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A Cruise Through the 17,500 Islands of Indonesia

We sailed out of Australia’s Arafura Sea and through Indonesia’s Timor Sea toward the Flores Sea. In the early days of ocean voyaging, these were part of the seven seas, those enchanting waters on the far side of the world where spice is in the wind. To sail them meant you had sailed as far from the staid gray West as you could. You’d reached the mystical land of dragons.

For the record, there are more than seven seas—the number is closer to 100. But the waters of Indonesia do feel different. And it’s not just the clove-scented breeze, the long slow swells or the colorful high-bowed fishing boats that swooped in close to look at our 40ft catamaran, Ceilydh. Maybe if we’d flown into Bali by plane that sense of the exotic would have been more subtle. But we sailed into Kupang, a port where the number of visiting foreign ships each year only numbers in the hundreds (when we arrived last October we were number 675) and the days are punctuated by the muezzin’s mournful call to prayer.

On our first morning in Kupang we checked in using an agent who had waved us down from the beach. Stories of three- and four-day check-in ordeals convinced us that hiring some help might not be a bad idea. (Our 13-year-old daughter, Maia, and I would need to stay on the boat while my husband, Evan, visited office after office.) Our faith (and $60) wasn’t misplaced—after having the customs official aboard (we served cold juice and lemon squares and he looked for alcohol in our olive oil bottles) Evan and our agent made record time visiting four offices (one twice) and making dozens of photocopies. By the end of the day we were officially in. Indonesia was ours to explore.

Exploring the Sawa Sea

On leaving Kupang we opted to diverge from the beaten path and head across the Sawa Sea past the steaming volcanoes at the easternmost end of Flores to the Alor Archipelago. A good number of the cruisers who visit Indonesia sail in one of the annual rallies or travel along the rally routes. Heading off the beaten path meant we wouldn’t have years of accumulated cruiser knowledge to refer to, something I hadn’t realized we were so reliant on until I sought information on the Alor port of Kalabahi.

The only information I found was a brief entry in the Lonely Planet guide that, unsurprisingly, didn’t tell us where the best anchorage was or where to bring our dinghy ashore. What I did read was that Kalabahi, while hot and dusty, is the access point for a recently established dive area called Pantar Strait Marine Park. While we were keen to check out the diving, I also found an enticing mention of a nearby traditional village called Tapkala.

Being one of only a handful of tourists in a remote Indonesian city is both overwhelming and charming. Whether we were getting sim cards for our cell phones or waiting for a bemos scooter-style taxi to take us shopping in the market, we were surrounded by a crowd. People touched my arms and stroked my hair. Maia was asked to pose for photos, while children practiced their English: “Hello mister!” “You speak Indo?”

Kalabahi doesn’t have a tourist office, so getting information on how to actually visit Tapkala was tricky. We were wandering the chaotic main street and pondering our options (not many) when a car pulled up beside us. Elfis (who didn’t speak much English) and his friend Noby (who spoke even less) offered to help. As we climbed into the strange car with the strange men who didn’t speak our language in a city we knew nothing about, I suddenly wondered what we were teaching Maia.

I’m pretty sure that without Elfis we would never have found the village. Even with him it was touch and go. Within a short time it was clear he had no idea where we were going, and each time we stopped for directions he and Noby looked more perplexed. Eventually we drove straight up a mountainside. Between dodging crater-sized pot holes Elfis pointed out clove, kenari and tamarind trees. When the road ended and we caught sight of the high-roofed huts, he bounded up the hill to make sure we were in the right place. When one elder approached us dressed in his (rather terrifying) warrior clothes and explained which barb from his bow and arrow was designed to kill boars and which was for humans, Elfis leapt into a dramatic photo with him.

After that it was on to Pantar Strait Marine Park, which is known for its sheer underwater drop-offs and strong irregular currents, called ajar gundah (uncertain water), and where finding a safe place to anchor can be challenging. We ended up using a combination of charts, blogs, hand-drawn maps of dive sites and, finally, images from Google Earth overlaid on our Open CPN charts to choose some potential anchorages. The biggest problem is one that’s common in much of volcanic Indonesia: it’s difficult to locate a protected spot that’s shallow enough to anchor in but also far enough from shore and the fringing coral reefs to yield enough swinging room. The best clue on where to drop our hook turned out to be a big patch of coral-free light blue water we spotted on Google Earth.

On our first night out of Kalabahi we dropped our 45lb Manson Boss anchor off Point Kumba, in loose coral rubble at the edge of a drop-off. During the night, when the current changed, we slipped off the shelf, drifted across a 300ft-deep bay and then hooked back on in front of a village in the middle of a fishing fleet. After that we started using our anchor alarm.

It only took one dive for us to decide that visiting the Alors was well worth the effort. As we descended I was awestruck by the visibility—it seemed endless as I slowly took in the sheer abundance of life and the vibrant diversity of coral.

When we were coming back up, Maia came across a traditional bamboo fish trap that wouldn’t have been out of place in an archeological museum. When we surfaced to a view of fishermen in dugout canoes bobbing alongside an ancient-looking Bugis schooner, it felt like we’d traveled through time.

Trouble in the Sea

Part of what makes Pantar Strait Marine Park so special is the fact that the locals themselves spearheaded the effort to protect the area from overfishing. In much of the rest of the country (especially outside the parks) illegal blast fishing is a huge problem. Modern bombs, made from kerosene and ammonium nitrate, create an underwater shockwave that stuns fish and ruptures their swim bladders. The blast, we discovered, can be felt right through a sailboat hull—even when the source isn’t in sight.

Whoever wants to go into the East must cross the seven seas, each one with its own color and wind and fish and breeze, completely unlike the sea that lies beside it.
— ancient Muslim proverb

We’d been warned about the state of Indonesia’s environment before we visited. Friends who had traveled with kids been brought up on a regimen of reduce, reuse, recycle, and who’d no more toss a water bottle into the ocean than kick a puppy, counselled us to tell Maia to ignore the destruction, or it could overwhelm her. But sailing past rafts of garbage or swimming through a gray rubble seascape where there should be color and life is difficult to ignore.

The reality is that Indonesia has a population of over 238 million people who are trying to survive on 17,500 islands. This means the area’s incredible beauty is often coupled with the kind of environmental damage that inevitably results when too many people compete indiscriminately for too few resources. If you focus on the destruction it does seem hopeless. So we cruised through Indonesia looking for hope. We visited one village where the reef had been bombed, so now they were harvesting seaweed while the reef regenerates. We visited another village where the ladies in the market were intrigued by our reusable net produce bags, even as they were rather than puzzled by why we didn’t want plastic. And we visited parks.

Here be Dragons

We encountered our first Komodo dragon before we even reached the ranger station on Rinca. The big monitor lizard drowsily raised his head from where he was resting under a tree, just off the path running between the dock (where our guide met us) and the ranger camp. The dragon was big, but still well under its potential size of 10ft and 200lb, and was less menacing than we’d expected. Much scarier dragons, however, were just up ahead. Sounding like a Darth Vader fan club, they huffed and shuffled and then began moving toward us, flicking their forked yellow tongues out at us, testing our scent.

I’d been excited about visiting Komodo ever since we first started planning our trip through Indonesia. What I hadn’t realized was that the UNESCO World Heritage site features more than just the infamous dragons; it also has a stunning mix of savannah, jungle, sandy beaches (which range from white to pink to black), clear blue water and vibrant coral—making it one of the most dramatic landscapes in all of Indonesia.

After our dragon encounters at Rinca we were happy that our next anchorage, in a gorgeous rugged bay called Lehoksera at the southern eastern end of Komodo, had fuzzier and friendlier looking wildlife. As we anchored, Timor deer nibbled on the seaweed that was exposed at low tide along a cliff base. Maia squealed with glee when a wild boar brought her babies to the beach for a swim. The water also offered up an impressive array of creatures—with every dive or snorkel bringing us close to a wide range of gorgeous corals as well as clown fish, Napoleon wrasse and turtles.

Sailing the Bali Sea

By the time we left Komodo we only had a couple of weeks left to reach Bali, pick up a guest, renew our visas and continue on to Borneo. So each day we started with the early breeze, and each afternoon we arrived in a new village. The dugouts usually held off while we set our anchor, but as soon as our engine fell silent visitors arrived.

In the shipbuilding village of Wera the local English teacher came out to see us. He was interested in chatting about politics, but was more than happy to tell us about the huge traditional schooner taking shape on shore. On the pretty island of Medang a young coconut farmer who called himself Bian showed up with a gift of coconuts and eggs in the hope he could practice his limited English with us.

Bali to Borneo is about 400 miles, a straightforward passage for us, but a huge leap for our guest, Sarah, who’d only ever daysailed. As we made our way to Kumai for a trip up to the famous Camp Leakey to see orangutans, we dodged one particularly intense squall that sent Sarah to the fridge for a consoling beer. Most of our days, though, were spent admiring a flat sea and the flamboyant local fishing boats. Here and there we got in a few hours of sailing, but mostly it was a motorboat ride.

Visiting Relatives

In a torrential rain, we wound our way up the Kumai River and anchored off the town. A few mornings later we boarded a bright green and yellow Klotok river boat and settled in on the open deck that would be our home for three days. As we slowly chugged up the river, easing past floating islands of water hyacinths, skirting the edge of the dense swampy jungle, our guide pointed out proboscis monkeys and crocodiles while naming the trees.

The river trip included six stops: four to see Borneo’s orangutans (one of our closest relatives, they share 97 percent of our DNA), one in a village and one for a night hike. With our private boat, friendly crew and yummy Indonesian meals, the trip was not only an exotic river safari, but our first stop at Tanjung Harapan, or “Station One,” was a revelation.

When we surfaced to a view of fishermen in dugout canoes bobbing alongside an ancient-looking Bugis schooner, it felt like we’d traveled through time.

Arriving at a feeding platform in the jungle and roped off from a set of benches, the orangutans were called by the guides after food was set out—giving the whole thing an animal-show-at-the-zoo vibe. But when the apes began swinging in from the distance, then crossing over our heads and cautiously sussing out the setting before grabbing a handful of bananas, it was clear that while they may be habituated to humans, they’re still wild animals.

Until about 1995 some 250 wild-born orphan and ex-captive orangutans were released here and at Pondok Tanggui, or Station Two, and the great apes we were seeing were all the descendants of those original rescues. Knowing their history made watching the young ones appear out of the canopy and scurry to the platform for milk and bananas seem extra poignant, but it really took watching a mama teaching her baby to climb to feel the connection—right down to my DNA.

After that the sedate Java Sea gave way to the starkly modern South China Sea in the midst of a gale. Our AIS worked overtime as freighters took the place of traditional fishing boats and Singapore’s high-rises loomed on the horizon—making Indonesia feel like a distant memory.

“How many seas were there?” asked Maia when we were finally moored in Malaysia. Recounting the memories that filled the bodies of water we had just transited–the dragons, and apes and undersea life, the fishing boats, and friends, the volcanoes that loomed high above us as we sailed through a country unlike any of the countries that lie beside it–I counted seven, at least.

Guide to Paradise

General information on cruising Indonesia and obtaining social visas and cruising permits (CAITS) can be found on the Indonesian rally sites:

sailindonesia.net (for boats starting in Darwin)

sail2indonesia.com (for boats starting from Cairns).

Cruising guides include:

Southeast Asia Cruising Guide Vol 2 (Imray)

101 Anchorages within the Indonesian Archipelago

Southeast Asia Pilot

Indonesia Cruisinghackingfamily.com

Cruising Guide to Indonesia: A Pilot Guide to Indonesian Waters, Andy Scott (new in 2015)

The Lonely Planet’s Indonesia guide and Indonesian phrase book are indispensible.

Diane Selkirk, husband Evan and daughter Maia have been cruising on Ceilydh, a modified 40ft Woods Meander catamaran, for six years. They are currently in the Seychelles, halfway through their circumnavigation

Photos by Diane Selkirk

MHS Fall 2015

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