“Konde… Ratu… We want to see you…”
Dino taught us what the local people say every time they want to see the lakes of Kelimutu, often shrouded in thick mist more than 1,600 meters above sea level in the southeastern part of Flores. Konde, the mythical father of the lakes, and Ratu, the mother, reside in two of the three colored lakes that first caught my attention as a kid in the 1990s. It was the old 5,000 rupiah banknote which started my curiosity of the three brightly-colored mountain lakes – keli is mountain and mutu is lake in the local language – in a faraway, exotic island.
Local people believe that upon death, people’s souls would eternally rest in one of the lakes, determined by their age and what they did in life. Tiwu Nuwa Muri Ko’o Fai is the resting place for the spirits of young men and maidens, while the nearby Tiwu Ata Polo is reserved for those who committed evil deeds in their lifetime. Both are separated only by a narrow rocky wall inside the ancient caldera of the dormant volcano. A little further uphill, Tiwu Ata Mbupu is where the spirits of old people reside. In this part of the world three whimsically colored lakes – turquoise, dark chocolate and dark blue respectively – are people’s inspiration of the afterlife.
Tiwu Ata Polo changes its color the most frequently among the three, as though the uneasy spirits were trying to break free from their final resting place. Dark chocolate this time, teal a few years ago, and reddish before that, thanks to the minerals and gases released by the volcanic activity beneath the lakes. Fascinating change of color aside, two of the lakes are dangerously acidic with pH level measuring no more than 1.9.
However upon our arrival one afternoon Konde and Ratu were not keen on showing us their true colors, blanketing themselves with thick, swirling mist. That was when Dino started whistling and reciting the mantra to ask the mythical guardians of the lakes to show themselves.
As if they heard him, the mist slowly lifted up, revealing the bewitched lake, and later the lake of the youth.
But they were only teasing us for a few minutes later mist slowly crawled back on the caldera wall down to the lakes and cover the colored surface once again. With the addition of rain drops pouring over our heads, it seemed like they wanted us to leave and come back again the next day. Dino stopped whistling and the sound from our camera shutters certainly didn’t do the magic.
We retreated back to our guesthouse in the village of Moni.
Dinner was served at a small restaurant on a balcony of our guesthouse, overlooking the almost pitch black road and the rest of village, only occasionally illuminated by passing cars and motorbikes.
Dino told us how decades ago, those who wanted to reach Kelimutu would always stay at Wisma Santo Fransiskus (Saint Francis Guesthouse) in the village of Detusoko, 33 km away from the colored lakes. But some twenty years ago more than 40 local chieftains owning the lands around Moni gave permission to the locals to build lodges and guesthouses to cater the increasing demand from tourists. Soon afterwards Moni transformed itself from a sleepy village into a preferred place to stay for travelers who wish to catch the fabled sunrise at Kelimutu.
However it didn’t come free as the chieftains would periodically send a spokesperson to the accommodation managers to ask for “donation” to build a house or materials for a ceremony.
“How did you become a travel guide?” James asked Dino.
Such a rather simple question turned out to spark our guide’s enthusiasm to tell us his long and twisted life story beginning with his life as a young man in Flores, his experience working in Bali which would later bring him to places as far as Amsterdam and Milan, and his visit to Tasmania in Australia with his ex-girlfriend.
James didn’t get the answer he was looking for in the end.
“Tomorrow morning I’ll check the weather first, and if it looks good I will wake you up at 4,” Dino told us. “If not, you can wake up at 6.”
The next morning a loud knock on our door woke us up, and I quickly checked my phone. It was 4:30 am. The weather must be good, I encouraged myself to get ready really fast to not miss the sunrise at Kelimutu. Soon enough Dino drove us back to the mountain and we arrived at the parking lot just before the first rays of sun started to break. No rain or mist, the day began with a promising start.
Bathed in the golden morning sun, we took the same flight of stairs we stepped on the previous day, only this time we were walking further to reach the main viewpoint, higher than all the three lakes. In the east, endless rows of ridges were flanked by the Flores Sea from the north and the Savu Sea from the south, both glistening in royal yellow as the morning sun rose from the horizon. Mount Egon emerged above the mist-covered slopes, creating a landscape out of a romanticized painting.
Behind me, the dark blue Tiwu Ata Mbupu sat in lonesome, surrounded by steep walls crowned with lush pine forests. In front of me, following the rhythm of the sunrise the two lakes gradually showed their colors, revealing the same sight the old rupiah note was inspired by. There I was, surrounded by the color-changing lakes in a faraway exotic land. A childhood dream was fulfilled that day.