EPILOGUE: 27th May – 2nd July.

Within 50 minutes of takeoff, the flat, barren shore of the island continent appeared below, stretched out below us like a monolith of brown, its edges lost in distance. Stepping from the airport terminal into the reality of Darwin was like awakening from a dream: the cars, the shops, the people: everything remembered yet forgotten for so long.

Somewhere on Australia’s eastern coast.

Brad White [the Englishman we met in Melbourne at the beginning of this story] greeted me with the words “Allo Fergie” when he picked us up from our backpacker’s hostel and took us out to this camel farm on the edge of town. We stayed there for a few days then took a 26-hour bus ride to Brisbane and spent the next few weeks making our way down the East Coast of Australia. 

On Wednesday, June 17th we bordered a QANTAS Boeing 737 for our flight home. We landed in Auckland and made our way south, visiting friends and relations along the way.  

Home…almost.

At the beginning of July, we set off to hitch-hike south from Blenheim. Two days later we were home, back to a world that seemed not to have changed in the three years, ten months and six days that we had been away.

We settled back into our comfortable, orderly lives, glad to be home yet a little wistful that our travels were over.

It turned out that they weren’t…

WEDNESDAY, 27 MAY – RETURN TO THE FATAL SHORE.

Trish and Sean were already out at the airport when we arrived and we all waited in line for about ½ an hour to check our bags through and pay our Departure Tax. Our final impression of Indonesian officialdom was a customs officer who tried to cheat us out of R2,00 which was the change from the R20,000 note we hand over: an appropriate final impression!

We waited for another 45 minutes until the flight was called and boarded to find that the aircraft was only ½ full so there was plenty of room. The jet rolled down the runway right on schedule and lifted off, banking to starboard (right) and out across the dry hills of Timor, across the coast and south across the Timor Sea.

Indonesia fell away behind us and was soon lost from sight amongst the haze of cloud and sea.

* * * * *

The man paused in his labours and turned his head slightly to listen. Perspiration beaded on his forehead. A small drop ran down his dark skin and into the corner of his eye causing him to squint and lift a calloused hand to wipe his brow.

The noise was faint, a low rumble that was barely audible above the gentle hissing of the ocean as it rolled upon the sand near where he stood in the shade of a palm tree.

Shading his eyes, he glanced up at a sky so blue that it seemed almost black, save for the billowing towers of cloud which hung languidly over the horizon. His sharp eyes caught a flash of light beyond the clouds. A thin wisp of vapour, like an arrow flying, moved across the sky.

The man thought for a moment about what it could be, far up in the sky where only the birds could reach, then turned back to his work: carving a canoe out of a log using a steel adze, just as his father had taught him. As his muscles rippled beneath his taut black skin, and sweat began to bead on his back, he forgot about the object in the sky. His thoughts returned to his own world: a world of sea and sky and land, and the simple task known to all humans…survival.

TUESDAY, 26 MAY – FLIGHT OVER WATER.

Our flight to Kupang was scheduled to depart at 11:30 but at 9:30 a staff member from Merpati rang and told us to get to the airport directly as the flight was leaving early due to incoming bad weather.

At the airport, we checked our pack through after arguing with the surly attendants (they had obviously also been hauled out to work early) over the excess weight charge they wanted to extort from us. We refused to pay and after hectoring us for a few minutes they gave up and moved on to harass some of the other passengers. As we waited in the run-down concourse, a massive thunderstorm began moving in from offshore beyond the truncated cone of Ganung Meja which stood like a sentinel at the end of the runway.

A siren heralded the arrival of the small, twin-engined aircraft that would take us across to Kupang and which touched down and pulled to a halt in less than 400 metres. The ground crew refuelled the aircraft directly from barrels on the apron, and then we boarded and found our seats at the front of the cabin where I had a good view into the cockpit. With the storm now darkening the end of the runway the aircraft took off smoothly and climbed to an altitude of 23,000 feet. Keli Mutu and the highlands of Flores were hidden from view beneath the storm as we crossed the coast and left the island behind. Fifty minutes later we thumped down on the tarmac at Kupang, bounced once then came to a swift halt outside the airport terminal.

Once we had retrieved our packs we walked out to the main road into town. The landscape was dry and rocky [Timor is composed of the remains of coral reefs thrust upwards by tectonic forces] and a hot wind blew up from the sea which lay about 10 kilometres away to the north. 

A colt van, festooned with sparkly decorations and with music blaring from gigantic speakers mounted on its roof took us into the centre of town where we spent the next two hours trying to find a place to stay and the Merpati office. When we finally located the airline’s office we confirmed our flights to Darwin and paid for one of them using my visa. We had enough Indonesian cash left over for the other flight. While we were in the office, an Australian bloke came in and offered us a place to stay so we ended up a the Kupang Kafe Backpackers which was quite upmarket (compared to the digs we’d been used to) and very bad value for money but we didn’t care as it was our last night in Indonesia.

We went back out to the airport to meet the flight from Maumere to see if Sean and Trish were on it but it had already arrived and all of the passengers had left the airport by the time I arrived.

Back in town, we walked down to the harbour at sunset and watched the sun sink into the ocean amid a cauldron of colour for the last time in Indonesia. After an evening meal, we retired to bed where constant noise from the street and marauding mosquitoes kept us awake for most of the night.

MONDAY, 25 MAY – KELI MUTU, THE LAST ADVENTURE.

Sean, Thierry and I made an early start to climb up to the summit of Keli Mutu¹ in time for the sunrise. We left the Losman² at 2:50 AM and walked up the road to where a path led down to a small stream and a waterfall then began to climb steeply up the mountainside. Thierry set a cracking pace up the narrow path which initially led up through farmland and a couple of small villages, still asleep at this hour. We had torches to help light our way but the moon was almost full and gave plenty of light to see by.

After about 20 minutes of manic climbing, I had to stop for a breather as the pace Thierry was setting was too fast for me. Sean went on but stopped up ahead and waited for me while Thierry carried on without us, evidentially trying to prove something or other to himself!

Sean and I reached the summit road at the six-kilometre mark at 3:40 AM and it took us another hour to walk from there up the seven kilometres of easy-graded tarmac to the summit of Keli Mutu. The air was cool without being cold and it was quite a pleasant climb under the soft silver glow of the moon and the brightest stars shining in the violet sky.

Further up the mountain, we entered a forest. The moonlight threw psychedelic patterns of tree ferns and bamboo down onto the surface of the road. As we approached the summit the road began to level out and the rainforest gave way to pines. The air was tainted with the unmistakable smell of sulphur. The trees began to thin and open out onto a barren plateau. Above us and to the right, silhouetted against the sky, was the crater rim. We climbed up and peered over the edge, down into the pit where a lake of mercury shimmered in the moonlight.

The entire scene was surreal, other-worldly. Beneath our feet was a skin of loose, rubble scoria and pumice, eroded and scoured by wind and water, and dotted with stunted bushes. The crater’s edge stood jagged and abrupt, dropping almost vertically to the limpid pool of the crater lake. Above us, the sky was a velvet dome, distant and cold yet seemingly close enough to touch. The silence was almost complete save for the gentle murmur of the wind across the volcano’s summit and it was easy to believe the local legend which says that the spirits of the dead find refuge beneath the surface of Keli Mutu’s crater lakes.

Thierry, waiting for us on the very top of the mountain, signalled to us with his torch and we made our way across the summit plateau to a concrete platform overlooking the two main crater lakes. It was chilly on the top of the mountain and the wind rapidly cooled the sweat we had worked up on the climb as we sat in silence and watched the stars begin to fade. The sun flew its colours on the eastern horizon; to the west, towering thunderclouds, piled into the stratosphere and lit from within by lightning, glowed pink and purple.

As sunrise approached the peace and solitude of the volcano’s summit was shattered by the arrival of two bus-loads of tourists including Linda, Trish, Ed and Michelle. As it turned out, the sunrise itself wasn’t particularly spectacular. But given the location, atop a volcano with the water of two crater lakes changing colour from silver to green to grey and, finally, to a pale shade of turquoise, it was an amazing spectacle. Behind us, also in a deep, sheer-sided pit, the third of Keli Mutu’s crater lakes was a sinister black, its water opaque and glossy, its viscous surface hiding secrets known only to the spirits of the dead.

When the pressure of the tourist crowd and the jabbering of the bus drivers and flunkies became too much we moved from the main summit to another vantage point on the very lip of the crater where a narrow point jutted out above the jagged ridge of crumbling rock separating two of the crater lakes. The colours of the two lakes were almost identical but the northernmost lake carried a slick of poisonous-looking sulphur and, indeed, the water would probably be acidic enough to peel off the skin of anyone unfortunate enough to fall into it.

We took turns standing out on the point for photos then Thierry, Ed, Michelle, Linda and I set off to walk around the path leading along the crater rim past a sign which read: “Danger ouse. Do not go.” The path wasn’t in the least bit dangerous although if you happened to step over the edge there would have been no stopping a plunge of 100 feet into the lake.

It would have been nice to spend all day exploring up there on the summit of Keli Mutu, but Linda and I had to get back down to Moni in time to catch a ride back to Ende. So, we said goodbye to Thierry on the rim of the volcano and it seemed an appropriate place for friends who have shared such adventures⁶ to part: with handshakes high on a volcanic mountain with a shimmering crater lake behind us and an endless sky above. 

We set off down the road through the trees and caught a last glimpse of Thierry on the ridge above us. The walk down took two hours and was pleasant on the upper slopes but by the time we reached Moni at 9 am I was quite worn out.  We hastily packed our gear and caught a passing passenger truck that was headed down to the town of Ende. The trip was quite speedy being downhill and we were back in the Losman Iklas in time for a mid-day meal. We spent the rest of the day relaxing and were in bed early as our flight to Kupang, in Timor, was scheduled for 7 am the next morning.             

 ¹Keli Mutu is a 1,639-metre volcano on the island of Flores in the eastern part of the Indonesian archipelago.   

24/5/92

We left the Losman Iklas at 8:30 and trudged down to the bus station where a truck was just about to leave for the town of Moni. We all climbed aboard and found places on the uncomfortable rough-sawn planks that formed the bus’s seats then settled in for the ubiquitous cruise around town looking for extra passengers!

The road followed the left bank of a river enclosed by sheer rock walls and dense rainforest. The road was rough and ill-kept and the truck jolted and rattled on the uneven surface. After half an hour or so the road turned east and followed the course of another river then climbed gradually above the forest and through a low, scrubby pass before descending to the village of Moni, nestled amid lush plantations of bananas on the eastern slope of Keli Mutu.

We found a place to stay and then had some food at a little family-run restaurant overlooking the valley. Thierry went off to reconnoitre the route up Keli Mutu and Ed, Michelle, Trish, Linda and I went for a walk down the road out of town towards the distant sea, accompanied by about 40 local kids. We took a lot of photos of them and Ed and I climbed a tree with some of them before they all went home happy.

Local Friends, Flores. L-R: Michele, Ferg, Trish, Ed.

SATURDAY, 23 MAY – BAJAWA TO ENDE

The bus to Ende picked us up right on time then, or course, spent the next hour cruising the streets of Bajawa looking for extra passengers, passing the bus station at least 6 times in the process. Only Thierry, Linda and I were on board: the others had decided to stay in town for a bit longer.

The journey to Ende took us through some quite spectacular country, beginning with the wooded, volcanic skyline around Bajawa then following a long valley which ran around the bases of a huge volcano clothed in deep green rainforest and riven by a jagged chasm from its summit to its base.  From the gash in the reddish black rock issued a seething cloud of gas and smoke and on the lower slopes of the volcano, deeply-eroded gullies were scored into fields of blackened ash and pumice.

Around midday we left the forested valley as the road climbed out onto a high rolling plateau of tussock and scrub. We stopped for a meal of Nasi Sop Sate (rice, meat, salad and peanut sauce) at a small village on the plain where a warm wind blew down from the hills, then followed a good road down towards the coast through a fertile landscape of rice paddies where a bountiful harvest was in full swing.

The coastline leading along to the Ende Peninsula was quite spectacular, with beaches of black sand and steep sandstone cliffs. Ende itself was less spectacular, however. The bus stopped about 3 kilometres outside of the town centre in an obvious scam to get people to pay for a bemo ride into town. We resisted the advances of the cunning little cunts who climbed, unbidden, onto the roof of the bus and threw our packs down onto a waiting bemo van, and set off to walk.

Thierry set off on his one to find a bank while Linda and I sat on a street corner listening to innumerable calls of “Hallo Meester, where you go?’

When Thierry rejoined us (having not found a bank) we set of to walk to our chosen accommodation. It began to rain just as we got to the Losman Iklas and it pelted down for an hour or so. 

Thierry wanted to go and find the local office of Merpati [Indonesia’s domestic airline] to book a flight back to Denpasar and as Linda and I had decided to fly across to Kupang, in Timor, we went with him¹.

The Merpati office was staffed by a very helpful and friendly woman who not only booked our flights to Kupang for the following Tuesday but also reserved us seats on the Kupang-Darwin flight for the next day. The cost of the Ende-Kupang flight was R87,00 for two: rather a lot of money but worth it for all the hassle it would save.

We ate at the losman that night and around 8:30 PM Ed, Sean, Trish and Michelle all turned up. 

¹Our original plan had been to keep travelling overland all the way out to the village of Larantuka, on the eastern tip of Flores, and take a ferry across to Kupang. But we were running out of money and had been on the road for a long time so the prospect of retuning to Australia was beginning to get very appealing.

FRIDAY, 22 MAY – RUTENG TO BAJEWA

“Breakfast” at the Asia Wisata consisted of stale doughnuts and lukewarm coffee, a bit of a variation on the usual Indonesian breakfast fare but still not great value for money. The bus arrived at 7:30 but we discovered that only Trish, Sean, Thierry, Ed and Michelle had been booked on it and Linda and I would have to await the arrival of the next one. It duly turned up at ten to eight and then spent the next hour touring around the rutted streets of Ruteng looking for extra passengers!

By 8:45 the driver seemed happy with his load so we headed out of town over a low saddle beneath a forest-clad peak cleaved by a steaming lava dome. The countryside alternated between steep, forested hills and winding valleys and the road seemed to have been reasonably well maintained so we made good time.

The approach to Bajawa was through a landscape studded with truncated volcanoes, forested on their lower slopes then bare and rocky beneath summits swathed in swirling mist.

We spotted Trish as we drove into town and got off the bus outside the Sunflower Losman where we all ended up staying.

Once we were settled in, Thierry, Linda and I went for a walk up to a low hill at the edge of town. One of the locals showed us the path which led up through stands of bamboo and out onto the top of the hill where tall grass grew wide and some stringy crops were planted. The view was quite beautiful, with rows of hills stretching into the blue and grey horizon while the nearer hills were closely farmed and forested. A church, prominent on the far side of the valley, was occasionally picked out by golden rays of light as the wind moved the clouds gently across the landscape.

Another local showed up and offered to take us over to the church but after a few minutes, it became clear that he didn’t actually know the way so Linda and I turned back, leaving Thierry to go on with him. We were only halfway back down to the village, however, when Thierry caught up with us, saying that the fellow had led him down into a gully with no way out so he’d told him to bugger off.

That night, we dined at a popular local eatery and drank cocktails of arak and orange juice out on the porch of the losmen. The local geckos entertained us with their strange calls and Dub, a DJ in his spare time back in Holland, came up with a rap called GEK-GEK-GEK-O!

21/5/92

The “bus” to Ruteng.

All the buses to Ruteng were booked by people going on the hajj to Mecca, but there was a passenger truck going at 6 am so we took that. It was very cramped and uncomfortable but the trip only took five hours and so we were in Ruteng by about 1 pm. We got the truck to drop us at the Asia Wisata, a hotel that had been recommended to us [wrongly as it turned out!], and once we were settled in there we all walked into the town centre for a meal and a look around.

The market was the usual collection of clothes, fruit, vegetables and assorted meats for sale, and then we walked up towards the imposing church standing against a backdrop of mist-shrouded hills at the western end of town. Dub disappeared to find a telephone office and that left Linda, Thierry and me to explore the church. The front of the church was composed of two Dutch-style belfries with the main door set into the wall between them. Inside it was cool and quiet and similar in style to any Catholic church the world over: it was simply built from rough-sawn materials and in a somewhat dilapidated and unused state.

Back at the Asia Wisata, we all sat around on the upstairs balcony drinking arak and talking while we waited for our evening meal to be cooked. When it finally turned up it was swimming in grease and not much of it got eaten.

WEDNESDAY, 20 MAY – ISLE OF DRAGONS.

Wednesday 20th of May the isle of dragons. After breakfast we all went ashore and waited at the Ranger Station has large numbers of tourists began arriving. By the time one of the rangers began his (obviously learnt verbatim from a book) speech they were over 70 people present and we set off to walk the 2 km to the feeding site, accompanied by several stick-wielding rangers and one unfortunate goat.

About 200 m from the feeding enclosure, a huge Komodo erupted from the undergrowth and began lumbering after the guard holding the goat. People are scampering in all directions for the protection of the enclosure and several more dragons appeared, lumbering menacingly after us and causing panic amongst many of the tourists.

The creatures were quite threatening to look at, with long claws on powerful legs, a wildly swinging tail, flicking tongue and dark, evil eyes. The protective enclosure consisted of a ramshackle fence of wire netting and bamboo and several lizards attempted to get it and had to be beaten back by the laxidasical guards who were preparing to relax with cigarettes, their day’s work done.

One side of the enclosure ran along the top of a steep bank with a dry stream bed at the foot and the dragons were gathered waiting for the goat to be thrown down. The goat was slaughtered discreetly away from view – although several tourists watched with morbid fascination – and then the carcass was thrown to the waiting lizards. 

What followed was quite shocking and primaeval. The goat disappeared into a squirming mass of grey leathery skin, flashing teeth and slashing claws. It was disembowelled in less than 10 seconds, the viscera gobble down by blood-stained jaws, and the creatures tore the carcass apart, fighting over pieces of meat and bone. The head was ripped off and swallowed whole by a monstrous dragon and within two minutes nothing remained apart from several pieces of bone being contested by several Komodo dragons.

I shot off a whole roll of film while that awesome display of primaeval savagery went on. I also noticed through the viewfinder as I panned across the crowd that many people were leaning on the fence which in places was only held up by a few dry pieces of dirt. If it had given way, anybody who was unfortunate enough to have tumbled into that pit amongst the dragons would’ve been dead in seconds.

Back on the boat we set sail for Sabulo Island, where once again there was no coral, but we swam and played water polo for an hour or so then headed back to the mainland. At Labuhan Bajo harbour, we unloaded our gear and paid the captain. We tipped the crew 5000 rupiahs each and that seem to please them no end.

Dan, Dub, Linda and I stopped for a fish satay at a small warung on the way back to the Chez Felix and that evening, after most welcome freshwater mandi, we all sat round discussing the trip. It was definitely worth it!

The Komodo Crew: L-R Dan, Thierry, Linda, Ferg, Ed, Michelle, Dub, Sean, Trish.

19/5/92

As we drank our early morning coffee at 6 am, the flocks of fruit bats were returning from Flores: croaking to each other as they approached their island home and descended into the trees. 

When the sun was up, we set sail out across the bay towards Komodo. The water was the same evil texture as it had been on the day that the boat “Komodo” was sucked beneath its glassy surface and we were all a bit apprehensive as we crossed the stretch of water north of the Three Rocks where once again a deadly rip current was running and small whirlpools pockmarked the green, oily water. We arrived at Red Beach at 9:30 and everyone went snorkelling over some more beautiful coral teeming with fish. It was quite a strong swell there, however, and Dan, Dub and I found it more fun to lie in the pounding surf and see who could stay in the same spot on hands and knees for the longest.

Back on the boat, we ate another meal of rice, noodles and veggies then headed out into the bay to Komodo Island – where the captain went ashore for some reason – then to a small island nearby where there was no coral, no beach and nothing to do…so we made the crew take us back to Red Beach. We spent all afternoon there snorkelling, playing frisbee and exploring. We spent the night anchored off Komodo Island.

Red Beach. L-R: Ferg, Thierry, Sean, Dub, Dan.