East of Bali, Nusa Tenggara is one of Indonesia's most accessible island chains, allowing ferry-hopping travellers a way to slowly soak up its wild shores and diverse cultures
Pedalling amid the paddies on a cranky old ‘sit up and beg’ bicycle, I watch ripened rice being hand-harvested by scythes or threshed against raffia-woven screens to remove the toffee-coloured husks. Elsewhere, among the fields surrounding Ubud, were small dedicated shrines to Dewi Sri, the Balinese Hindu goddess representing fertility and rice.
Bali is a destination known to many first-time visitors to Indonesia. But why stop there? Indonesia’s oceanic archipelago has a registered 13,466 tropical islands and some 360 ethnic groups. This sweltering confederation, wedged between the Indian and South Pacific Oceans, is ripe for island-hopping and no chain is more accessible than that of Nusa Tenggara.
The gateway to this region is Bali, from where I would set out to visit a half-dozen islands in two-and-a-half weeks, using ferries and buses to slowly follow the chain to its end on Timor. In doing so, I wanted to see how its spiritual beliefs and customs changed up close. This would see me depart Hindu Bali for Islamic Lombok and Sumbawa in the throes of Ramadan, then on to the church bells of Flores, before lastly meeting Timor’s animists, who apologise to trees before cutting them down.
The slow boat to Lombok took four hours and passed dolphins spiralling from the cobalt-blue sea. In the island’s smouldering heat haze I made out the shadowy outline of a volcano ahead, but that would come later. In the meantime I arrived at Lembah port just as its mosques were in full cry. It was Ramadan here and the call to prayer echoed out from a sea of minarets, each rising above brightly tiled domes that resembled Fabergé eggs.
“There’s a thousand mosques on Lombok,” said Rian, my driver, casting an anxious glance. “But don’t worry, we love all other faiths.”
After two hours driving east, a twisting ascent led us into Gunung Rinjani National Park and the village of Sembalun. Around its outskirts billowed broccoli-top forests that cloaked the volcano’s flanks and chocolate-brown fields ripe with strawberries and tomato vines. This was the starting point to hike the still-active Mount Rinjani, which at 3,726m is Indonesia’s second-highest volcano.
My two-day trek was arranged by Amin Udin, a kindly former guide who invited me to join his family for iftar, the meal that ends the day’s Ramadan fasting. I shared a feast of rice, shredded crayfish, water spinach and goat, washed down with coffee grown in Amin’s garden. Running parallel to their Muslim faith, Lombok’s indigenous Sasak culture believes a mountain spirit called Dewi Anjani inhabits Rinjani. “People say she is beautiful and will protect us,” my host explained.
Hindus also revere Rinjani and make an annual pilgrimage to hurl sacrificial cattle, chickens, and gold coins into its crater, Amin told me: “Last November, they were there when it erupted. The Gods spoke with them, then they ran for their lives.”
I certainly wasn’t running anywhere the next day during our steep, challenging ascent. With my guide, Dayat, and a porter who balanced our camping equipment and food on a bamboo yoke, the initial hike wended through tall grass savannah grazed by brown beef cattle. Thereafter, seven tough hills led through pine woodland atmospherically cloaked by low cloud and reverberating to drilling woodpeckers until the summit camp at around 2,600m on the crater rim at Plawangan. From my tent I watched the sun set over the lake and laughed at the impromptu raids made by macaques attempting to alleviate hikers of their dinner.
“Plawangan means ‘door to the summit’,” said Dayat. Looking at the 40-degree loose scree scramble ahead, I wondered if it didn’t translate as ‘the gates of hell’? We departed at 2am the following chilly morning under a magnificently bright Milky Way. The three-hour ascent traversed an upstanding fragment of a once much-higher cone left over from a 13th-century eruption, but the loose ground underfoot made the going tough – for every several paces forward, I would slip one backwards.
The summit was worth it, though, and brought one of Indonesia’s finest views. Looking westwards, the sunrise backlit Rinjani to project a triangular impression of the volcano onto the cloud hovering over Bali. To the east, I saw the rugged charcoal-black outline of my next destination, the little-known Sumbawa Island.
With knees and quads screaming from Rinjani’s eight-hour descent, I boarded a 90-minute ferry the next morning to Poto Tano on Western Sumbawa. The ferry’s cook fried pisang goreng (bananas) for breakfast. I told the portly Captain Imade, who invited me into his wheelhouse, I felt self-conscious eating in public during Ramadan. “Oh, they don’t care,” he dismissed, helping himself to my bananas. “Nor do I. I’m Hindu.”
Twenty-six-year-old Kiwi Brad Walden was “totally stoked” about Sumbawa’s surf. I met him at the small beachfront property he manages, an hour’s drive south of Poto Tano, near Kertasari fishing village. Yards from a golden sand beach, the resort has roomy bungalows with resident geckos shaded by coconut palms that cast patterned shadows on bouncy lawns.
Kertasari is pretty. Fishing canoes line the beach alongside raffia mats of drying seaweed and brightly painted wooden houses raised on stilts. But the real reason to come here is the surfing.
“West Sumbawa is a Mecca of world surfing,” Brad enthused; explaining how leading surfboarders come seeking “sick” and “uncrowded” waves. He drove me to Moro Bay’s gorgeous crescent beach and explained the winds and breaks behind two world-class barrel waves: ‘Dirty Hippy’ and ‘Northern Rights’. The water glided fast and long, rearing up like a cobra before rolling into silky transparent tubes and then crashing in whitewater fury.
I doubted my previous boogie-boarding experience in Cornwall would stand the test, so contented myself by soaking aching limbs in the warm sea, looking back across the Sumbawa Strait to Rinjani’s perfect cone in disbelief that I’d managed to scale its steep slopes.
Sumbawa is one of Nusa Tenggara’s least-visited islands and I saw no visitors at all over the next two days crossing west to east. I’d read it had once been divided into small kingdoms and was conservatively Islamic. But the Sumbawans were open and curious.
“You from?” asked one passenger on the bus to Bima.
“The UK… [no response] Britain… [silence] England?” I finally added.
“Ah, Wayne Rooney, football,” he cheered.
“WAYNE ROONEY,” the whole bus chorused with approval.
Halfway through that journey we passed Mount Tambora. In 1815 it had dispensed one of history’s most catastrophic eruptions, blasting Sumbawa back to the Stone Age. It obliterated three island kingdoms, killing 92,000 people. The global ash emissions precipitated a big freeze in the USA and harvests failed across Europe throughout 1816.
The closest thing to a big freeze that afternoon, as I bumped along on the bus through sweltering tropical countryside, was a pit stop to consume a durian-flavoured ice-cream.
At the port of Sape, every centimetre of the Dera Dharma’s deck space was filled for the sea crossing to Flores Island. A goat moseyed up the ramp but was hoofed off because it didn’t have a ticket. The voyage to Labuanbajo threaded through limestone islands shaped like Napoleonic hats – a little reminiscent of Vietnam’s Halong Bay.
Labuanbajo is one of Indonesia’s busiest destinations. The small Catholic town is home to the indigenous Manggarai people and the coastal Bajo, who migrated here from Sulawesi a century ago. The reason for its popularity, however, lies offshore, with numerous tour operators offering trips to see the region’s famed Komodo dragons.
Komodo is a four-hour boat ride away. From Labuanbajo I set sail in darkness at 4am with my guide, Rafael Todowela. Sunrise eventually revealed the island’s craggy outline; it was appropriately prehistoric, like something out of Jurassic Park.
Rafael explained that Komodo’s dragons were isolated from those (now extinct) that once lived in Australia some 100,000 years ago.
They now number over 5,000 in the wild, all split between a handful of islands, with the majority found on Komodo and neighbouring Rinca. Around a half-dozen also reside on Padar Island – a sort of borstal for misbehaving dragons that have taken a bite out of the overly curious. Being bitten by a dragon isn’t great for longevity; they possess dozens of toxic viruses used to infect their victims, which they trail like the grim reaper for days while waiting for them to die.
“Until the mid ’90s the government fed them, but stopped because the dragons weren’t exercising enough and the poisons built up in their bodies and killed them,” said Rafael. Now the islands are stocked with bushpigs and Timorese deer for them to hunt.
A ranger at Loch Liang called Hamnor guided us along well organised trails to find the dragons. He warned us not to approach within six meters of them because they can outrun humans. I wondered what the strategy was if they chased us?
“Run in zigzags,” said Hamnor. “If this fails, climb a tree.”
Some have even killed humans, and on Komodo there is a memorial to a Swedish baron who went missing in 1974, presumed eaten. We spotted dragon in a dry tamarind forest, and on first impression it hardly looked threatening, though was admittedly huge – three meters long and around 90kg. Dozing, it was spreadeagled on the ground and resembled a flaccid punctured tyre with reptilian scales, crocodilian head and a long flickering tongue.
“It can smell rotting meat 9km away,” said Hamnor. We watched it wait by the waterhole. Their ability to ambush was demonstrated when a fishbone was thrown among four seemingly inert dragons that leapt into action with frightening speed to scrap for the morsel.
Two hours later, we stopped at Rinca Island on the way back to Labuanbajo. Its rolling limestone grassland reminded me of Salisbury Plain, and with ranger Rahman we encountered six dragons, including one stalking some very nervous deer. We also saw young dragons the size of large monitor lizards.
“They live up trees for the first three years of their life because the older dragons will eat them,” Rahman said.
Continuing eastwards, ahead lay one of the world’s great natural wonders. I traversed central Flores’ mountainous spine on a 14-hour minibus ride navigating constant switchbacks that left my head reeling. This journey reinforced my feeling that Flores is Nusa Tenggara’s most beautiful island, with its wild tropical forests, sweeping rice terraces, volcanoes and roadside markets heaped with fresh produce.
On Kelimutu volcano’s fertile slopes, I slept the night at Waturaka in a farming village of wooden homes inhabited by the Christian Lio people. A Swiss NGO has launched a homestay project encouraging households to take in foreigners and share profits around the village. I lodged with Mr Ansel and his family. It wasn’t easy to communicate but I was welcomed with homemade coffee and fresh delicious produce from their gardens, including aubergines, tomatoes and French beans.
Then next morning I rose early to witness sunrise on Kelimutu’s 1,639m summit and it revealed something extraordinary. The crater has three lakes, and the fledgling light had caught the first, which now glowed a luminous turquoise colour. On the other side of the viewpoint, a second lake flushed inky blue, and then a third lake became visible – except this one was jet black like coal.
Kelimutu’s tri-coloured lakes are influenced by localised chemical compounds within the crater, and they frequently change colour, becoming darker with greater oxygen content. Local Lio mythology believes human spirits enter the lakes and reside here for eternity.
Shortly thereafter, my luck ran out. It was several days’ wait for the ferry to Timor Island from Ende Port, so instead I hopped onto a 50-minute flight to Kupang in West Timor, the easternmost limit of Indonesia’s Nusa Tenggara.
In the 16th century, Timor was partitioned by the protestant Dutch to its west and the Catholic Portuguese in the east. East Timor (or Timor Leste) became independent from Portugal in 1975 but was also incorporated into Indonesia. This sparked a bloody war of secession against Indonesia that led to the East formation in 2002. But that would be a journey for another time.
“Few travellers remain long in West Timor,” protested Edwin Lerrick, a former film actor and now owner of Lavalon Guesthouse. “They hurry on to East Timor but the west is the best.” His guesthouse overlooked Kupang Bay where Captain Bligh ended his 6,700km journey after being abandoned at sea by the infamous mutineers of the HMS Bounty in 1789.
From Kupang, I ventured to a remote valley where, among numerous tribal villages of the Dawan-speaking people, I hoped for a royal appointment with an animist king. From the roadside town of Niki-Niki it was a rough pillion ride by motorcycle with an interpreter-guide called Eben to reach one of West Timor’s most authentic villages.
A fenced compound amid a forest of palm trees enclosed Boti’s 76 half-a-coconut-shaped thatched huts, each occupied by members of the same family clan. Technology and shoes are verboten and Boti’s women weave striking sarongs. The men must grow long hair and the villager’s revere trees and rocks. I checked into their basic £8-a-night homestay, dining on meals fresh from their productive gardens.
As a visitor, I brought the king the customary offering of betel nut. Eben, meanwhile, brought some bad news.
“The King isn’t here,” he announced. “He’s in his garden, a long way from here.”
“Surely he’ll return,” I asked?
“Maybe not,” Eben added. “Sometimes he sleeps in his garden.”
A few hours passed. No royal appointment. The king’s nieces served a lunch of chicken, stewed papaya leaves, and boiled corn. Finally a humble barefoot man with a ponytail and a hoe over his shoulder arrived to greet us: His Royal Highness Nama Ambeno of Boti.
I handed over the betel nut, which he quickly broke open to chew. The king was in his late 40s and his stained-red lips and rotting teeth suggested a long addiction to the nut. After letting fly a projectile trail of red betel spittle, he explained why he holds out against becoming a Christian village like his neighbours.
“It makes more sense to worship nature because we can see not an invisible God,” he suggested. He told me they sacrifice animals three times each year for blessings and thanks for the harvest. They also live off a nine-day week calendar, and the men don’t cut their hair – “It’s like cutting down trees and becoming uprooted from the earth.”
There was little else to do in Boti other than soak in its tranquillity. I watched a sweep of stars that night and reflected upon how I could have spent an entire trip on any one of Nusa Tenggara’s islands. I’d seen the cindery cones of grumbling volcanoes, golden beaches with barrelling surf, pagan villages ruled by betel-nut chewing kings and dragons that can kill with a single toxic bite. With every island in this chain as diverse as the next, I drifted into sleep contemplating the many thousands of other adventures that awaited across this remarkable Indonesian archipelago.
The author travelled independently but Rickshaw Travel (01273 322052, www.rickshawtravel.co.uk) contributed several of their ‘bite-sized trips’ (note: a minimum of three of these is required to make a full itinerary; they can’t be booked individually). For instance, their three-day In Search of the Dragon trip is based on two people sharing and includes two nights’ accommodation, boat and sightseeing guide; their Rinjani Footsteps on the Volcano trip is an all-inclusive three-night trek. They also offer longer itineraries, such as the 14-day Treasures of Lombok trip.
Biyukukung Suites & Spa’s (Ubud, Bali; biyukukung.net) biggest selling point is its pleasant rooms, set amid rice paddies.
Whales & Waves (Kertasari; +62 812 3831 0440, whales-and-waves.com) offers smart room-only in a beautiful compound setting by the ocean, featuring world-class surfing.
Puri Sari Beach Hotel (Flores; purisaribeachhotel.net) lies a kilometre outside Labuanbajo and is close to the beach, with spacious air-con rooms facing a beautiful garden.
Dasi Guesthouse in Ende (Flores; dasiguesthouseende.indonesiaroom.com) is a pleasant family guesthouse that is well-placed for the airport and trips to Kelimutu.
Flores’ Waturaka Homestay (Kelimutu; +62 812 3771 6047) is a fine opportunity to experience village life on Kelimutu.
And lastly, Lavalon Guesthouse (Kupang; lavalontouristinfo.com, +62 812 377 0533) is the place to plan all Timorese travels and has a nice sea-facing double. Its owner Edwin helps arrange access to Boti village homestay.
1: Sumba is up-and-coming in Nusa Tenggara, with its dramatic limestone plateaus, carved stone tombs, glorious beaches and a reputation for fine weaving.
2: The Gili Islands, off the coast of Lombok, stopped being undiscovered gems around a decade ago, but the resorts and lively beach scene is a fun contrast for those preferring the nightlife.
3: Rote Island is reached by regular ferries from West Timor and offers great surfing and plenty of beach accommodation.
4: The Solor and Alor archipelagos lie east of Flores and offer some of Indonesia’s most authentic indigenous encounters, complete with jungles and jagged mountains.