Thursday, 6 May 2010

In the Shadow of Ile Boleng

The remote island of Adonara in Nusa Tenggara

Originally published in the Jakarta Globe, 27/04/10

The old man leading me along the forest trail carried a long spear over his shoulder. He moved quickly, pausing from time to time to cut aside a dangling creeper, pick wild guavas or shinny up a palm tree to cut fresh coconuts.

Distant voices echoed through the trees as smallholders carried out conversations over kilometers of forest. The old man joined in, shouting in a tone pitched to carry through the creepers, “It’s Wilhem; I’m going to the mountain.”

Pak Wilhem was indeed leading me to the mountain, Ile Boleng, the 1,659-meter peak that looms over the dense palm forests of Adonara, a small, remote island in East Nusa Tenggara.

My first view of the island had come three days earlier as I stood on the deck of a small ferry, chugging away from Larantuka, a town of white churches at the eastern tip of Flores. To the south, across a strait of bright blue water, lay the long ridge of Solor. Closer at hand Adonara rose steeply from the shore. As the ferry rounded the island’s southwest corner, Ile Boleng came into view, a perfect volcanic cone rising into thin white clouds.

Adonara is the first island in the Solor group, a chain of isolated landfalls between Flores and Alor. Few people visit, but it is a beautiful place with white beaches, a forested interior and villages where people live according to old traditions.

After spending the night in a simple guesthouse in Waiwerang, a sleepy fishing village that passes for the main town of Adonara, I headed east along the coast. It was harvest time, and freshly cut maize, the staple crop here, was heaped in the roadside villages.

The picture-perfect Ena Burak Beach lay at the end of a rough red track, a strip of blinding white sand, flanked by warty outcrops of black basalt. The sea was a shifting sheet of cobalt, and across the water the hills of Lembata rose under an empty sky.

In the shade of a thatched wooden shelter at the top of the beach I met a local man name Herodes, who was sharing a picnic with friends. They invited me to join them, and as we picked at freshly grilled fish and crunched on jagung titi, the local staple made from crushed, dry-roasted corn, Herodes told me about Adonara’s culture.

The island is home to a mix of Muslims, who hold sway on the coast, and Catholics, who dominate in the hills. For people of both faiths local adat , customary tradition, holds strong; village ancestors are still venerated, and tuak (alcohol made from fermented coconut water) is quaffed at every opportunity.

Despite their remoteness, the islands of the Solor archipelago have been in contact with the outside world for many centuries. The area became a hub of commerce in the early 16th century after the Portuguese arrived in eastern Indonesia and tapped into the trade in sandalwood from Timor and spices from Maluku. Portuguese soldiers built forts on Solor and Adonara, while Catholic missionaries set about converting the locals. The Portuguese eventually lost ground to the Dutch, but their legacy remains among the Catholic majority in these islands.

There are other traces of outside influence, too. Bride prices are still paid with heirloom elephant tusks, originally imported from mainland Asia. Adonara’s traditional music is quite unlike that of other parts of Indonesia; instead of clanging gamelan and trilling flutes there are wiry rhythms plucked on a simple guitar-like instrument and plaintive, rough-edged singing. It sounds remarkably like the music of the Middle East, hinting at the Arab traders who passed through these islands even before the Portuguese.

The next day Herodes invited me to visit his mother’s village, Koli, deep in the palm-clad hills. There were both mosques and churches in Koli. In the nearby hamlet of Lama Nepa a local man named Anthony showed me the rumah adat, simple buildings of bamboo and thatch central to the pre-Christian and pre-Muslim traditions of the area.

According to legend, the village was founded by two brothers, Patti and Bed, who were granted the land after slaying a man-eating dragon that had plagued settlements on Adonara’s north coast. The rumah adat traditionally used for planning clan warfare in Lama Nepa is still topped with a carving of a Chinese-style dragon.

In another building, the Lango Belen, an heirloom sword said to have belonged to the dragon-slaying Patti, is guarded by a family who inherited the task from their forefathers. Each evening an offering of food and tuak is placed in the right-hand corner of the home for the spirits of the ancestors.

As we rode back toward Waiwerang in the insect-filled dusk, Ile Boleng was clear of clouds, the last of the sunlight illuminating the mouth of its steep crater. I decided it was time for me to take a closer look at the mountain. So early the next morning I hitched a ride to the village of Lamalota, where I met Pak Wilhem, who was to guide me to the summit.

The forest trail led to a clearing where Wilhem kept a few goats and grew a little corn. We stopped to snack on wild avocados then pressed on uphill, Wilhem moving swiftly with his spear over his shoulder. All men take a spear with them when they go into the forest, he said, a local custom that can be traced to Adonara’s past tribal warfare.

Beyond the last stand of trees, the trail rose steeply between sharp rocks. It took an hour to reach the crater rim. There we met four men with a pack of thin yellow dogs. They were hunting feral goats, chasing them into the crater before bringing them to bay on the steep cliffs.

Wilhem and I made our circuit of the volcano’s lip, scrambling up the outcrops toward the summit.

Wilhem explained that local people believe the volcano, which last erupted in 1982, must be fed each year to ensure it stays dormant. Offerings of freshly slaughtered chickens are tossed into the fractured hollow of the crater during the early months of every wet season. The peak is also surrounded by taboos. You cannot bring fish or salt to the high slopes, and uttering words connected with the sea — “boat” and “whale,” for example — is forbidden.

We looked out from the summit over a vast panorama of pale water and dark islands. To the west the green hinterland of Adonara was dotted with white villages. Wilhem pointed out Koli, the area I had visited the previous day. To the north the Flores Sea shone yellow in the sunlight, while to the south Solor lay like a ship at anchor. Behind it I could pick out the damp hills of eastern Flores. In the opposite direction Lembata lay under a blanket of pale clouds.

There was a small white boat cutting across the channel far below — but I remembered not to point it out.

© Tim Hannigan 2010


Nela Wuran said...

I like your writings about Adonara,,but it's Ina Burak Beach,,,not Ena Burak :D
And there's also another mountain called Ile Seburi with its own folklore :D

Tim Hannigan said...

Hi Nela - you're right; that's a typo, it should have been Ina, not Ena, I knew that! I didn't know about Ile Seburi though. Is that also on Adonara? Sounds interesting. Mountains + folklore - a perfect combo for me!

sean lavery said...

Hi Tim,

I stumbled across your piece on Adonara by accident while researching a trip there next year. I really enjoyed your piece and and I can't wait to head out that way in March '17. I have been drifting a little further east each year and the Solor group sounds like just my thing:)

Tim Hannigan said...

Hi Sean,
Yes, the Solor group is a brilliant area for island-hopping and adventure, and surprisingly easy to reach (well, once you've made your way to the far east of Flores in any case). Adonara was a really interesting place. I've not yet made it across the water to Solor itself (which has, amongst other things, its own version of the more famous whaling village across the channel on Lembata) - would be keen to hear if you get there yourself.