JARS v56n4 - Trekking in Indonesia

Trekking in Indonesia
Hansjörg Brentel
Hall, Austria

After a successful journey to the Arfak Mountains in western New Guinea in 2000, my wife and I were were looking for a new destination for this year. Reading Dr. H. Sleumer's book Flora Malesiana , I was struck by a species of rhododendron that grows in Flores, an island between Bali and Timor. Since Bali has proved a good departure point and offers excellent connections to Innsbruck, my wife and I flew there at the beginning of January 2002.

After a few relaxing days on this beautiful island, we fly from Bali via Sumbawa to Labuanbajo on the western side of Flores. From here, we travel four days in a hired car via Ruteng and Bajawar to arrive at Moni, departure point for our ascension of the Kelimutu, home of the vireya rhododendron. Flores is a lusciously green island with many forest areas and some large volcanoes; it is still largely unspoilt by tourism. From Moni, a road leads up to Gunung Kelimutu with its three famous crater lakes. We leave early, at 5 a.m. On the parking site at the end of the road it is still dark, but we are in a hurry to see the sunrise from the top. After a leisurely 30-minute walk we arrive on the highest point of Gunung Kelimutu (1,640 m, 5,380 ft, altitude) at dawn. The three lakes lie below us. One is emerald-colored, one indigo (with a sulfuric smell) and the third one is almost black. The air is cool and fresh, the view breathtaking. According to the description, Rhododendron renschianum belongs to the higher alpine vegetation, so I take a look at the lava-covered ground. I find vaccinium bushes in blossom, a species slightly larger than the one that grows at home, in the Tyrolean mountains. The white and pinkish-white blossoms are a little bigger and the berries are blue. I cannot find any rhododendrons. The description is from the 1930s, however, and we hope to be more fortunate in a little valley next to the lakes.

Searching among the vaccinium bushes that are unusually large in size here, I behold a rhododendron. This must be a Rhododendron renschianum . We find seeds and take cuttings but cannot see blossoms anywhere. The blossoms of R. renschianum are supposed to be bright red and wide open.

After extensive fauna studies, we head back to Moni. On the following day, we set off for Maumere in the east of Flores, where we catch the plane back to Bali.

Our next destination is New Guinea, and after a few restful days on Bali, we fly with Garuda via Timika to Jayapura. Timika lies at the foot of Mt. Carsten, the highest peak of New Guinea (4,800 m, 15,750 ft). From the aeroplane we can see the glacier and other peaks. Timika is forbidden territory for foreigners, as the gold and copper mines there do not want visitors. Consequently, the attractive nearby mountain region surrounding Mt. Carsten cannot be reached from this side.

This region is undoubtedly the home of many yet undiscovered species of rhododendrons.  From Jayapura, we continue our flight to the Baliem Valley, which lies 1,600 m, (5,250 ft) above sea level. We have visited the valley before. It was first discovered by white people in 1938 and is home to Ericaceae in extraordinary numbers. Unfortunately an inflammation of a joint is giving me bad pains, so we have to cancel the six-day trip to Mt. Elit.

From Wamena, which is the main village, we take day trips into the surrounding area. As the valley can be reached by aeroplane only, the economic conditions have got worse in the wake of the Indonesian economic crisis. On the surrounding hills, close to the valley, we find Rhododendron macgregoriae , R. vitis-idaea , R. majus and R. inundatum in large numbers.

Our guide tells us about an opportunity to reach Lake Habbema by jeep. The matter is not entirely legal, since access to the lake is forbidden to foreigners, but we are ready to try our chances. Four years ago we didn't make it. The lake lies in an uninhabited area at 3,100 m (10,170 ft), at the foot of the 4,700m-high (15,420 ft) Gunung Trikora. This area should be a paradise for rhododendrons.

Lake Habbema
Lake Habbema, 3,100 m,
and in the background Gunung Trikora, 4,780 m.
Photo by Hansjörg Brentel

We are supposed to continue on the next morning. When we want to set out, there is no jeep. Then we have a car, but no fuel. There are long queues at the gas stations; everybody is waiting for the first aeroplane with barrels of fuel. In a backyard outside Wamena we find a barrel. Then we are finally heading for the mountains. There are six of us, four local Papuas, my wife and I. The road winds its way through the hills, towards Trikora. By the roadside we find Rhododendron macgregoriae and R. inundatum . At approximately 2,000 m (6,560 ft) - we walked here four years ago - we face yet another surprise. Last time there was an old mountain forest with R. haematophthalmum and R. wrightianum in the undergrowth, but this time there are fields and burned trees. While many fields in the Baliem Valley lie fallow, the population is moving their fields higher and higher. A few hundred meters further up we discover the first red blossoms of a R. wrightianum by the wayside.

What follows can only be called the ultimate paradise of rhododendrons. With every fifty meters' rise in altitude there is a different species. The fairly broad path that was cut through the mountain forest has developed into an ideal home for the vireya species. The embankment on both sides of the road, now covered with moss, provides a fertile ground for all sorts of rhododendron seeds.

Many of them cannot be categorized. There are rhododendron blossoms everywhere. I see a Rhododendron phaeochitum , full of pink, slightly crooked blossoms, then a species with cream-colored, bent, tubular blossoms that are 7 cm (3 in) in length. Climbing over a fallen tree, we get deeper into the forest. The soil is made up of fallen trees in various states of decay. Orchids grow in the knotholes and on light patches on the ground. We are struck by a climbing plant with large blossoms, 10cm (4 in) long and 5 cm (2 in) wide. The blossoms are pink on the outside, pale pink on the inside. For the first time I regret not having a sound botanical education. At 3,040 m (9,975 ft) altitude we find huge golden yellow blossoms shining out from the forest. It reminds me of R. lowii from Mt. Kinabalu (Borneo). Through the steep embankment we climb up into the forest. Of course the plant is not what it has seemed, but 2.5 m (8 ft) high with dark green leaves about 15cm (6 in) long and 5 cm (2 in) wide. The blossoms are golden yellow, 6 cm (2.5 in) long and 5 cm (2 in) wide (with a shape similar to the Campanula medium ). There are between ten and twenty-five blossoms on each spray. This is certainly one of the most beautiful rhododendrons we have seen so far, and it cannot be matched with a species from Dr. Sleumer's book. Could it be a new species?

Unknown species rhododendron
The "golden rhododendron," 3,040 m, possibly an unknown species.
Photo by Hansjörg Brentel

The path is more level now, leading gently downward. All of a sudden the lake is right in front of us. Fog partly covers the surrounding mountains, and even the 4,700 m (15,420 ft) Gg. Trikora (former Mt. Wilhelmina) is out of sight. Our path winds its way along hilltops, always along the lakeshore. Little has changed here over the past few thousand years. The grasslands, which are found as far up as 4,000 m (13,100 ft), are interspersed with colonies of the Cyathea tomentosissima , a tree fern. Rhododendrons, vaccinium bushes and single trees populate the hills. There hovers over this landscape a melancholy atmosphere that reminds me of the plateaus of Peru and Bolivia.

R. pusillum (?)
R. pusillum (?) at 3,100 m, Lake Habbema.
Photo by Hansjörg Brentel

Our Dani guides are shivering with the cold. Having come from the generally rough European winter, we don't feel cold ourselves. We stop halfway along the path by the lakeside. Right next to the path grows a rhododendron, 1 m (3 ft) high with shining orange-yellow blossoms (reminding me of Rhododendron cinnabarinum blossoms, only three times as big), probably a R. brassii . A little further down we find a smaller species, only some 30 cm (12 in) high, with small leaves 0.8 by 0.4 cm (0.3 by 0.2 in), with one or two red blossoms 2.5 cm (1 in) long. This might be a R. pusillum . We climb further down towards the lake to find another small rhododendron. The leaves are 3 by 1.5 cm (1.2 by 0.6 in) in size, the blossoms 3.5 by 3 cm (1.4 by 1.2 in). On the outside they are shining red, on the inside golden yellow. What a strange combination! Is this a R. versteegii ? Suddenly I see red, nodding blossoms, and there it is before us, a R. saxifragoides ! I have hoped to find it in this area. Although only 5 cm (2 in) high, it grows here in patches 1 m (3 ft) wide. It is a splendid species with its fire-red blossoms standing out 10 cm (4 in) from the leaves. We find numerous other rhododendrons, difficult to determine by their blossoms.

Our next quest is for the world's smallest rhododendron, R. caespitosum , whose home is the stems of three ferns ( Cyathea tomentosissima ) on the grassland. Next to us grows a small group of these strange looking tree ferns. On the third tree we discover the epiphytically growing tiny plant. The stem is 1 cm (0.5 in) high, forming patches 30 cm (12 in) in diameter. Considering its size, the blossoms are enormous (1-2 cm, 0.4-0.8 in). I cannot help but admire the incredible variety of rhododendrons, from dwarf (1 cm, 0.4 in) to giant ( R. protistum var. giganteum ). Unfortunately it is time to get back; we don't want to go back by night. You could go plant hunting for days here, and I am convinced that many yet undiscovered plants are waiting in this remote area. On our journey back we pick up some cuttings and samples. At dawn we arrive at our hotel in Wamena.

This has definitely been our most impressive rhododendron excursion in the course of our eight-year quest for vireyas in the Eastern Asian mountains. We begin our long journey to our home in the Tyrol via Jayapura and Bali. The miracle of the vireya blossoms in our winter garden will tide us over the long waiting period until we set out for our next rhododendron excursion.

Mr. Brentel has reported on his plant hunting expeditions in the winter 2001 issue of the journal, "A Trip to the Rhododendrons of Irian Jaya," and the fall 2001 issue, "Treading the Paths of Dr. Sleumer in the Arfak Mountains, Vogelkop Peninsula, New Guinea."