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..

4 thoughts on “NORTH WEST SUMATRA”

  1. Love to read your blog; great travelogue plus nice to still be in touch – glad you had such great crew, and thrilled you are part of the island get-away xx Anja

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  2. What a lovely and uplifting read, Mike. You describe the footloose life we cruiser’s lead eloquently and the frustration we all collectively feel at having our wings clipped but you paint positive side to it too. If the worst thing that happens to us is that we have our travel plans disrupted or delayed then we’ll regard that as a success. Fingers crossed. Stay lucky and stay well.

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