Monday, 19 May 2014

Island Hopping - Sumbawa to Flores

The crossing from Lombok to Sumbawa took less than two hours. We managed to find a quiet and breezy spot to sit, which made for a pleasant trip. As we approached the coastline, we could see that it was noticeably drier than where we had come from. We had heard that outside of the wet season it could be dusty and arid, so were not sure how enjoyable the riding was going to be. Once we left the port area however, the greenery increased. Although nowhere near as lush as Bali or Lombok, it was certainly not the dust bowl we had expected it to be.


We rode as far as Sumbawa Besar that day. With the exception of a small surfing scene in the south, Sumbawa gets very few tourists. This, combined with the harsher climate, contributes to Sumbawa being considerably less affluent than some of Indonesia's other islands. With this in mind, our expectations for accommodation were not high, so we were very pleasantly surprised to find a perfectly acceptable and affordable room with very little effort indeed.

Knowing that if we got comfortable it would be hard to move again, we set straight out in search of water and fruit. As we innocently drove along we heard a noise behind us, sounding suspiciously like a minor crash. I looked back in the general direction, but couldn't see anything. Oli then saw a man waving at us to stop. We did, but a safe distance down the road. A scooter rider had pulled over and was rubbing his leg. We looked at him for a while and he looked back at us, before apparently deciding that he was fine and driving off. We have no idea what  happened, but think he might have been gawping at us rather than paying attention (a worryingly common event on the roads here), not noticed that we were turning, then maybe tried to squeeze past us, instead hitting the high kerb. Who knows really. Anyway, there was no way we were taking the blame for this, even if the man who had waved for us to stop maybe thought we should.

The next day we were aiming to get to Bima, the closest town of any significance to the ferry port. It was only 160 miles away, but we were very mindful of how long a similar distance could take in Sumatra, so got going early. The roads far surpassed our expectations, curvy but wide and racetrack smooth. This combined with the almost total lack of traffic meant that progress was great. The scenery was also fabulous, and we spent the day cruising through mountains and past pristine bays.


We ended up arriving in Bima far earlier than we had anticipated. The town is still 50km from the port itself, which would have meant a very early start the next morning. We weren't sure if there would actually be anywhere to stay at all in Sepa, but decided to risk it, theorising that there should be at least one option due to the port. The drive there encompassed some of the best scenery of the day, but unhelpfully there were monkeys at all the best viewpoints, so no photos.

We arrived in Sape to find that it was unfortunately a bit of a hole. It consisted of one main street with mostly ramshackle wooden buildings lining both sides. There were two losmens (lorry driver hostels) in town, both of which looked highly unsatisfactory. The room we ended up in was cheap but very grim, with filthy walls and a general air of decline. Still, we can put up with almost anything for one night, so grudgingly agreed to take it. The other guests were all single male travellers, and stared relentlessly at us whenever we happened to be outside at the same time as them. They didn't mean any harm, but it got a bit much for me. I retreated to the room, whilst Oli attempted to out-stare somebody. Apparently this made the guy uncomfortable. I don't know why some people are so persistent in watching us, knowing that they hate it if such behaviour is turned back on them. Also, I am sure they wouldn't be too pleased if Oli was to stare at their wives as they did at me. Never mind.


Eventually the other guests tired of us, and we went out for a walk. Sape was actually quite pretty in the flattering light of the evening, with picturesque views over the glassy shallows. Sadly though, like many places in Indonesia it had a serious litter problem. Even our hotel owner would periodically walk over to the boundary wall and just drop rubbish over the side. Some of it got burnt, but looking at the build up it was very obvious that a lot of it was just left there. I don't know what the solution to this is, but it definitely seems to be more of a problem in some towns than others. In some places, people just don't seem to see chucking rubbish on the floor as wrong.


The ferries between Sumbawa and Flores are nowhere near as frequent as the other crossings that we have done so far. The departures are usually just once a day, early in the morning, with one possibly going in the afternoon if there are enough people. There was no way we wanted to spend an extra day in Sape, so made sure we got to bed early, as we would need to be up with the sunrise. We were pretty sure it wouldn't fill up, but were not happy to risk it, so planned to get there with plenty of time to go.

Our early night was not the success we envisaged. Unfortunately for us, the outside wall had absorbed the afternoon sun, and was now radiating heat into our room with zeal. The fan was not even close to being up to the job, but somehow I managed to fall asleep. I woke up less than two hours later, to see Oli staggering around in the middle of the room, frantically shining a torch around the floor with a crazed look in his eye. Apparently when he had got up to use the facilities he had trodden on a spectacularly large roach, then spotted its even bigger friend, which had been running about at an impressive speed. Oli wanted it dealt with before attempting to go back to sleep, but understandably it was not cooperating with his plans. Eventually I managed to convince him to see it as just a massive beetle, and we once again tried to get some rest.

Sleep was not easy to come by in our hot-box of a room. We tossed and turned, then conceded and went outside for a while to cool off. Eventually we did manage to sleep a little, but were awake again at five thirty. Thinking we might as well get up and get out, we started to pack up our things. There was a plus to all this though, as the sunrise over the water was beautiful to behold. In our keenness to escape Sape, we were the first ones at the ticket desk, then were parked up and settled on the ferry with an hour and a half to go until the departure time.


We thought we had found a nice, quiet corner to while away the seven hour journey, but were sadly mistaken. We were quickly joined by a family. The kids were really sweet, but they then proceeded to tuck in to a supply of boiled eggs and peanuts that could have fed an army. Parents and children just chucked all the peelings and any other rubbish on the floor, despite the fact that they were less than three feet from the bin. In under an hour they had made a horrible mess of that seating area, so we decided to remove elsewhere.

This was definitely the most crowded ferry we had caught so far. The others had all been rather pleasant. We had been starting to think that the bad Indonesian ferries were a myth, but this went some way to doing that reputation justice. We did manage to find a more peaceful spot eventually, sat in the shade on the very top deck. Scenically though, the journey was beautiful. We slowly sailed past seemingly infinite deserted islands, including one that looked volcanic to our eyes, its profile dominating the horizon. The water was gloriously blue, and impossibly smooth for almost the entire crossing. Unfortunately though this surface was very adept at reflecting the sun, and despite being sat in the shade, we managed to get rather burnt.


Seven hours after departure, and almost nine hours since boarding the boat, we arrived at the Flores harbour. We had to wait for another ship to leave the dock before we could disembark, so floated around aimlessly for almost an hour, which was a bit frustrating. That obstacle removed, we made our way down to the bike, only to find that we were completely blocked in by huge baskets of stinky fish. Oli and a few guys moved them out of the way, but by the time we were freed people were already starting to try and drive onto the boat. This was being done without any apparent direction or strategy, so we only managed to get through the scrum of vehicles with a lot of waving and liberal usage of the horn.

Labuhan Bajo is a small town, but has undergone a tourism boom in the last few years. With this in mind, we were hoping it would mean decent and affordable places to stay. In reality the hotel offerings were all very overpriced compared to the other islands we have been on. We went with one that was a little over budget, but very good value compared to the other options. It was actually a lovely room, and after the previous night's adventure we had never been more ready for air-con and a comfy bed. Our sleep that night was as good as it gets, with not a cockroach in sight.

We had formed a last-minute Flores plan the previous evening, as no internet for a few days had made any significant research an impossibility. Our destination was to be the small town of Bajawa.   The drive there was nothing short of spectacular, and even with the tiring few days we had had previously, we fell in love with Indonesia all over again. The mountain scenery of Flores is hard to beat, and the road twisted and carved its way up steep ascents and down plunging slopes. The rice paddy terraces were stunning, putting the ones we had gone to see in Bali to shame. We stopped for numerous photo breaks, as almost every corner seemed to reveal some new wonder.


Whilst it had been a picturesque journey, it had also been an incredibly tiring one. We arrived in Bajawa dreaming of hot showers and comfy beds. Unfortunately the  nicest looking guest house was fully booked, and the next best option had only the luxury room available, which was too expensive for us. We drove around town for a while, seeing several places that looked very depressing from the outside. Eventually we found a room at a place run by a very kind and motherly lady. We felt well looked after, but sadly our room didn't deliver on the hot water. We are very used to the bucket shower now and don't usually mind it, but the climate up in the mountains is just a little too fresh for it to be comfortable. Cleanliness was also questionable, as we found cigarette butts from previous guests in the bathroom and under the beds.

We didn't sleep brilliantly, so decided to try somewhere else in the morning. I went in to enquire at the Happy Happy Hotel, which had been full the night before.  The room was actually quite over our ideal budget at £17, but the lure of a bright, clean space, hot water and wi-fi proved too much for us. Plus, I knew for a fact that we would have clean bed sheets, as I saw them being changed with my very own eyes.

Excited about our indulgence, we got back on the bike and set off to do our exploring. Bajawa is known for its surrounding villages, some of which are still built in old, traditional styles. We usually avoid visiting this sort of thing, as sometimes they are presented almost as a human zoo, which feels very wrong. We hoped this would not fall into such a category, as we were interested in the architecture rather than in watching people live in a staged way.

We ended up enjoying our visit to Bena far more than we anticipated. There were no obvious staged elements, and it definitely avoided feeling like a voyeuristic experience. It was a really interesting place, with two rows of traditional thatched houses looking out over the central area. More information can be found here for those who are interested, but we found it fascinating how Christianity appeared to be blended with deep, cultural traditions of animism. At the peak of the village lies a small shrine to the Virgin Mary, with some of the most breathtaking views imaginable. Whoever picked the spot for this village chose well indeed.


Having had our fill, we got back on the bike and started making our way back up the mountain. The drive to Bena is worth the excursion in itself. The steep road twisted and snaked through quiet forest and small villages full of friendly people, all cheerily waving and shouting at the bike. Every now and then we also caught faint smells of sulphur, a reminder of just how close we were to Mount Inerie.

On the way back to Bajawa, we stopped for fuel. The distances between stations on Flores are reminiscent of the Sumatran back-roads, but there appears to be a lot more demand. It has not been uncommon to see that places have run out entirely. The queues have also been a lot longer in Flores than any of the other islands, but thankfully they usually move pretty quickly. People selling fuel in bottles on the side of the road has been a feature all over Indonesia, but Flores is the first time we have seen people regularly set up within a few metres of the station itself. They sell a litre for between two and four times the price at the station, which is all well and good if it is empty, but surely not a booming business when the pumps are up and running.


We arrived back in Bajawa in the early afternoon, excitedly settling in to our room. After a hard few days a bit of comfort was just what we needed. As we relaxed, I realised just how broken I was feeling. Oli was also very much in need of a rest, so took no persuasion when I suggested staying an extra day and taking a break. Just knowing that we didn't have to ride the next morning was a relief, as I just felt physically exhausted. A week of little sleep, long drives and not enough food had certainly taken a toll.

Randomly, our hotel is run by an older Dutch couple. The breakfast offered was more European in flavour, which went down a treat with both Oli and I. We started off with a very generous portion of fruit, followed by proper home-made bread and omelets, washed down with a fresh juice and a lot of good coffee. As a bonus there was even some cheese. Even though it was processed, I was overjoyed. The higher room rate was truly worth it for that breakfast alone.

We haven't done much today except rest, potter around a little, and be amazed at the availability of a hot shower. In fact, Oli was so convinced it wouldn't really be that hot that he turned it on full and almost scalded himself. This is what has happened to our expectations in regards to hotels. Having a day to relax and recharge has felt brilliant, and we can once again look forward to the road ahead. Tomorrow we will head further east, hopefully finding out about the Timor ferries on the way. Whilst it can be challenging Flores is unbelievably beautiful, and we can't wait to see a little more of it.

No comments:

Post a Comment