SIM­PLY THE BEST

Far from Bali’s bright lights, the is­land of Alor of­fers tran­quil beauty above and be­low wa­ter, dis­cov­ers Sian Pow­ell

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - News -

EENAGE rebels liv­ing on the re­mote In­done­sian is­land of Alor bleach their hair orange in patches. Some­times they lash out and colour it lime green or egg yel­low. One young tough in a black T-shirt, who may have mis­read his punk mag­a­zines, likes to paint his toe­nails pale pink. Th­ese kids pre­tend they’re in the thick of things, puls­ing to the heart­beat of ur­ban cul­ture, in tune with the zeit­geist. This could be seen as a brave de­nial of re­al­ity. Man­i­festly, Alor is a long way from any­where.

One of the Lesser Sun­das chain, sit­ting north of East Ti­mor and east of Bali, Alor is among the more iso­lated of In­done­sia’s 17,000 is­lands. Coral reefs, gen­tle beaches, a sprin­kling of sur­round­ing atolls ris­ing blue against the hori­zon, green moun­tains slid­ing into the mir­rored sea: the is­land is sim­ply beau­ti­ful. And Alor of­fers some of the best div­ing and snorkelling in In­done­sia.

I had been en­tranced by the idea of Alor for nearly 10 years be­fore I fi­nally got there a few months ago. In 1999 I spent some months in East Ti­mor, then a part of In­done­sia, writ­ing about the bat­tle be­tween the In­done­sian mil­i­tary and the East Ti­morese rebels de­ter­mined to claw their home­land free. Vil­lage burn­ings, beat­ings, rapes, shoot­ings: East Ti­mor had be­come a small and fierce war zone. I used to stand on the beach with my back to the tu­mult and gaze across the peace­ful sea to the is­lands float­ing in the dis­tant haze: Ti­mor’s Atauro and, farther away, Alor and Pan­tar.

Alor was a mys­tery: no one in East Ti­mor knew much about it and later, when I lived in In­done­sia for a few years, Alor re­mained an un­known quan­tity. I couldn’t find a map of the is­land any­where. Friends told me they went there, but it turned out they went scubadiv­ing near Alor and had not set foot on the is­land.

Main­stream In­done­sian pa­pers mostly ig­nored Alor, ex­cept when a measles plague hit the is­land, killing dozens of chil­dren. Pres­i­dent Susilo Bam­bang Yud­hoy­ono was about to visit Alor in 2004 when the dev­as­tat­ing Box­ing Day tsunami killed tens of thou­sands in Aceh. He can­celled the trip. In­done­sia guide­books usu­ally de­vote no more than a cou­ple of pages to Alor, men­tion­ing the div­ing and usu­ally the strange bronze moko drums found scat­tered across the is­land that can be traced back to the Dong Son cul­ture of north­ern Viet­nam.

When Alor fi­nally floats into fo­cus, viewed from the deck of a mas­sive In­done­sian Pelni ferry, it is nei­ther brood­ing nor mys­te­ri­ous, but a large and un­der­de­vel­oped is­land of forested hills and tiny vil­lages. The main town, Kal­abahi, is small­ish and fairly unin­spired. Among the huge crowds at the port, I spot one for­eigner, a nun. In the en­su­ing weeks I see an­other nun, two dive op­er­a­tors and a hand­ful of dive tourists. Be­cause there are so few tourists, lo­cals don’t press you to buy trin­kets, get your hair plaited or have a mas­sage. Equally, be­cause th­ese is­lan­ders are pretty easy­go­ing, no one skew­ers you with glares of ha­tred, as they some­times do in the more fun­da­men­tal­ist Mus­lim vil­lages of East Java.

Not many of the Alor lo­cals speak flu­ent English, but there is al­ways some­one around who knows a few words. It’s an is­land for those will­ing to sac­ri­fice lux­ury and gin slings for the joys of a largely un­touched land­scape.

Se­ban­jar Beach, west of Kal­abahi, sports a strip of soft yel­low-white sand, fringed with palm trees. A reef, with all the trim­mings of branch­ing coral and bright dart­ing fish, sits just un­der the wa­ter. Pura Is­land juts out to dom­i­nate the ocean fore­ground and Pan­tar Is­land, much big­ger and much farther away, looms blue in the dis­tance. In Bali the beach would be backed by jam-packed ho­tels and shops. But here there is just one small con­crete-block hut on Se­ban­jar Beach and res­i­dent fish­ing fam­i­lies mostly ig­nore that bil­lion-dol­lar view.

The coast is re­mark­ably lit­ter-free and the ocean is clean and clear. The straits be­tween Alor and Pan­tar are washed by cold, nu­tri­ent-rich cur­rents, and sharks, rays, groupers, wrasse and even dol­phins can be seen rush­ing about.

The div­ing is rel­a­tively in­ex­pen­sive. Alor Div­ing is con­nected to La Pe­tite Kepa, a gag­gle of lit­tle thatched huts run by a French cou­ple on a tiny is­land off Alor near Kal­abahi. This out­fit charges the equiv­a­lent of $100 for two dives, in­clud­ing rental equip­ment, boat trip, snack and marine park fee. The more dives you take, the less ex­pen­sive each be­comes; snorkellers can also join the dive boat for a smaller out­lay.

Alor Dive’s friendly Ger­man pro­pri­etor Thomas Schreiber knows the ar­chi­pel­ago’s wa­ters well (he has lived in Lom­bok and west­ern Flores) and says Alor div­ing is the best in In­done­sia. He is a use­ful per­son to know in Alor and has a fund of sto­ries. It’s a beau­ti­ful feel­ing to float around peer­ing at the won­drous shapes and colours of the coral and the fish, then hoist one­self on board, loll on cush­ions, ac­cept a ba­nana, and en­joy the sight of is­lands and the wa­ter, with hawks wheel­ing across the hills. More in­trepid trav­ellers can hire their own put-put boat for snorkelling and swim­ming ex­pe­di­tions, for about 600,000 ru­piah ($70) a day, in­clud­ing lunch and gear hire. Most of the ho­tels can put peo­ple in touch with English-speak­ing guides who or­gan­ise such rentals.

Alor Dive rec­om­mends tourists stay in a ho­tel in town, which is a to­tally dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ence to be­ing semi­ma­rooned on Kepa Is­land. The views are far more beau­ti­ful from Kepa, but there are more mod­ern con­ve­niences in Kal­abahi and the scenery is stun­ning. A strag­gle of houses and shops stretches up­hill from the ferry har­bour (it is not an ar­chi­tec­turally pretty town), but Kal­abahi sits on a deep-cut in­let of ocean, so long and nar­row it’s al­most like a river, sur­rounded by steep green hills.

To the north is Mali, a lit­tle fish­ing vil­lage near the tiny air­port, sit­ting on a wide bay, where wooden boats rock on the swell. Farther around the bay is Tak­pala, a tra­di­tional vil­lage with thatched huts and friendly in­hab­i­tants.

As in many of the more re­mote In­done­sian towns, the pri­mary form of pub­lic trans­port is on the back of an ojek, or mo­tor­cy­cle taxi, and short rides around town cost be­tween 2000 and 5000 ru­piah. Stand on the side of the road and one will turn up al­most im­me­di­ately. In the wet sea­son, amid mon­soonal rain so drench­ing it streams off the shin­ing leaves of trop­i­cal bushes, wait­ing for a mo­tor­bike and for the skies to clear can mean sit­ting on a friendly and in­tensely curious vil­lager’s veranda.

I find one par­tic­u­larly friendly ojek driver who tells me he was jailed in Broome for five months. There is a short pause while I digest this in­for­ma­tion. It turns out he was de­tained and even­tu­ally con­victed for il­le­gal fish­ing: har­vest­ing shark fins from Aus­tralian wa­ters (a com­mon prac­tice among poor fish­er­men). He says he had a nice time in Broome prison and was amazed at the good food. He has liked Aus­tralians ever since.

No one wears a crash hel­met in and around Kal­abahi and road rules are of­ten ig­nored, so many tourists pre­fer to hire a car, with a driver and guide, for daytrips farther afield. There are at least two of­fi­cers in the of­fi­cial tourist of­fice in Dr Su­tomo Street who speak English and they can help with find­ing and hir­ing guides, cars and any­thing else.

Kal­abahi is not known for its restau­rants; in­deed, most are pretty dis­mal. There’s an open-air grav­elled field near the port where a se­ries of tented kiosks serve rea­son­able fare. The best, sadly sited next to the karaoke tent, pro­vides sub­stan­tial serv­ings of tasty roast fish and rice. But more com­monly the food is some­thing to be choked down as fuel for div­ing or walk­ing. At one name­less In­done­sian restau­rant near the port, I or­der the stan­dard fall­back of soto ayam, chicken noo­dle soup. When it fi­nally ar­rives the noo­dles are a poi­sonous­look­ing blue. I ask if they are OK to eat and the wait­ress gig­gles and says the soup al­ways looks like that. Sian Pow­ell was TheAus­tralian’s In­done­sia correspondent from 2003 to 2006.

Check­list

Mer­pati, In­done­sia’s pre­mier do­mes­tic air­line, of­fers six flights a week from Bali to Alor via Ku­pang in West Ti­mor. Ac­com­mo­da­tion on Alor is ad­e­quate and rea­son­ably com­fort­able. La Pe­tite Kepa is a French-run re­sort of lit­tle huts with one util­i­ties block and en­ergy pro­vided by so­lar pan­els; goats and a fam­ily of black and white cats strag­gle across the grounds. Daily tar­iff, in­clud­ing three meals, is about $17 a per­son. More: +62 81 353 709 719; www.la-pe­tite-kepa.com. Ho­tel Pe­langi In­dah in Kal­abahi of­fers air­con­di­tioned rooms with en­suite show­ers; staff are amaz­ingly friendly but none speaks English and there is no on-site restau­rant. Daily tar­iff from about $20 to $40. Alor Dive staff can book ac­com­mo­da­tion for guests at Pe­langi In­dah or the nearby Ke­nar­iIn­dah, of sim­i­lar stan­dard and price. More: +62 386 222 2663; www.alor­dive.com.

Pic­tures: Photolibrary, main; Thomas Schreiber, Alor Dive

A deeper shade of blue: Won­ders of the reef off Alor, main pic­ture; left, from top, a fish­ing boat, a church perched above the wa­ter, one of the is­land’s beaches; right, colour­ful crea­tures of the reef

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