Kelimutu is a dormant volcano in the highlands of Flores and just one of many peaks in the Ring of Fire. What makes this one special are the tri-coloured crater lakes sharing the same caldera at a height 1300m. Although Kelimutu is our destination the journey through the rain forest of Flores is very special in its own way.
We choose to fly into Ende rather than Maumere because we are interested in visiting a small house on the east of the town. This rather quaint but unprepossessing house was where the future President Sukarno of Indonesia was exiled in 1935 for his nationalistic tendencies. There is not much in the house but a few of the black and white photos show a young man with a vision. Most Indonesians are unaware that he composed the Pancasila in this backwater and changed the course of their country.
As we leave the coast we head upwards, along a new road which winds through the lush mountain passes. The river courses through the valley floor and waterfalls cascade from on high. The bamboo growing up from the valley is thick and long. The rustic villages we pass still have latticed bamboo walls with more modern corrugated iron roofs. The bamboo is utilised everywhere and we stop to check out the bamboo bridges crossing the river.
Agriculture thrives in the valleys. There are wild banana and papaya trees alongside the roads. Then you have the terraced rice paddies and clove and coffee plantations fed by the irrigation systems using mountain water. There are vegetable gardens with a wealth of produce near every house. We turn a corner to see a local market spread along the side of the road selling some of the best produce I’ve ever seen. The carrots looked so good that we had to buy some!
We pull off the main road into a village where the ladies weave ikat. Every stage of the process is there for us to see. The indigo for the black dye comes from a plant source which thrives in the rain forest. The orange which compliments it is not available locally and they need to buy it in from outside. One loom shows how they design the motif and others are more advanced with some of the weaving complete. Some of these ikat take months of diligent work to complete and provide a much needed source of income to the village.
As we drive higher into the mountains we pass through the cloud layer and we are enveloped by mist. Darkness is falling and this is very surreal but finally we drive out the other side and into the village of Moni. This village is perched on the side of the volcano and is our last stop for the day.
We are staying at the EcoLodge which is environmentally oriented. It is part of a group of lodges found in some of the more popular parks in Indonesia which use solar power for their lights, recycle waste water, recycle their organic waste to feed the pigs and support the local community with employment. The lodge is not luxurious but it is certainly comfortable and the food is local. It is set in a beautiful rainforest garden and the rooms are based on a traditional design which we found out more about the following day when we visited a traditional Lio village.
The village goes to sleep early because we all need to rise for the visit to the crater lakes the following day. We get up at 3.45 am and drive most of the way up the side of the volcano as we slowly wake up. There is a short trek to the peak once we arrive and although it is still dark it is not difficult. We can see the shadows of the lakes in the darkness as we move up to the viewpoint and wait for the sun to rise. It is a spectacular sunrise with the clouds flaming in the sky.
This view from the top of the world is truly magnificent! As the sky brightens we can see the turquoise colour of Nuwamuri Ko’o fai lake below us. Kelimutu means ‘Boiling Lake’ and the water looks alive with iridescent patches blooming from the bottom and spreading on the surface. You can see the minerals at work and you realise why those that have been known to fall in the lakes have not come out alive.
As the sun rises I notice a second lake, right behind the first, sharing a razor-thin crater wall. This one is called Atapolo and is a similar turquoise colour to the first. This has not always been the case. One of the wonders of these lakes is the evolution of colours on record. When they were ‘discovered’ by Dutch geologists in 1914 they were red, blue and white. In more recent times they have been: black, turquoise and brown in 2009; various shades of green in 2010; black-brown, green, and the last one was in the process of changing from green to red in 2013.
The local Lio hill tribes revere the mountain of Kelimutu and the crater lakes. Although most of the people are officially Catholic their animist traditions mix uncomfortably. They believe that the lakes are the spiritual resting place of their ancestors. Tiwu (‘lake’) Nuwamuri Ko’o fai is the ‘lake of the young men and maidens’ so those that died young. Tiwu Atapolo is the ‘bewitched lake’ so is for the spirits of bad people and Tiwu Atambupu is the ‘lake of the old people’. The Lio people believe that the colour changes of the lakes are a result of neglected ancestral souls. Geologists believe the cause is the oxidation-reduction status dependent on the balance of volcanic gas input and rainfall rate which is mediated by the groundwater system in the volcano itself. Today the third lake is brown.
We visited a traditional Saga village and met the head shaman who incongruously is called Pak Maxi! He showed us around the village and emphasised the importance of the lakes to his ancestors. He elaborated on many of the animistic rituals and explained that the tall roofs are so that there is space for their gods above them. He invited us back to him house to enjoy coffee from his own plantation on the mountainside. The local hospitality is warm and they are proud of their land and their heritage.
You can also reach Kelimutu through Maumere so if you are joining Damai for a charter in Alor then this is a great add-on to the trip. The nature is beautiful, the crater lakes are magical and culture is steeped in tradition. This will give you a taste for the uniqueness of Flores which began with the dragons in Komodo.
Take home more than just underwater memories.