After 3 months and nearly 5000 km the island of Flores was going to be the end point of my cycling in Asia. To mark this milestone I fancied cycling to somewhere special and had seen a photograph of a village called Wae Rebo. Although I had seen similar villages when I lived in Africa, I had never seen anything like it in Asia. To visit Wae Rebo would mean a round trip cycle of nearly 300 km across mountains, wading through rivers and with a long hike to finish. Still, it sounded like a great adventure so why not !!!!
I had been on Flores for nearly a week and so far hadn’t cycled anywhere. After hiking to see Komodo Dragons, Kayaking and diving in the National Park it was now time to go and see if the mountains of Flores deserved their reputation as being among the hardest days cycling in Indonesia.
For the first time on this trip I would be setting off with another rider, Wayne, who I had met on Sumbawa when the ferry was cancelled in the port town of Sape.
We had caught the ferry the next day and had gone out together chasing Komodo Dragons on the island of Rinca. (Click here to read). Now it was time to get on the bike and head for the hills.
Flores has a reputation for days of hard cycling where you can summit multiple mountain peaks in the same day. As I would be doing a circuit that ended back in Lubuan Bajo I had left the majority of my luggage at the Wicked Dive center in the town. This should make grinding up the mountains slightly easier.
We left town early as we knew that the hills would start on the outskirts of the town and for the first 4 hours all we did was climb.
Once we were into the hills it was constant switchbacks and we quickly reached 800m. The view back down to the coast was spectacular.
At around the 25km mark Wayne’s chain jumped the big ring on the rear cassette and got jammed between the cassette and the spokes. The only way that we could free it was with me levering the spokes with my multi tool while Wayne pulled on the chain. It was solidly in there and took a while to free it but we eventually got it out. Once the bike was put out back together off we set once again to attack the hill in front of us.
We had only gone another 200 metres or so when one of the chain snapped. One of the links had given way. Now in the middle of Flores on the side of a mountain there was zero chance of getting it fixed.
Basically Waynes cycling was done for the day. The next decision was whether to hitch a lift back to Lubuan Bajo where there would be zero chance of getting it fixed or hitching a lift to Ruteng which lay 100km further down the road. Wayne thought that there was a bike shop there and when I left him to continue cycling up the mountain he was stood by the road trying to hitch a ride to Ruteng. (A few days later he messaged to say he had got the chain fixed and was carrying on eastwards)
I continued up switchback after switchback and whenever I passed a group of kids on the road I would shout ‘push push’ and they would give me a boost up the hill. The kids were brilliant and definitely helped me get up some of the steeper parts. At around the 35 km mark I passed a mobile Bakso motorbike and pulled over for some food.
By the time I had eaten the bowl of noodle soup I was starting to get cold – a feeling hat I had not experienced for a while. Once I was back on the bike I soon warmed up as the road continued to climb. Thankfully after another few kilometers the road leveled out and was soon descending into the valley that had opened up in front of me.
Descending on a bike is a double edges sword, on one hand it is always a relief to not be grinding your way uphill but on the other you know that there will be another climb to come.
The two pictures below illustrate that you are never alone while cycling through Indonesia. In the first photo there are a couple of children about 100m ahead of me on the right hand side of the road. They crossed the road to ‘high five’ me as I cycled past and shouted “photo photo”. By the time I stopped and took my camera out of my handlebar bag there must have been 15 kids around me. I have no idea where they all came from as they were not walking down the road.
Too soon for my liking the next climb was upon me but thank god it was no where near as steep, or as long, as the climb out of Lubuan Bajo.
I was cycling through an area of rice terraces which in the past had meant that the climb would soon finish and not along after I crested into a kind of plateau that was full of rice fields.
The ‘rice bowl’ was surrounded by hills on all sides and was a fantastic sight. Now this was a beautiful surprise and I slowed down to take in the amazing scene around me. All around was the beautiful green that you get as young rice starts to grow. If I was a painter I would have stopped and got out the oil paints.
I cycled through the rice bowl and at the far end was my intended destination for the day – the village of Lembor. I had been told that there were losmen here and on further inspection there indeed was one. I asked how much and they said 250000 rupiah which is about 15 GBP. This was really taking the mickey as the rooms didn’t have a view of the spectacular countryside but instead overlooked a mechanics workshop. I told the owner that it was overpriced and he just shrugged, so I bid him farewell and continued on down the road.
There was no other accommodation to be had in the town and it is times like this when cycling with a tent is so rewarding. However, I had left all of my camping gear at the dive shop in Lubuan Bajo and so decided to push on.
My ultimate destination would be the village of Wae Rebo and Paul at Wicked Dive had told me about an alternative way to get to village which would avoid another +1000m climb. The problem was that the road appeared on no map but Paul assured me that even though there were multiple rivers to cross without bridges, and parts of the road were rocky rather than sealed, that there was a way through to Dintor
In Indonesia, distances are estimated by time in a car or on a motorbike rather than by distance. Paul had said that the time to Dintor, the town where people sleep before hiking to the village of Wae Rebo, was about an hour from Lembor. I estimated the town to be a maximum of 50 km away and as I only had 2 hours before dark it would mean that I would arrive after sunset but what the heck and set off.
My first marker that I needed to find was a village called Nanga Lili and I stopped to ask some nuns that I passed where the track I needed to take was. The nuns did not know and after speaking to some of the locals told me to continue cycling straight and after about 5 minutes to take a track to the right which would take me to the coast and the village of Nanga Lili.
I took the turn that the nuns had said would lead me to the village. As the village was on the coast the road from Lembor led gently downhill for 12 kilometres before there was a sharp left bend which snaked its way up a short, but very steep, incline. This is where the road ended on the map but Paul had given me a few markers to look out for along the way to check that I was on the right track.
The first marker was a cracked bridge and I came across one which had indeed collapsed and assumed that this was the correct track. When I asked the locals I got a variety of finger points – some in the direction I was heading and others in the direction I had just come from. After a while I gave up asking and relied on Paul’s markers.
The next marker was that I would have to ford 3 rivers as the bridges had been washed away and at the third crossing it would look like the road ended but that it continued behind a large sand dune. All of these were correct and I headed over the dune to find that the road did continue.
My next marker was that I would pass a turtle sanctuary and after another 5 km I passed it on my right next to a beautiful beach. If I had my camping gear with me it would have been a great place to stop for the night.
I had passed no villages along the way and was making steady progress as the track was in pretty good condition. The good road ended a couple of kilometers past the turtle sanctuary and turned into a very bumpy rocky track.
I could cycle on some of this but in other places the road disappeared and there was no way that I could cycle on it and so I pushed the bike.
The track hugged the cliff side and I passed the odd shepherd walking a buffalo along the track but never passed another vehicle. Paul had said that the rocky section should end after about 3km, and right on que I was back on sealed road.
The condition was not great as there were pot jokes everywhere but I could cycle it as long as I kept the speed down.
As I rounded one of the bends I saw an island in the distance that I knew was in front of the fishing village that i was heading for. The only problem was that it looked an awful long way away.
This part of the route was vague as my only marker was that the track would eventually lead me to Dintor. I continued on and for the first time on the track there were a few steep parts to climb. The descent from one of these short climbs led me down to the sea. The bridge and road has been completely washed out and large chunks of concrete were sticking out of the sea. In rainy season the power of the water must be intense.
As it was getting late there was a line of people bringing in the crops from the fields and piles of wood to cook on. They were waiting to cross the river so I waited my turn and let them pass. Thankfully, as rainy season starts in November none of the rivers were raging and the water was only half way up my wheels.
Once over the river there was a very steep climb out of the valley and I had to push the bike up. One of the kids following me offered to push my bike up but he was only about 7 and the bike was bigger than him. When climbing the switchbacks earlier in the day my technique for getting up the steep parts was to get the kids to push from behind, which they loved to do. I think 5 was the most I had pushing me at one time. Even if they only pushed me for 20 metres it helped.
The sun had now set and around every bend I expected to come to Dintor but each time I saw a group of houses and asked if I had arrived they just pointed down the road and I continued.
As I rounded one bend I saw a bule (albino tourist) walk out of the trees onto the road and I knew I was close. With them was a tour guide and I asked them where they were staying. They told me to take the next left and climb up the hill. After about 500m there was a sharp bend and I would find a place to stay. I just hoped they had a room for me as the sun had now gone and it was pitch black all around me.
I arrived at the bend and a pair of kids playing in the road shouted “hotel, hotel” and pointed to a building that was in the middle of rice fields. There was no sign but I assumed that this was the place that the tour guide had meant and cycled into the rice fields.
It turns out that for 200000 rupiah, about 10 GBP, I would get a room, dinner and breakfast thrown in. I was so glad that I had not stayed in Lembor and had pressed onto Dintor.
If you read this route overview and intend to cycle to Wae Rebo do not cycle via Ruteng. Instead, turn right just after Lembor and head for Nanga Lili. After there take the track that runs parallel to the coastline (there is only one) and when you come to a fork in the road always take the right, or seaward, track. After 40km you will arrive at Dintor.
On my ride here from Lubuan Bajo I had covered just over 100km and climbed nearly 2000m. It had taken me over 11 hours and had been one of the best days that I had had on the bike so far. An amazing experience and definitely a day that was well off the beaten track. I owe Paul from wicked diving a huge thank you for suggesting the route to me.
Here is a video that I shot on the way:
Dinner that evening was served ‘family style’ with everybody eating together. There were 5 of us for dinner – the two French tourists that I had passed on the road earlier, their guide and driver, and myself. The bule got a whole fried mackerel each and the tour guides half a fish. The accompaniments were rice and boiled pumpkin. Not super tasty but very filling. The one thing about Indonesia meals is that there is free flow rice so you always leave the table feeling full.
The next morning I had a lie in until gone 8 am which was a luxury – for the past 5 days I had been up before 6 am and had spent 1 day hiking, 2 days kayaking and yesterday cycling over mountains and bone shaking roads. Throw in a bit of diving and the early mornings were taking their toll.
When I rolled out of bed and opened the door I was met by a beautiful vista in front of me.
A group of ladies were already busy bringing in the harvest in the padi field in front of where I was staying:
But still had time to pose for a photo
Instead of taking a rest day, as my body wanted, my plan for the day was to cycle just 10km to the town of Denge and then hike into Wae Rebo. Paul had said that Denge was only 200m up and so I thought I had an easy (ish) 10km ride ahead of me. This was the only bit that Paul got wrong as it was more like 5km of cycling but critically it was well over 400m. This elevation gain meant that there would be one hell of a steep climb in parts.
I cycled through a few villages on the way and nearly every house had some sort of crop drying in the front yard. There were the normal crops of rice and coffee but also a few others that I did not recognise:
The road was full of sections where the rains had washed away the tarmac and these were being patched up. The method seemed to be to take large rocks and use a machine to smash them into gravel
Then fill the sections with gravel and pour over tarmac boiling tarmac that had been heated over an open fire.
About half way up my legs were feeling the effort from the day before and I was pushing the bike more than riding it. I was nearly out of water so pulled into a house to ask them to refill my water bottle which they did from a spring in the garden.
The view behind me was beautiful as I climbed up through the tree line.
I had been climbing for nearly two hours and had stopped in a village for a snack at a shop. Within seconds I had a gaggle of kids around me who all wanted photos. I had bought a pack of biscuits and two bottles of Sprite to drink. I couldn’t finish the second one and gave it half full back to the shop owner to get rid off.
This nearly caused a riot when the shopkeeper handed it to one of the kids as they all wanted a sip. I got on my bike and left them to it.
It turned out that I only had another few hundred metres to go before I passed a homestay and pulled in to ask them if they could look after my bike while I hiked up the valley to Wae Rebo. When I walked in I saw one of the Colombian guys, Roberto, that I had been on the dive boat with a couple of days ago. It turned out that he had cracked his coccyx (tailbone) on the side of the boat as he did a backwards roll entry.
Rolling backwards is the easiest way to get into the water with scuba gear on but you need to get your bum well over the edge, which he did not, and meant that when he rolled he never cleared the rail below and landed smack on his tailbone. Hence, he couldn’t join his other friends hiking.
They had all slept there the night before and had left at 6 am from the homestay to hike into Wae Rebo. Roberto was expecting them back in an hour or so as they were driving back to Labuan Bajo to catch a flight to Bali. He said that it had took them 7 hours by car to get to Denge from the port and so my 11 hours by bike was not too shabby.
We ordered some food and sat chatting about our adventures on Flores. His friends came back just as we had finished the Nasi Goreng and they seemed both excited and knackered by their mornings hike as Wae Rebo lay at over 1200m, so it was a fairly steep hike in from the homestay.
I stored my bike at the homestay and arranged for one of the guys from the kitchen, Jedo, to act as my guide/porter and set off for the 3 hour uphill hike. I don’t think he quite appreciated how fit I was and he was soon struggling to keep up.
After an hour or so we were at cloud level and the temperature was markedly cooler. The view back down the valley was superb and when the clouds parted I could the whole valley opened up before us all the way back to the sea.
It was a beautiful setting as I was surrounded by primary jungle and could hear the river running along the valley floor below.
We covered the 9 km uphill trek to Wae Rebo in just under 2 hours which was amazing given the steep terrain and for the last kilometer there were signs counting down every 100m which built up the anticipation.
We came around the final bend and there in front of me was the village of Wae Rebo that I had spent the best part of 2 days cycling and hiking to get to.
The village was like something that you associate with African villages rather than Asian and below me were 7 rounded houses built on a plateau which stuck out of the side of the valley. This sight alone was worth all of the sweat it had taken to get to this viewpoint.
My porter announced our arrival by ‘clacking’ two halves of a bamboo pole together that hung from a rope next to the path a few times, and we then waited in silence. After about 30 seconds we heard the same sound from the village below which meant that our announced arrival had been accepted and we could continue into the village.
Once we were in the village we made out way to the biggest house and had a meeting with a village elder to complete my welcoming ceremony.
This meant that I had paid my respects to the ancestors and was now accepted into the village, and I was then free to wander the village and surrounding hillsides.
We said our goodbyes and my porter took me to one of the other round houses which turned out to be where we would sleep. When I went inside all around the edge lay out in a circle were wicker sleeping mats and everybody who arrived there that day would sleep together in this hut.
Before doing anything else I went for a shower and washed my clothes as they were pretty stinky from the mornings cycle followed by the hike up the mountain.
Once clean it was time to go and investigate my new home for the night. There were a few other tourists there by now and the French couple who I had shared dinner with the night before had arrived. Everyone else was Indonesian and most of the people that I spoke to seemed to be from Java, which was not surprising as it is the most populated island in the world.
I had originally planned to cycle through Java but had to change plans having returned to Europe to attend my father-in-laws funeral. Not cycling through Java it seems had been a good choice though as every cyclist that I had met so far who had cycled all the way from Jakarta to Bali had said how horrendous it was.
It seemed that word had spread that I had cycled from Lubuan Bajo the previous day as everybody without fail came to ask me if it was true, and as they had driven the steep roads to get there thought that I was bonkers. When I told them that I had actually cycled nearly 5000km from Vietnam they really thought that I was mad.
The village was like something from a different age. Each house had either 8 or 6 different families living in them, and the size of the community was over 2oo people when everybody returned to the village. However, nowadays not all of the villagers lived full time in the village. As there was no school this meant that families with children moved down the valley and lived in either Dintor or Denge when the children reached the age of seven.
The villagers were self sufficient for vegetables as they farmed on the surrounding hillsides. The main cash crop that they grew was coffee as at 1200m it meant that it was the perfect temperature for it to grow. They grew two types – Arabica and Robusta. The villagers grow, dry and roast the coffee beans and once a week carry out the beans to be sold at the main market in Dintor.
The villagers also weave rugs by hand to supplement the money brought in from the coffee.
Tourism is something that is fairly new to the village and it has only taken off in the last couple of years since its importance was recognised by UNESCO.
By the end of the day as the sun set and the clouds engulfed the village around 15 people had hiked in for the night. The couple from France and myself were the only westerners which was nice, and it was great to see that domestic tourists were making the long journey to get to the village.
One of the huts is the kitchen for the village and a group of women had sat in the smoke filled room all day preparing dinner for the village.
The food was cooked on open fires and the ‘kitchen’ hut was so full of smoke from the fire that it was impossible to stand up in and the ladies cooked sat on the floor. Dinner was once served family style on the floor of our sleeping hut.
We all sat around in a circle as plates were passed around and bowls of rice, chicken and vegetables were placed in the center of the circle. This was washed down with strong coffee or very sweet tea.
As there was no phone signal in the village after dinner everybody just sat around chatting. The majority of my fellow travelers seemed to be in their late twenties and educated. This meant that they all spoke fluent English. It was weird to be able to talk with everyone after dinner as this hadn’t happened to me anywhere on my journey through Indonesia.
Thankfully, it was another early night and to sleep you just picked a mat around the edge of the hut and they gave you a pillow and a blanket. I had a fantastic night’s sleep and slept solidly for 9 hours and did not wake until they beat a drum to signal breakfast.
After breakfast it was time to say goodbyes as everybody started to head back down to Denge to continue with their trips. Before leaving my fellow travellers wanted a picture with the mad bule who had cycled over the mountains
The path down from the village seemed pretty straight forward and so I told my guide to leave with the others as he would need to get back down if he was going to pick up more work that day.
I now had the village to myself and just sat around enjoying the atmosphere and theatre of the place. The setting was stunning.
Many of the villagers were happy to sit and chat as most of them had a smattering of English as once a month a teacher spent two days in the villages teaching English.
At lunchtime I got my stuff together and headed down the valley to collect my bike from Denge. My last view of the village as I hiked out was probably the most stunning
Here is a video that I shot during my time in the village:
After I had retraced my route back to Denge I collected my bike and headed back to the coast and the fishing village of Dintor. I never had to touch the pedals once on the way back down.
That night I stayed in Dintor as it would take me 11 hours to get back to Lubuan Bajo and so was too late to set off that day. Instead I spent a very relaxing afternoon exploring the coast line. Many of the villagers definitely needed to go and see a dentist:
As the sun was setting I cycled back to the guest house and showered. A couple of Buddhist Monks were on their way to Wae Rebo and were staying at the same guest house that night. They joined me at dinner for a chat but did not eat. In accordance with the rules they live their lives by they are only allowed to consume food between dawn and midday. Outside of this time they are not allowed to eat and can normally only drink plain water.
One of the monks carried with him all of the paraphernalia that you needed to brew fresh coffee. Even though at night time he could not partake himself he brewed everybody else a fresh coffee.
By 9 pm I was safely tucked up in bed as I planned to be up at 5.30am for a quick breakfast and be on the road by 6 as I had an 11 hour cycle ahead of me which would take me through 4 rivers, over the cobbled section and across the padi fields before attacking the mountains which would lead me back into Lubuan Bajo.
When I walked outside of my room the next morning the view may have been even more stunning than when I stayed here a couple of nights ago:
My new friend the monk was up and insisted on brewing me a coffee before I set off back to Labuan Bajo
I now can see why most round the world tour cyclists end up getting buses for parts of their route through Flores as even with no panniers my cycle that day back over the mountains was hell. I was a bit faster getting back though as I didn’t stop for as many photos and was back in the Lubuan Bajo by mid afternoon.
I decided to move hotels as every morning at the Orange Hotel I had been woken by the local Mosque at 4am. I didn’t mind as I had to be up on those days anyway but now that I didn’t have to get up the next day I decided to move. A hotel that had been recommended by Cipi, one of the girls that I met in Wae Rebo, was the Sunset View Hotel on the other side of the headland from the main town. I gave them a ring and they not only had a room but, even better, they sent a car to collect my luggage from the dive shop where I had stored it.
The view from the hotel’s rooftop restaurant was amazing:
My arrival in Lubuan Bajo marked the end of my Asian cycling adventures and the next day I would fly to Bali to meet my wife for a weeks holiday before flying to New Zealand to continue my round the world ride. There was only one thing to do and that was to head for the sea and grab a beer as the sunset.
The final job the next morning was to find a bike box to pack the bike in as I was flying to Bali at midday to meet my wife. I already knew that there were no cycle shops in the town so I rode to an electrical shop and asked them for some cardboard boxes. They gave me 5 small ones and with the help of a couple of rolls of parcel tape I made my own bike box.
It may not win any awards but the airline were happy with my box and that was what mattered. When I landed in Bali I arranged for a storage company to meet me at the airport and they took my bike and panniers away. They would bring it back to the airport in a weeks time and this option was cheaper than leaving it at the airport and much less hassle than taking it with me to the hotel. I now had a week off the bike so it was time to sit back, relax and enjoy a week of ‘poshness’ !!!!
I had been on the bike for just over 3 months and covered around 5000 km during this time. My cycle through Asia had been a fantastic journey with everyday being like a new adventure. There have been some long days, and some very hard days, on the bike but cycling is by far the best way to get up close and personal with the locals.
If you are even slightly thinking about maybe doing your own cycling adventure I would say just do it. Forget the planning just get on your bike and start pedaling and see what happens. I guarantee that you all have the time of your life.
I hope you have all enjoyed reading about my adventures in Asia and maybe I will see some of you on the road in New Zealand over the next couple of months.
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