Staring at the milky blue waters I could see why some people were tempted to dive in as if goaded by an invisible spirit to swim in the beautiful lake, slipping off their sandals and jumping to their deaths in the poisonous volcanic water.
Journey to the Crater Brim
Earlier I had dragged myself out of bed at 4am (what kind of holiday is this, I had thought) in nearby Moni, and hopped on the back of a motorbike with my guide for the day, Udin, for the journey up to Kelimutu for sunrise. These volcanic crater lakes are the number one item on every visitor’s must-see list for Flores, and justifiably so.
The road twisted and bended, climbing upwards, cloudy in places so we could see only a few metres ahead. I was relieved I had opted to take a guide rather than hire a motorbike myself. Pausing at the entrance to Kelimutu National Park, I showed my KITAS (long-term Indonesian visa) and got in for the local price of Rp. 11,000 including parking and a camera permit. The usual price for foreigners is Rp. 20,000 for the ticket, Rp. 50,000 for a camera permit and Rp. 3,000 for parking. We arrived in the car park and began our walk up to the top. It was still dark and I used the torch I had brought, though the moonlight also lit our path.
Walking up steps and along a path, with a final climb up to the main viewing area, called Inspiration Point, we arrived somewhat out of breath, but pleasantly warmed by the 30 minute hike. Up at the top, the weather was cold, with a strong wind blowing.
A Disappointing Dawn
Unfortunately the cloudy start to the day was a sign of things to come. We couldn’t see the lakes, or indeed anything at all around the viewing point, since everything was shrouded in clouds. Then suddenly the wind blew, the clouds parted for an instant and I glimpsed the Kelimutu lakes.
As I watched, the sun now having risen, without any great dawn view that day, the clouds once again enveloped the viewing point and then it rained. I sheltered with the other visitors beside the concrete platform that marks the centre of Inspiration Point, though there was no roofed area. We waited for the rain to stop, and then after some more waiting, the lakes became visible once more.
Vast Lakes of Colour
I was blown away by the sheer enormity of the three Kelimutu lakes. Having seen photos prior to my trip, and having visited various other volcanic lakes in Indonesia, I hadn’t expected them to be so expansive. A sign states that the black lake covers 4.5 hectares with a depth of 67m. However, my guide believed this to be inaccurate due to the difficulties of measuring the lake’s size.
The lakes change colour from time to time, and were black, turquoise blue and lighter blue on my visit, all colours opaque. Each lake has a name: the black lake is called Ata Bupu, the light blue Nuamuri Ko’ofai, and the turquoise lake is called Ata Polo. The transitions in colour are believed to be caused by the concentration of minerals entering the water, which being in a live volcanic crater, has a high sulphur content. In some places I could see some bubbles at the water’s surface and the wind created ripples across all three lakes. Steep, high cliffs surround the lakes, and it is certainly a very long way down.
Spirits of the Dead
Besides science, the lakes play a significant role in the traditional beliefs in the Kelimutu region. Local people believe that a dead person’s soul enters one of the three lakes; there is one lake, Ata Polo, for the souls of people who have committed evil, a second lake, Ata Bupu, for the souls of old people who have died and a third, Nuamuri Ko’ofai, for the souls of those who have died young. As a result of this, offerings are made to the spirits residing in the lakes.
My guide told me about people who have wilfully jumped into one of the lakes, without intending to commit suicide. He described one visitor who was with friends at Inspiration Point before decided to walk back down towards the car park alone, while his friends were still admiring the view. Later his sandals were found, which had been taken off, showing that he had jumped and not fallen into the lake. Apparently several people have died in this way, and it is believed that they were tempted into the water by the spirits of the lake. Indeed the milky blue waters can appear deceptively inviting.
In fact, the poisonous waters are thick with minerals and sulphur, and therefore extremely dangerous. Several people have died in the lakes over the past few years, including locals. It is very difficult to retrieve corpses from the lakes, because they are pushed and pulled around by the volcanic strength of the bubbling magma underneath.
Walking around the Crater Rim
As well as admiring the view at Inspiration Point, it is possible to walk around to the farthest lake, walking along the crater rim. We walked along the paved, fenced pathway until it ended, and then continued on the clay-like ground, following the crater rim of the turquoise blue lake. The clouds had cleared to reveal an amazing view and as the sunlight hit the blue waters, the colours appeared ever more vivid.
Returning to the parking area via a different path, I was relieved I hadn’t dived into the black or blue water, and I could understand why Kelimutu has such a powerful pull for local people and tourists alike.
How to Visit Kelimutu
There are many homestays and hostels in nearby Moni village, which has become the tourist centre for visitors to Kelimutu. You can travel from Moni to Kelimutu (13km according to my old Lonely Planet) by motorbike as I did, either with a guide or by renting your own bike. A single ride up to Kelimutu on the back of a bike costs from Rp. 25,000. If you want a guide to drive you, escort you on the walk up and tell you interesting stories, this will cost more. I paid Rp. 130,000 for a full day’s guiding and motorbike tour to Kelimutu and then to other places around Moni. You can walk back down from Kelimutu to Moni, following a shortcut, and visiting a hot spring and a waterfall on the way. Some visitors choose to trek up to Kelimutu, but if you’re planning to be there at sunrise, it’s probably wise to go by motorbike. Cars and minibuses are also available in Moni for groups to hire.