Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Windlass Woes

As eluded to in the previous story, our time at Koh Lipe was not quite the start to our Thailand adventure that we had hoped. With the tropical low passing through a new threat lurked in our midst, the windlass (winch that pulls up the anchor) was on the blink. As we attempted to leave Koh Lipe in search of calmer waters, the windlass failed to work. After much head scratching, 'turning it off and back on again' and concerned looks between us, Hugh pulled the anchor chain up by hand. At a weight of 2.3kgs per meter of chain and 30kg of anchor at the end, Hugh pulled up 40m of chain and the anchor in 8m of water depth (some 110kgs!). An impressive feat indeed. We relocated the boat to a mooring just a few hundred meters away to have a closer look at the windlass. Upon looking at the windlass, reading the manual and checking the electrical load, the windlass was operating fine in 16m of depth. It was puzzling indeed.

We took the boat one nautical mile north on the western side of Koh Adang, a spectacular secluded spot on the side of a national park island. Gorgeous golden sand and aqua water atop a reef splayed out in front of us, this was more like what we had envisaged. We picked up a mooring and enjoyed the picturesque scenery and swam to shore. Not yet sure how long our trip to Thailand would be, we were desperate to make the most of it. Testing the windlass again while on the mooring was a success, but doubting the functioning of the 20 year old out of production winch was haunting us.

Koh Rok Nai
The following day we sailed 40nm north to our favourite spot, Koh Rok Nai. Two national park islands (Koh Rok Nok and Koh Rok Nai) nestled together with a protected lagoon conveniently located for yachts. We picked up a mooring again and enjoyed the trip to shore, where we learned that Koh Rok Nai was the location for one of the French 'Survivor' TV series and has been living off that strange fame ever since. Thankfully due to its rather remote location at the southern end of the Andaman Sea Thai island group, it is rarely visited by the local tour operators and it was very tranquil.

After one anchoring success and picking up two more moorings, we found ourselves in one of the most visited parts of Thailand - the Phi Phi Island group. We anchored in 13m next to the boat super highway, with speed boats and longtail boats zooming past all day. It wasn't until we planned to leave the next morning that the windlass decided to give up on us and Hugh was once again on the bow pulling in 55m of chain. I went up on the bow to try and help, but after one failed whimpy attempt, I went back to my post at the wheel and Hugh continued. Once Hugh got the anchor up (to the applause of the cocktail sipping meerkats looking on from nearby boats) we made a beeline for the port town of Ao Chalong (Phuket) to work on the windlass. Trying to solve the problem of a discontinued essential piece of machinery on the boat was going to be quite the project, not one relished by us!

Dismantled windlass undergoing cleaning
It was Saturday night, scrubbing wheel cogs with diesel to remove grease atop our dining table was not what I had in mind for a fun night in. Trying to identify the issue, which seemed to be broken bearings was part one of the process. Imbibing in a sip of wine was at least a small consolation.
Sea Wolf Windlass, case opened

Part two came the next night, one quick name drop at the Phuket Cruising Yacht Club and Hugh had his contact - Mr Him, the Thai engineer who might just be able to divine some sort of solution for the windlass by machining the bearings. The week long process included many trips to Mr Him's workshop, one which saw Hugh driving a motorbike in crazy Phuket traffic with the windlass cradled between his knees, to deliver the critical carcass for further inspection. The other trips involved much sign language and looking for examples to break the language barrier.

5 days after first contact with Mr Him, we were gluing the windlass onto the deck, reconnecting the electrical system, undertaking final last checks and weighing anchor to sail off to Raileh Beach in search of that Thai paradise we were dreaming of. This was more like it! 
Raileh Beach picture perfect sunset, reward for labour

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Tropical Low Pressure System - An Introduction to Thailand

The 25nm amble from Telaga Harbour (on the Malaysian border-island of Langkawi) to Koh Lipe (west coast of Thailand) was supposed to be a cake walk. Instead beam swell, 30kts of wind on the nose and pummelling rain attacked us halfway through the crossing and made for the start of a very unpleasant 48 hours.

The rain let up long enough for us to anchor in 16m on the north side of the island. This side was reasonably sheltered, however there was a lot of swell and the rain continued with much fervour throughout the night. After making dinner and having the obligatory 'new country' rum cocktail, I made my way promptly to bed as the rolling of the boat was higher than my low tolerance for sea sickness could manage. After a night of poor sleep, continuing sea sickness and the uncomfortable rolling of the boat, we decided to move the boat 300m east along the northern side of Koh Lipe, as the wind had changed direction, now coming more from the southwest. That we had waves breaking over the bow at anchor was also less than pleasant. A quick look behind the boat confirmed that we had to go, now being on a leeshore with breakers big enough to surf on just a short dive off the boat  encouraged us to way-anchor and relocate. We found out later that a boat had dragged its mooring onto the beach just a few hundred metres away.

That day we were prisoners on our boat, unable to go to shore due to the swell, strong current and beating rain. The boat was pitching and rolling, but it seemed better than the previous location. We stayed on the boat and hoped for it to pass. While the wind and rain let up in the afternoon, overnight at about 2am the heavens opened and dropped torrents of water, which had us up and scrambling to shut the few hatches that we had left open for circulating air. 

Sunday, finally the sun was out and we decided to make a move and head north. As we were ready to leave, the anchor windlass (winch that pulls up the anchor) failed to fire. Hee-man Hugh came to the rescue and pulled up 40m of chain and the anchor by hand! Super hero! We decided to pick up a mooring just a few hundred metres away while Hugh looked at it, we both loathed the idea of going back to Malaysia to do any work on it at this point. Some tinkering and testing showed that the windlass was working…now we just didn't trust it. 

We spent the next few days island hoping in glorious sunshine through Koh Adang and Koh Rok, isolated national park islands with golden sand and aqua water, only accessible by hiring a boat/ or boat chartering. Absolutely beautiful beaches, the stuff we had been dreaming of for the last month while plodding our way up the mirky and congested Malacca Strait. A wander around Koh Rok reminded us of the vulnerability of these islands to the elements, the 'tsunami escape route' consisted of a rope that was tied to trees up a hill. if things go bad, get up and get there quickly! 

Next stop was Koh Muk and Tham Morokot (the Emerald Cave). The Emerald Cave was something to behold, we picked up a mooring at 7am at the entrance to the cave and dived in the water, swimming to the entrance. Once inside we were entering a pitch black cavern, all we could hear was the roar and crash of the waves entering the cave, hitting the rock walls and bouncing out again. The noise shook me to my bones as I paddled through the cave. Deep breaths and clam thinking was required to get through this section. After a few hundred metres I could spot a glimmer of sunlight and my paddling pace increased as I splashed towards the light. Pushed out of the cave, the first thing I noticed was the brilliant greens, the green of the water reflecting off the trees, vines, shrubs and rocks surrounding it. The small sandy beach at the end of the cave network was an absolute wonder. The towering cliffs reach some 340m and are intermittently splayed with trees and shrubs. Lying on our backs we could see the sun above the circular opening left by the rocks above us. A dull blue with whisps of white cloud marked the early morning sky. We were truly lucky to be in such a place on our own. The cave was historically a place for pirates to hide their loot, an absolutely exquisite hideyhole! 

A short overnight stay at Koh Ha Yai at a fabulous snorkelling site on an isolated rock formation. We picked up a mooring next to one of the towering rocks and spent the afternoon leisurely snorkelling around and checking out the wonderful fish life.

Havoc wreaked by tropical low
Our last stop on our island hop enroute to Phuket took us to Koh Phi Phi Don, the jewel in the crown of Thailand tourist hot spots. Ironically a movie, 'The Beach', made about an isolated beach paradise in 1999 made tiny Phi Phi Lei next door a drawcard for hundreds of people each week. Upon our arrival we were shocked at the devastation that the tropical low 5 days earlier had wreaked on the island, with speed boats pushed up sandbanks and into trees, an entire concrete jetty washed into the sea and busted up boats everywhere. This hadn't reduced the tourist numbers on the island though, it was bustling. A bit to hectic a pace for us, we enjoyed climbing the big viewpoint, having internet and a beer on land, but headed off the next day.  

The vulnerability of these islands was shown to us on our first visit to this beautiful archipelago, that a weather system pushing 40-50kt winds and 3 metre swell could do damage to islands all the way up this coast was eye opening to the fragility of the area.

 View over Koh Phi Phi Don


Friday, 15 November 2013

Malacca Malaise

It was a slow day, mainly motoring after a short-lived sail down the Johor Strait from Johor Bahru, the northerly turn up the muddy Malacca Strait was proving to be less enjoyable as the wind was on the nose, if existent at all. After weaving through dozens of anchored cargo vessels and dodging some fish traps and fish nets, we decided to drop anchor at 11pm after the current had changed, and was turning the boat around taking distance off us that was so hard fought. A lightning and thunder storm above us encouraged us to take a quick 5 hour rest before the tide turned again.

We headed off at 4:30am, making for Muar Town the lesser known of the Malacca cities, this one featured two elaborate mosques and importantly our new 15hp outboard motor. Hugh had tirelessly searched for the right 2-stroke outboard in Singapore and Malaysia and had found one at the right price and after speaking with the shop, we were set to pick it up on our way through. Our friends aboard the sailing vessel Atea were kind enough to gift us their hypalon dingy which they did not want anymore as they were upgrading. The dingy was going to be perfect for our needs with a removable hard floor, however the extra weight that it brought also meant that we needed a more gutsy motor than our existing 3.3hp. Our PVC dingy was not surviving the challenges thrown up by the tropical climate and was slowly melting in the sun, losing its glue and generally being less than suitable for our needs (it had been nicknamed by the kids off our friends boat as 'the pool'). So dingy no. 3 (also known as Max - he came pre-named) required a repair job and would enter our lives as our new runabout!

We arrived outside Muar town at 1pm and made the long 3nm dingy ride up the river (impassable by our boat due to the shallow depth at its entry) taking what seemed like an eternity - 45 minutes. We rang the shop that had our outboard and they had a guy in town who would drive us to the store. This was very helpful, as the shop was a 15 minute drive away and there were no taxi's. The town was very tidy and the houses were large and very well presented. It turned out that this was no ordinary place, being the Sultan of Johor's home town and he loved the colour blue - very distinctly painted on most buildings!

The car pulled up at the marine shop and we were shown the outboard by the shop owner - Mrs Sani. It was enormous and we were wondering how we were going to get it back to EJ in our new dingy that still needed its repair job. After much talking, biscuits and water, the deal was made. Hugh was asking Mrs Sani for the name of a nice restaurant in town where we could have dinner. Before we knew it, we were in the car with her and she was taking us to a warung that sold "the best Bakso in Muar" (meatball soup with noodles). We unpacked the motor into the dingy and were escorted to dinner by Mrs Sani and her 10 year old son. It was a great dinner and just what we needed before the long dingy ride back to the boat. Mrs Sani was so kind, after driving us around and then taking us for dinner, what a nice way to buy an outboard! The dingy trip back to EJ was long, but thankfully the wind had died down, so we made it there dry and hoisted the 40kg of motor up onto the boat without too much trouble.

We decided to wait for the favourable tide and slept the night. Expecting to leave at 1am, the tide had not yet turned and the lightning storm was enough encouragement to stay in bed. There was no wind at 4am, so we decided to wait for the northbound tide that afternoon instead. A relaxing morning on the boat and some scones and we were off, sailing this time!

It was 8pm as we sailed past the city of Malacca, meticulously weaving through cargo ships that were coming into port, at anchor and those out in the designated shipping lanes. The wind was still on our nose, but it was blowing up to 15kts which made it quicker going. As the tide turned the wind died out, so we dropped anchor north of Malacca as the lightning lit up the sky overhead.

The alarm boomed at 3am and with wind we were off sailing again. As the morning wore on, the wind picked up pushed by a squall, bringing lightning, thunder and wind. This passed through and we were left with no wind and an opposing tide. The Malacca Strait was turning out to be a tedious affair and we still had 250nm to go to our destination - the Malaysian island of Langkawi.

We made the decision to get more fuel. It was never simple getting fuel and we might not have had enough to get us to Langkawi, and that all depended on the wind. Feeling that there may not be much wind (based on the four previous days) we opted to stop at the Royal Selangor Yacht Club. The club was located down the river past Port Klang - a huge shipping terminal with cargo ships lining the channel. The Club was located in a shallow part of the river which used to be quite remote, though over the last 15 years or so a lot of shipping industry had moved in and the river banks were loaded with warehousing, logistics and fishing trawler boats. The water was filthy, a perpetual tide of rubbish (plastic bags, bottles, styrofoam, wooden pallets and wooden logs) clogged the river, ready to be sucked into the engine water intake or damage the fibreglass if propelled fast enough by the current. We stayed the night to fill with fuel and leave the following day. Thankfully they had a fuel bowser here, the first one we had used since leaving Darwin, as we usually get between 10-20 x 20Lt jerry cans filled with diesel to tediously pour one by one in to the tanks.

48 hours later we made it to the entry channel to the marina where we would be for about a week. The water had cleared up and the brilliant green of the island vegetation contrasted with the aqua water, hopefully a sign of things to come for the picture perfect beaches and water further north. The Malacca Strait is 450nm of challenge, not for the impatient and we were both exhausted after keeping such a vigilant watch out for shipping, fishing obstacles and lightning storms. It was nice to be out of the Strait!


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Sunday, 3 November 2013

Singapore - A Planner's Diary

Singapore is in and of itself, a fascinating western enclave in the middle of developed and developing South East Asia. The history of the place and its growth as a self managed Asian centre pre and post colonially makes it a unique and layered society, worth the closer look.

The striking thing about Singapore is the height and density of the buildings. Singapore is a city, a country and an island. This has forced it to be creative and adaptable with its use of land. They have built up (and HIGH!) outwards (land reclamation) and down (building and using the substratum down to 70m currently). Only citizens of Singapore can buy housing, so that also restricts home ownership to its 5.8 million populous, 85% of which live in the Government run Housing Development Board (HDB) units. This affordable housing construction and management authority commenced work in the 1960s driven by the need to house the booming population in the post-colonial/ WWII era. The highest of which is a 7 building complex reaching 50 storeys in height which has a linking public access bridge at level 26 and roof top park at level 50 which include child care centres, parks, food centres, shops, services and child play areas. In the 1980s the HDB also recognised the importance of mixing different income groups in the developments to create a harmonious social mix, an issue which cities across the world are struggling to retrospectively address in social housing developments.

HDB complexes - Queenstown Singapore
The HDB flats are generally a minimum of 20 storeys high. They are narrow buildings so that the unit has two frontages to sunlight and air flow. While the units are tall and there are many of them located in close proximity, it does not feel dense, you can see the sky, feel the breeze and the buildings use brick and masonry construction so the noise abatement is well managed. The buildings have open level common space on the ground floor which allows wind/ air to move under and around the buildings. While the ground floor area has fixed tables and usable spaces, the different times of the day that I visited the buildings these spaces were not in use. Other active ground floor uses such as child care centres and shops are located in the HDB complexes, enlivening the otherwise desolate spaces. The HDB boasts about its continual refurbishment and upgrade program that they run to spruce up the buildings and also upgrade the infrastructure such as install lifts. The units appear functional and there is not a spot of vandalism or dumped rubbish to be found. An amazing contrast to unit developments in any other city (regardless of social or private housing). 

The social and racial mix of the city also creates an interesting set of challenges that the government had to manage. The island was inhabited by the Malay people, had a long history of being a port for transit by the Chinese, followed later by Indian, Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese and finally, the British.

With the mission of securing a trade port for the British, in 1819 Sir Stamford Raffles worked his persuasive powers on the island of Singapore, developing a treaty with the Empire of Johor for protection of the island for British trading exclusivity namely by the East India Company. Decades later his plans for roads, block designs, building layouts and setbacks, footpaths and infrastructure were enacted. Even the 'neat' ethnic districts created to segregate the city are still evident today, though the lines are less formal. Designations were made for Indians, Chinese, colonial (British) and the Malay people. Most significantly for the British though, was the growth of Singapore as one of the world's greatest ports. While the location of such a significant port could have been anywhere toward the south of the Malacca Strait, or even the Indonesian islands of Bintan or Batam, Raffles chose Singapore and it has thrived as an international port ever since. The changing weather systems of the northeast monsoon (wind pattern October - March) to the southwest monsoon (wind pattern April - September) forced 19th century sailing boats to wait in Singapore for the wind system to change, to  continue their sail east or west. This created a convenient location for trading and also re-victualing for further journeys.

1819 Town Plan of Singapore - as per Raffles instructions to his surveyor Lt Jackson
The port city grew from strength to strength and opium was one of the biggest products to be transported through the port. The East India Company is also known as the world's first major drug cartel, producing and distributing opium the world over.

The English language has been used to unite the races on the island city, with 5 or 6 Chinese dialects, Malay, Tamil and Bazaar Malay (Chinese/ Malay mix) being spoken, English was chosen to be the mandatory language in schools. The English language, the English town planning philosophies and adoption of western culture creates an extraordinary place in southeast Asia. That it has retained its western links from the past some 50 years after the British returned ownership of the island to native Singaporeans suggests that the new government thought fondly of their time as a British colony. 

The one thing that Singaporeans can rely on is change. A friend of ours living in Singapore said that he reads the Government proposal about constructing a new road or railway extension and then next day it would have commenced. New MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) railway lines are being extended to the busy western port and upgrade works are constantly being undertaken throughout the city. Common Service Tunnels some 30m wide x 30m high are being included in all construction projects where sewerage, potable water, electricity, telecommunications cabling are collocated for easy maintenance access and economising of space.  The new 'green mark' building classification system is required for all new construction and assessments are undertaken every 3 years after completion for retention of the 'green mark' status of environmental sustainability inclusions (such an energy use, water conservation and waste management). The suburbs are densely packed with HDB and private developments, the streets are tree lined, there are abundant parks and recreation spaces, and shopping malls that service all your needs are at every MRT station. Air conditioned underground interconnected walkways (lined with shops) take you from one place to the next. You barely need to see the light of day or suffer the drenching from the daily monsoonal rains to get your business done.

The Sands - Marina Bay
The 191m high Sands Development - casino, hotel, convention centre, high end retail centre and unit development at Marina Bay is a three building structure with a joining rooftop 'spaceship'. The roof area is a tree filled park/ bar/ viewing platform with infinity pool overlooking the city and is the newest jewel in Singapore's skyline crown. The project was the landmark building on land reclamation work which was commenced in the 1970s. There was public debate about the Sands development, but with a muffled media and closely watched or muted voices of opposition the development went ahead as proposed with little fuss.

So what is the cost for an exemplary public transport system, high level infrastructure provision, network of pedestrian walkways, public housing highly sought after by the Singaporean public and exceptionally clean public domains and waterways?  A densely packed population earning modest and high incomes, close relationships and partnerships with the private sector for construction, maintenance and infrastructure management and the privatisation of essential services. Other income streams come from the famous fines system, where one can be fined for drinking water on the train ($500), chewing gum - $500 (it is not sold in Singapore), jaywalking, or not filling your car with petrol in Singapore before driving over to Malaysia ($500). Not much in Singapore is free, as we found out when we were charged for our serviette with our meal bill.

A fabulous place to visit and probably an interesting place to live. The cleanliness and shininess of the city comes at a price and I fear that that is warmth and high level engagement of the general public in their city and its strategic development. But if you want a train to your door, that is sorted!


Wednesday, 23 October 2013

00'00'.000N 104'54'.709E

It was so still yesterday that I could hear the sweat beading on my arms before it ran down. The dark clouds built over Pulua Lingga just 100m away and hovered menacing before shirking off to dump their contents on the ocean to the south. At night we were entertained by a lightning storm which lit up the clouds appearing as a shadow pantomime where the lightning (the actor) was shielded from view by a layer of clouds (the screen) and our imagination was left to draw a scene of the gruesomeness of the destruction made by the actors behind the screen. The actors danced away into the distance, nonchalant about the devastation they had left in their path.

We had entered the Intertropical Convergence Zone  (the equatorial trough or more commonly known as the doldrums) the weather was less predictable with rain and wind squalls, lighting storms and wind coming from all sorts of unusual directions or just not at all. This makes for challenging sailing conditions and more patience sometimes than we can summon, which means using the motor to get to an anchorage in daylight.

At 1235hrs on 20/10/2013 as Elizabeth Jane II crossed the equator into the northern hemisphere, King Neptune unleashed his wrath, dumping a torrent of rain and squally winds upon us. We still managed to trim the sails, toast our glasses of rum and take a photo of our GPS as we made our way across the invisible line. And it was indeed invisible as we could not see more than 20m in front of our boat. The rain fell for the best part of an hour and it was incredible to watch the sea become flattened by the falling rain as if it were trying to retreat to shelter.

Disappointingly the wind was on the nose and we were beating to make forward progress, tacking across the equator 3 times, but the first was very exciting as together we entered a new stage in our voyage and Hugh and I officially became shell-backs (a shell-back is an experienced sailor who has crossed the equator). Importantly, we provided a libation for King Neptune with a glass of rum that we donated to him overboard (this was a gift and to provide us with good luck during our travels on the sea).

The evenings celebratory festivities included rum cocktails and spaghetti bolognese (with mince!!!) aboard Solstice with Bill and Olivia. Bill was an old hat at equator crossings, with this being his third. Once again we were reminded that much of the fun of cruising is enjoying special events with good friends!


Monday, 14 October 2013

Things We Have Learnt About Indonesia

  • Everything must be amplified and once it is amplified, must be at full volume. There is no such thing as too loud, if it is not distorting it should be turned up.
  • In Indonesia, people think the radio will travel further when they shout into it. This also goes for microphones.
  • Cassava can be in any food, be it sweet, savoury or other. If you are not sure what you are eating, it is probably cassava. It is the favourite lengthener to any dish or dish in its own right.
  • There is no such thing as too much sugar. Even a drink of coke can be enhanced by the addition of more sugar.
  • To goreng something (fry it) is a must for 90% of the menu items. If it is edible (and often if it is not), it can be improved by battering and frying it. One of our favourite dishes did not have a formal name, so our guide told us it was goreng goreng (fried fried). An accurate description, and also quintessential Indonesian while still bearing no information on the ingredients! 
    Fireworks fun
  • Too much fireworks are never enough. We arrived in Indonesia at the end of Ramadan which is celebrated with eating cake and drinking tea and then lighting up the night for the best part of a week with hand held fireworks (which are labelled 'do not hold in hand'). Not one to be left out of the fun, Hugh bought some fireworks and asked some non-English speaking kids to help him use them. They thought it was very amusing when Hugh was holding it the wrong way and asking if he had it right for ignition. Thankfully they corrected him before he lit them!
  • Indonesians loooove to sing and dance, the only thing they enjoy more than doing that themselves, is having you do it with them. Hugh and I became the singing duo of our rally group and deftly performed 'brown eyed girl' and 'somewhere over the rainbow' on the ukulele. I also mastered the jamila line dance and the lulu group dance, much to the adoration of our hosts!
  • There is no 'mix' of businesses that is to obscure. The mobile phone shop where you top up your phone credit is also the LPG seller. The scuba dive shop is also the womens shoe and handbag shop. However the guy who sells the ink for a stamp is different to the guy who sells the stamps. Obviously!
  • Talking about the weather is a mute point. It is always the same as yesterday, 33C blistering sunshine and 75% humidity. 
Indonesian Petrol Station
  • Any motor can be reincarnated to propel a boat, be it a single cylinder, World War II era, diesel engine with a hand starter, two whipper snippers attached precariously to unsupported prop shafts or 8 x 400HP outboards strapped to the back of a passenger vessel carrying people 40nm between islands (that sometimes explode, as our friend experienced).
  • A bloke on the side of the road with Absulute Vodka bottles full of fuel constitutes a petrol station.
  • Our hosts had trouble pronouncing Hugh's name, we learned that the word for shark in Bahasa Indonesian is 'Hiu'. Hugh introduces himself as Hiu wherever we go making the sharks fin on his head, much to the enjoyment of the Indonesians!
  • It's not official unless it's been stamped. At ports and for invitations to events, either our stamp or that of the Government had to be on the paperwork. This was at its most hilarious in Saumlaki (our checking in port) where we didn't have a boat stamp yet and Hugh had to draw a picture on the page as if it were a stamp. This was received with much humour by our hosts, a smile will get you anywhere!
Invitation - stamped of course
  • A smile and some bumbling version of Bahasa Indonesian will almost get you anywhere. I was surprised at how politely the locals applauded our minute comprehension of their language while their English skills far exceeded our Indonesian skills.
  • Navigation lights on Indonesian boats are as much for fun as they are to provide information. Red for port and green for starboard is what we are used to, but red, blue and green flashing lights are par for the course here. Just part of the nighttime sailing adventure!
  • It is an enormous country with a huge population and they are wonderful and welcoming people. An archipelago of some 18,000 islands with a population of around 250 million people are spread through fishing villages, farming communities and enormous cities throughout the country. An excellent place to visit by sailing boat.


Thursday, 10 October 2013

Journey to the Borneo Jungle

As we sailed into the cove at the southern point of Borneo, the water depth dropped rapidly and we were in 9m of water. No land in sight and the water colour had a brown and green tinge to it. We had entered the Kumai River overflow, where the murky brown fresh water river mixed with the clear salt water of the Java Sea. The tide was rising and 10kts on the beam pushed us effortlessly towards the river entry at a motivating 7kts. We were bound for the Tanjung Putting National Park to spend 3 days aboard a klotok (simple open-walled timber houseboat) to see Orangutans and other wildlife in a conservation park. 

A dense haze set over the river entry and the channel was busy with commercial shipping; transporting lumber, mined silica, mined gold and wood chips. As we sailed over depths as low as 3.5m we made our way the 20nm to the anchorage outside the town of Kumai. The harsh port town was dominated by tall concrete buildings with no windows. We later learnt that these were bird houses for thousands of quails whose eggs and nests were exported to China as a delicacy. At up to 5 storeys high with tiny port holes, the whole harbour is filled with the shriek of birds flying around in these unlit buildings and calling out at dusk. The industrial harbour is a stark contrast to the brilliant green of the National Park opposite. Two opposing and competing land uses separated by the river. The grey haze settles late in the day and hangs low until mid-morning from the forest fires which are a method to clear land for development, mining or rice farming. After our 4 day journey here from Bali, a lazy day of wandering around town was in order. We had lunch at an excellent street Warung (restaurant) where we didn't have to decide between nasi goreng (fired rice) or mie goreng (fried noodles) as they served nasi mawat - both dishes mixed together. Problem solved! A bowl of bakso (soup with meatballs) to wash it down and we were loving the non-tourist nature of the town. The Warung owner was excitedly telling all his friends about how 15 tourists were just sitting there eating his cooked to order food!

River view
Because we were on a river I thought that it would be cooler, but we were blanketed by stifling humidity. At 37 C in the cabin before 10am we were relieved to be going on our National Park river trip. Another dingy repair job and we were off on our tour with our friends Jack and Zdenka from Kite and Jacks brother and wife who had flown over for a holiday from America. We entered the tributary of the National Park and we were hemmed in by brilliant green low-lying river shrubbery including napal palms. The narrow murky brown river twisted and turned and the sky above was an ominous dark grey. Less than an hour into our trip and the heavens opened. We had not experienced rain of any note since Great Keppel Island nearly 5 months ago. The rain was teaming down and being encouraged by lighting and thunder. Kicking ourselves because we could be collecting the rainwater on our boat, we huddled on our houseboat as our guide pulled down the tarpaulin walls. It rained heavily for almost two hours, but at least the temperature dropped for a little while.

After a delicious lunch on the klotok, we ventured ashore to one of the Orangutan feeding stations. Many of the Orangutans in the park were rescued orphans however they cannot reintegrate into the wild, so they rely on being fed at the feeding stations. In turn, we get up close and personal with these incredible creatures in the wild. Illegal (and legal) logging, forest clearing by burning, palm oil plantations and mining activities have jeopardised the Orangutan habitats and they are threatened with extinction. Parks like this provide a place where the life cycle can continue and the new generation of wild Orangutans can increase the Orangutan population numbers.

At the station we saw two female Orangutans (one wild and one released) each with a baby. A female is pregnant for 9 months and after giving birth carries the baby for 8 or 9 years before mating again. The Orangutan babies clung to their mothers as they swung with so much strength through the tops of the trees. They tentatively made their way to the sweet potato, coconut and bananas, The mother deftly peeled the bananas and made her way through a high proportion of the goodies as she hung with one arm on a woody vine, always watching and ready to scale the tree if motivated. Her baby looked around with glistening eyes, not one to miss any eating opportunities, helped himself to his mums milk. The wild Orangutan remained at a distance and did not eat from the food. She did wee on us from height, but thankfully no one was showered on! Our guides told us that the Orangutans look for shelter when it rains, so it was a low turnout of Orangutans today. 

Back to the klotok for guitars, ukeleles, singsongs with the boat staff and banana fritters. As the afternoon rolled into evening, we were gifted with a most spectacular sunset, lighting the clouds with a pink belly. Our guide expertly picked a tranquil river location for dinner, lit by fireflies. Magic! With vats of deet applied, we relaxed with wine to listen to the sound of the marshy forest as the nocturnal insects and animals came to life. 

After a nights sleep under a mosquito net, we woke to the idyllic sounds of the bilge pump. Next was the hooting gibbon, heralding the new day. With first light at 5am, it was going to be an early start for us! We set off up the river, heading deeper and deeper into the jungle. After 2 hours we turned down a different fork in the river and the water clarity cleared up. The brown dirt is from silica mining which pollutes the entire river for kilometres. The river bank vegetation had changed and now high trees lined the banks. The river opening became so narrow our klotok was pushing branches aside to forge through. We were going to Camp Leakey, where the Orangutan rehabilitation first began in 1971.

Our guide took us for a walk in the jungle, we walked through dense vegetation with trees covering the sky, but the jungle floor was still hot and muggy. There were some gaps in the tree coverage where shards of light would shoot to the jungle floor as we clambered over mud, fallen trees and soft leafy carpets. Thankfully our deet was sweat and rain proof and the mozzies were deterred by our chemical haze, that didn't deter the fire ants though, but swift walking left them in our tracks! Due to the humidity, the moisture in the air settled on trees and the jungle floor, I was amazed at how wet everything was and just touching the tree trunks left you with a wet hand. 

On the walk to the feeding area, we came across Peta a female Orangutan with her 8 month old baby. She decided we needed help making our way there and grabbed the hands of two of our group. It started off very sweet and friendly, but then she decided they should carry her and she lifted her feet off the ground. After a while 70kgs of her became a bit heavy and so she was passed around the group. Hugh got to hold her hand with our friend Bill, never seen two bigger grins!

The feeding was eventful with about 20 Orangutans coming along to get some dinner. The dominant male came too, so that scared off some males who were lurking around for a feed. You could hear the Orangutans before you could see them, climbing to the tops of trees and bending them down with their weight to the next tree to swing their way across the forest roof. There is one dominant male who has many female partners in the 'manor' and the dominant female also keeps the women in order. There were a couple of scuffles and the dominant male ensured that he had his post meal coitus. The Orangutans are such amazing animals, being strong and incredibly vulnerable at the same time. 

After some evening entertainment from male Probiscus monkeys (dutch monkey) unsuccessfully attempting to persuade their female companions down from their high branch to engage in some copulation, by barking at them, we relaxed to  another night on the river to the soundtrack of the birds, cicadas and monkeys. What an amazing experience!


Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Is this War?

You could be mistaken for thinking that, with 25 navy vessels in the harbour (including one from China and one from Singapore), our yachts being searched for bombs, helicopters doing circling routes over the beach and navy officers clogging up the streets, cafes and port. Thankfully no, this was all in preparation for the President of Indonesia's visit to Labuan Bajo, a bustling town which owes its mark on the tourist map to the Komodo dragons and the Komodo National Park just across the bay. So what do the lucky people of Labuan Bajo owe the pleasure of a visit by their very own Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono? A yacht rally whose participants have taken over the restaurants, cafes and the only bakery in town for 10 days as the three routes of the rally converge and continue their journey westward!

We had just spent the best part of a week in the Taka Bonerate National Park, a world class dive site, containing the worlds third largest atoll and some not very inhabited islands. It was a stark contrast to Benteng, our previous city stop, where we had guides walk with us everywhere and haggle at the markets while we tried to save 2c off our carrots. Other excellent features of our time in Benteng was our releasing of a 3 month old baby turtle into the wild (we named him Bruce) who had been protected for conservation by a small village. After this excitement and watching Bruce swim strongly into the big blue, we were taken to a remote village where we went through their welcome ceremony which included some women channelling a village spirit from the past, us being in a water fight with the local kids, all rounded up with a sing along and being swung on a giant swing. The local government officials and the Vice Regent of the island also joined us and they had a blast. All in a days work!

An overnight 150nm sail was marked by Hugh and I seeing a humpback whale for the first time. Gracefully swimming through the water and blowing water high in the air we were enraptured by its enormity being about 10m long. A most awesome sighting! And with that it slapped its tail and dove below! We also had our first night sail with the spinnaker up, sailing for about 16 hours in company with our friends on Hokulea and Kite, we made excellent time in <10kts of breeze. Our arrival at Labuan Bajo was a real introduction into full swing 'tourism dominated' Indonesia. Some people here spoke English, could not give two hoots about having visitors in town and enjoyed the business that we brought to town as we emptied them out of long life milk, beer and cheese. We had been warned by our guides that with the end of the eastern route of the rally, so did the innocence and relative naivety of the townships. We had to haggle for our trips on local transport which was either in a vemo (van that could seat 10 people), an ojek (motorbike) or the flat bed of a cement truck which we ended up catching one night home after dinner. But it has all been fun, and we feel quite spoiled by the hospitality and generosity that has been shown to us by our hosts in the various small towns on the way through.

We decided to leave Labuan Bajo and seek respite in the National Park. We will get as up close and personal as you can get to what are touted to be aggressive dragons. Unfortunately we will be unable to meet the President, but I sent him my regards and hope to have a coffee with him one day soon!

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Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Colossal Dance

Who holds a Takawa Kolossal dance comprising 12,500 school kids for a bunch of salty sailors? Buton does, that's who! But more about that later. First I have to write about our experience with the local people in each of the less visited parts of remote Indonesia.

We arrived at port in Wanci Wanci (one of a small group of islands known as Wakatobi to the south of the bigger Sulawesi Island) to be greeted by very excited high school children who have been learning English. They go to school at night time (after normal school) just to learn English. They were our guides and helpers in the town. We were to spend time with them and they would help us with various activities and in return they would practise their conversational English and see a bit of how other people live. Apparently living on a boat is representative of how we live at home! The kids were great fun and had picked up on some useful phrases in English such as 'oh my god' and 'no way'. Each were used when they came and had visits to our boats.

We were taken from festival to ceremony event all over the island to see the very rich culture of the this island group. We went to some ceremonies which are considered coming of age, where the children are all dressed up and paraded through the street. The intricacies of their costumes and head wear was something to behold. Some had so many coins and material attached to the head ware that they could not hold it up on their heads without using their hands. In addition to the children were the baskets of food that their mothers had made, which are to be shared amongst the villagers. Spilling over with hundreds of varieties of food including rice, rice and coconut combinations, fish, chicken, coconut and sugar combinations, beans, seafood and goat dishes. The food was amazing. Unfortunately not everyone in our group coped well with the food which had been out in the sun for many hours and spent the next few days recovering. But Hugh and I made it through (this time)!

The following day was Indonesia Independence Day where we were taken to the parade field at 7am as guests of the Vice Regent for Wakatobi. Everyone was dressed up in either their full regaler (army/ navy/ political uniform and traditional dress) or red and white (colours of the flag). All the girls wore white with a red hidjab and the boys wore white suits with red scarves. Flag raising, prayer, school choir singing and much marching was done. We learned later that there was a competition for the best marching and the winners would be awarded their certificates that evening. We were told to bring flags to the event, so Hugh and I brought an Aussie flag and the Indonesia flag. Invited onto the field, we waved our flags and were filmed for television walking around looking very dusty and not nearly as polished as the locals who had definitely shined their shoes for the occasion! Much clapping was done and we shook hands will all the important political folk and wished them Dugahayu Republik Indonesia 68 tahun!

Later that day I went to the fresh food market and was accompanied by two very excited school girls who insisted on coming along. They were very helpful with buying some vegetables, but less helpful with explaining what some of the foods presented were or what you do with them. Nevertheless, they seemed quite excited with the occasion and I was happy to oblige. One of the other guides also helped us buy books, pens and other school supplies that we donated to a chieftain of one of the less well-off villages for distribution. One more stop at the sumptuous farewell feast at the Wakatobi Resort, where I showcased my newly earned skills at the 'Jamilla' line dance and we were off.

A short day hop to the town of Pasa Wajo, Buton (on the Sulawesi island) and a fun spinnaker race with our friends aboard Hokulea and Kite. Another huge and colourful welcoming ceremony with three local men brandishing their swords and a swarm of very excited locals to see some tourists. We were provided two lovely new guides - Fahni and Rahkmi, university students studying English. We were astounded to see such an elaborate welcoming arena for us in the otherwise deserted boat harbour. An information tent, medical tent, communications tent (for our ever important pre-paid phone top ups) and lots of various tents to buy local handicrafts, sarongs, coffee, fresh food and sweets. Thankfully we were to go back to our boats for a rest to return the next day for what was to be epic and a little scary at the same time. We came ashore and were quickly escorted by our guides to be fitted in traditional costume. Hugh - the new Sultan of Buton, with me, his Queen were paraded (with our other boating companions) through the 1000 plates (tents full of women offering us their baked delicacies) and a throng of crowds jostling to take their photo with us. Unfortunately everyone of the 5000 people here had a mobile phone and they each had to have a photo of themselves with us. The Indonesians are an affectionate bunch and we were being pulled every which way. It was a little overwhelming. We made our way to the main tent where we heard a speech from their Minister for Culture and Tourism, a very well spoken woman who also welcomed us along, before seeing the dole-dole for 1000 babies (a tradition where children up the age of 5 get lathered up with coconut oil and roll around on banana leaves together as a way of improving their immune system - or just spreading childhood illnesses...I'm not sure). At the end of the dole-dole the child is given a name (up to this point they are just 'baby').

Day two was something to behold. We were driven in a motorcade through the streets and across the island to a specially designed field for the Takawa Kolossal Dance - literally: Takawa - We come here, Kolosaal - in numbers. The use of the word colossal was no understatement. We thought maybe the numbers had been lost in translation. But no...it was all true. Dancers, the musicians, officials and the general community were all a part of this phenomenal event. The dancers comprised of four groups, all colour coded and telling stories in dance that had been passed down for generations. Clashing armies, women coming of age and the sad story of the woman who became a fish were all presented to us. The fish story is about a woman who was married to a man who was cruel to her and beat her. He cast her into the sea. As the dance progresses she becomes a mermaid and swims through the sea. Her husband goes fishing one day and sees her and apologises for being cruel, but she swims in harmony with the ocean.

Takawa Kolossal Dance, 12,500 dancers on the field
Another special touch was 2,000 dancers creating a picture of a sailing boat and the signs spelling out 'SAIL INDONESIA 2013 BUTON'. A slightly overwhelming part of the day was when we were invited onto the field at the end of the performance and were mobbed by thousands of excited locals. Thankfully my always-close-by guides were able to pull me out of the friendly melee before I was lost forever and my soul was gone to all the photos being taken of me!

With only 32 of us sailors, to see 12,500 dancers performing just for us seemed a little embarrassing. What on earth could we give them in return for their hospitality and amazing entertainment? More tourists was the resounding answer. They hope that next year will be the second annual colossal dance and it will be held yearly and become a spectacle and a tourist attraction in its own right. I hope so, it was amazing and something definitely worth experiencing with ones own eyes.


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Friday, 16 August 2013

Voyage to the Fabled Spice Islands

We left Saumlaki, the bustling port town where entire families would be somehow crammed onto one motorbike and chickens were scratching the dirt of their owners market patch, to make our voyage to the Banda spice islands, steeped in history where many lives were lost trying to sail to this exotic and remote part of the world.

The sail started off picture perfect. Glorious bright sunshine and 15 kts of breeze right behind (enabling some wing-on-wing relaxing sailing for the most part) for the short 60nm jaunt, we dropped anchor under sail and surely aroused some curiosity from the small local fishing village as 10 sail boats dropped anchor outside their houses for the night. Dawn was marked by the melodious sound of anchor chains being carried up off the ocean floor as the flotilla continued its sail for the next 2 day continuous trip eastwards. Unlike the sailors of the 1500s and 1600s before us, no men were lost due to scurvy, typhoid or the blody flux, nor did we have to fend off piracy attacks from the pesky Dutch or Portuguese. We did have a minor disaster with our spinnaker pole when we flew our spinnaker for a short while on the first day, as the pole dislodged itself from the mast, but we recovered and sailed through the gloom of rain showers and oppressive humidity.

At dawn on day two we spotted on the horizon the small dot on the GPS that was the towering volcano of Manuk island reaching some 925m out of the sea, we knew we were not far from the Banda islands. Rising out of the seabed with a water depth of 4000m, the volcano island Pulau Gunung rose 660m from the water level. Thankfully it is not currently active, but its enormity is quite humbling for a small sailing boat that would be crushed by the slightest sneeze of the volcano. Last active in 1988 and still steaming, the highly active soil has become a densely wooded forest. The locations where the intensely hot lava flowed into the sea have become a natural phenomenon for active coral and people come to these remote islands from all over the world to dive and snorkel in such a beautiful wonder. History tells us that the volcano erupted whenever the Dutch came to visit Banda, and we carefully planned our arrival to be after the one dutch boat in our rally, so as to be clear if the volcano sensed they were visiting.

We rounded the corner and the beautiful island town of Banda Naira came into view. Surrounded by nutmeg and almond trees, we could spot the anchoring location which was almost filled with the 15 boats from our rally. With the harbour depth of up to 80m, we had to creep towards shore to find the shallow water, drop the anchor in water and reverse as we were told there was a point close to shore where the seabed rose sharply and our anchor would grab the underwater cliff face. Second time lucky, with the anchor hooked in, some locals helped us tie stern lines to trees on the shore (which was an interesting game of charades due to us being on the boat and our poor grasp of bahasa indonesian). As the final boats made their way into anchor, it was a fun game of fending and rafting up that enabled us all to fit on this small patch for anchoring.
Gorgeous jungle covered hills at Banda

With the anchoring business completed, we set forth to explore the new island. So different to Saumlaki, this sleepy remote village hosted visitors from all over the world for its history and the natural wonders to be seen below the waterline. The streets were paved and filled with colonial buildings, remnants of its East Indies history. This town was more geared to tourism and many shop owners spoke some english. The town was in the last 2 days of Ramadan and what we were soon to learn was the end of Ramadan was a huge celebration, so all the shops were a bustle of people buying food so that they could cater for their family and friends who would come visit during the week long holiday.

We went on a walking tour of Banda Besar, the holy grail of 1600s spices. Hundreds of sailing trips left the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain & England in search of the prized Myristica fragrans (nutmeg) which was fabled to cure illnesses from the 'pestiferous pestilence' (the plague) to the common cold. As we walked through the streets you could stumble over old cannons left over from battles that were fought by each nation trying to secure an uninterrupted supply of the spice which was more valuable than gold. We were sure to pick up our small bag of nutmegs on the off chance that either of us was struck down with the plague on our journey. The historic struggle ended in the English giving up its stake in Run Island (the richest of the nutmeg plantations adjacent to Banda Besar) to the Dutch in exchange for the small island of Manhattan.

The next day we climbed up all 660m of Guning Api (the volcano). Stepping between smouldering parts and peering over the top you could see the crater below where the molten hot lava would have exploded. Today it is lush and green, bustling with forest life and impossible to see the bottom where the destructive force was sourced. The slide down the hill was an adventure in itself, taking almost as long to get down as it did to get up without breaking limbs or the person in front! Hugh's shoes had had their last explore and the trip up had proved too challenging for the sole dislodged itself. There were many gags about the man with no soul and his venture to the volcano. Even with no sole he managed to swing from branch to branch, quite effectively imitating our ancestors to descend the mountain.
View of Banda Islands from the Volcano
We celebrated the end of Ramadan as the locals did, hanging around in the street and getting very excited about dodgy fireworks that could blow off your hand. Hugh bought some fireworks and wasn't quite sure how to use them since the instructions were in Indonesian, so he asked some helpful kids which showed him the right way to hold it so that he didn't end up shooting himself in the stomach. After that hilarity and only minor burns, Hugh and our friends aboard Hokalea got right into the swing of things and let off some out of date flares. All fun, until all of our boats were covered in orange ash.

From then on the town was in holiday mode and very little was open. Most of the fleet were preparing to leave, but we were staying longer so that Hugh could get his scuba license. We went out snorkeling on the lava flow and the visibility was amazing, so many brilliantly coloured fish and steam that was still rising from some parts of the volcano (which warmed the water nicely). For Hugh's birthday we dived in the exotic Banda islands - at Pisang Island and Kraka Island, ate roast lamb (the last fresh meat in our stow!) and boat baked chocolate cake! Many thanks to Krissy for her extremely thoughtful stowage of books and chocolate as a birthday present for Hugh!


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Saturday, 10 August 2013

New Seas

It was with nervous anticipation and excitement that we finally left Fannie Bay Darwin with Saumlaki Indonesia as our next port of call, two and half days after our companion fleet. With enthusiasm and sheer determination Hugh managed to hitchhike to the Toll warehouse to free the crucial part for our onboard desalinator that had been held captive there for 3 days while the Darwinites enjoyed their show-day long weekend. With our missing part and captain safely aboard the Elizabeth Jane II, we picked up anchor and headed northeast for a total journey of 290nm.

50nm later, at 1am we dropped anchor at Cape Hotham, choosing to enjoy a quick 5 hour sleep while we waited for the tides to turn and give us the lift we were seeking out of the Van Dieman Gulf. We headed off again at 7am with the drawbacks of choosing this route becoming evident, as the current was the only thing moving us northwards at a snails pace of 2kts. Another 12 hours of being in the doldrums and we were finally about to exit the landmass of the Australian mainland.

Nighttime fell and with it came the overwhelming beam swell and 20kt southeast wind. The only good thing about the passage is that we were moving with pace. Seasickness was the theme of this passage and the 2 nights left to travel seemed torturous. The time passed in a blur of snacks and naps and we could smell Saumlaki before we saw it. The smells of herbs, spices and timber fires for cooking filled our aural cavities. Hugh and I were most pleased to see the back of the Arafura Sea and looking forward to sailing into a new land.

At 4am we started entering Saumlaki harbour. We had been warned about fishing boats with confusing, little or no lighting, large hard-to-spot netting systems and navigation markers that were in the wrong location. Entering at night was not our preference. Hugh and I were both on watch for the entry and were confounded by bright Christmas tree flashing red lights on what appeared to be the landform. It wasn't until later that we realised they were building height markers for the airport located behind the harbour city. We saw some fishing boats, but entered the harbour without incident and dropped anchor amongst our sailing fleet at 5am in 22m of water. This was the deepest we had anchored so far and we used up all our chain ensuring we had enough laid out for our usual ratio of between 3.5 - 5:1.

At 8am we had a wake up call from our slumber to be advised by our friends about quarantine, immigration and customs clearing requirements. Thankfully everyone else had already gone through it all and could give us some tips (our rally entrance fee also smoothed the path). As we were the only new arrivals in the harbour, quarantine and immigration came to our boat in the most comical of manners! They had borrowed a local fisherman and his wooden boat (with the engine that made a loud putt-putt-putt-putt sound as they carved their way through the water) to deliver the officials to our boat. Almost falling in the water, they managed to clamber aboard the boat with their neatly pressed uniforms and amazingly shiny black shoes, and it was not long until the boss man turned a light shade of green and was suffering from some sea sickness. Apart from being distraught that we did not have a table and that we did not have a boat stamp, our paperwork was processed without a hitch. Despite not providing them the whiskey that they asked for, sprite seemed an acceptable peace offering. We were advised that customs had left Saumlaki, but they were going to resolve our check-in via email (we were very pleased to hear this as it was a risk when we joined the group so late that we would not be processed and would have to sail 100nm north to Tua to get our requisite stamping done).

Kristus Raja
So started a day of being treated like rock-stars by the local tourism office and regional council. We were driven across the island to see some historical stone boats at Sangliat Dol built hundreds of years ago to commemorate the arrival by sea of the first farming families. We also climbed huge stone steps that lead down to the ocean on the northeastern side of the island. We visited the Kristus Raja, an overgrown parcel of land that has enormous stone statues of Jesus, God and Mary. God has his arms thrust out to an invisible mass of people over the cliff, or perhaps he is welcoming salty sailors ashore. Whatever the underlying intentions of the statues, they are quite eerie, but certainly match the Christian call to prayer, seemingly competing with the Muslim call booming from speakers at 5am.

After all this site seeing, we relaxed at the Harapan Indah hotel and enjoyed a refreshing Bintang, sitting on the boardwalk and enjoying the view over the quiet (but full) harbour. The sailors were in town and here for a whirlwind tour!


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Thursday, 25 July 2013

Kakadu and Darwin

Ubirr sunset
With 10 days to go until our great launch out of Australian waters, Hugh and I took a car to Kakadu for a couple of days to escape the hustle and bustle of boat preparations in Darwin. After walking through the cultural centre and watching the people standing in the water, fishing in Cahills Crossing (not minding the 'beware crocs' sign) we went to Ubirr and peered over the diverse landscape below. We were perched on a huge sandstone rock escarpment that was formed from volcanic action some billion or so years ago, towering above the savannah plain and monsoonal forest below. Our guide told stories of the Aboriginal rock art and the significance of this place to its owners. Whilst sitting in silence to listen to the birds calling each other across the plains we watched the sun set on the horizon sending brilliant colours across the land. It truly was a beautiful place, rich with thousands of years of Aboriginal history. An Aboriginal elder 'Kakadu Man' Bill Neidjie who has passed away now, had great visions for the continuation of the Kakadu stories and culture, he dreams of people from all walks of life and ethnicities telling the stories of this sacred place so that they are not lost in the sands of time. This is one reason why we are lucky enough to be able to come here and experience such an amazing wonder.

Emu roadblock
After spending a night on the Merl campground affectionately known by locals as the mozzie pit, we awoke early and made our way to Nourlangie and climbed up to see the base of another huge rock escarpment. We decided to do a walk to the Gubara rock pools and took the 15km drive on the dirt road. Halfway there we were stopped by an emu who was clearly disinterested in us passing. We managed to get lots of photos of the roadblock and his mates before they sprinted off, with their heads down, bolting into the scrub. After an hour long walk in the hot savannah, it was refreshing to reach the monsoonal forest which provided shade and an abundance of bird and spider wildlife. We were deeply disappointed to reach the mostly stagnant water of the pools and no relaxing swim after our trek was to be had. After some enthusiastic but unrewarding bushbashing and bouldering in search of a waterfall, we trudged on back through the hot savannah to the car (slightly different to the way the Aboriginals would have travelled the land).


That afternoon we went on a sunset boat cruise through the Yellow Water, the West and South Alligator Rivers. Crocodiles were spotted relaxing on the shore, catching the last of the days sunshine, or patrolling the waters to see if any freebies were to be had from the boat passengers (we were advised to keep our limbs well inside the vessel). We also spotted an amazing array of bird life, with datas, kites, eagles, kingfishers and ducks a-plenty. Another amazing sunset to close our time at Kakadu.

Wangi Falls
Later that week Dad came to visit all the way from wet and cold Sydney. Thankfully Darwin put on a show, and 33C of beaming sunshine greeted him at the airport. At 7am the next morning, Dad and I met Rob our guide for our tour to Litchfield National Park. After the lack of swimming at Kakadu, Litchfield was a welcoming contrast, providing waterfalls and rock pools at every turn. We also got a snap next to some enormous termite mounds and listened to the interesting history of Darwin from our tour guide. The planner in me was very intrigued as to why this city looks so different to all other cities in Australia and why it was so dense in the city centre, with no low level housing to be spotted. The three cyclones and bombing of Darwin had virtually demolished all history of early European settlement, leaving a clean slate for high rise unit blocks to fill the city precinct. 

After a day long tour of swimming holes and lookouts over amazing waterfalls we stopped by at an old tin mine to see the harsh life that the miners here would have lived through with malarial mozzies, searing heat and humidity and the flooding rains of the wet season. The mine closed in 1951 after a particularly wet wet season and now houses bats and snakes, which is a fairly persuasive way to keep people out of the old mine shaft I think.

Dad and I returned to the boat to see the new wind generator installed and functioning and the oven fixed! I should go on holidays more often!


Saturday, 13 July 2013

600 miles

We left Horn Island with Solstice bright and early, waving goodbye to our new English friends on Bonaire (who we had met in Hamilton and Lizard Islands) who had sailed in late the night before. We rocketed through the Torres Strait, enjoying a joyous 10kt ride thanks to some free 4kts of current (hence the early wake up call). The joy was short lived as we were spat out at the western side of the Strait and right into the Gulf of Carpentaria washing machine. With swell on beam and the boat pitching from side to side, memories of breakfast were not far away. This continued for about 8 hours and the 2 days that we had left to sail seemed like a life term. Fortunately the boat was unaffected by sea sickness and sailed nicely with the 25-30kt breeze right behind us. During my 11pm-2am shift I saw a boat zoom past, assuming it was a fishing boat as I peered at their speed with jealous eyes.

Day 2 came around and Gove was shaping up in my imagination to be the promised land. The pod of dolphins that danced for us at sunset were beautiful, playfully dancing and jumping in the bow wave for about 40 minutes. Together with the cheese and cracker plate and the excitement of the mackerel that Hugh caught it was a lovely evening.

Day 3 and we dropped anchor at 7pm as the sun was setting behind the bauxite conveyor belt next to Gove Harbour. Hello Northern Territory! We set our watches back 30 minutes and enjoyed the late setting sun and ambient evening temperature. To our surprise, Bonaire was anchored up close to shore and returning from having a drink at the sailing club. This was the boat that I had seen while on the graveyard shift, as they rocketed past at 12kts. Having a racer cruiser certainly has its benefits, as they did the same 340 mile passage in less than 2 days! They were pretty smug about it too!

Gove was a red dust town, a regional centre for government services, a bauxite mine and ship loading facility. We visited an Aboriginal art gallery which was in disarray ahead of Kevin Rudd's PM visit to commemorate the 50 year anniversary of the historical and landmark 'bark petition' (and a week after Julia Gillards PM visit and memorial service for the passing of Mandawuy Yunupingu). Two different PMs in 2 weeks! What a hotspot on the map! A trip to Woolworths and we had 'done' Gove.

We left Gove, but it didn't leave us. Rust coloured dust coated the boat as we sailed through 'hole-in-the-wall' (Wessel Islands) and onto Port Essington. The Victorian settlement that time forgot. A settlement that lasted for 11 years (1838-1849) before most of the population died from malaria. An interesting experiment in pioneering that can only be accessed by boat. But one can visit the settlement ruins, pop by the quartermasters store, jetty, hospital and cemetery before wondering why such a desolate location was selected. Needless to say the name Port Essington was aspirational, as no shipping trade continued from this location.

The last push to Darwin was fraught with uncertainty. Tips from sailors ahead of us, guide books, electronic mapping and tide details that conflicted made for some interesting planning. Three Capes to round, another Gulf (Van Diemen) to cross and perhaps the biggest challenge of all was the Northern Territory Department of Fisheries to negotiate with upon our arrival in Darwin. We had to round Cape Don 4.5 hours ahead of high tide in Darwin in order to get a lift off the westward moving current, with up to 10kts rushing through. The Vernon Strait and Vernon Islands complicated the passage with strong current and the anticipation of locks in Darwin certainly got us excited. Darwin experiences 7m tides and the locks had been constructed to make marina and riverbank maintenance simpler.

Rounding Cape Don was great, we got a lift off the current and some new gusts of wind pushed us through the water. As we were sitting back enjoying the ride, we could see some overflows ahead. This is the effect caused by two tidal motions meeting with the appearance of a breaking surf and can sometimes look like a whirlpool as the water swirls and the dominant current takes over. The boat plowed into the overflow, causing 3m waves to crash over the bow of the boat and the bow to bounce through the 3m drop. Thankfully this only happened a handful of times and almost stopped the 10.5kt speed we had with the impact. Fortunately everything was tied down well and nothing was broken down below. The boat crept on and recovered, though the highest speed we have ever done in the boat was history as the current strength lessened and we had to be content with moderate wind speed.

The exciting events were over and we settled in for the final 15 hour sail. We entered the long Clarence Strait at sunrise to meet Darwin, our last Australian stop. The end of our 3 month sail from Sydney and the start of a whole new adventure with new challenges and experiences. Darwin would be our home for 2 weeks before we head for Indonesia and take part in the 'Sail Indonesia Rally' with some 100 other vessels from all over the world.


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