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
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.
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.
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…
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: –
After 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. He’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.
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.
…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.