Saturday, 19 July 2008

18 - 20 July 2008: All things cultured in Ubud, Bali

We decided to come back to Bali for three days to spend more time in Ubud, which is the arts and culture capital of the island. After three weeks of cold showers, we were pleased to check into the Dewi Ayu homestay (0361-8514846) with hot water. It was located on the lower end of Monkey Forest Road, just down from the Circle K.

On our first night in culture land, we went to see a traditional Balinese dance performance with a gamelan orchestra. The orchestra were literally hammering out the tunes. The dances were intricate, with each movement of hand, wrist, finger and eye being important. The dancers were dressed in stunning, colourful costumes. We particularly enjoyed seeing an extra from 'The Planet of the Apes'.

For our second day we were lucky enough to be in town while a mass cremation ceremony was taking place. The king of Bali had been cremated here only a few days before. Families bury their dead and then the bodies are exhumed, sometimes up to five years later, ready to be cremated. Hindus believe that cremation allows the soul to travel to heaven.

As we arrived at the cremation site within the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary, some of the family members were already there. Prayers were said and then, in turn, 30 families carried a large figurine to their cremation platforms. Figurines included dragons, fishes, anatomically correct bulls, cow mermaids (?!?) and an elephant. The families came out in procession, carrying the bones of the deceased and offerings: food, water, live chicks, cloth and money. These were all placed inside the elaborately decorated figurines.

Finally, after a lifetime of waiting (six hours), all the figurines and their precious contents were ready for cremation. Simultaneously, a member of each family lit their figurine, forming three lines of pyres. The figurines burnt quickly and very close to the relatives. The local fire brigade doused some of the fires. A fascinating experience and very different from European cremations.

15 - 17 July 2008: Flores, part 2 – Kelimutu three coloured lakes

Click here to read part 1 of the story.

On day four, we got up at 4am to see the sun rise over Gunung Kelimutu and its three coloured crates lakes – one light brown, another dark green and the biggest one turquoise. The lakes were stunning and well worth the mammoth journey to get to them! We lingered on the top for a long time, waiting for the sun to light up the lakes so that we would see their full potential. Suddenly we heard two very familiar voices. It was the group of Brits that we'd met on our second trip to Rinjani (white office shirt, blue t-shirt and bobble hat).

We walked back down to Moni along the road and heard some snakes in the grass. We also saw one yellow and green snake and a dead grey one on the road. A shortcut would save us 6km, but we weren't keen to take it after the encounters with our reptile friends. Luckily we met a local man who showed us the way. The shortcut ended up being the highlight of the day. We met lots more locals and chatted with them in our broken Bahasa Indonesian. A lot of the old ladies had been chewing betel nuts most of their lives, so there wasn't much left of their teeth and their gums were bright red. However, they had the biggest grins on their faces. Just before arriving back in Moni, we saw a very nice waterfall which was a great finish for the walk.

The following day (day five), we tried to catch the public bus. The two buses were full so a helpful local man hailed a people carrier to take us to Maumere (three hours). We forgot to take the travel sickness pills soon enough so felt pretty sick the whole way.

Once in Maumere, we caught a bemo – with a great sound system and loud music thumping away – to a hotel called Sunset Cottages. Although they were full, they waited until we had eaten before telling us. However, the owner helped us book into Wodong Beach Cottages. These were pretty compact, clean and comfortable, and the menu was far superior to Sunset Cottages. .
On the last day, we said our goodbyes to Taavi and caught the flight from Maumere to Bali. There was even a scheduled stop on the island of Sumba for 30 minutes.

12 - 14 July 2008: Flores, part 1 – the journey

We embarked on a four-day journey across the island along the trans-Flores highway. You could travel it in a day, but it would mean sitting in a cramped bus for 20 hours.

'Trans-Flores highway' is a rather funny name for the road, as it's in a pretty bad shape in parts due to floods, earthquakes and landslides. The road is also incredibly winding and climbs up and down from the coast to the seaside along steep mountainsides. We spent the whole trip being doped up on travel sickness pills and sitting next to kids and adults vomiting into plastic bags.
The first day we travelled to Ruteng which is a market town high up in the hills. We were expecting to catch a public bus from Labuanbajo, but at 8am, a private people carrier turned up. A confused one hour later, we were back outside our hotel again, albeit with 11 people now in the seven-seater car. On the way to Ruteng (four hours) we listened to local songs, some of which reminded Jen of Finnish tango iskelma! Ruteng wasn't that interesting a town, although we did visit the local market selling vegetables, fish and meat (covered in flies).

Day two from Ruteng to Bajawa (five hours) was spent in a people carrier, again hurtling from the mountains to the coast. Our driver didn't secure the luggage to the roof rack. When we hit the first bend in the road, some luggage came flying off the roof rack and skidded across the road. Lucky no one was in the way - and it wasn't our rucksacks! Bajawa is a lovely hill town at an altitude of 1,100m. It certainly merited more time than the half-day we had. Near the town, there's hot springs, traditional villages and Gunung Inerie, a volcano of 2,245m.

On day three from Bajawa to Moni (seven hours), we thought we were booked onto another people carrier, but to our surprise, a public bus came to pick us up. The journey was comfortable, as we had more space on the bus than in the people carrier. However, the local lady sitting next to us was not feeling well, so we gave her a travel sickness pill – partly because we were trying to avoid being spewed on!

In Moni, we bumped into Frank, an accident prone German traveller. During the time we knew him, he'd had to kick in his hotel door (lost the key), broken two chairs and was blamed for a puncture on a motorbike. Frank introduced us to Taavi, a half-Australian half-Finn, who lives in Australia.

Taavi and Frank had also travelled on another Komodo programme that we'd considered. Nine out of 15 people on the cruise had abandoned ship after the first night's sailing. The vessel was almost swamped in the rough seas. We were really glad we had decided to pay more for the Perama trip.

Continue to part 2.

Friday, 18 July 2008

11 July 2008 – Journey to Komodo (Part 3)

Read our komodo adventure from the beginning.

At 7.00am on the final morning, we arrived at the parched island of Komodo. An air of expectancy filled the boat, mixed with resignation that we might not see any dragons. With a guide and his stick – in case of emergencies – we headed off on a trek of the island. Within minutes we saw our first dragon. By the main buildings, a large male was sleeping off the pig which he had eaten two days before. Its docile behaviour was just camouflage.

Further on, we came across a female who performed for the cameras. Turning to face the crowd, posing, and then walking off into the undergrowth. Walking up a dry river bed, we passed a series of holes in the banks. These were abandoned nests where the females lay their eggs.

After a couple of hours we returned to the boat, having learnt of the eight recorded attacks by Komodo dragons resulting in three deaths. The most interesting was Swiss Baron Ranulph, who became separated from his group in 1974, never to be seen again.

After a short sailing, we stopped at Red Beach also on Komodo Island – a sandy white beach with speckles of red in the sand. Beautiful snorkelling from the beach brought home how devastated some areas of Indonesia have become through dynamite fishing. After an hour, we left for Labuanbajo on Flores, our final destination.

By 3pm we were in the small port and were shuttled by the small boats into town. At our hotel, we were relieved to find that our reservation had worked. Others from the boat had been less successful even though they had phoned ahead. The reservation system appeared to be small bits of paper on a desk, ready to be blown away in the slightest breeze.

The farewell party on the boat was an opportunity to reflect back on the trip. Relief that we had arrived safely (it was worth paying the extra for a seaworthy boat) and that we had seen some dragons. We also met many great people – Ken and Natalie from Australia who were were very well informed about the fate of Australia's indigenous people, Hans and Herman from Germany who had been together for 43 years, John and Malin from Sweden who shared the traumas of the sleeping deck, and many others.

We were now on the island of Flores, ready to begin the next part of our travels.

10 July 2008 – Journey to Komodo (Part 2)

Relieved at surviving the night, we arrived on Satonda Island, around 32km north west of the Gunung Tambora volcano in Sumbawa. In 1815, the volcano erupted killing tens of thousands of people. In the eruption, the volcano's height reduced from 4,200m to 2,850m and caused a tsunami. The tsunami swamped the inland fresh water lake on Satonda, transforming it into a salt lake. The effects of the eruption were felt all over the world. The following year was known as the 'year without a summer', as the large amount of ash in the atmosphere affected the world's climate and crops failed.

On our visit, things were much less catastrophic. The lake was beautifully warm for a morning swim, and the views from the island were superb.

Returning to the boat, the sailing on day two was punctuated by one further rest stop – the unspectacular coral-damaged beach of Dontgo. As the evening sailing began, the tour director gathered us round for a briefing. All was not well. Apparently, the main attraction of the trip – the Komodo dragons – are quite hard to see at this time of year as it's their mating season. They tend to fight around the holes of females on the other side of the island rather than come and watch tourists. A wave of disappointment and resentment swept the boat. No one had mentioned this when we had paid our money to Mr Perama. The tour director tried to quell the rising mutiny by mentioning Komodo's other attraction – wild chickens – but this had little effect.

Whilst the sea was much calmer that night, we slept uneasy. Would we see any dragons? Were we on the Hunting Wild Chuck by Camera tour?

Continue to part 3.

9 July 2008 – Journey to Komodo (Part 1)

We began our Hunting Komodo by Camera tour run by the Perama company. Perama is one of the biggest home grown tourist operations in Indonesia, run by the grey haired Mr Perama who now lives in Kuta, Bali. Within 30 minutes we began to see why Mr Perama was so successful. First, the stop in Mataram for our free T-shirts (bright orange with Perama written all over the back). Next, the journey to Perama Docking on the east side of Lombok. Perama Docking, a scaled down version of the Clyde Shipyards in Glasgow, has so far produced 13 wooden boats for Mr Perama. As we drove to the harbour, the road was lined with Perama bollards.

We embarked on Perama 114, the smaller of the two vessels that set sail simultaneously for Komodo. It was reassuring to know that if the seas got rough, the other boat – Perama 212 – was not far away. Our boat, 114, had two levels of cabins, a diesel belching engine room below and a dining/sleeping area forward of the lower cabins. Above the sleeping area, the roof made a comfortable sunning platform.

Our first stop, Perama Island, was a low lying, sand and palm tree paradise. Highlights of our first stop included coral replanting, where we took the coral survivors of recent dynamite fishing and transplanted them onto the shore of Perama Island. (Wouldn't it be better for the coral if dynamite wasn't sold in the first place?) We also listened to the Perama staff singing the Perama song – he might be good at business but he is no songwriter – and watching in bewilderment as the staff did their 10 minute dance. We were wondering what we had let ourselves in for.

At 9.00pm we set sail for the Flores sea, skirting the north of Sumbawa. The sea was rough. Lying on the sleeping deck, the boat rose and fell through the swell, the stars moving wildly through the windows. Andy gave a thumbs up to the boy sleeping next to him. In reply, the boy covered his mouth with his hand and a hurried outside. No one slept much that night.

Continue to part 2.