Published: September 20th 2008August 29th 2008
She doesn't look like much, but she got us there and we had fun.
I catch an early ferry from Gili T to Lombok. Idris, Amin and Mahmoud are leaving as well. They'd been sleeping at the mosque because they can't afford a room, but overall they find it too expensive here and are going home. At the quay on Lombok porters try to grab my bag. You have to say No quickly because they look like people just helping you but they'll ask for money, like porters at airports. Drivers say Yes please this way, trying to lead us to horsecart taxis, but I'm following someone who leads us several hundred metres along a road that runs through corn and tobacco fields - broad leaves shining green in the sunlight. We come to a minibus and I say goodbye to Idris and the others, a very friendly group.
The minibus heads south with Kevin and Dave (US), who are travelling together. It takes us to Mataram, picking others up along the way. Lotta (NL), Anna (DE), Stephanie (FR), Toby (DE) and Carrie (US) and Pepe (DE) who are also travelling together. At Mataram we buy supplies and then drive across Lombok, seeing plenty of brightly-painted horsecart taxis trotting along the road, bells jingling.
Mid-afternoon sees us come to the town of Lombok and to our cruise boat, the 18 metre Putra. Crew of five with Paul, our guide. It might be his real name, or his anglo nickname. Indonesia's population is mostly Muslim, but there are Christians, Buddhists and animists here, too. The crew brings stores aboard and we cast off with Kevin singing the theme song to Gilligan's Island. We cross the Flores Sea to a northern point on Lombok and anchor there as it grows dark. Dinner aboard the boat. No chairs, no table. We just sit on the deck and eat together, beginning to get to know one another.
Kevin, mid-thirties, a natural leader, is smart with a self-deprecating sense of humour. He created and sold a software company in Silicon Valley and you sense he did very well by the way he doesn't talk about it. He's on a five or six-month trip here and there around the world.
Dave, mid-thirties, is quiet, knowledgeable and analytical, spends much of his time reading and almost never takes his sunglasses off. He's about to create a software company in Silicon Valley. He's vacationing, not travelling, like Kevin.
This is how most of us dressed most of the time: bathing suits.
Carrie, mid-twenties, is gregarious and a former public relations person and immediately becomes the Activities Director for the cruise. She tells three pirate jokes, all of which have ''aarrghh'' in the punchline: How do you know if you're a pirate? You just aaaaarrrrrggggghhhhh! It becomes the leitmotif for our journey, repeated endlessly with gusto and pleasure.
Pepe, late twenties, is friendly, good-natured and also a former public relations person. He tells me I look exactly like the Czech football player, Jan Koller. But as I don't follow football, I don't know who this is. Pepe falls under the charm of Kevin and they become buddies to the point where I figure Carrie's going to have to say something.
Stephanie, early forties, is a gardener from Paris. She speaks very little English so she's somewhat marginalized as she can't participate as easily in some group activities. I translate for her.
Lotta, early twenties, is a nurse in The Netherlands. She's always smiling and spends a lot of time taking pictures.
Anna, mid-twenties, is a medical student in Berlin and is quiet, a good listener and analytical - all good traits for a future doctor. She's travelling in
parts of Asia for seven weeks.
Toby, late twenties, is so spontaneous you think he might combust at any moment. Entirely without guile, he's a diving instructor and every time the boat anchors he grabs his mask and fins and is into the water like a seal. He's been away from Germany for months and won't be going back for a while, except for Christmas, he says.
After dinner it's Bintang time. This is the name of the local beer and they've brought it aboard in quantity except for Toby who's ordered San Miguel, saying Bintang gives him a terrible hangover...aarrrggghhh. I agree with him. Something about Bintang makes me think of chemotherapy. We spend hours in the warm Indonesian night under the billion stars of the Milky Way, drinking, talking, cracking jokes, laughing, using the beer sandal - it has a bottle opener built into the sole. Finally we knock off for the night, each sleeping on a mattress thinner than a beggar's handkerchief.
In the morning we wake sore. Breakfast is just a single banana pancake each, along with tea and coffee. There's grumbling but no mutiny. Clearly we've chosen one of the cheapest companies
Kevin and Dave
Dave on the left, Kevin on the right.
in Indonesia for this cruise and the cost isn't very much so.... After breakfast we weigh anchor, continue to cross the Flores sea, skirting the island of Sumbawa. The group dynamic is very good, everyone gets along well. It would be a better cruise if there were greater comfort, but complaints are few. The crew is helpful but they don't speak English. Paul translates for us, giving orders to fulfill our requests.
We sail for a while, anchor for lunch and snorkelling, then set off again. There's a breeze and the sea is choppy so Stephanie is seasick and Toby doesn't feel well. We anchor for dinner in a bay where the beach is black volcanic sand, then set off again at 22h00, sailing through the night. The sea remains choppy, the boat going up and down or rocking side to side. Phosphorescence sparks in the sea like marine fireflies. I think about these a metaphor for human life: emerging from the general energy of the universe for a moment, then returning to it.
Lunches and dinners are Nasi Goreng or Nasi Mie - rice or noodles - with fruit for dessert, papaya or pineapple. The crew fishes
for its dinner, prepare what they have. The galley is just a small corner at the stern with a single hot ring and a wok where Paul squats to cook for us. One evening we have Nasi Goreng Ayam: rice with chicken. Chicken? Well, two live ones came aboard.... Squawk squawk and into the pot. Aaarrgghh!
The next morning islands dot the sea. Their brown, treeless hills fold and slope down to the sea, looking like wrinkly Shar Pei dogs. . At one place a launch comes up beside us and a man comes aboard while two others stay on the launch. They have a gun with them. Paul tells us they're officials, but they don't look it. They look more like pirates (real ones this time, no aaarrrrgghhhh!) looking for a payoff. They don't hold us up or take our things, so who knows?
We anchor in a bay where, as we come in, Toby sees a Manta Ray leap from the sea. He's excited as a child on Christmas morning and as soon as we're anchored he leaps into the water. No luck. Only other kinds of fish, including a school of tiny silvery ones that
all flick left or right in unison is you wave an arm or kick a leg near them. We play with them for a while. I wonder how they manage this synchronized, instantaneous movement. Communication? Connectedness?
Mid-day we anchor in a bay known as Red Beach or Pink Beach. The sand is fine and moist as brown sugar and flecked through with grains of something red. Coral? Stone? Don't know. There's another boat here with 10 Dutch girls on it, all friends. Kevin and I joke about transferring our seabags over there. The snorkelling is exceptional. Fish everywhere on the coral, colours flashing blue, red, purple, yellow, green, white. This is the Times Square of snorkelling it's so dense with fish. Kevin and Dave even see Manta Rays.
Hic dragones est
Mid-afternoon we come to Komodo. Covered in sun protection and carrying cameras, we take a launch to a broken jetty and go ashore. We're wearing sandals and wondering if we can outrun dragons with these on. These things are supposed to be fast when pursuing prey. They have long, sharp claws and the 40 kinds of bacteria in their mouths make their saliva so septic it kills
He was rarely without a beer in his hand.
buffalo. One bite n' your dead. Better change them sandals, get a pair of, say, Carl Lewis track shoes.
A guide who's carrying a harmonica takes a long, forked stick and some of us do the same (stick, not harmonica, but I'd rather have a 12-gauge). St. George might not be too convinced, but he might be impressed. He leads us along a dirt path lined by stones. It's dry season here, so the land is dry and many trees stand leafless. Brown, dead leaves carpet the ground. It looks forlorn. It also reminds me of autumn in northern lands only it's very hot so the contrast is odd. Memory tells me I should be wearing a sweater and an autumn coat and the air should be crisply cool on my skin but I'm wearing shorts and a tank top, sweating in the humidity.
We encounter our first dragon almost immediately, a young one that dashes away so quickly we barely glimpse it. Komodo females lay eggs and will eat their young (or is it the young of other females?) so newborns live in trees for a couple of years, then in burrows for the following eight or
We saw this volcanic beach when we went into a bay of Sumbawa to anchor for dinner.
ten. Only when they're big old enough to defend themselves will they emerge to live in the open. We see our next dragon lying beneath a tree. Its colour matches the dirt. We creep forward, awash in trepidation as our guide stands nonchalantly explaining things about its habits. It's not a big dragon. We take pictures as it watches us. If you step a little too close it raises its head.
We follow the trail through the dry forest and after an hour we're back at the ranger station as the light begins to ebb from the day. Here we see big dragons - two metres long - lethargic beasts that just lie around. The guide tells us they feed once a month or so and we're all hoping feeding time was no more than a week ago. We click more pictures as they watch us from obsidian eyes.
As it becomes dark we return to the broken jetty, reboard our launch and beautiful, pure harmonica notes wail out over the sea above us as we motor back to our boat for a final dinner and evening of Bintang beer and camaraderie.
We leave Komodo for Rinca
(pronounced Rin-tcha) Island. It's fringed at the waterline by low green trees that stand forth in bold chromatic contrast to the brown, treeless hills. We go ashore, see begging monkeys by the beach. They're brown with pink skin around expectant eyes that look for crackers or slices of bread that they snatch and scamper to safety, looking back quickly to see if there's pursuit, gobble their prize quickly.
It's late morning and the sun beats down from the sky. Clouds give occasional relief. We see big dragons lying in the shade at the ranger station. These people live beside the dragons. Some are playing football nearby. Others come and go casually within a metre or two of them.
Today's guide - Suleiman - leads us along a path through more dry forest and we see huge ficus trees, palm trees, other trees. We parallel a dry riverbed seeing dragon lairs - holes in the ground - and come across a male dragon lying atop a female. Mating, or just hanging out? If it's the former there's not much, well...action. We see a few deer observing us in the forest, a few black boars and a buffalo at a
seep, sucking up water. Beside him is the ribcage of a former buffalo, bleached white as the ribs of a shipwreck on a beach. Suleiman tells us dragons ate it a month earlier.
We climb a hill, photograph the harbour with boats, islands brown in the distance.
Back at the ranger station we photograph the big dragons again. One gets up to move to another location but gets too close to another one already occupying a favoured, shady spot. They start to hiss at each other and the second dragon gets up. Dragon Wars! It's going to Ali vs. Frazier, the Allies vs. the Axis. But the big one just chases the intruder off . Now chewing, scratching or blood. We buy postcards, drink a coke and return to our ship.
After a final anchoring for snorkelling and water frisbee we sail an hour to Labuan Bajo and disembark with our seabags, checking into the Beach Bajo Hotel. It's a bit run down - the shower and toilet don't work properly - but no one wants to sleep on the boat. Everyone wants a real mattress. Darkness comes on, and it rains hard, coming down in sheets.
It's got a bottle opener in the sole. This was possible invented in the US, but could equally have been invented in Canada or Australia, given the culture.
We have a final dinner together in a nearby restaurant. The esprit de corps remains but dissolution is at hand. We exchange email addresses, say farewell, leave the restaurant in twos and threes. It's been a very good four days of pirates and dragons, of friendship and relaxation, of snorkelling and Bintanging.
There are more photos below