Indonesia, There be Dragons
Just a glance at the map of Indonesia suggests a cruising yachtie’s paradise! A large archipelago of tropical islands, only 450 miles from Darwin, with short distances between each island, safe anchorages and harbours, exciting dive sites, stunning mountains, volcanoes and scenery. With a bit of reading you soon become aware of the amazingly friendly people, and their rich diverse cultures. So, why don’t more cruisers go there?
Of course, this is Indonesia! There be dragons.
Well, we decided it was time to find out for ourselves, so we joined the 2005 Darwin to Kupang Rally to help make it happen. This event is the most recent incarnation of the Darwin to Ambon Race of the 90’s and this year it attracted a record fleet of 70 yachts representing 14 nations. It has become so big and popular that the Indonesian Government has taken a keen interest, assisting with the permits and clearances, as well as providing some excellent functions and cultural events in Indonesia. They have also organised extensions to the Rally within Indonesia making it easier to visit some of the more remote areas such as the islands of Alor and Flores.
The Rally is held in July, with entries opening early in the year but you must be quick. The 2005 Rally closed over subscribed, months sooner than publicised. More information can be found on the Rally’s official web site at www.sailindonesia.net. The best time to cruise Indonesia is July through to October when the weather is cooler especially at night, and the winds are the most favourable.
Participating yachts start arriving in Darwin about a month before the start and this stretches Darwin’s ability to accommodate such a large influx of yachts. Our advice to participating yachts is to make early reservations at one of the three excellent marinas, soon after your entry is accepted. The weeks before the start are a busy time with boat preparations and provisioning, socialising, briefings and a bit of sight seeing. Most yachting services can be found in Darwin, but if planning any big jobs, our tip is to get them done on the east coast. The Darwin Sailing Club in Fannie Bay becomes a favourite meeting place, and was the venue for the pre race BBQ, which this year was attended by some high-ranking Indonesian officials, including the Minister for Tourism and Culture.
Race day arrived and most of the 70 yachts were lined up in Fannie Bay ready for the 11:00am start, although several yachts were noticed leaving earlier to take extra advantage of the favourable outgoing tide. There was little wind at the start and the 2005 Rally commenced with a motor sail out into the Timor Sea. Some yachts continued to motor into the night, but we used the light sea-breezes and turned the motor off. We were not amongst the first to arrive in Kupang, but the breeze picked up for those in the second half of the fleet and we managed to sail most of the way on flat seas, while the leading bunch remained in a pocket of windless conditions and motored most of the way. The honesty board was on display at Kupang in the form of the request for fuel top ups. The first to arrive taking on many hundreds of litres while we needed only 60.
Softening the blow was the cheap price of diesel in Indonesia at around 30 Australian cents per litre.
Kupang harbour is large enough for 70 yachts to anchor, and a dinghy minding service had been arranged on the beach in front of Teddy’s Bar, which became the focal point of the Kupang activities. Of course it must have changed a bit since Captain Bligh rowed in after the Bounty mutiny, but the Portuguese and Dutch influence is apparent in the water-front architecture.
The Indonesian Customs boat came around the yachts as they arrived, with about 8 officials on board all of whom board your yacht! They each have a role to play be it Vessel Clearance, Immigration, Health, Drugs, etc. They were friendly and while the process took a while, we were told it was much quicker than normal. They managed to coax a few “gifts” from some of the yachts.
After clearing Customs, you get to go ashore, and it becomes apparent very quickly that the locals don’t see many westerners here. They are amazingly friendly with eye contact and a warm smile and wave. But you are aware they are also staring at you, observing these strange, tall, white people from far-away places. They perceive us as very wealthy which, when compared to them, we certainly are. Little English is spoken here, or throughout most of Indonesia, so the crash course we did while sailing around to Darwin proved very helpful.
The roads and building maintenance are poor and it appears little has been invested in this region since the end of colonialism after WW2. There are a number of interesting things to do around Kupang and there are English speaking guides about to put together a tour package. We spent a night in a primitive and remote mountain village, staying and dining with the local Rajah. The Kupang activities are spread out over a few days, allowing us time to sail across to nearby Roti Island for a night or two, which we found very interesting. We met a number of local fishermen there who learnt English in Australian goals after fishing illegally in Australian waters.
The Organisers have provided some optional Rally extensions beyond Kupang, and around 35 yachts participated in the first leg to Kalibahi in Alor. This was timed to have us there for the Alor Expo which is an amazing annual cultural event drawing people from many very remote areas within the Nusa Tengarra Region. You don’t see shows like this very often in a life-time! The Regional Governor hosted a lovely dinner and cultural show at his home for the visiting sailors. Food is remarkably cheap and we regularly feasted to be greeted with a bill of less than $2 per person. Fresh food is also cheap from the many little markets that abound.
These markets are a colourful highlight and are the traditional way the villagers trade their produce. There are many unique and tasty little snacks to be sampled as you stroll around. We hired motor scooters and rode up into the mountains to visit tribes living in their amazing traditional “snake houses”. They were very friendly and made us welcome in their homes.
From Alor, a further cruise extension gives you the opportunity to sail for Riung on the north coast of Flores, however, we found that many good spots would have to be bypassed to get there in the time allowed, so we let the Riung bound fleet go on ahead of us. This gave us the chance to visit some lovely little isolated fishing villages along the coast, and do a bit of snorkelling in the crystal clear blue waters.
While anchored off the Sea World Resort on the north coast of Flores, we took the opportunity to travel inland to the spectacular volcanic lakes at Kelimutu. These lakes are set in deep craters, high up in the mountains, and have a habit of changing colour over time, each lake with its own individual colour scheme. The arduous drive along winding mountain roads passes through some magnificent scenery. Volcano’s are a feature of Indonesia and only 13 years ago an undersea earthquake sent a 20 metre high tidal wave across the coast, devastating many coastal towns and villages, including nearby Maumere, the largest town on Flores.
Graeme and Isabelle sailed their Oceanic 46 around Tasmania, north up the Australian East coast and west over the top to Darwin to be part of the 2005 Darwin to Kupang Rally. They then sailed through Indonesia using the 3 month cruising permit they received upon entering the Rally. They are now in Langkawi in Malaysia. This article first appeared the Queensland marine newspaper "The Coastal Passage" and is the first of a series of articles they have contributed describing their trip through Indonesia.
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