behind the houses and coming face to face with animal skulls and lots of teeth; the teeth of dead buffalo but also the stained red teeth of the local women who were sat outside their houses sewing scarfs and shawls for interested tourists. Maybe I’m just easily scared? Once I was in the main square, back in the sunshine it was fine.
The natural hot spring of Mengeruda was beautiful and quite large, there’s a few man-made pools of differing temperatures alongside a river which runs absolutely boiling in parts. I was going for a swim but when I turned up I was the only foreign female, there were a few local families swimming as well as a few local builders renovating one of the pools. I felt everybody’s eyes on me already when I was fully clothed so, I just decided to paddle and not get into swimwear, the attention makes me far too uncomfortable. I’ve been lucky enough to experience much swimming in unbelievably wild and remote natural hot springs, as well as man-made, in Taiwan, a paddle here would do.
On route to Ende the road wound back down towards the coast, with the hills behind us quickly disappearing and then reappearing amongst the moving clouds. As we gained speed and the ocean came into sight, mosques took over from churches and two more volcanoes appeared. Ende Island just off the coast looked intriguing as well!
If you ignore the ramshackle cafes that line a roadside section just above the Blue Stone Beach, and focus on the colour of the sea and its stones which seem to be all the shades of blue that could possibly exist, the Blue Stone Beach is stunning.
Why are the stones this colour? Why are they found here?
If I’d driven myself I’d have happily enjoyed a slow wander along the beach amongst all the blue stones, followed by a mini picnic. However, if you park in this particular car park there’s an expectation that you must eat in one of the cafes to be ‘allowed’ access to the beach. Tourism can be REALLY frustrating at times.
Ende was located in a protected bay with black sand beaches, the road running right next to the sea. It was more built up than anything I’d seen so far, there was actually a supermarket and TRAFFIC! We turned inland after Ende and just like that we gained height again and went back into the hills that had followed us the whole way. Pavements appeared at one point, very brief but noticeable, a shocking site anywhere in Asia but especially when you’re in the middle of nowhere. We even passed a local football match in the most glorious green, hilly surroundings.
Satsumas seemed to be the new fruit of this area, although there was still trucks piled high with bananas.
I’d noticed all along the Trans-Flores Highway that people had graves in their gardens, right outside their doorways, next to their driveways, in the immediate vicinity of their homes. Children would play amongst the headstones and raised, tiled graves. An interesting cultural difference, I liked it. Having your family graves in your home would perhaps normalise death and make you more aware of its inevitability from a very young age. In fact, the guesthouse I stayed in in Moni had two graves right below my room, central to the accommodation. With the recent death of my dad, cemeteries, graves and death are very often at the front of my mind and randomly I had already researched the rules around burying humans, very curious, I’ll leave you to read this from the BBC if you’re also intrigued.
The tri-coloured lakes of Kelimutu were staggering! I’d been diving with a lovely, funny German couple in Komodo the previous week and they couldn’t have recommended Kelimutu more, so I knew I wasn’t going to leave Flores without exploring possibly the most famous land site in Flores.
Marcel dropped me off at the trail entrance after I bought a ticket, in the dark of course as it was well before sunrise. He’d offered to walk with me to the main viewpoint as there was absolutely no-one around but I decided that there was no reason I couldn’t do this alone. I followed the only path there was, lit by my phone’s torch to the main viewpoint. It was actually a little confusing and at one point there was a junction with an unclear sign, yet I must have a sense of direction because turning left proved a winner!
There are a couple of other viewpoints along the way so all you need to know is the path ends at the best and highest spot, just keep walking until you can walk no more!
By sunrise there was a bunch of us marveling at the lakes as they gradually appeared, no where near as many people as Mount Bromo in Java, this was definitely a quieter, calmer experience. Two lakes are in front of you as the sun rises and the third is behind your back; this one remained quite shaded during the entire sunrise and afterwards too.
After experiencing the Kelimutu sunrise I wouldn’t suggest visiting Flores without witnessing it too, it really was that impressive.
Here we go, following Kelimutu, the final ascent and then inevitable descent was upon us!
From Kelimutu to Maumere, the location where Marcel and I would part and I would no longer have the luxury of a private car. Maumere is on the coast so we did descend into a busy, little town however I slept most of the way as i’d been up since 3am, who knows what I passed but I’d put money on rows of trees, deep valleys, a couple of rice paddies, fruit, children playing and a few churches!
Maumere would be the final part of this Floresian adventure (may or may not have invented that word), although I wouldn’t be departing without squeezing in a few final dives.
It was much harder than expected to find an active dive shop in Maumere, this place is clearly off the tourist trail. Google Maps had informed me that were two scuba diving companies in Maumere, Seaworld Club Beach Resort and Ankermi Happy Dive, although one never replied to my inquiries and the other did but a few days too late.
After chatting to the receptionist at Capa Resort (see review below) I found out that this hotel actually had a dive centre! My brain shouted woohoo and I booked in some dives which ended up being the most casual, slightly cowboy diving I’ve ever done. If this experience wasn’t off the back of months of diving, I would have walked, no swam away in panic immediately.
The instructor (although I think he was maybe just barely a dive guide) spoke little English, no dive briefings (not even with the international language of drawing) and he really didn’t respect the coral or sea life at all, he touched everything whether on purpose or not it was really frustrating.
The drive to the pier from Capa Resort was about forty minutes, a journey where I really considered the idea that I might die on route because the driving was extreme to say the least, ridiculously fast, fuelled by a never ending flow of nicotine, the driver shouting to everyone we passed as well as overtaking every single vehicle in our way.
In the car I was one woman squashed amongst four men, and then at the pier even more men, not sure I saw any women until a taxi boat came in and two head scarves popped up.
The pier… well a beach with boats really, was fascinating. We arrived at the exact time a fishing boat had come in from eleven hours at sea hunting tuna, its haul was destined for Japan. Using body language and pointing at my camera I asked if I could look and take a few photos.
There was also an intriguing ice production conveyor belt of people, wheel barrels and enormous blocks of ice being loaded on to different fishing boats (I have a video somewhere but annoyingly can’t find it).
Right, back to the diving. I did dive and the dives were great, nowhere near as incredible as Komodo but still beautiful, quiet, untouched, lovely. It was also fascinating to see the crack in the Earth’s surface (under the sea) from the earthquake which struck and devastated this area in 1992, this would be the start of our first dive, starting in the shallow and then dropping down the wall.
The captain’s five year old son came along on our very rickety, shaded long-tail boat and through a bit of broken English I understood that since his mum had died he no longer went to school, he just sails with his dad instead. Oh I wished I’d had my pencil case with me, he was such a happy kid with absolutely nothing, I just wanted to give him some pens and paper so he could still write and draw. I tipped his dad after the trip, hoping that he’d be able to spend some of it on a book or something entertaining for his son.
Diving off Maumere provided one of the most beautiful locations for a service interval I’ve had (Menjanran Island off north-west Bali is still top at the moment), the bath like sea was breathtaking, the contrast in colours between the shallow & deep water was absolutely dreamy. A lone tree with an Indonesian flag added a really cool Robinson Crusoe vibe too.
This delightful desert island vibe was broken when the inevitable male arrived to sit RIGHT NEXT TO ME (so much space in the sea and he practically sat on my knee). He rambled, asked where I was staying, if I was alone (always the most unsettling question) and invited me to a wedding, honestly. My body language said, I’M SUNBATHING MATE AND NOT INTERESTED IN THE SLIGHTEST SO BACK OFF, which he eventually did seemingly perturbed by my declined wedding invitation. Why do so many men think women are on this planet for their entertainment?
The only thing I would have changed by the time I got to the end of day four on the Trans-Flores Highway was to drive the car myself (not possible) or ride a motorbike the whole way. This route is just simply glorious. You could pleasantly drive across and around Flores with time, smiles, a camera and very little money. I’ll be back to do the 17 islands off Riung at some point, oh and for more diving around Komodo.
Simply, if you’re exploring the most famous spot Flores has to offer, Komodo National Park, definitely add on a few days to see the land of Flores as well, you will not regret it.
All accommodation choices were determined by Google reviews, TripAdvisor and whatever I could find on Booking.com when I had signal! I took this trip during November which is low season meaning there was no need to book in advance, everywhere had lots of availability.
Ruteng – Spring Hill Bungalow, I had a a newly refurbished room here and it was honestly lovely, very clean, lots of light, a hot, powerful shower and fast WiFi. The grounds are full of flowers with the nearby hills looking down on ominously (it did rain). There’s a restaurant on site and a basic breakfast was included.
Ruteng was definitely chilly as it’s at 1188m above sea level, I dug out my jeans, socks and trainers pretty quickly and stayed in the shower for a while!
Bajawa – Manulalu Jungle Resort, I was meant to spend the evening in Bajwawa but a quick and tasty nasi goreng lunch at Maibeth in Bajawa that had FREE WiFi (wahey) revealed the must do nearby spot of Manulalu.
If you’re debating these destinations DEFINITELY do Manulalu, it’s right underneath the enormous & colourful volcano Mount Inierie, plus you drive through a really cool bamboo forest to get there and the sunset across the valley is stunning.
Manulalu Jungle Resort, the ‘resort’ part is seriously stretching it, it’s about 6 mini cabins/bungalows which are lovely, with well thought out decor, but be warned this seems to be mosquito heaven or should that be hell? My cabin came with coils, spray AND anti-mozzy cream (who knew?!). Why didn’t they provide gin too? So, I knew from arrival it was going to be bad. The staff at check-in even pointed out that between 5pm-7pm there would be a lot of mosquitoes and they spoke no word of a lie.
Each cabin has a gorgeous balcony with a couch, table and chairs plus a sink, kettle with coffee and tea provided; a really peaceful place to sit… until the mosquitoes appear.
Also if you’re going to eat at the resort’s restaurant Heaven’s Door (there’s nowhere else to eat), it’s quite a deceptively long walk beyond the cabins, the ‘resort’ provides really irregular transport to and from your cabin and the restaurant.
The included breakfast was excellent, love it when a cafetiere is provided. Coffee, scrambled eggs with homemade bread right underneath a volcano and a blue sky… oh I love Flores.
Moni – Bintang Bungalow, this was the most basic accommodation I stayed in, I had struggled to find anything that sounded half decent online. Really simple room, old bedding, ripped mosquito net and a bit of a dingy bathroom. It was only for a few hours though as I’d arrived late and would be up before sunrise for Kelimutu, therefore I didn’t really care.
Maumere – Capa Resort, the aim for this destination was a bit of luxury with a pool and sea views. The room was large and clean with a balcony, an absolute bargain price for what you get (oh I love Indonesia for this). However, you can’t walk onto the beach and there’s no food nearby, so unless you taxi around you’re stuck with the one very simple restaurant at the hotel. I stayed for three nights which was far too long because of the food situation and as the hotel had barely any guests I got too much attention (especially because international tourists seem quite rare in Maumere) which for my introvert self meant I just couldn’t really relax!
A word of warning about flights out of Maumere, they get delayed, seriously delayed.
Confusion and then regret filled my mind when the woman at the check-in counter said that I could check-in in FIVE HOURS TIME. I’d only arrived an hour and a half before take off. The receptionist at the Capa Resort had mentioned that the flight the day before had been delayed but I stupidly didn’t think anything of it (or check my own flight) before leaving the hotel. I got the impression that local flights here are like boats in the Philippines, they arrive and go whenever they feel like it. I think it was about seven hours in total I lived in the airport shed, some other tourists argued their way into the departure hall (because the airline wanted us to wait outside the airport), I gladly and thankfully followed suit. Uncomfortable seating but at least they provided plugs and a really surprising complimentary lunch of fried chicken, nice!
Ooooh it’s all part of the story! Cheers Flores, you were absolutely cracking.