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