30 June 2007—5 September 2007
Not all straight sailing through Indonesia
The day after I had arrived in Darwin was Northern Territory Independence Day, July 1. To celebrate, and because the N.T. is in fact a Territory as opposed to a state, it’s legal for any adult to buy and use fireworks for the night. I thought this was fantastic. The only thing better than professional fireworks had to be amateur fireworks, and as expected, Darwin turned into a madhouse of drunken pyromaniacs. The beach was like a war zone with explosives, flares, rockets and god knows what going off from all directions. One guy stuck his head over an explosive that failed to blow, at least not yet, but when it did it went straight through his eye. He’s now blind.
At the fireworks I met a guy who was delivering a yacht from New Caledonia to France via Christmas Island, the Maldives and the Red Sea, and needed a second crew. Looking over the Sea Map I knew I couldn’t take this route, as there was no exit point on mainland Asia. ‘However,’ I said ‘if you can get me somewhere up near India I’d definitely be interested.’ He told me we could go via Sri Lanka. I thought this was excellent, I could head north up through India and be in the Himalayas in 3 months. Unfortunately, however, he found someone who wanted to do the full and unaltered trip to Europe and the ride fell through.
Shortly after, I came across a boat owned by a family sailing to Singapore via the remote eastern islands of Indonesia. They weren’t part of the yacht rally and were intending to avoid the milk run through this immense archipelago. If I joined a rally boat I knew I’d most likely depart at the first possible exit but this route was going to be a unique opportunity to experience a part of the world almost never visited by foreigners and only accessible by sea. It took 3 weeks to get the paperwork and visas sorted and we departed Darwin a month to the day after I’d arrived. On board were Stuart, Lisa and their toddler son Fletcher and Ollie, a backpacker from Belgium.
Four days after setting sail we arrived at the Leti islands (northeast of East Timor). The islands are covered in thick forest capped by grassy hills. Only the odd village can be seen along the shoreline. I took the first of many snorkels on the reef and then we zipped across to the beach where a group of locals watched us nervously from behind the scrub. Before long we’d befriended them, although, by the way they reacted to the strangers it was evident they hadn’t seen white people for a very long time and no one spoke any English. Slowly as we’d continue west, the attitudes would change but to these very remote communities we were coming from another world. Western boats just don’t cruise these parts. I don’t really know why, but safety in numbers is a major reason why the annual Darwin to Kupang yacht rally has become so popular. Perhaps pirates are a great tourist repellent.
All the guys had great whopping machetes strapped to their waists by cord and in a flash one guy was up a coconut tree dropping fruit while another was excitedly preparing them for consumption. I was dragged off into the bush where a small group of men were eating various foods: small trevally, bean mix, taro (yellow root vegetable that tastes like sweet potato). I took a piece of taro. My friend produced a plastic bottle with clear liquid. ‘Alcohol?’ he offered. I’d learn this was soppie, a smelly spirit distilled from a type of palm liquid.
The next day Ollie and I went exploring. A young woman called Pietje decided to join us, which was fortunate because she knew her way around. We climbed a grassy hill and looked down at the vast tropical landscape. Through sign language and a few Indonesian words I’d written down, I asked Pietje if we could visit a village. We walked 1.5 km and came to a settlement of square plots of land divided by concrete walkways and each with a rectangular house constructed of concrete bricks and thatch roofs. The dogs were typically emaciated, a couple of roosters had a scrap and a hairy little bush pig fled at the sight of us. People were stunned to see us but they lightened up after a while.
Two km on, the next village was quite different. Most of the dwellings were huts constructed of grass and timber with raised bamboo platforms on the outside. I was totally absorbed as we meandered around the village. Meticulously woven bamboo baskets and rice trays were by one hut. I wondered how long they take to make and how much they’d bring in the market. There was a lot to take in but my most vivid image of that day was a group of kids, no older than five, playing in the dirt with machetes. On the way back we came to a dry riverbed where a small group were cooking up a feed of boiled tuna in salty water, fish on coals and taro. The surplus meat had been filleted and hung to dry—not a scrap left to waste. They dished us up some. Despite our best efforts we were unable to make any meaningful communication so we thanked our hosts and moved on. Later we had the first of many curious islanders come to visit the yacht by canoe, this time mostly kids.
We had a spinnaker run all the way to the next island, Romang. Desa (village) Hila is built on the side of a hill and partially concealed by dense forest. A thick plantation of coconut trees fills the lower valley. Although the locals eat the coconut soft, these coconuts are harvested and dried for export. Sounds like a factory but it was one family sitting in the dirt, using hot coals to separate the white meat before breaking it up and bagging it in hessian sacks. Under the palms, boat builders were building a perahu—traditional boat used for fishing built of rough chain sawn planks of teak or whatever they have available for the purpose. Typically they sit low in the water, have a narrow hull and pointed bow and run on a pull start inboard, diesel motor, which makes a deep put-put noise. The other common vessel is the canoe carved from a single trunk.
Everywhere we went we were followed by hordes of giggling kids. Stuart was after a bottle of soppie and a young guy called Mos showed us to a house where they filled an old plastic bottle. Mos was keen to check out the boat so we took him out. He had a tattoo of Christ on his forearm and another on his back of a naked woman with spread legs. He said he was from Ambon and we assumed he must have been one of the many that fled the troubled region due to sectarian violence.
Indonesia is said to be 90% Islamic but Hila was clearly a Christian Haven. There is one protestant church, which I was told to ‘go away’ from after (when asked) I told the minister I was of no religion. Throughout Indonesia the two most common questions I was asked were: Are you married? What religion are you? Unquestioning faith is so ingrained in the culture that it is almost inconceivable that someone can have no religious belief.
One day Ollie and I spent hours scrambling, climbing and swimming up a gorge of massive boulders and incredible beauty. It probably didn’t even have a name and apart from the small village a few kilometers away, I doubt anyone would know of its existence.
The next trek the two of us did was Gunung Sirung, an active volcano on the island of Pantar. From a village near our anchorage we hired two kids on motorbikes to take us 12 km to Desa Maulta. The bike bounced around on the rough, hilly dirt road and bucked violently in protest at the gear changes, which were so rough I thought the bike was running out of fuel. I checked the gages as the bike spat it’s guts out—nothing worked. On the flat sections the teenage driver opened up the throttle. I could feel the tire bottom-out over the potholes so I tapped him on the shoulder and signaled him to slow down. I wasn’t prepared to die yet.
The villages were nothing more than clusters of woven bamboo huts with thatch roofs. For some, the lower halves of the huts were built of red clay or mud brick. Kids came running out on the street, screaming at us as we passed. It took about two hours to climb up through the rubble and desolation to the ridge of the crater. We were walking on Mars. The odor of sulphur was intense and I could feel the back of my throat singe. About 300 meters down inside the crater (600 to 700 meters wide) was a large grey, stagnant, muddy lake, and to the side of that, several boiling pools of sulphur, billowing plumes of white smoke. We climbed and slid down the loose rubble inside the crater about 150 meters to take a closer look. It was out of this world, alien, like the tropical reefs surrounding the archipelago from which these volcanoes rise. Only those were teeming with life. This was lifeless yet still very active.
In the morning we caught the ferry—a rocky perahu—into Desa Baranusa. The colorful boats transport people and market produce between villages. Along the water front produce was laid out on the ground in 1000Rp lots (15 cents). Bananas, paw-paw, coconut, miniature tomatoes, beans, sprouts, fish, dried barracuda, snacks of Banana fritter and rice wrapped in palm leafs, beetle nut and an unknown white powder women were rubbing on their rotted gums. Baranusa wasn’t remarkable although it was larger than other villages with several schools and a mixed Catholic and Islamic society. This was unusual; most of the villages we visited were segregated by faith.
After strolling around the village we made our way back to the ferries but there were none about. A group of macho young men—many with nasty, Indonesian style mullets—were collecting around us and laughing among themselves at their jokes towards the tourists. One guy to the side of me said, ‘White prisoners, Islam,’ as I walked by. Whatever that meant I took it with a grain of salt. So we sat there like monkeys within the throng of gazing locals making our own jokes about the mullets and the cool dudes. It was perfect the way we could all laugh and point at each other quite openly without anyone getting worked up. Eventually we negotiated with the crowd to get a ride back to the yacht on a prow skippered by a 12-year-old with an engine that worked about half the time.
And this is the way it was for the next three weeks. Island hopping, snorkeling, visiting villages, and everywhere I looked, active and dormant volcanoes rose from the ocean and smouldered out of islands, typically with plump, cotton wool clouds sitting at their peak. We anchored in poorly charted lagoons and monitored the waters with the depth sounder and with a bird’s eye view from the mast in order to avoid reefs and bommies (sometimes narrowly). At one island Ollie and I went on a mission for Soppie. We never found the village only a few grass huts where we enquired about the smelly alcohol. They didn’t seem to know what soppie was but they knew alcohol, although they didn’t have any to sell. ‘It’s probably illegal here. We’re in Muslim territory now.’ I said half jokingly. Across the road two young men were collecting large bamboo vessels from the tops of palm trees. We debated whether or not this was soppie.
‘Maybe we can buy some from them,’ said Ollie.
‘It doesn’t come off the tree as alcohol. They still need to distil it.’
‘Yes it does.’
Confused about the process of making soppie and the law of the land, we asked anyway but again they acted ignorant and we returned to the boat empty handed.
It was almost three weeks, and on the island of Flores that we saw for the first time another yacht. We’d caught up with the tail end of the rally, which had come up to Flores from Kupang, West Timor. Most of the boats had already passed through. As evidence of this a couple of the local guys were walking around wearing diving masks (out of the water) as though they were the rulers of the tribe. Strange as it sounds, in this tropical paradise with pristine waters I only ever saw one Indonesian swimming, and he was one of the lucky ones who’d scored a mask.
Fleets of canoes would be on their way before we’d dropped anchor. We’d attempt to make conversation but often the islanders were happy just to hang on to the side of the yacht and stare indefinitely, shaking their heads and making t-t-t sounds at the sight of affluence. Sometimes, they’d point and ask for things in the boat; the biggest prize it seemed was a diving mask.
In general the villages were very poor, especially those to the far east which had little to no contact with the outside world and where people lived largely of the land. Clothes were filthy, torn and falling off snotty faced kids. I had brought a box of kids clothes from the Salvation Army, which I’d originally planed to take to the Solomon Islands. In a small Catholic village on Flores we were invited into the family home of a woman called Francesca. A horde of kids congregated around the doorway. The living room was very bare but the house was better than others I’d visited: white tile floor, corrugated iron roof set above the walls for ventilation, two couches and 5 or 6 catholic posters of Jesus Christ and Mary. I figured this was as good a place as any to donate the clothes so I asked Francesca if she could distribute them in her own time to the most needy of the families. She was thrilled to do so.
Our official immigration check in point in Indonesia was Maumere. Two days before we arrived I started to get joint and back pain, and bouts of fatigue. The next day I developed headache, fever and cold chills. The third night I was hallucinating that I was floating upside down and by day I had never felt worse, only summoning the strength to pull myself out of bed to vomit.
The boat was being replenished with supplies and readied to depart in the afternoon. As difficult as it was I thought it would be prudent to visit the hospital and get a blood test before heading out to sea. I was falling of my chair waiting for the results, which came with a wheelchair. I tested Malaria positive and had a temperature of 39.7 ºc. Although I never really believed I could have got Malaria I was relieved in a way because now I knew what was making me feel so rank.
I was moved to a private room, put on a drip and an aggressive course of drugs, and slowly brought back to life over the next three days. I spent a week in hospital and during that time the crew had dropped off my gear and departed as they were on a mission. I was unlucky and felt pretty ripped-off to get Malaria. I was bitten four times on one day exploring a river on Wetar Island. The irony of this whole episode is that in the time I’ve been in Indonesia I’ve seen mosquitoes only twice: the day I was bitten and in my grubby hospital room which was teeming with them. This was alarming at first. I thought I’ll no longer recover from the disease and I’ll contract it again, this time from the hospital. But a completely bizarre, unexplainable fact was that as far as I’m aware, in my feverish, uncovered, dozy state, I didn’t get bitten once. For the first time in my life, those ravenous creatures had absolutely no interest in me what so ever.
It took me three months and four sailing vessels to finally depart Australia. It wasn’t an easy task but I feel some satisfaction that I have succeeded in making the first intercontinental crossing. After I had recovered, without the possibility of sailing, I reluctantly took a ferry to Singapore where I can access mainland Southeast Asia. However, this was not to be straight sailing either. On the boat I was struck by a bout food poisoning and then I ran into more bad luck.
(Note: Although the ferry ride breaches my zero emission objective it will have no bearing on the final result, as I haven’t begun the circumnavigation yet. This means that I’ll now have to intersect Singapore on my return trajectory.)
On the boat I met a Malaysian guy called Vicky. Vicky claimed to be a catholic, which was odd seeing as he visited the ferry Mosque wearing a Kufi skullcap to pray three times a day. Despite this, and the fact that he admitted to happily cheat on his wife, I think Vicky was a decent enough guy. Although I can’t say for sure, I’m reasonably certain he played no deliberate part in the story that follows.
We arrived at Kijang at night—a small Indonesian island a hop form Singapore—but it was too late to catch the Singapore ferry. I suggested we head over to the hotel together. But Vicky was going to stay with friends and I was dragged along for the ride, which was much further and against my wishes for the reason of convenience. Once we had arrived his friends invited me to stay as well. I had no reason to doubt these people were genuine, although I’m not sure how well Vicky knew them because he warned me to take my valuables from my bike as there were some unfamiliar faces in the house.
The next day when I was on my way to Singapore and did the math I realized the cute young woman who was living in the house, the same one who had unsuccessfully tried to seduce me, had gotten her sticky little fingers into my gear and bagged 700,000Rp—about $90AUS, but to her equivalent to almost a months work. Though she tried to screw me twice, she only succeeded once, but it was still a pretty good score! The questionable character of these people, who really weren’t poor by Indonesian standards as they had higher paying jobs in Malaysia, was demonstrated further the next morning when Vicky’s friend chased me down in the marina and demanded 100,000Rp for sleeping on his floor. This was ridiculous and I told him so but gave him 20,000Rp to shut him up—at that stage I didn’t know I’d been robbed.
I send special thanks to Wendy and Dan from Darwin who put up a complete stranger for three whole weeks.