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Nusa Tenggara

Flores, Sumbawa, Komodo, Lombok

1st to 18th September

Nusa Tenggara (Southeast Islands) forms part of the lesser Sunda Islands. It’s one of the world’s most geologically active areas, the recent Lombok earthquake and backdrop of volcanos a reminder of that.P1000675

We sailed from east to west. Winds have been fickle, much affected by the high volcanic islands and high temperatures, and there’ve been many hours motoring and a day or two of very strong headwinds and choppy sea.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFlores (you may not have heard of it but it’s about 200 miles long, thus dwarfing its Azores namesake at the western extreme of Europe), has some low key tourism – tourists begin to burst the seams of Bali and now spread eastwards, chiefly to Lombok and Komodo National Park but also to Sumbawa and Flores.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWith friends from a fellow Najad yacht, we enjoyed a long day out in the Flores countryside, our driver, Hans, friendly and very helpful in finding us culture, hot springs, traditional Ngada villages, mountainside stops, fruit market and boxes of beer. Here are some photos.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe potter along the northern coast of Flores, anchoring in empty spots, as we’ve done elsewhere, often off little islets where we may snorkel, privileged to enjoy the beauty and colourful diversity of coral life. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAKomodo National Park comprises a few islands at the western end of Flores. It includes several endemic species, the best-known being the Komodo dragon. Weighing in at up to three metres and 90 kg it’s the world’s biggest lizard.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Considering it’s a pretty vile beast, a carnivore that may even eat its own young, and poops white faeces coloured by the bones of its victims etc, it attracts a lot of tourists. Our anchorage off the island of Rinca, home to most of the dragons, is busy all day as hundreds of foreign and Indonesian visitors flock ashore. By evening it’s quiet and calm, just a handful of us visiting yachts watching the monkeys and birds along the shoreline.

Next morning our ranger guide, I think named Primus, takes us on the ‘long’ two hour walk in search of these fascinating but loathsome dragons. He carries a forked stick for dragon defence purposes, and it doesn’t take long to find one – possibly lurking up on a harmless and gentle water buffalo (which it chooses to leave alone). Enough…a few photos….OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere’s little time in the rally programme for lingering, and we opt to catch up a bit by sailing overnight along most of Sumbawa’s northern coastline, reaching Pulau Moyo and, next day, the small town of Badas. The annual festival, Moyo Tambora, is underway and we join many friends and hundreds of Indonesians for typically generous friendly helpful welcome, and tantalising glimpses of local culture.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Next stop heading west is the island of Lombok, first night anchored beneath the imposing sight of Mount Rinjani, a semi-active volcano (its summit about 3,700 metres); and next night the anchorage in the northwest, Medana Bay, its ‘Marina’ just two stubs of wobbly pontoon (but shower, helpfulness, bar/restaurant, et al. a real treat.

The recent earthquake was centred near this corner of Lombok, and the damage is widespread. Indonesians have many years’ experience of natural disasters, and cleaning up and rebuilding have started, though it will be a long time before the rubble and cracks are cleared, let alone the human pain. Kimi and Trevor, energetic youthful Americans from the rally, have instigated a project to build a new schoolroom, so many of us spend a few hours or days shovelling rubble, shifting earth and assembling the bamboo frame that will form the basis of the new structure.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Despite the trauma of earthquake, there’s a memorable happy afternoon when we eat with local villagers, who have prepared baskets and trays of food, and afterwards enjoy wonderful drum music and dancing; the colourful diversity of local music and dance endlessly fascinating……..OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Additional crew joined us in Lombok, so now we have the warm wise helpful good-natured Irish Anne with us too: Three women on a boat‘ (Henrietta) adds a new dimension to my more usual solo sailing life. (The book may follow in due course…but probably not)OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Off we all sail to three popular tourist islands off this bit of Lombok, first stop at the most popular, Gili Trawangan. It would normally be crowded with party-focussed backpackers and holidaymakers, “The Indonesian Ibiza” according to Cruising Guide. But earthquake damage here was severe so it’s quiet, bars and restaurants largely empty or destroyed, and just a relative handful of tourist visitors cycling and snorkelling. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMooring buoys dragged off Trawangan so we anchored in strongish currents, and it was an uncomfortable night; we left early next day for Bali…..

Southeast Sulawesi

Wakatobi and Buton and Bonerate

Wangi-Wangi (Wanci), Hoga and Buton (Pasar Wajo), Kalaotoa and Bonerate

12th to 31st August

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Our guides and friends in Wangi Wangi, Agis, Jujus and Anti


(Above place names may be meaningless to you. We’ve not even touched the main island of Sulawesi, the world’s 11th largest island. Buton is itself quite a big island, 80 miles long, Wakatobi is a group of smaller islands, a National Park, renowned to keen divers but tricky to get to, so little visited. Incidentally, none of these names is pronounced ‘wanky wanky’.)

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…who joined us for tea on Henrietta….

In the past month we’ve crawled haphazardly across about 700 miles of eastern Indonesia. It’s a truly huge country and it will take another two months for this rally to cover the next 1,200+ miles and innumerable anchorages on the way towards Singapore – or somewhere nearby. The term ‘Rally’ is, in any case, something of a misnomer (most folk much too independent and inclined to self-will; just a loyal few visiting all the rally venues) but it’s a convenient, sociable, recognised, supported way of muddling along – which is what most of us do anyway. And it’s a good way to introduce us to unvisited bits of Indonesia and its marvellous diverse culture and natural history.

From the last blog entry, in Central Maluku, we sailed a day and night, winds adequate for most of the hot sunny tropical way to Wakatobi. (We’re ‘off-Rally’ at this stage; not ready yet to risk more long Indonesian speeches.)

Wakatobi (named from larger islands of Wangi-Wangi, Kaledupa, Tomia and Binongko – it’s ok, you won’t be tested…) is a delight. In the capital of Wangi-Wangi, named Wanci, we’re welcomed warmly by VHF, led by piloting dinghy through the coral reef pass and instructed where to anchor, (holding’s not good, but it’s nice and close to mosques’ early loud insistent discordant calls to prayer and out of the path of local ferries).

For the three days spent exploring ashore, we have charming, pretty, willing, friendly guides/companions/chaperones named Agis, Amti and Jujuss (17, 17 and 15 years old). They want to practice English and excuse themselves from school. There’s a week of pre-Independence anniversary stuff going on anyway, so schools’ classes are all over the place, and youngsters join streams of processing junior half-mast goose-steppers stomping smartly through crowd-lined dusty streets, Indonesia’s red-white flags fluttering everywhere.

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Our laundry is done (everything both spotless and ironed), papers handed in, etc, then our young guides A, A and J lead us off. On day two, Jujuss organises her special tour for us, hand-picked venues with car, driver and all five of us. We’re invited to her home for lunch and her mother (herself only 30) has prepared a fine meal. Remember J is only 15!

You won’t read it if I write too many details so just a few photos, and I’ll say we enjoyed a happy and informative few days with our hosts – especially walking round the fascinating Bajo Mola village (indigenous islanders dwelling in densely clustered, stilt-founded houses over water), a quiet couple of hours on sandy beach, and especially lunch with Jujuss’s family (despite the harsh reality of sitting/eating decorously at floor level – if you’re over 65, European male and don’t do yoga, sitting for much time on a hard floor is pretty troublesome – if you ever want to stand up again).

After Wanci, it was a slow day sailing over to the much smaller island of Hoga. It’s heavenly: white sandy beach, crystal clear water, unspoilt coral and the widest variety of reef fishes I’ve ever seen. (I read there are over 1,000 different species, but it’ll take a long time to recognise and name even 100.)

A slide show of the last photos from my ‘waterproof’ camera, which wasn’t..

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Hoga is hardly populated; it’s apparently ‘owned/operated/leased’ by a UK company that enables international researchers (Operation Wallacea) to visit and study coral life. A handful of more off-track backpackers are in evidence; and two dozen young New Zealander marine scientists from Wellington University arrive as we leave – they must find the beauty, peace and warmth of the place a delight from the bustle and icy blasts of Wellington’s winter.P1000852

And from Hoga it was a long day’s sail over the 55 miles to Buton (day sailing always preferable when there are so many unlit, poorly marked fishing boats and FADs).

Back with most of the Rally fleet in Buton and the anchorage at Pasar Wajo, there’re lots of quasi-organised events, catch-up chatter, local hospitality and more. The girls have day trips to Bau-Bau (Buton’s capital) and markets and the local ‘entertainment’ (5,000 dancers/singers/speeches – partaking in one of Indonesia’s many festivals), returning laden with gifts to eat and exquisite local sarongs. I missed out but have photos, some of which I share with you now.

From the big island of Buton, we head south, independent of rally once more – a fine day and starry night’s sailing – then spend a night at Kalaotoa (peaceful, isolated and somewhat mysterious) and next night, Bonerate (traditional boat building, a wedding, some more wondrous coral, yet somewhat spoiled with sandy foreshore of plastic detritus …maybe more another time….

Some photos from Bonerate….

Central Molucca

Central Maluku

Banda Islands (Neira, Gunung Api, Banda Besar, Run, Ai), Saparua, Molana

1st to 11th August

(A note on the names above: Maluku is the Indonesian word for Moluccas; the Banda Islands (the core of the Spice Islands) are in Central Maluku. Neira etc are islands we visited within the Banda Islands group, and Saparua and Molana are other little islands – near Ambon – also in Central Maluku…….enough geography for now.)P1000673

A comfortable breeze in hot sun took Henrietta the 150 odd miles from Kai Islands to Banda Islands and we anchored among a dozen other rally boats between three of the islands, dominated by Gunung Api, the adjacent semi-active volcano. A local boat comes alongside to offer fruit, veg and laundry service. Declined for now but we arrange a lift ashore and…

…Next morning at 6am, Joyce and I are collected for the walk up Gunung Api. It’s not high at 2,100 ft but not easy either. No zig-zags, no steps, no ropes, just a straight line up an unstable course scree slope; two steps up, one step slipped down; and we’re both well past pension age too. After two mildly arduous hours, growing hotter and hotter and the day’s sun burning ever stronger, we’re there…sweat-soggy t-shirts to indicate effort.P1000698Puffs of sulphur-scented steam emerge hither and thither, and there’s the black lava ash evidence of the last major eruption on the western flank. That was 1988. Now Gunung Api is merely simmering – but it’s monitored closely. An hour on the summit to rest, enjoying views, selfies, breeze and bananas, then an hour slithering down the scree, bottoms well-bruised, but very content to have enjoyed a morning’s walk.P1000703

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Puffs of sulphurous steam beneath us

We enjoy the Banda Islands. There’s a small market, an excellent small local restaurant/hotel (Cilu Bintang) where the owner/manager, Abba, lets us shower, enjoy post-volcano siesta, and eat well. 

Elsewhere one evening, outdoors under tropical moon and starry night, after restaurant rally supper, we watch a BBC documentary where Kate Humble flits about the Banda Islands (I hadn’t seen it in Britain). Geckos scamper jerkily up the walls, and wide-eyed local children stare at what’s going on. Kate shows us how to pluck a nutmeg fruit and chats amiably for the BBC. Sailing life offers so many of these almost surreal times.

And we visit nearby islands of Run and Ai, the former, would you believe it, once swapped for Manhattan. In the early 17th century, the Dutch ruthlessly held sway over the stunningly wealthy Spice Islands (cloves and nutmeg being especially sought after in Europe at the time). The English had a claim on Run, a thorn in the side of the Dutch monopoly. The Dutch had a claim in North America at New Amsterdam (modern-day Manhattan), where the English were otherwise dominant.P1000732After years of squabbling, brutal fighting, large-scale slaughter and dreadful Medieval torture, a truce was agreed by which the Dutch took Run and the English took New Amsterdam, now New York. ( “Nathaniel’s Nutmeg”, by Giles Milton, is a fascinating book if you want more.)P1000731

 

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Drying octopus

I’d have happily stayed longer but there are too many other places to go. And, feeling like a break from the Rally fleet, we went first for a night anchored precariously alone off the reef skirting the little island of Ai, then over to Saparua, some 90 miles away. Saparua is seldom visited by foreign boats and we’re besieged with inquisitive children – 15 on board at one stage. Initially they are shy. But after a while and with a smile of welcome, they are fascinated to have a look at how these foreign folk live at sea. We stay two nights, take taxi to the few desultory local sights, wander the streets of the nearby village, fill water tanks with the plentiful rainfall, and all our plastic bottles too. And much to girls’ delight, each enjoy a freshwater shower.

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Practice for kora kora races (17 of these compete in Ambon in ten days’time)

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Anchored off Harya, Saparua (Christian, hence the pigs – Henrietta top right)

Ambon, about 40 miles away, is the large town in this area but everything I’ve read indicates that it suffers the plague of all fast-growing large Indonesian towns: plastic litter, grossly polluted water, smells and putrefying animal bits. We give it a miss. Instead, we are now anchored, again rather precariously (15 metres offshore in 26 metres of water), off teeny weeny islet, Molana. There’s no one here, the two bungalow ‘resort’ and small white sandy beach apparently deserted.P1000781-001P1000787-001

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Scenes from uninhabited Molana Island

Once the wind arrives, we’ll sail a few hundred miles west. Time to get a move on, maybe meet the rally fleet again.

Indonesia – SE Mollucca

 

Kai Islands, S E Maluku

(Kai Kecil, Utir, Tayandu)

17th to 31st July

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Indonesian squid fishing boat en route to Molluccas

 From Horn Island at the very top of Queensland, Australia, we sailed fast enough with genoa alone for the 700 odd miles to reach Indonesia five days later; brightly lit squid-fishing boats sometimes adding light to the dark starry tropical nights.P1000670

Indonesia, as you probably already know, is a vast country, fourth most populous in the world, largest Islamic country in the world, largest archipelago in the world. There are at least 16,000 isles that stretch about 2,700 miles east to west, and cover about two million square miles. Over the next three months we’ll see a tiny fraction of these.P1000672

 

The entry port for us is Debut in the Kai Islands. It’s a very small town, not normally an entry port, and officials have arrived en masse with cameras and paperwork to clear us in. All very civil and friendly and, to my eyes, muddled, but within a day, they’ve boarded Henrietta, we’ve copied enough papers to fill a filing cabinet, and we’re legal (I think).

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Clearing in takes a while

The Rally welcome has been staggeringly friendly and lavish, and I shan’t dwell on details. Suffice to say, we’ve sat through many speeches, been photographed enough to make Kate Winslet blush (even drones are sent buzzing aloft to give full coverage). And every time we dinghy ashore, a lively crowd of young children rush enthusiastically to the slippery muddy steps to pull us in.

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Dancing at the welcome ceremony

There have been visits to villages for dancing (that’s a mix of traditional local dances and Westerners wobbling around to Indo-pop music), and at least two fabulous buffets of local dishes, heavily influenced by the fish that form an important part of the local economy.

 

Why do they welcome us with such generous hospitality and friendliness? I think it’s mainly because Indonesians for the most part are loving, friendly, generous people; but also, we’re often told, so that we spread the word and encourage others to visit. We were told that apart from the 40 odd boats that check into the Kai islands for this rally, there are only about 20 others for the whole year. Yacht facilities are limited (which suits me fine) but there are banks, market and supermarket, hotels, and dodgy diesel, and lots of taxis in the capital, Tual.

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Since I was last in Indonesia, nearly 40 years ago, a lot has changed. Most little villages seem to have some electricity and piped water, motorbikes scurry everywhere on the larger islands, the Country’s population has gone up about 100 million. And the currency, the rupiah, is issued in millions;  I used to get about 1,400 to the pound, now it’s nearer 18,000. But my initial view is that people’s warm open welcoming inquisitive nature has changed little.

Slides of Some wonderful local food

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It is humbling to experience such open-hearted generous hospitalityP1000625

 

Australia

Cairns to Thursday Island

27th June to 16th July

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Smart waterfront promenade in Cairns

Australia is of course vast, utterly gigantic. After three weeks I’ve seen next to nothing, just a tiny slither of coastal far North Queensland, about 500 miles of it. Not a single big shark or crocodile or box jellyfish, despite the warnings; let alone a koala, kangaroo or wallaby. Now, at Thursday Island, we’re about 1,200 miles north of Brisbane which is still in the same state – Queensland. (For Europeans, 1,200 miles is a long way, say, N. Spain to Iceland)

I’ll summarise: after the mini trauma of berthing in Cairns Marlin marina without an engine, under strong wind power (throttle was broken), there was the welcoming committee of Australian Border Force and a bevy of forms to fill in, plus quick sniff round of hyper-intelligent labrador (he wears smart black doggie booties for the sniffing)…then heavy rain started, and stopped, and started again for the week spent in Cairns. Henrietta’s new crew, Caroline and Joyce, arrived in Cairns from London a couple of days later. (Henrietta will doubtless write something about them and me another time).

Together we’re to join my very first sailing rally, Sail 2 Indonesia. (There’s a website at www.sail2indonesia.com ) We’re supposed to sail through the Indonesian archipelago from somewhere in the east of Indonesia to somewhere in the west – near Singapore….about three months and about 40 boats altogether. Not being very clubby or sociable or biddable or inclined to follow any timetable or programme, or do what I’m told, the rally will be a novel challenge and at least for now is a source of some anxiety. But other participants seem as independent and liberty-loving as me, and delightful, so I’m sure it will be fine.

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Rally briefing before leaving Cairns

As for Cairns, we shopped, we attended a rally briefing and a rally barbecue, we did more shopping, we went for walks round town (Cairns is smart, fine parks, long seafront, endless tripper boats for the Great Barrier Reef, restaurants, bars, fashion shops and more), and then we did more shopping, and finally stuffed every conceivable locker, cupboard and opening in Henrietta with food and more food and a drink or two. Then, with new throttle and clutch assembly, engine serviced and water and diesel tanks brim full, we sailed northwards.

Although Cairns is deemed to be North Queensland it’s still about 500 miles from the top of Australia. The winds are reliable, strong enough and steady enough, southeast and always 15-25 knots, to sail up, entirely inside the Great Barrier Reef and with just the genoa.

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Fast sailing up the Queensland coast

It’s an empty patch of this huge continent, very few signs of habitation, no houses, huts or boats, just the cargo ships that shuttle up and down the coast (I guess taking Australia’s mineral goodies to China and on from Singapore) and very occasional fishing vessels. The coastline is a series of grey hills and mountains, foreshore mangrove and sandy beaches, offshore lots of reefs and rocks and islets, and well marked shipping channel.  

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Another sociable gathering (Cat “Starry Horizons”, Lizard Island)

We anchored overnight several times on the way north. But our only trips ashore were during a spell at Lizard Island, named like so much else round here, by James Cook (it does have lizards on it too). He climbed the hill on Lizard Island about 250 years before us, looking for openings in the Barrier Reef that might enable him to sail out with the Endeavour. But he found it a very troublesome area to sail, grounding badly on a reef – which I can well understand; I wouldn’t be happy without GPS and good charts on my iphone.P1000539

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View from Cook’s Lookout in 2018

Right now I write this from the anchorage off Horn Island, a good chunk of the Sail 2 Indonesia rally fleet anchored nearby. We’ll clear out of Australia on nearby Thursday Island in a few days….then sail to eastern Indonesia, about 700 miles.

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Henrietta’s Crew

Chesterfield Reef

Noumea to Cairns

8th to 26th June

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Dawn, and still no wind…

Horrid weather in Noumea doesn’t last long and soon became fine dry sunny weather. And so, with departure paperwork done and a couple of fresh baguettes, I left for Australia.

Alas! The wind quickly died away and rather than flop around almost stopped at sea or have Henrietta suffer the indignities of many hours motoring, I found a big and beautiful and empty coral lagoon 100 miles up the New Caledonia coast, and anchored there for two nights. With undisturbed solitude off Konieni island, I made myself useful and scraped yet more barnacles from the hull; fully appreciative of the grand grey mountainous terrain not far inland.

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…so came and anchored off empty Konieni Island (in foreground)

Swimming on the first morning, I saw tall shark fins too close for comfort :- three metre long adult sharks – hammerheads perhaps? Quickly stop swimming and clamber on board…Goodness me! I think  it’s mating season, adult hammerheads moving sideways; technique beyond even the scope of Kama Sutra. At dusk they return the other way, still at it.

But, oh deary silly me! It isn’t shark at all. It’s manta rays flopping-flapping languorously harmlessly across the surface. I’d confused their flaps with shark fins. Delightful to come across so many of them together. (Later meet a marine biologist who reassures me by saying he’d once made the same identification mistake)

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Dolphins on the way to Chesterfield Reef (there were over 50, but always tricky to photo)

Two days later the wind piped up and I departed New Caledonia for the second time…..and stopped again some three days later at Chesterfield Reefs (nominally also part of New Caledonia).

Chesterfields were more-or-less on the route to Cairns. But it’s not on the standard tourist itinerary, about 450 miles from Noumea and 750 miles from Cairns, a coral lagoon seven miles across and 12 miles long, roughly shaped a bit like a leant-back letter ‘U’, uninhabited and uninhabitable with just a few low thin sandy islets, and lots of coral defining the shape, many uncharted coral outcrops in the generally deep lagoon; AND thousands and thousands of birds.

The islets are home to really vast numbers of boobies and frigate birds, noddies and tern. Every available bush and branch seems to be occupied. Birds sit on their eggs on the beach too.

They squark their noisy persistent calls at all hours of day and night, without ceasing, similar in sound I suspect to Wembley Stadium packed full with disgruntled and vocal fish wives. And when you draw close, the stink of guano, sour and putrid fishiness, is inescapable.

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That bit of fluff is the baby!

More bird pictures…P1000420P1000432P1000425

I love places like this (bar the stench!). They’re not easy to get to and few boats ever visit. But you feel it’s close to the way things have always been, quite unaffected by man, little changed over the years, only birds and fish carrying on their breeding eating living lives – and only the plastic detritus on the shoreline as a reminder of thoughtless modern plasti-dependent mankind. Birds seem not to be bothered by me; I move gently…

David in Noumea had kindly given me a local French chartlet with useful waypoints to find the way in and out of this Coral Sea backwater. Navionics, should you be inclined to sail here is not correct; and my anchorage shown as being on land was in fact about 8 metres deep; and exit pass in quite the wrong place. But don’t even try it unless you have good light to see the coral! On reaching Australia I find an email from New Caledonia authorities (from whom I’d sought permission to visit); they’ve sent a questionnaire asking what I’ve seen.

Whilst at Chesterfields, apart from the birds, I was most surprised to see another boat, Olivia (a Farr designed yacht about Henrietta’s size but faster, with a crew of four from New South Wales). They were just as surprised to see me. I anchored half a mile away (we like our privacy), and we later meet a couple of times for tea, cake and biscuits – which seems doubly enchanting in such a remote and empty space.

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Mauve line marks Henrietta’s track

After two days and nights, and walks and swimming, and work on those barnacles (only non-aggressive reef shark and reef fish here!), I cautiously sailed out of the lagoon as intermittent drizzle fell and the wind gradually picked up, a final forecast radioed to me by the satellite-connected crew of Olivia, and Cairns about six days’ sailing away….. a bit rough and uncomfortable, but mostly fast with just a reefed genoa pulling us along, and big brown poopy big brown boobies for company…

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A lot of mess from this hitch-hiker

Australian Border Force (an unnecessarily intimidating title for the bevvy of reasonable folk and a dog who come aboard next day) don’t want to see me late on a Sunday, so  I anchor off Cairns with yellow flag and brand new Oz one too…and drink a beer …two beers even..

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Inside Great Barrier Reef, it’s calmer as Australia comes into sight

Cairns shoreline at dusk, with unimaginative apartment and hotel blocks and tower cranes, and sporadic heavy rain is not inspiring….but looks a lot better next morning …..more next time….P1000499

New Caledonia

New Caledonia

18th May to 7th June

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Signpost in Ile des Pines to tell you where we are…

Windy wet blustery evening in Noumea, New Caledonia’s capital, so a quick update before going west in a day or two….

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First night anchorage (too late to reach Noumea so yellow Q flag instead)

A few things you might not know about New Caledonia:-

It’s French, though not EU – a bit like Channel Isles to UK in that respect, though not in any other way. So, there’re Champion and Carrefour supermarkets with camembert from Normandy, wine from Bordeaux, and original recipe baguettes and all the other stuff – at a price. There’s to be a referendum on the question of independence, later this year. (Polls show they’ll want to stay French).

It’s one of the wealthiest places in South Pacific, GDP per capita higher than New Zealand. Nickel does it.  It has the world’s largest nickel deposits, and is the fourth largest exporter of nickel and derivatives. But the soils are poor so local food limited.P1000271

The main island, Grande Terre, is the fourth largest Pacific Island (after New Guinea and NZ N. and S. Islands). I believe there are about 250,000 people here, a majority in Noumea. There’s a historic mix of Kanak, European, Indonesian, Vanuatu, Vietnamese and Polynesian people – it’s wonderful to have such a colourful mix.

I suggested to the bright, businesslike and delightful Chloe, part French part Vanuatu, who was helping with some finickety Indonesian visa woes, that the capital, Noumea, felt a bit like the French Riviera; quickly she replied “Oh no! The people! The people here are nice.” She has a point; here they are delightful, helpful and more (though personally I found the same in southern France).

The reef surrounding main island, Grande Terre, is world’s biggest after Australia’s Great Barrier reef, and it’s being better protected here.

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Navigating before GPS would have been tricky with so many reef outcrops

Incidentally, such is the extent of France’s tropical empire in the Pacific and Indian Oceans that France has the fourth most coral reef in the world (after Australia, Indonesia and Philippines).

And apparently it has the world’s highest per capita ownership of sailing boats. Marinas and anchorages around Noumea are all chockablock.

So there you are, some interesting facts that you may not find as interesting as me.

I hadn’t planned to stop here at all but it has an Indonesian Consulate (which Vanuatu does not).

After lots of form-filling, official stamping and signing, and an element of stubborness on my part, I now have an Indonesian Visa (You need rather more than the standard tourist visa to go sailing there). The utterly delightful receptionist, Farida, in the consulate, was a model of goodwill in a bureaucratic system of advanced obstacle development. Perhaps her background helped: she’s Indonesian born in Noumea, family in Jakarta, Yogya and elsewhere, she’d had two years as an au pair in Hastings (it’s a little town in southeast England) too – trains you for anything I imagine.

I’ve been a dutiful tourist and been well-impressed by Maritime Museum, City Museum and Aquarium – head swimming with facts, figures and images. The Ocean Cruising Club representative, David, has been a model of good-will and assistance, and wondrous source of local sailing knowledge, easing my way into the attractions of the city and islands.

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Anchorage off little islet Mato

And I’ve had some glorious sailing and snorkeling around the reef-strewn anchorages within 80 miles of the capital (Ilots galore, and around Ile des Pines with its other-worldly pine trees – both phallic and, en masse, somehow reminiscent of upstanding meerkats).

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Baie de Kanumera (Ile de Pines)

Plus I’ve maintained Henrietta of course, and managed more hull scraping of barnacles that have freeloaded from New Zealand.

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Sunset, Baie de Ugo (the pines tilt a bit towards the equator – it’s true!)

Now it’s time to go to Australia, about 1,300 miles WNW according to my App, with Chesterfield Reef a possible stop on the way. Just need to deal with clearing out and wait for better weather…….oh and a fresh baguette…