The road carries us up and up through the jungle, spitting us out onto a high plateau of prairie where buffalo graze and farmers spray their crops to a backdrop of volcanic peaks. The air is cooler here and the clouds hang heavily above. We cross the grasslands and re-enter the canopied slopes. We drive slower now, our bemo’s engine doing loud battle with the steep route, and the people we pass get a chance to see us, waving hello and pointing our white faces out to their children.
We pass thatched bamboo cottages, wooden houses with rusting corrugated roofs and a couple of fancy concrete houses with amazing columns and statues that parade ostentatiously beside the dirt road. Some effort is being made to improve the road here – too late for my poor head, which is thrown repeatedly against the bemo roof as we shudder over bumps. Men are clearing drainage ditches and filling some large potholes. Rendering these attempts futile, though, are the families of stone quarriers, who are busy carving up the cliffs that line the route, and filling the freshly carved ditches with their rubble.
Mats of drying coffee beans are laid out in front of most of the houses we pass – red, black and amber carpets that represent Flores’spride, its small stake in the Indonesian coffee market. We arrive in the market town of Ruteng late for lunch and ravenous after the stomach-clenching ride. The town is a nondescript gathering of dusty roads and dustier shacks, perched prettily above terraced rice paddies, with a tiara of peaks. It stinks of unkempt drains of sewage, piles of rubbish, recently slaughtered pigs and chickens, and the tethered beasts awaiting the same. But the people are friendly, the bougainvillea is flowering in papery petals of pink and orange, and our lunch is quick to arrive and good.
Ruteng is a gathering spot for the Manggarai people, who populate this region’s hill villages. They wear distinctive black sarongs decorated with woven patterns, mostly in gold coloured thread. The Manggarai speak a completely different language to any others on the island, and have a (dying out) culture of animist worship that is buried under Christianity. They herd miniature horses and keep pigs and buffalo, the last of which are slaughtered during ritual sacrifices. More than 70% of their territory is at an incline of 40 degrees or more, so storing water during the dry season (now), or piping it up from below, is difficult and expensive. As a result, more than one-third have no access to clean water. What water the Manggarai do have, is often heavily contaminated with pesticides and fertilisers. And deforestation of the slopes only worsens the situation, hastening rainwater run-off to the lower land and ocean.
It’s led to an outbreak of ‘melody sickness’, a disorder so-called because sufferers continually scratch themselves in a movement reminiscent of someone playing the guitar. Melody sickness actually describes a range of itchy skin ailments, including ringworm, rashes, leprosy and fungal/bacterial infections resulting from poor sanitation. Without water, the Manggarai cannot wash.
Ruteng’s most famous inhabitant is sadly not home when we visit – his bones are overseas in some protective cabinet. But I make a pilgrimage to his previous resting place, a limestone cave, a few kilometres out of town. I’ve been to better caves, Liang Bua doesn’t even have bats, but it was here in the cave’s shallow lip that in 2003, archaeologists discovered the remains of a human, so unusual that it rewrites our shared history. The Flores Hobbit (known to his learned discoverers ar Homo floresiensis) is the first known human example of ‘island dwarfism’, a phenomenon (like ‘island giantism’) that is well known in other animals whereby a species occurs in dramatically altered size on an island. In Flores, home to the world’s largest lizard, the Komodo dragon, and enormous iguanas, there used to exist a pygmy elephant, reminiscent of California’s pygmy mammoth. Until the Hobbit was discovered, this had never been found in humans.
The tiny hominid, with its strong jaw and long, gangly arms was just 3ft (1m) tall as an adult. It is thought to be a descendant of our cousin, Homo erectus. In all, the remains of six Hobbits were found there. But the killer finding was the date: the Hobbit lived just 12,000 years ago. It was thought that Homo erectus and its descendants went extinct here 50,000 years ago.
It’s of no surprise to local people here, who swear that hairy little people (known locally as ‘ebo gogo’) still inhabit the forests here, and tell stories of dinosaurs that roam high in the mountains.