Exploring the Indonesian province of East Nusa Tenggara, Nikola Sarbinowski discovers it’s survival of the fittest when you’re pitted against its sacred beasts.
A metal hook slices the air beside me. The blade is old, rusted and definitely lethal. It’s attached to a man who introduced himself moments ago while I slurped on a coconut from a street stall. “Yesterday, three whales!” he hisses, gouging the air again. A grin cracks his face and I finally exhale, realising he has no intention of plunging the metal into my skin. With pride he tells me the hook once hunted ikan paus (whales) in his hometown of Lamalera, a village on an island not too far from here. I am soon to discover life in the remote town revolves around the tradition of slicing, dicing and digesting the king of the sea.
Later, after the evening prayers have fizzed from crackling loudspeakers across town, bounced off mountains and dispersed over discarded ships tipped like toys in Larantuka’s port, the warungs (cafes) open their doors. “Four nights ago they caught five whales. Not big ones, little ones,” a restaurant owner informs me as I polish off a plate of mie goreng.
“I read it in the paper.”
It seems everyone here is captivated by Lamalera and its whales. I’ve found myself on Flores Island, smack bang in the middle of the Indonesian province of East Nusa Tenggara, hoping to learn about the region’s sacred creatures and the cultures who worship them. The province stretches from the island of Komodo in the west, crawling with prehistoric lizards dribbling saliva so toxic it can kill, to a little-known diver’s paradise called Alor in the east. Bundled in between are Flores, West Timor and Sumba – each peppered with fishing villages, traditional tribes and volcanoes – and more than 500 tiny isles. The figure seems immense until you remember Indonesia comprises more than 17,500 islands.
Whispers about Lamalera seem to float across the sea, but reaching the whaling town is no easy task. First, it’s a four-hour cruise from the port in Larantuka on Flores Island to Lewoleba on Lembata Island. From there you catch a bemo (van) to the outskirts of town where you’ll find a truck that rollicks through thick growth toward Lamalera. My thoughts curdle from heat and the vehicle’s vibrations seconds into the 40-kilometre ride. When we rumble into Lamalera four hours later I’m struggling to remember what town belongs to which L-word. My legs, stiff and bruised from contorting between metal bars, bushels of live chickens and sacks of rice, refuse to unfurl.
The first thing I notice when I disembark is an assaulting stench. The second is a wishbone the size of a child flanking the side of the road. Lamalera lives and breathes whale. A quick stroll reveals drying flesh, flyblown blubber and curious bits of anatomy dangling from bamboo poles. The black sand beach is greasy with fat melting under the sun and vertebrae prop up pot plants. In the middle of the main street a choir harmonises under a tree outside a building decorated with murals depicting whales and Jesus on the cross.
Passing empty boatsheds on the sand I spot children sliding off a bloated white mass in the shallows. They lunge, thrusting imaginary spears into the carcass in lieu of the harpoon-tipped bamboo poles used by the hunters. The villagers believe whales are gifts from their ancestors and eat the flesh, crush the bones for fertiliser and burn the oil for fuel.
Superstition underlies the tradition; it is thought that if the town is at peace there will be plenty of whales, if not crews fear an even more dangerous hunt. This rare waste, a rotting sperm whale – the most cherished of all whales besides the endangered blue, which is revered and never captured – put up a mean fight, tossing a lamafa (whaler) around like a doll. Perhaps it was punishment for a clan dispute. Incredibly, the lamafa survived and rests in a distant hospital waiting for crushed bones to bind while the creature’s cranium lurks
in the sea, tainted with bad luck and well past its use by date.
One morning the beach resembles a butcher’s shop. The fishermen’s sacred boats, handmade using techniques passed down from forebears who sailed from Sulawesi hundreds of years ago, have returned to their shelters and dozens of villagers are at work carving three pilot whales into pieces. Despite whispers of abundance that bounce around Flores, the lamafa often return empty-handed. This is a generous catch. Seizing small quantities and avoiding rare species earn the hunters the badge of subsistence fishers, a term employed by the International Whaling Commission, which permits aboriginal whaling. Indonesia isn’t a member, but to toe the line the lamafa are banned from using modern fishing techniques, instead relying on rickety wooden boats, bamboo poles and the weight of their bodies to drive metal barbs into the graceful beasts.
Hunks of meat ooze onto the sand and a team hauls pink and purple ribbons from a magician’s bag of guts. Beaming women cart away their family’s portion in buckets on their heads. Some will be dried and stored, some cooked fresh in stews. What isn’t needed will be bartered at a market a two-hour walk away for vegetables that refuse to grow in the region’s stubborn soil. Through this trade the whales support life across the entire island.
It’s peak tourist season and a photographer from Spain sits on a couch in my homestay flicking through images from his voyage out with the boats. A couple on a bizarre honeymoon browses photographs of renowned locals on the walls, and two backpackers are searching for somewhere bloodless to swim. We converge for the same rationed lunch and dinner each day – an egg, rice and packet mie goreng with slices of choko – but today a new dish stands out in the spread. Whale. Handing the plate of unappetising brown gloop around the table we each take a lump and chew it down along with our Western misgivings. Despite simmering for hours it’s still tough and tastes a lot like liver. Perhaps it is. Even after our best efforts to make it look as though we’ve appreciated the delicacy, the braise looks almost untouched.
The evening generator kicks in as I settle on the porch with Jeffrey, a teacher who has recently returned to the village hoping to open a guesthouse off the back of the town’s whaling notoriety. The venture isn’t just for money, he says, as a breeze permeated with putrefying fat plays with a mobile of whale figurines above our heads. “All the people here have the responsibility for the existence of this [whaling] tradition.” And running an inn to keep travellers comfy would be his way of helping the town. Bob Marley’s ‘One Love’ erupts from his hip and he frees his phone and places it on the table next to a bone-cum-ashtray. It’s a casual motion, but with reception arriving in the area only a month ago the device is hot property, modernising the town with one great leap.
“Money is not everything,” he tells me. “First I want to make friends, learn. Money can come afterwards.” In truth the village needs rupiahs and food to survive. Cash is hard to come by – bartered whale meat doesn’t bring in a cent – and the numbers who hunt are dwindling. “Most of the parents here want their child to go to school,” Jeffrey explains, describing the conflict they face in trying to feed themselves and keep the whaling tradition alive, while earning enough to give their children the best possible life. Tourists carry coin, although it’s harder to lure them now that newer editions of Lonely Planet have erased references to the little island. Jeffrey insists that although the town benefits from visitors, whaling is for survival not for show.
Hunting season spans May to October and the fishermen must rest, often for a week, before saying their prayers, unfurling woven sails and riding the waves in pursuit of more mammals. When the prized creatures elude capture, dolphins, manta rays and sharks are all on the menu, and their dried bones, fins and teeth litter the town. Late one afternoon I watch kids cluster around a boat, prodding flying fish that pad its hull. A boy plucks one from the mix, puckers his lips and plants a kiss on its eyeball, sparking a frenzy of slurping and gouging until every last peeper is clean. I decline the offer of an eye but harbour hopes that tonight the homestay’s cook will fry up fish instead of wasting more whale on us.
While Lamalera lies eons off the tourist track, those who do make it to East Nusa Tenggara often set sail from Flores to see the famous dragons on Komodo Island, and I’m no exception. The sky is a pool of ink when I climb from a motorboat onto the deck of Plataran Felicia, a luxe phinisi (traditional schooner), in the harbour of Labuan Bajo, a fishing town on the west of Flores. We are racing the heat of the day to Komodo in the hope of spotting the world’s biggest lizard, believed to be the ancestors of the island’s inhabitants. Despite our head start it’s not long before the sun erupts behind distant mountains, staining the water pink and warming the air.
In Lamalera villagers eat the gifts sent by their forebears, but make a wrong move on Komodo and the local’s ancestors might munch you. Before Komodo National Park was created in 1980 to protect the sacred lizards, the residents considered it their duty to appease them with goats and deer. The practice has since been banished, along with the canines that once safeguarded their plots, and rumours says the fork-tongued scavengers are becoming increasingly bold.
As we sail Flores Sea I laze on the deck and watch islands jut from glassy water like the backbones of dinosaurs until the rocking lulls me to sleep. Like the boats of Lamalera on the other side of the province, the majestic phinisi have sailed the waters of East Nusa Tenggara for centuries. The 25-metre schooner I’m cruising on nods to the traditional vessels crafted by the Bugis ship makers of South Sulawesi, but while the whaling boats remain bound to their heritage, this ship boasts modern luxuries including bathrooms, a kitchen and day beds for drowsy explorers.
Docking at Komodo we’re asked to declare any wounds and, without a hint of jest, menstruation. Smelling blood whips dragons into a craze, so if anyone’s bleeding we’ll need extra guards. “They look like they’re very lazy, but if they have the chance they’ll eat you,” cautions Jakobus, one of our protectors. I scour my skin for scratches – these three-metre monsters run faster than me, clock in at one-and-a-half times my weight and harbour deadly bacteria in their bite, so I’m sure as hell not taking any chances. We’re warned: be quiet, keep your hands to yourself, don’t stink of fish. Done.
Half an hour later adrenaline bashes my veins as a dragon lumbers across the baked earth with my exposed limbs set in its sights. A rope of drool dangles from his jaw, his tongue stabs the dusty air and great folds of skin rub at his joints. My shipmates and I have just discovered six dragons chilling near a watering hole in a tamarind forest, and crouching like prey to snap a photo probably isn’t my brightest idea.
I creep backwards and Isak, one of the guards, fetches a forked stick (our only protection) and brandishes it near the beast’s nose. It heaves to a stop and resumes hissing like Darth Vader.
“Sometimes you can get three or four metres close, put your hands out and touch the dragon,” chirps one of our defenders. I’ll pass.
As we wander deeper into the forest, a baby komodo darts across the track terrified of us and of the older dragons. Although the mothers lovingly protect their eggs, once hatched all they see are four-legged snacks. The offspring hide in trees for a couple of years, foraging for insects, smaller lizards and birds until they are big enough to brave the elders. In case we’re unconvinced of their menace, Isak describes the most recent fatality, a seven-year-old local boy who was mauled while collecting tamarind for dinner. The poor boy had broken one of the golden rules by fishing and forgetting to scrub clean before hiking on shore. Whether you’re a massive sperm whale, deadly dragon or village local, in this neck of the woods you need your wits turned up full throttle.
After vanquishing the last of my nerves on board Plataran Felicia with a feast of snapper and spicy sambal, cubes of juicy watermelon, and green beans with desiccated coconut, I slip on some fins, chomp onto a snorkel and plunge into the sea. Whorls of colour sway in the gin-clear water, schools of fish stream by and electric blue swimmer crabs dart behind blooms of coral. Two of the ship’s crew hover in a dinghy nearby, searching the tree line for dragons. Not only can the creatures dash faster than me, they are also far better swimmers. I pad onto the delicate sand, sit and let the island’s beauty sink in. In the distance an eagle dives at the surface, latches its talons around a fish and soars away with its lunch. Out here, it’s eat or be eaten.
Garuda Airlines flies from Perth, Sydney and Melbourne to Labuan Bajo via Bali. garuda-indonesia.com
To get to Larantuka fly to Ende from Labuan Bajo with Garuda’s Explore fleet for about US$45 one-way. From Ende it’s an eight-hour bus ride to Larantuka. Check the offices at Larantuka’s port for departure times to Lembata Island.
Plataran Komodo Beach Resort has gorgeous villas on a private beach, a 10-minute boat ride from Labuan Bajo, for about US$245 per night, including breakfast. plataran.com
Abel Beding Homestay in Lamalera has basic rooms from about US$10 per person a night, including all meals. The truck from Lewoleba stops outside.