November 8, 2013 6:21 pm

How Indonesia’s Flores began to bloom

The conical roofs of traditional dwellings in the village of Wae Rebo, on the island of Flores©Ati Kisjanto

The conical roofs of traditional dwellings in the village of Wae Rebo, on the island of Flores

Few residents of Wae Rebo know much about the internet. Which is understand­able, considering that this village on the Indonesian island of Flores has no school, no telephones and is 9km uphill from the nearest place with online access. “Broadband” has yet to be translated into Manggarai, the local language.

Yet it is largely thanks to the internet that Flores generally – and Wae Rebo in particular – have been catapulted into the list of Indonesia’s must-see destinations.

Map of Indonesia

Until a few years ago, this island 750km east of Java was a crumbling backwater where only hardy backpackers dared venture. The millions of tourists descending every year on Bali, only a 90-minute flight away, might as well have been on a different planet.

Flores is hardly short of attractions. For years, Mt Kelimutu’s three volcanic lakes, each of a different colour, used to grace one of Indonesia’s bank­notes. The island’s western tip is part of the Komodo National Park, home to the eponymous dragons – two of which played a deadly role in the latest James Bond film Skyfall. And in 2003 scientists discovered what they claimed were the remains of a species of “hobbit” in a remote cave there.

Flores sits on the Pacific “Ring of Fire”, and Kelimutu is not its only volcano: some soar more than 2,000 metres above sea level. The seas lapping at its shores are home to turtles, dolphins and glorious carpets of brightly coloured coral reefs. And its rice terraces easily match their better-known rivals on Bali – in one valley near the town of Ruteng, they are arranged, for cultural reasons, in magnificent spiders’ webs.

But thanks to poor infrastructure, and even more so to woeful promotion, tourists stayed away.

Then social media kicked in. Facebook, Twitter, TripAdvisor and other websites succeeded where Indonesia’s tourism ministry had failed: namely in convincing people that the magnificence of the attractions outweighed the paucity of creature comforts.

It was via the internet, in 2008, that a group of Jakarta-based architects learnt about Wae Rebo. They were drawn to it on account of the village being home to some of the island’s few remaining mbaru niang, or “drum houses”. With their 13-metre-high conical thatch roofs, windowless and chimneyless, these striking homes date back centuries but, from afar at least, look more like spaceships than standard houses. These cultural treasures, each of them home to up to eight families, were falling into disrepair. The houses were in danger of disappearing.

In their effort to avert disaster, the architects set out to raise awareness – and funds. The remaining houses were repaired and two new ones built too. The architects’ project won top prize in the UN’s 2012 Asia-Pacific Award for Cultural Heritage Conservation and the 2013 Aga Khan Award for Architecture.

More importantly for the villagers, word spread about this hidden gem. In 2010 fewer than 200 tourists had slogged up the 1,200-metre-high hill to Wae Rebo – but the following year visitor numbers topped 400. Last year the village entertained more than 900 tourists and, this year, that figure is likely to double again. To cope, one of the mbaru niang has even been designated for use as tourist accommodation.

The effects of the surge in visitors have been enormous. Five years ago, few locals worked as anything but farmers. Now there are guides and cooks, people are making high-quality textiles and handicrafts, and a guesthouse has opened at the bottom of the hill where people can recover from the bone-jarring drive and prepare for the hike up to the village.

. . .

And what a hike it is. Kanisius, our guide and a Wae Rebo elder, took one look at us – myself, my wife and our children, aged nine and eight – and said, “four to five hours” when asked how long it would take.

After a kilometre or so of a gentle uphill stroll, the path deteriorated and the incline increased. Our pit stops became more frequent as the children’s energy ebbed away.

Thankfully, when it came to know­ledge of the forest, Kanisius was a walking talking encyclopedia. He showed us leaves that made a delicious snack, while warning us to stay well away from others. The highlight, though, was the birdsong: from start to finish, we were accompanied by a chorus of delightful chirping. “It must be four o’clock,” Kanisius said on hearing one bird for the first time. “That one always comes out at four o’clock.” He was frighteningly accurate. “And now it’s five o’clock,” he said when a different bird trilled at length in the forest canopy above us. Again he was spot-on.

A village man©Ati Kisjanto

A village man

Our first view of Wae Rebo was from a couple of miles away, the mbaru niang standing proud of the afternoon haze. But Kanisius refused to let us take photos until we had permission from the village chief. The worried-looking guide told us that the last person to disregard this order found that all his photos had mysteriously disappeared from his memory chip when he returned to the bottom of the hill. We decided to comply.

The mbaru niang, with their layer upon layer of smoke-stained palm thatch roofs, are truly works of art. Set in a semi-circle surrounding a ceremonial stone altar where the spirits of the villagers’ ancestors are believed to reside, they seem part-guardian, part-welcome refuge, part-living museum.

And once the village generator had been switched off (it runs for about four hours every evening), the lights went out and the roofs were gorgeously silhouetted against a night sky lit by the moon and by more stars than residents of light-polluted cities can believe exist.

The following day we headed back down the mountain, which took us about three and a half hours. En route we met three Jakarta students slogging up the hill. We asked how they had heard about Wae Rebo. “On the internet,” they replied.

The town of Labuan Bajo on the west coast of Flores is the jumping-off point for Komodo National Park – except for those arriving by live-aboard dive boat or luxury yacht, of which there are increasing numbers.

Driving there offered proof that Indonesia’s government is finally tackling its infrastructure deficit. The trans-Flores highway is undergoing an upgrade and, though it will take years to complete, things are moving in the right direction. Labuan Bajo is also getting a new airport terminal and the runway is being extended to ease landing by jet aircraft. But no one I asked had any idea when the half-built facility would be ready. “Perhaps when people get tired of being corrupt,” one manager said.

John Aglionby and family sit down to dine in one of the ‘mbaru niang’ houses©Ati Kisjanto

John Aglionby and family sit down to dine in one of the ‘mbaru niang’ houses

Still, the town is also benefiting from an internet-driven influx of tourists. It once offered little to tempt anyone other than backpackers, but now smart hotels are opening. The Sylvia Waicicu Beach Resort, where we stayed, had been open only two weeks.

“I bought the land seven years ago but only started to develop it two years ago,” its owner, Rudolf Nggai, told me. Land prices, he said, have reflected this new buzz, and are said to be five times higher than when he bought. I later relayed this to a friend who has developed hotels on Bali. “I know,” he said. “I’ve been meaning to get to Flores for ages. I just hope I’m not too late.”

Several other resorts are starting to sprout up around the Sylvia, and internet traffic to hotel websites and dive operators is reportedly up by several hundred per cent on last year.

Among those driving this traffic is actress Gwyneth Paltrow, who sailed around the Komodo National Park earlier this year aboard a luxury yacht and then waxed lyrical about it on Goop, her popular blog.

It’s hard not to fall in love with Labuan Bajo and the Komodo National Park. But not having as much time or money as Paltrow, we “did” Komodo – or rather the neighbouring island of Rincah – in a day trip. As we chugged out of Labuan Bajo on a small, but very comfortable boat, three dolphins danced in the water just a few metres off the bow, as if to bid us welcome.

. . .

Park rangers say 30,000 tourists went to see the Komodo dragons in the wild last year, and tourist numbers are rising rapidly. As we arrived on Rincah, there were two dozen other boats moored at the jetty. To reach the visitor centre we had to wade through a party of about 150 European tourists who were leaving. It’s not quite the queue for the Louvre, but it is unlike few other places in Indonesia.

And it was worth it. A guide led us on a two-hour trek, on which we saw almost a dozen of the magisterial dragons, a species of monitor lizard. One was digging a nest to lay her eggs, another – only a few months old – was scampering up a tree. A third was lumbering along a path heading towards a wild buffalo. Lunch perhaps?

Our route back to Labuan Bajo was via a sparkling white sand beach for a couple of hours’ snorkelling on a shallow reef, perfect for the children. There were barely a dozen other tourists in sight. Part of me thought, what a shame we didn’t have the place to ourselves; another part of me noted that visitors are good for the local economy, and a third part of me thought, thank goodness we’re here now – who knows how many tourists there’ll be in a few years.

. . .

Details

John Aglionby arranged his trip via Mikael Bajo, a travel agent based in Labuan Bajo (mikaelbajo@yahoo.co.id); excluding flights, the weeklong trip cost Rp17m ($1,500) for four. In Labuan Bajo they stayed at the Sylvia Waicicu Beach Resort (sylviahotelkomodo.com). Local tour operators include komodoadventure.com. Merpati airlines (merpati.co.id) flies to Labuan Bajo from Jakarta via Denpasar (Bali)

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John Aglionby was the FT’s Indonesia correspondent from 2006-09

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