Flores, Indonesia: Sacred sites, stunning natural bounty and dragons too

It's only 10am, but already tens of thousands of pilgrims, sweltering in blistering heat, are gathering on the waterside under the watchful eye of police armed with machine-guns.

For even here, on Good Friday, on the holiest day in the Catholic calendar, on the seashores of the small town of Larantuka, on the Indonesian island of Flores, precautions have to be taken.

There is no dress code among the pilgrims, waiting patiently, expectantly, silently for the emergence, from the Tuan Ma and Tuan Ana chapels, of the "bodies" of Jesus and his Mother Mary, respectively.

Many in the crowd wear black. But some women wear colourful dresses. Some men and boys wear T-shirts, bearing the name of the messiah, the personal claim "son of Jesus" or even the name of a popular football team.

All, however, are joined in prolonged, respectful silence as, after several hours' wait, the ritual likenesses of Jesus and Mary emerge into dazzling sunlight, are carried to the nearby beach and placed on a traditional, wooden rowboat.

From here they are transported round the bay, followed symbolically by masses of worshippers, in hundreds of fishing and pleasure boats. It is a dazzling scene.

While local men and women plunge into the sea to souvenir water from the holy rowboat, the mother and son are solemnly transported to the towering cathedral of Reinha Rosari, in the centre of Larantuka.

The Good Friday procession is a key event in "Semana Santa", an annual holy week of prayer, long, sacrificial, candle-lit walks, disciplined contemplation, round-the-clock remembrance and mourning, dating to the 16th century. 

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According to legend the tradition dates to the era of Portuguese colonisation, to the early 16th century when a young boy is said to have found a likeness of Tuan Ma, the Christ, on a local beach. He is also believed to have received heavenly guidance in a conversation with the Virgin Mary.

It may seem odd reading here about Semana Santa several months before Easter, 2018, but so spectacular, so moving, so popular has the week-long event become that local boarding houses, bed-and-breakfasts and hotels are sold out many months in advance.

Indeed, our small group was fortunate to find accommodation. A relatively late booking, the Fortuna Hotel was clean, convenient and hospitable but, well, "basic". There was no hot water in the rooms, no showers, no flush toilets.

However, after the initial shock of having to use a heart-shaped, plastic bucket to chuck cold water over one's self and into one's toilet each day, the hotel proved helpful and unfailingly friendly.

On reflection, it also seemed highly appropriate to the humbling occasion that annually unfolds in Larantuka, in the south-east corner of Flores.

The island – named by early European visitors for the abundance of flamboyant, red flowers found on local trees – offers so much more than a fascinating history that, once a year, draws tens of thousands of visitors to one of its a smaller, workaday towns. 

Indeed, it's a real-life "treasure island"; one of Indonesia's 17,000 or so islands, only 6000 of which are inhabited: a green, green land of lush, roller-coaster countryside. Unspoiled beaches. Exotic wildlife. Friendly people. And, of course, a multi-coloured culture.

Little wonder, then, that Flores is becoming a popular target for increasing numbers of Australian visitors to Indonesia seeking a change of pace, perspective and panorama from more crowded, more popular destinations such as Bali and Ubud.

Our first stop is Maumere, an hour or so flight from Denpasar, depending greatly on the weather. There is a warm welcome, as we pose for photographs and are presented with gifts of flowers and colourful, home-made scarves.

From Maumere it is only a short drive to a fruit, fresh fish and salad lunch at the laid-back Coconut Garden Beach Resort, which is decorated with life-size, driftwood sculptures of horses, boats and swings, as well as a comical collage of worn-out men's working pants, viewed from the rear. 

Everywhere we look are wooden sign boards, decorated with family mottos: Be Grateful. Laugh out Loud. Dream Big. Pay debts with hugs and kisses. Know you are loved. Be tankful (sic).

We are also joined by local schoolmaster and guide Hans Lamar, who will be our guide over the three days at Larantuka, which advertises itself as "the city of 1000 churches" or "the Naples of the Orient".

Indeed, within minutes of arriving in the town after a three-hour drive, he is walking us through some of the sacred places and "stations" on the seven-kilometre route of the Semana Santa. Some pilgrims will walk round the clock.

Understandably, the local governments of towns such as Maumere and Larantuka are working hard to provide round-the-year activities aimed at extending the island "visitor season".

Already they include visits to the local, active, "twin volcano" of Ili Mandiri; a day out, uneasy for some, on a local whaling boat and, most surprisingly, an annual Tour de Flores cycling race, described as a "five-stage, mini Tour de France".

It is one of several promising tourism ventures. Good thinking. However, much of the south-eastern side of Flores remains relatively undeveloped, unvisited by travellers, awaiting the arrival of more "infrastructure".

By contrast, its western-most tip has already been discovered by visitors, especially from Australia. And understandably so.

Our four-hour, cross-island flight from Larantuka via Kupang to Labuan Bajo, lands us in a part of Flores that is building big hotels, such as the beautiful, beachside, seaside Laprima, with magnificent views across the bay.

The friendly, rough and tumble settlement of Labuan Bajo may still accurately be described as "a small fishing village", but already offers an attractive water "gateway" into the magnificent Komodo National Park.

To avoid the increasing number of visitors, some spilling from cruise ships, it is best to go early in the morning. Very early.

Our guide gave us a 3am wake-up call. By 4am, we were on board the good ship Aqualoona, one of a local fleet of traditional, wooden "pinisi" ships, skippered by local sailor Oyan Kristian.

There were bunks below deck for those who wanted more sleep, and plenty of food up top for those who wanted an early, early breakfast.

Over the next few hours we climb high, grassy mountains for exhilarating, "forever-world" views of the surrounding land and seascape. Refreshed, we drop in at Pink Beach (named after the coloured sand) for a snorkel.

It would be truly idyllic, breathtaking in its pristine beauty – but for the rubbish floating on the water, dropped by visitors, washed up on the sea. The local authorities are working hard to prevent and/or clear the trash, but right now it looks like a losing battle.

We finish our day-trip with an expedition into the national park in search of the famous dragons. There are "exactly" 1377 animals spread across some 200 square kilometres, our precise guide Risaldiasah Puter explains.

The animals eat their own kind, grow to more than three metres, and up to 70 kilograms, and have a venomous bite from glands which excrete toxic proteins. Our chances of bumping into one is "50-50", says "Risal".

Our luck is in. Barely 10 minutes' walk into the forest, we come across five dragons – four males, one female – dozing, it seems, in the hottest part of the day.

Occasionally, one or two dragons – aware, perhaps, of the sudden snapping of cameras, lift their heads. One even gets up on two feet. But they seem far less interested in us than we are in them.

"Don't be fooled," says Risal, beckoning us back to the path, to the ship and, by sail, back to Labuan Bajo. The end of a wonderful Indonesian adventure.

TRIP NOTES 

MORE

traveller.com.au/indonesia

florestourism.com/semana-santa-easter-good.friday/

komodonationalpark.org/

STAY

Cheap rooms may be found at the The Fortuna Hotel, Larantuka, on +62 383 21383, but Easter visitors are advised to shop around and book early. Laprima in Labuan Bajo can be contacted at reservation@hotellaprima/com, or on +62 385 2443700

SEE + DO

Join the pilgrims and experience the week-long Easter Semana Santa activities. Most are free, though donations are much appreciated. Sail on a schooner, snorkel or dive to see dolphins, turtles, manta rays and flying fish, visit Pink Beach and the famous dragons of Komodo National Park. 

John Huxley travelled with the support of Wonderful Indonesia, Ministry of Tourism of the Republic of Indonesia.

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