Over the hills and far away we go, in a bemo from Bajawa to the tiny village of Moni, 6 hours away. There are 25 of us packed into the 9-seater, along with countless boxes, packages, chickens, a dog and a pig in a wicker basket on the roof, a motorbike tied precariously to the back, plus 3 babies. It’s so squashed that the other passengers can’t even crane round to stare at us – the two Westerners – a frustration that they relieve at every stop, where they jump out, ‘hello mister’ at us and call over anyone in the vicinity to share the show. We respond with our 3 words of Indonesian, and in this way we are soon best friends. We arrive (to misquote the Floyd) uncomfortably numb at Moni, a rice-farming community in the foothills of Kelimentu volcano. We find lodgings at the family run Bintang (meaning star, but also the name of Indonesia’s best-known beer) guesthouse, whose owner, Tobias, is surprisingly efficient and very helpful. But even he is unable to help solve the deepening Unicum mystery – yet another empty green bottle of the stuff I spy on a shelf in his bar. From where?
We rise at 4am the next morning to clamber sleepily onto the back of an ojek (motorbike taxi) for the chilly hour-long ride up the volcano. Another half hour on foot brings us to our jewels: three spectacular coloured crater lakes that appear gloriously below us as the sun rises in a glow-ball ahead. We sit a while in the cold wind. Three, then four hours pass and we are still held by the lakes, watching their colours deepen and turn, swirls of dissolved metals emerge in suspension. To us, they are turquoise, dark green and black, but two years ago they were blue, red and white. They change with the year and with the season. The devastated rock faces cradling the lakes are beautifully scarred from the eruption, their trauma wrought in golds, reds and blacks that shimmer in the sunlight.
We leave our vigil eventually, heading down on a three-hour trek back to Moni. Monkeys party above us in the canopy and birds and butterflies flit from flower to flower across our path.
We see more fires burning like lanterns across the slopes around. The local people use the dry season to clear their land in a slash and burn period that sends smog clouds of hazardous particulates across Asia, blanketing Indonesia’s neighbours in Singapore and Malaysia (such fires contributed to the country being the world’s third biggest CO2 emitter during the 1990s). And the practice is having devastating effects on the national environment too, silting up waterways, reducing freshwater supplies and causing landslides. This year is an El Nino year, bringing a longer dry season to the archipelago. What little water they do receive will simply run off these balding burnt patches to the ocean that glints away beneath.
As we near the village, we pass a relatively flat patch of land. Here, in the crease between two buttocky hills, a river runs. Every square inch of these fertile volcanic soils is sprouting some fruit or vegetable. It’s a patchwork of fecund colour, from the orange trees, to the tomatoes, to the green rice fields. It hasn’t rained in months here, but the villagers have worked miracles with this one river. Every squared patch in this living mosaic has its own supply, brought via bamboo pipes, across complex gravity fed layers that seem to defy gravity – in places, seemingly rising uphill. It’s an architecture that demonstrates human ingenuity; in these irrigated fields I see the engineering that made possible the first civilizations.
And yet, I am told that after centuries, perhaps millennia, of flow, this river is becoming less during the dry season. Perhaps the newly naked slopes above are to blame, or perhaps the spring is drying. Tobias thinks the river will run full again. I hope he’s right.