Thursday, 19 October 2006

Happenings 2006 Number 7

Indonesia - Farewell

For reasons not understood even by ourselves, but certainly unrelated to the bombings or personal safety, we’d been indifferent about visiting Bali, but having now spent 12 exciting days there, our feelings perfectly epitomized the old adage ‘we came to jeer – but remained to cheer’! With a hire car at our disposal we travelled extensively all over this small but beautiful island, enjoying the scenery, the people, the ambience, the food, the shopping – ‘the everything’ – simply wonderful!

The early post-dawn twilight of 26 September finds “Envy’ departing Bali’s Serangan Island anchorage and hugging the shoreline with its favourable counter current up through Lombok Strait, enroute to the Kumai River in southern Kalimantan on Borneo. Two ‘day-sails’ and three ‘overnighters’ in good winds, with stops at Raas and Bawean Islands, comprise our eight day 494 nm return crossing of the Java Sea.

On coming ashore during our two day stopover on Bawean Island, a tiny isolated spec in the Java Sea, we met a 32 yo local, Supaji, who teaches English at the local High School. Supaji was eager to practise his limited English so took me island touring on his small motorcycle, then to his house to meet his wife Yayun and baby twin sons. They were poor, generous and lovely, so after my crab soup lunch (they didn’t eat since it was during Ramadan fasting) we invited Supaji aboard ‘Envy’ – he’d never seen a yacht before – and sent him off home with gifts of clothes, books and other treasures, including baby clothes, for which they Supaji and the twins were so grateful.

With pork taboo for Muslims, and beef’s availability and affordability beyond most, fish is the staple protein throughout Indonesia. Accordingly, coastal waters everywhere host an abundance of small fishing boats, fishing nets a km long, floating long-lines of similar length, floating fish traps, bamboo fishing platforms, mostly all unlit at night, and a sailor’s nightmare. We were forever dodging this plethora of floating fishing paraphernalia, (except during one moonless nightwatch when I saw a 5 m² bamboo platform rub down the side of the boat - Oops!). One of the main subjects of radio chatter amongst the fleet was the regular warnings of this paraphernalia and general flotsam.

Having survived for weeks’ previous, and within striking distance of the Kumai River, yours truly relaxed his vigilance and was amply rewarded with his biggest fishing strike yet – a kilometre long floating fish net caught in the small gap between keel and rudder. It’s 0800hrs, sails full with both wind and current from astern, a shallow 15 feet deep choppy sea, and I don’t know whether I’ve caught it or it’s caught me, but we’re jerked to a sudden halt like a jet on an aircraft carrier, and we’re not going anywhere ---- Bugger!!

After a tense hour or more of futile free diving attempts, I finally donned my scuba gear and, in water with visibility of less than an arm’s length fuelling my fear of getting snagged in the nearly invisible nylon net, I finally cut and freed it from where floats had jammed tight on either side of the gap! I shudder at the thought of the scenario had it happened at night.

With nerve and pride shaken we motored 17 miles up the Kumai River in Indonesia’s Kalimantan Province, southern Borneo. I recall tales as a small child about the deep jungles of Borneo, and here we were, in the little impoverished village of Kumai, 2½° (160 km) south of the Equator, to where we’ve come especially to see Orangutans (Malay word meaning “forest people”) in Tanjung Putting National Park, 60 km from Kumai. Orangutans are found only in Borneo and Sumatra and are suffering from habitat loss like so many other wild animals. The jungle here looks very similar to any tropical Qld rainforest, but with a few more thick vines.

Slash and burn land clearing practices for Oil Palm plantations are the primary cause of habitat loss, and every dry season, as it is now, a smoke haze extends hundreds of kilometres from Borneo to Singapore and Malaysia, both of which governments complain bitterly to Indonesia without apparent success to curb or control this annual practice. Most mornings until 9 or 10 am we couldn’t see yachts 100 metres away, and even as the smoke partly dispersed during the day, we sailed continuously in hazy conditions for the next month all the way to Singapore, seeing virtually nothing of the coastlines that we passed close by, (or whatever else was out there that we couldn’t/didn’t see!)

Arrangements were made for our trip to visit ‘Camp Leakey Orangutan Reserve’ situated within the Nat Park, and the next morning we are collected from ‘Envy’ in the 8am haze by a speedboat with a driver and guide that will take us on the 2½ hour fast ride up the Kumai, Sekonyer and Camp Leakey Rivers to the Reserve. The ride itself was a thrill worth the money alone, as we sped through the narrow upper reaches of the river, hardly wide enough for two speed boats to pass in places, seemingly daring fate around every tight blind bend, as we brushed aside tall reeds only a metre from the banks.

We arrived at the Reserve around midday. Structurally, Camp Leakey’s dozen or so modest buildings reflect their age, dating back to 1971 when a 24 year old Canadian girl anthropologist commenced her primate studies there alone in totally primitive conditions. The basic though very well illustrated and informative Museum excellently chronicles its history, by way of background and development over the years, to its current status as the premier Orangutan authority of the world.

Momentarily, I can’t recall the lady’s name, but she subsequently married and the front cover of a 1980 National Geographic shows her baby son sharing a wash basin bath with a 2 year old baby female Orangutan, named ‘Princess’. Now 26 years later we’d heard that the beloved “Princess” was a mum again and often came in to the feeding platform, so we hoped to make her acquaintance.

As we approached the 2pm feeding station following a 1½ km walk ‘deep in the Borneo jungle’, there was ‘Princess’ and her baby ambling along in front of us. Perhaps 12 or 15 Orangutans came in swinging through the jungle canopy to the elevated feeding platform for a treat of bananas and sweetened powdered milk; During our hour or so there, they moved around and about us, sometimes as close as at arm’s length, until big’ Tom’ the alpha male arrived – no one got too close to him. It was a really wonderful ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ experience, and for us well worth the A$125 cost. And on the river ride home to ‘Envy’, we capped it all off with a couple of “G & T’s”. Cheers!

The next day we’re off again with a nice breeze on a 3 day 250 nm non-stop passage to Serutu Island, with much smoke haze all the way, arriving in the 2am darkness. After a day’s rest we depart Serutu in company with three other boats on another 145 nm overnight sail; the next morning, at 0915 hours October 11th, we watch our GPS count down to 0°.00.000 as ‘Envy’ crosses the Equator into the Northern Hemisphere. Seven miles north lay Pejantan Island, where we all stopped to celebrate the occasion with the customary ‘equator crossing party’, which raged on all afternoon, and continued ashore the next day with a beach BBQ. King Neptune was totally appeased!

We left there at 3am next morning motor-sailing in the dark on another 170 nm overnight passage, through the ever present smoke haze, with barely a mile’s visibility, up to Batam Island, enjoying the thrilling entertainment of 15 dolphins performing their aquatic opera around the bow of the boat.

Batam Island is at the top of the Indonesian archipelago, only a stone’s throw across the Straits from Singapore, and would mark the end of the Indonesian component of the rally. We stayed here in the Nongsa Point Marina, our one and only marina experience during the 2653 nautical mile (or 4913 km) voyage through this extensive chain of islands. (Indonesia has only 2 marinas, here & at Bali.) What a pleasure to have water and 240v power at the boat, plus its wonderful swimming pool, easy access to town and shopping, and the camaraderie associated with meeting old friends or making new ones.

In summary, Indonesia proved bigger and better than we’d imagined. People everywhere were so very friendly – never did we feel unsafe; the lack of wind meant more motoring but gave us smoother seas and calm restful anchorages; distances were vast, though diesel fuel and the cost of living quite cheap. Our time in Indonesia was during the ‘dry season’ up here, and dry it was. There were only 6 partly wet days during the 93 days between Darwin and Singapore.

On the flipside, we noted pelagic fish were few and far between, safe drinking water comes only in plastic bottles, and the myriad of plastic bags, flotsam, jetsam and rubbish everywhere, both on land and in the seas, is a sad reflection on the culture. Nevertheless, the organized Rally functions gave us quick and easy exposure to the people, their traditions, culture, and some excellent cuisine and, though the pace was ‘full on’ for much of the time, it was certainly the way to go.

After many weeks of hanging on the anchor, we enjoyed marina living too much as most yachties do, but did catch up on many boat maintenance jobs, before ‘clearing out’ with Customs and motor sailing 40 nm across the shipping lanes of the Singapore Straits to a new and vastly different experience.

Happenings 2006 Number 6

Central Indonesia

Rally destination #5 was the old trading port of Makassar in southern Sulawesi (formerly the Celebes) 290nm north of Riung. We island hoped there over five days, making landfall at Tana Beru, centre of the largest wooden shipbuilding community in eastern Indonesia, where we saw more than 20 boats from 8 to 40 metres being made right on the sandy beach, supported by flimsy bamboo scaffolding.

Makassar’s a large city of 2 million, and the venue for the annual Sandeq Race Rally of large outrigger sailing canoes, which come from all over Sulawesi, and which coincided with our rally itinerary. The city also has a history dating back over 600 years to when it was the hub of the far eastern Spice Trade, and one of the most important trading ports of the world in those times. Substitute the word Spice for Oil in current times and you’ll get an understanding of its then trade value and importance, and why the Portuguese, Dutch and English fought bitterly over the centuries for its control.

The Indonesian Navy invited rally boats to berth at their Makassar Naval Base and, for a small daily fee, we had access to electricity and water, plus the privacy and security offered within the compound. When doing routine maintenance on the anchor winch here I discovered some nylon bushes were broken. Getting them sent from Oz would be time consuming and costly, so I took the broken pieces to the naval workshop and had new replacements that afternoon for less cost than Oz postage. The Navy also provided several free courtesy cars with drivers and guides every day to take us shopping, sightseeing, etc anywhere around the city for our week there. Absolutely great!

Following a chance meeting in a supermarket, Noel, an ex-pat Victorian businessman married to a local lady, invited 20 of us Aussies to his home for Sunday cocktails round the pool. What an eye opener! The recently built place more resembled a palace with its marble construction and grand sweeping staircase, exquisite floors and luxury appointments. It all went so well that cocktails progressed to a BBQ that evening, followed by return visits by Noel to our yachts during the week.

Dating from 1545, Fort Rotterdam is a well preserved, harbour-side historical site of numerous buildings within its high stone walls, providing fortification for Makassa during the spice trade skirmishes through the centuries. We sailors attended a Seafood Festival there, as guests of the Mayor, culminating in a feast of magnificent lobster, fish, prawns, shellfish etc; what a treat!

On the outskirts of the city is a failed tourist attraction known as ‘Old Makassar’. Built about 15 years ago but now closed, the complex comprises a variety of architecturally old, traditionally styled and built houses, a few of which are privately occupied with the remainder lying idle. A German expat associated with ‘Sail Indonesia’ and the Sandec Race, Horst Liebner, rents the large “King’s House”, and he gave a few of us a private tour through his house and the complex, including its old clothing and artefacts museum. So many superb buildings sadly going to waste.

It was now time to start off towards the next rally destination at Bali so in the company of two other yachts we headed south westerly for Lombok, day hopping 312 nm in the Flores Sea between tiny islands that are too small to be shown on most charts, anchoring nightly behind a pinprick island, a coral reef, a sand cay and in a lagoon before reaching the comfort of Gili Aer Island, one of three satellite islands just off the NW coast of Lombok.

Everyone loves Gili Air (as it’s commonly spelt). This tiny island with its scenic waters and white sand beaches is only about 2km around, and totally tourist oriented with inexpensive cabin accommodation and restaurants, pretty much aimed at the backpacker market, all very low key. There are no motor vehicles, only ‘Tuk-tuk’ pony carts for transportation. Like all of Indonesia, Gili Air people are very friendly, but severely feeling the effects of low tourist numbers. The so called restaurants are a collection of beachfront shaded platforms with bamboo slatted floors covered in cushions, where one can relax and enjoy the sea breeze and view over a meal and cool drink, and view the wares of the numerous hawkers selling jewellery and clothing.

We spent seven lovely restful days at Gili Air before sailing down to Bali’s Serangan Island anchorage, doing the 56nm in record time with assistance from the strong current that runs down Lombok Strait.

Bali is a totally different cultural experience. It’s quite ‘westernised’, wealthy and modern by comparison to the rest of Indonesia that we’ve visited, and being predominantly Hindu as opposed to the sombre Moslem majority elsewhere, has a totally different architectural style and holiday atmosphere. Tourism ranks a close second after agriculture in the local economy but it has suffered significantly since the bombings. In addition to it being the next Rally destination, we needed to extend our Tourist Visas for a further 30 days, and Bali is the place to do that.

So here we are in Bali where Bruce revisited Kuta Beach again after a 33 year interval, and didn’t recognize any of it. Even the long sweeping surf beach seemed different, and most of the buildings new since then. By comparison with other places Kuta Beach seemed full of tourists, but aggressively competitive deals in accommodation, souvenirs, clothing etc were everywhere to be had. The locals tell us that tourist numbers are again on the upturn.

We hired a 4 door Toyota Kijang (small Landcruiser) very cheaply at A$15 p/day and shared a 3 day trip with another sailing couple up through central Bali seeing silver jewellery being made, wood carving, weaving, art galleries, and more, in Celuk, Gianyar, Mas, Ubud and the wonderful lake and mountain scenery around Kintamani and Bangli in the North.

We decided to take advantage of the heavily discounted accommodation market and treat ourselves to some unusual luxury (for us) for a change, so stayed the first night at Ubud’s upmarket Sahadewa Hotel with its grand appointments and four poster beds at only US$50 per room. The following night we moved up into the foothills to the even more exclusive La Subak Villa Resort where the 4 of us took an enclosed twin villa with own pool etc for US$145 p/day, reduced from US$400! Simply grand, as was the one hour guided exercise trek around the surrounding picturesque rice paddies before breakfast the next morning.

During the last seven days we’ve seen a lot of this island, but you could spend months here seeing something new every day. Last night we went to Jimbaren Beach just south of Kuta to eat Bar-b-que seafood at one of the several open air, candle lit restaurants that spread for a km along the sandy beach. Superb fish, prawns, etc for A$12 each.

Today we return the hire car, then go on the last free Rally sightseeing trip culminating with its farewell dinner tonight, before departing tomorrow (Tuesday) morning for the 5 day Java Sea passage North again to Kalimantan (Borneo) to see Orang-utans in the wild up the Kumai River. We’ll keep you posted. Until ‘H-7’ ex Singapore.