updated 2/17/2006 6:13:29 PM ET 2006-02-17T23:13:29

East of Bali lies a string of islands few Westerners ever visit: a kaleidoscope of cultures, people and places truly untouched by modern times.

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There is a string of islands where volcanoes smolder and dragons eviscerate their prey. Once, bogeymen (as the Bugis pirates were called) roamed the waters and headhunters lived in theforests. And long ago, on the Indonesian island we now call Flores, a tribe of humans only 3-feet tall lived and hunted pygmy elephants.

“How much longer until we find the hobbits?” asked Alison Wright, our photographer and my traveling companion for the next three weeks. Folded into a car, we had been inching along a rutted dirt road, the air so humid you could drink it. “We are getting close,” Dominggus Koro our guide said, feeling our impatience with the long ride rise with the humidity. Ahead, goats and piglets scattered off the road. Staircases of rice paddies, each a green velvet step, marched down the hillside.

Finally, we turned a corner and found ourselves peering into a stunningly beautiful open valley. A wide, clear river wound through rice paddies where children were playing hide-and-seek. In the shade of palms that lined the riverbanks, women were washing ikat sarongs. By the roadside, men sat in front of baskets spreading vanilla beans and corn to dry in the sun. Wisps of clouds caught on the mountain peaks that formed walls around what felt like a secret world, a place lost in time.

“This is it,” said Dominggus. “We are here.”

And so were the little people.

In September 2003, the bones of Homo floresiensis, a new species of humans, were discovered in a cave on Flores, in Indonesia’s Nusa Tenggara — or southeastern chain. What amazed scientists is that these 3-foot-tall “hobbits,” as they were dubbed, lived as recently as 13,000 years ago, coexisting with modern humans. Here, in this remote, volcano-rimmed valley, they had survived by hunting pygmy elephants, Komodo dragons and giant rats whose bones were also found in the cave.

The only little people still here though, were the children who swarmed around us as we got out of the car and followed us single file as we hiked the path, screaming “Hello, Mistah. Hello, Mistah.”

“Missus,” Alison corrected them.

A half-mile later, we came to a gaping cavern the size of a school gymnasium, cool and dark, hence its name Liang Bua (cold cave). A guide dozing on a bench in the cave woke up when he saw us and had us sign the guest book. Fewer than 100 people had visited since the excavations ended. The entries ranged from a German ethnologist to a mussel farmer from New Zealand. Other than the pocked earth of the digs and the echo of ghosts, there were no signs of the hobbits who once called this place home. “What did those 100 people come to see? It’s just a cave — not anything exciting like Komodo dragons,” said Alison, shooting me a pointed glance. This was true.

There is a theory of evolution biologists call island dwarfism. On isolated islands, plants, animals and even people evolve differently. If there are no other predators to fight off, large mammals evolve to smaller sizes, as did the Flores pygmy elephants, and scientists speculate, the hobbits. Inversely, small animals can grow larger, which explains the giant flesh-eating Komodo dragons that are only found on Komodo, Flores and a few other nearby islands.

The hobbit discovery was not the first time this part of Indonesia has been tied to evolution. In the 1800s, British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace — the man who came up with the theory of natural selection — sailed through these islands for eight years, exploring and describing everything from insects to local people and their customs. Wallace was astounded at how the flora and fauna of each island group varied. Bali and points west where large predators were found, Wallace speculated, had been part of the Asian landmass, while Lombok and the islands to the east, separated by a deep ocean trench (now known as the Wallace Line), had no big mammals. Though some of Wallace’s theories have since been disproven, the book he wrote in 1869, The Malay Archipelago, remains one of the classics of travel writing and a glimpse into these diverse islands.

Our trip, starting on Flores then cruising 1,200 miles through eastern Indonesia, would visit islands that had not changed much since Wallace saw them. Sailing a small cruise ship named Ombak Putih, a 118-foot wood replica of the classic pinisi, or Indonesian trading vessels, we would leave from the eastern side of Flores, headed for Lem-bata, Alor and the mountainous outer islands of the East Nusa Tenggara, the southeastern Moluccas, then the Tanimbar, Kai and Aru islands. We would land, eventually, in Irian Jaya (the western half of Papua New Guinea). But first, we had to drive the length of Flores.

As we continued our 150-mile trek along the length of Flores on the one paved road, I could tell what was going through Alison’s head: We skipped the Komodo dragons and drove for two days to see this cave? I don’t know if it was the description of the “garden island” —  a place of lush mountains and terraced valleys, black-sand beaches and mysterious volcanoes — that had drawn me to Flores, or if it was the cave. As a child, I remember holding my breath in the caves in the Dordogne region of France, drawn by a sense of connection to the kindred world ancient humans had painted on their walls, a touchstone to another time.

Flying in from Bali, Alison and I had landed at the western tip of Flores, in the ramshackle town of Labuhanbajo, a diving capital and jumping off point for the nearby island of Komodo. There, we had a choice to make: Follow the normal travel route — Komodo dragons and spectacular diving were a short boat ride to the west on Komodo, or head east to explore Flores and the cave. Alison wanted to see Komodo dragons. I wanted to see the cave. Compelled by my mule-headed need to explore (and — full disclosure — discovering that the captain of the only boat that would take us to Komodo had been put in jail for drunk driving just minutes before we arrived), we headed east, planning to stop at the Liang Bua cave, continue on across the island and meet Ombak Putih in Maumere, on the eastern end of the island.

We had three days to cross Flores. Traveling across a volcanic, primeval landscape, we saw gorges, steep jungle, rice paddies — a Kaua‘i without resorts. And at every village we passed, children, wearing the Indonesian school uniform of crisp white collared shirts and red or blue shorts, swarmed around, chattering in one of the island’s many languages.

In each of the isolated mountain valleys we drove through, the people changed with the landscape. In some, they had the light skin and almond eyes of the Balinese; and in others, they were nearly as dark as Papuans. The older men and women grinned with the red gap-toothed smiles of seasoned betel nut chewers. Some were Muslim, most were Christian — converts of the Portuguese — and some still worshipped the ancient gods and ancestors.

At night, we slept in unremarkable, cinder-block hotels, and one night, in a convent that occasionally takes visitors. By day, we would stop at roadside stands to buy rambutans, mountain apples or a jug of tuak, a palm wine. Each valley had its own language and customs, isolated by the topography and, what had been until it was recently paved, a torturous road. The evening of the second day, we came back to the coast. We drove round the switchbacks and saw turquoise-blue stones off a black-sand beach. Despite Dominggus’ impatient urges to keep going, Alison and I made him stop, and we waded along the shore where women were sorting the blue stones to export for use in pools and aquariums. Smooth, round and perfect, they were like sapphires in the dark sand.

Our last morning, we woke at 3 a.m. to see the sunrise from the top of Mount Kelimutu, an active volcano that belches fire and gas every 30 years. It was stormy, and as we climbed, clouds swirled around the low vegetation. About an hour later, we reached the summit. The sun was nowhere in sight. But below were three perfectly round crater lakes — one turquoise, one a shiny black and one a deep copper. “The souls of virgins and children go to the first one,” Dominggus explained, “old people to the second, the black one; and those who have done evil in the third.” Alison, still fuming at not seeing the Komodo dragons, turned to me and asked, “So which one will you end up in?”

By noon, we were in maumere standing before the most beautiful sight: the gleaming teak decks and varnished cabin of Ombak Putih.

A crew member handed us cool towels and a fruit drink. But before he could even take the bags, a petite, French woman appeared. “You should have seen ze Komodo dragons we saw!” said Alice Grison, about 20 seconds after she shook our hands. A veteran of nine Ombak Putih trips, Alice had joined the boat in Bali a week earlier and sailed here via Sumbawa and Komodo islands. Anticipating what was coming, I tried to steer Alice away from Alison, who was still bummed she had not seen one of the giant reptiles.

“You know, you’ve seen one big lizard, you’ve seen them all,” I shrugged. Alice didn’t get the hint.

Mais non! Thees lizard ees enorme, and we watch as it eats ze stomach of, how do you say it … the wild pig.” Alison gave me the evil eye.  She has a strange penchant for photographing anything remotely related to blood, dismemberment or death; this had all three. She is also an avid diver.

“And the snorkeling, it was incroyable!…” Alice went on. I thought Alison was going to punch me … “So clear … so beautiful.”

“Yes, but we got to spend 17 hours in a car driving the switchbacks of Flores to look at a cave,” Alison piped up with mock cheer.

“Just wait,” I said to her, “it will get better.”

Truth was, I didn’t know much about where we were headed. Be-yond Alor, our second port of call, the islands we were sailing to are hard to find in a guidebook. On maps, they are often spelled differently. On the charts I had seen, there were blank spots where ocean depths have not been recorded. The crew of Ombak Putih had not made this journey in eight years.

I was so happy to unpack and spread out in the crisp, air-condi-tioned stateroom that our next destination didn’t much matter. And, after we stopped for a swim on the powdery white beaches of tiny Pamana Island and dined on grilled shrimp satay, steamed vegetables and gado-gado, things were already looking better. We repaired to the upper deck, sank low in the slung-back chairs, sipping wine and watching the moon rise. Below, one of the crew was strumming a guitar, and the high mountains of Flores moved slowly into darkness as we sailed east to the next island.

On lembata, a day’s sail from flores, the old man who stopped us on the trail opened his fist slowly. It was always this way, I had begun to learn. Everyone in these outlying islands had a treasure to sell, and like a wrapped present, it would be revealed slowly. He uncurled his fingers and there, in the dark crease of his palm, lay two smooth white fangs, whale teeth. His name was Paolus Tulanoir Surang, he said, and he had killed the sperm whale in 2000. We were, he told us, the first visitors in 2005. It was late March.

Lamalera, the village where we were headed, is one of a handful of tribal outposts around the world where subsistence whaling is still a way of life. The beach was lined with brightly painted skiffs. A half-dozen men were carving a canoe — no nails or saws touch these boats — smoking and keeping the children entertained.

“We catch only what we can eat,” Matheus Boanata, the chief of this village of 760 told us later, as we sat in the cool of his house, its bare dirt floors swept smooth. On a wall, a clock ticked away the minutes and Matheus’ young daughter hugged Teletubbies to her chest, anachronisms from another world. Matheus greeted our little group formally and pulled up chairs for us. He then described the whaling rituals, which begin with an offering to the ancestors of rice, chicken and wine. Five or six years ago, Matheus said, the village caught more than 40 whales a year, as well as whale shark, dolphin and other large fish. “But the currents have changed, so the whales change their migrations,” he rationalized. Only 20 whales were caught last year, and 45 babies were born in the village.

“What would happen,” I asked, “if there were no whales?”

“We must keep whaling,” he said emphatically. “That is who we are. That is our tradition.”

As Ombak Putih raised anchor, we could see activity on the beach. Soon an outrigger was skidding along the waves, 15 men pulling the handmade oars then hoisting the sail. As the little boat came abreast of us, a young boy climbed out on her bowsprit, carrying a spear three times his height. With a yelp, he launched himself off the bow, demonstrating how the whalers would use their body weight to plunge the spear into the whale’s body. From the deck of Ombak Putih, we cheered. The men on the outrigger grinned, waved and turned back for shore. Whaling season would not start for another three weeks.

There are more than 17,000 islands in Indonesia and some 566 islands in the Nusa Tenggara chain, only about 50 of which are inhabited. Our captain, Abdul Latief, is one of the Bugis of Sulawesi (an island to the north), a people whose prowess at piracy had given rise to the term “bogeyman.” His eldest brother, he admitted proudly, had been a pirate who intercepted, raided and sank rebel supply boats during the revolution in the 1940s. As a boy, the captain had sailed these waters in trading vessels and knew the route, if not each island, well. He was adept at finding perfect deserted islets that are circled with powdery white sand and calm turquoise waters where we would swim and snorkel each afternoon.

Walking alone along an empty white beach at sunset, I couldn’t help but wonder who owned these places and how much longer these islands could escape becoming real estate. We had not seen a resort since leaving Bali. With few roads or airports, the only real way to get here is by boat.

Our itinerary was determined in part by the captain, the wind and the waves, and in part by our tour leader, Cor Van der Kruk, a Dutch social worker who had been living in Indonesia for the past 15 years. In the mornings, Cor would zoom ashore in the dinghy to make arrangements with the chiefs for our visits. If there had been more than nine of us in the group, our visits to these small villages might have taken on the air of a cultural peep show. But in most places, the villagers had not seen outsiders in a long while and instead, it seemed as if the villagers were as genuinely curious and excited to see us as we were to meet them.

But I was not quite sure what to expect from the headhunters on the island of Alor. From the harbor in Kalabahi, we took a bus to the village of Takpala. There, they met us at the end of a tree-lined alleyway that led to their village, five men abreast armed with bows and arrows, long swords slung at their hips. Behind them, the women followed, their bodies wrapped in ikat sarongs, heavy brass anklets encircling their feet. The chief let out a long cry, “Kano!” and the men, dark-skinned with features that looked more Papuan than Balinese, leaped forward in a crouch, brandishing their bows. Then, singing and breaking into a dance — the women’s anklets clicking in perfect rhythm, boys keeping a melody on gongs and a man beating a moko drum — they led us up the alleyway to the village.

Though it has been several generations since an Abui had taken a head (“They don’t like blondes, do they?” asked Alison), their other customs live on. The song, the dance and the traditional garb, chief Darius Adam said, “is not just for visitors. We do this dance for our own ceremonies, for weddings.” In the village, a collection of three-tiered huts of bamboo and woven palm fronds, they assembled again in a circle or lego lego dance, singing in magical harmonies, punctuated by interludes with just the click of anklets and the low thud of the hour-glass shaped bronze moko drum, one of nearly 2,000 such drums that made their way to this island, most likely from Java.

As we sailed away from Alor, leaving the volcanic islands of Nusa Tenggara heading east toward the Moluccas, the sounds of the moko drums still pulsed in my head.

That night, I had a dream where pygmies were running in and out of a cave. A giant whale came to swallow them and then headhunters with gleaming swords rushed in to save the little people. It was as if, in the past six days of traveling, 13,000 years had collapsed into one moment.

I awoke with a start and, to clear my head, went up on deck. The water was glassy and we were motoring east. Already the wind and the smell of land had changed. No one knew exactly where we were headed next (the wind and currents would chart our course), and there would be no airports for 600 miles. And that was just fine with me.

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