In Indonesia islands are born with the rumbling of a volcano. They come and they go with a roar.
Lembata is a little island in between West Timor and Flores. It is one of a chain of remote volcanic islands which are part of the Solor Archipelago. Our visit there was due to a mix of reasons; a chance meeting with friendly locals and us just bumbling into our first ferry crossing.
Believing the ferry to Larantuka, Flores, only left once per week, we had made a long dash from Atambua to Kupang (West Timor) in an effort to catch it in time. As was typical of us at that time, we were riding blind as to exactly what we were supposed to be doing. Finally after many stops to ask directions we found the correct port at Kupang (pronounced KU pang not Ku PANG)
This was our maiden Indonesian ferry crossing and it was rumoured to be difficult, long and arduous. Still having no Indonesian words in our repertoire everything was a mystery. However, we did find fairly quickly that there was in fact no ferry to Larantuka that day at all. Feeling very hot and tired, we were devastated, as a week in this port city was not looking appealing.
Yet another meeting with a helpful local was soon to take place.
Four young people were purchasing a ticket at the Loket and knew enough to recognise that we looked very hot -PANAS! They also knew enough English to understand our predicament, so in broken English and with much miming they informed us that we could take the next ferry to Lembata which would take us closer to Larantuka and that in fact, we could be in Larantuka after just one night in Lembata. Without consulting a map, we allowed them to purchase a ticket for our motorbikes and ourselves and within 45 minutes we were lined up for our first experience on ASPD ferries. We still don’t know what happened with the Pelni ferry we were supposed to be catching, but that is lucky because apparently they don’t take motorbikes. (We also now know the ferries to everywhere leave very regularly)
The ride on to the ferry proved pretty scary for me as the ramp moved and swayed with the movement of the trucks and vans. To add to my fear and incompetence, a pedestrian walked in front of me, causing a wobbly stop half way up the ramp and almost ending with a dropped bike. That was the beginning of my dread of ferry boardings, which I eventually overcame after about three crossings. (My skill level has improved a hundred fold since then) Meanwhile, for Con that meant he had to load two bikes onto the ferries. Yes, he is a saint!
The overnight, 13 hour ferry crossing was without incident and even really enjoyable as we mixed with the locals and found sleeping space and a mattress could be obtained for a meagre amount. People were extremely friendly and eager to ask us questions. Well to be honest the same questions and comments are made all the way across Indonesia! “ Where are you from?” “Where are you going?” “What about your family?” “You are very strong.” ‘What is your name?”
Contrary to rumour we didn’t share space with chickens or pick pockets!
Upon arrival at Lewoleba we were escorted to a few hotels by our new friend, finally selecting Hotel Lembata Indah. After breakfast, another young man on a motorbike had asked us if we wanted to see some of the island sights. Knowing nothing about the island we decided to go two up and follow him.
This day proved to be a day of surprises and some weeks later after having crossed much of Indonesia, it still stands out as one of our favourites.
It is a quiet island which has much to offer in a small area, yet receives few visitors.
Following our motorbike guide out of the small quiet town, we encountered sealed windy roads, rising up to give us a view over to the other side of the large inlet. Apparently we were heading to a tourist attraction called The Ancient Village.
On the way we stopped at a small village where people actually volunteered to be photographed. With the usual difficult communication strategies, I managed to convey that we were from Australia, but when they still looked puzzled I drew a basic geography lesson in the dust. The villagers still looked perplexed, so I am pretty sure they haven’t heard of Australia at all!
Continuing, through the village we turned on to a small track which wound its way up what eventually became a steep, rocky track with Agung Ili Api in the background. I couldn’t understand how we could be going to a tourist attraction as the track was more like off road riding. (A continuing theme in Indo!)
Finally, we arrived at what seemed to be a perfectly preserved, immaculate old village on the slopes of the volcano Ili Api. Traditional huts had thatched roofs and sleeping platforms were in every hut. The village was deserted except for one man who offered to show us around.
This was in fact an ancient village preserved not for tourists, but for its historical connection with the ancestors of the local people. Special objects were sitting on a platform and they were obviously quite old. An elephant tusk was amongst the many artefacts, the history of which is a mystery. Java had elephants, but I am not sure there were any elephants on this island. The local villager was immensely proud of this village as well as the other artefacts the origin of which is a mystery.
After returning to our hotel, we chose a small warung for lunch. Next minute our ferry friend arrived as he had heard we were there! Word sure gets around quickly! We now had a new guide who had something else special to show us.
We rode for a short time to the inlet on the north coast of Lembata and stopped to see a display of whale bones all lined up meticulously next to the water with just a few remnants still in the water. The bones were quite fresh, but stripped bare of any meat. Under a small shelter was what seemed to be a big pot of whale fat being filtered and boiled. The amazing aspect for us was the huge gills. We had never seen whale gills close up before and were surprised that they were as coarse as the hair from a horse’s mane.
Lembata is an island where traditional whale hunting is still allowed. This whale had become stranded on the beach with an number of others, most of which were rescued by the villagers. However, being unable to rescue this one, they did what they have always done and that is to use all the whale carcass can offer. It was an amazing sight and again, the young guide we had met on the ferry was very excited to show us.
There is a small village on the south coast of the island where whale hunting is still allowed and is exempt from international bans. Apparently they still spear the whales with spears made from bamboo and the young men launch themselves onto the back of the whales being hunted.
That night after a long, but incredibly rewarding day we walked to the fish market where we chose a fresh fish to be barbecued for us. We shared this delicious meal with our friend from the ferry as he sold plastic household items from his market stall. A sign that island life is slowly moving towards modernity.
A bumbling entrance to a busy port and a chance meeting had led us to the privilege of a glimpse into a traditional way of life which will surely disappear soon.
Such is the stuff travellers dream of.