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Crew: Nick Thomas and Liz Vernon

Tokomaru in Indonesia (part 1)

Indonesia is a vast country of thousands of islands stretching 5200km from Sumatra in the west to Papua New Guinea in the east.  With a population of over 200 million there's a fascinating mix of culture and religion.  Although we've only had two months and visited seven islands, we have been completely overwhelmed by the wonder of it all.  And we've felt safe and comfortable everywhere, both at sea and on land, as over and over again these charming and exuberant people have welcomed us enthusiastically and made sure we have a good time.
                         Indonesian fishing boat
                                Indonesian fishing boat

We arrived in West Timor on 23 September and dropped the anchor off the town of Kupang.  Checking in with immigration and customs, you have to engage immediately with a new culture and language, try to work out what's going on and brush up on your bargaining skills.  We had to stay on the boat until the paper work was done, entrusting passports and ship's papers to an 'agent', who required a fee, - negotiable, as is everything in Indonesia.  But soon we were on the streets of Kupang, dodging scooters and 'bemos' (mini-bus transport system), exploring the shops and markets, sampling the food and looking for a dictionary.  And it wasn't long before we were joining the locals inside the bemos as it's far too hot to walk.  The Timorese are very sociable and see few tourists, so people accosted us just for a chat.  The election of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono had just been confirmed and people seemed happy with the result. We were eventually guided to a bookshop.   

                         Gili - Air open air restaurant
                           Open air restaurant on the small Indonesian island Gili-Air

Wanting to see more, we found a guide, Aka, who could take us up into the hills to see something of rural Timor.  Proud of his heritage, he was determined to show us as many traditional crafts in action as possible and to introduce us to his friends in villages where people still live in steeply thatched 'beehive' houses. Timor is famous for ikats, and every family seems to have one or two ikats in the making, a truly painstaking method of weaving to produce a traditional cloth with complicated patterns. A woman sits on the ground, the back of the loom forming a backrest, and manipulates the wooden slats, sometimes tying on extra threads, nimble fingers flying.  We watched a woman spinning raw cotton, and we visited another compound where the family brew up natural dyes.  Each compound was tumbling with playful children and we have noticed throughout Indonesia how people have a very relaxed and tolerant attitude to kids.  Then, Aka wanted us to meet the 'king'.   The king was out, but we met his daughter and her husband who were waiting for the water truck to arrive, -they wanted a bath before attending a funeral ceremony.   In fact, what Aka really wanted us to see were the elaborate tombs in the palace grounds where former kings were buried.  These tombs are still revered by local people; ceremonies around death are hugely important and a lot of rituals have their roots in the indigenous animist culture.  Timor is, in fact, 85% Christian and full of churches, though the soothing muezzin did waft across the water every evening from a nearby mosque.  

                                Komodo dragon                               
                                     Komodo dragon

After five days in Kupang we continued west, past the islands of Sumba to the south and Flores to the north, in perfect sailing conditions: steady winds and calm seas.  Lying under the awning in the breeze was bliss after the heat and noise of Kupang.  In three days we reached Rinca, a virtually uninhabited island and home of the Komodo 'dragon', a giant lizard up to 3 meters long, unique to Rinca and the neighbouring island of Komodo.  We found a stunning anchorage called Lehok Uwada Dasam, with steep mountains all around and sheltered from the open sea by the little island of Nusa Kode.  The end of the dry season, the mountains were parched and barren.  But the shoreline was softened by green and shapely trees with quiet pools of shade into which, morning and evening, came deer, monkeys, wild boar and 'dragons'.  We were enchanted, amazed that such a wild remote place should feel so peaceful, with these animals quietly rooting about on the beach, especially the giant lizards which have lived here unchanged for a million years.  We did not, however, venture ashore!   We shared the bay with a number of fishing boats, moored up during the day and working at night.  Several of them came over for a 'chat' and to trade fish.  With our twenty odd words of Indonesian and their unfailing good humour we exchanged sugar, coffee, old sunglasses etc for a small share of their latest catch. 

                                 Komodo dragons

To visit the national park officially, we sailed up to the north of the island, negotiating our first 'Selat' (strait) where tides and currents race between the Indian Ocean and the Java Sea in the gaps along the island chain.  It's pretty essential to time it right to get a favourable current, (otherwise you might find yourself going backwards!) and we whizzed along at 9 knots.  The problem was to spot the narrow inlet in the mangroves where we had to stop and turn left to anchor near the park office.  Next morning we rose with the sun to go ashore for close encounters with wildlife.  Our guide was Acha, and he carried a forked stick to fend off any aggressive lizards.  Close up they are indeed formidable, and seriously ugly, but they didn't seem much inclined to move.  The monkeys frolicking around were much more fun.  Our walk inland revealed undulating hills and trees and river beds.  All was dry except for one muddy water hole where enormous buffalo were slurping black sludge.  There were lizards lying around in the sun, warming up, and two deer on a hillside making a strange barking shriek to warn us off.  Acha described how all would soon become green with the rains.  But even then it was a surprisingly pastoral scene.
                                Lombok sailing fishing boat
                                            Lombok fishing boat

Next day we continued up the Selat Lintah and then headed for Bali, passing along the north coasts of Sumbawa and Lombok - a vista of scorched volcanoes (one of them spewing steam) with impressive peaks up to 3000 metres looming through the haze.  We decided to break the journey at the tiny island of Gili Air off the northwest tip of Lombok.  From here we could time our passage through the Selat Lombok down to the port of Benoa in the south of Bali.  We anchored off a windswept village, a busy scene of ferries coming and going, people loading piles of coconuts into open boats, and dozens more boats pulled up on the beach.  Those who don't have a boat stand chest high in the water with their fishing rods, -as Nick says, a helpful if unusual way of indicating the depths!  When we went ashore we were surprised to find the other side of the island completely sheltered from the wind and offering delightful facilities for tourists.  This being the low season they were pleased to see us and we were soon seduced into a 'bale', a small pavilion, set right on the beach.  It's full of cushions where you recline while charming people bring you cold beers and grilled fish, spring rolls, fresh prawns, avocado and piles of fruit.  This pleased us greatly and we went back next day for more.   The beach was perfect for swimming and snorkelling too....   But across the sea we occasionally had a glimpse of Gunung Agung, Bali's conical-shaped volcano.  At times we could see nothing, as if Bali had disappeared, and then suddenly it would be there, majestic and mysterious in the haze.  And so this magical island beckoned to us across the Selat Lombok; it was time to move on.

                                                     Catur Muka Statue Denpasar Bali      

 We set off at 5.30am and to our amazement as the light grew we saw hundreds of colourful sails scattered across the water in every direction.  These were fragile little boats, a bamboo outrigger on each side, a paddle and a homemade sail and one man busily handing his fishing lines.  We had to weave our way very carefully through this extraordinary scene.  To make things more interesting, the wind picked up as it whistled around the corner of Lombok and so we reefed our sails while the little boats blew here and there all around as they carried on with their fishing  The wind settled into the south west, exactly wrong for us, and the promised current did not materialise.  We despaired of reaching Benoa in daylight and began making plans to divert to another anchorage.  But suddenly, the wind died away, the current whirled into action and we sped south at 7 knots, arriving in time to see our way through the shallow waters and park up in the welcoming embrace of Bali Marina. 

                                   Rice terrace Bali
                                              Rice terrace Bali

More lush than Tobago, more exotic than Tahiti, Bali is a glorious tropical island.  After the dusty villages and parched terrain of eastern Indonesia, we feasted our eyes on green.  Denpasar, the capital, was our first experience of Bali's unique Hindu culture.  Temples, shrines, elaborate gateways, stone carvings at every turn and all set amongst flourishing foliage and ornamental trees.  Fearsome statues mark crossroads and roundabouts.  The centre of town opens out into a spacious park surrounded by imposing buildings in Bali's special architecture, at once sturdy and flamboyant.  Sometimes it's hard to say whether you're looking at a temple or a palace or a bank!   We found this splendour repeated on a smaller scale in the villages, when we spent three days driving across the island.  Every family has some sort of temple or group of shrines in their back yard, where daily offerings are placed (the marina has a lovely shrine complete with fringed parasol!).  Offerings are also placed on the ground at the entrance to houses and shops to ward off evil spirits.  We visited some of the great historic temple complexes including Besakih, the 'mother' temple on the slopes of Gunung Anung.  We also saw a temple in the valley, a temple in the lake, a temple in the sea, all stunning and full of imposing statues and complicated symbolism which guide after guide was eager to explain.  Between the villages and the temples are rice fields and ancient rice terraces.  This was harvest time, so the rough shelters of seasonal Javanese workers dotted the landscape.

                                      Baris Warrior dance
                                                           Baris Warrior dance Bali

The Balinese are famously artistic and the village of Ubud, where we stayed two nights, is an important centre for the arts. Here are galleries stuffed with paintings, streets of wood carvings, stalls of beautiful fabrics, (all requiring serious bargaining!).  At the old raja's palace we watched classical dance/drama, such as the 'Legong' from the Indian epic Mahabharata.  The dancers, in gleaming costumes, adopt controlled, stylised postures and mask-like expressions while moving their arms, hands and fingers (especially fingers) in the most supple and expressive gestures.   The 'gamelan' orchestra is made up of metalophones, gongs, drums, a spike fiddle and two or three bamboo flutes.  We found the music sometimes sweet and soothing, sometimes exciting and sometimes (to our ears anyway) a discordant racket!  The musicians sit on the floor, also wonderfully attired in stylish, matching sarongs.  

                                    Procession Ubud
                                                      Procession Ubud Bali

Just across the sea from Bali lies the island of Java, with more temples, more classical arts.  We particularly wanted to see the batik art and the famous shadow puppets.  Java is not very 'yacht friendly', so we left Tokomaru in the safety of Bali marina and flew to Yogyakarta in the south of Java to spend 4 days sight-seeing.   But that's for the next letter.  This is long enough and there's much more of Indonesia to come!   So we'll leave it there and say 'selamat siang!' from Liz and Nick
Website © Nick Thomas and Liz Vernon 2008