South Sumatra

West and South Coast Sumatra, Sunda Strait, Belitung

14th April to 25th May

Isolation, sailing again, games, fitness, eating and …..stuff

Barogang is about half way down the left side of Sumatra. We’re now at Pulau Belitung (lower right)

Think of Sumatra as a giant sausage with a bulging middle, reclining a bit to the left. The sausage is about a thousand miles long and packed with mountains and jungles and lakes and amazing wildlife and exotic cultures and colourful welcoming people, a fabulous world of diversity. Utterly amazing – I am sure.

But despite sailing its entire length from north to south we have not seen a single bit of it!

We have not even set foot on the Sumatra sausage. (Such are the restrictions needed to appease this global menace of Covid.) Just a few brief footfalls on some of the many islands with exotic names that lie about 60 miles off Sumatra’s west coast: Siberut, Mentawai, Nias, Simeulue.

And we have now rounded the southern tip of Sumatra, anchored as I write this, some 15 miles north of Krakatoa and its adjacent troubled simmering volcano islands. (I finished writing it a long time later, a complete circumnavigation of Sumatra completed – without once landing on it.)

Krakatoa simmers in the distance – tug and barge passing in front

Krakatoa lies in the passage between Sumatra and Java, the Sunda Strait. Scenically magnificent – when the haze cleared enough to see the nearby volcanoes and lush green mountain forests.

Of course it has been disappointing to miss seeing one of Indonesia’s largest and most amazing islands. But compared with the disappointments and frustrations and pain of most of the planet, we have been very fortunate.

This post covers some of what we have done with the past several weeks. (Though I must confess that it is sometimes a case that on Thursday I cannot remember what I did on Tuesday, even though I’m sure we have been pretty busy – at least a bit busy.)

Yachts anchored off Pulau Barogang (drone photo thanks to Javerne)

A month ago we were settled with a cluster of fellow yachts anchored off our very own isolation island, called Barogang. Like neighbours on an exclusive housing estate we were both respectful of others’ privacy and yet gregarious and supportive enough to share news and views, snacks and games parties. And the fleet included some very fine cooks, practical craftsmen and skilled designers. And, in case you want to know, our games repertoire was extensive:- Mexican Train, Rummy, Scrabble, and ‘Chase the Bitch’ (This is the Australian phrase for what I thought was ‘Hearts’); and another Australian one, ‘Spite and Malice’. (Does Australian vocabulary tell us something of cultural differences?)

Empty bottle stock hugely increased since we left

The exclusive isolation island of Barogang wasn’t Alcatraz, of course not. We were well supplied with food, company was sound, a nearby beach enabled leg stretching, body-surfing and other things deemed good for human well-being. Life was leisurely.

Hammock on loan from kind ever-friendly Florence

And sailors more dynamic than us built a roofed bar area, cultivated a vegetable garden, bought chicken, cleared jungle, drank cocktails, stroked pussycats and tickled pigs’ tummies. But after four weeks, and the real prospect of many more, Henrietta was itching to move on. We left.

We left some fine friends in Barogang

Two weeks’ good wind blew us the final few hundred miles south along the Sumatran coastline, past grey and awesome mountains, fabulous skies and glistening turquoise surfers’ swells.

On reflection, the wind was not always so ‘good’; one long overnight stretch included one of those exhausting spells of tropical ITCZ conditions (look it up): winds wildly spinning through all points of the compass and leaping about from zero to over 40 knots. Reef, preventer on, spinnaker pole up, gybe, pole down, preventer off, reefs out….repeat…several times, all the while being rolled and tossed about and drenched with downpours of rain.

Very tiresome and wearisome, and at times like that you wonder if a more normal retirement mightn’t be such a bad thing.

At last some good sailing…

Anyhow, forget that bit; unpleasantness is soon a distant fast-fading memory.

We breezed into the Sunda Strait early one morning a day or two later, turned left at the corner at the bottom of Sumatra and sailed north of Krakatoa, that renowned volcano (too far off our course and recently too active to visit) and stopped at a couple of tiny villages on isolated islands; local people as friendly and happy as ever with waving and smiles – though keeping very well away (bar one cheery young family who came to chat and sell us sweet slimy coconut cakes).

Small peaceful isolated communities in Sunda Strait
Always a friendly smile and wave…
..and colourful local craft

Intention was then to head east along north coasts of Java and Bali to Lombok. But weather gods were hostile. After more than two days furious beating into relentless headwinds, head currents and bang-slap waves, we turned and sailed instead to the island of Belitung. (Billiton in English – the source if you’re interested, of BHP Billiton’s name; here tin mining).  

The local beach at Belitung- on a very wet morning

Our isolation islet of Kelayang

We have a fine place to anchor. Henrietta was here nearly two years ago. But now it is empty: no other yachts, all beach bars and cafes and restaurants closed, rarely anyone on the long sandy beach, a scattering of small fishing boats that continue to putter offshore at dusk.

Swimming to find a way out
Isolated in paradise?

In this Province of Indonesia all new arrivals are quarantined, whoever, whenever, whyever. After blood tests (negative) we have two weeks of isolation. No hardship whatsoever and few folk can have enjoyed such privileged ‘isolation’.

You may ask…

We have the entire little islet of Kelayang to ourselves. (It’s normally thronging with trippers) We snorkel its unique and beautiful rocks, amble on the beach, practice yoga ….and simply appreciate how very lucky we are to be here in Indonesia with the world’s most warm-hearted, happy, generous people.

Freedom in isolation

Laura, quite apart from being the most perfect crew that any sailor could ever wish for, and being an all-round marvellous person, has me sticking to a rigorous Teutonic regime of ‘planking’ (yes, I’ve tummy muscles fit for Mr Universe). Plus she has introduced me to Germany’s National Card Game. It’s called ‘Skat’.

Beauty and the Beast play Skat (Officers’ Skat)

No! Do not laugh. It is the National Card game. It is played with all the serious earnest vigour and concentration that Germany expends on its car industry and beer. Though quite why a nation so hard-working, rational and cultivated should have devised such an absurdly illogical and tricky card game, I cannot think. To be precise Skat needs three people, and, as there are only two of us, we have a modified version called ‘Offiziersskat’. Laura almost always wins.

So you can see, life in the age of Covid goes on. Different of course for all of us.

Aboard Henrietta I am forever conscious that it’s only us human beans that are bothered. The turtles flipper around us in contentment, untroubled dolphins visit, the sun sets and rises, birds sing timidly and sweetly, rain patters down and sunshine bakes us dry.

Whatever happens next is anyone’s guess – not mine.

Where next?

NORTH WEST SUMATRA

NW Malaysia to NW Sumatra, Indonesia

24th February to 13th April 2020

Farewell Malaysia, Indonesia once more, and a world turned upside down

tidy the chaos on board and….
Sail west to sunset and Sumatra

Normality absent for a while, your worlds on hold or disrupted, cut short or drastically modified. Regular activities curtailed, plans torn up, and perhaps for you (though I trust not) anxiety, mild hysteria, poverty, ill health or worse. 

As ever, I count myself lucky. I’ll not dwell unduly on current global virus obsessions. For us who travel slowly on boats, freedom is one of the prime reasons that we are here. Most of us are always and forever excited at the knowledge we are able to leave a place and move on at will; free to try new anchorages, meet new people, see new life. We may only exist on the fringes of the normal societies we visit, merely brief visitors,  but that means we are less tied to the controls, pressures and norms of anywhere on land. 

Now that those freedoms are no longer here, we have had our wings clipped; we can no longer sail where and when and how we want. But it really isn’t all that tough or grim or bad! Whatever happens with mortals handcuffed to land, we still have sunshine, unsullied nature and the open sea around us.

Henrietta is just one of very many hundreds of little boats around the world that are pretty well stuck. Legally in Indonesia for now (though visas not being renewed), we know that other countries do not want us unless we are their citizens. Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, Thailand, Mauritius, Madagascar, Sri Lanka, India: these are within reasonable range. But for now they’re all closed. We are bound to Indonesia, even though limited in how we may move within this vast country.

But Indonesia is as good a place as any to lie at anchor. In fact it’s perhaps one of the very best countries in which to lie at anchor. Here in Sumatra it’s usually hot and sunny (keeps batteries topped up), there’s usually some food that local people bring us, scenery is picture-postcard pretty – deserted sandy beaches, coconut palms, clear water and coral or steady glistening rollers of surf, sometimes heavy rain showers (keeps water tanks topped up), people generally friendly (though more distant than is usual, and very occasionally we are certainly not welcome).

Sailing life is of course disrupted. We cannot enter towns and this year’s plan for me to cross the Indian Ocean is postponed a year or cancelled altogether. 

But as I’ve already said, I am lucky. Now I’ll tell you what we’ve been up to. I’ll try to keep it brief.

First Sumatra stop, the island of Weh

With boat work completed at Pangkor (new batteries, gas pipework, shaft seal,engine service, antifouling etc etc – a long and dull list….), Henrietta was relaunched and I sailed north again up the Malaysian coastline via Penang to Langkawi. New sails – for me always one of the more thrilling (and pricey) items of essential periodic replacement.

In early March I left Langkawi, Malaysia and set sail for North Sumatra, two days and overnight sails away, little realising that in those two days, countries would close their borders and drastically restrict movements. Those who were later than me leaving were stuck in Malaysia or Thailand. 

A small sailing rally along the Sumatran coast and on to Borneo was cancelled before it could start. (I was to have joined for a part of it). But officials stamped passports, took our temperatures, allowed us ashore (for two days) and quickly the restrictions that the world is now familiar with came into play.

Two new crew members arrived as planned. Just one day later and it would not have been possible. Here’s a picture of the truly lovely Judith and Laura. (See what I mean about being lucky?)

Judith and Laura. It’s a tough life, yet they always smile…

At this point I’ll quickly tell you that Sumatra is the world’s sixth biggest island (or is it fifth?), twice the area of the United Kingdom and about a thousand miles from northwest to southeast. The next month or two or more (who knows?) we’ll sail along its length and the many smaller islands that lie along it. If we are allowed to, that is.

We slowly sail down the west side of this huge island, Sumatra

On the final day of relative freedom, before leaving Sabang, I joined others for a whirlwind motorcycle tour around the island of Weh: lush mountain scenery in every shade of green  and grey, waterfall and freshwater swim, beachside meal with waves lapping gently at golden sand (It may sound like a cliche, but it really was dreamy gorgeous). Here are the photos….

Next day after hurried shopping and meeting up with Laura and Judith, we are confined on board – no more landing allowed. It’s time to move on. Officialdom in this bit of Northern Aceh may usually be welcoming and friendly, but now we’re not wanted here.

Uniformed folk tell us to leave…after they’d bought us cabbages and onions…

For the next week or two, we stay on board apart from one short walk on a small deserted island, moving on each day, sailing overnight a few times, avoiding larger towns and passing or anchoring off the many small islands that are scattered offshore in this part of Sumatra. (In fact I realise that in more than a month I have not yet visited the main island of Sumatra at all.)

Another solitary isolated anchorage – an uninhabited bit of paradise

We’re told we’ll be more welcome in Teluk Dalam, in the Province of South Nias. So we head there. Sadly Judith leaves from there. She’s one of the world’s two brightest, most friendly, capable, interesting and attractive people. (Laura is the other.) But she needed to return to Belgium.

Quarantine inspection and fumigation in South Nias

One visit ashore at Teluk Dalam. And a visit or two from local lads who needed firm lessons regarding social distancing. Then Laura and I sailed on south. 

I firmly told these cheeky fellows about social distancing and they swam home

We cross the equator back into the Southern Hemisphere, a first for crew (hence the balloons etc). ….and then after several days and nights…..we’re told to head back north to a tiny deserted island (just one part-time guardian).

Laura crosses the equator. A quiet word and beer for Neptune…

This is the island of Barogang. You won’t be heading this way any time soon. It lies close to an island called Tanahbala, which is itself over 60 miles from Sumatra. 

As I write this, there are eight boats here, a mix of Australians, Swiss, English and New Zealand. And as you might expect from such a mix, an old canoe, some bamboo, a few planks and bits of driftwood are soon assembled to form a bar. Large smelly bonfires devour the rubbish and undergrowth that is cleared. And, depending on how long we are here, this may be just phase 1 of an international resort and who knows what…..but probably not…

Clearing a bit of the island of Barogang
Sign artist and admirer. Corona Bar is open (but no stock!)

Compared to most of my family and friends on land we feel blessed. We just need to stay almost wholly isolated (which for now suits both local people and ourselves). There are of course no medical facilities. No internet either. (We moved a few miles to post this update from Henrietta and to find out a little of what goes on in the wider world).

Wonderful South Nias Bupati (Regent) and Raymond (always calm friendly and helpful) come to visit
…and sunsets forever soothing and gracious..

Northwest Malaysia and Cambodia

Langkawi, Penang, Pangkor, Phnom Penh, Siem Reap

17th January to 22nd February

Islands and mountains, temples and tuk tuks

A rather overwhelmingly busy month, of the best kind. You don’t want to know all about it. Even if you think you do you won’t. 

So I’ll just touch on some titbits of NW Malaysia and Cambodia.

With newly modified body parts, viz. eyes minus cataracts (after 60 years with glasses it’s magic without), nose (minus unwanted bit), teeth (a few added) I can keep going forever. (It brings to mind a silly and rather rude little schoolboy rhyme that went something like:

‘Eyes, nose, mouth, chin, 

Walking down to Uncle Jim…’. 

…Chin and Jim are fine by the way.)

…where was I?

Long chopsticks to make a mess of many colourful ingredients – Chinese New Year

Ah yes, I sailed north from Penang to Langkawi (to order new sails, Henrietta’s wardrobe now in a worn out state is deemed unfit for blowy oceans ahead). Langkawi also plays host to several fine friends and it was very good to see them again, and Armelle came to stay and it was very good to see her again. All this around Chinese New Year. So in the morning we tossed food in the air with giant chopsticks (for good luck, great fortunes, health etc) and in the evening had a banquet.

Not so high but steep and hot

Armelle and I spent a few days with rented motorcycle on Langkawi (an island that’s fine in its messily developed way but, in my view, overrated as a tourist destination) and we at last managed a mountain walk without getting lost, up Gunung Mat Chinchang, a very steep sweaty scramble up 700 metres (yes, you’ll need your hands much of the way).

Really quite steep
Look down on those who choose cable car to nearby peak

This takes you higher than the popular cable car/gondolas that might swing you sweat-free to the top of an adjacent peak, but doesn’t give the smug sense of one-upness you get by walking. As there were ropes most of the way it was difficult even for us to get lost.

Give this one a miss. Poster should have warned us.

Joining a crowd of Chinese tourists for the Ecological Organic Fruit Farm tour (forget it’s real title) next day was an eye opener on quintessential Chinese tripper trips but start-to-finish dreadful – ‘nil pointes’, as you’d say for an appalling Eurovision song. Cannot and will never know what’s in the minds of face-masked Chinese tourists, but we tag along obediently.

New Year celebrations go on for many days. This, a local drumming group were very good.

We then sail back south. Next stop 60 miles south, Penang again.

Another hill walk where Armelle and I do get lost. Rather, we don’t get lost but the path on the map ended abruptly at a very high security fence. We crawl underneath with hungry mosquitoes rapidly draining our tasty European blood and find ourselves in Penang’s largest adventure park (I think that’s what it said in the brochure) with the world’s longest water slide – over 1 km (which is what Guinness Book of Records says). Security staff spot us in no time, say we shouldn’t be there. We do know we’ve been naughty so look contrite. Staff promptly stick us on the chair lift to glide serenely back over the tree tops and down the mountain. And kindly firmly guide us to the exit.

Another nice walk – and rest – with my misguided guide

We walk a well worn path through the shade of tropical forest in the Penang National Park instead – and don’t get lost.

And after all that we treat ourselves to Snowy Ice Mountain puddings, sometimes called ABCs (air batu campur) – these probably the best in the entire country!

Armelle left from Penang. I’ll miss her energy, allure and colourful temperament (but seasickness can be a seriously troublesome beast). I’ve learnt something of the utter predictability and pathetically shallow dignity of the male of the species (myself included) when confronted with intelligent mischievous wide-eyed, long-legged Gallic flirtatiousness, all with the figure of Aphrodite. Ridiculous.

And so I sail another 70 miles or so south to Pangkor, and the friendly and beautifully managed boatyard that is Pangkor’s prime attraction for yachtsfolk .

Henrietta is due for some work that I can only do on land. 

So she is lifted out of the water ….and I go to Cambodia

Facemasks de rigueur for many travellers at KL airport


Sometimes it’s good to try out a little bit of life on land.

Cambodia has over 16 million people and is the poorest country in Southeast Asia, its GDP per capita a quarter that of Thailand’s. It is overwhelmingly Buddhist and yet has a history that within my lifetime has seen as much horror, bloodshed and pain as anywhere on earth. In quickly reading something of the Country’s history and politics, I find also that it ranks second to bottom in the world for the Rule of Law, read here if you want more.

Yet I, as a comfortable western traveller, loved the little I saw of Cambodia, fascinating, energetic, industrious, proud and very thought-provoking. I simply ‘did’ some standard hasty tourist sightseeing of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.

You first need to find out how to spell Phnom Penh. Then you can go there.

Waterfront (a tributary of the Mekong) in Phnom Penh

Once there you are in one of the most chaotic, curious and extraordinary capitals of Southeast Asia.

This is where Cambodians seem somehow to retain relics of French colonial buildings, Buddhist temples, and a scattering of skyscrapers, among poor crumbling local shacks, all plonked in a grid network of pot-holed, litter-strewn hot dusty streets that are constantly crisscrossed with anarchic tuk-tuk, motorcycles, cars and trucks. People jostle boldly with traffic and at their peril, pedestrians a poor last in terms of street space (although I gather the rule is that whenever there’s an accident, and there are many, the larger vehicle is always ‘in the wrong’).

Next on the tourism list is the horribly atmospheric Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, S-21, one of the Khmer Rouge detention and torture centres; and then Choeung Ek ‘Killing Fields’, one of many where in total a quarter of the country’s population were murdered and buried between 1975 and 1979 under Pol Pot’s regime of terror. You’d be a very insensitive and amoral soul were you not to be moved by such vivid memorials.

It was Valentines Day which of course I’d forgotten, and it is bittersweet irony that I shared that gruesome trip in a minibus with nine cheery young women staying in my hostel. None of us had a candlelit dinner that evening. A Valentines Day to remember.

 

 

 

 

Next day, (oh dear! This is getting to be another tedious travelogue), I hire a bicycle and join a small group to chance our luck on Phnom Penh’s backstreets, take ferries across the Mekong and meander along rural lanes to silk farm and fruit orchards.

Next thing….this is easy…I do what most ‘young’ travellers do….I take a bus for the six hour trip to Siem Reap…find a cheap and convenient hostel….and then after brief sleep, get up well before dawn to visit Angkor Wat and other temples.

Angkor is, according to UNESCO, the world’s largest religious monument. It covers 163 hectares. The most visited temple is Angkor Wat itself and over two million people come every year; most of them it seemed on the same day as me.

Walking briskly over the floating causeway to Angkor Wat in the cool pre-dawn light you feel you’re part of a massive excited crowd herding to a premiership football match. Others can tell you of the history and scale and marvellous detail of this fabulous temple, and other temples nearby.

For me it was wonderful and I enjoyed the entire hot day ambling among the ruins, some restored most not, of this huge peaceful area, largely lost in drowsy daydreams, a tuk-tuk to help travel between the many sites.

We are reminded whilst here of recent and current Cambodian life with landmine victims who play their timeless Khmer music at the entrances to some of the temples, ill-fitting prosthetic limbs and crutches propped beside them. Sadly the country has an appalling number of limbless people, dreadfully hurt by the indiscriminate murderous landmines.

My holiday over and with mild hangover (led astray on the last night by young companion from the hostel)

Nearly bedtime at a favourite anchorage

I head back to Pangkor and my home, Henrietta, a quick detour by public transport to Penang on the way (need another Indonesian visa). There’s a lot to do but I’ve enjoyed a stimulating break and holiday from life afloat. Ah! It was especially nice to sleep in a proper bed in Cambodia’s hostels – with air conditioning too. The heat aboard boatyarded Henrietta could readily cook meringues. Boat life can sometimes seem austere. It just suits me better than other ways of life – most of the time. (Sorry folks! I seem to have rambled on with this blog update for a lot longer than intended – too lazy to cut it down.)

East to West Malaysia

Kota Kinabalu (Borneo) to Penang (West Malaysia)

Ships and sailing, plus scalpels, stitches, spectacles and more….

6th December 2019 to 16th January 2020

Nice bits first.

Leaving Labuan and the fleet of oil/gasfield support vessels

By early December the N.E. Monsoon winds had arrived over Borneo. Sailing from Kota Kinabalu, Sabah’s capital near the top of Borneo, to Singapore area about 800 miles away, was wonderful after so much motoring a few months earlier:- fast sailing, mostly reaching, all the way, just one stop at the island of Labuan (a bit of sightseeing missed last time and duty free drink – of course).

Coastline North Borneo

Not much sleep though. The sea in these parts is pretty busy with oil and gas rigs, tugs, coastal and long-distance shipping, and fishing boats in many shapes and sizes.

Tug pulling gas rig – very slowly

 

Shipping lanes off Singapore

On Christmas Day, six days later, I anchored off the little Indonesian island of Tolop. It’s a convenient spot before crossing the frantically busy shipping lanes around Singapore, and with adverse spring tides and getting dark with drizzle, I’d decided to pause. Alas, although I’d anchored here before with no trouble, this time the Indonesian navy who have a little base on the island decided to visit. First visiting sailors were friendly, no problems. 

Second visiting sailors were friendly and courteous, but firm upholders of Indonesian security; big problems. I haven’t cleared in. I’m illegally stopped in Indonesia. I should not be here. I should not have anchored. I must leave immediately. They mean it. But I plead fatigue (After six days I am indeed knackered), cannot face ships in the dark, the tide is against me, and to cap it all, I’m a hopeless old  Englishman etc. And it is Christmas Day (albeit in a predominantly Muslim country). My papers (lots of them) and passport are scrutinised, every page turned, and photographed. Long pauses. I smile nervously. There’s talk of fines. I anticipate Christmas in handcuffs. They phone the commanding officer. We wait for response. I offer tins of beer. It gets dark. At last. Phew! It’s OK as long as I leave before dawn. I promise I will. I mean it. 

But as they leave me in peace with a tin of beer, I think of how illegal arrivals might be treated were they to arrive and stop unannounced off the shores of England (or America or Australia for that matter) and feel slightly ashamed. I leave well before dawn and am in amongst the ships as the day breaks. It’s Boxing Day. But global shipping recognises no holidays, and it’s very busy.

Efficient, zealous, polished, multitudinous Singapore patrol boats police their waters. The boat that approaches me probably hasn’t told anyone what to do for an hour or two, so they politely say ‘hello’ and order me to go back in the shipping lane. I comply.

Just for the record, I had not strayed into Singaporean waters. But it’s best not to argue. I dodge ships and they dodge me.

 

Needing exercise, I walked up Penang Hill; and down again – funicular train not working...

Since then, I’ve sailed up the Malacca Straits to Penang. I was here less than a year ago. I.e. After sailing over 7,000 miles in the year I’m back more-or-less where I started. Which goes to prove, if you were not yet convinced, that life is about the journey not the destination.

2019 sailing

Part time crew – she’s not very energetic, just nice

And it’s about the people you encounter on the journey. It has been a privilege and a joy to meet and get to know so many fascinating, kind, friendly, resourceful, generous and adventurous folk. Most cruising sailors and most local Malaysians, Indonesians and others seem to be content with what they do have, not fretting too much about what they don’t.

The not so nice bits of the month? Well, it’s in poor taste to dwell on health stuff.

I’ll just say that after nose job, eyes fixed, teeth in hand, a few other bits fixed, I’m as good as new. Malaysian medical staff and services are fantastic. Professional, helpful, quick. And you don’t need to rob a bank to get it done.

The Henrietta maintenance list is a bit longer than my own.

Chinese New Year is coming up soon. It will be the Year of the Rat (the white metal rat).  Local radio tells me that this signifies Good Luck and some Bad Choices, which if you think about it must cover most things.

Philippines

The Philippines

Lovely people, lousy food and loads of churches

3rd November to 5th December

With Jenny as crew we left Halmahera (a big Indonesian island) for a four day sail to north Mindanao (yet another big island, this one in the Philippines).

IMG_E2593Then followed a busy month that took us through about twenty different anchorages on a dozen of Philippines’ 7,000 odd islands. Just a taster of a giant country. (But then most of this voyage has been a series of tasters – a mere glimpse at a scattering of the world’s lesser travelled outposts.)

I knew nothing of the Philippines, and right now still know next to nothing, so take anything I say with heaps of salt. I did know that Ferdinand Magellan was the first European to visit. He was killed here too.

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Village named after Magellan

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Limasawa, site of the first Christian service in the islands, Easter 1521

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That was in 1521. The islands were named by a Spaniard a few years later in honour of King Philip II of Spain. Spain then retained it as part of its Empire for over 300 years, before selling it to America who kept it, apart from the troubled invasion of Japanese in WWII, till 1946.

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This is Wendell, a pastor from Winnipeg, Canada (which I gather has a large Filippino community) visiting his home island, Limasawa. He seemed to think the Pope might come here to celebrate the 500th Anniverary of Chritianity’s arrival! You heard it first here….

There are now over 100 million Filipinos in the country, with some 19 accepted languages and ten ethnic groups, and at least 10 million more who live and work overseas (and provide a huge chunk of foreign earnings for the nation). IMG_2570

I found people to be universally delightful; laid-back yet quietly industrious, and compared to others in SE Asia, reserved, even shy – though not shy enough to cease some painfully discordant karaoke singing!

The selfie culture that’s become a plague elsewhere, seems absent in the Philippines. (Though keep in mind that I only saw a part of the country.)

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Inquisitive young folk often want to visit Henrietta

Most of the islands seem unvisited by tourists. Tourists appeared, predominantly Korean and Chinese en masse on the little island of Boracay, where around 2 million visitors go each year, dwarfing the local population of 30,000; and there are also many foreigners who go to the big island of Palawan. Everywhere else seemed very traditional with small communities making a living with fishing, copra and small scale agriculture.IMG_2537IMG_2554

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Almost every beach is crowded with these fishing bangka, elegant colourful ‘spider’ boats 

Boracay is a gem of an island (white sand, clear seas, hills), but was deemed so polluted in 2018, that the President had it closed for six months! Sewage systems were improved and plastic cleared up, and I’m happy to say it seemed spotless, safe and a delight – though anchorage decidedly exciting, rolly and deafening as tripper boats and sailing prahas and bangka roared and growled past.P1020855

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Boracay. Fine white sandy beaches and fleets of prahas

If like me you are vegetarian or veggie-inclined the food is a disaster. Apart from a few pleasing exceptions in tourist places, it appears that pig, chicken, fish and cow plus lashings of oil and dollops of sugar are key ingredients of most dishes.

 

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One consequence is a plethora of health clinics (diabetes a common ailment), beauty parlours, fitness and massage dives. P1020824

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Wide choice of rice, market on Cebu

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An appreciation of flowers in homes and gardens and for sale here in the market

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The ubiquitous ‘tricycle’, the taxi for everyone everywhere

I could  go further and say, at risk of hurting American feelings, that the Philippines displays the worst of American culture (poor food, soulless shopping malls, donuts and fast food, rubbish telly, polluted city streets) without the privileges of American choice and wealth. 

And another thing that it shares with America: loads of churches, chapels, cathedrals, Adventist, Evangelist, Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, plus some whacky ones….I don’t know what it all means but you can walk down a little street in Limasawa (a small island where the first Philippine Christian service was held nearly 500 years ago) and see at least half a dozen different places to pray, in less than a mile. The singing sounded beautiful – much better than any karaoke.

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Grand cathedral (Puerto Princesa) looks down on the impoverished. ’twas ever thus.

My sailing plan had been straightforward. I like things simple. I’d go north from Indonesia to the Philippines with last of the SE Monsoon, then south back back down to Borneo with the start of the NE Monsoon. That’s more-or-less what happened. It’s just that weather doesn’t follow a precise calendar, and round these parts there are typhoons that whistle in from the Pacific so you keep an eye on where they are. (A typhoon is the local name for hurricane and cyclone)

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We watch the approach of tyhoons (two crossed to the north in the month). They disturb the weather over a much wider area.

But overall, it has been good to have sails set most of the way…..and enough heavy rain showers to keep water tanks topped up.P1020819

Jenny joined another boat in the Philippines (thank you Jenny for sharing all those watches and some memorably delicious cooking). I sailed on single-handed again and arrived back in Kota Kinabalu, North Borneo, a couple of days ago (Last here in July). 

About 1,500 miles in the month and I’m weary as I work through that interminable list of boaty chores, and catch up with personal stuff. Christmas is never far away. (Nor another UK election – but I shan’t offer an opinion!)

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It’s big and extraordinary. Puerto Princesa, Palawan

Indonesia, Raja Ampat

Halmahera to Raja Ampat, West Papua

1st October to 2nd November

Magical islands and wondrous underwater life, Eastern Indonesia, ….

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Red line shows our ‘bit for October’

“There is no greater cruising ground than Indonesia….18,000 isles cover some two million square miles of pristine tropical waters and a rich and vibrant local culture…..300 different tribal communities, 735 local languages…” I quote from the introduction to the Cruising Guide to Indonesia, a marvellous book yet one that scarcely scratches the surface of an amazing country.

Though I spent a few years working here when very much younger, I saw little of the outlying islands. The seven months over the past 18 months that I’ve spent here with Henrietta have opened my eyes to a country and society that I love. Nowhere on earth will you find such colourfully diverse, warm-hearted, happy, forgiving and beautiful people. Superlatives fail to do justice to such wonders and such a large and fascinating place.

The past month took us across a mere two hundred miles of Eastern Indonesia, from Halmahera to Raja Ampat. You may not have heard of either of these places unless you have been here or, in the case of Raja Ampat, you are a keen diver and underwater enthusiast. Look at the map.

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Most of month passed quickly – back and forth in Raja Ampat

 

For now while there’s an internet connection I’ll just show a few photos. (Lots of things to do before sailing off tomorrow)

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Friendly efficient immigration officer extends my visa (in the places I’ve been, long gone are the days of troublesome oficialdom)

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Local fisherman gives me six coconuts for an English lesson – and shows me how to open it without machete!

 

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Waterfront, from Tobelo anchorage, with steaming, smoking volcano behind

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…describing this gulf, studded with mushroom islets, one of the most singular and picturesque landscapes I have ever seen…

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Almost everyone climbs the short steep hill, Mt Pinditu, and takes this photo in magical Pulau Wayag…I did it twice!….more pictures below

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Crossing equator with new crew, Jenny (valid reason for a beer!)

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Visitors are usually close at hand….

The pond ‘marina’, Tanpa Garam, Sorong and nearby vast deserted swimming pool (a bit murky)

And of course, we snorkel everywhere, water usually crystal clear, and a huge range of corals and fishes…photos with thanks to Jenny..

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And now it’s time to move on..Henrietta and I look forward to the Philippines – probably….Sad to be leaving Indonesia, yes, but if we delay much longer, the winds turn against us…P1020701

Indonesia, North Sulawesi

Borneo to Sulawesi to Halmahera 

30th August to 30th September

Bye-bye Malaysia, hello again Indonesia, sailing eastwards along the northern islands of Indonesia, warm welcomes, happy people, gorgeous scenery, white sandy beaches, clear waters P1020561

The last few days and nights in Malaysia include happy hugs and fond farewells as the Malaysia rally ends and differing plans have many of us parting ways. There’s a final ‘steamboat’ dinner with rough-humoured Aussie wit and banter, the need of Indonesian visas, Malaysian exit paperwork, stocking depleted food stores and diesel tanks, and a foul foul anchorage (where rafts of plastic rubbish stream almost constantly by, and given windy nights, many boats including Henrietta drag anchors, in my case the anchor always retrieved and festooned with clumps of plastic, old ropes and stinky slimy mud), and thankfully a repaired mainsail (sent overnight on a local bus to Kota Kinabalu, an 11 hour trip, returned three days later with seams restitched – but a new sail is needed!)…..enough of this, I was to tell you of the next country.

 

Indonesia once more……But before we leave Malaysia here is a link to video made by one of the Rally boats.

 

And so after leaving Malaysia the past month has taken us some 800 miles east, from our final port, Tawau the stinky rubbish one, in Sabah, to Kalimantan and over the top of Sulawesi to where I write this, Morotai, an island to the north of Halmahera.IMG_E2338

Most of the month was spent traversing the top of Central and North Sulawesi and when I look back at all the places we saw, people met, reefs snorkelled and dived, meals shared, hills climbed and events attended, I realise this summary would soon get out of hand. So, I’ll just cover three things: a bit about Sulawesi, a bit about time with my young guides in Toli Toli, and a quick mention of other happenings.

Sulawesi, like so many islands in Indonesia, is huge, fascinating, distinctive, diverse. (We’d touched islands off Southest Sulawesi last year). Sulawesi was once upon a time called Celebes. The sea we crossed is the Celebes Sea. It’s the world’s 11th biggest island, slightly smaller than Britain (ie. England, Scotland, Wales, which is 9th), and has about 20 million inhabitants. The biggest city, Makassar, is in the south. I went there a long time ago, when it was called Ujung Pandang and had less than half its current population of 1.3 million.

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Sunset and local fishing craft, Toli Toli

Much more interesting is Sulawesi’s amazing range of flora and wild life, dozens of species being endemic to Sulawesi alone. It’s part of Wallacea and hence is home to species of both Australasia and Indomalaya: cute tarsiers, macaques, strange pigs (one called the ‘warty pig’!), colourful lorikeets, and many more. There are lots of nature reserves (I visit two), and three marine protected areas, one of which we visit.

But as so often, deforestation threatens the future of much of this diversity. Thinking about the gross consumerism and wastefulness of modern mankind makes me feel sad and urge you please to think very seriously before you go on yet another needless shopping spree. But I’m not here to preach…

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Some of Toli Toli’s fishing fleet

 Although southern parts of Sulawesi, particularly Tanah Torajah are popular tourist destinations, very few foreigners ever visit the inaccessible towns in the northwest; just an annual flock of migrating sailing boats, perhaps 20 boats in all that pop in. The generous warm welcome of Indonesians is both extraordinary and humbling, and I’m often bothered at the thought of how we in the West too often treat too many of our visitors and immigrants.

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A part of the vast crowd that seems to want to see what we look like

Here we are treated like royalty. Hands are shaken and photos called for, many hundreds of times. A village welcomes us with over 1,000 people neatly dressed and apparently happy just to have a glimpse of mainly aging foreigners with hidung panjang (long noses)!  Food is offered, welcoming dances are performed, speeches and greetings given. (You soon come to sympathise with the plight of popular monarchs for whom this sort of thing is central to their lives)

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A traditional dance – with very sharp knives

First port in Sulawesi is Toli Toli, which I reach after a typically sleep-deprived two nights from Nunekan, Kalimantan (which is Indonesian Borneo). It’s been a delight to be sailing again after so many weeks with very very little wind, and I rejoice at not hearing the almost constant steady throb of diesel engine. (From here I’m more resolved to let the wind and weather determine where and when I go, no longer bound by the timetable of a Rally fleet or need to maintain high speeds in windless conditions.) 

On kayaking ashore in Toli Toli, I’m met by a smiling gathering of young men and women, and children too. They are mostly graduates from the local University who’d been taught by Hendra, the charming and helpful tourism official who’s overseeing this annual visitation of a dozen or so sailing boats.

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The town of Toli Toli. Our boats in the hazy distance.

Two of the young, Ma’ruf and Lisa, are allocated to me, and soon become friends and guides for the next few days. They each have a motorcycle and I take turns riding pillion with one then the other; both careful drivers – but her’s the more comfortable bike.

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Ma’ruf and Lisa visit Henrietta

Ma’ruf is local and very familiar with the town and area. He’s touchingly helpful and always willing to take me anywhere, arrange anything and introduce me to his many friends. A graduate of the local university, he’s another of the thousands of bright young Indonesians who cannot find work that will use his talents. He works in a local motorcycle dealership doing I’m not really sure what.

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Another market shopping trip

Lisa, with a warm wide-eyed slightly flirtatious smile, is clearly clever. Though I sensed from a humble family, she’d won a scholarship and studied applied statistics at Makassar University; now writes letters in search of gainful employment. She’s spirited beneath the Muslim decorum and willingly tries a session with snorkel – not a usual Indonesian practice.

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Kirsten teaches Lisa to snorkel (full Islamic dress adds to difficulties!)

And so, as a happy trio and later with others, we visit market, mountain walk, special tea trip, traditional house, dance, snorkeling, dinner with the mayor, Saturday night out, and more….

Photos to summarise: –

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Joyful swimming in cool fresh pool

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Vaguely art deco architecture in Toli Toli

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I think we’re used to help market strange local tree-leaf tea (eternal health youth and beauty etc.)

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Dinner  and group photo with the Mayor of Toli Toli (centre with grey beard and clenched fist – he’s very popular)

P1020522After the fabulous welcome and entertainment laid on during our week in Toli Toli it would have been too easy to be disappointed with the next stops in North Sulawesi. 

But it was OK, at the next stop Buol, we meet the King and Queen. I think I’ve never met a king or queen before – anywhere. P1020536He’s charming, faultlessly polite and gently smiling and dressed in informal regal gear; but, as we sit around amiably sipping plastic cups of water, asking innocuous questions, and declining yucky-looking little cakes in gaudy colours, I can’t help feeling the king would really rather be out fishing in his own simple little traditional fishing boat. He likes fishing.

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Posing with the King and Queen of Buol

And then, we visit Buol schools, we swim in tiny pools and plant some rice (expecting photos from headteacher in a few months to show us what I’m sure will be an utterly pathetic harvest – Westerners haven’t a clue.)

Next stop, Kwandang, would normally have been more rewarding but unusual wind direction means island anchorage untenable; only five of us boats lingering for long overland drive to regional capital, Gorontalo, and an offshore island to snorkel. But we’ve bought some beer and morale remains high.

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Several schools to visit

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…and then, I’m rambling on…several more anchorages en route to final Sulawesi port-of-call, the City of Bitung. More trips, a bit of shopping, walking and talking and looking and thinking – the sort of thing any retired Englishman might do; except here it is an adventure, every hour full of surprises, little mysteries, peculiar foods, smiling faces. (To keep my head out of the clouds and spirits subdued, I do follow the Brexit saga. Proxy vote ready for the showdown/s that must inevitably come.)

…and finally I bid farewell to many friends who now head south towards Australia, my heart heavy at the knowledge that most, I shall not see again, but warm with thoughts of experiences shared over the past five or six months….Henrietta carries on eastwards.IMG_2240

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Dancing and crowds and flags and banners and warm welcome at Bunobogu

 

 

The unreliable journal of a sailing voyage