August 2015 - Indonesia

1 August 2015  Tual to Banda (Day 1)
The alarm went off at half past five and we were moving half an hour later.  We had a very slow start with hardly any wind, so we motored for a couple of hours.  Once we cleared the island, the wind picked up to a very nice 20-25 knots from the south-east putting us on a port broad reach.  The waves were only 1-2 metres, so we had a very pleasant day.

We've finally caught up with the "rival" Sail2Indonesia rally, who’ve been anchored on the other side of the island in a town called Debut.  There are over 50 boats on the rally and we've been hearing them on the VHF radio, while we were in Tual.  Their next stop is Banda, so we'll be bumping into them when we arrive.  We know a few of the boats in the rally, so it will be good to see old friends.

By nine o'clock, the chatter on the radio had increased to a constant noise as 10-20 boats left Debut and were telling each other to watch out for fishing buoys and various reefs.  It was amusing to watch them scatter on the AIS.  Eventually, it settled down and we have a small flotilla of at least five boats heading for Banda.  One of the boats is "Keyif", a Turkish boat with Selim and Nadine, who we met in the Galapagos and last saw in New Zealand.

We had to sail 40 miles to clear the Kai Islands, where we saw a few fishing boats and were forced to skirt around a few buoys with black flags and Fish Attraction devices, despite the water being over 200 metres deep.  Then we had a scare.  We were both doing our own thing - I'd been down below sorting out an email and Glenys was sitting in the cockpit absorbed with researching future anchorages, when I thought I heard shouting.  

We had our starboard rain panel zipped onto the bimini to keep the sun out of the cockpit.  I peered around and was shocked to see a fishing boat just 25 metres away, with the fishermen waving hello. They were anchored in over 200 metres of water at least 10 miles from land.  We enthusiastically waved back, relieved that we hadn't hit them.

Approaching the Bandas Islands

The rest of the day was uneventful and great sailing.  After dark we had a full moon, with clear skies and constant SE 20-25 knot winds, so it was an idyllic night.

2 August 2015  Tual to Banda (Day 2)
“Keyif” slowly overtook us overnight, but the wind backed 15 degrees before dawn and I’d already rigged up our pole to port, so we were easily able to sail wing-on-wing while they continued on with their genoa being de-powered by their main sail.  The race was on.

Slowly and remorselessly, we gained on them and we were side by side as we went through the channel past Pisang Island into the Bandas Island group, so we entertained ourselves by taking pictures of each other’s boats under sail.

One of the islands is an impressive cone-shaped volcano called Gunung Api, which rises steeply to a height of 666m and last erupted in 1988.  Just across a ½ mile stretch of water lies the island of Pulua Neira and the main town Banda Neira.  There were already ten or so boats from the Sail2Indonesia rally in the harbour and they helped us to dock stern-to a sea wall outside the Hotel Maulana (04°31.41S 129°53.85E).

Once secured, we relaxed for the afternoon, catching up on some sleep.  In the evening, we met “Red Herring” for a beer or two along with a load of other cruisers including Mike and Rosie from “Shakti” who we last met in the Marquesas.  We had a buffet dinner at the hotel - our first Indonesian meal and very nice, but tourist prices at 10,000 rupiah each ($10US). “Red Herring” talked us into climbing the volcano with them tomorrow.

3 August 2015  Banda Neira, Indonesia
We picked up Graham and Karen from “Red Herring” at eight o’clock and dinghied across the harbour to the island called Gunung Api  (“Mountain of Fire”).  There’s a prominent blue house on the shore and the trail starts a white building that is a kind of shelter (around 04°31.52S  129°53.54E). We pulled our dinghy up onto the small rocky beach and chained it to this building.

We walked up past the building and followed an obvious footpath heading straight up the hill.  After going through a lovely bamboo grove, the path became steeper and at times we were scrambling.  The ground is very loose in places, so we were glad that we were wearing our strong hiking shoes.  The trail goes straight up the mountain (no nice switch-backs here), so it was a gruelling 90 minutes to get to the top.

Approaching the Bandas Islands

The view of the Banda Island group is fantastic.  At the summit is a very dodgy-looking, overhanging cornice on the edge of the steep-sided crater.  The ground is compacted pumice and ash, with large cracks and holes in the soil, so we kept well away from the edge.  Instead, we followed the crater rim anti-clockwise for a hundred metres to a point below the summit, where we had a fabulous view down into the crater and could clearly see the lava flow from the 1988 eruption, all the way down to the sea.

The walk back down was a mission, hanging onto tree branches while sliding down on the loose path.  Part way down, we stopped and watched a huge ferry manoeuvring onto the town dock.  Its stern was only 50 metres from our raft of yachts and the prop wash was bouncing our boats around.  One boat called “Tulu” who was closest to the ferry and was pushed onto the harbour wall, putting a dink in their transom and banging their rudder off the rocky seabed.   They escaped with minor damage.

Back on the boat, we had lunch and a quick nap, then walked into town.  We’ve run out of cash and had to borrow R700,000 rupiah from Karen on “Red Herring”, so our first stop was the bank.  Unfortunately, we couldn’t get any money out of the ATM using either our Mastercard or Visa cards.   The damn bank closed at three o’clock, ten minutes before we got there.

We wandered off down into the narrow streets near to the shore where there are lots of small shops selling all sorts of things.  There’s no supermarket here, so you have to hunt out the things you want.  The locals here are used to yachties, so some of them speak a little English and everyone knows how to say “Hello”.

High Street Banda Neira

We’re trying to speak Indonesian (“Bahasa Indonesia”) and the locals love our feeble attempts.  There’s no relationship to any of the European languages that we have used, so it’s a matter of just remembering the words - “Terima Kasih” is “Thank you” and “Tidak” is “No”.  Fortunately, there are no tenses, plurals or genders, so once we’ve mastered the pronunciation and start remembering the words, it should become easier.  They speak the same language in Malaysia, so there’s a great incentive to learn.

The biggest challenge at the moment is the money.  Not only do we have to cope with the strange numbers (Satu, Dua, Tiga, Empat…), but we also have to cope with the fact that the locals miss out the thousands.  So the tomatoes that we bought cost “Dua Puluh” which is 20, but the note we hand over says 20,000, which is $2US…

I spotted some Quails Eggs, so just had to buy some - when hard boiled, they’re lovely to eat as a snack.  There are a lot around in the small stores, apparently they collect them from the rice fields where the birds lay them.  

Back at the boat, I tried to check how much Internet data we had left on our iPad.  The iPad is “clever” because it has a special mechanism that automatically works out how much data is left on a SIM Card.  Unfortunately, the Indonesia telecom company (Telkomsel) who we’re using haven’t implemented this “clever” protocol.   To find out how much data we have left, we have to ring special number (*888#), but the iPad doesn’t have a phone, so I can’t ring it.  The iPad SIM card doesn’t fit in our phone, so we have a catch 22.

I eventually found an app provided by Telkomsel, which runs on the iPad and lets you find out how much data is left and even allows us to top-up on-line.  Brilliant!  I downloaded it and went to log in, but the app wants a token code and ….. to get the token code, you have to ring a special number (*232#) and we already know the iPad doesn’t have a phone - Aaarrrrgghhhh!

We went for beers and a meal of fried rice and noodles with “Red Herring” at the dive centre.  While I was there I arranged a scuba dive in a few days’ time on the 6th.  

Moored in Banda Neira

The dive centre is struggling because petrol is in very short in the Bandas because the boat that normally goes to Ambon to get fuel has a damaged engine.  The dive centre has a small dive compressor (like mine), but can’t fill tanks because they have no petrol.  

I’ve arranged for a boat to take six of us diving, but we’ve got to bring our own tanks & gear and they just provide the boat and a dive master.  We’ll come back to the anchorage at lunch time, fill our tanks and then go out for a second dive in the afternoon.  It will only cost $15US per dive, so that’s cool. 

4 August 2015  Banda Neira, Indonesia
I called our bank and credit card companies on Skype to check if there was a problem with our cards, but they both said that there they weren’t blocking the cards and they are fine for use in Indonesia. We walked into town to the bank and tried the ATM machine again, but no joy.  We went inside the bank and they told us that we can only get money over the counter if we have an account there.

The bank won’t even exchange US dollars, so we were sent over the road to a Chinese shop.  A really nice guy there exchanged $200US at a good exchanged rate giving us R2.6 million rupiah.  It’s obvious that he does this a lot because he even had a machine to count bank notes.

We had a wander around the narrow streets, stopping to chat with some of the locals.  We met one guy who runs a business exporting nutmeg and other spices to Holland.

Lothoir Village

After lunch, we went on a spice plantation tour organised by a nice lady called Ayu at the hotel which we’re moored off.  There were only two of us, so instead of us having a private charter boat, our guide Cinta, took us to the dock and we clambered on board one of the many wooden boats that chug between the islands.  It cost us $0.50US for the two mile trip to the village of Lothoir on Banda Besar, where we learned some of the turbulent history of the region.

The Banda Islands are part of the Maluku region of Indonesia, known as the Spice Islands. 

Nutmeg was once unique to the Banda Islands. When dried and processed these nuts yield nutmeg spice, which was historically used as a hypnotic medicine – it shares a common chemical ingredient with the rave drug ecstasy. Today, both nutmeg and mace are used mostly in fruitcakes, seafood sauces and liqueurs.

Cloves were the ancient world’s cure for toothache, halitosis and sexual disinterest. Today they’re popular in mulled wine and cooking, and used in the manufacture of chewing gum, perfumes and toothpaste. 

By the 1st century AD, Maluku spices were reaching Europe via tortuous and risky caravan routes through India and the Persian Gulf.  This made them vastly expensive.  Eventually Europeans figured out that they could save money by seeking the source of the spices for themselves.

The Portuguese showed up in 1510, but were superseded by the Dutch who arrived in Banda in 1599.  They built forts in Banda and defended their trade from their European rivals.  In 1621, the Dutch Governor General, acting for the Dutch East India Company, shockingly killed all of the native islanders, apart from several hundred who escaped to the Kai Islands.  He then leased the land to Dutch plantation owners, who imported slaves to farm the spices.

Nutmeg with red Mace

This system survived for almost 200 years.  In the late 1790s, the Dutch East India Company became bankrupt and the English took over control of the region.  They only stayed for a short time, but smuggled out precious spice-tree seedlings to plant in their colonies in Malaysia, Sri Lanka and the Caribbean. Within decades Maluku was becoming economically irrelevant as its spices could now be produced cheaply elsewhere. 

As we walked through Lothoir, at practically every house, there were tarpaulins stretched out on the ground with nutmeg, mace, cloves, almonds and cinnamon drying in the hot sun.  The smell of spices is lovely.   Cinta took us up some steep steps into the plantation, which was “acquired” by the government from its previous Dutch owners and parcelled off into small plots to be managed by the villagers.  The villagers pay a tax on their sales to the government.

The plantation has huge kenari trees, which produce a type of Almond nut and shade the smaller nutmeg, clove and cinnamon trees.  Cinta asked one of the villagers show us how they harvest nutmeg.  The nutmeg fruit grown throughout the year and the farmers walk around their groves with a hook on a long pole.  When they spot a ripe nutmeg they use the pole to hook and pull the fruit from the tree - a very laborious business.  Fruits that have ripened to the point where they spilt open on the tree are premium quality.

The nutmeg shell is cut open to reveal the nutmeg wrapped in mace.  The mace is pulled off the nutmeg and the two parts are dried separately.  The farmers get $15US for a kilogram of dried nutmeg and more for mace.

The farmer cut a small piece of cinnamon bark from a tree and it tastes amazing - very strong and sweet.  Apparently, they roll the cinnamon bark into a tube and tie it while it is drying to give it the shape that we’re used to seeing in our supermarkets.   

We also saw cloves growing, which are the small unopened flower buds of the Cengkeh Tree.  They are harvested when the red flower is just appearing and are cut down using sharpened hook on a pole. 

On the way back through the village, we stopped off at a house and had some chilled cinnamon tea with a very tasty plantain cooked in cinnamon syrup.  Glenys bought a big bag of mace for $3US - she’s no idea what to use it for yet, but it looked and smelled nice.

Ride on Water-bus

The public water buses stop running from Lothoir in the afternoon, so we walked to another village and picked up a water bus at their very long pier.  There were only a few people on the boat, so we had a great time chatting to the locals, getting them to teach us “Bahasa Indonesia” (Indonesian).

Back at the boat, before we settled down for the night, I went for a snorkel along the sea wall.  I’ve been told that there are Mandarinfish living in the coral rubble at about 5 metres depth in front of the dive centre.  These two inch long, beautiful, red and green fish only come out at dusk, but despite spending 30 minutes looking, I couldn’t find any.  The sea bed is littered with rubbish and the water is filthy, so I won’t be trying again.  

5 August 2015  Banda Neira, Indonesia
After a late breakfast, we walked into town.  Our first stop was the bank, but the ATM machine wasn’t working at all, so we wandered over to see our Chinese friend and he gave us a better exchange rate for $300US - R13,500 to $1.  Not bad, but we only have $1,000US cash left, so I hope that we get some money from a bank soon.

The battery in my watch had stopped working, so I took it to a watch repair guy, who has a little wooden trolley on the side of the road.  He didn’t speak any English, but I indicated that the battery needed replacing.  The guy flipped the back off and fitted a new battery, but the small digital display was flashing strangely.  I couldn’t get it to reset, so the guy gestured to give it back to him.  

He removed the battery and scraped the battery contacts with a screwdriver, but that didn’t work either.  Pointing his finger in the air to indicate that he’d had a brilliant idea, he took the cigarette out of his mouth, blew the end to make it glow red and to my horror pressed his cigarette into the inside of my £350 Tissot Titanium watch, obviously trying to melt the solder on the battery contact.  This didn’t work, but we found that pressing the button in while inserting the battery worked - phew! 

Watch Repair Man

Flushed with success, we went to sort out our phone and iPad.  We were lucky because there was a young man at the phone shop, who spoke good English.  When I say phone shop, it was actually a six foot by six foot booth opening out onto the street.  Anyway, he tried to get our phone working, but eventually worked out that the SIM card wasn’t registered properly - we should take it back to where we bought it - Tual, 120 miles back upwind - yeah right!

A new SIM card costs R20,000 ($2US), so I said that we’d buy a new one, but they didn’t have any left.   We moved onto the iPad and explained that we wanted to add 3GB to our data SIM card.  He asked another guy who said that they couldn’t do that - mass confusion.   It turned out that these small operators are only allowed a certain amount of call time/data and they had used all of theirs up for the time being.

They directed to another shop past the fort.  Unfortunately, they didn’t speak any English, but after ten minutes, they’d also worked out that the phone SIM was useless, so I bought another one plus $10 worth of call time.  Once we’d sorted that out we tackled the iPad.  After removing the SIM card and inserting it onto various phones, they managed to add 3GB of data to the card and even managed to get the token code, so we now have the telecom app working.

We went for a look around the nicely restored Dutch fort perched above the town.  The guide book says:  It’s a five-pointed star fort in classic Vauban style, built at great expense in 1611. The massive cannon-deflecting bastions, over-engineered for the relatively easy task of keeping out lightly armed island intruders, were clearly designed to withstand English naval bombardment.  So in 1796, it caused quite a scandal in Holland when the English managed to seize it without firing a shot.

We went for a meal at a very nice hotel/restaurant called “Cila Bintang Estate”, which is across the road from the fort entrance.  There were already some cruisers in there, so we joined them.  We had a nice lunch of Fried Rice and Fried Noodles for 4,000 rupiah each.  Not bad for such a flash place.

Back on the boat, we chilled out for the afternoon and then prepared our dive gear ready for tomorrow.  Unfortunately, one of our tanks was totally empty because the over-pressurisation “burst” disk in the valve had ruptured.  I don’t have any spare burst disks, so I went to the dive centre to see if they had any.  No chance.  Fortunately, there were loads of cruisers at a happy hour and Stan from “Buffalo Nickel” has offered to lend me a tank tomorrow.

6 August 2015  Banda Neira, Indonesia
It was a rough night.  There was some kind of party going on in town and they were playing loud music all night.  It doesn’t matter where we are in the world, parties always seem to continue until dawn - “Yeah man, it was a great party, we danced all night”.

Dive boat picking us up

The dive boat came to pick us up at nine o’clock and then collected Brian & Sandy from “Persephone” and Stan & Val from “Buffalo Nickel”.  They took us over to Pulua Pisang (Banana Island) and we entered the water at the north end of a low cliff (around 04°29.64S 129°56.05E).  

We descended to 25 metres and followed a nice wall, heading south.  Unfortunately, the visibility was poor, with lots of plankton in the water, but we spotted a Nudibranch called a Crested Nembrotha.  These are a kind of sea slug, only a couple of inches long, which have their gills exposed on their backs.

After the dive, the boat dropped us off at our yachts, were we had time to fill our tanks and have lunch, before being taken to the edge of the lava flow on Gunung Api  (04°30.35S 129°52.82E). The volcano last erupted in 1988, so the coral at this dive spot is very young, but it is impressively varied and colourful.  Despite being a shallow dive at less than 15 metres, the visibility was worse than the first dive, but I got a nice snapshot of a Spine-cheek Anenomefish.

Back at the boat, we tidied up a bit, getting ready to start a three night, 400 mile passage to Wakatobi tomorrow.

7 August 2015  Banda Neira to Wakatobi, Indonesia (Day 1)
We left port on a Friday again.  After our bad luck leaving Port Moresby a couple of weeks ago, I was a little nervous, especially as we had to extricate ourselves from the row of yachts lined up against the dock wall.  Each boat had dropped their anchor; backed up; and tied two lines to trees ashore.   Dotted around were a series of buoys and ropes placed by the locals who normally moor their boats here.

It should have been a simple operation - someone unties our two stern lines from the trees; we motor forwards slowly as we pull up the anchor; and when clear, off we go.  However, (especially on a Friday), there was much scope for disaster - snag a shore line around something in the water as we pull it on board; wrap a local mooring line around the propeller;  get the anchor stuck on an underwater obstruction;  pull up someone else’s anchor while pulling ours up; and (of course) any combination of the above.

Yachts moored stern-to

We made sure that our neighbours were on deck, in case we pulled up their anchor and ….. it all went rather well.  Ten minutes later, we were in the middle of the bay, drifting slowly while we got the dinghy on deck, stowed fenders and coiled the shore lines.  By nine o’clock, we were clear of the harbour and on our way.  Perhaps, it’s only unlucky to leave a country on a Friday.

Once clear of the islands, we had a lovely sail all day with south-east,  15 knot winds pushing us along at 6 knots on a broad reach.  The seas were only 1-1½ metres, so the motion was very pleasant.  While I was in bed having an afternoon nap, Glenys hooked a big swordfish, which tore line out of the reel, while leaping into the air.  She slowly tightened the clutch on the reel, but it snapped the 60 lb line.  Oh well.

The pleasant conditions continued into the night and it was very relaxing.  There was no moon until well after midnight, but there was a strange glow to the sea, which appeared to be milky.  It seemed to be some kind of dull phosphorescence, dimly radiating and looked very ethereal.  The effect disappeared when the moon appeared.