Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Adoring Adonara


The little visited island of Adonara in Nusa Tenggara

Originally Published in Bali and Beyond Magazine November 2010


Larantuka, a town of white churches at the eastern tip of Flores, is the end of the road. This is the point where bus travel finally gives way to boat trips. But though this Catholic stronghold is the terminus of the Trans-Flores Highway, for anyone with a taste for adventure it is just the start of the real journey.
From the dockside, with its baskets and bundles and white wooden ferries, a view of a mirror-smooth private sea opens, and offshore lie the first landfalls of the Solor and Alor Archipelagos, the string of small islands that form the furthest extremity of East Nusa Tenggara province. To the south stands the long ridge of Solor, a small island with a big history; beyond it is rugged, mountainous Lembata, famed for its traditional whaling village at Lamalera on the south coast. Further afield, beyond the horizon, lie volcanic Pantar and the pristine coral reefs and dark, myth-filled hills of Alor. But before all that, rising in steep green hillsides just across the Flores Strait, is Adonara, the most easily reached of this tantalizing chain of islands, but perhaps the least visited.

Small, sun-bleached passenger boats will carry you from Larantuka across clear turquoise water to Waiwerang, the capital of Adonara. It is a tiny township of rusting tin roofs and sagging palm trees, and once the ferry departs an air of tropical torpor descends. Adonara is close enough to Larantuka to visit on a day trip, but there are a couple of simple guesthouses here if you want to spend the night.
Waiwerang’s name means “Water from the Land” in the local language, and it is named after a hot spring that bubbles out of the ground not for from the jetty. This geothermally heated water shows that fiery forces are at work beneath Adonara’s green hills, and a glance east along Waiwerang’s sleepy main street reveals the volcanic apex of the region – Ile Boleng, the 1659 meter mountain that looms over the island.

Despite its remote location, Adonara was close to the epicenter of some of the earliest European involvement in Indonesia. The Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan sailed through this way in 1522, and according to local tradition the first Portuguese missionaries arrived even earlier – in 2010 the Catholic community focused on Larantuka celebrated its 500th anniversary. In 1561 the Portuguese arrived in force and built a fort on Solor, and another on the north coast of Adonara. From this unlikely outpost they controlled the traffic in fragrant sandalwood from nearby Timor, and spices from Maluku further north. It was only when the Portuguese lost ground to the Dutch in the 17th Century that Solor and Adonara became a lost tropical backwater once more. Today the only echoes of this Portuguese past are in the strong Catholicism of these islands, and in the devotion shown to an ancient Portuguese idol of the Virgin Mary, known here as Tuan Ma.

Beyond Waiwerang Adonara is a place of steeply folded hills and thick palm forests. Despite the greenery this is a dry island by Indonesian standards. Maize, rather than rice, is the main crop here. Great piles of yellow corncobs are heaped outside red-roofed village houses, and the local staple food is jagung titi, a sort of squashed popcorn!
The potholed road east of Waiwerang leads through villages and cornfields with the soaring slopes of Ile Boleng looming to the left. To the right lie a string of pristine white beaches. Head down a bumpy red track to Pantai Ena Burak on a weekday and you’ll likely have the strip of blinding white sand, backed by palms and black basalt outcrops and fronted by a skyline view of the hills of Solor and Lembata, all to yourself. Small white boats chug against the current offshore and the bright blue water surges onto the shore.

Today the people of Adonara are a mixture of Catholics and Muslims. The two communities live side by side, and there are often interfaith marriages, for they share the same adat traditions, the customs and belief systems that predate the arrival of foreign religions on Adonara. Bride price here is still paid with heirloom elephant tusks, imported from mainland Asia centuries ago. The most valuable of the tusks can be worth as much as Rp50 million, and a marriage between aristocratic families can require a payment of ten such pieces!
Traditions are at their strongest in the hills of Adonara. Though the island is peaceful now, local men still carry long spears when they go into the forest, an echo of times when rival clans were often in conflict. In the villages of the Koli area, high amongst green, palm-clad ridges, with a view of Ile Boleng’s smooth cone rising to the east, there are traditional ceremonial buildings.
In Lama Nepa hamlet the roof of the Koke-Bale, the thatched building traditionally used for planning battles in times of clan warfare, is decorated with a carving of the dragon which was slain by the village’s founding fathers according to legend. In another building nearby one family has the hereditary duty of minding a sacred sword, said to have belonged to the dragon-slayer. Sacred power and ancestral spirits are said to linger around this rusty heirloom; an offering of food and tuak, palm wine, are placed before it each evening.
Tuak, made from fermented coconut water or lontar juice and quaffed from a hollowed out coconut shell, is the beverage of choice in these villages, but before drinking, anyone whose parents have already died will deliberately spill a drop of the sweet liquor onto the ground – an offering to the ancestors.

More folklore surrounds that mighty, dominating volcano peak that towers over Adonara. Each year, at the start of the wet season, elders from the villages on the lower slopes head up to the summit of Ile Boleng where they toss chickens into the deep crater as offerings. The volcano, locals say, must be fed like this each year to ensure that it remains good tempered. Perhaps its hunger was not satisfied in 1982 – the last year that it erupted, spilling smoke and ash high into the tropical sky.
Today the mountain is dormant, and the climb to the summit is one of the most rewarding hikes in Nusa Tenggara. From the cool, green village of Lamalota a black trail leads through dense forest, past small gardens in quiet clearings, tangles of thorny creepers and wild avocado and guava trees. Villagers grow vanilla in the undergrowth and the branches are full of green parakeets and other birdlife more reminiscent of Australia than of Bali and Java. Taboos surround the flanks of Ile Boleng – no salt or fish may be carried to the summit, and on the slopes even discussion of maritime matters, boats or whales for example, is forbidden.
Beyond the forest the trail leads over steep, stony slopes before finally reaching the crater lip. Circuit this great gaping chasm of fractured red rock to the very summit and you’ll find a swelling view of a wild island world. Far below all of Adonara, from Ena Burak’s white shore, to the green, village-speckled interior, opens. To the south Solor rides like a ship at anchor, and to the east Lembata broods, with Ile Boleng’s twin, the steep cone of Ile Api, rising over the shore. And beyond to the west lie the mountains of Flores. The view makes the climb more than worthwhile, and that panorama of isolated islands is a tantalizing widow on other potential adventures in this beautiful, little-known corner of Indonesia.
© Tim Hannigan 2010

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