Sea Rose

Trip Start Aug 11, 2011
Trip End Sep 08, 2012

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Flag of Indonesia  , East Nusa Tenggara,
Monday, June 18, 2012

We are now passengers in a brand new Toyota people carrier of some sort. Sheila and I are sitting comfortably with the back seat all to ourselves, guaranteed - this is our Private Car - the only way to see Flores. Sitting in front is our new friend, he of the enormous frizzy hair, Kristo, while the driver is a young man named Ari, a friend of Kristo and Bryan, from Ende. Ari drives with extreme care and caution, babying the motor over bumps and gravel and never exceeding 60kph on the good bits. What's more, when ever we see a good view or something I want to photograph, he pulls over so I can get the shot. Our tour will last four days and at a total costof $350 it's not bad value, especially when you consider the convenience, and the fact that we have Kristo as a guide.

Our first main port of call will be the town of Ende where we will pay a visit to an ATM to pay the balance of the tour fee, then to a restaurant to pick up a take away lunch, which we will have on the blue stone beach west of Ende. Along the way we stop at a fruit market, several view points and a long bamboo suspension bridge. Finally, with money in our pockets and a quick stop at Ari's mum's house in Ende, we head along the winding coast road to the lunch stop. The beaches along the southern coast of Flores are all black sand, with fishing villages built right up to the high tide mark. Along a stretch of these dark beaches are strewn countless large pebbles, all blue in colour. Locals collect these stones, grade them into piles of varying shades and sell them on to be eventually used in decorative walls and bathrooms in other parts of Indonesia and beyond.

The beach, with its fine black volcanic sand is not so enticing, the pebbles and shore break making it an unattractive place to swim, though the view along the cloud draped mountainous coast and back toward Ende's two volcanic cones is little short of stunning. After the typical take away lunch of rice, one bit of bony fried chicken, a pungent campur salad and super hot sambol, we head off into the mountains, our next destination, the north coast town of Riung.In the centre of Flores there is a dry plateau surrounded by volcanic peaks. We drive through this for a couple of hours, passing few other cars and motorbikes but replying to an never ending stream of waves, cheers and "hello misters" from kids and grownups alike in the many hamlets that dot the countryside. In the mid afternoon the road passes over the north coast mountains and descends toward a vast coastal plain of rice fields, palms and small villages. The countryside here is extremely dry, similar to that on Komodo and Rinca islands.

Once on the plain below we drive at a snail's pace for several hours along one of the most rutted and potholed roads I think I've ever been on. We pass dry river beds and villages,  while hills and mountains rise up before us, their slopes golden with swaying savannah grass - the landscape reminding us of the Kimberley region of North Western Australia. We then enter a coastal strip thick with palm trees and a shoreline that is a matted tangle of mangroves. Finally, in the dying light of another perfect Flores day, we enter Riung. There's not much too it. Houses, huts, a market of bamboo stalls and the Bintang Hotel, where we are booked in to stay. The bookings are not really necessary as we are the only guests - Kristo and Ari get their room for free as they are bringing our custom to the quiet retreat. The Hotel is a surprise though, a single story concrete building, immaculately clean with well appointed rooms set around a much cared for central garden. 

The landlady, a woman named Angela is effusively friendly and even brings us a pot of coffee as a welcome drink.There is only one place to eat in Riung, the Cafe del Mar, a tiny little establishment a couple of hundred metres along the dark road from the Bintang Hotel. The owner of the cafe is a cluey and cool dude named Ican (Pronounced Itchan). His cafe is a typical Indonesian warung - bamboo, palm thatched roof, no walls - and has a sea shell and reggae theme with cool tunes playing from his sound system and a few long haired Indo rasta types either helping or hanging out. Ican has no menu, food is just what is available on the night - tonight it is grilled barracuda with a hot aubergine salad and of course, rice. Ican tells us that although he isn't a trained chef, he loves cooking and is trying to do something a bit different here. He explains how he will prepare our meal and while we guzzle icy cold Bintang beers, he does exactly what he said he would do, serving the big fish deliciously well cooked and the aubergine dish - nyom nyom.

Once fed and watered there's nothing else to do in Riung so it's back to the hotel under a sky riddled with as many stars as we've ever seen, dominated as ever by the magical Southern Cross, which draws us ever closer to Australia. Riung is powered by generator - near the hotel is a big shed which houses the rumbling beast, but it is only on from late afternoon to midnight, the rest of the time Riung lives by candlelight and wood cooking fires.

Morning, day 2 of the tour - we have a surprisingly great breakfast of banana pancakes (light and crisp on the edges, not too doughy), soft fried eggs, fresh papaya and strong Flores coffee. Then we drive down the palm lined road to the jetty. Here we pay our National Park Fee and wait for our boat. The Park although called the 17 Islands, consists of 22 tiny islands, complete with white sand beaches, about 5kms off shore. Our boat for the day belongs to a fisherman named Habib who is the brother-in-law of Bryan from the Hidyah guesthouse in Moni - that's how it works here - family connections, everyone makes a bit of money, we have a personalised, family run tour.

The dock is a long jetty that ends in a twisted, floating pontoon. After the inevitable 'falling fear' noises from Sheila, we clamber aboard Habib's long, brightly painted fishing boat and head off toward the islands. On board with us is Kristo, Habib and his two sons who act as deckhands. First stop is the Island of the 'flying dogs' or giant fruit bats - called flying foxes in Australia. We cut across the bay toward a hilly island covered in savannah grass and what looks like birds circling it. As we come around the back of the island we see that they are bats, thousands of them, roosting in trees near the mangroves on the shore. We nuzzle the boat up to the edge of the mangroves and the noise of the engine, coupled with the claps and screams of the deckhands, send the bats into a swirling frenzy in the sky above us. For 15 minutes we watch enthralled as the agitated creatures flap, soar and screech, eventually settling back to their roosts as we leave the island.

We head across the bay again and after a couple of kilometres Habib stops and the boys secure the boat to a floating buoy. It's snorkelling time. Sheila, Kristo and I go overboard and here, in the middle of the bay, we swim over a large coral reef, only disappointed by the lack of big fish, though there are massive schools of brightly colour smaller ones. Once done with snorkeling, we climb back on board and chug across to the first of three small, picturesque islands. Each is no more than a small hill, a flat bit covered with palm trees and white sandy beaches that end in a shallow sand spit, lapped by the most amazing turquoise water. We proceed to the third island where the boat is beached onto the sand and tied to a palm tree. 

There is another vessel here, transport for a small group of Indo day trippers and on the beach a fish barbeque is in progress. Sheila and I wander along the soft white sand, thanking our good fortune to be here, while Habib and Kristo help with the barby. When we return lunch is served. Barbequed snapper, rice and salads, eaten with our fingers under the shade of a spreading sheok tree. This could easily be described as paradise. Later we snooze in the shade before heading to one of the other islands for a final snorkel. The reef is good here and we are amazed to find something that Ican had mentioned the previous evening in the Cafe del Mar - 'Sea Roses.' I do a double take when I spot the first one - it looks like a piece of bright red ribbon, arranged like a Remembrance Day poppy, complete with a black centre. The 'rose' grows off a piece of coral and is extremely delicate and rarely seen, then I spot several others, just in this one spot. It's not a spectacular find, but nevertheless, a marvel of the sea and something that we've never seen in all the reef diving that done we've on this entire trip.

Finally we head back to Riung, salty, sun kissed and burnt out. It's been a great day in a remote place, spent with nice people and we can't ask for more than that. That night we return to the Cafe del Mar where ican barbeques a duck for us. Duck is difficult to cook at the best of times and he gives it a good shot, though it doesn't beat the barracuda of the night before. After breakfast in the morning, we load up the car, take our seats and head off into the mountains, next stop the town of Bajawa where we will spend two nights before finally saying farewell to Flores.
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