Having collected my visa extension, I had 8 days to kill, so decided to hire a decent motorbike for the week and go explore the Manggarai region in Western Flores. I'd flown over from Bajawa to Labuan Bajo, so it was all virgin territory to me.
I packed my bag, wedged it in front between my legs, and headed east to Ruteng. With only one main highway across Flores, although there is a second road to the north from Ruteng to Maumere, it gets all the traffic. However, it's surprisingly uncrowded, and at no time did I feel unsafe. The bike I hired has good mirrors, so I kept an eye on the traffic coming up from behind, and let them pass so I could enjoy the scenery at my leisure.
The road heads up into the mountains soon after leaving Labuan Bajo, and continues to wind around the hills for most of the 125km to Ruteng. It's extremely scenic, looking down on river valleys ripe with rice, and terraces extending up the hillsides. Small, very poor, villages perch on the ridges, hugging the road as it corkscrews its way eastwards. At last a large plain opens up, allowing rice production on a grand scale. Small hills give the necessary elevation to view the way the rice fields are divided into individual fields for family members to tend. They radiate out from a central point, where sacrifices are made at the beginning of planting. These are commonly called in the tourist brochures "spider web" rice fields.
I arrived in Ruteng in time for a lunch of Bakso, and then got caught in a downpour whilst trying to find a hotel. I opted for the quirky, and cheap, Rima Hotel, where I ran into my two Dutch friends again, and we all went out to dinner with a Swiss bicyclist travelling the world the slow way!
Emma and Jorn took a bus to Bajawa, and I grabbed a mudmap from the hotel and headed south to the coast, and along a rocky, pebble covered coastline, to the town of Dintor. Opposite is a pretty island called Pulau Mules, which has a couple of villages and some sandy beaches, and an interesting volcanic cone at the western end. It looks like a place that could host a bit of tourism if anyone put their entrepreneurial hat on.
From Dintor, the road then headed inland, straight uphill to the small village of Denge. There's an option to stay at a very nice ecolodge in Dintor, with great views across to the island, or at Blasius's Homestay in Denge. Since both charge a similar price my recommendation would be the ecolodge which seems better value for money. It is further from where the walk to Wae Rebo begins, but with your own vehicle, that's inconsequential. I, however, opted to stay at Denge, which at 200,000Rp per person per night was overpriced, particularly for couples or groups sharing a room. Lunch was charged as an extra, mainly because many people only stayed overnight en route to the village, or stopped through for a meal before continuing on.
I arrived at lunchtime, so I unloaded the bike and sat down. Then the heavens opened! It rained all afternoon, and all night, including a splendid thunderstorm. I was joined in the homestay by a group of 3 Indonesians from Java, who had walked down from the village that morning, and were taking the daily truck back to Ruteng the next morning at 3am. They were shocked to discover they needed to pay 200,000Rp per head, and they weren't even staying the whole night! The meals, however, were very tasty, if quite simple.
The next morning I woke to more rain, and clouds so low you couldn't see the nearby house 20m away. I was scheduled to leave for the village at 7am, hiring a local guide/porter for a path that is well used and requires no help to negotiate. However, ecotourism has been taught to these villagers, and there has been much capital donated towards creating an authentic experience for tourists visiting a traditional village. This means prices are fixed artificially high (mainly because the money is shared within the community) and there is an expectation that you will hire a guide, at 200,000Rp for the return trip.
So, what is this village I was about to visit? It's called Wae Rebo, and is a traditional village perched on a hilltop in the middle of nowhere. There's no road in, you have to walk there, and all produce, including the food for the huge numbers of tourists who visit, must be carried up to the village. But I wasn't going that day, it was raining too much, and I've walked up too many mountains in the rain, with no views from the top, to choose to head out in bad weather. So I spent another day in Denge, and in the afternoon the weather cleared enough to go for a walk around the village. I was joined by a Portuguese couple, Bruno and Mariana, who had had a terrible time getting there through the rain and had had to backtrack after finding the road unpassable due to the rivers having risen over the road. I was glad to stay put for an extra day, I was in no hurry.
The next day the sun was shining, though there were a few clouds around, and we headed off around 7:30am. First we walked up the road a couple of kilometres, crossing one river, and thinking all the time that we could have taken the motorbikes up this section. But then again, we all needed the exercise, travelling isn't exactly the best activity for keeping oneself fit.
And then we walked in to the forest….