33 - Kelimutu National Park (Flores, Indonesia)


Turquoise, green, or black? Which virtues does thy soul lack? Morning wins the gold. Sophie’s choice. David’s kindness. The future of me?

by Mr. Nos T. O’maniac


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ENDE’S RESIDUAL FRUSTRATIONS melted away as I plied the valley road between there and Moni, a small village nestled in the rice paddies at the foot of the Kelimutu (pronounced Kelly-moo-too) volcano complex. The terrain prohibits acceleration, so I could soak up the ride and appreciate the landscape without fear of grievous bodily harm. Bonus.

There’s not much to Moni itself though it’s pleasant enough and where you’ll need to stay if you visit. The real draw is Kelimutu and its trifecta of multi-colored crater lakes. For my visit, the colors included turquoise, dark green, and black. I say “for my visit” because colors change over time. Mineral-rich waters (iron, manganese, etc.) conspire with rainfall, volcanic gases, and groundwater flow to alter the color-coding often (six times over an eleven-month period in 2016). Each pool’s unique connection to the volcanoes’ activity is responsible for the lack of uniformity. Past colors include blue, maroon, and other various shades of brown.

There’s a hiking trail from Moni to the volcano that’s reputedly worth the effort. Either my ignorance prevented this option, or I was feeling slothful. I can’t seem to recall. The road from there to Kelimutu was a switchback delight though crumbling sections were cause for slight concern. From the parking area, it’s a short walk to the craters. One visit is certainly insufficient. Morning and afternoon appointments are a prerequisite for summary judgment. Morning wins the gold for this judge. Better angle of light. Not sure the actual sunrise adds much given the craters’ inset, but feel free to confirm this hypothesis. I spent three hours skirting rims the morning after my arrival in Moni. Few tourists and lots of privacy made for a divine experience.

On that note, the locals believe Kelimutu is, in fact, sacred and inhabited by souls of the departed. I have to admit, souls could do a lot worse. The billeting is portioned by age and measurement on the naughty/nice scale. The forthright souls of youth go to Tiwu Ko'o Fai Nuwa Muri  (turquoise lake), the righteous aged to Tiwu Ata Bupu (dark green lake), and the naughty candidates from both groups are destined to spend eternity in Tiwu Ata Polo (black lake). The sign on the trail lacked specifics on age cutoffs and maximum sin allowance, but if I flung myself into the turquoise goo on that day, I’d like to think I had a reasonable chance of making the cut…allegedly.

While savoring the exquisite view, I was approached by a young French couple and their guide, a local entrepreneur charging a nominal fee for guiding privileges. Soon after an introduction, he produced a handwritten note in English (by a female Aussie) proclaiming the holder’s trustworthiness and fitness as a Kelimutu guide. It began, “To Whom It May Concern…” What else do ya need with those ironclad credentials? Then again, he was a tad rough around the edges and had an odd sort of sword/skewer sheathed on his belt. I’m guessing this was a kind tourist’s way of smoothing future negotiations on his behalf. I’d been there for hours at this point so I’m not sure what he had to add (he spoke almost zero English), but he still managed to get his pound of flesh, so to speak.

He was a full-service operation which, much to my delight, included hot coffee. As I stood there sipping the local brew, I watched as he spread coffee, sugar, tobacco, and pieces of cracker on a nearby rock. After a moment of confusion, I realized this was an offering to the volcano spooks. To further this aim, he enlisted me in a game of “dress-up pretend time.” His only words (in English) were “ceremony” and “no problem, no problem.” A smooth operator if I ever saw one. My compliance was clearly a foregone conclusion. Not like I could argue, right? I mean, what honkey in his right mind wants to piss off Kelimutu’s ancient souls? Not this honkey. Only a mutant white dude with an ikat shawl and skirt would do. I’m your huckleberry.

After he and a few other tourists moved on, I conducted my own ceremony. I’m not proud of this, but Mother Nature came a calling (as in a Banshee screaming “Red Alert!”) and I was powerless to resist. Quick onset caca-rama. Two cups of coffee did nothing to relieve the burden. The thought of executing a number two atop hallowed ground appalled me. But, not a chance in holy hell I would’ve made it to the bathroom. So, I had a Sophie’s choice on my hands. Drop a deuce in my britches or poo-poo on Kelimutu. Disgracefully, I chose the latter. Yep, I took a “holy” shit right there on the volcano. Score one for the ugly American. I will say I left no visible trace, but this did little to console my inner conservationist. I can only hope and pray the spirits of Kelimutu aren’t waiting when I enter the netherworld. I’ll have some explaining to do. I’m a foul human, but perhaps I’ll make a better aqueous soul brother.

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*Drone footage courtesy of Pradeep Raja Travel.

Besides the invisible souls I hope don’t hold a grudge for my feces festival, I also met one I could see, an Englishman named David Clegg. David was a freelance photographer who’d been exploring Indonesia, on and off, for over thirty years. He’d been living in Lombok (two islands east) for a while. Somehow, in all that time, he’d neglected Flores, a slight he finally decided to rectify. The man was a treasure trove of travel lore, some of which he shared over dinner and a few brewskis. One story revolved around two trips to Viet-fucking-nam (during the conflict) in his early twenties. At the behest of an American civilian he befriended, he accepted an invitation to visit him there. An American citizen living in Vietnam during the war? Umm… kay. Nothing suspicious there. And who the hell does that in the early 1970s? An aspiring photographer. That’s who. I understood completely. No substitute for an experience with a fast-approaching expiration date.

A local chapter of the Vietcong approached and invited him to their village. The aim? Publicity, an opportunity to tell their side of things. He wisely declined but I could tell as he spoke he wished he’d gone the other way. Frankly, I was shocked he’d said no. After all, if you go so far as to visit a brutal war zone, you might as well go whole hog and have a sing-song-along with the Vietcong, in a manner of speaking. 

When was he there? Three months before the Fall of Saigon. Wow. And this was just the tip of Clegg’s iceberg. David was a wealth of adventurous tidbits. Sadly, we said farewell far too soon. He was heading back to Lombok, and I had to see a man about a ferry. I wanted dearly to spend more time with that wayward soul. He wasn’t just a fascinating read, he contained a myriad knowledge of Indonesia and vast stretches of the planet. And we had a connection. I believe he enjoyed the company as much as I did. He even thanked me for my friendship, temporary as it may have been. I was extremely grateful for the encounter, one of limitless reminders about why I did what I did (bailing on polite society, sabotaging career prospects, battling windmills, so on and such). 

There was faint sorrow in his manner and speech, the kind which permeates most solo adventurers, I suppose. It softened his gruff, weathered exterior considerably and made me want to just sit and listen to whatever he had to say. We all need that at some point I should think, another being to sit and listen to our story, someone to take an interest. I wonder, even now, what he was searching for on the shores of Kelimutu’s crater lakes. I wonder if his choices were worth whatever price he had to pay. I wonder if they were they really choices at all. Was David Clegg a faint premonition of future me? Could I be so lucky? Was my impression of him the impression I’d leave on others? Was that the impression I gave others even then…And now?