Indonesia has been a complete surprise and delight. From the first second we stepped onto that enormous jetty in Biak, West Papua to check in, to the last night at Nongsa Point Marina, Batam we have loved it.
But first things first people, Bali is not Indonesia – well, yes technically it is – but seriously it’s not. The rest of Indonesia bears almost no resemblance to the island that is Bali. NO RESEMBLANCE (ok – well maybe Lombok does a little bit, but they are neighbours so it makes sense that some of the commercialism of Bali has rubbed of!
And what you may ask were the highlights?
I am glad you asked, overall it was….. the people.
The Indonesians we met, and we met a lot, were overwhelmingly honest, helpful to the extreme – nothing was too much trouble, friendly, incredibly patient with our terrible Bahasa (their national language) and welcoming.
As one man said to me when I commented about how happy Indonesian people are, “we are happy people in Indonesia, because we need less to make us happy, so we are happy with what we have”. And there it is – as we have always known – The secret to real happiness is wanting less!!!
Lukim Yu spent 9 months in Indonesia, Jamie and I about 6 months in total, as we flew home a few times.
So here is my flying summary of Indonesia – region by region
Biak in West Papua has only just become a check in port for yachts arriving from other countries. As such they were wholly unprepared for our arrival and we (Jamie) were complete novelties to them. Me with my dark skin not so much. Biak is a large city, and our first taste of an Indonesian city after months in the Pacific Islands. Over 100,000 people call Biak theirhome and it is a hodge podge city in transition. The wet markets (local fresh food and fish markets) were very well stocked, with the largest, freshest fish I’ve ever seen – fish bigger than us were brought in daily in very very small boats. Due to its isolation, it doesn’t have the same issues as the western parts of Indonesia where due to high population fish are scarce. We went crazy in these markets, and the produce was very fresh. My only disappointment (and it was great) was that they only had parsley, not mint, basil or coriander. Later research revealed that there was a very good reason for this – they don’t cook with any of these herbs! We didn’t spend long here, just time enough to recharge our batteries after our hellish 11 day passage (see THE DEFINITION OF ADVENTURE), refuel and steel ourselves for yet another passage. We were still scarred from the previous one.
Arrival into Raja Ampat was unusual for us as we had vowed never to arrive at an anchorage at night. It’s universally known to be a foolhardy venture. Unknown and useable hazards make night anchoring in an unknow locations a recipe for disaster. Reefs, other ships, mooring buoys just to name a few litter anchorages and present all manner of hazards. However, we were using an app called OVITAL for the first time. This app superimposes your position over satellite photos in real time – OFFLINE!!! It’s amazing. We had heard that other boats had used this with great success, and (not being totally stupid) followed another boat into this anchorage who was also using OVITAL), thanks Waterhorse for being our sacrificial anodes (again)!!
Raja Ampat was AMAZING, having never heard of the place we were blown away by its incredible beauty, amazing isolation and jaw dropping islands, both above and below the water. It was the home of many highlights – Bird of Paradise, Manta Rays, Equator crossing, visits from Tiffany and David – intrepid travelers that they are, and Karen – not so intrepid, so massive effort for her to come ALONE. Although there was a reasonable amount of plastic floating in the water in a few places, the actual water was crystal clear. The fish life and coral health was unbelievable, and we had access to fairly reasonable provisioning via the main towns of Sorong and Waisai!
We ventured north over the equator to an even more remote location, Wayag, and spent a few days literally doing nothing but relaxing. Hard to believe I know, but it is rare indeed to have nothing to do on a boat. This life comes with a huge amount of work every day. Different to a house in so many ways. Between the maintenance and repairs – there is always about a page of stuff to do, and just making life possible; making water, bread, electricity, hand washing – YES HAND WASHING all our clothes, we often go for days without doing anything fun.
Misool was another totally unexpected gift. It may seem strange that we are so often surprised by locations, but to be honest, we end up going to places very frequently that we only investigate a few days before or go on the random recommendation of a friend, or worse still, just stop because we don’t want to sail overnight and don’t know anything about the place, other than it’s a safe anchorage. There are a few reasons for this, but the main one is that when you are remote connectivity can be an issue so all you have to go on is an OVITAL map, perhaps an anchorage book, or if you are lucky you’ve kept a “compendium” of information complied by other cruisers on your computer that you can reference.
Misool is technically part of Raja Ampat, but a few days away by boat. Very isolated, and only just recently starting to make its name on the diving circuit. Deep deep anchorages mean we have to tie up to rocks in large sheer bays that make for some nerve-racking minutes, but the scenery just blows our mind. Misool was home to our first deep drift dive while holding onto to our dinghy via a 40 m rope on a reel (not for the feint hearted) and the amazing flock of Javanese Cow Nosed Rays that spent a few hours with us one day!!
We headed down south in West Papua to this remote bay in search of Whale Sharks. 20+ years of searching for these guys and we find them just next to our boat under a bagan (Indonesian fishing trimaran). And we spend an unforgettable hour in the water with these gentle giants. (See AMAZING ANIMAL ENCOUNTERS).
TUAL in the KAI ISLANDS
Tual was really just a stop of convenience, a timely location to get our visas renewed. It was a funky brightly painted town split by a main water way, with Christians on one side and Muslims on the other, not because they didn’t get along, it seemed more just geographic – that was where their churches were.
Banda was one of those “you should go there it was really great” suggestions that other cruisers made. It was sort of on the way (not really), but sounded very interesting with its Nutmeg and Spice trade history, It’s tragic history of occupation by the Dutch and its interesting architecture and diving. The waters here were very clear and the locals are heavily invested in cleaning up the plastic, recycling and paving a more sustainable future. (see SPICING THINGS UP IN BANDA)
Kalabahi, the main town in Alor, was an interesting combination of tribal communities, and underwater delights. Like so many islands and towns we had visited, the scenery was dominated by a huge and still active volcano. The town itself was up a deep fjord and the water was filled with fleets of fishing canoes. It was the first main location that we started to hear the ever-present calls to prayer – blasted out of competing mosques at all hours of the day. These 5 times a day calls to prayer and sometimes even the prayers blasted out over otherwise pristine bays can get irritating, not so much during the day, but the pre-dawn call (somewhere between 4 and 5am) lasting for up to 30 minutes can wear you down. I’ve nothing against the religion, just the noise at that hour. We spent a memorable day visiting 2 traditional tribes, and dressing up in their itchy and uncomfortable attire. Jamie looked particularly fetching with his bow and arrow.
Flores Island, and the ubiquitous Komodos lie about half way along what Jamie and I have been calling the long flat bit of Indonesia. This National Park area and the abutting tourist town of Labuan Bajo (say the J when you pronounce this name) were a very pleasant surprise. Labuan Bajo punches well above its weight in the food area, with quite a few Italian chefs calling this town home. LB is what I would imagine Bali was like about 30 or more years ago. Cute, funky, a little bit touristy, but still the essence of a typical Indonesian town. As the gateway to Komodo National Park it sees its share of tourists. The visit to see the Komodo Dragons was great fun, and far more safari like than I imagined with deer, buffalo and monkeys all calling this island home.
Lombok was really just an island of convenience. A marina to leave the boat in, so that we could return home. We saw very little of this island other than the marina and ferry terminal. Upon our return we did visit Gili Air, one of the three Gili Islands at the North West most corner of Lombok and was surprised to see the extent of tourist activity on such a little island
The Kumai river in Kalimantan was our next stop. A deliberate detour on the way north west to Malaysia. We were keen to visit Tanjung Puting (Peninsula Nipple – literal translation) National Park to see the Orangutans and other animals in the wild. Kalimantan didn’t disappoint. With intrepid travelers Tiff and Dave once again in tow we spent 3 days and 2 nights puttering along a small tributary of the Kumai River spotting all manner of animals. A personal low point was the tarantula night walk, but I’m glad I did it (sort of).
This tiny island which sits incredibly close to Jakarata had amazingly clear water and a small group of granite boulder spotted, white powdery sand islands. We spent a relaxing 4 days there, and even did a day tour of the inland of the island visiting a clay mine, local wooden boat builders and the tiny Tarsius monkey.
Really just a stop of convenience to check out of Indonesia. Nongsa Point Marina was a welcome oasis of modernism after many months of relative remoteness. A hose to wash the boat, a washing machine, café, bar and pool were all welcome sights for weary, hot and dirty travellers!
And that’s it, we're done. I type this sitting in a marina in Malaysia, in the Johor region. Marvelling at the shopping centers, malls and high-rise buildings. Already acutely aware that what Malaysia will deliver in modern comforts and access, will be at the expense of the clear water, diving and snorkelling that Indonesia provided in spades. I must remind myself to appreciate each country for its diversity and not constantly long for what is missing.
So, to all the Indonesians we have met along the way THANK YOU, you are what makes Indonesia Incredible!