Expecting the Unexpected in Indonesia

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Nothing is ever as it seems. At least, not in the cruising world. This is a revelation every cruiser comes to at some point or another in their travels. For me, the land that taught me to expect the unexpected, to revel in the unpredictable, was none other than the chaotic, colorful, vibrant kingdom of culture, the largest archipelago in the world: Indonesia  (published October 2016)

We were greeted by the sound of the Islamic morning call to prayer when we sailed into Kupang, in West Timor, Indonesia. The sun was bright and the air warm and humid as Viatrix, our 43 foot Henri Waquiez ketch, glided into the bay. The 450 nautical mile passage across the Timor sea took us barely four days, but after eight months of sitting still in Australia, it seemed virtually endless. These months of idleness however also gave us a heightened thirst for discovery and adventure. Our crew of five therefore motored ashore in our old patched-up dinghy, Aqualina, to clear into the country as early as possible. Despite having acquired visas at the Indonesian embassy in Australia, this was not a simple process. After trying to recruit an agent and deciding the cost was too high, we took a taxi to immigration, quarantine, customs and the port authority. Now we were ready to really explore this new and exotic country! Still, despite having read all the guidebooks, the pamphlets and even a little Indonesian-English dictionary, we never expected the marvels this archipelago revealed to us. Indonesia was a land of unexpected wonders.

Pale and dark blue lakes, two of the three colored lakes of Kelimutu, Flores
Pale and dark blue lakes, two of the three colored lakes of Kelimutu, Flores

THE LAKES OF KELIMUTU

After spending four days in Kupang, we ventured on to Kalabahi, on the island of Alor. Here, we met up with some friends and learned to speak a few words of Indonesian. In the small town, the streets were always full of motorcycles, racing around each other and carrying far more passengers than would be legal in North America. We spent our afternoons ambling through the village. Following the suggestions of the guidebooks, my mother, sister and I dressed in long skirts out of respect for the Muslim population.

Whenever minibus drivers and taxis asked us where we were going, hoping to offer us a ride, my father responded with the same words, “Jalan, jalan!” meaning “walking, walking!” After seventeen days in this quaint modest town however, we moved on, making our way to Maumere, on the island of Flores, about 150 nautical miles west, a trip involving a few stops to other islands and anchorages along the way. In Maumere, the largest city we had visited yet, we organized our first trip, to the famous three colored lakes of the Kelimutu volcano.

Our trek to the three lakes of Kelimutu was filled with many unexpected events. It began with four nuns sitting at the back of the blue minibus we had rented. As a party of nine, traveling with our friends from another boat, this would have posed a problem for us. Luckily, the women were dropped off along the way, but even without the nuns in the back, there were not enough seats for everyone, and a couple of the younger members of our group took turns sitting on an overturned Coca-Cola crate.The incredible scenery of the ride largely made up for the discomfort of the vehicle. Indeed, the Indonesian landscape flying by our windows alternated between lush emerald vegetation and terraces of rice plantations cut into the mountain slope. The jade green sprouts of rice, the small mud walls and the water buffaloes loping through the filthy irrigation water all seemed to spring right out of the BBC Discovery Show.

Overloaded motorcycles in Gili Ayer
Overloaded motorcycles in Gili Ayer

On the way, we stopped at a small local restaurant for Nasi Goreng, an Indonesian dish of fried rice, and a cup of sweet, dark coffee. When we finally reached the lakes themselves, high in the mountains where thick fog and billowing clouds clung to our skin, the sight of them left us breathless. Separated by a thin stony ridge, the first two lakes were similar in color, though one was dark cyan while the other was a pastel blue with wisps of vapor curling at its surface. Both were nestled in craters with sheer, jagged walls of volcanic rock. The third lake was inky black and surrounded by fir and pine trees. None of us had expected the lakes to present such starkly different colors and shades.We were all awed at the sight of them. According to ancient Indonesian lore, these three lakes hold the souls of the departed beneath their placid surfaces. Legend has it that dark and light blue lakes keep the souls of the old and the young respectively, while the souls of the evil slip beneath the surface of the black lake. Seeing the mystic of the lakes, I almost believed this strange tale.

Komodo dragon sighting on Rinca
Komodo dragon sighting on Rinca

A REAL DRAGON SIGHTING

From Maumere, we sailed to Riung, also in Flores. The crystal waters of this anchorage offered excellent snorkeling opportunities. We spent three days in this paradise, tanning on the sandy white beach and admiring the magnificent multicolored tropical fish. We even spotted our first real clownfish as well as many other members of the Nemo cast. Then, we traveled to the Komodo National Park on the island of Rinca, right next to Komodo island, the home of the famous Komodo dragon. Naturally we had come to see these giant lizards, indigenous to the islands of Rinca and Komodo, and found nowhere else in the world, besides perhaps in the more exotic zoos. We soon however learned that we might be seeing another kind of giant reptile in the calm bay of Rinca. Indeed, the guidebooks warned of large crocodiles in the area. We had seen these on our previous travels but hoped to avoid them this time, as we did not know what damage they might do to our inflatable dinghy.

The day after our arrival in Rinca, we woke up extra early, at the crack of dawn, and raced ashore to glimpse the reptiles we had come to see: the Komodo dragon. Although I had read about the animals in guidebooks, I still half expected them to look like fairy tale dragons with spikes, wings and a fiery breath. Alas, they resembled instead massive lizards, 10 feet long. Still, despite not quite maintaining the stereotyped dragon appearance, these reptiles proved to be much more impressive than I had imagined, not to mention potentially dangerous. Because of their poisonous bite, it was important not to let them approach us. Our guides therefore carried long forked sticks to keep the animals at bay during our hike across the hills of the island.

Seeing the Komodo dragons in Rinca was even more thrilling than I had expected as the animals were not fed by the guides here, nor placed in captivity. The absence of other tourists further improved the experience.

After Rinca, we visited the adjacent island, Komodo, in hopes of observing more of these unique animals. Here, however, the abundance of tourists gave it the atmosphere of a zoo. The Komodo dragons were watched by dozens of tourists and the guides did not hesitate to get close to the animals. Although we enjoyed this second experience with the Komodo dragons, we soon had to move on, sailing now west, towards Bali.

Rice paddies in Bali
Rice paddies in Bali

THE CULTURAL CAPITAL

Despite not being the capital of Indonesia, Bali is no doubt the most cultural place in all of the country, and perhaps one of the most cultural islands in the world. Bali stands out among the other Indonesian islands not only because of its great tourist industry but also because of its overwhelming Hindu population in a country that is mostly Muslim. As in the rest of Indonesia, the restaurants were cheap and we therefore ate out regularly, usually ordering dishes of fried rice. Because Bali is such a popular tourist location, we were often solicited by salesmen, carrying necklace pendants, earrings or little wood carvings. All offered us “special prices”, but we nonetheless respectfully declined. In Bali, we decided it was time for our second road trip, renting a new, air-conditioned van to visit several locations. After all, we certainly did not want to miss out on the many temples and natural highlights of the famous island of Bali! Once again, Bali proved to be much more than we expected.

Tiered roof at the Hindu temple, Lake Beratan, Bali
Tiered roof at the Hindu temple, Lake Beratan, Bali

Our first destination was the Gitgit waterfall, a glinting cascade of cool, fresh water reminiscent of those described in fairy tales or featured in Disney movies. We bathed in the waters of the Gitgit falls. Later we moved on to admire the Hindu temple of Lake Beratan. Surrounded by a vast garden of hibiscus, bougainvillea, frangipani and daisies, the temple itself bore not only tall tiered pagodas but also brightly-painted dragon and frog statues, buddhist stupas and dark stone shrines at which offerings of rice, incense and flowers had been placed.

Meditating at a Buddhist temple in Bali
Meditating at a Buddhist temple in Bali

Our final stop was a Buddhist temple. At the entrance to this temple, we were all lent sarongs, which we were told to wear as a symbol of respect in this place of worship. Despite being less than one percent Buddhist, the island of Bali has many shrines and temples dedicated to Buddha. The one we visited consisted of three buildings all carved with intricate frescos, depicting the prophet’s many teachings. The aroma of incense filled the temples and water lilies floated lazily on the large basins of water.

After six days in Bali, we left for the small, rather isolated island of Bawean. This island offered us a new and unique view of Indonesian culture. Cleaner than most other Indonesian locations, besides perhaps Bali, this island is mostly inhabited by the slightly richer population, most of whom are employed by foreign shipping companies. Here, we went on a hike to see a vast lake and visited a small hot sulphur spring near the village.

Orangutan meal time Tanjung Puting national park, Borneo
Orangutan meal time Tanjung Puting national park, Borneo

HIKING A VOLCANO

Our next anchorage was situated up the Kumai river of Kalimantan, on the island of Borneo. This place is well known for one particular species: the orangutan. We had come to see these animals at the Tanjung Puting National Park, where the famous Dr. Birute Galdikas studies the primates. Along with our friends we booked a two-day trip up the Kumai river on a river boat. The arrangement included food, guides and a boat-sitting service in which employees of the river boat company would check up on our boats each day. This excursion allowed us to see not only the playful orangutans of the park, but also many other animals including the large-nosed proboscis monkeys. We were wooed by a magnificent view of tropical forest that bordered the river. In the evenings, the guides and crew members played the guitar and sang folk songs, while the insects and frogs chirped harmoniously in the background. Soon after our river boat experience however, we said goodbye to Borneo, and set a new course. Destination: Krakatau, the crater of a once monstrous volcano which had erupted on the 27th of August, 1883, causing the loudest sound ever recorded in modern day history.

Today, the volcano hardly looks threatening; it is no more than a child of its former self, a young mountain standing on the ruins of its parent, leaking plumes of smoke and attracting a handful of tourists. Although the four day passage across the Java sea was barely more than 400 nautical miles, it featured nonetheless among the most nerve-racking trips. The Java sea was littered with ships and fishing vessels, often poorly lit, which meant night watchers had to be extra vigilant. Entering the anchorage near Pajang island, right next to Krakatau, required passing through the Sunda Strait. The seas were so choppy and confused that we later referred to this as ‘the washing machine’. The Krakatau volcano itself was an outstanding sight when we arrived at the anchorage on the following morning. Although we saw many other volcanoes from afar while sailing through Indonesia, none held a candle to this one. And like so many other marvels of Indonesia, Krakatau’s stark splendor and austere majesty came to us as an unexpected surprise. A cloud of smoke clung to a cone of barren grey earth and the base was sprinkled with evergreen trees: firs and pines that reminded me of my home up in Montreal, Canada. We went over to the volcano in Aqualina first thing in the morning on the second day of our stay and, after securing a guide, began our trek up Krakatau. We did not hike to the very top, as this can only be accomplished by well equipped climbers. Instead, we stopped on a high ridge. From there, we could see the top of the volcanic cone looming above and the blue, smooth expanse of the sea glittering below. The mountain slopes were speckled with buttercup-yellow puddles of crystallised sulphur and breaths of smoke drifted from various orifices in the ground. Far to the left, a solidified lava flow snaked down to the sea. We stayed there one more day to explore the island of Pajang, before leaving Krakatau behind.

Final view of the Krakatau volcano
Final view of the Krakatau volcano

TIME TO GO

Viatrix motored through calm waters, unlike the uncomfortable ‘washing machine’ we had experienced on the way in. We said our farewells to Indonesia. As sad as we were to leave, we were also very glad for the things we had seen and learned here. The three lakes of Kelimutu, the Komodo dragons of Rinca, the culture of Bali, the volcano of Krakatau, Indonesia had been a rich and exotic experience.

Indonesia had been full of unpredictable delights. Indeed, here for the first time, I lived the phrase “nothing is ever as it seems”. Indonesia, beyond any other destination I had visited yet, taught me to expect the unexpected.

Crystal clear waters off Riung, Flores
Crystal clear waters off Riung, Flores

Celia Hameury is a Canadian student, writer and sailor. She and her family cruised for three years aboard their 43-foot Henri Waquiez, Viatrix, covering over 30,000 nautical miles throughout the Caribbean, South Pacific, Indian Ocean and Atlantic Ocean.

 

Author: Celia Hameury

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