Wawo Muda: The New Crater Lakes of Flores

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In 2001 a volcanic eruption in Central Flores created a massive crater, changing the skyline of the local area forever and turning a vast swathe of land into volcanic ash dotted with dead, branchless tree trunks defiantly pointing upwards to the sky. Water that entered this gigantic crater formed five lakes.

Bajawa and MountainsLike the more famous Kelimutu crater lakes, the Wawo Muda lakes change colour according to the mineral content of the water. Unlike Kelimutu, however, the Wawo Muda lakes sometimes dry up, particularly during the dry season. When I visited in mid-April only two lakes were visible.

Trekking to the Crater

After driving for a short distance up through the town of Bajawa with my guide, Johannes, we paused at the entrance gate to the Wawo Muda area. There was nobody around so we continued on without being able to pay an entrance fee. Parking our motorbike at someone’s house, we continued on foot, uphill and along, and uphill some more. We passed coffee plantations; coffee from this area is exported as far as the US. Some brave locals rode their motorbikes up the steep and narrow country footpath, while others walked up the hill towards their plantations. Many vegetables and fruits are grown here, in addition to coffee, often in mixed plantations.

Johannes pointed out interesting trees and plants along the way. I smelt the crushed up leaves of the eucalyptus tree which, here in Indonesia, is used to make an oil called minyak kayu putih, applied to the skin to relieve numerous ailments. I saw coffee beans before the roasting process, all wet and white, and I learnt how in Flores they plant a particular type of tree before planting the coffee plants; these trees, spread throughout the plantation, improve the quality of the coffee. I smelt the roots of a plant used to make tiger balm, and saw enormous bamboo growing by the side of the path.

Tiger Balm Plant

This root is used to make tiger balm

As we climbed higher I looked out across a breathtaking vista of the whole town of Bajawa with Mount Inerie in the background and many large hills surrounding it.

Wawo Muda Lakes

It was scorching hot as we climbed the final stretch up to the crater rim. Then, between the trees, I glimpsed Wawo Muda. The large crater area was almost completely bare of vegetation, with only a few brave trees that had grown since the eruption. Dead, blackened tree trunks dotted the area. I could see two light brown lakes.

It is possible to climb down into the crater and get closer to the lakes, but it is a long way back up. Local people sometimes gather sulphur there, which I was told is used to reduce itchiness of the skin.

We walked around the crater edge to see the lakes from several angles. Since Wawo Muda is not a developed tourist destination, there are no handrails and I was careful not to slip on the little stones that line the ground. The view across the volcanic landscape and the two lakes was eerie and other-worldly.

Wawo MudaHow to Visit Wawo Muda

If you like a short trek through some interesting countryside, visit Wawo Muda before it dries up. The entrance to the area is a short drive from Bajawa, and you face a trek of one to two hours depending on where you start walking. Motorbikes can drive up the footpath so you have less walking, but the hike up through the plantations is pleasant.

Johannes was an excellent guide, extremely knowledgeable about the flora and fauna of the local area, as well as the development of Wawo Muda crater and the surrounding mountains. He also offers tours to other attractions in the Bajawa region, such as to Soa hot springs, climbing Mount Inerie and visiting traditional Ngada villages, and he regularly runs tours across the whole island of Flores. He can be contacted by email at [email protected] and by telephone on +62 (0)81 353 061310.

Kelimutu: Volcanic Crater Lakes of the Dead

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Staring at the milky blue waters I could see why some people were tempted to dive in as if goaded by an invisible spirit to swim in the beautiful lake, slipping off their sandals and jumping to their deaths in the poisonous volcanic water.

Big Blue LakesJourney to the Crater Brim

Earlier I had dragged myself out of bed at 4am (what kind of holiday is this, I had thought) in nearby Moni, and hopped on the back of a motorbike with my guide for the day, Udin, for the journey up to Kelimutu for sunrise. These volcanic crater lakes are the number one item on every visitor’s must-see list for Flores, and justifiably so.

The road twisted and bended, climbing upwards, cloudy in places so we could see only a few metres ahead. I was relieved I had opted to take a guide rather than hire a motorbike myself. Pausing at the entrance to Kelimutu National Park, I showed my KITAS (long-term Indonesian visa) and got in for the local price of Rp. 11,000 including parking and a camera permit. The usual price for foreigners is Rp. 20,000 for the ticket, Rp. 50,000 for a camera permit and Rp. 3,000 for parking. We arrived in the car park and began our walk up to the top. It was still dark and I used the torch I had brought, though the moonlight also lit our path.

Walking up steps and along a path, with a final climb up to the main viewing area, called Inspiration Point, we arrived somewhat out of breath, but pleasantly warmed by the 30 minute hike. Up at the top, the weather was cold, with a strong wind blowing.

A Disappointing Dawn

Unfortunately the cloudy start to the day was a sign of things to come. We couldn’t see the lakes, or indeed anything at all around the viewing point, since everything was shrouded in clouds. Then suddenly the wind blew, the clouds parted for an instant and I glimpsed the Kelimutu lakes.

Black lakeAs I watched, the sun now having risen, without any great dawn view that day, the clouds once again enveloped the viewing point and then it rained. I sheltered with the other visitors beside the concrete platform that marks the centre of Inspiration Point, though there was no roofed area. We waited for the rain to stop, and then after some more waiting, the lakes became visible once more.

Vast Lakes of Colour

I was blown away by the sheer enormity of the three Kelimutu lakes. Having seen photos prior to my trip, and having visited various other volcanic lakes in Indonesia, I hadn’t expected them to be so expansive. A sign states that the black lake covers 4.5 hectares with a depth of 67m. However, my guide believed this to be inaccurate due to the difficulties of measuring the lake’s size.

The lakes change colour from time to time, and were black, turquoise blue and lighter blue on my visit, all colours opaque. Each lake has a name: the black lake is called Ata Bupu, the light blue Nuamuri Ko’ofai, and the turquoise lake is called Ata Polo. The transitions in colour are believed to be caused by the concentration of minerals entering the water, which being in a live volcanic crater, has a high sulphur content. In some places I could see some bubbles at the water’s surface and the wind created ripples across all three lakes. Steep, high cliffs surround the lakes, and it is certainly a very long way down.

Blue lakesSpirits of the Dead

Besides science, the lakes play a significant role in the traditional beliefs in the Kelimutu region. Local people believe that a dead person’s soul enters one of the three lakes; there is one lake, Ata Polo, for the souls of people who have committed evil, a second lake, Ata Bupu, for the souls of old people who have died and a third, Nuamuri Ko’ofai, for the souls of those who have died young. As a result of this, offerings are made to the spirits residing in the lakes.

My guide told me about people who have wilfully jumped into one of the lakes, without intending to commit suicide. He described one visitor who was with friends at Inspiration Point before decided to walk back down towards the car park alone, while his friends were still admiring the view. Later his sandals were found, which had been taken off, showing that he had jumped and not fallen into the lake. Apparently several people have died in this way, and it is believed that they were tempted into the water by the spirits of the lake. Indeed the milky blue waters can appear deceptively inviting.

In fact, the poisonous waters are thick with minerals and sulphur, and therefore extremely dangerous. Several people have died in the lakes over the past few years, including locals. It is very difficult to retrieve corpses from the lakes, because they are pushed and pulled around by the volcanic strength of the bubbling magma underneath.

Rachel at KelimutuWalking around the Crater Rim

As well as admiring the view at Inspiration Point, it is possible to walk around to the farthest lake, walking along the crater rim. We walked along the paved, fenced pathway until it ended, and then continued on the clay-like ground, following the crater rim of the turquoise blue lake. The clouds had cleared to reveal an amazing view and as the sunlight hit the blue waters, the colours appeared ever more vivid.

Returning to the parking area via a different path, I was relieved I hadn’t dived into the black or blue water, and I could understand why Kelimutu has such a powerful pull for local people and tourists alike.

How to Visit Kelimutu

There are many homestays and hostels in nearby Moni village, which has become the tourist centre for visitors to Kelimutu. You can travel from Moni to Kelimutu (13km according to my old Lonely Planet) by motorbike as I did, either with a guide or by renting your own bike. A single ride up to Kelimutu on the back of a bike costs from Rp. 25,000. If you want a guide to drive you, escort you on the walk up and tell you interesting stories, this will cost more. I paid Rp. 130,000 for a full day’s guiding and motorbike tour to Kelimutu and then to other places around Moni. You can walk back down from Kelimutu to Moni, following a shortcut, and visiting a hot spring and a waterfall on the way. Some visitors choose to trek up to Kelimutu, but if you’re planning to be there at sunrise, it’s probably wise to go by motorbike. Cars and minibuses are also available in Moni for groups to hire.

Route Map

The Island of Flores: An Introduction for the Inquisitive Traveller

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Flores, located in eastern Indonesia, just east of Sumbawa, Rinca and Komodo islands, is a paradise island of forested hills, volcanoes and beaches. Although the major guidebooks all cover Flores and some tour operators offer trips to this island, Flores sees far fewer visitors than many other Indonesian islands; it is an absolute jewel of an island, waiting to be discovered by the mainstream tourism industry.

People of Flores

Flores has many regional languages and strong local cultures, still very much alive today. With travel limited by the mountainous terrain the local peoples have retained their individual languages and cultures much more than in other places I have visited. To speak to someone from a different ethnicity, the national language, Indonesian, is used. Unlike much of Indonesia, which is the largest Muslim country in the world, Flores has a Catholic majority, with many people following thWeavers of Nuandarie religion quite strictly.

I found the people of Flores to be honest about information such as prices, and genuinely helpful, which was a welcome break from the tourist rip-offs and downright dishonest conmen in certain other parts of Indonesia.

Traversing the Island

With a long shape, measuring 450km from east to west, Flores has only one main road, a two-lane bendy asphalt strip that weaves through forested hills and mountains and along the south coast, covering over 600km with its twists and turns. Most travellers choose to enter at either the eastern port of Maumere or at Labuan Bajo in the west, both of which have airports, and travel in a west or east direction, exiting via the other port. Ende, located on the south coast in the middle of the east-west route also has an airport, offering another port of entry.

Due to the twisty nature of the road, it can easily take an hour to travel only 30km, and the journeys easily cause motion sickness. The road is fairly quiet and there are certainly no traffic jams! As an independent traveller you have several transport options. You can hire a car and driver for around Rp. 500,000 per day, which may work out well for groups. Travelling alone as I did, however, this becomes too expensive. You can hire a motorbike, but if you aren’t used to riding on twisty mountain roads this would be a very tiring option. There are public buses where you ride amongst the chickens, goats and pigs that are being transported. This is definitely the cheapest option, but if you want something nicer, try bemos. These are minibuses that ply the same route (there is after all only one main route, with two directions).

Kelimutu Coloured Crater LakesEven more pleasant, however, is going by “travel”. Here in Flores the word “travel” is used to refer to public cars, just like ordinary cars, but with yellow number plates, which are allowed to pick up and drop off passengers. You can avoid traipsing to and from bus terminals and order a “travel” to collect you from your hotel and take you to your hotel at your destination. Essentially you get to travel by comfortable car, with other passengers, for a fraction of the price of hiring your own car and driver. This was my chosen form of transport to traverse the island.

My Route

According to Wikipedia Flores has a population of 1,831,000, much of which consists of villages and hamlets spread across the island. Entering at Maumere, Flores’s largest town though it’s really not very big, it is possible to go east to Larantuka, or head west to Moni, which is what I did. Paga makes a nice place to stop for a rest by the beach, to eat grilled fish, freshly caught.

Moni is the village with accommodation that is closest to Kelimutu. These coloured volcanic lakes are justifiably at the top of every visitor’s must-see list for Flores. The fresh air and picturesque countryside may tempt you to spend a few days relaxing in Moni, visiting nearby villages, waterfalls, hotsprings and more.

The next destination for many visitors is Ende. I chose not to spend the night in Ende, but in changing cars there I was able to see its black sand beach. People will tell you to go there to see the blue stones on the beach, but I saw loads of them collected in piles by the roadside as I headed towards Bajawa and they didn’t seem that special.

Traditional Ngada HousesIt is worth spending time looking around the Bajawa area, which offers an array of sights. I trekked up to Wawo Muda volcanic lakes and visited traditional Ngada villages, both of which I highly recommend. There is also a hot spring at Soa where you can bathe in the waters, and the town of Bajawa itself is worth a look around.

After Bajawa I stopped at Ruteng for a night, and stayed at a Catholic convent. If you have time and transport there are sights to be seen in the mountainous countryside around Ruteng which is in the Manggarai ethnic region, including terraced rice fields.

The final leg of my journey was to Labuan Bajo in the far west of Flores, an entry or exit point for most visitors to the island, and starting place for tours to see the famous Komodo dragons lizards on the neighbouring islands of Rinca and Komodo. I’ll be covering Flores in more detail in forthcoming articles, so follow AnySomewhere.com if you are curious to know more about this jewel of an island.