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Indonesia: Cruising with the Dragons

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Tuesday, 14 September 2010 17:25

The sailing hotel Katharina has seven cabins.

Katharina is a beautiful dame, traditionally attired yet with a young spirit. She is a two-mast, seven-sail Phinisi, built in the traditions of the Bugis sailors, yet with all the comforts of home within her seven well-equipped cabins. Many of the Bugis sailors were feared pirates in these parts and it was for this reason that the Dutch chose to use the Phinisis of the Bugis people to transport their cargo around the Archipelago – by imitating the pirates they avoided conflict.

Day 1: Amed to Gili Trawangan
Somewhat appropriately I found myself sailing with a predominately Dutch group and as I got to know my new friends we set sail from the delightful fishing village of Amed, on the east coast of Bali. With the audacious view of Gunung Agung, Bali’s grandest volcano, towering over the coastline behind us and blue seas ahead we embarked on our adventure that would take us from the centre to the far east of the largest archipelago in the world. Thirteen passengers were accompanied by twelve fantastically attentive crew members to navigate the seas and look after our every need; no doubt my companions were travelling in a style befitting to their colonial ancestors.

One of our crew informed me that the Phinisi takes its name from the Bugis word “phini”, meaning penis, and they added the “si” to make it sound more like a ship. It would seem that the shape of the ship was somewhat phallic for the Bugis boat builders!

We were sailing east across the Lombok Strait, one of the deepest trenches in the world, the sea was calm and as we neared our destination Gunung Rinjani, the mighty volcano found in the north of Lombok, monopolised the horizon. It was to the northwest of Lombok that we were headed; three small islands (or gilis) jut out like stepping stones from the mainland: Gili Air, Gili Meno and, the largest of the three, Gili Trawangan.

The islands are famous for the rich variety of sea life populating the surrounding coral reef and the laid back atmosphere on offer as holidaymakers mix in the beachside bars and restaurants. By swimming only a few metres off the white sand beach one can don a snorkel and see all manner of sealife drift past as the current takes one along. If you are lucky you can spot a giant turtle; for divers it’s almost a certainty to meet them along with rays and reef sharks. There is an interesting bio-rock programme in place here to rejuvenate the coral.

Leaving the three Gilis in our wake we headed eastwards along the north coast of Lombok as we enjoyed a sumptuous dinner aboard Katharina – our first of many.

Day 2: Badas to Pulau Moyo
After sailing overnight we awoke early to find ourselves portside at Badas harbour in the northwest of Sumbawa where a minibus was waiting to whisk us to the market in the town of Sumbawa Besar, then along to the sultan’s palace which currently is only a skeleton of its former glory as it is being renovated. The adjacent museum proved interesting; the Sultan of Sumatra lost his power to Jakarta when Indonesia became independent, but despite this the Sultan’s family remains well respected throughout the region.

There was still time to visit Pamalung, a traditional Sumbawanese village where industry revolves around roof tile production and the weaving of traditional ikat sarongs, before returning to our contrastingly luxurious haven aboard Katharina for lunch as we set sail for Pulau Moyo.

“Gili” means “small island” and “Pulau” means a larger island. Pulau Moyo is found just off the north coast of Sumbawa and is approximately the size of Singapore. The only inhabitants, however, belong to a few small fishing villages, along with the exclusive Amanwana resort (featured in Villa & Yacht, Volume 2 – Issue 4). The island is mainly forest, surrounded by picture postcard beaches and crystal clear water. Indeed the perfect spot to set anchor and take the speedboat to the beach to enjoy a little sun, sand and snorkelling.

Gunung Agung, Bali’s grandest volcano

Again heading east along the north coast of Sumbawa we navigated the evening swell, swaying to the calming sounds of the crew band. To everyone’s delight a couple of friendly dolphins joined us for a while, guiding us through the dark choppy sea.

Day 3: Wera to Gili Banta
A little shaken, I stirred to find myself looking at a beach like no other. Facing the sea were four enormous wooden vessels under different stages of construction on the beachside. This is Wera on the north-east coast of Sumbawa, a small village rich in the traditions of boat building. As I went ashore to marvel at the construction site it struck me that bar a few modern tools the friendly boat builders were executing their craft in the same manner that their ancestors have been doing for generations. It was fascinating to watch them at work and learn about their lives.

The majority of the men from the village work on the construction of these large wooden vessels and it seemed that half the kids use them as an adventure playground. They take three to four years to build and are often not made to order. The wood is shipped in from Kalimantan which explains why some vessels are left almost completed. If the supply of wood runs out they could have to wait years for a new shipment. Most of their work becomes cargo ships, although some are bought by private owners and adapted to cater for luxury cruses such as ours aboard Katharina. I was informed that the ship we were touring had cost US$150,000 to build the skeleton; with the finishing additions we estimated it could be yours to sail home for approximately half a million dollars. But not before the whole village has spent four days pushing and stabilising the ship whilst it is pulled into the sea by two boats at a rate of 1.5 metres per day. Once in the water the people of Wera keep watch over their labour of love for two weeks – checking its floatability and completing the final touches – before it sails away.

As indeed we did from Wera, waving goodbye to the ever increasing crowd of children who followed as we walked around their village and who treated us to a spontaneous chorus of traditional songs. Sailing eastwards we enjoyed our lunch in the most beautiful of settings with views of the 1,800-metre volcano, Gunung Sangeang – interestingly the village of Wera used to be situated at the foot of the volcano, however the government insisted on moving the villagers to a safer location.

On the horizon we could see our destination Gili Banta, with Komodo Island towering behind. Even though it was early afternoon and there was bright sunshine, the moon was strongly visible above the barren mountain ranges. A closer inspection of Gili Banta showed no sign of life on land whatsoever; the fallen volcanic crater in the middle of the small island is said to be still active. Surrounding it is one of the most beautiful white sand beaches in Indonesia and from there it’s a joy to swim in the warm sea water. Snorkelling between the beach and Katharina I explored a splendid underwater wonderland, boasting numerous banks of unspoilt coral and a fabulous array of tropical fish. Visibility is excellent – perfect conditions for spear fishing – we enjoyed our impromptu barbecue on the beach before leaving this paradise with the sun setting over Gunung Sangeang as we sailed towards the Komodo National Park.

A fisherman casts his net on a pristine beach in Lombok, Indonesia.

Day 4: Rinca – Sebayur – Sebolan Kecil
I awoke at 6am to find we were cruising into the most stunning setting amongst the 130 islands of the Komodo National Park. The sunrise was an incredible spectacle as we entered the bay at Loh Buaya in the northwest of Rinca Island. We gave a wave to the sailors aboard the American yacht at anchor, the first non-Indonesian vessel we had encountered on our voyage, before dropping anchor ourselves and heading ashore to the greeting screeches of monkeys in mating season.

Rinca is home to an eclectic group of wildlife; keeping the monkeys company are wild buffalo, deer, goats, horses, boar and – the star attraction – the Komodo Dragon. The largest living reptile on the planet, the Komodo Dragon is only found here in the National Park and there are plenty to be seen on Rinca. Its snake-like tongue inspired the Chinese to name it “dragon”. A bite injects 53 types of bacteria (collected from the reptile’s past victims) so that if bitten it is essential you are hospitalised within 24 hours. Our guide, who kept the dragons at arm’s length with a long staff, informed me that in recent times ten people have been bitten – of which seven survived. The non-human inhabitants however have a zero survival rate: once a dragon bites a buffalo the dragon’s bacteria is injected into the blood stream and the buffalo slowly dies over a two-week period. The dragon stalks its prey until the buffalo is too weak to move then moves in for the kill. One buffalo is enough for a number of dragons to feast on for a few days. The scent of the kill attracts other dragons and they can often be seen fighting over their food as well as their women: there are four males to every female dragon – being carnivorous creatures it’s survival of the fittest and the males are larger.

Trekking through the hilly terrain on Rinca is a fantastic experience. One can look out over the awesome backdrop of the Komodo National Park with its many islands; it was with a sense of pride that I looked down to see Katharina taking centre stage in the bay below. We walked for two and a half hours, during which time we encountered over ten Komodo Dragons along with wild boar and buffalo. One of the unfortunate buffalos we spotted had a bad wound on its back leg – a dragon bite – it would only be a matter of time before it met its fate.

On returning to our starting point we found two dragons lying side by side; they had just mated. It was the beginning of the season. Whilst moving through the interior we spotted two areas with many holes dug in the ground. The female dragon lays her eggs in one hole and digs the others to act as decoys as there are many dangers for a recently hatched Komodo Dragon. Eagles are a major threat along with older dragons. Somehow the hatchlings realise that they must climb trees to avoid capture by their carnivorous cousins – the older dragons are too heavy to follow. The survival rate is low, however, so the population of dragons remains stable.

The dragons aren’t the only attraction in the Komodo National Park. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is considered one of the best diving playgrounds in the world. Exploring the warm, crystal clear and protected waters, one can find 385 species of coral, more than 1,000 species of fish, ten dolphin species, six whale species, giant sea turtles, dugongs, sharks and rays.

I enjoyed two spectacular dives in the park, the first at Sebayur reef, followed by a drift dive around the island of Sebolan Kecil. Our tour leader Ari (a great guy and competent dive master) joined with a local dive instructor and these two experienced divers escorted us around the reef. Perfect diving, great visibility, amazing coral, so many fish it was simply amazing – the highlight was a giant sea turtle swimming up with me as I exited the reef at Sebolan Kecil.

After a long day, feeling content and tired we dined on deck enjoying another spectacular sunset on the horizon as we made our way overnight towards central Flores.

Day 5: Seventeen Islands of Riung
After a late start on this Sunday morning (8am) we took the two speedboats from Katharina to explore the Seventeen Islands of Riung, a small archipelago situated just off the north coast of Flores. None of the islands is populated by humans, although one of the larger islands is home to hundreds of giant fruit bats living in and feeding off the mango trees. As we approached by water we could see them hanging asleep at the tops of the trees. A bit of whooping from my Dutch friends and all of a sudden the sky was full of giant bats circling around not knowing what was happening – quite a spectacle!


We visited a fishing village on mainland Flores, enjoyed a game of baseball and some fresh coconuts with the ever-friendly villag¬ers. Then we landed on Rutong – a picture postcard paradise island where we relaxed playing beach volleyball with the Katharina crew (who are pretty good) working up an appetite for the stunning bar¬beque that followed complete with bonfire and dancing to music from the crew’s rocking live band – a perfect Sunday.

Day 6: Kelimutu
I awoke early. We had been sailing all night to reach Ropa on the north-east coast of Flores – such is the size of the island. From Ropa it is a three-hour drive through incredibly picturesque valleys that even humble the famous rice terraces of Bali. The road is winding but surprisingly good; there is lots and lots of space here.

Once in the Kelimutu National Park it is only a short trek to the three volcanic craters. The craters are adjacent to each other and, unusually, the liquid in each is a completely different colour and often changes without apparent reason.
One Dutch photographer (not from my party) had apparently tried to take a photograph of all three craters in the one shot (impossible from the land) and had wandered from the beaten path never to return. A dive exploration team travelled from Holland to retrieve his body but the changeable liquid in the crater was at a temperature so hot they couldn’t enter it – not a place to take a fall.

Day 7: Labuhanbajo
From Ropa we spun Katharina around 180° and for the first time sailed west to our next destination, the capital of Flores, Labuhanbajo. Providing the easiest gateway to the Komodo National Park, Labuhanbajo is a rapidly developing tourist destination, yet still with the quaint feeling of a fishing village.

For one family travelling aboard the Katharina this was not their first visit to Labuhanbajo. Ans de Wijn, a Dutch businesswoman, had made a similar expedition aboard Katharina in 2003. This was her third visit to the capital and in particular her third visit to SMK Negeri 1 – the tourism school we were headed to twenty minutes up a bumpy road from the harbour.

Ans had been so touched on her first visit to the school that she became inspired to establish a foundation to raise funds to provide the children with the tools they needed to succeed. Since her inaugural visit in 2003 her foundation has made sure a representative has returned every year so as not to lose the connection. We certainly received the royal welcome on arrival at the school; the children were traditionally dressed and led a procession onto the playing field where we were treated to a traditional dance by the girls to live music and a fighting game by the young male warriors – which many of our party tried their hand at with little success. Everyone was up dancing amongst a real carnival atmosphere, gifts were exchanged and Ans was presented with a live chicken!

I was totally amazed by the confidence of the children to approach us and show us around their school. Aged between twelve and sixteen they study computer science, English, German, Japanese, traditional dance, cooking, tree planting, tour office, hotel and restaurant training, along with laundry and cleaning practise. Not your typical GCS Esyllabus but it was certainly an eclectic range of skills to give them a great head start in life. To date the foundation has provided the school with an English lab, fresh water pump, a new girls’ dormitory with a boys’ on the way soon, plus funding for running costs and sponsorship for students – if you are interested to learn more or you would like to help please visit the.

The other thing that caught my eye here was that they, somewhat bizarrely, have a cricket pitch. It seems that under the guidance of an Australian expat, Flores is going cricket mad with eight local clubs. Indeed they have their own tournament, the Christie Cup.

A view of Katharina from the shore

Day 8: Komodo
Arriving in Kampung Komodo by sea is a unique experience. As soon as we dropped anchor, there were a number of local kids docking beside us in their hollowed out wooden kayaks. They were opportunist young entrepreneurs offering us wood carved Komodo Dragons and plastic pearl necklaces – for a minute I thought I was back in Bali.

In stark contrast to the villages we visited in Sumbawa and Flores, the only human settlement on Komodo is rife with hawkers. Selling souvenirs to visiting tourists is their only source of income besides fishing. With the bloodthirsty dragons roaming the terrain beyond the village there is no agriculture allowed on Komodo. The villagers live under constant threat from their famed neighbours and occasionally a dragon wanders into the kampong. The children are not allowed to venture far from the village, yet the natural curiosity of a child is hard to stifle and tragically, a year ago, a seven-year-old boy did wander – he was bitten and died within five hours.

Leaving the charismatic daredevil villagers behind, Katharina cruised around the island and set anchor off Red Beach. This is another paradise setting with superb snorkelling conditions and beautiful sands; laze away the afternoon in the sun or play with the tropical fish – the choice is yours.

Day 9: Satonda
After sailing westwards through the night we arrived at Satonda, a small island off the north coast of Sumbawa. Satonda has a unique feature due to the 1815 eruption of Gunung Tambora on mainland Sumbawa. The eruption, the second biggest in Indonesia after Krakatoa, was so strong it sent a tidal wave towards Satonda, filling an empty crater with salt water.

The saltwater lake remains there today, a ten-minute walk from the beach. With no evidence of sealife, it’s like a giant swimming pool – perfect for floating on one’s back and imagining the folks back home hunched over their computers. Local fishermen hang rocks and dead coral from the trees at the edge of the lake for good luck.

There may not be any fish in the lake, but off the coast of Satonda I found an enchanting underwater garden with stingrays and octopuses cruising the reef.

John, a crew member from Timor, is an expert spear fisher; I marvelled as he quickly emerged with a couple of big fish and rustled up a fire on the beach for us to sample the catch – you can’t get fresher than that!

Satisfied with the day’s adventure I returned to my floating hotel for another five star meal in the restaurant with ever changing views.

Day 10: Lombok to Bali
We arrived early morning in Lembar harbour, southwest Lombok. This is the main port into Lombok, with ferries sailing daily to and from Bali. It felt a little strange to be coming back into a busy harbour after the previous nine days at sea. Although Lembar is not exactly Rotterdam, it felt like the first step back home for me.

From Lembar we ventured into west Lombok, visiting a few Sasak villages where we were treated to traditional dancing before admiring the local arts of hand weaving and pottery. Although still primitive by western standards, the villages in Lombok seemed considerably more developed than their neighbouring islands to the east. With huge plans underway for a new airport, super-mosque and a number of new hotel and villa developments from investors in the Middle East, Lombok is gearing itself up to become one of South East Asia’s top tourist destinations in the not too distant future.

I boarded Katharina for the final time and waved goodbye to Lombok as we set sail for Benoa, Bali. As we approached the mainland the sun was setting behind Gunung Agung – a fitting finale to the dramatic sunsets we had enjoyed every day at sea. Saying our farewells to each other and the Katharina crew, we reminisced on our great sea adventure and commented on what a perfect way to travel and experience Indonesia this is. To visit so many places and experience so much without the hassle of packing and unpacking every day is a real luxury, as it is also to be aboard Katharina being pampered by her attentive and experienced crew, who all became our friends. In particular Sea Treks tour leader Ari had a wealth of knowledge to share on all the destinations we visited and Indonesian history and culture. There is so much to learn about this vast and diverse country, what I learnt is that the best way to see Indonesia is by sea with Katharina.

Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the issue of Magazine.

Posted: 2010-08-29 13:56:29