Gone Ape in Indo
A circumnavigating couple seek exotica in Indonesia—and find it.
Story and Photos by Tina Dreffin
Scud, our 44-foot St. Francis catamaran, was going like a train before a fresh southeast breeze in the shadow of five volcanoes, some rumbling, others slumbering. Two fishermen emerged out of the haze, casting nets and beating the azure waters with bamboo poles to herd fish. My husband, Peter, and I felt bewitched by the exotic view.
Here in magical Indonesia, time stands still beneath the mango tree. Of its 18,000 islands, a third are uninhabited, mostly in the eastern archipelago, the Lesser Sunda Islands. Like a necklace of emeralds dropped from the sky, they dip and rise across the equator.
After spending cyclone season in Australia, we yearned to return to the open sea in search of exotic cultures. Our quest, we thought, would insert a bit of chutzpah into our circumnavigation, which seemed a little ho-hum after we left the South Pacific.
We sailed around the northern tip of Flores Island. To starboard, a man steered his dhow through the short chop with a kite made from plastic garbage bags, while jerking a fishing line behind him. Entering an isolated bay, we saw melted gemstones pass beneath us. Ahead, a mountainous patchwork of red and purple fields rose behind a small village that peeked out from a curtain of palms off a pristine beach. Peter shouted, “’Til fifteen feet, babe, but far enough out from shore.” Survivors of the 2004 tsunami had passed on their mantra: Anchor out far! That very night we received a tsunami warning via e-mail: A 7.7-magnitude quake off Java’s southern coast made a tsunami in Flores a very real possibility.
On the beach, a conch horn had sounded our arrival, and shouting children were jumping like pogo sticks. Paul, the English teacher, greeted us when we rowed in: “Welcome. May I show you my village?”
We entered a community of thatch and bamboo, where grandfathers slept on raised platforms under palm-leaf shelters and women tended large black cauldrons over wood fires, purifying mountain water. Nearby, children played with a pet gibbon in a dirt courtyard.
Paul fed us stewed fish and spinach and told us how his village had been swept away in a prior tsunami that drowned 20 people. Fortunately, most of the others had been tending hill gardens or fishing offshore. “A black wall of water, high as a coconut palm, crashed against the mountain, taking everything in its path,” Paul lamented, then added that “a wave seeped in around my father’s feet. He grabbed his books and ran to the hills, pulling everyone with him.”
For several days we visited with the villagers, handing out piles of baked cookies and sweet nuts. They were eager to show us how they thrashed rice with man-sized wooden mortars and pestles and wove ikat, the local cloth. In our wake followed the beach children, often singing “Brother John” in Indonesian. Whenever I joined in, they erupted in shy giggles.
At first light on departure day, we set the chute for a passage to Rinca Island, to the west of Flores, eager to hike in Komodo National Park, home of the famous Komodo dragons (the world’s largest monitor lizard). The children waved goodbye from the beach, and my heart swelled; they’d been our constant companions. As we headed out the bay, a dhow loaded with coffee, sugar, and tobacco disappeared into the fine mist. It could have been a thousand years ago.
THERE BE DRAGONS
Volcanic hills, carpeted in scrub growth, rose on either side of the narrow channel as we coasted into Rinca Island. Fish eagles welcomed us, diving into the still water like missiles. Dinghy launched, we headed ashore to arrange a safari, only to find unfenced outback staring back at us. The park is home to 2,000 free-roaming dragons.
Thanks to the 10-foot tidal range, climbing up the dock was difficult. I ended up a mound of arms and legs and missed the resident dragon, a 10-footer, camouflaged against the dock. After retrieving my backpack from Peter, I turned and saw it, two short strides away. Ghost fingers struck my neck. It regarded me warily, its long mustard-yellow tongue licking the air. A fisherman, safe in his dhow nearby, shouted, “Hati-hati!” Careful! He tossed me a long wooden stick and instructed me to strike the dragon’s snout if it attacked.
Komodo dragons are fierce predators and scavengers. They weigh up to 300 pounds, can run faster than a dog, and with their strong jaws, sharp talons, and powerful tails can drag down a 1,000-pound buffalo, deer, boar, or monkey, all inhabitants of the park. They ambush their prey, hiding in the tall grass and scrub; their saliva contains 15 different strains of toxic bacteria, and a victim that isn’t consumed immediately dies within a couple of days and is located by scent.
I shook my stick at the lizard and hissed, “Stay!” Then, shakily, “Peter?” He clambered onto the dock and we retreated, coming abreast of two more dragons that eyed us guardedly. We tiptoed past and entered a dark mangrove forest. Troops of macaques hunted crabs in the mudflats alongside the trail as infants tumbled and whirled in a flurry of hilarious antics.
At park headquarters we met Fritz, who would be our guide. In his scarlet t-shirt he looked like the designated bull’s-eye. We agreed to meet at early dawn—when the wildlife, he said, was most active.
Pastel light cast spooky shadows across the dock as we navigated with flashlights to find Fritz. He led us down a narrow goat trail by a dry riverbed. Following the fresh scat and spoor, we found numerous dragons camouflaged in the thicket. Saliva dripped from their enormous snouts as they lifted their heads to the morning sun.
Loud troops of monkeys tore through the forest canopy, screaming at our intrusion. Fritz skidded to a halt and shouted in a hoarse whisper, “Boar!” then “Buck!” then “Deer!” All at once, three woolly boars raced out like quarterbacks and charged into the thicket, leaving a tangle of broken limbs behind them. A thunderous bugle sounded as a buck leapt out, followed by a majestic doe and fawn. Their reconnoitering calls resounded across the hills.
As we entered a stretch of hilly savanna, Fritz shouted, “Watch out for cobras. Cook finds them coiled under the stove; they like the rats.” Crikey, I thought. So Peter and I took turns beating the high grasses with our stout stick.
In blazing sunlight we climbed to Look-Out Point, where a majestic vista opened before us: Volcanic summits stabbed the blue sky, disappearing into white puffy clouds, and in the distance Bali lay suspended in a turquoise bowl of cellophane.
We found a massive water buffalo in a boulder field, chewing cud, backed against large rocks. “He’s on watch for dragons,” Fritz told us. Later I asked him if the dragons were truly dangerous. “Not really,” he said unconvincingly. “They’re cold-blooded, so they’re sluggish at low-sun hours.” Still, we kept alert. Feeling tired, hungry, thirsty, and sun-baked, we weren’t eager for more tte--ttes with pernicious creatures, but the dock was void of dragons and we boarded our dinghy in peace.
We sailed on a fast reach across the Java Sea to Borneo (Kalimantan), in search of wild orangutans. (“Orangutan” means “person of the forest,” and they exist only in Indonesia.) A wide river on the island’s southwest coast led us to Kumai, a busy trading port festooned with giant sailing dhows. In town we secured permits and arranged for a guide for our trek into the Tanjung Puting Reserve, a 11,078-square-mile rehabilitation center for ex-captive, rescued orangs.
Next morning, again at dawn, our driver roared up in a battered “go-fast” skiff to take us far upriver, deep into the jungle. Entering a black-water estuary where vines hung like witches’ hair above us, we could hear the distinctive calls of the macaques and see their lion tails dangling from overhead branches, silhouetted against a rising red orb. Our driver drove like a madman, swerving around ironwood logs that drifted in the raging current. We tied our gear down, fearing the worst, after narrowly missing two bloated boars that had been partially devoured by crocodiles. We could see the crocs sunning themselves on shore as we sped past.
At Camp Leakey we meandered down a boardwalk toward park headquarters and were stunned when a female orangutan swooped out of a tangle of vines behind us and dropped onto the deck. Her infant, its arms wrapped tight around her neck, gazed up at us with liquid brown eyes. We sat down, spellbound, to let them pass. She lumbered by on all fours, so close we could hear her breathing.
A ranger led us along a dirt trail toward the feeding site. Carrying 200 bananas on his back in a straw basket, he made eerie animal calls to signal the apes. An hour later, we sat down to wait. The females came first. They swung leisurely through the trees, then clambered up bamboo ladders onto a wide feeding deck; infants scurried off their backs, grabbed a couple of hands of bananas, and squatted down to munch as they eyed us quizzically.
They all disappeared into the trees when the alpha male came racing through the canopy—all 300 pounds of him—making thunderous noises as he approached. He dropped onto the feeding deck, his imposing 5-foot frame like that of a linebacker. He slurped down three buckets of sweet milk (laced with supplements) and finished off the rest of the bananas. I got the shock of my life when he then launched off the platform and loped toward me. The ranger shouted, “Quick, back!” and grabbed my belt, slamming me to the ground so I would appear smaller. “Don’t look at him,” he begged. Once the ape passed, I was ordered into the bush to put more room between me and the alpha male. The guide told me it had taken five men to pry Julia Roberts free from the male’s hold during the filming of a documentary. “He likes women,” he warned.
Back at Scud, in a flash of waking vision, I realized that we liked this bit of chutzpah. The exotic part of cruising has its own seductive hold.
Seeking adventure, Tina Dreffin answered an ad for crew in Florida and ended up marrying the boat’s owner. Together she and her husband have sailed nearly 100,000 bluewater miles during 30 years of world cruising. Their two sons joined them for two years of their circumnavigation, which began in 2002 with the purchase of Scud in South Africa.