October 2001 : Indonesia



Another hectic month of new and fabulous experiences. Our first stop after Bali was the island of Madura, just off the northeast coast of Java. From the moment we arrived it was evident that very few westerners ever visit here. We were quite a novelty, being stared at incredulously and pointed out to each other by people on the street. These were however exceptionally friendly and welcoming people. Before we had even put down the anchor we were approached in a canoe by someone offering to show us something of the culture of Madura. We felt suspicious and unsure whether or not take up his offer – the guidebooks and general reputation of Indonesia suggest that the population are all rogues at the very least, and most likely to have an ulterior motive when appearing friendly. Luckily we decided we had little to lose by seeing what he had to offer – and it turned out to be a great deal – and for nothing other than the chance to practice his English. Through Jufri we met the family of the local ferryboat owner, who gave us a meal in their home, and came (all seven of them) to tea the next day on board Perdika. We were taken to a wedding which happened to be in progress and saw bride and groom resplendent in traditional costume going through the various parts of the ceremony to the accompaniment of a gamelan orchestra. I was heavily encouraged to take photographs – so much so that I began to wonder whether I had become the official photographer – which would be unfortunate since my ‘real’camera is out of action and I am currently using a £5 substitute! We walked around Jufri’s village, meeting various friends of his before taking ginger tea and cassava crisps with his parents. On our own we managed to track down a ‘Kerapan Sapi’ event - bull racing - a traditional sport in Madura. Having travelled by bus to an obscure town in the interior of the island, we found the rectangular arena in a field, surrounded by crowds and the bulls – quite small - waiting to participate, being lovingly pampered, preened and decorated. They race two pairs at a time, each pair towing a chariot-cum-plough and jockey between them. In order to work them up immediately before each race, they are whipped - literally - into a frenzy - a rather horrible spectacle. Although the race itself only lasts about ten seconds, it takes a considerable time to get the rampant animals settled and all into a state of readiness at the same time, each pair straining against their team of about 8 strong men holding them back behind the line and covering their eyes before the off, when they are chased down the track with rattles and shouts. All very picturesque – if disconcerting – not just the treatment of the bulls, but also the fact that the jockeys appeared to be aged only about eight years old!

Our final major Indonesian experience was a visit to Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo. It was an extraordinary feeling to find ourselves taking our boat up a Borneo river through the jungle to the town of Kumai. This was a tremendous place – all wooden buildings along two or three miles of waterfront and walkways built out into the water on stilts, and thousands of traditional craft of all shapes and sizes - incredibly picturesque from the river, if somewhat squalid on closer inspection. The main reason for our trip to Borneo was to visit the Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre at Camp Leakey on the Sekonyer River. Leaving the yachts at anchor off Kumai (in the care of boat boys), we took a two day trip with Simon and Sarah from Vagabond aboard a local craft – a ‘klotok’ – so called because of the noise the Chinese built engine makes. Chugging up

the jungle-lined river sitting on chairs on the roof of the boat under a sun-awning, listening to the sounds and watching the sights – dyak villages, proboscis monkeys, rafts of illegal logs, was the most fabulous experience. Every aspect of the trip exceeded our expectations. We were treated like little rajahs – served an endless supply of drinks, snacks and meals under our canopy. The food was delicious – probably the best Indonesian cuisine of our whole two months in the country – all emerging from a galley about three foot high with a kerosene double ringed stove. The crew – four young lads – were a bright and sparky bunch who spoke reasonable English and had rather bizarrely picked up Cockney accents! Their conversation – even between themselves – was peppered with remarks like ‘bloody hot’, ‘no worries mate’, ‘see you when I see you’. Everyone was having such fun that we would almost not have minded if we hadn’t seen an orang utan, but in fact we saw plenty – of all ages and sizes, from gigantic threatening looking adult males, to mothers with tiny babies, to adolescents. Most of those we saw were at feeding stations in the jungle, but our most intimate experience was when a young female discovered us early in the morning, after our night in the jungle, spent under mosquito nets in a shelter. Notices request humans not to initiate contact with orang utans – but apparently this does not work in reverse. On sighting us ‘Copra’ strode purposefully straight into our shelter and started rummaging around our belongings, grabbing things out of our half-packed bags. When this palled, she got into the mosquito tents, dragging them and the bedding out of the shelter and rolling around inside, like a toddler on speed, generally creating mayhem. It was a hysterical half hour. The only thing to stop her in her tracks was when she spotted Simon cleaning his teeth, which she stared at intently – from a distance of about six inches from his face! We visited three camps in all – each handling different stages in the rehabilitation process. The orang utans have been rescued from various ills – many orphaned or injured by illegal loggers, some former pets, and others displaced by the massive forest fires which have devastated their jungle habitat in recent years. We would like to have understood more of the work being done, but there seemed little in the way of detailed information for visitors. It seemed to us that many of the animals, who are free to roam around as they please, will never return to a totally independent state – not only because they enjoy human contact, but also because of the sad fact that their habitat is fast disappearing.

Like so much else about Indonesia, the sailing has been new and different to anything we have experienced elsewhere. We are in the ‘Doldrums’ here, and there is no weather in the forecastable sense. It is always basically the same – hot and humid with very little wind. We have motored for 76% of our 1,700 miles in Indonesian waters. At least with diesel at only 7p. per litre, this is hardly a financial disaster. However, what Indonesia lacks in wind it makes up for in navigational challenges, in the form of currents, shallow waters, peculiar tidal regimes about which there is very little information, and exceptionally nasty localised squally fronts. The straits between the chain of islands separating the Java Sea from the Indian Ocean feature ferocious south-flowing currents at this time of year. We encountered up to 4 knots against us as we clawed our way northwards up the east coast of Bali – and that at the most favourable state of the tide – seeking out counter currents as close inshore as we dared to go. Our passage across the Java Sea was totally without wind – except for a period of 18 hours with 20 knots from dead ahead, including a four hour squall with blinding rain and winds gusting to 40 knots, catching us with far too much sail up and in worryingly close proximity to a fishing vessel. The South China Sea has joined the list of waters we wouldn’t mind never seeing again. We had been led to expect flat windless seas and adverse current. What we got was both better and worse. We had some wind and no current, but nerve-wracking and scary nights with vicious squalls and lightning. The sea is littered with numerous reefs – ‘karangs’ in Indonesian – presumably the noise the boat makes as it hits one! Most of these seem to be named after the vessels which were wrecked on them. We almost discovered ‘Karang Perdika’ at one point where the depth indicator suddenly went from 40 to 12 metres for several minutes with no indication of shallow water on the chart. During this part of the voyage we crossed the equator to return to the northern hemisphere after about 18 months, under an overcast sky in a lumpy grey sea – much as we remembered it!

With such a large proportion of its area being sea, Indonesia is a country of boats. We have never encountered as much shipping as we have here, ranging from huge merchant vessels passing through this international crossroads, to the countless varieties of local craft. Every night the horizon would come alive with the twinkling lights of fishing boats like a reflection of the stars above. Just like fishing boats anywhere else, these are a law unto themselves, showing strange lights and moving around in an erratic and totally unpredictable manner. We have had some strange and inexplicable encounters with them – several unnervingly close approaches, including one boat which turned off its lights at the last moment. Mostly they just seemed curious. We have been told that the fishermen like to dash right across the bows of other vessels in order to throw evil spirits off their boat and on to the other. How that fits in with Islam is not clear! It was a particular thrill to cross paths with the traditional Bugis schooners – fantastic great wooden vessels, the work-horses of Indonesia transporting all manner of goods around the thousands of islands. A wonderful sight – often under bright blue polypropylene sails, about 80 foot long with enormously high pointed bows and uplifted sterns with built-up living quarters. Off Bali we encountered tiny double outrigger sailing canoes, appearing and disappearing in the quite disproportionate swell. Looking like brightly painted spiders, they skim at high speed across the water. We unfortunately ‘caught’ one on the fishing line we were trolling! The sight of literally thousands of these craft drawn up on each of the beaches along a particular stretch of the coast was quite extraordinary. We assumed their purpose was for sporting rather than working activities.

We have enjoyed every minute of our hectic two months in Indonesia and are buzzing with impressions. Probably the highlight for us has been the people – the sheer number of them for a start – in striking contrast to the sparse populations of the Pacific Islands, New Zealand and Australia. The density of the population of Bali, for example, is 520 per square kilometre, compared to 14 in New Zealand! Human activity is evident everywhere and a great feeling of industriousness, with people working in fields, little workshops, produce stalls, and a massive output of crafts displayed on the roadsides. Coming from such disparate races, cultures and religions, many of the peoples are at odds with each other and the population barely holds together as a country. There is a continuing history of incredibly volatile and violent behaviour between different groups. However, the people everywhere have been delightful to us. I don’t think we have ever met such welcoming, hospitable, friendly or curious people – and with a great sense of humour. They are much maligned. Whenever we mentioned over the previous nine months in Australia and New Zealand that we would be passing through Indonesia, we would be met with dire warnings and mutterings about pirates and the supposed culture of petty crime and violence. Nothing could have been further from our own experience. The locals everywhere have been exceptionally helpful to us – showing us where to land the dinghy, moving it if necessary while we were ashore and helping us load up with diesel cans and shopping. We could leave the dinghy unsecured with belongings in it perfectly safely. Judging by the way people leave their own things around, stalls unattended, doors wide open, motorbikes with keys in, this is a far more honest society than the one we come from.

The current world crisis rumbles on worryingly, apparently aimlessly, and probably counterproductively. Despite the outrageousness of the events in America and the horrific loss of life, we feel dismayed at the American and British attacks on Afghanistan. From our perspective, Bush’s idea of ‘stamping out violence’ seems as futile as it is incongruous and doomed only to alienate yet more of the world’s population against the west. However, our perspective is very peripheral – we are not exposed to saturation coverage of events and comment, or the views of friends at home. It would be good to know what you think. Of course the situation is far from peripheral for us in a practical sense, with so much of our route home passing through Moslem countries. Despite press reports and government advice to leave Indonesia, our experience here has been trouble-free. There may have been protests and threats to tourists in Jakarta and elsewhere on Java, but in the small, low profile towns and villages we have visited, we have encountered no hostility whatever. Quite the reverse – Chris’ beard has frequently attracted comic shouts of ‘Osama’ on the streets. One chap, hearing that we came from England was particularly pleased with his ‘Osama bin London’ joke!

We are currently in the far north-west of Indonesia at Nongsa Point on the island of Batam. A world away from the rest of Indonesia – this is effectively an outpost of first world Singapore, visible only 15 miles across the water. After our many miles of hectic sightseeing and material deprivation in this poorest of countries, we are now relaxing in decadent bliss, enjoying some unexpected and bizarrely extravagant luxury, in the form of a plush new marina with gorgeous swimming pool complete with sunken bar and jacuzzi, restaurants and bars and golf courses – all for the princely sum of £18 per week. Of course life is not entirely perfect. The boat is cluttered with bits of engine as Chris tries to sort out an intermittent reluctance in engine starting, and I start each day with a couple of hours of hand-washing – nothing so mundane as laundry facilities here. Never mind – we have finally hit the mango season. After two years of journeying, to find everywhere that we have just missed or are just too early for the mango season, we have here in Indonesia timed mangoes to perfection. What a country!

Selamat Tingal