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Maumere: Heart of The Cape of Flower

Flores is known as one of Indonesia’s most beautiful islands. Mark Eveleigh travels to Maumere to explore some of the most astounding landscapes and richest artistic traditions in the region.

Words and photography by Mark Eveleigh

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In a world where forests are being cleared every day, it is a real privilege to meet a man who simply woke up one day and decided to plant his own. Viktor Emanuel Rayon is better known around Maumere town as ‘Bapak Akong’, and the mangrove forest that he and his wife planted – literally carrying more than a thousand seedlings on their backs – now stretches across 60 hectares.

When the great tsunami hit this northern coast of Flores in 1992, the fisherman and his family barely managed to escape. “We had to run up the hill with our six children,” Pak Akong recalls. “The wave was chasing us and the tremors were so powerful that rocks were falling on us from in front.” They lost their house and all belongings but counted themselves lucky simply to be alive.“The mangrove forests had been cut for wood and the protective coastal barrier was removed,” explains Pak Akong. “So, four months after the tsunami, I just decided we’d replant it.”

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Today the forest is an established natural habitat, and wildlife and birds have moved back to stay. Local people have rights to harvest fish and shellfish and to collect leaves that are used to season food and bark for traditional medicine, but it is prohibited to chop the trees for building. With the help of his sons, Pak Akong has even built a 350m bamboo walkway (complete with picnic shelters and a lookout tower) as access to the pretty beach beyond the mangroves. The forest survives only from the donations of visitors but should be recognised as a living monument to human potential for making our planet stronger rather than weaker.

Pak Akong’s forest stands out as an unforgettable highlight even in this beautiful island upon which Portuguese explorers bestowed the name ‘Cape of Flowers’. Koka Beach, lying on the south coast just an hour from Maumere city, still retains the sort of breathtaking natural beauty that might have inspired such a name. With its two perfectly curving scimitars of white sand Koka could be a Hollywood backdrop for some tropical island fantasy.

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“My family has always loved and respected this spot,” says my guide Helena. “My great-grandfather was Raja of this area and is buried on the eastern hill there. So Koka is still a place of pilgrimage to us.” Helena works at Capa Resort Maumere but, with her dark-eyed beauty and a name like Helena Nina Caritatis Hokeng, I shouldn’t be surprised to learn that I am talking to a lady who would, in another era, have been a princess. This was once a heavily feudal area of mountain kingdoms, and shortly after dawn the next morning, as Helena and I trek up towards the legendary crater lakes of Kelimutu, we meet another descendant of kings. With his boundless energy, Bapak Marcus now makes a living as a guide on the mountain slopes where his family has always lived…and where they once ruled.

“My people herded buffalo here and grew tobacco in the valleys,” he says. “Now we just show tourists around or sell refreshments. Kelimutu was always a spiritually powerful place. Sometimes people would go mad up here or would get hopelessly lost. Atapolo Lake in particular has a dark magic and can lure people to jump to their deaths.”

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Even on a bright sunny day like today an unmistakable air of brooding spirituality still seems to hang over the three enigmatic crater lakes that are famous for their changing colours. The last time I visited this spot (seven years ago) the lakes were dark chocolate coloured, icy green and milky white. I had assumed that the changes would be gradual but Bapak Marcus’s wife Martina – who has trekked up to the summit every day for the last eight years loaded with snacks and flasks of deliciously refreshing ginger coffee to sell to sightseers – explains that occasionally an unpredictable change can take place almost overnight. “In the last two days Nuwamuri Ko’o Fai Lake has changed from milky white to bright green,” she says.
“Six months ago Atapolo Lake was dark brown, and now it is green. We watch Atapolo particularly closely because we believe that the spirits of witches and those who practise black magic dwell in the lake.”

The weather changes even faster than the lakes in the highlands, and by mid-morning thick swirling rainclouds have driven us back towards the coast and towards a world of even more vibrantly changing colours. It would be foolish, after all, to visit Flores without taking time to explore the tradition of textile weaving that has always been a central part of community life here. Flores is known for its fine ikat and, in particular, the women who work at the Women’s Weaver Cooperative of Lepo Lorun have become renowned as some of the finest textile artists in the world. Alfonsa Horeng established Lepo Lorun in 2003 and has since travelled to more than 30 countries exhibiting her island’s fine ikat.

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“The best work is done with natural dyes but it is a painstaking process,” says textile artist Mariana Susmiyati Lering as she carefully ties strips of homespun thread in preparation for dying. “I’ll use indigo, turmeric, mango bark and mengkudu root on this piece, and it might be as much as a year before I finish it.” Every piece of homespun, home-dyed, intricately woven ikat is unique. While the invention of fresh designs is encouraged, there are also ancient motifs that carry a significance instantly recognisable to the islanders of Flores.

“This is a great favourite called mawarani,” continues Mariana, as she opens up a fine textile that seems to have large stars and a series of smaller flowers. “We believe that it depicts a caring mother explaining to her daughters how they can become independent and think for themselves.” It is reassuring to see that in the village around Lepo Lorun there are many young girls who are learning this ancient tradition. Just as Bapak Akong realised people had made a grave mistake in turning their backs on the traditions of the forefathers, the weaving communities of Maumere are also realising the benefits of reviving time-proven values.

Denpasar – Kupang – Ende


Frequency 6 flights per week

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From Colours January 2016

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5 Senses – Taste
KUAH ASAM

Catch the refreshing tangy taste of the Maumere culinary speciality known as kuah asam. A spicy fish broth seasoned with turmeric, it is available at local warungs all over the city and is best served as a side dish, accompanying such other local delights as nasi jagung (rice cooked with corn), rumpu rampe (seasoned papaya leaves) and fish cooked in any number of imaginative ways.