Across Flores: a compilation
The year was 1512. A Portuguese expedition was rounding the eastern cape of a distant Indonesian isle in search of spices and sandalwood, when its sailors sighted a blazing display of Royal Poinciana marching up the slopes in full bloom. The fiery red blossoms so impressed the visiting explorers that they gave the mysterious island a new name. From that day on, it would be known as Cabo das Flores, ‘Cape of Flowers’.
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As the propeller plane banked low over the shimmering waters of the Maumere Gulf, a ruggedly beautiful mountain ridge came into view. It culminated in an ashen grey summit, but much of it was tinged golden-brown in the low evening sun, shadows tracing the deep gullies carved into the rock. Below the ridge another scene emerged: clusters of stilt houses, idle fishing boats and a sweeping black sand beach backed by a host of drooping coconut palms.
I wondered where Maumere was. With 75,000 residents this was the largest town on Flores, and I assumed it was partially hidden under the spreading canopy of green. But we would later learn that Maumere had been right beneath us as our plane approached the asphalt runway. For Flores’ largest settlement is literally called ‘Big Beach’.
The people of eastern Flores named their native homeland Nusa Nipa, ‘snake island’, thanks to its irregular, elongated shape punctuated by wide bays and rocky inlets. But the snake is also a fitting metaphor for the road which traverses the entire length of the island.
First opened in 1925, the Trans-Flores Highway winds and coils for almost 700km from end to end, alternating between the mountains and the coast, threading past ancient villages, iridescent rice terraces and mist-shrouded jungle. Bama and I had come to travel the 532km between Maumere and Labuan Bajo, with our local guide and driver Dino Lopez.
For five days we drove through the mountainous interior dotted with 14 volcanoes, among them the dormant, near-perfect pointed cone of Inerie, and Kelimutu with its trio of crater lakes.
Along the way we partook of Flores’ agricultural riches. I cannot forget how it was to breathe in the intensely fragrant smell of cacao drying on mats by the roadside, to taste the island’s luscious white and red rice (according to Bama, softer and more succulent than rice in either Java or Bali), or savouring the flavours of a double espresso made from locally grown beans.
The fertile volcanic soils support rice, maize, cassava, mango, papaya, five kinds of banana, macadamia and chilli – everything, Dino told us, except for apple. European traders introduced cacao from Mexico by way of the Philippines; vanilla was transplanted from the islands of the Western Indian Ocean; and the Portuguese brought cashew from Brazil while the Dutch introduced coffee cultivation.
I cannot begin to describe the raw beauty of the landscape or the ethnic and cultural diversity of Flores, with five languages encompassing over 60 dialects spoken across a population of just two million. Perhaps these photos – and the coming series of posts – will paint a better picture of our journey through the wondrous ‘island of flowers’. ◊