Travel: Far East - In the footprints of the dragon

Hypnotic lakes, prehistoric monsters and overdressed fish: Emma Dowson made an otherworldly trip around the Indonesian island of Flores
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The Independent Culture
Red, white and black said the battered signpost at the summit of the Keli Mutu volcano, but the colourful crater lakes they pointed towards were still shrouded in mist. I watched as the rising sun tore through it, gradually uncovering what looked like three giant inkwells filled with black, brilliant turquoise and pale green liquid. "The lakes have changed colour so often during my lifetime," said our guide. "No one bothers to alter the signposts any more."

It was eerily quiet as I stared at the black lake, still and hypnotic as a glass eye. It was tempting to believe, as many local people do, that these lakes contain the souls of the dead. Or perhaps it was just that I'd contemplated the afterlife often on the three-day journey across the Indonesian island of Flores.

The island is 375km long, but the single potholed road snaking from one end to the other, is almost twice that length. Many sections have been swallowed up by earthquakes or monsoon floods. Buses that ply the route are held together with string, and loaded like exotic supermarket trolleys, with ripe fruit and meat so fresh it squeals or clucks. Passengers clutch rosary beads. Bus drivers, presumably trusting in divine protection, slalom along knife-edge mountain ridges under haloes of clove-scented cigarette smoke.

A boat from neighbouring Sumbawa dropped me off at Lahubanbajo, the most westerly point, where the bay was filled with outrigger fishing boats and encircled by bougainvillea-festooned houses. It was easy to see why the 16th-century Portuguese, who came here to trade in sandalwood, named the island "the cape of flowers".

Flowers were hardly what came to mind in Ende, a larger town in central Flores. It reeked of drains and rotting fruit. Here minibuses, emblazoned with flashing lights, lurched along dusty streets, spilling jangling music.

Bajawa was different again. This friendly hill town is the centre of the Ngada people, one of Flores' five tribal groups. Each has its own beliefs, language and distinctive dress made of hand-spun ikat cloth. At Bajawa's market, rickety stalls were piled with lengths of cloth fashioned into sarongs, blankets and long burial wraps. The market was filled with local delicacies - eggs drunk raw from the shell, and rows of giant fruit bats hanging upside down from bamboo poles.

Most visitors to Flores stay at family-run "homestays". "Sunflower" in Bajawa was clean and extraordinarily cheap. I breakfasted on coffee and fresh doughnuts as the owner's daughter slipped leftovers to a hairy black pig in the garden. It was destined to be sacrificed for her wedding, a few weeks later. Although 85 per cent of Flores population is Catholic, Christianity is fused with traditional beliefs. "l'll get married in church," the young girl told me, "but my family will also make an offering to our ancestors for good luck - the fatter the pig the better."

Journeying on, I caught tantalising glimpses of the coast. Riung, in the north, was recommended, but its muddy strip of sand was initially disappointing. "Look, a handful of tiny Balis," said Charlie, a helpful local who offered to take me out to the nearby islands. "But the crowds are underwater, not on the beach." And there, just off the side of his boat was a carnival of colours where designer-dressed fish paraded and seahorses floated, erratic as drunken tourists, around neon coral.

Back on dry land, Charlie promised to show me something even more otherworldly: the legendary Komodo dragon. Some 3,500 of the world's largest monitor lizards live on the islands around Flores, with the largest group on neighbouring Komodo Island. These creatures are very rare in Flores, but Charlie claimed he had dragon-wise eyes.

"Footprints," he said, pointing to the soft cusp of a muddy puddle. Wewatched long and hard, until suddenly an enormous creature paused in front of us, raised a tapered head from a scarf of wrinkled flesh, and gazed at me with myopic eyes. Then it yawned, poked out a forked, sulphur-yellow tongue and shuffled off.

Travelling on through a dry, dusty stretch, it felt as if I had reached the end of the world, especially when a teenager waving a machete flagged down the bus, engaging the driver in animated conversation. It looked as if they were talking money and murder. Then a group of children appeared with buckets and cloths. "This is the local car wash," the driver explained to me. Having seen mythical dragons and magical coloured lakes, nothing on this island should have surprised me.

From Britain the most convenient route to Flores is via Bali. Flights are now very reasonable: Bridge the World (0171-911 0900), for example, offers a pounds 375 fare (with taxes) on Royal Brunei Airways from Heathrow. There are flights, at least daily, from Bali to Flores and frequent ferries via Sumbawa. For more details call the Indonesia and South East Asia hotline on 0171-493 0030

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