The Trans-Flores Highway is an incredibly grand name for the twisting ribbon of potholed tarmac that loops and swoops the length of one of the world’s most exciting and unique islands. In its meandering trail across highland ridges, through jungle-draped valleys and under the looming, threatening shadows of mighty volcanoes the highway manages to clock up a hellish 666km. And this to transect an island that is only 375km long. For large sections the ‘highway’ crumbles away altogether leaving only a narrow dirt-track with barely room for two diminutive bemo minibuses to pass. But Flores is a stark and brutally beautiful island and there can be no better way to experience it than to take time to travel the fabled Trans-Flores Highway.


So it is with a fitting sense of excitement that we set off at dawn on a typically crisp and clear Indonesian morning. It is easy to imagine that it must have been on just such a morning when the first Portuguese explorers arrived here and – apparently falling instantly in love with this South China Sea paradise – they named their discovery ‘Cabo das Flores.’ The Cape of Flowers. Our pickup truck climbs quickly away from the little port of Labuhan Bajo and soon we are rolling through banana plantations and among the silvery trunks of rubber trees. We pass sleepy little timber-shack villages where a gentle tradewind ripples through the leaves of mango and papaya trees. We swoop down into shadowy glades where great stands of giant bamboo arc over the road, straining and creaking under the tension of their great length. It seems that anything grows in the rich volcanic soil of the Island of Flowers. As if to prove the fact even the rough-hewn fence posts alongside the road are sending up healthy green shoots towards the sun. The highway winds through a tangle of dense and humid rainforest and swoops suddenly out across an expanse of rice fields where the lush paddy is so startlingly green in the sunlight that it almost makes our eyes water. There is no green in the world that is richer than the neon glow of a paddyfield under an equatorial sun. Paddy workers in conical ‘coolie hats’ pause in their labour to wave as we rattle past and occasionally we interrupt the trudging passage of a buffalo plough as it turns over the black sludge.


My companion on this trip is Craig Pusey, a motoring photographer who spends much of his time photographing more prestigious vehicles such as Aston Martins and Ferraris. But Craig has an adventurous streak and he jumped at the chance to spend a week shooting life along the Trans-Flores Highway. Yovi, our driver, has arranged that our first stop will be in Aimere, one of the pretty coastal towns in Bajawa territory. At a push you could do the drive along the entire Trans-Flores Highway in three days but we are planning to spend longer in villages along the way, getting to meet the local people. Flores also has its chain of must see beauty spots that we are anxious not to miss. Labuhan Bajo itself is best known as the jump-off point for boats to nearby Rinca Island (Komodo’s lesser known dragon-infested neighbour). There are no less than fourteen active volcanoes on Flores – only Java and Sumatra have more – and there are also the mysterious lakes of Keli Mutu. Set among the mysterious volcanic peaks and terraced paddies of central Flores they are one of the wonders of Indonesia. And, with an estimated 13,000 islands boasting almost incomparable diversity, Indonesia is not short of natural wonders.


We intend to see the main sights but we have decided not to restrict ourselves to a set itinerary as we want to drift where the mood takes us and to stop on a whim if there is something we want to see. “We have something in Indonesia called jam karet,” Yovi tells us. “Literally this means ‘rubber time.’ Many other places have it I think…but in Flores we do it better!” Jam karet reflects the usual relaxed islanders’ outlook towards such things as schedules and deadlines but here it is also very often influenced by the friendly and fun-loving Indonesian people who are always so ready to stop and spend time welcoming you to their island. A quick stop at a roadside petrol stall (where fuel is sold by the litre bottle) leads to an invitation to sit down for a coca cola. We talk for a while and when we try to pay we are waved away with a smile and the explanation that we are the first foreigners ever to stop in this little hamlet. In another village we pause to stretch our legs and take some photos of yet another majestic volcano and we end up spending an hour playing with the children and watching a young lady weaving local cloth. The lifestyle here in these remote and pretty mountain hamlets has changed little over the course of the last century and even the loom that the girl is working on has been passed down through several generations.


When we arrive at the little village of Aimerie it is almost dark and the first subdued rays of oil lamps are already beginning to show between the slatted timber walls of some of the houses. We are staying with some friends of Yovi’s and after being greeted with the customary sugary-sweet black coffee – a taste that soon grows on you and seems to offer a real jolt of energy – Pak Haryati, as our host is called, shows us where to drop our kit in the master bedroom. We dine with the family on rice (as always) and cassava leaves and chicken. Followed by still more coffee. On our second day we arrive in Bajawa – heartland of Flores. The pretty highland town with its bustling market is a perfect base for exploring and trekking among some of the most astounding landscapes in Indonesia. Only a few outsiders come here however and at almost every turn you are still greeted as a guest. We stay at a small hotel in the town and spend a day visiting Kampong Luba, a traditional village high on the slopes above of the mighty Gunung Inerie volcano (2245m). This is one of several Ngada villages still left in this area. The steep roofed thatched huts all face inwards and the ceremonial life of the Ngada people – including ritual sacrifices at important stages of the agricultural cycle – still take place in the communal area in the centre of the village. For once the rain is providential and we take shelter on the headman’s veranda and spend a pleasant hour drinking the ubiquitous syrupy coffee and watching his wife weaving the fine ikat textiles for which Flores, and this area in particular, is so famous.


The following day is a long day of driving. Since it is best to arrive on Keli Mutu’s summit at dawn we hope to make it to the mountain hamlet of Moni by nightfall. Throughout the morning we catch tantalising glimpses of the mighty Gunung Mej volcano, standing out against a dark and stormy monsoon sky. In the afternoon we stop to explore jet-black volcanic sand beaches that are decorated with startlingly white stones. The sky is still threatening over the volcano but on the beach the sun is hot. Life is simple in Moni but luxuries that might command a high price elsewhere are just part of everyday life here. After a hearty meal of spicy nasi goreng (fried rice) I enjoy an invigorating massage and then Yovi suggests that we drive up to the nearby thermal springs for a warm bath. It seems that the entire village is anxious to take advantage of the offer of transportation and by the time we leave there are twenty-seven people in the flatbed of our pickup. (There are two natural pools, one male and one female).


Keli Mutu is surely the number one crowd-puller on Flores. It is worth a visit even just for the spectacular landscapes that unravel through the dawn mist on the winding drive up to the famous lakes. The three different coloured lakes (at 1600m) were once considered sacred by the people of this area and it is still an impressively spiritual place. Due to an unusual geological quirk all three lakes change colour periodically depending on the minerals that are absorbed in their thermal waters. At the moment one is green, another chocolate and the final one a piercing blue with a fringe of yellow sulphur. Back down in the valley the highway rolls onward. For a whole day we are high in the jungle-clad peaks and occasionally we must stop to wait while landslides are cleared off the road. The delay is never more than an hour and the atmosphere is as far removed from the ‘road rage’ of more developed countries as it is possible to get. It seems that wherever a group of three or more Flores locals gather there is certain to be lively conversation and open smiles.


By now we too have made friends among the regulars on the highway. It seems strange that travelling at this speed we should see so many familiar faces but it has become clear to us that there is an entire community that lives continually on the move from one end of Flores to the other. The battered red truck with the blaring musical air-horn is now a familiar sight and the driver always waves and plays a tune when he passes us, or we him. A bus with the name ‘Sparring’ emblazoned on the front seems to be travelling at the same pace as us and we overtake one another several times over the course of a few days. Passengers hanging onto the roof shout at us happily, asking us yet again to take their pictures.


There are many smaller bemo minibuses that we recognise instantly by the names (usually in English, despite the fact that few here can speak it) that are stencilled on the front. TerminatorTomb RaiderMama’s Boy and Ooooh Baby! must surely be famous in every village on Flores. In Larantuka, at the end of the highway, I meet a young man with the unlikely name of Diego da Silva. He too is part of this highway community and spends his days as a driver, shuttling passengers down the road to the town to Ende. Diego’s grandmother left Lisbon with her husband who had been offered a job in the port administration at Larantuka. After her husband died she stayed on – “this was her home by then,” says Diego, “there was nothing for her in Lisbon.” – and married a local man to raise what seems to be a fairly numerous da Silva clan.


Officially the highway ends at Larantuka’s picturesque port. Here a colourful collection of travellers and cargo from still more easterly islands are off-loaded to begin their own journeys on the Trans-Flores. But there is still a ribbon of tarmac that leads for a few more kilometres northward to the Cape of Flowers that was first sighted by the Portuguese explorers. True to form, the tarmac deteriorates quickly on this last stretch and our long suffering driver Yovi is soon picking his way carefully over the ruts and potholes of a trail that would be a challenge even for a serious off-road vehicle. Finally, about 20km short of the cape, we have to admit defeat. The pickup cannot make it any farther and we must turn back to the port and accept the fact that our journey is over.


If there were any way to do so I would turn Indonesian ‘rubber time’ to my advantage now. I’d twist it back around and tie it into itself. Then I’d set out to drive the Trans-Flores Highway all over again.


Into the Dragon’s Lair:

Just two hours boat trip from Labuhan Bajo is an island that is said to be one of the most unforgettable wildlife destinations in the world. There is something eerie about seeing the palm-studded hills of Rinca Island rise up out of the Indonesian sea when you remind yourself that his island is home to an estimated 2,000 fearsome – and potentially lethal – giant Komodo dragons. A trek across Rinca Island is full of the sort of adrenalin jolts and wide-eyed tension that you would expect from a safari in the land of dragons.


The Riddle of the ‘Hobbit’:

Homo floresiensis, also known as the ‘man of Flores’ lived on this island between 94000 and 13000. When the ancient bones were first discovered in Liang Bua cave in central Flores in 2003 they caused a sensation when the discovers claimed that they were testament to an entire branch of mankind that was until then totally unknown. Measuring only one metre tall the specimens were described in the world’s press as Hobbits. While academics continue to argue over whether these people were technically part of a separate subspecies many old Flores villagers look on bemused; it seems that they have never doubted that the stories of the short, hairy people known as Ebu Gogo who live in the island’s caves are true.


The Wallace Line:

Alfred Russel Wallace, a contemporary and collaborator with Darwin on his laws of evolution, travelled widely in Indonesia in the 19th century. The Wallace Line was defined by him to show the boundary between Asiatic animals (to the west) and the extremes of territories of Australian wildlife (to the east). Apart from the area’s giant bats few flying animals even cross the line and Flores, lying just to the east of the line, boasts very different animal species to those found on nearby Bali.