East of Flores, the islands of the Alor Archipelago are some of the least explored in all of Indonesia. We set sail on the Seven Seas luxury schooner to discover some of the world’s best dive sites and ancient animist cultures.
Words and photography by Tommy Schultz
Dressed in traditional ikat headdress and sash, the Abui chief locks eyes with his opponent, bracing for combat.
Drawing their swords, ancient metal flashes as the blades are removed from ornately carved wooden scabbards. The weapons slice through the humid morning air; the warriors demonstrate their fighting technique, passed down across the centuries in this remote corner of the Lesser Sunda Islands.
The men spar for a few minutes, swords clanging with the impact of each attack and defence. In the end, their faces break into smiles, laughing with each other to break the tension from just moments before. And though the battle is just a demonstration, it’s easy to imagine the fierceness and fighting skills of the warriors who were the grandfathers and great-grandfathers of these men.
We’re exploring the islands east of Flores during a 12-day cruise aboarda 40m traditionally built phinisi boat known for its spacious liveaboard facilities and its exploration of Indonesia’s exotic beauty. My friend Corey and I have been waking up to an eye-popping panorama every morning for the past seven days, and on Day Eight we’ve arrived just outside Kalabahi, the capital of Alor.
We’ve spent an unforgettable morning with the Abui people, beginning with a traditional dance performance led by the group’s matriarchs. The women begin with a slow, shuffling cadence, their handmade anklets clanging to keep time with the rhythm, the ebony-coloured soil polished to a glassy sheen by their footsteps.
Towards the end of the dance, the performers invite us to join them. We scramble to follow the intricate footwork, counting the beats of the drum in our head as the leaders keep rhythm, laughing as we trip over our clumsy feet.
Before we know it, our time amongst the Abui is coming to a close. Traditional ikat weavers appear to show off their handiwork; rugged fabrics of deepest burgundy, indigo and other earth tones display the iconography of the Alor islands sea turtles and other marine creatures are prominent.
Before returning and continuing our Alor island hop, Corey and I stop by the capital, Kalabahi. Arriving at the main market, we find vendors and shoppers crowding through the narrow lanes of the stalls. We’re sampling Alor’s tasty fruit and veggies, absorbing the unique patterns of daily life here.
Corey has created an improvised skirt with a length of fabric woven by an Abui ikat virtuoso.
‘Cantik!’ A local woman calls out approvingly, from behind a display of fiery chilli peppers arranged in neat piles. We stop to chat for a moment, Corey’s choice of local dress earning her an admiring hug from the shopkeeper.
By now the midday sun has climbed high above the market and it’s time to head back to the Savu Sea to cool off.
We return to Seven Seas, where we’re briefed on our afternoon dive, starting out from a village just a short cruise from Kalabahi.
We’re trying to catch a glimpse of one of the rarest underwater creatures in the world the highly elusive Rhinopias scorpionfish.
The fish is commonly known as the ‘Holy Grail of underwater photography’, and most scuba enthusiasts spend their entire dive careers without seeing one. This species of scorpionfish has evolved to blend perfectly with its surroundings – typically living amongst seagrass growing on sandy slopes that surround coral gardens.
As we arrive at the dive site, local children dive and flip from their parents’ fishing boats, their playful laughter carrying across the water as Irwan, our dive guide, prepares us for the excursion.
Plunging in, Corey and I swim towards the sandy seafloor. Like archaeological explorers, we find sunken treasures from the fishing harbour nearby. A bit of pottery here, a length of boat rope over there.
Known for his superhuman ability to spot even the tiniest sea creatures, Irwan immediately begins searching the seafloor for a Rhinopias.
Lost in the beauty of the underwater world, I’m drifting along, admiring the fish and other marine creatures swimming by.
“Ting ting ting!” Three sharp taps from Irwan’s metal pointer let us know he’s found something. We swim over to see what he’s discovered.
Irwan is pointing to what looks like a few bits of seagrass attached to a lump of sand, but after staring at it for a few moments, the outline of the elusive Rhinopias appears almost by magic.
I snap a few frames with my camera; the underwater flash brings out the rich red hues of the scorpionfish. I never imagined I’d have the chance to see one of these rare creatures up close. As the air in our scuba tank runs lower, Irwan signals a ‘thumbs up’ time to return to the surface. We ascend to see the afternoon sun sparkling above us, golden light glowing on the palm trees lining the beach nearby
“I sure could go for one of those right now,” Corey says, pointing towards a clump of emerald coconuts high in the trees.
A drink of fresh coconut would be the perfect end to such a busy day, but how to get one down?
Paddling by in a local outrigger perahu canoe, a local boy named Jhon comes to the rescue. Before we know it, he’s organised his friends into a group to help him climb the coconut tree, using a machete to cut down enough green kelapa muda for the entire crew and passengers aboard.
As we return to the ship, Jhon and his friends paddle over with their outrigger canoes laden with coconuts, joining us to watch the last light of the day fading over the Savu Sea. Diamond stars begin to glow in the sky as night falls on Alor.
Tonight we will begin our journey back to the port in Maumere, leaving the wonders of Alor behind. We’ve only been here for a short time, but the magic of this amazing archipelago has captured my imagination and filled my camera’s memory card. I know I’ll be back for more adventures in this incredible corner of Indonesia.
JAKARTA TO KUPANG
Frequency 7 ﬂights per week
Flight Time 3 hours
5 Senses – Sight
World-famous as the ‘Holy Grail’ of underwater photography, the rare and elusive Rhinopias scorpionfish is one of the most unusual creatures to be seen by adventurous scuba divers. With a population of these beautifully camouflaged reef-dwellers found along the coastline of Alor, the island is one of the only places in the world where these tropical fish can be glimpsed.