Jun 12, 2020 • 8M

Couchfish Week 11: Never trust a French arms dealer

Open in playerListen on);

Appears in this episode

Stuart McDonald
The Couchfish podcast. Following a day by day itinerary through Southeast Asia—for all those people stranded on their couch.
Episode details

Lembata resembles a flying dog in Indonesia’s Lesser Sunda Islands. The island is home to a “traditional” whaling village on the south coast and Ile Api volcano on the north. It also has glorious beaches and that laid back vibe that makes Indonesia so great to travel in.

Despite this, it attracts few foreign tourists. Jim, the owner of the long–running, though now closed, Ile Api Homestay explains to me why. When Lonely Planet removed Lembata from their Indonesia guidebook, travellers just stopped getting off the ferry.

“I’d watch them on the ferry at port, them looking at me, me looking at them. Not in the book—don’t get off.” says Jim.

Doesn’t look too far. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

I’m bunking down at Hotel Rejeki, run by the affable Richard, in Lewoleba, when I first meet the arms dealer. Well, to be accurate, re-meet. We’d first met a week earlier on Kepa off the west coast of Alor. Travelling with his girlfriend, he’s a sub–breed of the competitive traveller species—a volcano counter. 

I can’t recall how many he’d climbed, despite him telling me over and over, because, well, I don’t care. I know there was a chance we’d meet as we’d both left Kepa aiming for Ile Api. I’d stopped at Pantar to climb Gunung Sirung—he wasn’t bothering with that one as it was “too small”. Whatever dude.

Enjoy the shade while you have it. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

So it isn’t a complete surprise when I walk into Rejeki, to find him arguing with Richard about a volcano guide. Richard has covered most of a wall with a huge map of Lembata, and they’re standing in front of it.

I’ve just returned from the ride out to Desa Jontona, the starting point for the climb. There I’d met Elias Lusu, Richard’s recommended guide. We arrange to climb the next morning at 6 am. The deal, was, to my mind, sealed.

I can’t remember exactly what the argument was about. Looking to assist Richard, I say I have a guide already arranged, so why not come with me? Does 6 am work? It does. Sorted. 

Getting steeper. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

They’re staying elsewhere, so we agree to meet at the village at 6 am. I show them where it is, and fatefully, give them Elias’ phone number—just in case they get lost.

Later, we ride out to the port where there are a few seafood shacks with iced beer. We eat and drink and watch the sunset. It isn’t till then he tells me he’s an arms dealer. A sales agent for a French weaponry company, he lives in Jakarta and climbs volcanoes in his spare time.

Leaving the trees behind. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

He whines about the job while boasting about how much money he earns selling instruments of death and misery. The corruption in Indonesia gets him down—worse than Africa he says. We start to argue and I call it a night, riding back to the hotel alone, annoyed I’ve invited them to join me.

The 5 am ride out to Jontona is gorgeous. The last stars fade as the sun rises—ideal climbing conditions. I get to the village and knock on Elias’ door. 

No answer. Strange.

Superfluous directional hand signal. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

I keep knocking, still no answer. The French couple are also nowhere in sight. It’s now 6 am and I start to wonder if I’ve mixed up the day. Another villager wanders over and asks who I’m looking for. I say Elias, and the villager says, oh this is the wrong house, and he points me across the road.

I’m sure I’m at the right house, but I cross anyway, eventually managing to wake Ilius, who has nothing to do with Elias.

More people show up and someone calls Elias’ wife.

Hello beautiful. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Elias is on the mountain.


He left as 2 am with two bule—they wanted to see the sunrise.


Eventually another guide and his son are found. They’re hardcore and do much of the climb barefoot, but they’re not of the calibre of Elias.

Some panting at this stage. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Ile Api comes in at 1,449 metres, so it is a baby by Indonesian standards and the climb starts easy. I’m so annoyed though, it takes away from the hike. Once we get above the trees and into grass, the beauty takes my mind off the French. 

We’re halfway though the grassland when I see Elias and the French coming down. Elias sees us and speeds up, leaving them behind. Words are quickly interchanged with my guide who rushes ahead and waylays the French out of earshot.

Steamin! Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Elias spills his guts. The French had shown up at his house at 2 am and demanded he take them. When he refused, saying he already had a customer (me), they threatened to report him for unlicensed guiding (he is licensed). They also sweeten the deal by offering an extra 300,000 rupiah to leave immediately. 

Bloody arms dealers.

I don’t know how much is true, but Elias seems contrite in his apologies and promises to make it up to me when I get back down. We shake on it and I pass the French without saying a word.

Zafo is a moron. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

We leave the grassland behind, and climb through gravel and scree—it is like a moonscape—not a single living thing save tiny tufts of grass that wouldn’t look out of place in a Dr Seuss book. The climb is hard work, but then the trail veers to the left and I get the reveal.

The caldera is enormous, the true peak sitting on the far side, spewing sulphurous gas. Steam rises from crevices everywhere—even alongside the trail. We cross the sandy caldera—other trekkers have laid out their names in stones on its sandy base.

Not a Frenchman in sight. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

The true summit is too dangerous to climb, but we make our way up the crater rim. From there we get a fantastic view along the coast of Lembata. Elsewhere on the rim you can see Gunung Batu Tara on Pulau Komba—a peak which erupts every twenty minutes. The French are totally forgotten.

Get 50% off Couchfish forever

Three and a half hours later, I’m back down at Desa Jontona. Elias and his wife have prepared a seafood meal and we eat together by the water’s edge as the sun sets. 

All is forgiven.