24 September 2009

Up the Mountain, In the Dark: The Coloured Lakes of Kelimutu

Ahhh, the beautiful photo that I ultimately traveled 3 days (enduring livestock genitalia - read on) to see... Don't they look cool?

It's 4 am in Moni and cold – like really cold. I am bundled in yoga pants, 2 hoodies and socks with my trekking sandals (yeah, really.) While ten degrees Celsius would be completely tolerable in Vancouver I have acclimatised to the unrelenting thirty+ heat of Asia and am now shivering like mad. Even so, I seem to be in a better state than my motorbike driver, who is bundled up in a blanket with his sarong looped around his head (he looks sort of like Beavis acting like Cornholio.) He is smiling and waving at me as I climb the steps leading to the road from my menky guesthouse.

“Good Morning Mister! Now we go to Kelimutu!” His teeth are chattering as he says this. I manage a wan smile in return, the most that I can muster this early and look around for my helmet. “Helmet?” I ask him, gesturing at the white one he has on his own head.“OK, no problem! You take me.” He pulls it off and hands it to me.

Now, I don't feel super great about taking this poor man's head protection, but it is pitch black outside, there are no street lights and we are about to ride up a frickin' mountain. My mother's sternest expression pops into my head and my Grandmother's voice echoes in mind “Don't be schtewpid!” I take the helmet. It doesn't have a chin strap, but I figure it is better than nothing - S, behind me and straddling his own motorbike, has only his toque. I hop on the bike, careful to avoid the boiling hot exhaust pipe on the right hand side (something Brandon forgot to do on his trip, ending up with the famous “Southeast Asia tattoo”) and we get started.

We are up so early in the teensy village of Moni on the Indonesian island of Flores to see the multicoloured lakes of Kelimutu. Indonesia is the home of such heavy weight volcanoes as Krakatoa and Gunung Rinjani, but Kelimutu is special but for a different reason. Perched atop the mountain are three crater lakes, all bumping up against eachother, all dramatically different colours due to minerals and chemical reactions. That's not even the extra special part – every few years they change colours. Right now the lakes are a stunning turquoise, a dark forest green and inky black. A few years ago they were chocolate brown, rusty red and blue. And a few years before that....well, you get the picture.

Hot tea at the top to soothe my jangled nerves and frozen fingies.

I don't know why it has not occurred to me until this point just how dark it will be at 4am and just how winding the road is. We race along the narrow road, ascending switchback after switchback, the unguarded drop-off on one side of us tickling my brain with its horrifying possibility. As I often do when I am on a motorbike in a dangerous situation, I mentally compose my obituary:

“Violet Dear, acclaimed blogger and noted stylish dresser was hurled off of the side of a cliff today in a really backwoods-y part of Asia. Her helmet, serving mostly a decorative purpose, flew off of her head instantly as she flew through the air and finally landed on the sharp rocks. She will be remembered for her remarkable salad-making abilities, her knowledge of celebrity gossip – including British - and the fact that she finished every level of Legend of Zelda for Nintendo DS with no cheats.”

I'm snapped out of my daydream by the cold air that hurts my cheeks and rushes around the ill-fitting helmet to chill the back of my neck. All I can see in the black pre-dawn air is the silhouette of my driver and I in the orange headlight glow, eerily reflected on the side of the mountain. S is a few hundred metres behind us, and for forty minutes we weave up the dormant volcano's curvy roads.

Again, not many photos turned out, so....

We arrive at the top and as we are planning to walk down the mountain, we send our motorbike drivers happily on their way, having earned a roundtrip fare without having to wait around for us. Now we just have to find the path to Inspiration Point, where we will be able to see all three lakes at once and watch the sun rise up behind them. It is just starting to peek out now from the horizon, turning the sky grapey purple, deep tangerine and pale fuchsia. We start to hurry.

Which, of course – always makes things worse, yeah? There are no signs anywhere, even when the path forks into two. We make a random (and, I'll admit, tersely worded) joint decision to go right. We walk for about twenty minutes, finally realizing that this is the wrong way as the trail starts to slope dramatically downward. It is getting quite light out, the air that pale blue-ish of early morning, and we can now see the red arrows painted on the rocks of the jagged trail – they are pointing the other way, of course. “Awww, come on!” I shout. “What, is this Labyrinth? Where the f%$@ is Hoggle then! And where is Inspiration Point?”

We trundle back in the other direction, becoming aware as we go of the thick pea soup fog that is ensconcing the entire peak of the mountain – the peak that we have to climb to to see the lakes. “Aw Nuts!” I shout again. “Hurry, beat the fog! We have traveled for three days straight to get here! On buses that had all sorts of livestock strapped to the top with the luggage! I have endured a bus ride in which the goat strapped to the roof fell halfway off, right beside my face – his hind legs dangling away! Goat balls, S! I have survived the sight of splayed goat balls squished on my window for these lakes!”

I swear the black lake is there. It's not as much of a stretch as the next one, though....

Despite picking up the pace and remembering the squealing pigs (who were literally hog tied) and that poor, poor goat we do not beat the fog. By the time we make it to the staircase leading to the lookout the sun is up and the fog a thick blanket. We walk to the turquoise and black lakes and by peering up over their sides we are able to make out their colours – kind of. As for Mr Green Lake– it could be neon yellow now for all I know – I don't get a glimpse. We wait for an hour and it only seems to get worse. The few dozen of us that have scaled the top began slowly shuffling down, somewhat dejected but still happy to have seen Kelimutu, even partially.

See? What is that? The barest hints of blue allude to the fact that this is the turquoise lake.... Whoever google images this is gonna be pissed.

Our 3 hour walk down an incredibly steep hill to get back to the village is also ill fated. While fun and wholesome, filled with woodland critters (not like these, thankfully) and small rustic villages – I wake up the next morning and I cannot walk. Literally. I can kind of manage a crab-ish sideways shuffle, but normal steps are out of the question. S has to go and get me Indonesian muscle relaxants (grade? B minus) so that I can even get out of bed without ambling around like I have brain damage. My hip joints are so stiff, my tendons so tense and damaged that I resolve to eat an entire fish every day for the next week in order to get enough protein and healthy oils to heal me (this is a promise I often make. I love fish.)

Despite our difficulties, Kelimutu was an interesting science-y place with beautiful mountain scenery, endless green rice paddies and friendly people. You should definitely try to make it there - in the dark on a motorbike, of course. Some tips.

  • Bring your own helmet
  • Check the forecast for fog
  • Pack a sweater. Or three.
  • Mentally comprise a list of things for your obituary. Y'know. To pass the time.....

What is that next to S on the bus? Is that an upside-down chicken being held by the ankles by that old woman? Yes, it is.

Kelimutu (and the small town of Moni) is 2 hours from the major-ish city of Ende, which has an airport serviced by Denpasar, Bali. If you are arriving from your Lombok-Flores boat trip you can take a bus from Labuan Bajo to Bajawa (10 hours) and then on to Moni (7 hours) a few days later. Continue on to Sumba or Timor, or do yourself a favour and fly back, either from Ende or Maumere (3 hours away). You will not want to take these buses again (Goat balls. That's all I have to say.)

1 comment:

carl said...

I'm from Cebu. It's in the center of the Philippines. If you do come here -- I suggest going to Batanes -- it's the northernmost part of the Philippines -- zero crime rate and close to untouched. Many foreigners come to Boracay for it's white sand beach but it's highly commercialized. You could also visit Palawan or Bohol. There are good places in Mindanao but it is dangerous to go there. The government have problems with armed militants in the area.

As for Cebu -- Where I am from. It's a metropolitan. Nothing much to do here. Magellan's Cross is in Cebu. Commercial resorts like Hilton and foreign retiree houses.

It won't be that difficult to go around the Philippines. We speak English but some tend to shy away from foreigners.