During our sailing circumnavigation, Pacific Bliss anchored near a resort called Sea World on the island of Flores in Indonesia. From there, hired a guide to take our group up to the legendary crater lakes of Kelimutu. The following is excerpted from my forthcoming book, “In Search of Adventure and Moments of Bliss: The Long Way Back.”

As I photograph the unfolding panorama surrounding me, a mysterious mist appears and disappears over the crater lakes. At first I wait for the mist to clear to take my series of photos.  Then as the mist wafts in again, I realize that I like this eerie effect. It fits with the legends of the many moods of Kelimutu.

To think that only yesterday, we stood at a concrete tower at the summit of the topmost volcano, at 1600 meters (4800 feet), where we could look down on all three crater lakes at once. What a sight! The largest lake gleamed like an emerald, but reflected a deep green teal. The lake nearby looked rusty brown, and the third, pitch black. But they are not always so. These legendary lakes have a reputation for changing colors, depending on their moods.

According to the Lonely Planet, Indonesia, “Of all the incredible sights in Nusa Tengara, (comprising the islands of Sumba, West Timor, Alor, Solar, Flores, Lombok, and Sumbawa), the colored lakes of Kelimutu are undoubtedly the most spectacular…A few years ago, the colors were blue, maroon and black. Back in the 1960s, it is said that the colors were blue, red-brown, and café au lait.”

The cause of the colors and the reason why they change is a mystery. When the mist blows over the desolate moonscape at the top, the entire area takes on an ethereal atmosphere that makes one think of ghosts and goblins and myths. The locals say that the souls of the dead go to these three lakes: young’uns go to the warmth of Tiwu Nuwa Muri Koo Fai (the teal lake); old people go to the cold of Tiwi Ala Mbupu (the brown lake); and the thieves and murderers to Tiwi Ata Polo (the black lake).

Scientists say that different minerals are dissolved in each lake, but how does that explain its many moods? The Indonesia Handbook, published by Footprints, claims that the lakes changed colors 37 times in the last 50 years! In the 1970s, they say, the lakes were red, white, and blue—giving way to black/maroon, iridescent green and yellow-green. In 1997, they supposedly underwent a transformation to brown/black, café au lait, and milky blue. 

These lakes, legends have it, are resting places for souls called by the Mutu (hence the name Kelimutu; keli means mountain.) When those eerie mists come, someone is thought to be passing on. I capture mists drifting over the mountain every five or ten minutes. Lots of spirits here today. Snap. Snap. Snap.

Have you traveled to places with local legends? Where? What did you think of them?

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