LIEN'S ENVIABLE CALVES LEAVE ME IN HIS WAKE AND RAPIDLY PROPEL HIM UP THE MOUNTAIN.
As the only point of entry into his home village, Lien has made this steep journey many times. The trek itself isn’t long – only about six kilometres – but it's through dense mountainous jungle at a vicious incline.
I sweat profusely, I swear often. We arrive late in the afternoon, and I'm surprised at how taken aback I am.
As travel writers, we're priveleged to be sent around the world to see some very beautiful places. Because of this, we're not easily left in awe. But it's immediately plain to me that I've climbed to a truly exceptional corner of the planet.
This is the village of Wae Rebo, on the island of Flores.
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TEN HOURS EARLIER
We leave Labuan Bajo, a diving mecca on the lesser-visited Indonesian island Flores, at the crack of dawn and drive for four hours along winding, hilly roads to the town of Denge. We encounter qualms at a river crossing but a particularly entrepreneurial bunch of barefooted lads—none older than 12—help us cross the river by manoeuvring a bunch of stones (for a small fee), like a bunch of tiny proverbial Moses’ parting the sea.
After a hairy 30-minute motorbike ride (that my insurance company definitely wouldn’t have had any interest in) we reach the base of the mountain and find a local person abandoning the trek—the going too tough. Ominous sign.
Entering the rainforest at the mountain's base feels like you’re being teleported somewhere else, not least because of the change in temperature; we go from a humid 33 degrees to something much, much cooler. Sometimes it is muddy, sometimes it is slippery, sometimes it is rocky. A fiery red insect crawls by me at water break. Lien isn’t sure of the name but he’s certain of its intentions: “Danger, danger, danger,” says Lien wagging his finger, as if to say “don’t fuck with that insect, bruh.”
Lien’s father is the leader of the village, but he’s in Labuan Bajo for Lien’s sister’s wedding. I feel guilty at taking him away from the celebrations, but glad to have him with us on account of his knowledge of both village, and deadly insects.
“How long has your family lived there?” I ask.
“Twenty,” he answers, but then pauses; “But we count in generations. When the leader of the village passes away, he is replaced, and then we have a new generation.”
So if we conservatively estimate the average head of the village to last at least 50 years each, that means the Manggarai people have been living at Wae Rebo for…
“Over 1,000 years,” he says, as if he can hear the math crunch in my brain. “It is probably more than 1,200 years, but no-one really knows exactly.”
COFFEE, HONEY, ARAK
The Mbaru Niang are wooden, cone-shaped, thatched-roof huts that the Manggarai people call home. Roughly 10 metres tall and situated in a semi-circle at the entrance to the village, the huts are flanked on one side by the elevated village cemetery and stunning mountain views to the other. They are unlike any dwelling I’ve laid eyes on.
When you combine this with the extraordinary location of the village – perched 1,100 metres above sea level in the jungle – it makes for a surreal scene.
There are as many as five floors in each hut, with different families living quarters’ taking up each level, and a communal eating and greeting area at the bottom. There is seemingly always coffee brewing on the bottom floor, the smell percolating through the entire village.
The best place in the Mbaru Niang, however, is by the windows where light softly filters through. I’ve drank some coffee in my time but perhaps no cup has been as peaceful as the fresh coffee I have sitting here in the cool of the hut, coffee warming my insides and sunlight warming my face.
It is good coffee too. The Manggarai people have been making their own Luwak coffee for about ten generations. Luwak coffee is the most expensive coffee in the world, taken from the faeces of Asian palm civet native to the area. Unlike other Luwak coffee, where the civet are kept in cages in an intensive, battery-cage operation, the civet here run wild.
It makes collecting the poo—just imagine searching for the shit of a tiny cat in a big jungle—and brewing the coffee very time consuming. But it also makes for a far better product than most commercial Luwak. It is also delicious. Lien says he drinks six cups a day, I get close to this. I also buy so much that I'm forced to declare it on my way back to Australia.
For a long time coffee was the Manggarai’s currency; representatives would head to the bottom of the mountain and trade with it, mainly for rice. Even today, in 2023, the village doesn't lack for much—it sees to its own livestock, harvests its own vanilla, fruit, vegetables, honey and produces its own arak.
A man named Benedictus pours me a shot of half honey, half arak (produced from sap of nearby palm trees). The glorious sweetness of the fresh honey hits my senses just before the explosiveness of the arak.
Benedictus says they measure the alcoholic content by lighting the arak on fire—the easier it lights, the more alcoholic it is. A few more honey araks and I feel like I am on fire, or flammable at the very least.
We spend the night wandering around the village in complete darkness, thanks to the cloud cover. At one point I find myself at a small waterfall, bathing my face in the dark to wash away bad spirits. The arak stays with me.
The clouds eventually clear and the village is illuminated. We lay on the grass outside the Mbaru Niang and gaze at stars that have gazed back at the Manggarai for over a thousand years. It’s 1am and I can still smell coffee somewhere.
1,200 years ago, the Manggarai leader had a dream telling him they should move to their current location. Good call we reckon.