I left Cairns for the Low Isles about 30 miles north with Poppy and Terence as crew on the first leg of our journey to Thursday Island in the northerly most part of Queensland where we would join the Rally boats mustering for the 5 day crossing to Indonesia. I planned to do only day sails until Terence was comfortable with sailing the boat so our next stop was Hope Island and then Cooktown for more provisioning. By great good luck we arrived in Cooktown on the anniversary of Cook’s landing here to repair his ship after hitting the reef. Each year the town stages a re-enactment on the 16th June and we were lucky enough to be there for the celebrations which included both whites and Aboriginals playing their original roles. This was a peaceful visit of Cook’s and the local aboriginal tribe was reportedly supportive of their efforts to fix the ship.
We visited the local museum which had artefacts and reports from the landing and we then climbed to Cook’s lookout where he was able to plan his next attempted exit through the barrier reef. This wasn’t to be however until he reached our next stop over on Lizard Island so named for the large monitor lizards that live there.
The three of us climbed to Cook’s Lookout and here you could clearly see the passage he took through the reef. We stayed on the island for a few days and snorkelled the lagoon but the coral was disappointing with much evidence of bleaching caused by sea water temperature variations.
We visited the Reef Research Station where teams of marine biologists study the reef and it’s various elements in an attempt to mitigate damage. We were able to pick up their internet and to get up to date weather forecasts. In the evening the island’s beach resort allowed cruisers to visit the bar on three days a week otherwise we spent our evenings reading, listening to music or Poppy and I would play and sing, her on the guitar me on the ukulele which Terence loved, he was a real fan of our live music sessions.
Our next really interesting stop on the way north was at Restoration Island, which was where Captain Bligh came ashore to re-provision in the longboat they had set afloat in by the mutineers.. Here he found fruit, water and fresh oysters. Poppy had seen a documentary on Bligh before leaving England and recalled that a hermit called Dave lived here after losing all his money on the stock market. We explored the island, initially skirting the house and found the rocky beach where the oysters grew. Of course we had to try them and cracked a few open with a sharp stone, our Neanderthal tool. This was Poppy’s first taste of oyster and she wasn’t impressed. We walked up to the house and were met by Karen and Steve who were house sitting for Dave who was in Cairns buying provisions. They were both teachers at Lockhart River aboriginal settlement and after discussion over a cup of tea they asked us to stay for dinner. I returned to the boat for beer and wine while Steve and Karen fished off the beach. Steve showed Poppy how to cast and she was soon matching him cast for cast when she got a bite and reeled in a very nice queen fish which Steve filleted for us to take back to the boat.
This was the first fish Poppy had caught and she felt a little guilty killing it but very excited by the experience.
Steve then lit a fire on the beach and we gathered round drinking beer and chatting as the sun went down. As the fire died Karen called us to a dinner of spaghetti Bolognese, washed down by our wine. It was a perfect end to the day spent with two kind and interesting people. We learned a lot about the aborigines and there way of life and issues they had with the white man’s world.
Two days later we entered Escape River but Poppy wasn’t feeling great and went to bed early. In the morning she could hardly speak and one look at her tonsils confirmed a bad case on tonsillitis. We hauled anchor and set out for Horn Island where we knew there were medical facilities. Poor poppy had to endure a very rough exit from the river.in a nasty wind over tide waves. After an hour we broke free and turned north.
As we approached Horn Island I called the clinic at about 5.00pm, explained the problem and suggested I bring Poppy in the following morning. Vicky, the nurse, wouldn’t hear of it and told me to bring her straight away to the wharf where she would collect us in her car. She was concerned it might turn into rheumatic or glandular fever. As promised she was there to meet us as we landed around 6.30 and whisked us off to the clinic. She suggested that Poppy be administered a massive dose of penicillin in her bottom and warned her it would be extremely painful. Poppy confirmed later it was excruciating but what made it worse was Vicky’s step by step comments of “ now this is going to hurt even more”. Poppy also had a very painful ear infection which required antibiotic drops every four hours. Once back on the boat she went back to bed for much needed rest. The following morning she was a little better but not markedly so and spent most of the day resting. In the evening I made dinner and went to bed leaving Terence reading in the cockpit. I was woken at 2.00 am with the sound of him crashing about in the cockpit above my head and went up to see what was going on. He was completely drunk and unable to speak. I told him to go to bed and he staggered off waking Poppy on the way through her cabin. An hour later I could hear him crashing about in the main cabin and I don’t often lose my temper but I did then, his lack of consideration was infuriating. This behaviour coupled with a complete lack of sailing skills sealed his fate and we agreed he would leave the boat in the morning. I need to be able to trust crew and Terence having quietly demolished most of our wine supplies was too much of a risk.
The next morning Poppy was very much better and taking food. I took Terence ashore to meet the ferry and we spent the next few days getting the boat ready for the crossing to Indonesia, provisioning on Thursday Island and refuelling with jerry cans. We used the dinghy to cross to Thursday Island and going was fine but coming back laden with washing and supplies could be a pretty wet affair. We rigged a tarpaulin over our supplies which kept them dry but not Poppy who was doused in gallons of water every time we dug into a wave. She was driving so there was no escape, while I baled to keep the water level down. It took us half an hour to make the crossing back to the boat and we were both cold and soaked. Time for a hot shower!
Losing Terence meant we would be on six hour watches at night which can be very tiring over several days but to her credit Poppy coped well over the 5 night crossing. We saw Indonesian fishing boats over the horizon with lights so bright the sky was lit as if by a city. Fortunately all the boats we encountered were lit as were the very long nets so it meant we had to be alert to the dangers. Another risk we’re the FADS fish attraction devices and some of these, the bigger ones were lit but not the small ones. The big ones were large A frame structures on huge bamboo rafts 10m x 20m with a house on board where fishermen lived for a week or so until they had caught enough fish to go to market. The smaller ones 5m x 3m were unlit and a real hazard and they weren’t confined to the coastal waters we would come across one fifty miles from land in 2000 metres of water and they were anchored!!! How on earth they manage or afford it is still a mystery.
In order to pass the time on passage Poppy volunteered to make a Vietnam courtesy flag for Romano. Every one who has sailed with us leaves something behind and this was her gift to the boat.
We arrived too late in Tual to clear in and it was Friday so we decided to get some provisions and a phone card for internet so we could let everyone know we’d arrived safely. Tied the dinghy to the coastguard cutter, big rolling rubber fender to get ashore. Poppy all covered up.
Trip to inland lagoon in the dinghy, on to Debut where the fleet was gathering to check in. Around 40 rally boats in the anchorage. We did a tour of 10 boats to say hello but no prospective new friends found. Had dinner on Little Dove, Terry and Carol’s boat, invited them back for pizza and a musical evening. Tour guide Veronica took us on a tour of the island for Rupiah 1,000,000 about £50. We swam in some cool caves, shopped in Tual Market and had lunch on a lovely beach after swimming and snorkelling.
Veronica took a liking to Poppy and offered to lend her her motorbike the following day. We set off for Tual again to visit the market, taking turns to ride the bike, it was great fun but you did need your wits about you, avoiding Indonesian drivers who don’t care which side of the road they use. It wasn’t uncommon to find bikes or cars coming the wrong way up a dual carriage way. Poppy discarded her hat as it kept blowing off and her blond hair attracted lots of attention and a continuous string of beeping cars and bikes. We had to practice a couple of emergency stops but got back to Debut unscathed and handed the bike back to a very relieved Veronica.
The indoor/outdoor market in Tual is huge, covering a few acres, selling clothes, fruit vegetables, spices, material, tourist toot and carved wood and woven baskets. It was slow progress wending our way through the labyrinth of stalls as every few yards someone wanted their photo taken with us even the police lined up. Clearly they don’t get many white visitors and Poppy with her blond hair and blue eyes was treated like a film star everywhere she went.The attention was all very friendly and the people warm and welcoming. We tried a few phrases of Indonesian as we moved around and managed to buy t-shirts at about £3.00 each and Poppy bought a few pairs of pasha pants to give her lightweight trousers to wear. Most of the older Indonesian women are covered from head to toe it being a very religious society.
The following day the local authorities laid on a welcome ceremony for the Rally on the quay side involving lots of speeches in Indonesian, in the hot sunshine but we were served a packed breakfast of cake, water and savoury rice bites. Two of our number were asked to respond and after two hours of speechifying we were loaded on to buses and taken to a fishing village to watch their traditional festival of the sea. Poppy was coaxed to get up and dance with the children which broke the ice and a few others joined in. I danced with a rather buxom police woman, well why not!
We decided after another day of speechifying and dancing we would go off on our own, you can have enough of a good thing even when the authorities and villagers are so kind and welcoming. The next day we hauled anchor and headed for Baer Island in the north of the Kai group. It’s a honeycombed Island with a warren of lagoons the sea has cut out of the centre. These waterways are only four feet deep with sandy/coral bottoms so we took the dinghy in and spent a good hour exploring. We anchored the dinghy to snorkel among the coral but it was poor quality with little fish life so we move to the outer reef on the edge of the island where the quality and quantity of both was greater. The following morning we fired up the hookah (dive compressor) and explored the coral around the boat.
It was stunning and Poppy captured some good shots. We then scrubbed the bottom of the boat of weed and a few barnacles in anticipation of our next long distance cruise to pick up Joy and Australian lady joining the boat in Ambon about 250 miles west. We decided not to follow the rally to Banda but to explore these outlying islands instead.
After clearing out of Debut with the port authorities we headed up a chain of islands lying NW stopping each night to anchor. One notable stop was in Pulau Tioor where we anchored off the village. Villagers came out in a canoe offering fresh coconuts and we explained we would come ashore. As we beached the dinghy the men of the village rushed to carry it above the high tide line and we were met by a crowd of 60 or so villagers and children, the whole village had turned out for the occasion. A young student called Mai greeted us in English which meant our hastily revised Indonesian wasn’t required. We explained who we were and why we were there which Mai translated into Indonesian. Mai who is studying at University in Jakarta then took us to her parents house (they ran the local store and were clearly leading villagers) where we were installed on a platform given coconut milk and the sweet immature insides of the nut to eat while the whole village looked on. Poppy was slightly unnerved by one poor old man who just stood and stared at her open mouthed while dribbling copiously, not a pretty sight for anyone.
The villagers put up a volleyball net and Poppy asked if we could play with them, it seems only the women played volleyball but they graciously allowed me on to one team while Poppy played for the other. We had great fun playing for an hour or so until Mai called a halt. We were all very hot and sweaty even though we had frequent stops to blow up the ball which Mali’s father had mended using Elastoplast.
I played very carefully remembering how I broke my ankles doing just this in Honduras 4 years ago. We had some footballs and crayons on the boat as giveaways so we brought them back to village where they were well received and once again the whole village turned out to say goodbye.
All in all a wonderful experience, such spontaneous warmth and generosity! We hopped up a chain of islands, anchoring each night. Many of the islands had fringing coral reefs and sheer drops outside making anchoring difficult. We arrived in Ambon with a couple of days to spare before Joys arrival which would allow us to re-provision, do our laundry, top up our internet, refuel and clean up the boat after the mess of several day’s passage making. We picked up a mooring off the Hotel Tirta Cavennah ? In the village of Amahusu about 10 miles out of Ambon. The Darwin to Ambon race was due to arrive in two days time and the village was busy decorating, painting, setting up tents and a bandstand to welcome the fleet.
We went ashore with our laundry and the hotel agreed to do it for £4.00 for 10 kg for collection the next day. We visited the local store managed by Jan who then offered to take us into Ambon the following day in his people carrier to get our shopping, phone cards, fuel and beer. He charged us about £15.00 for the day which saved us time and money, he knew where to go for the cheapest and what to buy, negotiating the best prices for us which probably saved his cost and we just loaded up the van at each stop including 8 Jerry cans of diesel and petrol. In the middle of this Jan got a call from his wife to say the officials wanted us to move our boat as it was sitting on the race finish line, we finished our shopping and went back to the boat. After moving it to another mooring buoy Jan took us back to town for the fuel beer and phone cards even paying for all our stuff when I found I’d left my wallet on the boat. That night Poppy bought me a five course meal as a thank you in the hotel restaurant the menu was extensive and the food was delicious it was a memorable meal.
The following day we gave the boat a deep clean and set up the fore cabin for Joys arrival and decided to eat ashore again with Joy as the food was so cheap. Joy is German by birth, just retired from nursing and now living in Tasmania. She’s a keen cruising yachtswoman with 15000 sea mikes of experience. Joy quickly settled in well on Romano, she had sailed on another boat in the Wonderfulsail2indonesia rally last year and liked it so much she wanted a second time around which meant she knew where to go and what to see, enhancing the experience for Poppy and I.
Our first stop was on Ambelau Island, a halfway house to Wakatobi National Park, where we arrived at dusk. The anchorage was very difficult and we had to move close to the reef in front of the village to find a depth we could anchor in. This was a quite a problem in this part on Indonesia where the reefs fringed the beaches and bays with vertical drop offs to great depth. We carry 60 metres of anchor chain but quite often this wasn’t enough and we had to move on. We dropped the anchor in light wind on the edge of the reef and hoped for the best. At 5am the anchor alarm went off telling me we were dragging. When I arrived on deck the wind had picked up strongly and swung 180 degrees pushing us onto the reef, the depth sounder showed we had only 0.4 metre under our keel. I started the engine and in pitch dark drove off the reef without hitting anything, just in time, while the others came up on deck and we set out for Wakatobi trying to avoid the “fads” in the dark.
These are huts on rafts which the fishermen anchor out at sea, often in great depths. Fads stands for fish attraction device and they camp out on these sometimes for up to a week and fish below. Most of them are unlit which makes night sailing in these waters quite dangerous. The other hazard are nets strung for miles between buoys, sometimes the end buoys are lit but guessing where the nets are is quite challenging in daylight and impossible at night. The fishing boats are also often unlit so as you approach the fisherman switch on a torch and wave it up and down in the direction they’re travelling in. By contrast the big fishing fleets carry huge lamps to attract fish and they light the sky for miles around like the lights of a big city. All this means the watch-keepers have to be really attentive.
We arrived in Wanji Wanji, the main island in the Wakatobi Archipelago at dawn having slowed the boat down to arrive in daylight. The entrance to the lagoon is quite narrow with reef on either side so we wanted to make sure we could see the passage clearly. The pilot book said the charted depth in the passage at high tide was 2.1 metres, we draw 2.2 metres so we radioed for the harbour master to come out to guide us through the deepest part. There was no response but another cruiser radioed us to say they thought the channel had been dredged to 4 metres to allow access for a RORO ferry. We watched the line the ferry took coming out, switched on the forward looking sonar and crept in without issue.
The town was quite large with several markets so we stocked up with fresh fruit and veg and bought stuff we’d never seen before just to try it out. Some were successes some not, like a fruit Poppy nicknamed “armadillo eggs” which tasted like a bar of soap. We decided to hire a motor bike each, owned by the girls on the welcome committee, and tour the Island, with Joy as our expert guide as she knew her way around the island from her trip the previous year.This time we were issued with helmets, apparently you can be fined for not wearing one but it only seems to apply to the driver while your wife and two children go unprotected and only on some islands. On Kai we had no helmets and neither did many others, it seemed to be optional.
We lunched at the splendid but empty P Hotel which was completely deserted, not a guest in sight but plenty of staff.
How they manage to survive is a miracle and then we visited a beautiful hill top village called Lia where we met a lovely old lady working a loom on a platform outside her house and were mobbed by the children again.
We returned late evening for a much needed swim off the boat to shake off the dust and sweat of the day. Temperatures are in the low thirties and the wind on the bike keeps you cool but as soon as we stopped it was hot as hell..The boat’s equipped with a freshwater shower on the sugar scoop stern so we can wash the salt off and I bought an excellent petrol driven Rainman water-maker in Australia which makes fresh water from seawater at a rate of 70 litres per hour which gives us pretty much unlimited water. This is very necessary in Indonesia where the only drinking water is expensive and comes in bottles.
We then headed down to Hoga Island about 20 miles south and anchored in the lagoon passing through a narrow reef entrance. The forward looking sonar is worth its cost in these tricky situations and gives a view of the underwater profile up to 200 metres ahead. There’s an excellent reef for snorkelling and diving on the north side of the island and the three of us had a great couple of hours photographing the coral and fish life. The following day Poppy and I loaded the hookah into the dinghy and dived on the reef but we were quite limited by the length of air hose which tends to tangle and at one point when Poppy dived I was pulled up and vice versa. Our deepest dive was probably only 12 metres but we managed nearly an hour in the water on one tank of fuel.
In the evenings we ate ashore at the dive resort where a two course meal cost us R60.000 each, about £2.50 and pints of beer were the same price. It’s not worth our while cooking on the boat at these prices plus we met lots of interesting people. The resort was owned by a British company and offered research capability to marine biology students in universities around the world.
We really liked Hoga and stayed there for four days before heading off to Pasar Bajo on the island of Buton.
Many of the fleet were gathered here with about 30 boats moored to buoys which had been put down specially for our arrival. We moored to one of these but found we were on top of Franksiz, a French boat and moved. It happened to other boats as well and some went out to anchor in deeper water. The mooring buoys had been laid too close together in the interest of providing one for every boat. That night we went ashore for a party on the quay with beer and dancing but it didn’t happen and was rescheduled for the next day so we went of in search of a restaurant and had a Mei Goreng and banana fritters, the bill for the three of us came to R42,000 about £2.50. It’s amazing they can produce it for so little.
The following day we hired a car and driver to go into Baubau with Joyce and Caroline off sv Henrietta, a large city on the other side of the island about 30 kilometres away. We visited the fort, reputed to be the largest in the world, the local market, a large hyper market and visited a waterfall on the way back to the boat.
Unfortunately this was the dry season so there wasn’t much of a flow in the river. The following night a dinner had been organised at the stadium overlooking the bay for the cruisers by the local authority. We had an excellent meal with about 10 different dishes to pick from with most of us opting for a little from each as a taster. We were then asked to go back stage to watch different local artists and bands performing for us. We were seated in the wings of a stage that would have done credit to Glastonbury giving us a good view of on various performers and the crowds below. Then one of the presenters came over and asked me to dance and led me on stage by the hand. Joyce off Henrietta was also pulled on and the four of danced in front of the band. I now know what Mick Jagger feels like! The second time we were asked a lot more of our group came on and Poppy and a young Indonesian guy gave a very good jive session much to the delight of the crowd.
When we left the stage and moved among the crowd people recognised Poppy and she was inundated with requests for selfies. It gives you an idea what it must be like to be really famous but in reality it is a pain in the neck and we started refusing after the first dozen or so, hoping not to cause offence.
The following day was Buton’s big annual celebration with 5000 students parading in the amphitheatre and we were invited as guests of honour. The morning activity comprised speeches, 200 small boys being circumcised and a similar number of young girls coming out of seclusion. The girls spend 4 days with several older women instructing them in the facts of life and being an adult woman. They then wear the traditional Niqab to cover there hair as a sign of modesty and to prevent unwanted attention from young men. We decided to give the morning events a miss and turn up for lunch. The welcome committee sent a VVIP Black 4×4 for us and two uniformed guys to act as “bodyguards” and get us through the crowds without being pestered. It was like being royalty. The guys took us to the place where lunch was being served by hundreds of beautifully dressed young women in their traditional costumes. Each of the girl’s families had prepared the meal of several dishes which these lovely ladies then served to us. Poppy and I got the giggles because as soon as you ate one dish the next was pressed on you. We ate till we could eat no more, it was really good food, beautifully served and the girls were so keen for us to like it.
After lunch we sat above the arena in baking sunshine waiting for the students to perform. Then we were told that it wouldn’t start until 4pm so most of us sought shade.
When the performance started it was awesome and very well choreographed. To get 5000 students to move and dance with immaculate timing must have taken some practice. The arena was a blaze of colour as each section dressed in brilliant colours marching to different formations made for a great spectacle.
The next day Poppy left the boat to go back to the U.K. and university, it was really sad to say goodbye, we had had a fantastic time over our four and a half months together, an adventure she says she’ll never forget and neither will I. We made an unusual team a 19 year old and a 72 year old but it worked really well.
As she left Jo Valentin asked if he could join our boat after falling out with his previous skipper. Jo is French, 33 years old and an engineer. So with Joy and Jo as crew we set sail for the Bonerate Reef and the village of Bonerate, famous for its ship building skills. The village was very clean and tidy with well maintained houses painted in bright colours a delightful place spoiled only by the fact they threw all their rubbish into the sea and the beach was knee deep in it. The problem they have is the only alternative is to burn it and on some islands you can smell the acrid smoke of burning plastic hanging in the air in the evening and nights.
We had some very good snorkelling on the reefs off Bonerate with vibrant coral and plenty of small fish life.
From there we sailed due south to the large island of Flores and at Riung we took a 12 tour across the island to the traditional village of Bena where they make Ikat a tradional hand woven cloth and afterwards visited some hot springs for a welcome dip, if a little on the warm side.
We then sailed along the coast of Flores on our way to the island of Rindja to see the Komodo dragon. We paid to hire a ranger who escorted us on a 2 hour trek around the island. We saw monkeys, deer and although we saw signs of buffalo we didn’t see any.
These animals have been brought to the island as potential food for the dragons. One bite is enough to kill even the biggest buffalo, it has over 80 different bacteria in its saliva. The dragon follows its victim around for sometimes several days in the case of buffalo until it’s too weak and then they move in for the kill. They only need to eat every two months but if they get dehydrated the bacteria starts to attack them and they can die. When the female lays her eggs she digs an underground nest and fills it in returning at the time the eggs are due to hatch. Don’t think this is maternal instinct as she eats her young if she can catch them. Their immediate task on hatching out is to scoot up the nearest tree and hide in the highest branches they seem to know what Mum is likely to do.
We set off that morning to see if we could anchor on the Makassar reef where manta rays pass through on a regular basis but unfortunately it’s a protected park so the trip boats drift through on a weak tide. So we gave up and headed for the Island of Komodo. We didn’t see any dragons but we did see lots of deer and monkey. They seem to have adapted their diet to include sea food as both forage the waterline at low tide.
At the north end of Komodo Jo and I did a drift dive, towing the dinghy or rather vice versa and we saw some really big trevally, a small reef shark, big bat fish and a lot more besides but no mantas. One day I’ll get to swim with them!
We sailed along the north coast of Sumbawa and passed the still smouldering volcano on Pulau Sangean to the earthquake stricken island of Lombok this whole chain of islands sits on a major fault line and eruptions and earthquakes are a way of life for these staunch people.
We were due to meet up with the rest of the Rally in Mendana North Lombok to hand in our passports for visa renewal for another 60 days which would last until we entered Malaysia. The plan was to collect them in Port Singara on Bali in 10 days time, hoping it will all work out. In Medana Jo volunteered to join the cruiser team rebuilding the local school unfortunately Joy got food poisoning. The cruisers started a support fund to buy food, clothing and other essential supplies which were distributed to the worst damaged villages. We also held a dinner to host the local villagers. We paid for 3 villagers to attend and they put on a show for us. The proceeds went to the disaster relief fund.
There were several Rotary volunteers in Medana from around the world, providing, tents, bedding medicines and food. The government did an excellent job reinstating, power and water and supplying housing to the devastated villages. Around 500 people died in the series of quakes.
We visited the local wild life park and had some amazing tactile experiences with the animals, birds and reptiles.
We left Medana to refuel on the island of Gili Gedes where unfortunately Jo went down with food poisoning. It’s ironic that we’ve travelled extensively through the poorest parts of Indonesia eating street food along the way without any problem and as soon as we reached the more sophisticated touristy parts of Lombok both Joy and Jo succumbed to food poisoning.
From here we will go to an even more touristy Bali where both Jo and Joy leave the boat, Joy to go home to care for a sick friend and Jo to learn to scuba dive and do some back packing before returning to France to work. Again, I’ll be sorry to lose both of them they have been great company and very good crew and maybe some day we’ll sail again together. My new crew are Cindy an Australian lady and Imogen my second gap year student after Poppy who will sail with me to Phuket in Thailand but that will be part 2 of this blog as I have had so much to include in the first part of our visit to Indonesia.