West and South Coast Sumatra, Sunda Strait, Belitung
14th April to 25th May
Isolation, sailing again, games, fitness, eating and …..stuff
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 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.)
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?)
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.
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.
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.
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).
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).
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.
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’.
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.
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’.
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.