Alor lies at the least visited and most unspoiled eastern end of the chain of islands that begins in the west with Sumatra and runs eastwards via Java, Bali, Lombok, Sumbawa, and Flores. Volcanic in origin, the islands are rugged and mountainous, with distinct crater shaped peaks visible on clear days. Following rainy season the terrain is lush and vibrant with life. Arriving at the end of March, our initial overwhelming impression was of how green it all was, closely followed by how tidy it looked. A well maintained road winding loosely along the coastline led us through villages and countryside. We passed carefully tended plots of corn and banana trees, interspersed with gardens where goats, chickens, and small children wandered among coconut palms and brightly flowering bougainvillea. Wide-eyed, smiling faces turned to watch as we passed by. The only waste we saw along the way was a stack of empty coconuts.
Of the 20 islands that make up the Alor archipelago, 9 are inhabited. The sole town, Kalibahi, is situated at the inner end of a bay that cuts a deep into the mainland. It’s a quiet port town with a nostalgic kind of charm. Not yet geared up for large numbers of visitors; there are just a few basic hotels and guesthouses, some small shops, and a handful of warungs. In the villages life generally revolves around subsistence farming and fishing. Main industries are pearl farming in the bay, and agriculture; with vanilla, tamarind, nuts, and coffee all being cultivated in the mountains. Cultural heritage is rich and very much alive, with villages still practising old customs and producing traditional handicrafts and products. These are well worth a visit to learn about their traditions, get a glimpse into the local way of life, and experience the generous local hospitality. The natural surroundings offer treks to waterfalls and volcano craters, and invitingly idyllic white beaches.
Although delighted to have found a paradise above sea level, it was the promise of outstanding diving that had brought us here and we were keen to get in the water. Renowned as something of a gem within the diving community, our expectations were high but not very specific. Its position within the coral triangle and reputation for strong, cold currents suggested potential for abundant life – but beyond that we weren’t sure what to expect.
The majority of dive sites are scattered in high concentration along the deep channel between Pantar and Alor, and into the mouth of the Kalibahi bay. They include excellent examples of a bit of everything, from mucky slopes bubbling with volcanic gases to intricately decorated walls. For us, coming from the explosion of life that is Raja Ampat and having been spoiled with exhilarating currents in Komodo, one of the most remarkable aspects of Alor was its wealth of dramatic underwater landscapes. Great walls with gaping cracks, overhang upon overhang, swim throughs, and bonafide lurky caves are all here on an awesome scale. Enveloped in a teeming spectrum of fish life and prolific coral, with visibility of up to 40m, the effect is breathtaking.
Also breathtaking are the temperatures. We were completely unprepared for the savage thermoclines. On one dive it dropped from 24 to 16 degrees, and we were told this isn’t unusual. As tropical fair-weather divers we had never experienced anything like it, but it was completely worth the chill. The dives were crisp – but crystal clear and spectacularly vibrant.
Due to the depth and probably the temperatures in the both the channel and the bay there’s good potential for big pelagics. Pods of dolphins, mola molas (sunfish), thresher and hammerhead sharks, and whale sightings are common. Highlights during our visit were close encounters with what seemed to be very large nurse sharks during a spooky cave dive, watching pods of pilot whales and dolphins tumbling together around the boat, and an exhilarating snorkel with mola mola. Coming face to massive face with these magnificently surreal fish was an unforgettable experience.
For those in the know Alor has long been recognised as a world class dive destination, but with just a few resorts and only a handful of visiting liveaboards it still retains the air of a well kept secret. To have expected to find this combination of unspoiled natural beauty, authentically preserved culture, and phenomenal diving would have felt naive and hopelessly unrealistic. Somehow, at least for the time being, it’s all here – waiting to be discovered.