The sun hadn’t set as we started our journey, armed with a six-year-old map with the logo of Burung Indonesia, UNESCO, and the Government of Manggarai Regency, East Nusa Tenggara.
In the darkness, we walked the rocky open path that stretches for about 4 km from Denge, a village in the southern part of Manggarai.
An hour later, we arrived at the first stop in Wae Lomba. Our senses were stimulated by the sound of babbling brook and the view of clear water surrounded by glorious natural forest. After we filled our bottles with water from the stream, we continued our journey, following a steep footpath into the woods.
We came to a halt when we reached Pocoroko, our second stop as shown in the map, for breakfast. The sun was up, and we could clearly see the wall of natural forest around Denge Village we just left. Our steps from Pocoroko to Nampe Bakok, our third stop, were accompanied by the singing thrushes and Bare-throated Whistler. In Nampe Bakok, we could see the highest poles of traditional houses in Wae Rebo along with the gardens and sheds from afar. After walking for more than three hours, we finally arrived at a house built on stilts, adorned with a bamboo sounding-block and welcoming banner. When we reached the top of the stairs, we can see eight tall cone shaped houses covered with thatch all of their sides to the ground.
Those houses were arranged in semicircle, surrounding a stone altar in a valley like landscape. We were stunned for a moment as we looked at that small village, mythical as if it was an illusion that lies 1,100 metres above the sea level. After we recovered from our trance, we struck the sounding-block to announce our arrival. It only took 10 minutes from that house to reach Wae Rebo, a village surrounded by the green lush of forests and mountain.
During our way to Wae Rebo, we met several locals who asked about us, and we always said that we were from Burung Indonesia. We were happy and relieved to see their happy faces, showing they still remembered Burung Indonesia that worked there in 2009.
At that time, we built the infrastructure and developed ecotourism in the village, funded by UNESCO. We realised that ecotourism development was in line with our mission of conservation management to maintain the biophysical processes that support life. This is vital to ensure the conservation and utilisation of species and their ecosystems as well as to contribute to the communities’ welfare.
In accordance with the principles of ecotourism development, our project in Wae Rebo emphasised the importance of community participation in area planning, management, and supervision. A series of meetings were held from village level to sub-district and local government level (the Tourism Agency of Manggarai) to introduce the concept of ecological cultural tourism. We also improved the village conditions by building basic tourism facilities, such as toilets and bathrooms, water tanks, and pipelines for clean water.
Tourism facilities were built based on discussions between village members. Therefore, the facilities not only benefit the tourists but also the entire village. At the moment, six years afterwards, those facilities are still well maintained, and they function properly. On our arrival, we saw a woman washing clothes with water from a pipe behind her house and another woman bathing her baby.
We and the people also realised that one of Wae Rebo’s attractions is the forest in the area. Head of Wae Rebo Tourism Agency said that they will guard the forest to protect it and keep it intact. During the project, we tried to prepare an easy trekking path with minimal disturbance to the forest condition.
The route was designed with several pit stops that feature natural tourist attractions, such as waterfalls, bird species, and breath-taking views of Flores scenery. Therefore, tourists will feast their eyes on the forests of Wae Rebo.
Another thing that came up was interpreting skill as it is very important in ecotourism. The guides have a vital role in directing positive behaviour of the visitors towards environmental protection and conservation. Knowledge of environment, communication, and interpreting skills need to be acquired by them to facilitate the improvement of visitors’ knowledge, attitude, behaviour, and satisfaction.
As we realised this fact, we facilitated trainings for guides. In addition, trainings on hospitality were also given to the locals. We also improved existing tourism agency of Wae Rebo. Aside from preparing internal condition in Wae Rebo to host guests, we also help with the promotion by distributing Wae Rebo’s tourist maps and by setting billboards at strategic locations, such as the airport in Labuan Bajo and the streets in the city. The map was exactly the same as what we were using during the journey, and it was still valid even six years after it was produced.
Similar to what we did, continuing the ecotourism initiative in Wae Rebo from Anita Verhoeven and Jean Marie Bompard of Our World Foundation (Yayasan Bumi Kita) and Indecon, several domestic and foreign organisations as well as the government have also continued our work.
The Tirto Utomo Foundation helped in building new mbaru niang to accommodate the tourists and bathrooms and lavatories in the village. Afterwards, Swisscontact organised English courses for the villagers, especially for the women and local guides in 2012. Also Indecon built the guides’ capacities by giving trainings on packaging and marketing of community products. Meanwhile, the government continued the work on infrastructure through Community Empowerment National Programme (Program Nasional Pemberdayaan Masyarakat) resulting in the construction of safety barrier in Pocoroko to help protecting the visitors when they walk along its slope.
Untill early 2000, Wae Rebo could only accommodate a small number of local and foreign tourists who are attracted to its remarkable view of the mountain and niangs. At that time there were only four niangs left as the other niangs did not survive due to the weather and age. Thanks to the support of a lot of people, including the villagers, there are eight mbaru niangs in Wae Rebo as of now.
In 2012, Wae Rebo emerged as the winner of Asia Pacific Heritage award, chosen from 43 entries of 11 countries. The award signified UNESCO’s appreciation of the niang reconstruction project that was pioneered by the communities and volunteers. Not only did it continue the architectural form and construction practices, the project has also re-established the sustainability of the spirit of Wae Rebo community and targeted conservation issue at local level.
Two years later, there were about three thousand tourists that visited Wae Rebo, and they brought substantial sums of money to the village which stimulated the local economy. However, the villagers amused us by saying that money is not the most important thing they get from ecotourism. “The most important thing for the villagers is that we can interact with others, we can learn from the visitors,” said a villager who has lived his entire live in Wae Rebo. (Hilda Lionata, from various sources)