Labuan Bajo – Flores – Komodo

We finally escape from Sulawesi and arrive in Labuan Bajo, Flores.

Labuan Bajo
Ampana’s pocket-sized airport

This is harder than it looks. Our next destination is the island of Flores, not far from Sulawesi as the crow flies. No direct flights exist. We have to book one two-leg flight from Ampana to Makassar, then another two-leg flight on a different airline via the island of Bali, which is far out of the way (including an overnight in Denpasar). Whatever. We do what we must.

Unfortunately, we arrive at Ampana airport for the first flight and it’s cancelled. So all subsequent reservations for air and hotels are buggered.

<sigh> We reschedule everything for one day later.

‘Much of travel is waiting and delay.’
– Paul Theroux

On the flight from Palu to Makassar, we fly over scores of tiny islets that are nevertheless densely packed with people. They are far from the mainland. If you zoom in, you see that each island doesn’t have one or two bamboo huts; each little town expands out to the water’s edge.

Labuan Bajo
Islets from Palu-Makassar flight

If the sea level rises by even a few centimeters, these places are toast. Wet toast.

We arrive in Labuan Bajo and stay at the hotel La Cecile.

Labuan Bajo
View from La Cecile

This is fancier than the places we usually stay, but the view is so great, we can’t resist.

Labuan Bajo
Us in La Cecile’s infinity pool at sunset

We take an all-day cruise that visits, among other places, Padar Island, where we trek up for a grand view.

Labuan Bajo
Pulau Padar

The harbour where the cruise boats dock.

Labuan Bajo
Pulau Padar

We stop at Pink Beach (on Komodo Island) for lunch. Maria spots a baby shark in the water. Three baby sharks, in fact

Labuan Bajo
‘Where’s mamma?’

Pink Beach is kind of, sort of, pink. Marketing materials usually show it photo-shopped into a neon roseate hue.

Labuan Bajo

The pink starts out as bright red corals.

Labuan Bajo
Pink Beach raw materials

Which eventually break down into pinky stuff.

Labuan Bajo
Pink Beach close-up
Labuan Bajo
View from Pink Beach

After lunch, we head for a nameless, crescent-shaped sandbar surrounded by unbelievably clear water.

Labuan Bajo
View from the nameless, crescent-shaped sandbar
Labuan Bajo
The water’s fine – for some
Labuan Bajo
Nameless, crescent-shaped sandbar of doom

Our day abruptly ends here.

Maria steps on a stingray at the very edge of the water and is zapped in the ankle. The pain is almost unbearable. We are boat-lifted back to the mainland, where Maria spends the afternoon in the emergency ward.

Fortunately, the next day is better, days later, she is completely healed.

Today, we arrive back in Labuan Bajo after a four-day road trip across Flores. Now we take a three-night boat trip to Lombok, so we may be out of touch for a few days.

Sight or Insight of the Day – Labuan Bajo

Part of our day cruise takes in Pulau Komodo, the eponymous home of the famed dragons.

We are lucky enough to see four, as well as wild boar and Timor deer.

This one we see just outside of the village where we land.

Labuan Bajo
Female Komodo dragon limbers up
Labuan Bajo
Big-ass lizard

The dragons eat the deer, but when not feeding, they live in surprisingly close proximity. And the deer aren’t skittish about humans, like Canadian deer.

Labuan Bajo
Deer me

We see a large male on the footpath of the village as we return to the boat.

Labuan Bajo
Watch your step

Togian Islands – Sulawesi

We while away the days in the Togian Islands.

Togian Islands
Clear waters

After a two-day drive through the mountains from Rantepao, it’s another full day journey on the water from Ampala to the Sandy Bay Resort, on the island of Malenge.

Togian Islands
Boats in Ampana harbour

We have to thank Soufiane and Jessica once more for this experience: we share a car and driver with them for the journey to Ampana. They plan to stay in the Sandy Bay Resort, so we tag along.

Togian Islands
Approaching Malenge

It’s a short boat trip further to arrive at the resort.

Togian Islands
Soufiane guards the luggage on the outrigger to Sandy Bay
Togian Islands
Sandy Bay

It’s pretty nice, I must say. Even snorkeling in the bay is like a mini Great Barrier Reef.

Togian Islands
Local transport

It’s about $CAD70.00 per day, three meals included (for two people).

The small boats are how we get around.

Togian Islands
Maria and her anti-sun headgear

But it’s hard to get here. And once you’re here, it’s hard to get around: boat schedules and availability of accommodation are difficult to verify without internet service.

Togian Islands
The view from our first bungalow

A noteworthy day trip is to the jellyfish lagoon. In fact, this is one of the more remarkable places we’ve seen so far. In a lagoon cut off from the sea, we drift in bathwater-temperature water for an hour among serenely floating sting-less jellyfish. It’s like ‘floating among corpuscles in a blood vessel’, or ‘floating among souls in purgatory’; pick your own analogy.

We set out for another expedition to several offshore reefs.

Togian Islands

In the front are Frans, from the Netherlands, and Alina and Dominick, from Germany.

Togian Islands
Day trippers

In the rear (or ‘abaft’ is the nautical term), Soufiane, Jessica, Maria, and a pale-looking me.

Togian Islands
More day trippers

Snorkeling on these reefs is like swimming in an aquarium.

Togian Islands
Is that a Cheilinus undulatus I see?

We’ve never seen such crystal-clear water.

Togian Islands
Pass the spear gun

And the sunsets are superb.

Togian Islands
Sandy Bay sunset

Something to keep in mind: there is no cellphone or internet service, electricity is limited to a few hours of generator-supplied juice per day, and you’d better like fish, because that’s the main dish for most meals. Freshness guaranteed.

Sight or Insight of the Day – Togian Islands

We make an excursion to the Bajau village in Pulau Papan  to see how the sea gypsy people live.

Togian Islands
Me, Jessica, Soufiane

Like many countries in this part of the world, the government encourages the ‘Sea People’ to settle in permanent villages.

Togian Islands
Kilometer-long boardwalk to Pulau Papan

They have live lobster for sale, but no one has the heart to transport them home to meet a turbulent fate in the pot.

Togian Islands
Bajau pirogue

We’re a source of amusement for the locals.

Togian Islands
Three little maids from school are we…’

The village at the end of the boardwalk.

Togian Islands
Pulau Papan

Tana Toraja and its Grateful Dead – Sulawesi

OK, we’re back from a fantastic trip to the Togian Islands.  It’s Ramadan. As we sit here in front of the sun-flecked sea in Ampana in mid afternoon, we can hear muezzins wailing away in the surrounding mosques. But first, to catch up: we spend a few days in Rantepao, the heart of Toraja country.

Torajans are known for two things – unusual boat-shaped housing (similar to those in Lake Toba) and a strong culture of death. First, the houses.

Toraja houses

Like many people with oddball ethnic housing, there is a strong tendency to live in something more conventional, if they can afford it. Like a square dwelling made of concrete. With a garage.

Locals still have elaborate rice storage barns, though. (Probably because they don’t have to live in them.)

Toraja rice barn
Toraja rice barn, detail
Toraja rice barn, detail
Toraja rice barn, detail

The wood carving of a buffalo head means this is the house of a high-status person.

Maria and house ornament

Multiple buffalo skulls in the front also indicate high status.

House of skulls

We share the cost of a car, driver, and guide for the day with a Swiss couple, Lukas and Liliane. As part of the tour, we enjoy a local lunch. I’m guzzling a bamboo container full of of palm wine.

Le déjeuner sur l’herbe

For Torajans, death is more important than life. Crazy, I know. They share this belief with, among others, people in Madagascar. And ancient Egypt.

When someone dies, they are embalmed and left in the house. Family members speak to them. The corpses remain there until enough money is available for a funeral. This may take years: the cost is exorbitant. You can read more about this phenomenon here, with photos.

When the funeral celebrations are done, the dead move into caves carved out of the cliff face.

Cave graves

If they can afford it, people have wooden effigies (tau-tau) of the dead made.


They’re expensive. And people steal them.


This is interesting – in some places, deceased infants younger than three years are buried in a tree. Someone carves a rectangular chunk out of the tree and places the tiny cadaver inside, upright. The trunk heals, then babies and tree grow together.

The baby grave tree

Lesser (that is, poorer) people are often piled up unceremoniously in caverns.

Boxed and unboxed
Toraja Golgotha

‘And death shall have no dominion.
Dead men naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.’
– Dylan Thomas

Rack ’em and stack ’em

In between these macabre destinations, we pass through pleasant scenery.

Fish pond and rice paddies

These caves are a third of the way down a sheer cliff face.

High society grave caves

Oh, we mention at the end of our last post our encounter with a six-metre-plus python. The story goes like this:

When we depart for the Togian Islands, we share a car and driver with Soufiane and Jessica, some friends we meet in Rantapao.  This involves a two-day drive to Ampana. On the evening of the first day, we drive along after dark. We come to a sudden stop, as does the oncoming traffic. Our driver says ‘Ular!’ (Snake!).

We see nothing from the back seat but a half metre or so of tail disappearing into the long grass at the side of the road. Suddenly half a dozen locals leap from their vehicles, brandishing machetes, and begin searching the bushes. At one point, a man grabs the snake’s tail and pulls an even longer part out before the python slips away again. We cheer for the snake.

The search becomes more frantic. At last, some shouts of discovery and frenzied hacking with the machete. One man pulls out presumably half of a python, thick as a man’s thigh. It’s about three metres long.

All this takes place over ten minutes or so in the eerie light of the vehicles stopped on the road  Our driver says the people want the meat. Possibly also payback for this incident in 2017.

Sight or Insight of the Day – Toraja

One thing many visitors look forward to attending here is a Toraja funeral. There is feasting, singing, dancing, and LOTS of animal slaughter. (This is why funerals cost so much – relatives are obligated to provide buffalo, pigs, and chickens for the glory of the deceased.)

There is one occurring while we’re here, but we skip it. We have no interest in seeing noble, placid animals like buffalo put to a cruel and needless death for the sake of human religious folly. Even pigs deserve better.

Buffalo shuffle

It’s a dictum of mine that the third world is a bad place to be an animal, a child, or a woman. We see confirmation of this daily.

Makassar and Toraja – Sulawesi

From Malang, we take our last Javanese train trip to Surabaya.

Take the train to the plane

(Note: this entry is quite short – we are leaving soon for an island sojourn and will be offline tomorrow. So you’ll have to wait to hear about the Torajan cult of death and other items of interest.)

From Surabaya, we leave the island of Java and fly to the island of Sulawesi by Lion Air.

Fort Rotterdam

We only spend one day in Makassar, and half of that sleeping. In town, we visit Fort Rotterdam. The next day, we take a 9-hour bus journey to Rantepao, the center of Toraja. We stay at Pia’s Poppies guest house.

Where the roosters rise at 3:00 AM

We go to Pasar Bolu, the market where pigs and buffalo are purchased for Torajan funerals.

Cattle call

The whiter cattle are more valuable, for some reason.

White buffalo

There are also pigs for sale.

Pork on the hoof
Swine dreams

We travel around in these ridiculously small microbuses. At least they’re cheap.

Slightly squished

We also visit the non-cattle market in Bolu.

Tobacco vendors
Dried fish vendors
Coffee vendors

Sight or Insight of the Day – Sulawesi

Do you remember reading Victorian novels and wondering ‘what the heck is an antimacassar?’ Of course you do. Well, turns out it’s to protect furniture from a gentleman’s macassar oil-soaked head. Macassar oil was supposed to be sourced from Makassar. Huh. Who knew?

Out-of-office message

After a two-day drive to Ampana, we are heading to the Togian Islands for a couple of weeks. They’re reputed to be quite nice. But they may not have Internet service. So we may be offline for a while.

When we’re back online, we’ll describe our encounter with a six-metre-plus python last night. Stay tuned!

Travels Without Charlie – In Memorium II

This is Charlie.

Let’s get this party started.

He passed away a year ago. We miss him a lot.

At one time, we were thinking of naming this blog ‘Travels without Charlie’, as an hommage to John Steinbeck’s ‘Travels with Charley‘. We decide that might be too Charlie-centric.

Charlie belonged to my brother and his family. We bird-sat him a few times. Before one particular summer vacation, he came to us looking like this.


A cat that our niece had brought home attacks and nearly kills Charlie. Stress and trauma cause him to pluck out his own feathers.

We decide to keep him for a while. Among his accoutrements  is an old Barbie doll mirror. This is Charlie’s absolutely essential item. Disturb it and he squawks loud enough to wake the dead.

Barbie mirror dependency

In short order, he makes himself at home.

Fruit cockatiel

Charlie’s cage in the kitchen lets him investigate whenever he spies something interesting that we happen to be eating. Maybe we can be convinced to share.

Are you struggling with that naan bread?

Because he’s so sociable, we take Charlie wherever we go. BBQ on the verandah? We take Charlie in his cage.

BBQs mean buns. Yum.

We soon learn that he loves rice. Whenever we make rice, he gets his own serving in a porcelain bowl.

Actually, it’s the top of a ginger jar

We bring him to the cottage every weekend.

Charlie enjoys a sunset with us on the dock

This is a rare photo of both Blackie and Charlie at the cottage, having dinner.

Seeds n’ Salad

Disregard my usual Saturday-morning-at-the-cottage state of dishevelment: Charlie has a thing about climbing onto your chest for a cuddle and a headscratch.

A little to the left…

From the cottage, Maria sends this to me at work, for ‘moral support’.

Three stooges

Charlie checks out the hammock in the screened-in porch.

Too big for this kid

He’s never shy about demanding a sample of whatever it is you’re eating.

Give me this day my daily bread…

He’s always fun at home, too.

Maria and Charlie dance in the kitchen

He likes to help when you’re working from home.

‘I think you missed a comma there…’

Especially after we stop working at the end of January, 2017. From February to May, we prepare our house for sale: decluttering, painting, refinishing floors. But only in the afternoon – we reserve the mornings for drinking coffee and leisurely reading of the news in the living room. Of course, Charlie wants to be where the people are. So it becomes routine to bring him into the living room with us. He has his own living room perch and mirror.

Hello, handsome
Charlie helps with the paperwork
Charlie gets a nuzzling

This is the end – Charlie

In May 2017, we head to the cottage for a long weekend. Friends and family visit. On Monday, after all the guests have left, I’m lying on the couch reading. Maria is down by the lake. Charlie is in his cage in the living room.

I hear Charlie sneeze. (We’ve heard him sneeze before – a tiny, cockatiel-sized ‘ker-chew‘.) But I notice his ‘sneezing’ doesn’t stop. I get up to look. Charlie is on the floor of his cage, unable to fly, obviously in some distress. I take him out and place him in my lap. His eyes slowly close – and he’s gone.

I sit there and cry like a baby.

The saddest sight

Hard to believe that minutes before, this less-than-100-grams creature had a unique personality, habits, preferences, moods. In an instant, without the vital spark of life, there’s nothing now but a tiny, inert bundle of feathers.

Maria comes up from the lake to find me wailing and inconsolable. After a while, we recover enough to say our goodbyes and make a little shroud out of a tea-towel.  (A weekend guest brought the gerberas.)

Charlie, we hardly knew ye

We bury him in the back yard of the cottage. With his Barbie mirror, of course.

It’s sad driving back to Ottawa that week: on the way to the cottage, it was a glorious sunny day, Charlie whistling away in the back of the car. When we depart, it’s cool, gray, damp, drizzling rain, and we’re leaving Charlie behind, alone in the cold ground. The car is silent. Not one of our happier days.

Charlie wasn’t sick. He was completely normal until the end. We think he was around 15-16  years old: not terribly old for a cockatiel, but not young either. Maybe it was just his time to go. We had him for not quite two years.

One silver lining in this mournful cloud – we no longer had to worry about saying goodbye to Charlie when we sold the house and left on our trip. At any rate, it would’ve been hard to let him go.

We make a little memorial for him in tribute.

See you in another life, Charlie.

The text is very apt:

  • Covering his cage at the end of the day, we’d say ‘Goodnight, Charlie. You be a good bird.’
  • He was popular with our friends in a way that Blackie never was. Probably, as a friend said, because he was ‘always at eye level’. Blackie was a creature of the ground.
  • Maria always called Charlie ‘little one’.

Malang and Mount Bromo

We leave Solo by overnight train for Malang. Looks like we’re crossing Java entirely by rail. Indonesian trains aren’t quite as modern and sleek as in Malaysia, but they beat the pants off of Myanmar Railways.

Malang is a pleasant, spread-out town. A lot of the centre is made up of orderly neighbourhoods of military cantonments that look like they date from the Dutch period. In between these are tidy, cozy alley communities like we see elsewhere in Java.

Mobile vegetable seller

Parts of Malang look like Los Angeles. (Or at least what we picture LA to look like.)

Ijen Boulevard

We go for a sundowner daily in the elegant Tugu Hotel.

Our Man in Malang

We hear of Mount Bromo from several sources, including our friend Ulf. People come here to watch the sunrise. We remember Ulf talking about a strenuous and lengthy trek in the dark to view this. We take the easy way out and hire a jeep and driver. (There are more Toyota Land Cruiser jeeps here than there are Land Rovers in the Cameron Highlands.)

After freezing in the dark with several hundred selfie-taking locals for company, we enjoy the primordial landscape gradually revealed below us at dawn.

Bromo sunrise

Afterwards, we drive down to the Sea of Sand.

Sailing on the Sea of Sand

We arrive at Bromo itself. The volcano is kilometres away from the Land Cruiser parking lot. We set out on foot, like hundreds of other visitors.

Bromo puffs away in the distance. ‘Boldness be my friend!’ – Cymbeline

There’s something vaguely, anciently, pilgrim-like about the way we trudge across the black sand, gradually getting closer and closer.

‘Yea, man and birds are fain of climbing high.’ –  Henry VI, Part 2

It looks like a steep climb, but we’re determined. How often can you get this close to the caldera of a live volcano?

You do climb up it now: look, how we labour. ‘ – King Lear

One of the pluses of traveling in the developing world is the absence of any concept of safety or possible liability for death or disability due to negligence.

The rim of this active volcano has a trail about 2 metres wide at the top that scores of visitors have to negotiate. There is a short, metre-high barrier for the length of a dozen meters or so. You can continue beyond the barrier and walk about halfway around the caldera with a steep drop one one side and a slide into the smoking maw of the volcano on the other. (I couldn’t convince Maria to do this.)

Rise, O smoke of Vulcan’s forge

There is apparently a ceremony in which locals throw sacrificial offerings into the volcano.

We make our way down. Feels like we’re in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt. (Disclaimer – never been there.)

Going down

Bromo impresses us so much, we instruct our driver, Hari, to skip the remaining sights – a waterfall, a ho-hum temple – and whisk us home.

Hari takes our picture

Why the heavy clothing? Because it’s friggin’ cold out here at this time of the day.

Sight or Insight of the Day – Malang

On arrival in Malang by train is this eye-catching sight.

True colours

As a sort of slum-renewal project, this part of town has been given a pastel-coloured makeover.

Rainbow Bridge

The blue part is named ‘Arema ‘- we think. It might be the name of a local football team.

Kampung Arema?
Kampung Wisata Jodipa

The idea is to attract visitors and to encourage the residents to be more civic-minded. (That is, don’t throw garbage out your door or into the river.)