At night I like to sit out under the stars wondering how many islands in Indonesia there are. Not being able to count all the islands, I watch for constellations, planets and satellites. It’s best when the moon is empty and its brilliance doesn’t out-dazzle the night sky. But I’ve never seen a sky of stars like this one tonight.
They’re impossibly bright, like the ones I had on my bedroom ceiling when I was young.
I’ve waited for the whole yacht to go to sleep and I’ve sneaked, like a child, out here on deck by myself.
A warm breeze sifts through me, it smells of salt and fish.
We pass by an island, there are no lights, no-one lives here, or if they do, they don’t have electricity like you or I, but we’re close enough that I can see the black mass of coconut trees and tall extinct volcanoes lit up under the stars.
These are the islands of Indonesia.
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Islands of Indonesia
Cruising the islands of Indonesia on Ombak Putih
I climb the bow spread of the Ombak Putih.
It arches a long way up, like a banana, but the waves under me still sound precariously close as they break against us, as a reflex I hold onto the splintered timber a little tighter.
I lie back, my head resting against the anchor chain.
It’s then I see it: the most beautiful thing I’ll see on this whole voyage.
As if on cue, a dazzling white star shoots, I stare as it falls across the entire night sky leaving a luminous trail.
Then it disappears, seemingly into the sea, and I’m not sure I really saw it all.
Perhaps I imagined it.
Indeed, as I sit here and try to write this account weeks later, I’m not sure any of this story is real.
The Indonesian Archipelago is like that, and a journey across it on a locally built 118-foot timber yacht just adds to the confusion.
It’s as if there still exists a Columbus or a Captain Cook, and I somehow ended up on board their boat.
Obviously, I must be an officer, nothing else could explain the luxurious cabins, hot running showers, abundance of alcohol and delicious fresh food every meal of the day.
How many islands in Indonesia?
The islands of the Indonesian Archipelago stretch out across one-eighth of the earth’s circumference through two oceans, the Pacific and the Indian Oceans, and across 3500 miles of wild, wild sea. Indonesia has 17,508 islands but only around 6000 are inhabited.
There are five main islands in Indonesia – Sumatra, Java, Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo), Sulawesi and Irian Jaya (the Indonesian part of New Guinea). The rest of the smaller islands are part of 30 smaller groups of islands in Indonesia bridging two continents, Asia and Australia.
While most of us are all too aware of Bali, the other islands are still, even in this age of Starbucks, McDonald’s and pirated Britney Spears CDs in the darnedest of places, largely undiscovered.
Seeing them from the vantage point of a 118-foot traditional square rigger yacht makes me feel somehow heroic and adventurous, like Sir Francis Drake or the chiselled hero in the Old Spice ads, albeit with a bottle of SPF 30+ and a sensible hat.
Out here, in the Archipelago, life is desperately primitive.
If you let your mind go, you might be anywhere, or anyone.
In all, we cover just 500 miles of ocean, but this journey doesn’t seem to be about miles, it’s about time, decades, even centuries are stripped away; pathetically small fishing boats drift past, their crews show off nets full of fat, healthy fish.
The only clue they’re a part of this age is the motors on the backs of their vessels, although they appear so homemade and prehistoric I’m amazed each time I hear one chug past.
Onshore visits to Sumbawa and East Lombok men, women and children wave frantically at me, they giggle and laugh, like I’m a zoo exhibit, with my funny clothes and my strange white skin.
Ancient curses still apply, centuries of strict Islam faith haven’t stopped paganism, on the island of Satonda the crew advise me to be careful: even they won’t spend the night here, they warn.
A Sharman, apparently, is buried here.
Coral is hung off trees to ward off evil spirits, some more contemporary locals dangle flip flops from branches.
On Satonda a barely seaworthy boat arrives with two ancient, grizzled National Park officers in ill-fitting uniforms.
They try to tell us in broken English we must all pay 1000 Rupiahs (about 58p).
When our guide refuses to pay, a deal is made and the officers join us for lunch on the Putih.
Market stall holders in Bima, on the island of Sumbawa, marvel at my photographer’s camera, he takes a photo of them and they burst out in giggles like excited children when they see themselves on the tiny screen.
They make no effort to sell me anything, allowing me sweet relief from the constant demands of street vendors in Bali to the west.
In the mountains just behind this sleepy market village, by far the largest and most sophisticated on Sumbawa, villagers engage in a bizarre ritual called head bumping.
In a dirty market square, grown men, in bright traditional gowns that look like the silk pyjamas you find en masse in cheap Thai market stalls, run at each other’s heads at full speed.
The noise the clash makes is nauseating, the men continue on for what seems like hours, seemingly unaffected, although I wonder what pain must be going through their battered brains.
East Lombok Island
Just west, on the east coast of Lombok, I witness the ferocious traditional honour associated with a stick fight between two teenagers – a ritual into manhood witnessed by the entire village.
Each whack is applauded by 300 crazed children, the loser hides his head in shame, the victor raises his arms to salute the baying crowd, my heart beats so fast I can’t catch a breath, I have the same sweaty palms and feet I feel every time my football team makes the final.
Life is hard here, only the strong survive, but it’s beautifully primitive, I find myself drawn to its simplicity.
Days fly past as we venture further and further east, leaving everything we know far behind.
It’s the most blissful isolation I’ve ever felt, most days I spend sunbaking on the smooth timber deck of the Putih, getting up only to look at dolphins and the wonder of a new island in the distance that sounds like something I remember from geography class in secondary school.
When we stop and get off the boat the water is so clear we almost don’t need masks and snorkels, and the water is so warm I stay in for hours.
I also find myself counting down the minutes to meal time and when it comes each time I’m surprised that it’s something completely different to yesterday and the day before it.
I like to take my overloaded plate outside and sit with my fellow travellers and laugh about how fortunate we feel.
My mantra has become “this has to be a Bintang (the popular locally brewed beer) moment” and when I announce it my fellow passengers find great delight opening a fresh, cold can and toasting the wonder of Indonesia.
The wind fills our sails, the sun beats down on us, townships on coastlines get fewer and further in between till at last, there’s nothing but dragons.
It is the island of Rinca, and its neighbour, Komodo, that epitomises the wonder, and ridiculous diversity, of the Indonesian Archipelago.
Bali, Lombok and Sumbawa are your atypical tropical island paradises, full to bursting with green jungles, monkeys and coconut trees.
Lombok, in particular, is a delight, the massive Mt Rinjani, Indonesia’s second biggest volcano at 12,224 feet, forms a picturesque backdrop to the most impossibly perfect white beaches on the planet.
It’s the ultimate tropical island paradise, an island so lush and fertile you worry you might start growing in its soil if you linger too long.
Rinca, a night’s sail east is the exact opposite.
It is dry, barren, rocky and inhospitable, except for the two metre long dragons which live nowhere else on this planet and thrive on this moon landscape.
Sunrise this morning was the best I’ve ever seen.
I woke at five, in pitch darkness, and watched while a sun with the same colour as a warm sunset rose over the distant island of Flores to the east.
It was so breath-taking I needed three coffees just to keep up with it.
When it’s time to walk amongst the dragons I assume there’s some kind of enclosure to keep these animals at bay, or at the very least, our guides will be armed with rifles.
When we find two old men from the nearby island of Flores, dressed in tattered National Park clothing, carrying nothing more than a large stick, there is a muttering within our group.
But mythology is on our side, these men are blessed by the spirits of the dragons themselves, they have permission to walk among them.
Should that not comfort, the knowledge we’re in a group of 15 helps us, the old adage of safety in numbers ringing true against a creature who, while deadly to the extreme, isn’t renowned for unprovoked attacks on humans.
It doesn’t take long before we’re confronted by the beasts.
Being cold-blooded, Komodo dragons need the strength of the sun to gather their energy, being here in the early morning has guaranteed we’ll leave the island in one piece.
At this time of the day, we can observe these creatures up close.
From a distance of three metres, they are frightening, over two metres long, with massive jaws and fierce, sharp claws.
We head into the island’s interior; monkeys screech as we pass, water buffalos stroll past, sea eagles glide overhead,
Tarzan swings above, surely.
We see more dragons along the narrow path, most don’t allow us to get close, scampering off across massive fields of long grass like massive overgrown children’s plastic toy animals.
The landscape is fitting for this creature.
It looks like nowhere else on earth.
Tall spindly Lontar pines are the only tree that grows in this desert landscape, combined with the long brown grass, it feels like we’re on safari in Africa. We climb a tall hill and rest.
Ahead of us is the most stunning vista I’ve ever seen.
The dry barren island gives way to an ocean of turquoise blue, our yacht sits in the middle, I doubt I’ve ever seen anything more sublime on earth, my photographer points and clicks, while all I can manage is to stare open-mouthed at all, unable to quite comprehend exactly what I’m seeing.
I tell myself it will all make sense when I get back to civilisation, but it never does.
Days pass, nights, full of stars, drift by and I start to find that while discovering this lost world is fascinating, I long for days and nights with nothing to do but sit and watch the world go by.
It’s a luxury to the extreme.
Sometimes pods of dolphins join us, a murmur of excitement greets them as they playfully surf the bow waves.
Once, as I enjoyed a two quid massage on the sundeck from an Indonesian deckhand with hands as rough as boxers, someone yelled out “whale”.
Excited by the prospect, I ran to the railing but found more dolphins, lots of them, flirting with us off our starboard bow.
Each day of cruising leaves me feeling more content, the sun shines and my skin is soon bronzed.
I still haven’t read a page of the book I’ve brought with me, there just seems too much going on to miss out on.
We get closer with our fellow passengers and crew, at night someone invariably brings out the obligatory guitar and evenings are spent drinking rum and singing bad covers of everything from American Pie to Wonderwall, and the odd sea shanty.
One night on Pulau Bugis we take the launch onto a beach for sunset drinks and build a huge bonfire.
We sit around it and watch stars, while the crew sing Indonesian songs, with the odd hilarious Western cover in broken English, with an enthusiasm you don’t find often in the western world.
Later, on deck waiting for more stars to shoot, a Dutch passenger tells me that this, sailing the Dutch East Indies, is what he’s meant to be doing, that ‘this’ is in his blood.
I think we’ve all become Vikings, Columbus or Cook, depending on our heritage.
A few impossibly lazy days later we arrive back into Manoa Harbour on Bali’s heavily populated east coast.
Everything seems so modern, even on this primitive Asian island. It almost seems obscene, despite its natural beauty.
I can see the disappointment in my fellow passenger’s eyes.
Out there, there’s a life we only just touched on, there’s the wonder of seeing things as they were before the modern world ruled.
Spread across 3000 or so miles of untouched ocean there’s a whole parallel universe waiting for the intrepid explorer.
Most of us will never discover it, but of course, that’s the best part.