Hoga Wall

Monday 13th August 2018

We have just snorkelled off a coral wall, the edge of the encircling reef around Hoga Island in the Wakatobi National Park. Wow! Thousands of reef fish of all shapes, sizes and colours. A mix of healthy soft and hard corals, nudibunch, feather stars and dazzling giant clams.

The edge of the reef – Hoga Island

The prize of snorkelling this reef however has been hard won.

Last Tuesday we started to raise our anchor from the deep waters at Banda Island. Not the quietist of windlasses at the best of times, this morning it started to screech and strain horribly. We let the chain back out, a day of boat maintenance was obviously in order.

For the rest of the day Rick, with me as his plucky assistant, disconnected, stripped and cleaned the windlass motor and gearbox. It, encouragingly, looked in pretty good condition, one oil seal had disintegrated, could this be our problem? Could we find a replacement?

Unbelievably for a small town, with seemingly nothing recognisable for sale except cheap Chinese plastic goods, the hardware store turned out to be an Aladdin’s cave and actually had the exact required part.

Innards of the windlass motor and gearbox

With the windlass back together, the noise gone, we went to bed happy. The next morning however under the strain of trying to pull in 80m of anchor things didn’t look so good, every 30m the motor would overheat and cut out. Our time in Indonesia is limited, there are so many places we want to see. We could of course let the anchor out easily enough, so we decided to carry on with our plans. We gradually coaxed the anchor up and set off for Hoga, we would tackle the problem again with a different view from the cockpit

I, and a lot of the rest of the fleet, had had a cold while in Banda, miraculously Rick seemed to have avoided it, unfortunately, a few hours into the journey Rick started to feel unwell. It was a long 48hr sail, with Rick trying to maintain a brave face and me doing as much as I could of the watches. Luckily Friday he began to feel better and by midday we were anchored off Hoga Island.

No rest for the wicked however, having worked out a plan of how we could raise the anchor on another of our winches if necessary, Rick had one more thing to check. He hadn’t looked at the drive shaft that runs down the centre of he windlass, so back he went into the cramped anchor locker.

Not the most comfortable place to work

The shaft was almost completely seized, after a bit of encouragement from a hammer, another oil seal replaced and a good clean up, he put everything back together yet again. We had originally anchored in the cruising books suggested spot, through a pass in the reef, into a lagoon. However it was on the windward side of the island and gave little protection in the brisk SE winds and at each high tide the fetch was breaching the reef, making things a bit uncomfortable. So nervously we tested the windlass, the chain came up quietly and efficiently we breathed a sigh of relief, then motored back through the pass and anchored off the reef in a less windy position.

The edge of the reef clearly visible

The reef drops straight down from one to thirty metres, we are anchored very deep yet again but the coral wall here is spectacular. With my ears still a bit suspect from my cold we haven’t dived but at low tide we have drift snorkelled along its edge, the variety of corals and fish just 100m from the front of the boat is amongst the best we’ve seen anywhere.

It’s difficult to explain the feeling of wonder as you dip your mask into the water and the coral garden comes into view. With the sun high and bright in the sky the colours are at there best, pinks, purples, blues, whites and yellows shine back at you. All the normal reef characters are here from tiny turquoise damsel fish, through white and blue puffer fish. Multi patterned yellow angel fish, royal blue and yellow striped sturgeon fish and incandescent blue, fork tailed, redtooth trigger fish. A shoal of black sturgeon with a pink tail and sheer white fins passes by and a pair of black and white striped, yellow finned oriental sweet lips pose for a photo. I hear Rick yelp, he has almost bumped into a sea snake, at a metre long it is by far the largest one we have ever seen. The wall drops straight down fading into the depths. A 3ft grouper emerges briefly from the blue and larger shadows suggest life beyond our vision.

A clown fish, the sea snake, a colourful puffer and two sweet lips.

A small dive resort sits ashore, a large dive boat overnights one day and our friends onboard Il Sogno, another oyster 56, joined us yesterday, but for most of our time here the only people to be seen are the few locals in their motorised dug out canoes. We donate swimming goggles and buy bananas but decide not to attempt the mile and half choppy crossing to the village. Stocks of fresh food are getting low however, time to move on.

Spice Islands

Monday 6th Aug 2018

We are anchored beneath a volcano in 30m of dark water, surrounded by traditional fishing longboats, opposite tired but substantial colonial Dutch buildings. We have arrived in Banda, the centre of the spice Islands.

Api volcano dominates the view

Sitting isolated by hundreds of miles of deep ocean, a unique but fairly indifferent tree evolved here, the nut these trees produce was to generate great fortunes and inevitably in turn to be the cause of wars and atrocities. Nutmeg was first introduced into Europe when traded between the Venetians and the Arabs. As spices increased in popularity and there value grew, the emerging powers within Europe sent exploratory expeditions out to the Far East to try and find the source of these prized and exotic flavours.

Nutmeg was tracked down to the Banda islands and eventually in the 17th century the Dutch won out as sole controllers of its trade. They created the Dutch East Indies Company, the VOC, and earnt a reputation for extreme intolerance, the native Banda population was almost exterminated until the Dutch realised that they still needed the skills of the islanders to successfully grow the nutmeg trees. The English very upset to be missing out on such a lucrative trade attempted to raid Banda many times with only limited success, holding on to just one of the small outer islands, Run.

Run however turned out to have greater value than expected as from here not only did the English manage to spread the nutmeg tree to other parts of the World eventually reducing the Dutch stranglehold on the spice but also in a treaty drawn up in 1667, Run, was among islands swapped by the British with the Dutch for a strange new land called New Amsterdam. Not happy to keep the obviously Dutch name the British renamed it New York. From this has grown the local story that the tiny island of Run was swapped for the Island of Manhattan.

Evidence of the islands violent past is everywhere from the ruins of forts topping many of the islands hills to original cannons littering the streets in Banda Niera. It is not often that we tie the dingy off to a 400 yr old bronze cannon!

Not a normal dingy dock, we are having to use this old cannon as a cleat.

Nutmeg is a complex fruit and every bit of it is put to good use. The sour tasting flesh is sweetened to create jams and syrups, the bright red mace that lines the nut shell is used in sweet and savoury dishes, as well cosmetics and of course the inner nut produces the spice we are familiar with.

Fruits of the forest, a cut nutmeg fruit with an almond on the side

At one time in Europe just one sack of nutmeg could buy you a small house, today although not quite that valuable its still the main income for these islands. We took a boat to the largest island in the group and passing through another brightly painted village, the houses perching on the side of the hill, we walked up to a nutmeg plantation. Nutmeg prefers to be out of the midday sun and so is grown in the shadow of magnificent stately almond trees. In the plantation they also grow cinnamon and cloves, the latter is dried in the streets in the sun and the pungent scent fills the air.

Ancient almond trees cast shade over the nutmeg forest.

Back in the main town Banda Niera, there is an eclectic mix of buildings. There are a fair sprinkling of crumbling grand colonial buildings, now mostly hotels or museums, In the Cilu Bintang Hotel we drank a cold beer on the columned terrace, sitting on beautiful period chairs, surrounded by all the trappings of its wealthy Dutch past. Outside scooters scurry back and forth down the ever narrowing lanes that lead into Arabic style souqs or tightly packed areas of small colourful sometimes Dutch influenced houses. On the sea front, homes appear more ramshackle, docks and boats competing for space. And encompassing all this are the steep volcanic hills rich with lush greenery and the once priceless nutmeg trees.

One for the dodgy dock collection

The main volcano, Banda Api, erupted just thirty years ago and two large streams of lava run down its steep sides. We were told there was good snorkelling where the barren black rock reaches the sea but as we approach through the deep dark water this doesn’t seem likely. So it’s a surprise when we put our heads under the water to find the best coral we’ve seen since Fiji. Banda gets the thumbs up.

A Right Royal Welcome

Monday 30th June 2018

Selaya Fishing Village

This must be how royalty feels. Each village has been lavishly decorated with flags, their streets flanked by dancing warriors with crowds waving from their doorsteps.

A right royal welcome to Selaya

The villagers have all entertained us with music and dance troupes, the boys armed with spears and swords perform a traditional war dance, the girls, heads demurely tilted, sway with fans or tassels. The cruisers, or yachters as we are call here, have been invited on to the floor, our clumsily efforts paling in comparison. Food has generously been prepared, mostly fish and interesting dishes made from seaweeds, a speciality of the region, all deliciously spiced as is the way with Indonesian cuisine. I drank a ginger tea, that thick and sweet, can be best described as a cup of liquid ginger cake.

The effort each village has obviously put into our visit has been humbling and we feel we have given little but our presence in return.

An evening of entertainment at Wab Nagufur Beach

Of course along with all entertainment comes speeches from the local dignitaries and people high up in the ministry of tourism, often full of self importance keen to be seen by each other doing their bit. The villages have gone to great lengths to supply English speakers to translate and the message is ‘please tell other people to come and visit our islands’. Tourism is currently centred on Bali and the rest of Indonesia is keen to share in the spoils.

There is certainly plenty of traditional Indonesia to explore, the colours every where are incredible and the people welcoming. If there is enough infrastructure, transport, accommodation, freedom of movement is another question however.

The children especially are delightful, bright smiling faces greeting us at every turn. Most have a few phrases of English and are excited to use them. With over 30 boats in the anchorage, parking of each dingy is quite a challenge especially with a two metre spring tide added into the mix. We returned one evening to the dark dock all wondering how we were going to reach our dinghies which were now three metres down below the quay. No problem, adults armed with torches had assigned one small boy to each dingy, who on request paddled it to the steps so we could get on. Such small attention to detail by the locals continued to make us feel special.

Hundreds of smiling faces

By the end of four days, however, our enthusiasm for coach trips over pot holed roads and sitting sweltering through official pronouncements of welcome were beginning to wane. So Saturday we took a last trip into the larger town of Langgur, cajoled a couple more million rupiah out of the ATM, stocked up with what we could find at the market and prepared to set off.

Finding anchorages here is not easy, coastal waters are very deep right up to the surrounding reefs and information from those that have gone before is sparse. From the charts and google earth I picked out a likely spot about 40nm in the direction towards our next rally stop, with the potential for shelter and a chance to swim and snorkel. A few other yachts were heading the same way and between us we felt we could narrow down the choices of bays. The one I had picked, turned out to be full of fishing and seaweed growing rigs and exposed to fetch. On the north side of the same island, Palau Walir, another boat found a quieter spot and we all converged there.

Finally we could swim, the water was 26 degrees, a reef sat just a hundred metres from our stern and there were no crocodiles or deadly jelly fish.

Colourful beneath the water as above

The reef was best snorkelled at low tide where as the beach was only reachable when it was high. Unfortunately the turquoise water and white sand was spoilt by more of the rubbish we are finding everywhere in Indonesia. The beach was backed by coconut trees and there was evidence of a small amount of copra production reminiscent of that in French Polynesia. The odd long boat came past and we found a small traditional dug out canoe full of fishing nets. The rubbish is obviously not being produced in this bay but must arrive on the tide from other more populace parts. How the country starts to tackle this enormous problem is difficult to say but if they want to preserve their beautiful surroundings and the life in their seas that they depend on for food, and attract tourists, it is something they are going to have to do.

Traditional dug out canoe.

D├Ębut in Debut

Wednesday 25th July 2018

It has been a long time since the Call to Prayer has acted as our alarm clock, we have arrived in Debut, Indonesia and sit anchored in sight of three mosques. The Call here is much more tuneful than we remember from our time in the Middle East and adds to the exotic atmosphere we have immediately felt.

It is a beautiful day, the light is soft, the bay calm and in the cool morning air we sit, for what seems like the first time in months, without being battered by high winds.

It was, after eight months, strange to be leaving Australia. But we didn’t have much time to dwell on the matter, with the wind behind us, Raya was in her element, we flew out of the Torres Strait and into the Arafura Sea. After the first day it was rather rolly, with often flogging sails, in a lumpy sea but it was good to reacquaint ourselves with the challenges of longer passages after day sailing for so long.

Small dolphins joined us a couple of times to play at the bows and with the moon setting in the early hours we had the best of both worlds, half the night was moonlit, the other full of stars. We had been warned that their would be a lot of fishing activity, especially at night and to keep far offshore where possible. Huge, unlit, fishing rigs can be very nasty if you don’t spot them in time.

Bamboo and wood fishing rig tied up in Debut

Luckily we didn’t knowingly come close to one, we did however nearly get caught in one of the large nets that are trailed up to a mile behind small fishing boats, their ends only marked by tiny flashing lights. Others were not so lucky we know of at least three boats that got caught.

On Sunday, as dusk fell, we began to realise we were surrounded by brightly lit boats. These delightfully, rustic craft, amazingly anchored in over 40m, shine lights down into the ocean to attract and then catch squid. In the growing darkness an intense glow appeared on the horizon, we checked the chart more than once for a possible city but the shore was over 30 miles away and from what we could see was sparsely inhabited. As we came closer we concluded it was in fact a city, a city of hundreds of squid boats.

Fishing boat city

We arrived in a Debut, after working hard to slow the boat and time our entry, at around 9am on Monday morning. The route into the port was unmarked and uncharted. Luckily we had come prepared, marking the chart with waypoints I had taken from satellite images of the reefs while we still had internet in Australia.

Once anchored safely we managed to celebrate with a ‘got here’ before a continuous stream of officials began arriving at the boat. They arrived by traditional long boat, their approach announced by the lawn mower putt putt of their engines.

Quarantine offers arriving by long boat

It has taken us two days to process all the paperwork, fight through the confusion surrounding the data and phone systems and equip ourselves with, at 10,000 Indonesian Rupiah equal to only 50p, literally millions in local currency.

We did get the time to wander around a few of the streets close to the dock. The colours here are vivid, the prettily painted houses and brightly coloured flowers are all backed by lush greenery and the blue of the sea.

Main street down to the wharf at Debut

This is only the second year the rally has started their Indonesian travels in Debut and the sailors on the yachts are pretty much the only outsiders that ever come here. The town is in festival mode, friendly faces excitedly gathering at the dock offering to help us in anyway they can. And in this world where the smart phone is king, everyone is desperate to have a selfie with the visitors.

Tomorrow the official celebrations start, local dancers will greet us, there is a trip to a fishing village and dignitaries all the way from Jakarta are hosting a welcome dinner.

Loved this local wooden boat in construction at the bottom of the garden.