September 2001 : Indonesia



Selamat siang from Perdika in Indonesia. This has been an enthralling and hectic month for us. Neither of us had known anything very much about Indonesia before now, and we have been quite overwhelmed by the riches it has to offer both culturally and physically. Simply researching and planning was a consuming and complex business. Indonesia spans 3,000 miles east to west and 1,100 north to south. There are 13,677 islands – 6,000 of them populated, a myriad of different peoples, cultures and religions – and 129 active volcanoes. Our visas give us 60 days to get from one end of the country to the other. I don’t think we have ever been faced with so many choices of route, and it was almost a relief to have some areas ruled out due to political unrest.

Greedy to see as much as possible, we decided to head first for West Timor in the far south of Indonesia. The official port of entry for that region is the large town of Kupang, which has a rather daunting reputation in terms of potential culture shock, and so we thought we would make an unofficial initial landfall on the small island of Roti, to ease ourselves gently into the new culture. Entering the little bay of Papela and dropping anchor off the fishing village was like arriving in a different era, not just a different country. The culture shock was intense but delightful. The local fishing craft are gaff rigged sailing boats. Picturesque enough at anchor, it was a superb sight to see them sailing to under their enormous bright striped sails. Arriving at midday after our four day passage from Darwin, we decided to keep low profile that afternoon and relax onboard without going ashore immediately. However, the locals were even more curious about us than we were about them, and during the afternoon we had several dug-out canoe loads of visitors – mostly children – keen to clamber all over Perdika and to see how we lived. We went ashore the next day to find an exceptionally friendly village. We wandered around the houses, mostly palm thatched huts – far more primitive than we had anticipated. We met Lazarus, one of the school teachers while at the harbour master’s office explaining ourselves. He helped us out as an interpreter, and then invited us to visit his school, full of exuberant children. We asked him back to Perdika where he was able to give us intriguing insights into the local scene. We met several fishermen who spoke surprisingly good English. It turned out that they had served time in Australian prisons for illegal fishing – not to mention attempts to deliver illegal immigrants into Australian waters! They seemed more than happy about this incarceration. They had been well looked after and fed, received prison pay of a few Australian dollars a day – quite significant sums to them, and had the opportunity to learn English into the bargain!

We were rather tempted to stay on in these idyllic surroundings, but felt we ought not delay in formalising our presence in Indonesia, and so moved on to Kupang half a day away. The clearing in procedure there certainly lived up to its reputation for hassle. The information we had seemed to point to the advisability of employing an agent (not something we ever usually do) to deal with the formalities of bringing ourselves and boat into Indonesia, involving visits to half a dozen different offices scattered widely around town and paying the various bribes required to complete the process within a reasonable timescale. All this notwithstanding the fact that we had already applied for, paid and been granted our Indonesian Cruising Permit, and that visitors visas are supposedly free!

However, even using an agent was not without drama, starting with a punch-up on the beach between rivals for our custom. After some very hard negotiation, we agreed on a fee which would include all bribes. We paid off the Quarantine official ourselves – at the princely sum of 80p – for a declaration that he and his team of officials had thoroughly inspected the boat and found it clear of rats and other pests! Leaving the agent to get on with the rest of it, we went off to spend what was left of the day exploring the town. Kupang is a desperately poverty stricken and squalid place which has suffered in recent years from the economic decline and political turmoil in Timor. Although the people were friendly enough, there was no reason to stay on and we left for the island of Sumba – a couple of days away.

The cruising guide for this area provides only the scantiest information on anchorages. We gingerly made our way into the harbour of the main town of Waingapu with the aid of a combination of the ‘Sailing Directions’ (for large vessels – dictated to us over the radio by another yacht), and the map of the town in our Lonely Planet Guide! On our arrival there was plenty of local advice (much of it conflicting) on where we might drop the anchor, as the depth sounder started giving alarmingly shallow readings in every direction. The harbour was full of absolutely fascinating and picturesque traditional wooden craft, from a huge wooden sailing ship at the wharf unloading bags of cement, to tiny dug-outs with double outriggers, to fishing boats housing large extended families. The locals were courteous and helpful to us, minding our dinghy while we were ashore – in complete contrast to the culture of thievery we had been led to expect. We were very lucky to have arrived during the annual Independence Day festivities. A large compound lined with stands of exhibits of local farming activity came alive at night with displays of dancing, a volley ball tournament and numerous candlelit food stalls, creating a fairy-tale medieval atmosphere. We spent three days on Sumba – definitely not a tourist hot spot - travelling inland by local bus. The ‘ikat’ weaving on this island is particularly fine. This is an extremely complex method of weaving beautifully designed cloth, whereby the threads are dyed before being woven. We visited villages where all stages of the process were being carried out. The villages themselves are quite extraordinary. The dwellings are enormous rectangular buildings on stilts with great high pointed thatched roofs, housing whole clans or extended families. Amongst the dwellings are colossal gravestones, some with ornate carvings, the more modern ones simply vast slabs of concrete. Death is a major and costly event in animist Sumba.

Next an overnight sail to the island of Rinca which, together with the neighbouring island of Komodo is home to the giant lizards - ‘Komodo Dragons’. We spent a couple of days on the south of the island, relaxing after the intensity of our first week in Indonesia. Being the focus of attention everywhere we go is quite tiring, and we needed to be somewhere uninhabited for a break. It turned out to be a great spot, with ‘dragons’, deer, wild pigs and monkeys foraging around on the beach behind us. We then – by now in the company of three other yachts – made our way around to the north of the island to a bay housing the Ranger Station for the National Park. Here, on an early morning walk with a Ranger, we saw more of these impressively large but ugly ‘dragons’ at very close quarters.

Then onwards – a three day passage to Bali, encountering severe overfalls and strong currents as we passed the gaps between the islands of the Nusa Tenggara chain where the Java Sea pours itself into the Indian Ocean. We had anticipated that Bali would have been blighted by tourism, good only for leaving the boat secure in a marina while going off travelling on land. However, this was very far from the case and we have been delighted by the enchantments of this island. Uniquely in Indonesia, Bali is dominated by the Hindu religion, which is an absolutely central and overwhelming feature of daily life. Temples and shrines abound in every town and village - even the marina has a shrine! Every home has its own little temple with half a dozen shrines. Everywhere are little offerings in palm dishes, renewed several times a day, delicately placed in position on the ground with the sprinkling of water and precise hand movements. It seems not to matter that, having been so carefully placed, these offerings are often almost immediately wrecked by being walked on or driven over. We visited the main town of Denpassar several times – our sightseeing trips, as ever ‘enriched’ by the additional chore of hunting down obscure engine parts! We found it totally fascinating - despite not having the faintest idea what was going on. The religion – an idiosyncratic blend including elements of Buddhism and earlier religions - is complex and – to us - entirely incomprehensible. We hired a car for a couple of days to travel more widely around the island, finding it spectacularly beautiful – stereotypically south-east Asian, with terraces of rice paddies, mystical architecture and mile after mile of colourful and appealing handicrafts.

We felt our visit to Indonesia would not be complete without seeing something of Java – the central island and seat of power. However, both for security and navigational reasons we felt Java would not be a great place for Perdika. Having discovered that we could get right into the heart of Java by bus from Bali we set off for a hard week of land travel. The trip from Denpassar to Yogyakarta took 17 hours – an overnight and unexpectedly (for a bus) comfortable journey. Yogya is the cultural centre of Java, governed by a Sultan. We visited the Sultan’s palace, museums, markets, walked through the tiny alleyways of the ‘Kraton’ – palace area, and learned about the making of batik. Perhaps the highlight of our stay in the city was a concert of gamelan. The first half was devoted to classical Javanese music and dance. The music, bizarre to our ears consisted of seemingly unconnected bangings clangings and harsh discordant singing. The dance though was achingly beautiful, as a couple dressed in spectacular costumes danced the story of a couple ‘deep in profound love’ in the extraordinarily stylised classical Javanese manner with expressionless faces, slightly nodding heads and intensely intricate and delicate gliding movements. The second half of the concert was devoted to ‘campursari’ – a form of ‘rock gamelan’ – traditional gamelan percussion instruments – drums, xylophones, gongs, together with modern electronic keyboards and guitars. The blend produced a surprisingly appealing sound. This was very much a local cultural event and we felt very lucky to have come upon it rather by chance.

We also visited and marvelled at each of the two great ancient temples nearby – Buddhist Borobudur and Hindu Prambanan, built within 50 years of each other over 1,000 years ago – evidently a golden age of stone carving. We watched a spectacular performance of the ‘Ramayana Ballet’ set against the backdrop of the floodlit Prambanan temple complex – a dramatic if somewhat confusing Romeo and Juliet story with a happy ending. Finally we made our way back eastwards towards Bali via the dramatic volcanoes of the Bromo-Tengger National Park, dutifully getting up at 4am to make the dawn trek across the crater floor, past a silent Hindu temple and up the cone of the newly emerging volcano of Bromo. Clichéd it may be, but definitely a very special experience to walk through this misty and mystical landscape in the dawning light. At over 7,500 feet, the temperature was wonderfully refreshing after the sweltering heat we are currently experiencing everywhere else.

Now we are back in the marina. Perdika has survived our absence and we are preparing ourselves for the second half of our Indonesian experience. So far we have been bowled over by the place, finding something of the same combination of wonder and awfulness as we found when we visited India. The contrast between the dirt and poverty of everyday life in the street and the magnificence, opulence, depth and complexity of the culture as exemplified in the music and dance is totally fascinating. The people have been almost more friendly and curious about us than we can cope with, and contrary to dire warnings, we have felt very safe here.

They say everyone will remember where they were on hearing about the terrorist attacks in the U.S. We heard the news at 6am on the BBC World Service, anchored off Rinca, just about to go ashore for our walk with the Ranger where of course it overwhelmed our thoughts, although we felt paradoxically very safe in our remote and unlikely little spot in the supposed riskiness of Indonesia. The news has dominated the World Service – but we have of course not been as immersed in events as the rest of the world – we have not even seen any pictures. Having established that everyone we know personally who could possibly have been affected is safe (Chris’ brother we have just learned, was on one of the flights which was hijacked – 24 hours earlier), we are obviously concerned at our own position - currently in the world’s most populous Moslem country. Our plans take us through the Red Sea and Suez Canal early next year. We feel that it would be premature to make a decision now to divert to the route around South Africa – especially as that route will soon be experiencing its cyclone season. We will continue on as planned – another month in Indonesia, then Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand – a Buddhist country – for Christmas – when we can review the situation. We feel no sens e of threat whatsoever in Bali. In Java, a Moslem island, we were asked a couple of times whether we were worried to be westerners in Indonesia, which we hadn’t been - until then.

Well, back to work. We leave Bali tomorrow morning and now have to load 250 litres of fuel and 400 litres of water into the boat all from 20 litre cans, so that it can be filtered for our and the boat’s continuing good health – an excessively time consuming chore in this dripping heat. Such is the glamour of yachting!