Off The Beaten Path: Trekking Mount Kelimutu

mount kelimutu volcanic lake, Indonesia

Surreal volcanic lake atop Mt. Kelimutu – photo by Rosino

It’s Indonesia back-to-back for #wheretogowednesday as this week we’re highlighting the remote, colorful volcanic lakes atop Mt. Kelimutu on the island of Flores.  To give you a little taste, here’s a travel tale from a memorable hiking experience there…

It’s 3:30am–time to catch a truck ride up the 8-mile kilometer path to Keli Mutu, a unique cluster of volcanic lakes just outside Moni village, on Indonesia’s island of Flores.  A few groggy trekkers join my wife Ingrid and I for the chilly ride up in an open sided wooden stake truck.  During 45 minutes of slow curve climbing and just-in-time downshifts, stars give way to nascent orange sunlight and purple clouds.

We crawl out of the crate-like truck and hike to a perch above 3 volcanic lakes, each nestled within a blasted-out crater, colored by the chemical composition du jour.  The closest was a pale aqua blue green, like a tub of molten Crest toothpaste.  Next to it, over a razor thin ridge, lies an oval shaped dark green-brown pool of what looks like 10-W-40 motor oil.  Behind our viewing peak, a rich charcoal-black lake sits inside a tree-lined crater bowl.

An entrepreneuring villager sells hot tea on our viewing peak, the perfect complement to a mountaintop sunrise.  By 6:00 am, we’re bathed in sunlight.  In the distance, misty ocean surf rolls in.  Closing my eyes, I listen to the breeze as it envelops me, etching the scenery forever in my mind.

We move out.  A not-so-well-beaten semblance of a path descends across shallow mini-ravines to the lip of the green lake’s crater.  Peering out over a precarious loose rubble edge, I discover steep creviced walls rising from a mysterious zinc lime ring just above the water line, stopping the breeze.  A sulphuric surprise tinges the back of my nose, causing me to sneeze.   Below, the chemical brew percolates eerily as it seeps up from the earth’s furnace crust, and equatorial sunrays stoke the rocks we sit on, a welcome change from the cool early morning.  I lean back on my elbows, and once again close my eyes.  It’s 7:15.

The next foray takes us halfway around the rim of the two craters, opposite our previous lookout.  As we brushed past dry pine trees and thick reeds, surreal bird chirps filled the park with syncopated sounds, unlike any I’ve ever heard: high pitched, staccato gurgles and rapid popping hoots.  High above the three volcanic lakes, we sit among lush green mountains, the Savu Sea at our feet.  Behind us, shadows on the lakes receded with the rising sun, as clouds billowed into the valleys.  Wary of getting lost, we begin the long walk down.

The sign was posted on a tree in a small clearing just off the road, with a not too well-trod path loping down into rain-soaked, lush green tropical villages below.  Hand scrawled charcoal letters beckoned, “Moni so kat.  Dis wei.”  Sure, there was an easy, paved road down from the summit of Mount Kelimutu to Moni village, but the sign for a dirt path short cut was irresistible. I had to go.  If someone was going to go through the effort of translating a sign into English (however loosely!) half way around the world, I would at least see what they had to offer.

The trail gradually trickled down to just a thin line of dirt, then matted underbrush just 10 minutes into the hike.  Soon I was swatting away tall reeds to make my way, like a downhill skier crushing past slaloms.  After an hour the morning sun was giving way to an eerie fog: we were above the cloudline, and they were rolling right in.  Two horses grazed on barren rock-earth, not finding much.  The presence of these mangy and fly-ridden mares meant one thing: we had strayed onto someone’s land.  Images of AK-47 toting farmers from movies like The Beach popped to mind.  Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.  We quickly moved on.

Another 15 minutes, and our knees were stiff and sore from the constant downhill pressure.  The pain served as a distraction from our fear of the unknown until we came upon a small thatched hut.  Rising smoke told us somebody’s home.  “Selamat Pagi” I called inquisitively.  Good Morning!  A middle aged woman emerged from the huts dark interior. “Moni?” I asked, motioning with my hand.  “Ya.  Apa bahasa Indonesianya?” she asked.  A little, I replied.  Good.  At least we were heading in the right direction.  But this woman wanted us to stay, and soon enough she was introducing us to her family, and of course, her special line of ikat weavings — on sale today, no doubt.  We politely went on our way, continually checking our course with local farmers, heeding their somewhat convoluted hand motionings in the direction of the Moni market.  In the distance, the faint sounds of a drum flitted up the mountain, riding on the cloud currents.

After 2 hours of knee-wrecking descent, a fork in the path left us on our own.  Which way to go? We followed the music, until a passing farmer, gestured that we were heading the wrong way.  We head back to the fork in the road, but I stop.  “Why NOT go towards the music?” I ask Ingrid.  This was an adventure, after all.  Why stop now?  But what if the local man knew something—was it dangerous to continue? The dual rush of adventure and danger surged in our hearts.  You never go wrong following the music, we reasoned.  So we strolled past the incredulous farmer, on yet another winding path to a small gaggle of thatched huts, smoke, and curious sounds.

BOOM–BOOM.  Pah.  BOOM–BOOM. Pah.  The drumbeats grew in size and shape, from wide, dull thumps to short, rich cymbal sounds.  Women tending laundry looked up as we walked past.  We trod lightly into the center of the village, children and elders gathering in our wake.  Music was coming from a pointed, thatch-roofed structure–the Rumah Adat, or cultural home of the village.  A few eager, older men were the first to approach us, followed by a group of elderly women who examined me with deep set, glassy dark eyes and gooey blood red betel-nut smiles.  I felt strangely like a victim in “Night of the Living Dead,” with silent thin bodies drawing ominously closer.  Several women muttered barely intelligible questions, and sent me scrambling in my pocket phrasebook for answers.  They delighted in my struggle to reply.  After several flipped pages, I asked if it was a holiday, prompting nods around the ring of villagers.  Since Ingrid is a dancer, I asked if they danced on this holiday.  The women murmured to each other, perhaps reluctant to share their local, sacred customs with a stranger.  Fortunately, one woman stood forth from the crowd.  A long dark blue ikat cloth was draped around her bony shoulders.  A child ran away and called down to a small group of men in decorative sarung, who started up their drums.  Our hostess spread her arms as if possessed by the spirit of Garuda, the Indonesian bird of lore.  She wafted the ikat cloth up and down to the rhythm of the drums.  Ingrid and I watched in awe, engrossed in a serendipitous moment not found in staged tourist performances.  Villagers clapped their hands in support, while we two lone tourists did the western thing and continued to clap after the dance ended.  It was just an involuntary reaction by two outsiders, applauding as if the woman was performing for us, while in reality she danced for herself, her village.  She walked over and handed me (the non-dancer!), the cloth.  I stood reluctantly as the group goaded me on.  By this time, the men of the village took notice: a slightly disconcerting event.  Was I performing some female ritual? Did I want to do this in such a male-dominated society? Would my male ego survive such abuse?  I couldn’t refuse the opportunity for international exposure.  As I flapped my arms to the beat, the village dancer beckoned me to follow her lead.  The villagers seemed to have enjoyed this comedy immensely, and gave us a rousing farewell.  Good thing we took that wrong turn.

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