Little Wonder

Aug 7th, 2009, in Travel, by

Flores HobbitChris visits the only hobbit cave this side of Middle-Earth.

The more famous Hobbit, Frodo Baggins
The other more famous hobbit, Frodo Baggins

When "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" first premiered at cinemas in 2001, travel websites were suddenly inundated with requests for flights to "Middle-Earth", "Mordor", etc. But they only returned error messages or details of New Zealand, where the film was shot.

Perhaps these websites could have pointed to Ruteng, in Central Flores:

Because in 2003, in a small village called Liang Bua about 15 km north of Ruteng, an international team of archaeologists started digging in a nearby cave.

Liang Bua cave
Archaeologists at work in Liang Bua

There, they discovered a female skeleton, measuring about one metre tall, and with a brain about half the size of a modern human's. It was called "homo floresiensis", a.k.a. the "Flores hobbit".

Scientist and skull
Alas, poor Yunita! I knew her well...

Previously, there had been reports and even a National Geographic show about a similar species in Sumatra known locally as "orang pendek" (little guy or ape-man):

But this was the first discovery of a skeleton, which you can view here.

Ever since, various scientists have argued over whether it was a healthy ancestor - as the archaeological team believes - or a diseased modern human - as some others believe. You can read more about the Flores Hobbit here, and a recent development here. But for this posting, I will focus here on the tourist angle, and how to get there.


Getting there is easier than it used to be.

If you're keen to see just this site over a weekend, you can fly to Ruteng direct. There are flights on TransNusa from Kupang, with connections on Mandala Air to Surabaya and Jakarta. Or, you can go from Kupang to Denpasar (Bali) on Garuda or Merpati, though the connection time may be poor and/or require an overnight stay.

However, most people fly to Maumere (East Flores) or Labuanbajo (West Flores) to arrange transport - usually renting a car with driver - for a one week trans-island trip that takes in a few other sights along the way, like Komodo Dragons or the multi-hued crater lakes of Mt Kelimutu. If you fly to these larger airports, you have a greater choice of airlines; those above, plus Merpati or Pelita Air.

If you need help booking a flight there, you can use our domestic flight booking service.

Unlike what the current Lonely Planet guide says, the road there is newly asphalted. Even better, unlike most of the roads in Flores, it isn't particularly windy or bumpy. However, as there are no street signs or maps, you may need to stop a few times to ask for directions, so you will either need to speak some Indonesian or bring a local guide (who can ideally speak the local Manggarai language).

You know you are getting close when you see the "Welcome to Liang Bua" sign:

Welcome to Liang Bua
Some of the welcoming residents of Liang Bua

Park nearby and ask the nearest person to see the cave's caretaker. If he's not available, he will send a self-appointed deputy who will open up the cave - there is a protective fence around it - for a nominal fee of Rp20 000. You then just sign the guestbook and take a look/climb around for as long as you want. You can use the cave picture above to work out where the hobbit's skeleton was, as unlike previously it is no longer marked by an arrow. There are a few tell-tale signs on the cave floor, too.

My friend signs in
My friend signs in, watched by the two fearsome caretakers

While Tempo magazine reported in a 2005 article plans to build a museum, hotels, etc. there were no signs of development in the area. In fact, when I asked the kids I met - there were plenty of them - what grade they were in, they replied that there was no school to attend. They might appreciate a small souvenir of your country, e.g. stickers, postcards, pencils, rulers, etc, or a small cash donation.

(This experience encouraged me to consider sponsoring a child through a charity like Wahana Visi, the local version of World Vision International, which is already active in Flores. Follow the link above for more information.)


14 Comments on “Little Wonder”

  1. avatar David says:

    I actually don’t like travelling all that much but I have to say your posts are almost inspiring me to get off my backside and go places.

  2. avatar ET says:

    In fact, when I asked the kids I met – there were plenty of them – what grade they were in, they replied that there was no school to attend.

    Mosques, madrassas and pesantrens galore in Muslim areas. No school in Liang Bua, Flores, a Christian majority area.

    Can someone explain?

  3. avatar Roel says:

    Long time ago I was in Samarinda and some people from dayak kenya origin told me there were very short people still living in apo kayan (not punan )

  4. avatar David says:

    ET, I was reading that 25% of people in rural NTT are classed as below the poverty line, and 14% in towns, I wonder how much that is different from Central Java, the latter province usually ranks ‘highly’ in poverty statistics. There were also some details on how much the central government and foreign aid agencies are spending in NTT here.

  5. avatar Oigal says:

    Mosques, madrassas and pesantrens galore in Muslim areas. No school in Liang Bua, Flores, a Christian majority area

    Actually ET pretty much the same in our province although (with some exceptions) not really a religious issue tho but more the usual obnoxious disregard for the “little people” with no voice combined with the colonial javanese mentality..the little people and the provinces are here to serve us attitude.

    Recently went with some Indonesian friends to Jakarta then up to Bandung..The chorus of how come the power here is so good and the roads so good..hospitals yet our province who province all this wealth has nothing was an eye opener. I didn’t think the hatred ran this deep against their fellows. The powers that be are seriously under-estimating the anger that is brewing outside of Java against the new age colonials and Java itself is wracked from within.

    The elites have (or should have) even reason to be very very concerned and think about where things are going..Of course, they won’t Malls and Huge insulting momuments to greed called houses in bizarre colour patterns are as deep as these wankers get.

  6. avatar Cukurungan says:

    Mosques, madrassas and pesantrens galore in Muslim areas. No school in Liang Bua, Flores, a Christian majority area.

    Can someone explain?

    Sorry dudes, Big Christian Bother prefer to spend their money for Menara Do’a than building school for those poor christian people :

    http://forumkristen.com/komunitas/index.php?topic=1252.0

  7. avatar Chris says:

    Mosques, madrassas and pesantrens galore in Muslim areas. No school in Liang Bua, Flores, a Christian majority area.

    Can someone explain?

    I thought the level of development tended to be more related to the distance from Jakarta than the religion of the people there. Out of sight, out of mind. That’s one reason why Papua, NTT, etc (and previously East Timor) tend to have the worst roads, fewest facilities, etc.

    Having said that, it would be nice to get some objective statistics on relative poverty levels of different provinces. Can anyone provide any?

  8. avatar David says:

    Here’s a poverty map

    Full size – http://earthtrends.wri.org/povlinks/jpegs/poverty/indonesia.jpg

    Heaps of stuff at the BPS, like

    Persentase Rumah Tangga dengan Fasilitas Buang Air Besar Sendiri Menurut Provinsi
    Percentage of Households with Private Toilet Facility By Province

    On that one anyway it’s the Muslims of NTB who are behind the Christians of NTT

    Nusa Tenggara Barat 44.27
    Nusa Tenggara Timur 71.54

    http://www.bps.go.id/tab_sub/view.php?tabel=1&daftar=1&id_subyek=18&notab=19

  9. avatar dude says:

    World vision is a joke the kid gets 3 cents out of every dollar.
    The rest goes to admin fees (villa, living allowance, land cruiser etc.)

  10. avatar ET says:

    Chris said

    I thought the level of development tended to be more related to the distance from Jakarta than the religion of the people there.

    On second thought I agree that the religious issue could be of less importance. But what is striking in the map above is that the poorest regions are the ones inhabited by Indonesians who’s features are less distinctively Malay.

  11. avatar sputjam says:

    The further away the region is from the trade routes, the less developed and less wealthy it becomes.
    Papua is very difficult to develop. But if it can sell carbon credits, it could be a wealthy province. Many industries want to neutralise their carbon emission by buying from people who actually absorbs carbon dioxide.
    But managers of these facilities must be locals. Otherwise, like many charities, only a small portion of the money actually reaches the recipients.

  12. avatar Chris says:

    Hi Dude,

    Thank you for your coments.

    I actually had a couple of encounters with Wahana Visi which seemed to contradict your ideas on its value:

    1. In Ruteng, I stayed at Hotel Rima, which opposite the local office of Wahana Visi:

    Ruteng Wahana Visi

    It didn’t seem particularly palatial or grandiose, as though all their funding was going to administration fees.

    2. In a traditional village in Sikka regency (East Flores near Maumere), I met a case officer – the people who check sponsored children are in good health, are going to school, etc. Yes, she did have an official car and driver, but you need that there because the roads in that area are in pretty bad condition. She was Indonesian, was sincere and caring, didn’t have 3 handphones or a giant handbag, etc.

    Dude, if you have evidence to the contrary, i.e. that WV is dodgy and corrupt, please share it here.

  13. avatar Browser says:

    About the poverty in eastern part of Indonesia, I think the major cause was (is) the centralization policy under Suharto’s regime. And of course, geographically, it’s easier to build the western part.

    The further away the region is from the trade routes, the less developed and less wealthy it becomes.

    borrowing Sputjam’s explanation.

    Papua is more complex. It’s far from everywhere, so they have to pay extra, skyrocketed price for building materials, mountainous geography, jungle and (somehow is a problem) less populated area, less educated people (less / no workforce and if people are planning to travel from town to town they have to use airplane, there are roads, but it’s not secure due to OPM or just some stone age tribes looking for some money).

    On topic

    I heard many stories about this, in Kalimantan and Sulawesi area. Clearly I’m not an expert on this..

  14. avatar Chris says:

    New archaeological discoveries in Flores have been announced in in the March 2010 edition of “Nature” magazine.

    Read more here.

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