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Published: November 5th 2017
Banda to Saumlaki
The KM. Leuser, my PELNI ship to Saumlaki
Indonesians, I have concluded, must be big fans of Einstein, whose theory of relativity is put into practice here on a daily basis. Yes, time is relative in Indonesia. And the further you travel from the centre, the more relative it becomes. In Indonesian they call this phenomenon, jam karet, which literally means rubber time, as in indicating the elasticity of time in these parts.
Now I have had some experience with the elasticity of time, as it is a phenomenon not exclusive to Indonesia alone. It is only in the western world where the rubber of time has petrified, elsewhere it has retained some of its pliability, to a lesser or greater degree.
In Banda my PELNI boat, which is the national shipping line of Indonesia, was only one hour late in leaving, corresponding to the lesser degree of elasticity on the scale of relativity. I travelled in style for once, having procured a cabin all to myself, for the ride to Saumlaki. And at a very reasonable price too. I was surprised how clean my cabin looked and at the amenities it contained, I had my own shower, sink and western style toilet! A desk, a cabinet
Banda to Saumlaki
Cabin all to myself
and a big window complemented the picture. And a few cockroaches, but they were to be expected. What a luxury it was indeed.
I spent a pleasant night and day on the boat, watching the seas roll by, and enjoying a spectacular sunset right before entering Saumlaki harbour.
For once I arrived well rested, instead of the broken man I usual am after a night spent on an Indonesian boat. Saumlaki was not my intended destination to be honest, or actually it was, but not quite this early. My plan had been to sail to Tual, on the Kei Islands, first and spend a week there frolicking on perfect white sandy beaches, before heading to Saumlaki. But the boat to Tual from Banda was only coming in another two weeks, and while time might be relative in Indonesia, my visa is not! So I took the first available boat out, which was the aforementioned one to Saumlaki. One has to be flexible out here, as boat services to the outlying islands are infrequent.
And so, as I said, I arrived in Saumlaki, the capital of the Tanimbar Islands. It’s a small place, with a population of perhaps
View of the bay of Saumlaki and the hotel I stayed in
40000 or so. Not many tourists make it out here, because it is hard to get to and it hasn’t got a write up in the Lonely Planet, at least not the new ones, my seven year old one still mentions the place. Which goes to show how far Lonely Planet has sunk, the newer the books, the less information they have on off-the-beaten track destinations, as if they can’t be bothered sending someone out there anymore. The few tourists that do make it out here are invariably Dutch-Moluccans, with relatives in these parts, and the odd Australian.
It’s a shame really, there is plenty to see. But maybe it is good as well, because it keeps out the hordes. Now the first thing I inquired about, when arriving, was a boat out of Saumlaki. Not because I wanted to leave straight away, but because I had no idea if and when a boat was leaving for my next destination, which was Kupang. There is little to no information on the internet or anywhere else on this specific route, and what information there is, is outdated. I, therefore, went to the PELNI office and, lo and behold, there was
Dusk view of Saumlaki from my room
a ship sailing that way the next day. However, that wouldn’t do for me, I wanted to spend a bit more time on the Tanimbar Islands. So, how about next week? I asked. Maybe, was the answer, which is never a very satisfactory response. There were some schedules posted on their window, but apart from the boat leaving the next day, a monthly service, there was nothing. Hmmm… I decided to let it go for the time being and concentrate on seeing a bit of the island.
First stop, Matakus Island, which lies of the coasts from Saumlaki. It is the kind of place with a simple village on it, fronted by a white sandy beach and swaying palm trees, turquoise waters and a none too shabby coral reef fringing it. Picture perfect would not be a bad way of describing it.
Next I got a bus to Sangliat Dol, a traditional village a few hours down the road from Saumlaki. They have a ceremonial stone boat alter in the centre. Due to the relative nature of time, it took me quite a while to get to this village. The bus, or actually elongated car had no fixed
Nice area outside my room
schedule. I was told it would leave in an hour, after an hour I was told it would leave any minute. About three hours later we left. Jam karet!! The pliability of time was getting greater on the scale!
In my car was the wife of the village chief of Sangliat Dol. Just the person I wanted, because, I had heard that I needed to ask the chief’s permission to photograph the boat, who in turn would plead my case to the village priest. The chief was in Saumlaki though, but his wife took his place, and so I could get on it with it. First I was told to buy ‘sopi’ the local spirit, then we both headed for the priests house, whom I offered this sopi together with a bit of cash. He then beseeched the deceased not to be angry with my impertinence, while pouring the sopi onto the floor, and ending with a good old ‘Amen’, as they are nominally protestant.
With all this done, I could happily snap my photo’s without worrying that the dead would seek revenge on me. And then I had to get back to Saumlaki, which turned out to
be quite hard. Eventually, the chief’s wife arranged for a cousin to take me back… For free! And she fed me, and was generally quite worried on my behalf. Before bringing me to my hotel, we had to stop by the chief, who was, as mentioned in Saumlaki, visiting his son, who was working for the government. So we halted at the office where both came out to see me. I was offered more food, and photos were taken and words of friendship spoken. Ah, it was a good day.
As for my next ship, I decided I really did need to get some more definite information. So once again I headed for the harbour. A ship would arrive on Saturday they said. Come Saturday, no ship arrived. No, it would come Sunday. Sunday the dock remained empty. Monday then? Yes, it arrived! I checked out of my hotel, went to the ship, only to be told it would leave Tuesday! At what time then? At four in the afternoon. Are you sure? Yes, we are sure.
The boat left at ten in the evening. Time was very fluid indeed in Saumlaki. But not withstanding all that, the
Sunset view of the harbour, taken from my hotel
vessel was nothing like I had expected. As I said, there is no information either online or even at the harbour about transportation links between Saumlaki and Kupang. I had heard there were cargo ships of the worst sort, which also took on any passengers who were willing to endure the terrible conditions on those boats, which plied this route. And for that eventuality I had prepared myself, being not a little bit anxious about it. But what arrived was an actual PELNI boat, but one which PELNI itself doesn’t seem to advertise, either online or offline. Its schedule was not to be found among the other schedules at their office or on their website, nor did the staff mention this ship. Very strange indeed.
I have since discovered there are actually several of these PELNI ships, all called Sabuk Nusantara followed by a number, doing this route, though not all of them start or stop in Saumlaki. There is a ship at least twice a month, and probably more like three times a month from Saumlaki. My boat went by the illustrious name of Sabuk Nusantara 49. There is also a 48, which starts in Ambon, and a
Saumlaki to Matakus
I chartered a boat to take me to Matakus Island
34 which starts in Tual.
The ride takes five days and it stops at many of the far-flung island between Tanimbar and Timor, almost like a bus-service. And it has cabins! So once again, I had a cabin, and a shower and all that, and the ride was pleasant indeed.
And much to my surprise, at the first stop, Babar Island, as I was standing on the front deck, I saw a group of people who were clearly not locals. Dutch-Moluccans! Visiting family. The Dutch are everywhere! Before long they invited me to the house of their Babar relations, for a drink and some food, and as the boat would stay in the port for the next 5 hours, I gladly took them up on their offer. These moments of kindness are a recurring theme in Indonesia, and it is what makes travelling it so fantastic. Hardly a day goes by without me being invited somewhere, or being offered food, or something to drink.
The boat, meanwhile sailed from one beautiful tropical paradise to the next. If I had known about this service beforehand, I would have stopped at a few of them and simply taken the
Saumlaki to Matakus
And, obviously, all the captain's friends joined in
next boat out. But I didn’t, and my time is limited due to the fact I need to leave Indonesia for a visa-run soon. I can’t afford to wait for the next boat out. But perhaps I have planted a seed for some other traveller who reads this. By all means, if you can, go! You will find unexplored treasures and hospitable locals!
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