Without doubt, Wae Rebo traditional Manggarraian village is one of Indonesia’s hidden gems. Hidden for centuries in the clouds on a mountain in the central Flores highlands, this isolated village offers visitors a unique opportunity to experience living Manggarian history, staying in an authentic mbaru niang round house and observing everyday life in the village.
It’s an opportunity only a few hundred visitors a year get to experience for the very same isolation that has preserved Wae Rebo also limits access to only the most adventurous travellers. Located at 1,200m on a small mountain plateau, the village can only be reached via a steep 7km trail, all but the last 1.5km a relentless uphill trek. All up it’s a strenuous 3-4 hour trek along a narrow, densely forested mountain trail. Even in the dry season, the track is often muddy and slippery with two river crossings to negotiate. In wet conditions, which at that elevation is more often than not regardless of the time of year, the trek is even more challenging. Rain clouds shroud the views leaving trekkers staring into a white abyss when they look out from the narrow trail or wondering how far the drop is as they cross a high bamboo bridge. Fast running rivers need to be waded and even in the cool misty conditions, wearing a raincoat becomes unbearably stifling so one ends up wet and muddy and tired by the time they arrive at the village.
But the hardships of getting there are quickly forgotten at the first sight of the mbaru niang houses on their lofty mountain locale. The conical mbaru niang, meaning ‘drum house’, are the very essence of Manggaraian culture. The houses are intricately constructed from highly durable worok timber sourced from the surrounding forest and covered with layers of anyaman-ilalang wild grass. As the builders carry the worok wood from the forest they sing, calling to the spirits of their dead ancestors to help them carry their heavy burden. Each mbaru niang houses up to eight families descended from a common ancestor, uniting them under the one roof. The occupants sleep around a central hearth where the accoutrements of daily life are stored and meals are prepared over a small fire, the heat and smoke of which keeps the house warm and cozy, protects food and other items stored in the rafters above and helps preserve the grass fibre roof.
The largest of the seven mbaru niang houses in Wae Rebo is a ceremonial house which symbolizes the unity of the clan and safeguards the sacred drums and gongs that the villagers consider their medium to communicate with their ancestors.
The Wae Rebo houses are in remarkably good condition, largely due to recent efforts by the villagers and a team of Jakarta-based architects to rebuild four of the houses with strict authenticity to the original structures. Recognising the cultural significance of the village the Indonesian government sponsored the construction of an additional mbaru niang where visitors could come and stay.
After a formal welcoming ceremony at the main drum house to placate the spirits, visitors are shown to the guest mbaru niang, assigned their niang maro, a sleeping mat made of pandanus leaves and offered tea and coffee. After that they are free to explore the village, observing the villagers at work in their gardens harvesting and preserving their crops of cassava, taro, coffee and cacao beans. Keep an eye out for the local women grinding fresh coffee beans.
The locals are exceedingly friendly and although only a few have limited English, they enjoy chatting with their visitors with the aid of your guide acting as a translator. Woman from the village prepare dinner and breakfast in a small mbaru niang annexed to the guesthouse. This is a slight variation to the traditional design and is probably a concession to the comfort of guests unused to the normally smoky environment.
Visiting Wae Rebo generally takes three days – one day to travel from Ruteng or Labuan Bajo to the trail head at Denge village. It’s a long, slow and winding drive passing through many villages and hamlets but the scenery along the way is superb; secluded valleys, terraced rice fields, river gorges and coastal views. At Denge village, most hikers spend the night at Denge Homestay where the host Blasius Mont can arrange a guide if you don’t already have one. On that note, a guide is a requirement and generally costs around Rp. 150,000 per a day. A porter if required, will cost around Rp.150,000 up and back.
It’s advisable to get an early start the following day from Denge village as it is cooler and the weather often closes in later in the day. Arriving at the village by lunchtime also ensures you have plenty of time look around. Take plenty of water, some snacks for the trail and most of all take your time.
The return trek from Wae Rebo on day three is quicker being downhill but take care on the slippery trail. Back at Denge village you can wash up in the culverts running alongside the schoolhouse (don’t be surprised to be the centre of attention among the village children), before setting off on the return road trip.
At the time of writing, an overnight stay at Wae Rebo including meals cost Rp. 350,000 per person. If you only want to visit for the day, an entrance fee of Rp. 100.000 per person is payable.
One issue that often comes up and one we asked ourselves also is whether or not this trek is suitable for children. Our fit 13 and 10 years olds managed the trek just fine, even in wet conditions and both enjoyed the experience immensely. We didn’t burden them with carrying anything, let the younger child set the pace and took regular rest breaks. On our return trip we met a couple of other families with younger children on their way up. One child was already being carried (by one of the lovely local porters) only 1-2km’s into the trek and others were clearly struggling. We often wonder if those families made it. The bottom line is no one knows your children better than you do so ultimately the decision is yours.