travel & nature photography
Text and images © marcus karlsen / no use without written permission
Hiking on volcanoes, buffalo sacrifice, and the world's largest lizards, this is just some of what you can experience on the islands in southeast Indonesia.
Lombok - Trekking on Gunung Rinjani.
East of Bali, on the other side of a deep strait full of dolphins and seething whirlpools, lays the island of Lombok. The island itself is dominated by a tall volcano. The peak of Gunung Rinjani slices through the clouds 3726 meter above sea level.
The time is barely five in the morning as we struggle our way up the mountain, an icy wind howling around our ears. The path ahead runs along the crater rim of the volcano Gunung Rinjani. We can barely make out the crater lake in the light of the full moon. A few missteps to the right and we will drop 700 meters down there, a couple to the left and we will tumble several kilometers down to the foot of the mountain. The ground consists of loose gravel, and we take two steps forward and one back. In front of us we can see the outline of the summit. It looks unattainable and inhospitable in the dark. Behind it the sky is turning red. The sun has started its journey across the sky. A wonderful play of colors, but we are freezing too much to enjoy it. Who would have thought we would need fleece and weather jacket at the equator?
A little later the sun sends its warm rays upon us, and slowly we start to warm up again. Finally we can enjoy the fantastic view. Far below us is the crystal blue crater lake, Segara Anak, surrounded by steep walls. In the midst of the lake, as a true copy of his great mother, a smaller cone rises out of the water. From time to time it sends out a small cloud of smoke, as if to remind us that it is only four years since the last time it sent glowing magma down the mountainside. This miniature volcano is called Gunung Baru, or new mountain, by the natives, while the crater rim we walking on belogs to Gunung Rinjani, Indonesia's second highest mountain outside Irian Jaya, 3726 meters above sea level.
Two days earlier we arrived the village of Senaru, having travelled by boat and bus from the island Gili Trawangan. In Senaru, which is located at the foot of Gunung Rinjani, we found a small guesthouse. We sat down with the owner to discuss the price of the three day Rinjani trek. Having haggled the price down to less than half of what he had first offered, we were all happy. We sat down on the porch, watching the volcano we were going to climb the following day. It was an impressive sight where it lay with the top hidden deep in the clouds. As there were still a few hours until it got dark, we went to a waterfall just outside the village. After a quick shower under the refreshing water we walked over to some locals who were busy moving rocks below the falls. Suddenly one pulled out a small eel from between the rocks. We sat down next to them and began to dig, and were greeted with enthusiastic shouts. After a while they had captured six or seven eels and had enough for dinner. We returned to the village to eat "Nasi Kampur", an Indonesian rice dish, in a small wahrung (restaurant).
It's six o'clock in the morning and we are sitting in the back of a "bemo", a small van, which will drive us to the village Sembalun Lawang, located on another side of Rinjani. The road is narrow and winding and the car is barely getting up the steep slopes. After about half an hour the car stops outside the village, and we are finally at the starting point. Curious children and adults from the village come to watch us. The kids shout "Hello Mister", no matter if you are a man or a woman. They do not know what it means, but have learned that this is how they should greet foreigners. The porter, Hardy, threw a bamboo cane, with food and tents tied on either side, up on his shoulders and we start to walk. Between us and the foothills of the mighty mountain is a huge plain with dry yellow grass. The sides of the volcano is covered by a green belt that is thinner and more yellow the higher up the slopes one comes, while the top is still shrouded in clouds. The path of the plain is dry and dusty, and it's awfully hot. After three hours of walking, we finally arrived at the foot of the mountain for lunch and a much needed rest. Lunch, consisting of Indonesian noodle soup, tastes better than ever, even though the water it was boiled in was both yellow and muddy. After a short break we continue the trip up the mountain. As we get higher, the air is noticeably cooler. Now and then a cloud is flying by and we are surrounded by damp, cold mist. But not for long after it's gone we can see the island of Lombok below us again. The trail winds its way up the steep mountain side, and when we finally reach the crater rim is over 7 hours and 1900 vertical meters since leaving Sembalun Lawang. The crater and the summit is covered by a dense cloud cover, and we sit down and look the other way, back from where we came. Far below we can see the village and furteher away the coast of Lombok. Even the neighboring island, Sumbawa, is visible in the distance. We walk a little further along the crater rim before putting up the tent. Suddenly it seems as if Rinjani has decided to reveal some of her secrets, the clouds down in the crater lifts and a wonderful landscape emerges from the mist. Far down in the crater we can see the lake Segara Anak, and the river Kokok Putih which flows through the only valley in the crater. The river, which starts at some hot springs not far from the shores of the lake, has an almost milky white color, while the lake is crystal blue. We sit down outside the tent and enjoy the sight of this wonderful landscape, while the sun sets behind the horizon. Then we crawl into the small tent with our alarm clock set to 0300, and fall asleep to the sound of the wind playing with the tent canvas.
When we return to the tent after the trip to the summit, we are greeted by a troop of long tail macaques. The monkeys sit and look at us while we are eating breakfast. Suddenly one of them grabs a bag of sugar and another a pot of rice. Then an argument breaks out between them over who should benefit from the good stuff. A large male are victorious, and the others just have to wait for the leftovers. After breakfast we walk down to the lake. The path down the crater rim is steep and winding. When we reach the shores of Segara Anak, we are once again impressed by the landscape. The only thing that spoils the picture is all the trash on the beach. This is a sacred place for the natives of Lombok, and at each full moon many of them make a pilgrimage up here to pray to the gods and bathe in the hot springs. The water of the springs are said to help against all sorts of ailments. In particular, a bath here should be good for the skin, so what can be better for our blisters. The first spring is full of local men with white turbans, but the second one we get completely to ourselves. The warm water soothes sore and aching muscles, but for the blisters only Band-Aid helps. When we finally reach the top of the crater rim on the other side of the lake it is 14 hours since we woke up. We set up camp on the crater's edge and watch the sun set behind the Gunung Batur volcano on Bali. Early the next morning we look out over the crater of Gunung Rinjani one last time before we start the descent to Senaru.
Komodo – Home of the dragons
The wooden gate looks like the entrance to Jurassic Park. Within the Komodo dragons are waiting - a living dinosaur. They are known to have eaten people. Do you dare to come to along?
After three quiet hours on the ferry from Sumbawa we enter a small fishing boat that will take us ashore the island of Komodo. We set foot on dry land and walk through a high wooden gate that resembling the gateway to the Jurassic Park. And what could be more appropriate when the island is home to the world's largest lizard? A giant monitor lizard, more than three meters long and weighing in at 150 kilos. The closest we get to a living dinosaur.
From ancient times fishermen and pearl divers had shared stories about these prehistoric creatures. In 1910 a Dutch party visited the island, and two lizards were shot and their skin taken to Java for the first publication. Since lizards never have been a delicacy, they have been left alone by the locals. Today the lizards are protected, and you can join go on a hike and experience them up close. We look for lizards while our guide tells us about some of the beasts human meals. In 1996, a local school teacher was attack. While he slept in his bed the lizard tore off his leg. A few years earlier, a woman and her children were attacked and killed down by the harbor. At least that is what the stories says.
We go deeper into the island's interior, and it is not long before we catch sight of the main attraction of Komodo, the Komodo dragon (Varanus Komodoensis). The lizard comes waddling down the trail. It stops just a few meters ahead, peering quickly at the startled tourists and then continues on into the thicket. The dragons can be over three meters long, has a dark gray color and an impermeable skin of thick shells. It can run for 30 km/h, and with a quick swipe of its powerful tail it can easily break the leg of a human being. So you better watch out.
Flores – The buffalo sacrifice
The lush island of Flores is covered with volcanoes that divides the island into many small regions with different languages and traditions. For just a few years ago, scientists found fossils of an as yet unknown human race here. Only one meter high they lived perhaps side by side with Homo sapiens 18 000 years ago. Flores current population are Catholics, but has also retained much of their old customs and animistic beliefs. Between July and November there are many traditional ceremonies held here. If you are as lucky as us and happen to find one of them, you are guaranteed an unforgettable experience.
Bloody, screaming pigs everywhere, knives cut their sculls apart and the blood collected in bamboo bowls, then the gods are satisfied. The impressions flash by on the retina and are processed by the brain. The body is paralyzed by all the blood and tumult. People standing on the stone wall behind us laugh at the two foreigners. Just a few days ago we relaxed on white sand beaches, how did we get here?
The trip from Bajawa to the small village of Luba goes along narrow, bumpy dirt roads. At the roadside cinnamon, coffee plants and poinsettias the size of trees grows. At the foot of the towering volcano Inerie a small collection bamboo huts surround an open space. On the space between the houses swirling dancers in colorful costumes dances in a cloud of dust. The men wave their swords while the women dance with feather decorations and pieces of cloth in their hands. The dance is accompanied by a gamelan orchestra with drums in leather and brass. The residents of Luba belong to the Ngada people. When a new main house is built, they must sacrifice to the ancestors so they will bring happiness to the family living there.
The dancing stops and three buffaloes and twenty pigs enter the square. This is the highlight of the event, the sacrifice of buffaloes and pigs. Everyone gathers around the open space to witness the event. The buffaloes haven't hit the ground before the whole village is at work cutting and butchering the meat. At close to 40 degrees Celsius the smell of raw meat, blood and guts is sickening and intense. It is gelling close to dinner and we are invited to join them, but meat is not on our menu today.
Flores is not only exciting people and culture. It is also home to one of Indonesia's most mysterious phenomena. At the volcano Keli Mutu, there are three crater lakes that each has a different color. The colors are said to change every time there is a major crisis in Indonesia. Ata Polo is 105 meters down in a crater with nearly vertical sides, and it is about 400 meters in diameter. The color of the water is dark brown. By its side is the blue lake, Ata Mutri. The last lake Ata Mbupu, has an almost charcoal black color.
Maybe we're not alone here. According to the legends of the local people the souls of the dead are living down in the lakes. In Ata Polo, the brown lake, lives the souls of the old, and in Ata Mutri, the blue lake, the souls of the young people. The color of the water directs the souls to the right resting place. The pitch black Ata Mbupu is home to the souls of evil and bad people. These can lure the soul of living people that comes too close. This makes it dangerous to approach the lake, especially at night. A few years ago a tourist walked around the lake to take some photos. He disappeared without a trace. We leave the lakes, with our souls intact, ready for new adventure in Indonesian archipelago.