Travels from Flores to Lamalera
(and some personal talk about whale hunting)

(Pictures Whalehunting on Zenfolio)

Most trips in Indonesia start in Jakarta or in Bali. The latter is the preferred port of entry for East Indonesia, and the beaches offer a good place to rest after a long journey. So that is where we stayed some days: on the beach!

After three leisurely days in Bali we arrived in Maumere, Flores, on August 9, 2002, after a very cold flight with Merpati. More fortunate travelers, not us, put on their fleece jackets. Who travels with those in Indonesia, please!

In the hall of the airport there were many taxi drivers to all parts of Flores. It took some haggling but we got a good price to Larantuka, most easterly port on Flores. A four hour drive. There we found a so-so losmen (homestay) and the only good restaurant in town was closed. Never mind, we had eaten enough on Bali. In the afternoon, we ran into a local guy, who wanted to show us the island of Adonara, the first island east of Flores. He also showed us a place where we could eat, something.

The next morning , our guide and us took the boat to Waiwerang on Adonara. This trip is described in Lonely Planet's ' East of Lombok' as a beautiful trip, through straits studded with volcanoes. All that is true. What LP did not prepare us for was the size of these volcanoes. A mountain rising straight out of the sea to a height of two kilometers is huge!

Waiwerang, on Adonara, is a miniature Zanzibar, or Kupang, with fortress-like walls protecting the houses and the town from the sea. The come and go of the boats to the other islands is probably the only focus of excitement in town. Be that as it is, the night we were there, the night market was also on, part of the Freedom Day (17 august) festivities. But first our guide toke us to his home village, high up against Ile Buleng volcano, where we sat with the family and drank ... can't remember what it was!

The same ferry that brought us to Adonara took us next day to Lembata, to the capital Lewoleba, in view of the most active volcano on the region, Ile Ape. We found a room straight away in the the most luxurious hotel in town, the Sumber Rejeki. Wow, air conditioning, what a boon in hot Lewoleba.

And also the Hotel's restaurant is great. So after a few beers and a big nasi goreng we were off to bed, in that cooool room!

Up and about at 16.00 we took an easy stroll to the harbor and watched the fishermen, and their families, prepare for the night's catch. The sunset was stunning and the locals were super friendly, wanting to sit next to us and talk and have their picture taken. I speak some Indonesian (lived on Java till I was 8 years old) so contact was easy.

It is evident that we are now a long way from Java, and next to Malay people there are now also Melanesian People. In the picture you can see that the woman has decidedly frizzy hair.

Back in the Hotel we saw some familiar people at the communal table: those travelers that donned fleece jackets on the plane from Bali. They were two French couples, from Paris and Tokyo, and also had just met. And were on Lembata to get to Lamalera! The next morning that was, and they had found out that there was a bus at noon. Which fact was corroborated by the very friendly and efficient owner of the Hotel, Pak Tanto.

So next morning we visited the market, opposite the Hotel. The market is alright, not wildly exiting, and there were only a few, and not very good, ikat weavings. Better luck, the people said, we should have at Lamalera.

A bus at noon, yes! But no bus at even 13.00 hours! So Pak Tanto, after saying goodbye to his youngest daughter, treated me to a ride, on the back of his motorcycle, to find the bus. We did eventually, and it had 'technical problems'. Good I thought, when I saw it, and that best it would never overcome its problems! How to get to Lamalera now? Pak Tanto immediately offered a solution: his own jeep. Expensive, but it would only take a few hours, and wait for us in Lamalera to get us back! At two o'clock there we went, squeezed in the back like sardines. Couple of hours!

The jeep ultimately arrived in Lamalera, after a long ride on the worst road in the world, at dusk!

First mud, OK!, Potholes, great!. But the last section! A recipe: take the hardest available local rock: basalt. Preferred shapes: football sized globes. Build  a road. Liberally add steep slopes up and down, and as many bends and turns as technically possible. Place this road at  the end of a long journey. Et voila: the road to Lamalera.

This is picture of the jeep. On one of the best stretches of the road, In Lamalera itself!

We tumbled off the jeep, and the locals took us to Guru (teacher) Ben's Homestay, the recommended place to stay. [2012 update; Ben sadly passed away a few years later] So that is where, after a hard day, we were warmly welcomed into the family house, offered dinner immediately and rooms were available. Here are pictures of, evidently happy, travelers, and of Ben's family watching Video CD's on de DVD player. Yes! Even here, where the electricity only comes on from 18.00 till 21.00. And where there is no telephone, no mobile phones and of course no Internet. (Actually, east of Maumere on Flores Internet availability stops)

Why does one travel to Lamalera then? Lamalera is perhaps the only (relatively) easy place to visit in the world where still whales are caught as has been done for hundreds of years. The Whaling Convention (btw: Indonesia is not a member) forbids whaling, with some exceptions. Subsistence whaling is one of them, and Lamalera would certainly qualify. The other places are in the arctic.

So that is why we are all here. What to do now? Fortunately Ben is a treasure house of information and has even kept track of all the numbers of whales caught in the last years. In the corridor are many pictures and maps.

The next morning we take a walk through the village. Actually that is not correct: I was already up at 05.30 to photograph the morning on the beach. We are back at 10.00, as Ben advised us. Every morning, except Sunday, a watch-out looks over the sea from a vantage point on the beach. When he shouts Baleo (whale in Portuguese, one would say, but that is disputed), the fishermen come running to the beach. Ben says there is time enough then to go to the beach and watch the boats, the Tenas being dragged out to the sea. A boat's crew, usually men out of one clan may then invite you to go out with them. A small fee is asked for when back, more of course when a whale is caught. [2012 update: there are reports that fees have skyrocketed, especially for filmers]

And so happened. The cry 'Baleo'  was heard, around 10.00. Grabbed some stuff, camera (not my Leica but a Ricoh, digital Canon S 40 and underwater house, film, water to drink, and we forgot the sunscreen. A boat crew invited us, shouting all over the beach, frantic rowing out to sea under the cries of 'Hilibe' and that was it. Not a whale in sight, no other fish (mantas or sharks). Fortunately Sylvain, of the group in the picture, had lots of sunscreen. All 4 boats sat out and waited, till about 14.00. And then the sail was hoisted, we turned, and slowly sailed back. The shore was frighteningly far away, on such a primitive boat, and we were glad to be back one hour later, bought a beer in the shop and we had had a good day. Some nice pictures and some idea of what whaling could be like. Without the gore and all.

The Lamalera people catch 20, maybe 30 whales a year, so the chance that you witness a catch while there is slim. And 3 weeks earlier, 4 whales were caught on one day. We are resigned to just taste the local atmosphere.

In the evening we take a stroll in the village and are invited in. Cup of tea and stories about the family. And of malaria. Pictures on the wall and the whole family join the host. After an hour or so we decide that we may be able help the family by buying an ikat weaving. Good idea they say, and could we come back. We did the next day, and bought a very nice weaving with stylized mantas. Expensive, but they could use the money for sure.

In the evening, dinner at Ben's. Frugal but filling enough. And what can you expect at an all-in, meals included, price of 3 U$ per day per person? In the evening the village is suddenly filled with torches. All the school children camp out this week at school, preparing for Hari Merdeka, Freedom Day, on August 17. Part of the festivities is a nightly show with torches, and that's what it is. In the daytime, there are sports, and eating together, ' kumpulan'. Maybe we can visit tomorrow? Ya, betul! (Yes, for sure!)

So to bed after a long day. Satisfied, been out on a boat, more than we had expected, saw the fishermen at work. One day more and then, after tomorrow, the taxi back. Short, but what you do when you are on a 3.5 weeks vacation from Europe?

The next morning we sleep late and have breakfast at 09.00. Sit on the terrace for a while, with that marvelous view to the beach. Hope for a quiet day after 4 hard days of travel and activity. Suddenly, at 10.30, there are shouts of ‘Baleo’. What shall we do. Can’t miss out on a good thing, in case……!

So we gather all our stuff, lots of sunscreen now, lots of drinking water, and run to the beach. The crew of the Muko Tena, same boat as yesterday, insists we go with them. A Canadian goes on an other boat with a Japanese guy. And our French friends are not there, out walking unfortunately (they join much later in a motored boat, don’t witness the catch, only see the prolonged killing, and are back at 22.30).

This time, everybody is very serious. The lookout must have seen something much different than yesterday. The rowing out is not so long and suddenly the boats lay quiet. All five of them. Nobody talks. And then…, there they are! More than twenty whales, in packs if 5 or so. Visible for 2 minutes or so, then diving under, and coming back up. No flipping of flukes though. But very impressive, big they are. What happens now?

A strange 15 minutes. The boats circle the whales, which don’t move much. Shucks! They could have fled in a second! Endless circling, wetting of harpoons, coming near the whales, almost bumping against them. We understand. The harpoonists (most important guys on the boat) are finding the most vulnerable spot, and they know exactly where.

We don’t like this so much any more. The whales, sperm whales to be exact,  are huge, 9 meters long, and wide also, and there are so many. They could crush us! And we are also transfixed on what happens. Suddenly the boat next to us has harpooned a whale, and it tows them away at high speed. Oh dear! And there is our harpoonist, and he trust his harpoon into another whale! It goes in, the whale sort of shudders, goes under, and there we go. “Australia, here we come”, I think, and wish I were on the safe and solid shore, far away. The towing goes on for a couple of minutes, and then the whales come up. More harpoons are thrust into the whales of both boats, that have stayed more or less together. A frantic clicking of the whale can be heard next to our boat. The other whales come, and, while or boats are no more than 10 meters away from each other, there are now three or four whales in between. Please can this stop?

The whales do nothing, much. One whale pushes a boat away, once ( Picture section number 19) but that is all. They don’t have a clue what is happening. The harpooned whales click and writhe, and blood is coloring the sea, and the others are just there. Then they go away. They must live in another universe, where death never comes from ugly shapes on the surface, to their recollection or instincts. How do whales die, and what do other whales do then, one wonders.

Now starts a part of the day we do not really want to think back to too much. Endless thrusting of knives of poles into the whales, lines wrapping round them when they turn, more and more blood, clicking sounds, and so on. The whale caught by our boat sometimes dives under it, but never bumps into it. This now take hours, and the fishermen are at the same time patiently waiting for the most vulnerable spots, and then suddenly franticly thrusting their long knives into the whale.

This is not for fun. They don’t laugh, are very serious. It is for their livelihood, and they have done this for many years, that is evident.

The whale gets weaker, and when an artery is cut, after a long time since the first harpoon, the sea turns blood red over a surface of many square meters, At one time, blood spurts out in a fountain. Everybody in the boat gets doused by a mixture of blood and water. We are transfixed. Not many westerners see this, we realized, but we do not like what we see. The worst moment is when a knife is thrust really deep in the whale's belly and then the whale cries out. Like a big land mammal would. The most gruesome moment in these disturbing hours!

Now it is almost 16.00, and the whales are dead. It takes an hour or so to get the lines untangled, the sails hoisted and very slowly (there is a large whale roped to the boat), and there is almost no wind, we drift back to the shore. So does the other boat. But there were more boats than two. The others we lost track of a long time ago. They are still far out.

The fishermen get out their smokes, and something to eat. No eating or talking when the catch is not dead! We get a banana. Take some pictures and then just sit. At 17.30h, getting dark, a boat with an outboard motor comes, to tow us back. Wow, Ben is there to and he brings us cold Cokes and something to eat. We share the Cokes with the crew.

The people in the motored boat tell us that a total of three whales were caught today. We must have brought luck they say. This season is good, because the currents are favorable. When the currents go, they say, there are no whales. Only manta’s, also a good catch, and sharks. But the Japanese and Korean fishing factory ships catch many manta, and they are disappearing. So when there are no whales, food is a problem in the village.

The motored boat tows us back to the village. We arrive at dark. In the meanwhile, all the ropes have been carefully laid back on the boats floor and everything is ready for the next trip. Which may be tomorrow! At the beach, the boat is tugged into its shed, and a picture of the crew is made. And we say goodbye.

At Ben’s Homestay, no sign of the others. They came back late at night, and we learn the boat they followed was towed out very very far. The whale they caught was very large and very strong. One boat was towed under, and the Japanese guy lost all his cameras and electronics. Our Canadian friend was more lucky. So were we.

The next morning, our jeep is waiting and we go back to Lewoleba. We miss out on the cutting and butchery on the beach, but we do not mind so much. Understandable?