Saturday, December 28, 2013

The tempest transit

We hoisted our anchor on December 21st to leave Kumai (Indonesia) where we had spent 3 fabulous days with the orangutans, an experience we will never forget!

It took 2.5 hours to motor down the long river before reaching the expansive and shallow bay. About 3 nautical miles offshore under a brisk sail, we heard a solid thump. Jordan immediately thought it was a log from the river. But no log was visible. Then again, a thump, thump. He rechecked our electronic charts which showed extreme shallows a half mile to our starboard. We knew then that the charts were off that much and we were bouncing off the rubble bottom. We immediately turned away and escaped a grounding!

Once out of the bay, the light was fading and the wind was building. We were on about a 500-nautical mile (925 km) passage to Batam Island, our Indonesian checkout point, just across the channel from the Island nation of Singapore. The route would first take us along the south coast of Kalimantan (Borneo), then out to the open waters of the South China Sea.

The first night, the seas were implacable. We were fighting strong winds mostly on the nose and intense squalls and lightning from storm cell after storm cell. We were making maybe 1 knot to the good and paying the price for it.

As we were approaching the last point before open seas, we decided to take refuge behind the point but still somewhat exposed. We anchored (S02°55.268' E110°30.250') at the southwestern end of Borneo in the inky black of the night to wait it out.

By dawn, we had a few hours of peace and sleep. The winds and rain seemed to have died a bit so we pulled anchor at midday and started our tacking out of the expansive bay. Soon we came upon rows of fishing boats with nets stretched across our path. The first boat frantically waved and directed us away around his net line which lost us valuable distance-made-good.

Then another fishing boat's line required us to tack. After about 4 of these encounters, Jordan said "The heck with it. I'm going right over them." Our hull shape is cut-away, transitioning into a full keel with an attached rudder so we knew the line would slide over the bottom and out the back. Still a nervous move not only for us but you should have seen the excited waves and shouts of the fishermen! We just waved back and continued. "Crazy sailors!"

Once around the point and heading out to the South China Sea, the winds picked up to a full gale, again right on the nose with short steep waves. To get a good angle, we motor-sailed with tight reefing. But the bashing was taking its toll. Finally Jordan said to me "This is really not a good decision."

We were just starting the open waters and this weather could last for days. At that rate, it would take us 10 days of bashing. We decided to turn around; a move that proved even wiser when soon after Jordan looked up and saw a broken and unravelling strand of wire at the top of our backstay. He relieved the pressure of the vulnerable stay by affixing the running backstay with a strong cinch and kept the reefed mainsail in a bit more. We were still in a gale but running with the wind and waves made all the difference in the world. Things calmed down and we could semi-relax a bit.

The next morning at one point, we heaved to for about 15 minutes till a tempestuous squall passed before continuing our downwind run. We were heading back to Bali. It was a 4-day backtrack and a tough but only option as we had to regroup. At this point, we also had to address our soon to expire Indonesian visitor's visas and Bali was the closest practical place to do this.

Around 10:00, we could see a freighter coming up from behind and it became evident that we would be on converging paths. Our sail and rigging were set so Jordan made calls to the freighter to change course. No reply at first but finally in broken English "I see you. No problem. I change." We could see Barent Sea change course slightly to pass behind us and the Captain came on the radio "Sea Turtle, can I take a picture?" Jordan replied "Of course!"

That was an unusual request we thought. A sailboat is common in these waters and not that much of a novelty. But then we realized we must look pretty vulnerable in the gale's high seas. When we stood in the cockpit and watched as at some points our line of sight to the freighter bridge disappeared behind the height of the waves, it gave us a gauge at just how big the seas were and it must have been impressive to the freighter observers. But Sea Turtle was handling it good and we felt safe running downwind.

As we approached the big Island of Bali from the north end on December 26th, the winds died. So we started the Perkins at 10:30. Our destination was around the far south side of the Island and our course would take us through a pass between Bali and Lombok Island to the east. These passes between islands here are notorious for strong gap winds and very strong currents. Add to that, this particular pass is on a main path for international sea traffic. We saw a number of behemoths transitting past.

At midday on the 27th, we came to the east point of Bali. Our destination was almost in sight. Close, but it would prove to be far. As we rounded the point, we were hit with winds from the direction of our destination and an opposing current. We motor-sailed into very short waves that stopped us abruptly. The GPS ship on our electronic charts showed 0 knots. We spent a frustrating 14 hours making about 9 nautical miles (16.6 km), bashing and tacking.

The one pleasant thing was the beautiful sunset. For the last couple of hours to the entrance of the harbour of our destination, the winds and current died to give us a final relief. In front of the harbour's tricky entrance, we drifted for an hour or so until the sun came up for a safe entrance.

Finally we picked up a mooring ball at 05:45 on December 28th (S08°43.185' E115°14.434') back at the Royal Bali Yacht Club (a malapropos misnomer). These weary sailors were so relieved to have this arduous passage behind them. "Tell me again, why are we doing this?" But we knew the next day would put it back in a balanced perspective!

Friday, December 20, 2013

Making our way back

On the final of our 3 days at Tanjung Puting National Park (Indonesia) visiting orangutans, it rained during the evening and a bit again in the morning. As we now made our way downriver, we were fortunate to see a rare species of Kingfisher, the ones with bright colours, and only seen in this area. We also saw several hornbill birds with long down-curved bills. Between Joel, Jordan, and I, we had spotting of the avian kind that included eagles, parakeets, parrots, hornbills, kingfishers, and more.

A couple of hornbills

On our return, we stopped yet again at the 2nd feeding station but this time I stayed on the klotok riverboat as I was not better yet. Joel and Jordan saw the large dominant male named Dayuk that wasn't present the 1st time. We had a photo of him in National Geographic sitting on the same bench that we sat on as we watched all of the orangutans!

Back off dude

Further along down the river on our way back, we stopped at a small resettlement village (Sungai Sekonyer) and I joined Joel and Jordan for a stroll where we were caught in a warm downpour.

Meager homes

We watched as a couple of naked kids joyously played ball in the pouring rain and then visited with a couple of others who had chosen to be sheltered instead from the downpour. As usual, everyone waved and greeted us.

We're dry!

Once back at the riverboat, our guide Hunsi showed off a talent of his and made each of us a woven ring that we proudly wore. Thanks Hunsi!

Back at Kumai and Sea Turtle, we and our guest Joel spent the evening digesting the extraordinary experience of visiting our distant (actually, not so distant at all) relatives of the last 3 days. What made the experience poignant was knowing that these majestic and endangered "people of the forest" are losing their habitat and lives through deforestation of which much is done illegally.

The next day, we said our goodbyes to Joel.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Close encounters

Day 2 to spend with the orangutans at Tanjung Puting National Park (Indonesia) started early when our friend Joel, Jordan, and I woke before 06:00. Our hired riverboat, Bain's Yacht Services, motored upriver for about 2 hours to the next feeding station.

Once ashore, our first curious sight of the day was the carnivorous pitcher plants which are also known as monkey cups (monkeys have been seen drinking out of these plants after a rainfall, hence their nickname). Insects become trapped in the pitcher of the plant and are then broken down by digestive juices. Good thing they don't absorb fingers!

Peculiar pitcher plant with speckled interior

After a 20-minute walk, we came upon the feeding station, much like yesterday's, where the orangutans were gathering for their 09:00 feeding. Orangutans here were a little friendlier than yesterday. Here, they ignored the ropes that were meant to keep us away and moved right through us as if we weren't even there.

Only a few metres away

This young male named Copra ignored us as he moved past, preoccupied with getting a bright red flower (apparently its black seeds are a delicacy for them) which he spotted on the ground next to the spectators.

This 1 is MINE

The babies never let go of their mothers. Whether standing, sitting, eating, etc., they always have a hold of at least a chunk of their mother's hair.

We then proceeded upriver for another 2 hours to the 3rd station, Camp Leakey, for the 15:00 feeding. After about an hour, the water changed from muddy brown to clear but looked black (due to dead non-decomposing vegetation on the bottom). By the time we arrived at Camp Leakey, I was not feeling well. I believe the use of river water for cooking and cleaning dishes caused Montezuma's Revenge to set in and felt the need to stay aboard while Joel and Jordan went ashore with the guide.

The staff was so nice to me. They asked several times how I was and even offered me a massage!

As I waited for the boys to return, I watched the antics of a few cheeky, long-tail macque monkeys in the bushes, but the second I turned my back, 1 of them instantly jumped aboard and grabbed the bunch of bananas on our table right from under my nose! It was both surprising and funny. He shared (unwillingly) with his friends and seemed quite proud of his accomplishment.

Sneaky and swift

But more exciting (for Joel and Jordan) was a close encounter with a friendly young orangutan named Atlas. As Joel and Jordan walked down the boardwalk with their guide, Atlas approached Jordan. When Jordan reached out his hand, Atlas took hold and then walked partway down the path with him!

Atlas walking with Jordan

For the most part, these people of the forest are quiet in comparison to their human cousins...

What is he thinking?

This dominant male of the group appeared and he put on quite a mating exhibition with a female right in the midst of all the onlookers. Her baby was smack in the middle of the 2 lovers - no romance there!

A little privacy please

As we made our way down the river, we would get the odd glimpse of a shy semblance of human river life.

Jungle homes

Nocturnal sounds came from croaking frogs and the droning din of cicadas. Did you know cicadas make their sound by a complicated procedure of sucking in and relaxing the muscles of their ribs 300 to 400 times per second?

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Wild orangutans

We were on our way to see relatives. It would be the first day of our riverboat tour to see orangutans in the wilds of Kalimantan (Borneo Indonesia)! They are our closest relative and their name, "Orang Utan", means "Man of the Forest". Interestingly, they build new nests every night in 5 to 6 minutes. At least we don't have to do that!

We were picked up early by Bain's Yacht Service. Mr. Bain had brought along a man to stay behind and guard Sea Turtle during our absence and had already picked up our friend Joel at the airport, so we were ready to go.

A "klotok", our wooden carriage

Crew included the Captain, a deckhand, our guide Hunsi, and a cook with her young child. We were immediately served tea or coffee, and a bit later, the first of many delicious and healthy meals. Lunch consisted of salad, rice, a tofu mixture, prawns, fish, green beans, corn, carrots, and yummy papaya for dessert.

Joel, Judy, and Jordan

We motored down the dirty brown, muddy river lined with a low large frond palms, reeds, and jungle foliage. At times, Hunsi would signal the boat to slow or stop so we could spot various jungle species. We noticed several reddish-brown proboscis monkeys. Their noses become larger with age and some hang over and below their mouth. They are sometimes called "Dutchman" as Indonesians remark that the Dutch colonizers had large noses and pot bellies just as the proboscis do!

The nose that grows

As well, we spotted a large lizard swimming across the bow, long-tail macque monkeys hanging out in the trees, and various other jungle inhabitants.

Bain's Yacht Service pulled up to a wooden pier, our first of 3 stations along the river. We disembarked and followed Hunsi, our guide, along the boardwalk and paths. Our first encounter was a very big alpha male (dominant male) lounging in a gazebo at the side of the path.

Lounging alpha with large cheek flaps

Hunsi instructed us to keep our distance as this guy could be aggressive and unpredictable. After observing him for a short period, he slowly slipped out onto the path and came towards us...

The guides have learned a trick for control. It was a simple slingshot that these people of the forest have come to respect. So when big Uncle Orangutan came towards us, all the guide had to do was gesture to his backpack and show only a glimpse of his mighty slingshot and it was "exit, stage left" - into the jungle went our closest relative.

Sometimes it can be easy to pick out an alpha male from the group as he usually develops large cheeks several years after maturity.

We continued down the path until we came upon a roped off area, behind which was a platform that served as a dinner table for the orangutans. This is where park staff would, at scheduled times, spread bananas onto the large platform and fill bowls with coconut milk to supplement the orangutans' natural foraging diet.

We as the spectators, on the safe side of the rope, watched in quiet amazement as the time for feeding approached. At first, we could see distant trees sway and hear branches rustle with the approaching dinner guests. At times, they would make the thinner tree trunks swing and bend with their weight and momentum to the next tree as they made their way forward.

Once on the feeding platform, the more cautious would quickly and greedily guzzle the coconut grog, losing much of it in their eagerness, and grabbing fistfuls of bananas before making haste.

Most of the group seemed scared of the dominant male when he appeared with the exception of a few that included a female or 2 or juveniles. The alpha male was amourously successful, as was evident by the females that had young ones clinging to them as they moved with fluid confidence through the trees (the young ones hang on for 4 or 5 years till mom has a new baby and then they are forced to let go).

An older youngster no longer hanging on to mom...

These majestic mammals spend most of their time eating, sleeping, or hopscotching from branch to branch to branch spending very little time on the forest floor.

When it was time to leave, we returned to the riverboat and chugged up the river for a spot to tie up for the night while we were served a delectable candlelit dinner. It had been a super day with a rainbow in the sky but no rain all day or night. Upon retiring for the evening, we listened to the sounds of the jungle lulling us to sleep.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Bucket list destination

On December 10th, we left our Bali anchorage. Our destination: Kalimantan (an Indonesian province on the Malaysian island of Borneo) to see the wild orangutans. About 3 years ago, we added this to our bucket list so it was with keen anticipation that we set out.

The first 2 days were windless so it was motoring on calm seas. At times, it was a sad sight of garbage, mostly plastic, drifting at or near the surface. It was impossible to put out the fishing line while we travelled because right away it would pick up plastic.

About the third day, we got some rain and some wind on the nose, so we sailed a not so pleasant beat to make our way up to the lee coast where the wind and seas abated for us to make our way to the big bay that pre-empted our river passage.

Rainy day

The land all around was low lying and the charts showed very shallow depth for a long way out. As we headed in the direction of the river mouth, we passed 2 freighters anchored about 5 nautical miles offshore which seemed strange, but the depth dictated that. They were being loaded with product that was brought down the river and out by tug and barges.

As we got close to the river mouth, the charts showed that the area of navigate-able depth narrowed. It was getting late so we moved off to 1 side of the designated channel, out of the way of other commercial and fishing traffic. Watching our depth sounder, we found a place to spend the night (S02°58.946' E111°40.579'), ending our passage with a relaxing sundowner in the cockpit under the warm glow of twilight.

Up early, we left at 06:30 to navigate our way up the river to the small town of Kumai. At first, we had to do a bit of a dog-leg around a green marker. (Note of interest to sailors: in this part of the world, it's "green-right-return", not "red-right-return".)

We thought we were doing okay as we watched the GPS track on our digital charts, but then all of a sudden our depth sounder went to 2.5 metres (when it shows 1 metre our keel is at bottom). So we slowed, turned to gain some distance from the point of land on our left, and sure enough, the depth grew to 7 metres. So we could see the electronic charts were 0.5 nautical miles off.

Another sure guide was the small freighter that overtook us and we followed for a bit. Then an enterprising local longtail boater came alongside and offered to guide us up the shallow river. The cost of his service needed to be negotiated first. This difficult negotiating exercise would have to be done between 2 people - neither of whom speaks each other's language. It went as follows:

I showed him a 100,000 Rupiah note ($10 US), he nodded, 2 thumbs up, and the deal was sealed.

He then promptly tied his boat alongside and jumped aboard to man the helm. We had to watch to ensure that his boat did not dislodge the bumpers and leave marks on Sea Turtle. He had to hop down into his boat a couple of times to bail water out as it was leaking (many local boats do).

Udin was a quiet man but was dressed very bright in his yellow patterned pants. He also wore a wool toque (cap) with another cap on top of it even though it was very hot out - Jordan was shirtless and we had the sun canopy over the dodger. We find the Indonesian men to be very friendly but respectful around foreign women - when I sat next to Udin for a photo, he kept his distance from me - but when Jordan sat next to him, he claimed him as best bud.

Gregarious guide

About halfway up the river to our destination of Kumai, Udin said it was good for us to go it alone from there on as long as we stayed more or less in the centre of the river. We had originally negotiated a price for delivery all the way to Kumai but said our goodbyes and managed to complete the short journey without any problems by watching our depth and other commercial traffic.

Soon the jungle yielded to the busy riverside town of Kumai on our port side. As we started to scout for an appropriate place to anchor, we were approached by a speedboat directing us where to anchor and asking if we were interested in booking a tour to see the orangutans. We were of course.

Bain's Yacht Service suggested where to anchor (S02°44.419' E111°43.962') - off to the side of the river right across from town and in the midst of small freighters and barges. Once anchored, Mr. Bain jumped aboard, we set a reasonable price for his orangutan tour, and scheduled it to leave the next morning.

From Sea Turtle, we could see several high-rise buildings throughout the town that looked like windowless condos but in fact they were nesting houses for swallows. This is where they make their nests that are highly prized, and priced, for Bird's Nest Soup. Indonesia is the biggest swallow nest producer and exporter in the world.

We launched the dinghy for shore leave and internet. Right away, we could see that we were a rare sight for the town folk. They gave us pleasant stares and the occasional Indonesian greeting to foreigners "Hey Mista" framed with a bright smile. The 24-hour internet shop was quite a sight. In behind from the front desk was a dingy setting where there were a dozen or more cramped computer booths. The floor seating (a way of life here) was occupied mostly with kids playing interactive video games.

Jordan in an uncomfortable pose

We contacted Joel in Bali via Skype. He really wanted to join us in seeing the orangutans and said he would quickly arrange a flight to Kalimantan. Contacting us later, we learned that he could not fly until a day later so we re-booked our tour for the 18th so that he could join us. This river tour would last 3 days and 2 nights and include the trip up the jungle fringed river, stopping at 3 orangutan stations, before the return trip to Kumai and Sea Turtle. We were so excited and could hardly wait...

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Bali circuit

Time had come to renew our VISA that would allow us 30 more days in the country. Well that, we thought, should be a simple exercise. However, this being Indonesia, as the intrepid traveller comes to realize, that anything involving officialdom is bound to be overcomplicated and time consuming to the point of comical if it wasn't so frustrating.

After being directed to the wrong Immigration office, we eventually found our way to the correct one. With passports and other official papers in hand, we filled out forms and submitted them for processing.

"What's that you say? We have to come back later?"
"Yes, Come back in 3 days." (That would be 3 working days plus the weekend.)
"Okay, then we will get our extension?"
"Oh no Sir, that is just for you to make the payment. Then after that you can return 3 days after that to get your passports with the extension."

So with days to kill, we wanted to make the most of it. Our friend Joel, who we first met in the Banda Islands back in October and lives most of his time in Bali, would be our gracious host for these next few days for some off-the-beaten-track exploration.

Joel had his motorcycle and we had rented a scooter for the duration of our Bali stay, so we at least had wheels and were mobile. We had some fun times playing your typical tourist for a bit when Joel shared with us his favourite beach, stores, bars, and restaurant haunts in the tourist area. Then we headed out, negotiating the narrow winding back roads, passing the ubiquitous terraced rice fields that quilted the lush valleys and hillsides and through compact little villages that displayed the rich culture of the indigenous people.

One stop Joel showed us was a stunning vacation home of a US lawyer friend that was perched on a ridge looking out over a stream below and out to a picture perfect valley.

Jordan and Joel at exquisite home

The grounds were magnificent with all the surrounding flowers, lily pond, bushes, shrines, and even this whimsical statue...

As we coasted down from the ridge, we bypassed a hard-working woman drying rice spread out on tarps. Indonesia is the 3rd largest producer of rice in the world and is a staple for all classes. We ordered the delicious and omnipresent Nasi Goreng (fried rice) several times at restaurants.

Hard day's work

Our route looped us past Mount Agung that looked down at us from 2,567 metres, then along the rim of Mount Batur (1,412 metres), now a volcanic crater. As an interesting fact, Batur, when it blew, displaced more square cubic metres of earth than the famous Krakatoa eruption! From the rim, we dropped down into the crater's bottom where we found a nice fish lunch at a little hotel by the lake.

Another day when we headed out, our 1st stop was at Joel's favourite attraction, the Butterfly Garden. Joel, a butterfly afficionado and collector, named any and all the many species with a pleasant measure of excitement. It was very impressive to see the many varied sizes, colours, and patterns of these delicate creations, not to mention the interactive life cycle displays. We even watched as they hatched from their cocoons!

Beautiful butterfly

Can you see the shape of the snake head at the tips of this fabulous moth?

Earth-toned moth

When first hatching, their wings are still damp so they cannot fly until their wings have dried. They will slowly and silently start to flap their wings and do not object to being placed or landing on the visitors. At 1 point, I had 5 on me when I exclaimed "No more please!"

2 very large butterflies on Judy

The later part of the day was spent touring the back villages and rice paddies. Joel directed us through the middle of this terraced rice paddy on our bikes as we looked all around in amazement before heading back to the dense bustle of the city.

Driving right through the middle!

After years of travel through many varied countries, you learn to make the best of delays like those precipitated by redundant bureaucracy and this was 1 example of how this delay gave us some great experiences to remember.