The Volcanic Lakes of Kelimutu


One way to repurpose litter…

We woke before dawn on a Sunday morning and dinghied ashore to meet our driver Johnny, who we had arranged to take us to Flores’ most famous attraction, the three-color lakes of Kelimutu. Leaving Maumere with iron gray predawn light just beginning to seep into the eastern sky we drove south and west, clearing into the foothills of Flores’ mountain ranges just as the sun peeked over the horizon. The mountains were an interesting contrast to the drier northern coast of Flores we had sailed along before arriving in Maumere, their hillsides covered in rich tropical forests dense with cacao, papaya, macadamia, mango, and clove trees. Thriving villages are interspersed through the ridges and valleys, their crowds we passed on the way to Church all over the island, Flores being predominantly catholic. For three hours we motored, reaching and driving along the southern coast before turning again north from the city of Ende, climbing even higher into the mountains. The midday sun filled green valleys lush with rice fields and crops, beans, corn and more growing in abundance between stands of tropical trees. Bamboo, absent from the coast, was more and more in evidence both as massive stalks growing in the forests and as a building material for the higher elevation villages. 

 The approach to the lakes
Eventually we arrived in a parking lot high atop a cluster of mountains after weaving through a tourism village with all the hallmark souvenir hawking and tourist lodging that surrounds such attractions. The bright sun that had shown us so much of the island thus far was hidden behind a suddenly overcast sky. We were told that the lakes we had come to see lay about 20 minutes’ hike up a trail through the high forest surrounding us, and so we set off through the trees. Tropical foliage and ferns competed with pine trees that seemed more natural to me this high on the mountain, bright purple flowers abounded on either side of the gravelly path and lilting unfamiliar birdcalls brought the trail a musical life. About halfway through our walk a rustle in the bushes saw us facing the wizened, bearded face of one of many gray monkeys that now seemed all about us, peering curiously at us from the bushes. Hardly fearful of the tourists, they jumped and played and even walked along with us all the way for the rest of the trail, eating peanuts and various other foods that tourists either left in too easy of reach or threw to them willingly. A short walk further saw the forested path open out onto a broad hillside, the trees giving way to rhodedendron and scrubby bush plants as the trail turned from gravel to decoratively patterned concrete steps that rose steeply up the open hillside. We passed locals selling ornately woven blankets and shawls, and high above and behind them we could see sheets of steam rising from beyond the ridge. Following the steps, we stepped onto a viewing ledge to see the volcanic summit of Kelimutu and its lakes laid out beneath us.

From the platform we stood on the sheer cliffs of striated white and yellow stone swept out to either side, forming a massive crater. At the bottom lay the source of the sheets of steam, a large lake of vivid turquoise blue, striking in its contrast to the grand falls of white stone around it. A narrow ridge separated the bright turquoise from another steaming lake of opaque green as bright as any ocean water. Another short hike brought us to the lip of yet another crater, this one even deeper than its fellows and filled with a lake that seemed normal until the rare shafts of sun illuminated it, revealing deep greens and coppery tinges around the edges. 


All three lakes surround the true summit of the volcanic mountain Kelimutu, which is revered by local cultures as the final resting place for spirits of the dead. The natural magnificence of the lakes is augmented by the knowledge that they change colors frequently (in geological terms), sometimes changing from deep blue and green to an opaque blood red depending on the oxygen content of the lakes. The gases and thermal processes of the volcano cause these striking changes and give the lakes their well-deserved fame. Kelimutu is truly a natural marvel unlike any I have ever seen, and it is quite easy to see how local cultures would revere it as a holy place. 

 Mom and baby monkey

Another now-familiar three hour drive brought us back to Huck’s anchorage in front of the Sea World Dive Resort just outside of the city of Maumere. Here we had spent the greater part of a week resting, reprovisioning, and catching up with boats we last saw in Debut now arriving here from the northern part of the rally route. Having separated from the rally to travel southwest along the Forgotten Islands in little company through relatively untraveled waters it was nice to see familiar faces in Dragonfly, Wakanui, Island Pearl II, Taka’oa and Por Dos once again bringing stories of their own exciting journeys so far. After so much time spent in multi-day passages, we are finally relaxing and enjoying ourselves in front of a resort beach and looking forward to a much more leisurely schedule ahead of us. Now we make our way in small day sails westward towards the world-famous Komodo National Park, where we hope to find the Dragons that bear the islands’ name. Cheers all!

Lizard Island

As we reach our final 10-day countdown to exiting Australia the feeling in the air is getting more and more exciting. We have pulled in to Lizard Island, probably the last destination anchorage this far north, at the least the last one where you can swim, snorkel, and paddle board freely thanks to crocodiles on the mainland. We’ve only been here for a few days but a lot has happened. Dozens of boats have arrived here to wait out the wind and rain that drove everyone north from Cairns, and a large number of them are also participating in the rally to Indonesia with us. Still others, like ‘Exit Strategy‘, are old friends of my parents’ having crossed from Mexico together 4 years ago. So the atmosphere for us has been one of reunion and making new friends and acquaintances. The radio chatters daily with boats organizing friendly events from hikes to snorkeling and tours of the island’s research center, and it’s quite a fun and happy time as boats that will spend the next three months in close proximity start to get to know one another. 


The 4th of July party on the beach

     Happy 4th of July!

     There was even an impromptu 4th of July celebration on the beach ‘organized’, such as it was, by one of the four American boats in the anchorage. It was a hilarious and jolly evening with Canadians parading around in umbrella hats plastered in their red, white and maple leaf flag while children from at least three different nationalities raced up and down the beach, sparklers in hand. Someone gave the kids gummy bears to roast over the fire in the absence of marshmallows (to mixed results) and in true American fashion people from all over the world gathered to meet, drink, and laugh together. The night was by far the most multinational and in some ways the most American celebration of our independence that I’ve ever seen and on a tiny island half a world away. It was a fantastic time and speaks to many more happy memories in months yet to come.

The view of our anchorage from Cook’s Lookout

The precarious, rocky path up to the top of the mountain.

     Cook’s Lookout

     Almost two and a half centuries ago the famous Captain James Cook of the exploratory vessel ‘Endeavor’ landed on this island due to its high peak from which he would be able to see the surrounding reefs for miles in all directions. He named it Lizard Island due to a preponderance of lizards he found here, only a small amount of which I’ve seen here mostly in the form of little goanas scurrying about when the sun shines. Today there is a steep, rocky trail that one can take to the top of the mountain to the same vantage point Cook looked out from so many years ago, and my two young friends Josh and Sam (from ‘Mikado‘) and I decided we wanted to see the view. It took about an hour of scrambling up sheer rock faces and narrow gullies in slight misty rain, but about 359 vertical meters (~1100 feet for my American friends) in roughly 3 kilometers of track later we summited to stunning views of the island, surrounding lagoons and reefs, and every islet and weather system for many miles in all directions. At the top are several informational panels detailing not only Cook’s visit but the significance of the mountain to local Aboriginal cultures going back more than ten millennia. Next to one of these panels overlooking the expansive ocean is a gigantic, 2.5 meter (~7-8 foot) tall cairn to which it seemed traditional to add a stone when reaching the peak of the island. In a small wooden box next to the stone pile is a guest registry in a watertight box which people over the years have signed and left notes, flags, and mementos in on this historic mountain, and we happily added our names to the list of successful hikers. It is truly a great and one-of-a-kind hike.


Sam, Josh, and myself after conquering the climb, 359m high

     Lizard Island Research Center

     The Lizard Island Research Center is one of four such facilities located along the length of the Great Barrier Reef. The narrowness here of the reef and the shelf on which it sits, as well as proximity to the mainland without many detracting factors such as river runoff and lack of detritus from any major urban centers make this site as ideal as it gets for studying coral reefs. As a result much leading edge research regarding reefs is done here, including the much publicized bleaching events, effects of climate change on the coral, and the entirety of coral reef ecosystems. Established in the early 1970s, the facility maintains an impressive 70% occupancy rate of its 37-person capacity year round, most of which consists of research teams doing field work from all over the world, while we were there a group was visiting from Switzerland. However, many filming groups (such as the BBC) also use the Research Center frequently for documentary-type work, and student groups from both high schools and universities also come to make use of the island’s ideal location along the Great Barrier Reef. This is all supported, amazingly, by a full time staff of only four people; two directors and two maintenance personnel. One of the directors, a very friendly man named Lyle, was kind enough to give a large group of us visiting yachties a tour of this great place as well as tell us a lot about the important research that takes place there. This amazing and educational experience would have made the windy anchorage worthwhile all by itself, and I’m grateful to have seen it.

The Director Lyle holding and explaining a Crown of Thorns starfish, one of the most deadly predators of coral reefs.


Lyle explaining coral reef bleaching to us.

     Up and out of the Land Down-Under

     So we’ve spent a few wonderful days learning about reefs, snorkeling, hiking, and meeting friends both old and new. We have seen turtles, giant clams, a view that has been sacred for thousands of years, some of the prettiest, most inviting beaches thus far on the Queensland coast, and we drank and laughed in celebration of a holiday a world away. Tonight we leave with familiar friends for another overnight passage up the coast, pushing once more upwards towards Cape York and Thursday Island. If Cairns was a staging area, then Lizard Island has been a send-off, a glorious celebration and bookend for our time here so far that is drawing so rapidly to a close. In only a little more than a week’s time, I’ll be writing you all from the northernmost point of Australia before we leave for Indonesia, but for now just know that if you ever get a chance, Lizard Island is worth a visit. Cheers!

A thunderhead moving across the ocean.

Another view from Cook’s Lookout


The aptly named Blue Lagoon