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 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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