Kelimutu: like water for chocolate
Across the valley banks of mist swirled above a church steeple poking through the dense vegetation. From the Trans-Flores Highway Dino had glimpsed the crest of Kelimutu through the clouds, and we soon found ourselves gunning up a slender road towards the summit.
Kelimutu means “mountain lake” in the local language (Keli is mountain, mutu is lake), but its ordinary name suggests none of the trio’s unique traits. Although they originate from the same volcano, each has its own palette of changing colours dictated by the minerals within. Two of the lakes are also dangerously acidic, with pH levels hovering between 0.4 and 1.9.
According to legend, Kelimutu is actually a family of four: father “Konde”, mother “Ratu” and their children “Tomi” and “Nombu”. But Nombu the daughter lake cannot be seen as she exists in the spirit realm. Dino had told us this upon reaching a viewpoint on the crater rim, after treading through a mist-laden forest on a path carpeted infallen pine needles.
But we saw nothing – only a thick blanket of fog. “When you come to Kelimutu,” Dino said, “tell Konde Ratu you want to see them.” He whistled into the wall of white beyond the metal railing, and moments later – as though by magic – the mist lifted just enough to see the married pair: Konde was the colour of dark chocolate, while ravishing Ratu looked teal green over a shared crater wall.
Local people believe that Kelimutu is the eternal abode of spirits. Upon a person’s death, the spirit would meet gatekeeper Konde Ratu before entering a lake, determined by their age and character. For this reason the lakes are named Tiwu Ata Mbupu, ‘Lake of Elders’; Tiwu Nuwa Muri Ko’o Fai, ‘Lake of Young Men and Maidens’; and Tiwu Ata Polo, ‘Enchanted (or Bewitched) Lake’, reserved for those who committed evil deeds in their lifetime.
As we stood on the edge of Tiwu Ata Polo, it soon began to rain. The initial drizzle turned to fat drops, enough for Dino to race down the stairs for the shelter of a nearby pavilion. “We’ll come back tomorrow morning,” he said, and motioned for us to follow. Along the way I stopped and turned my head several times, hoping against hope that the skies would suddenly clear. But the mist showed no signs of dissipating. Eventually we retreated back to the car, and as the rain continued, our guesthouse in Moni.
At dinner that night, Bama and I were told the village did not exist some twenty years ago. It had sprung up as a place of lodging for nearby Kelimutu, thanks to its convenient location on the Trans-Flores Highway. But the income earned from tourism is sometimes siphoned off by landlords: Moni is built on land belonging to over 30 local chieftains, and a spokesperson is periodically sent round for “donations” when the chiefs need funds to build a house or materials to perform a ritual ceremony.
We had ordered three plates of mie goreng (fried noodles) between us, and when the conversation slowed our corner table became a vantage point for people-watching. On the restaurant’s far side at least ten Chinese Indonesian women sat around a long table, feasting as their blue ‘executive bus’ waited on the road below. I strained to hear the tones of Mandarin, but these came interspersed with unfamiliar phrases that may have been Hokkien or Teochew.
There were also a few small groups of European travellers, but I forget most of their faces and where they were from. In the middle of the dining area a Dutch family had ordered plates of spaghetti and other Western fare. As dinner arrived the mother loudly proclaimed to their guide, “After having nasi goreng for the past 10 days, I don’t think I could take any more!” I looked at Bama and tried not to cringe. What nasi goreng? I thought. Earlier that day we had been sitting at a bamboo picnic table on Paga Beach, sipping fresh fruit juice and tucking into a delicious nasi campur ikan – a fluffy bed of red and white rice, cabbage and a medallion of locally caught tuna, all brushed with raw chilli sambal.
Long after the Dutch family had retired to their rooms, Dino tapped his cigarette on the ashtray, leaning in and looking us straight in the eye. “When you get to Komodo, the food on the boat will be very good.” He sat up and paused before inhaling another breath of nicotine. “I’m not one of those who will give their clients nasi goreng every day.”
The next morning Dino drove us back up the mountain to see the fabled Kelimutu sunrise. The rain and clouds of the previous night had finally eased, and a rainbow was partially visible over the midnight green waters of the lake of elders.
As the sun rose above the horizon, mist draped the lower slopes of mountain ranges in the east, dominated by the flattened cap of active volcano Gunung Egon. It formed the centrepiece of a painted landscape with multiple ridges that narrowed to a neck of land, the sea on both sides glistening in the light of dawn.
Bama and I marvelled at the raw volcanic landscape spread before us, a stark contrast to the surrounding pine forest and rice fields tumbling down the lower slopes. The perfect reflections on the dark chocolate lake soon turned a deep ruddy brown, with slivers of red and yellow along its edge. At the lake of young men and maidens, the sun’s rays gradually moved down the crater wall, changing its colour from translucent teal to an opaque turquoise. In his school days Bama had longed to see the lakes of Kelimutu, and as we stood taking pictures at the viewpoint, I recognised that this was nothing less than a dream fulfilled. ◊
Aiyo, James – I think it may have been a dream come true for Bama, but also one of those special magical experiences we all thrill to – even through someone else’s photographs! The fascination of the changing colours, the chemistry of the lakes, the physical enigma of the three craters, and that glorious landscape of peaks and valleys, shimmering sea and shifting clouds … Phew. Lucky you. 🙂
Oh yes, Meredith, we were very fortunate to have experienced these wonders firsthand! 🙂 Especially with the unstable weather that seemed to accompany us on our trip across Flores… if the mist hadn’t cleared by morning we could so easily have left without seeing those striking colours.
What an amazing place, thank you for taking us there.
It’s my pleasure, Debra. This was too beautiful not to share.
When I was standing at the viewpoint and taking photos of the three lakes, my mind was transported to the years when I saw Kelimutu’s depiction in old rupiah note with an admiration of a far flung land with exotic lakes. Many years later my dream was finally fulfilled. I’m glad Dino suggested us to go there twice as we could experience the mystical ambiance of the lakes in the afternoon, also marvel at the bright colors of Kelimutu with the breathtaking landscape of eastern Flores the next morning. Plus, we were lucky to see Tiwu Ata Polo with its current dark chocolate color.
I’m so glad you suggested going to Flores, everything about the island (Kelimutu included) just blew me away. I was also surprised by Tiwu Ata Polo – all the recent photos seemed to show it being a very similar colour to the adjacent lake. Imagine if we could find a way to see all three lakes from the air… I would love to get them all in the same shot!
Wauw, this looks amazing! I really want to go to indonesia 🙂
Yes, go when you get the chance! Indonesia is one of my favourite Asian countries. 🙂
great shots!! 🙂 🙂
Makasih Alex! You still based out of HK? I guess we should try to meet up sometime!
are you back in hkg? we shud meet up 🙂 🙂
Sudah. I’ll send you an email right away. 🙂
I am speechless with wonder, just looking at your photographs James!!! What an incredible palette of colours! The legends just add to the magic of the place. A phenomenal post. Yes, thank you both for taking us there 🙂
You’re more than welcome, Madhu – perhaps soon enough you and R will see the lakes at sunrise! There is a small window of time when the colours glow at their absolute best; our guide encouraged us to rise extra early and be there for “the moment”. I can tell you it was clearly worth the lost hours of sleep! 🙂
Thank you for sharing your experiences. Flores has been on my bucket list for years & Kelimutu is the icing on the cake. You have spurred on my resolve to see such an area of beauty!
And thank you in turn for reading. Flores is a remarkably beautiful island – I would recommend it for anyone who’s into raw landscapes and ancient cultures. Somehow it’s still managed to remain off the beaten path!
Never heard of this place before. It looks awesome!!! I like your pictures. Thank you for sharing.
I hadn’t heard of Kelimutu either up until a few short years ago. It’s nowhere near as famous as Bali! Thanks too for reading and leaving a comment.
Thanks for sharing this wonderful experience! I absolutely love Indonesia and now I have a reason to go back 🙂 I look forward to seeing more from you
You’re welcome! I keep finding reasons to go back to Indonesia – at times I wonder whether I should just drop everything and move there permanently. 🙂
Fantastic post. I love stumbling across travel posts like this about destinations I have never heard of. How else would we find new places to add to our lists? This one reminds me of Crater Lake in Oregon, and is definitely going on my list of places to go one day. Thanks!
Thanks for the comment! I agree, my own trip to Flores was inspired by another writer’s account posted two years ago. Crater Lake has long been on my wish list – I would love to visit in winter when the landscape is dusted by snow!
Gorgeous as always! i actually read this post this morning and it totally set me in a positive mood to carry out my day. Always love reading about your adventures!
I’m glad it had that effect on you, Erica! I would totally recommend Indonesia for your wish list – and not just because of the food. 😉 The scenery is just achingly beautiful and so are its many cultures. Thanks for the kind words!
Consider it added! 🙂
I’m trying to wake up earlier to read more travel stories to start my day – they really help me put on my travel glasses, even if I’m staying in the same city for the time being.
That’s awesome – I wish I had the discipline to do the same. 🙂 It seems to be the exact opposite for me… I’m finding that travel blogs are perfect late-night reading material.
Hi james im happy dropping by ur blog, when i was there the colour of kelimutu was green and blue. I cant belive it changes again to choclate cool
Thanks for the comment, Winny. From the recent photos I saw, I thought the lakes would be green and blue as well!
yes indeed makes me surprises. i went there in the end of 2012,, crazy it changes so fast 🙂
Yes, incredible is right. 🙂
Reblogged this on Çanakkale Şehitlik Turu.
We didn’t quite make it for sunrise – our driver got drunk the night before and didn’t show up. We went late morning and it was still a good time to be there. The photo of Gunang Egon at sunrise is really beautiful.
Thanks Jeff. It’s a shame to hear about the drunk driver… I would have been pretty frustrated had I been in the same position! But I would say you didn’t miss a whole lot. Sunrise is not necessarily the best time for taking photos of Kelimutu – our guide and driver told us the colours are at their most vivid in the late afternoon.
amazing place. thanks for sharing those beautiful pictures.
You’re welcome. Hope you get there soon!