Sunrise over sacred Indonesian lakes
“This is for the souls of the bad man, the bad people,” announces Nando, our guide, as we contemplate Tiwu Ata Polo, the “enchanted lake” stewing below.
The image may be macabre, but the setting is almost ethereal. An orb of fire has just split the sky from the earth, drenching the mountain in golden light and revealing the dark pits around us as the jewels of Mount Kelimutu: its three colourful crater lakes. The grand reveal is a worthy reward for rising an hour before dawn to push my sluggish body to the peak of the mountain. Granted, a van did most of the work.
According to the beliefs of the local Lio people, spirits of the deceased flock to this dormant volcano, on the Indonesian island of Flores, to be categorised and stored.
A few months ago the water pooling in Tiwu Ata Polo was the colour of rust. Photos from years past show it glowing aquamarine. I wonder if a new addition of fetid ghosts stained it the darker shade it exhibits today and, if so, what did they do to be exiled here?
Kelimutu’s lakes transform up to three times a year, morphing like mood rings from teal to white to blood red. Some claim the rare phenomenon is an unexplained mystery but scientists – never romantics – attribute it to an ever-changing blend of chemicals leeching from the volcano.
A thin ridge separates the “enchanted pool” from the second lake for the departed. Despite its proximity to the murky liquid of nasty souls, Tiwu Nuwa Muri Koo Fai is a melting bowl of bubblegum ice-cream, swirling milky and blue. It is here, Nando explains, that the innocent spirits of children rest.
But it’s Tiwu Ata Mbupu, the crater for those who aged with kindness, that most intrigues. Nando tells me the pool is black these days and my mind thirstily conjures a bowl of Flores coffee – fresh and restorative, with floral notes.
I’ll have to take his word for it. This morning it’s a foamy cup of milk. Clouds froth up the crater's edge, keeping the oldies safe from sight – a dignity they’ve no doubt earned.
My foot misses its mark on the descent and I stumble on a wild blueberry bush. Punishment, perhaps, for lusting after caffeine in such a sacred place. My toes smart and it’s hard not to wonder: if the stagger had occurred at the crater’s edge would I have wound up with the tender old souls or been banished to the cauldron of villains?
Words Nikola Sarbinowski
Photos Afriandi Syafril and Nikola Sarbinowski
September 2016 from issue 47