Flores: Tiny People, Giant Lizards

Published Date Author: , July 7th, 2011
by Ernie Alderete, Traveler
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Kelimutu Lake, Flores Island, Indonesia

Flores is one of the lesser-known islands of Indonesia, and the only wholly Roman Catholic island in the predominantly Muslim nation.

At one time vast territories in what are now Malaysia and Indonesia were part of the Portuguese Empire. As the Netherlands arose as an independent nation freed from the Spanish Empire, the reformed protestant Dutch pushed the old religion Portuguese out of several of the Spice Islands, at the same time the British leveraged the Portuguese out of coastal areas of Malacca, and Malaya.

For centuries as the Portuguese were expelled from Asian territory after territory, many of the native Eurasian, or “Black Portuguese,” residents of those defunct political entities found refuge on Flores, which remained under the Portuguese flag until 1859. This continuous eastward human movement concentrated the Christian religious fervor of the former East Indies on Flores, which now boasts a particularly picturesque version of Roman Catholicism. Holy Week, including Easter, Good Friday and other sacred days, is celebrated with an unparalleled passion on Flores, with massive floral processions and other reverent incense-laden observances.

Flores Map

Racially, linguistically and culturally the various indigenous tribes of Flores are more closely related to the peoples of Melanesia, and Polynesia to the east, rather than to the dominant population of Indonesia in the major islands of Java, and Sumatra to the west.

Flores is the Portuguese (and closely related Spanish), word for flowers. The long, narrow island was named by 16th century Portuguese explorers because of the magnificent underwater coral gardens they found along the north coast, and adjacent reefs. Flores’ spectacular polychromatic coral reefs are believed to be the oldest in the world.

So, of course swimming, diving, snorkeling and fishing as well as other water sports are unparalleled in the pristine waters of Flores, which lies entirely within the Coral Triangle, richest marine environment on our blue planet.

All of the choice dive sites are located on the more scenic north coast, bathed by the mild Flores Sea, one of the southernmost arms of the Pacific Ocean, especially around peaceful Maumere Bay, which is sheltered from the open sea by several small islands, and reefs.

A few adventurous souls brave the rougher waters along the less protected south coast, bound by the Sawu Sea, which drains into the warmer Indian Ocean to the southwest.

Perhaps the most beautiful beach on earth can be found on the shores of Flores. Pennggajawa Beach isn’t limited to one surface. Beneath lies a cradling substrata of powdered black sand, atop the fine dark volcanic surface is a layer of gorgeous highly decorative smooth rounded turquoise blue, green and pink pebbles.

But get there quick, rock hounds are collecting the brilliant pebbles for international export. Let’s hope they don’t denude the beach entirely.

Flores, part of the ominous sounding “Ring of Fire,” is one of the most seismically active chunks of territory in the world. Maybe not the best site to erect a skyscraper, but a great place to admire the fourteen active volcanoes that dot the spectacular landscape, swim in natural thermal hot springs, go hiking and mountain climbing,

Perhaps the single most iconic image of Flores is Kelimutu Lake, three separate lakes of strikingly different colors within multiple nested calderas. I can’t tell you what colors, because the tints mysteriously change abruptly.

No other island on earth can claim to have its own human species, the hobbit. Recently discovered fossil remains prove that the smallest humans ever to walk the third planet from the sun roamed the heavily forested surface of Flores. These tiny people stood about three feet tall, and weighed approximately fifty-five pounds as “full-grown” adults. Modern adult pygmies, by comparison average at least a towering foot taller, and a hefty twenty pounds heavier.

The hobbits even hunted likewise now extinct pygmy elephants. These pocket people, our diminutive cousins survived until modern times, only disappearing from the human family a relatively brief thirteen thousand years ago. So modern full-size giants like us, coexisted only on Flores with our little brethren.

There remains an extant colony of eighty pygmy families in the village of Rampapasa, less than half a mile from where the hobbit remains were unearthed. These people may be descendants of the hobbits, but they are much taller than their possible ancestors, much more akin to modern pygmies. Both the discovery of the fossil remains of the hobbit, and the discovery of the pygmy village occurred within the last decade, so further research is needed to draw fully informed, well-founded conclusions.

The most famous nonhuman terrestrial inhabitant of Flores is another relic from the primordial past, the ten-foot long, three hundred pound Kimodo Dragon, largest lizard on earth. Kimodo National Park stretches from the west coast of Flores, encompassing adjacent Kimodo, Gila Montang, Rinca, and several smaller islands, together forming both Flores Archipelago and the only native habitat of the dragon.

No one knows how, or why the hobbit became extinct, but the colossal Kimodo Dragon is a documented man-eater, and the carnivorous lizard still thrives where the bite-sized hobbit left nothing but sun bleached bones.

Nature, history, culture, sand and sea, it all comes together in Flores. Flores is almost nine thousand miles west of Jakarta, and 671 miles north of Darwin, Australia.

Please see my closely related previous story, “Tiny Tropical Timor.” Flores and nearby Timor are sister islands in many ways.

The author, Ernie Alderete is a Los Angeles-based adventure travel writer. His work has appeared in the Bay Area Reporter, the Gay & Lesbian Times, Update Newspaper, Frontiers and Adelante Magazine, among many other LGBT publications across North America. His travels have taken him from the saline depths of the Dead Sea to the frosted heights of the Andes, from the steaming heart of the Amazon to the spectacular wide-open natural grandeur of the Great Barrier Reef. Your comments are always welcome: erniealderete@yahoo.com

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