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Flores - it drives me around the bend! Part 1: Lombok to Mt Tambora

AUSTRALIA | Thursday, 29 January 2015 | Views [1530]


There is no better feeling than riding out the gate and hitting the highway astride a motorcycle. I'm beginning a road trip east. East, the exotic east! My imagination, fuelled by the exploits of explorers and adventurers past, and by the writings of literary giants, such as Burgess, Kipling, Conrad and Maugham, has always led me to believe that the further east you venture, the closer you get to being, 'out there', beyond the reach of the hum-drum.  Am I indulging in romanticism gone mad? Or, will I indeed find myself in a new and exciting reality, as I, in the words of 60s rock giants Steppenwolf, "Head out on the highway, lookin' for adventure, and whatever comes my way."? The future is a blank canvas before me, one which I intend to decorate by drawing from a vivid pallete of anticipated adventures. The engine hums, the tyres thrum, the wind retreats as I slice through the cool morning and lean into the first bend. Does it get any better than this? You bet it does! The trip is underway!


I'm in Kuta, Lombok, heading two islands east to Flores. I've not been there for six years, I've never ridden there. It's an island of obscene beauty, 500 km long, 150 km wide. It sports a mountainous spine containing fourteen active volcanoes whose lower slopes are clothed in verdant jungle. The coast is indented with a myriad little bays and inlets, the valleys play host to rushing streams. The population is an eclectic mix of Indo-Malay and Melanesian types. Throw in an assortment of Javanese, Arabs and Chinese as well as 350 years of Portuguese colonialism and you have a combination guaranteed to set any ethnographer's pulse galloping.. 

I've set my bike up well with a home-made rack to which I've attached a PVC storage tube to contain spares and tools. My seat sports a self-made booster pad of 150mm thick, high-density foam. With this beneath me, numb posterior in the early afternoon should be dispatched to the dustbin of history - that's the theory anyway! Each item in my pack has been carefully chosen for utility and weight. I'm a minimalist by heart, which is just as well because you can't carry much aboard a KLX150. As it is, my pack, strapped to the tank and weighing just 11 kgs, still seems bulky. Whether or not it would pose a problem occpied my thoughts for a fleeting moment but such pre-occupation was soon replaced by sight of a signpost: "Kopang, turn left."

I began the long gentle climb between the fields of tobacco and padi. The road, smooth and straight, was shaded by clumps of bamboo. I came across a tangle of senior high school students let loose for a sports morning. They spilled from the schoolyard and commandeered most of the road, laughing and shouting, full of the exhuberance of youth. A couple of tearaways had managed to climb aboard a farmer's pick up. They yelled and gesticulated to their mates as they rode by in style while their compatriots Shank's ponied it to the sportsfield. Heroes for the moment, but maybe they'd be made to pay for their little adventure later in the day.

I reached the main west-east road and swung right into the busy traffic. Pelabuhan Kayangan, the "Port of Heaven", lay an hour away on the edge of the Alas Strait which separates Lombok from Sumbawa. To get there I still had to pass through some major conurbations - Tarare, Masbagik, Aikmel and Pringabaya. With a keen eye, and brake 'in hand', I plunged into stream of traffic determined to make it in and out of each bottleneck in one piece.

The scene alongside markets sometimes resembled a collapsed rugby scrum. Vehicles of all shapes and sizes jostled for space, drivers eager to load or unload passengers and goods. Hapless parking officials, their smart uniforms mocking their lack of authority, blew whistles to which no one paid any heed. Horses sweated in quiet resignation seemingly oblivious to the din swirling around them - I guess they'd seen it all before.

It was with relief that I left Pringabaya behind. The trip from here to the port was a doddle. I swung right at Kayangan's crossroads and cruised along the road following the shoreline of the pretty bay. Graceful fishing boats lay at anchor, scarcely moving on the sheltered waters. The foothills of Rinjani, draped in a filmy haze of blue-grey smoke, watched over the waters. I swept through the port gates, happy to see a ferry tied up to the quay, its ramp down, disgorging the last vehicles. I bought a ticket from a smiling clerk who wished me a safe journey. Five dollars got me aboard for the 90 minute trip to Poto Tano and Sumbawa, neglected by tourists but beloved by those who seek the road less travelled. I rode up the ramp and was directed to a spot where I could tie up. I busied myself with making the bike safe and unpacking my gear. Before long I was on deck and seated in the shade ready for the next leg of the journey.  

Indonesian ferries may be tiny and aged but, nevertheless, they play a vital role in linking the islands of this vast nation together. In 2014, KM Munawar, a ferry I'd boarded a number of times, went down with the loss of three lives. I asked my fellow passengers what they knew about it. It was news to them. News, it seems, travels slowly in these parts.  We were soon underway. A spruiker grabbed a mike and gave us a run-down of the safety and evacuation procedures emphasising, in particular, the dangers of smoking on board. As soon as he finished his spiel he lit up a smoke – I travel to experience something different and I wasn’t being short changed!

Kayangan – the Port of Heaven - lived up to its name if you ignored the grey pitted expanse of the car park and the cyclone wire fence against which lay a thousand discarded plastic bags driven there by the wind. As the dock retreated to stern the white hull of a ferry tied up for repairs glistened against the backdrop of the cascading foothills. The Alas Straiit shimmered under an azure sky. Little islets, some no more than sand bars really, poked their heads up to port. We slid over the tranquil sea accompanied by the steady beat of the engines. Hawkers with their trays of snacks, smokes and bottled water made the occasional sale. Passengers squatted in circles on the deck surrounded by cases and cartons.

I spent my time chatting with a wiry middle aged fellow on his way to a project in the Taliwang district accompanied by a couple of his apprentices. These two kids smoked constantly. I suspected this was their first venture into the adult world and they were trying to convince themselves that they fitted in. Their boss was a man of vast experience. As a young fellow in the 80s, he walked for 5 days through the Kalimantan jungle to free himself from the tyranny of an up-country timber camp where, gambling, fighting, fever and disease were ever present. Tough times breed tough people. He'd seen it all, he said, and now felt he was on easy street as project manager for a small constuction firm.

Poto Tano appeared, clinging to a barren stretch of coast, the jetty being its only reason for being. A few hardy souls scratched for gold in the denuded hillocks that poked up here and there. Upon disembarking I breezed out the port gates happy to be heading east. Sumbawa Besar city, and a bed for the night, lay two hours away along a good road that straddled the coast before winding inland through farming country and low scrubby hills. I zinged along feeling relaxed, enervated and free.

The road struck the coast again 15 km west of the city at a place called Batu Gong. Up until late 2013 this had been the site of a 200 metre long strip of what are euphemistically dubbed 'cafes' - read honky-tonks, cat houses, brothels - disguised as kareoke bars. It now looked like a bomb site. Quiet by day, racous by night, they'd been built on re-claimed land and rumour had it were the fifedom of the city constabulary. Be that as it may, the strip had attracted the ire of the religiously inclined who'd been agitating for the authorities to shut the eyesore down. In such an atmosphere it only needs an 'incident' to spark an inferno and towards the end of that year it happened. A Samawa Muslim woman died after a motorcycle, driven by her Balinese policeman boyfriend, crashed on its way back to town after an evening's carousing. Next morning the rumour mill went into overdrive powered by SMS. The girl had 'been raped and murdered'; the 'police were involved in a cover up'. A mob gathered, the police were caught off-guard and the local Balinese population, some third generation residents, became the hapless victims of hysteria. Businesses and houses were torched and the people fled for the nearest sanctuary they could find. Police reinforcements were flown in from Lombok and eventually order was restored. Fortunately there was no loss of life. Batu Gong was flattened by an excavator the next day. A little bit of religion can be a dangerous thing. 

I headed straight for Hotel Tambora. The damage from the 2013 madness was still evident. Workers were busy in the foyer putting up a new ceiling. Enroute to my room I passed a wing of six rooms, gutted and destroyed by fire. Smoke-blackened walls enclosed roofless rooms whose floors were littered with boken tiles and the assorted flotsam and jetsom of mayhem. It must have been a terrifying few hours for the unfortunate victims of this madness.

My room was a cool oasis overlooking a pleasant garden. I showered and took a seat outside on the porch to unwind and enjoy the stillness of early evening. It had been a perfect start to the trip and I was looking forward to many more days of the same. The light faded quickly. Soon the sound of azan could be heard calling the faithful to a mosque in the middle distance. I've always thought it to be a very beautiful sound. It seemed to float over the city momentarily quieting other sounds - as if to establish its pre-eminence.

I took my evening meal in a nearby restaurant. Plain rice, tempeh manis, cassava leaves in coconut, mixed vegetables and fried chcken with a dollop of delicious sambal. The young waitress fancied herself as a budding femme fatale as she inquired langrously, "Where you from Mister?" "Where you go, Mister?" "Where your wife, Mister?" Satisfied with my answers, she sashayed off to the kitchen, turning her head as she went: "You want anything, you call me, OK?"

The meal was delicious. I paid my bill. "You come again Mister when you go back Lombok, OK?" I suppose I was a bit of a diversion as I can't remember the last time I saw a tourist in Sumbawa Besar city and I've been there many times over the years. Back at the hotel I cranked up the air con, and hit the sack. I slept the sleep of ten men, walking the street of dreams in blissful solitude. 

The next day saw me up with the street sweepers, the early morning walkers and the foraging crows. I rode east down Diponegoro and soon found myself marooned in a hive of activity outside the market. Trucks, bemos, dokars, hand carts and motorcycles jostled for space in which to load and unload passengers and goods. Sarong-clad women moved gracefully between the chaos, purchases balanced on their heads. Stalls laden with melons and pineapples lined the roadside, tarpulins of whitebait glistened beside cane baskets brimful of sardines and woven mats piled with scarlet chillis. The noise of commerce reverberated around me duelling with the honking of horns and shouted imprecations of the traders. I slowed to walking pace, edging my way through the throng, wary of kids and the elderly whose judgment might lacking. Soon the road opened up; released from the clutches of the throng I was on my way!   

The ride passed alternately through rock-pocked, parched hills and alongside a pristine indented coast, deserted save for tiny fishing villages their perahus drawn up the beach beyond the caress of the waves. Being dry season the hills had been put to the torch. Blackened knobs, criss-crossed with the dun-coloured tracery of goat tracks, took on a jigsaw-like appearance. Every now and then I'd come across burning fields. Bands of thick smoke rose from the cracking stubble to blanket the road and reduce visibility. Naked flames licked at the verge; ancient stumps glowed and fizzed red hot when stuck by the gusting wind. My exposed face burned as I passed by. Thirsty, I kept up the fluids taking generous swigs from my Camel Back. Plampang, a regional town, came and went, then Empang did the same. Then the road reached the coast again prior to climbing high above the sea. Salleh Bay, blue and wide, stretched below me its surface rippling and glinting in the sun. I pulled over. A lone fishing boat, the chug-chug of its single cylinder diesel the only sound, save for the whisper of the breeze through nearby kapok trees. The little craft made for an islet off shore a vee-shaped wash marking its progress. It's moments of peaceful solitude, such as this, that remain vivid and alive in the mind's eye long after the last kilometre of the journey has been racked up.

I continued on my way climbing ever upward to a pass that opened up the way to a broad, fertile valley watered by a wide river. On either side a patchwork of padi fields bore witness to the richness of the soil. Enterprising women had set up stalls selling snacks, drinks and cigarettes. I took another break and enjoyed some casual banter. Refreshed by lively conversation, and a strong balck coffee, I bade my good byes and commenced the descent to the valley floor. A succession of sweeping bends, each one accompanied by a perceptible rise in ambient temperature, finally ended in a straight stretch of road. My Kawasaki hummed along at ease with the world. Before long I was at Soriuti where I would turn left for Mt Tambora. I bought fuel from a roadside stall, never a problem in Indonesia, and inquired about the road. To my delight it had been upgraded the previous year. I'd made a nightmare trip along it in 2008 aboard a Honda Vario scooter, so, this was welcome news.  
With a full tank, and the wind at my back, I headed north-west for Mt Tambora. I was looking for a turn off to the east, about 50 km down the road, which would take me to a spot called "Post 3", a rude shelter in which to rest up for the night. From there it was only three hours climb to the 2800 metre summit. The road was, indeed in excellent condition. It passed through sparsely populated savannah country; the occasional shack and a few wandering black goats, were the only signs of life. The sun beat down and my tyres sang as I cut through the breeze.

As anticipated, after travelling about 50 km, I found the track into the scrubby forest and turned east. It was sandy. And when not sandy it was covered in powdery dust. Staying upright became a focus. About 7 km in I came to the first steep incline. Sandy and rocky I made it half way up before picking the wrong line and coming to a halt, front wheel snookered by a boulder. I tried to wriggle sideways a little but in doing so found myself sliding backwards. I managed to keep the bike upright for a few metres but then it lay over with me flailing beneath it. I got out from under, freed my pack from the tank, chucked it aside and got the bike upright. Flooded, it wouldn’t start. I turned the petrol off and lay it over slightly on the opposite side. It was midday and hot. There was no one around; my progress – or lack of it – witnessed only by a few wild horses and a couple of glossy black pheasant.

I took a drink. Refreshed, I had another go at the bike. The engine roared to life. With no gear aboard, to play havoc with my centre of gravity, I found the bike easier to handle so made it to better, flatter going without a hitch. I reloaded and set off again.

A couple of kilometres later I hit a steeper, longer stretch in worse condition than the first. Foolishly, I charged up fully loaded. Same result, only this time I took some bark off my shin. I cleaned the wound with water and applied antiseptic and a plaster. Beads of perspiration dripped from my nose. I unloaded the bike. Again she wouldn’t start. I left her and went for a walk further up the track. It looked OK but logic told me it had to get steeper and tougher. I still had maybe 25 km to go. Help was a long way off if I found myself in extremis.

I walked back to the bike. She started first go. I would have to go up as there was no easy way to turn around. I picked a line and gunned the motor. Lurching and bucking over large rocks I made it to the top of the rise and turned around. I could see back down to the coast. I knew a cool beach hangout that I could make before dark. I may be old but I’m not a fool. You have to know your limits and I was giving mine a right old nudge. I decided to turn back and head for Hu’u Beach. Mt Tambora would have to wait another day.


 (Mar. 7/15. Part 1 is now finished. TO BE CONTINUED


Tags: adventure, flores, indonesia, lombok, motorcycling, off-road, sumbawa



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