Mandolin Wind under Spinnaker  

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Martin & Sue


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Visiting the Relatives in Borneo and Farewell to Indonesia


Rain, glorious rain!
Who would have predicted that we would greet the heavens opening up with such joy – but the final hours of our long passage from Bali to Kalimantan had drawn us ever closer to the equator and we had spent the last few hours sweltering in the still air and 85% humidity.


We had only just dropped the anchor when the dark, threatening clouds filled the horizon giving us only a few minutes to close the hatches before the arrival of the torrential rain. Armed with soap and shampoo we donned our bathing suits and headed for the transom steps for a refreshing shower – before heading forward with brooms to give the salt-encrusted decks a well earned scrub. This was the first useful rain we had encountered since Cairns, some five months ago.


Unfortunately, our welcoming reaction to rain did not survive more than a day and when the pattern was repeated the following afternoon – this time accompanied by strong winds and thunderbolts – we were less than impressed. We had just returned by Bemo from a trip to the nearby town and, noting the darkening sky, we were hurrying towards our waiting dinghy with armloads of groceries. It was a race against time as we dashed towards our yacht in the ever increasing downpour – and one that we lost badly. By the time we reached Mandolin Wind we were drenched from the almost horizontal rain that almost blinded us with its sharp, spiky points and as we clambered inelegantly aboard, we could not stop ourselves from ducking as the thunder and lightning cracked all around us. While I raced inside and gathered our lose electrical gadgets for storing inside the microwave and the oven (hoping against hope that they would be protected should our mast be hit by lightening), Martin battled the racing tide and choppy seas in an effort to attach the davit ropes so that the dinghy could be raised high enough to drain the ever rising fresh water that was threatening to sink it.


Below: Views of the Kumai river from our boat    


Finally, when all was secure, we had a chance to glance around at the surrounding yachts dancing on their anchor chains. One unmanned blue hulled mono seemed to be on the move and heading in a direction diagonally opposed to the general trend. In fact, it looked suspiciously like it was dragging its anchor and heading straight for Morning Star VII. Alone on board, Yvonne was in a panic. Eric was ashore sourcing an engineer to rebuild a broken engine raw-water intake pump and with no engine, she had few options if she was to avoid the wayward boat. Grabbing the fenders she prepared to fend off the errant boat which fortunately soon stopped its erratic path and we guessed that its anchor had re-dug in. After another ten minutes the storm cell moved off – leaving conditions even more hot and sweaty as when it arrived.

Interestingly, the owners of the blue hulled boat were on an overnight tour up the river and part of the package deal was a boat boy who was to stay aboard and look after the vessel. We made a note not to use that tour operator for our trip, since we had witnessed the boat boy being removed from the boat just half an hour after the owners had left.


We duly organised our own two day adventure into the wilderness with ‘Harry’s Boat Services’ after he had assured us that he would ‘definitely, positively’ provide 24 hour protection of our yachts.  There would be four of us for the trip upriver – ourselves plus Eric and Yvonne from Morning Star VII – and we would sleep on board the kloktok (a wooden, 2 level boat) under mosquito nets as this is a malarial area. Departure time was booked for 8am – but prior to leaving the boys had organised for a 7 am visit to the engineering workshop to give final instructions on the water pump shaft connections. Perhaps the term workshop is a little misleading for the premises were little more than a wooden shack with dirt floors. However, the owner appeared to be very knowledgeable and the price quoted for two sleeves was reasonable at $AU30. (They actually ended up doing a beautiful and well engineered piece of work.)

  Unfortunately for the boys they had not realised that Kumai was on a different time zone and the 6am alarm clock call was actually 4.30am local time -  Oh well, at least the time difference wasn’t the other way around! So they were back on board with plenty of time to board the tour board when it arrived to collect us and to deposit our own boat boy (who would sleep in the cockpit).


Within minutes of settling ourselves on board we were served coffee and biscuits and our male tour guide, Jennie, began filling us in on the timetable. It would take four hours to meander up the ever narrowing river towards Camp Leakey, the first of three Orang-utan protection camps we were to visit. Then after overnighting on the river we would slowly make our way back in time to visit the remaining two camps during the morning and afternoon feeding times.




The river trip proved to be a highlight, for it was lined each side with lush green foliage from pampas grasses and trees. Crocodiles were also lurking in the muddy waters and Jennie shocked us with a story about how the previous year they had lost a stubborn English tourist who insisted on swimming in the river despite warnings about hungry crocodiles!



We followed the main river system – which was a murky brown colour due to gold mining further upstream – for several hours before branching off along a smaller, narrow tributary. The difference in the colour of the water was startling, with the smaller waterway clear of mud but still very dark with the tannin from the trees. With the overhanging trees now brushing the sides of the boat we felt we were truly in the jungle and as well as proboscis monkeys and stork-billed kingfishers we spotted several orang-utans in the foliage.



Above: the changing colour of the river as we enter the tributary



We were looking forward to our visit to No 1 Camp (Camp Leakey) and our first encounter with the orang-utans – but we all found the experience much more moving than we had expected. It is not their physical presence that creates this impact but the expressions on their faces and the intelligence of their gaze as their eyes follow our every move. We had our first encounter within minutes of disembarking for our path along a boarded walkway was blocked by large male. Although not the head male, this one still looked massive to us and even the guide was wary of passing behind him. Eventually, when it looked like we would be waiting all day for him to move, a ranger appeared with some bananas and tempted him into the nearby jungle.


With our way now clear we soon found ourselves at the camp proper – a very low key centre with several wooden houses sporting very solid doors and cyclone wire instead of glass in the windows. Apparently the orang-utans are very clever mimics as well as being extremely mischievous and despite the defences they regularly break into the huts using tools to pry open door locks or lever the wire away from the windows.



During feeding time on the previous day milk had to be substituted for the normal bananas after one mischievous orang-utan broke into the banana storeroom and ate every last one! And during our visit, as we stood beside the kitchen storeroom watching several slothful orang-utans lazing in the shade, a cheeky youngster stealthily ambled over to the door and levered it open with a piece of wire. Unfortunately for him the cook was inside and came out brandishing a kitchen knife and screaming loudly at the offender in a harmless attempt to chase him off! 




As well as pilfering food they are also renowned for pinching other items including clothing (especially from clothes lines) and any sort of containers. We had our own experience of this impish behaviour when we saw a young female with a baby in tow quickly dart down from a tree, grab a tub holding cleaning materials, then hastily retrace her steps.  Jennie, obviously familiar with this sort of behaviour and concerned that she would try and eat the poisonous contents, made a grab for the container as she sidled by him. A tug of war ensued that Jennie eventually won.  The aggrieved primate perched just above us, looking down sorrowfully – prompting Jennie to disappear in search of some food. As soon as she saw him returning armed with a handful of bananas her face lit up with what can only be described as a smile and she was soon reaching out her long arm to receive the treat as we tentatively handed the bananas up to her.




We spent several enthralling hours at the camp, trekking through the jungle and scanning trees for more orang-utans. It was a particular thrill to come across several mothers with young babies, including a five day old twin whose sibling had died at birth. Most of the current population have a family tree that can be traced back to several of the original orphans rehabilitated at Camp Leakey after its establishment in 1971 – and most have been given individual names and have recognizable personalities and characteristics that make them easily identified by the staff and guides.



  As we headed back towards the boat we had several more encounters – one with Charlie, who appeared to be doing his yoga exercises as he lazed across the pathway in a lotus position! Renowned for his friendliness towards humans, Charlie reached out his large hand and allowed us, one by one, to touch hands.


Dragging ourselves away, we made it to the jetty where a large female named Rosie lounged. Shocked, we watched as Jennie attempted to prise open her mouth whilst at the same time putting his hand inside trying to grab something. ‘Chewing Gum’, he mutters over his shoulder as Rosie clamps her mouth shut with a determined look in her eyes. Apparently she had stolen the gum from an unsuspecting tourist who left their backpack unattended. All efforts to retrieve the gum proved unsuccessful and eventually Jennie had to give up – hoping that the gum would not do her any lasting harm.  


We were still buzzing from our experiences when we tied up in a secluded part of the river to watch the proboscis monkeys as they performed death-defying aerobatics and jumps as they swung daringly across the tree tops before settling precariously on slender branches for the night. As dusk settled we relaxed on deck whilst the cook prepared a seafood feast for us.

Below: Dinner on board    

It was over dinner that Eric uncovered an unpleasant truth about his proud attempts at mastering the local Indonesian language. For several months he had been introducing Yvonne by pointing to her and saying in Basa Indonesian, ‘This is my wife, she is a nurse’. The fact that this introduction was often followed with puzzled looks and the question: ‘But you have children?’ had not seemed particularly odd to him – until he used the phrase whilst chatting to Jennie. Our guide doubled over with laughter and wiping the tears from his eyes he explained to Eric that he had actually said: ‘This is my wife, she is a virgin!’ Unluckily for Eric the Indonesian words Nurse and Virgin only differ by the last two letters – so with his clumsy pronunciation he had inadvertently mixed them up, totally changing his intended meaning!


After dinner our kapok sleeping mats and mosquito nets were rolled out and a restless night followed as we tossed and turned on the back-breakingly thin and lumpy mattresses whilst listening to cicadas grinding out a loud chorus of melodious orbital sanders (at least that is what it sounded like to us through our sleepy haze!)



We were up at first light and by 7am we were slowly retracing our path along the narrow river towards Camps 2 and 3. Unlike Camp Leakey, these sites do not rehabilitate orphans so the orang-utans are untamed and relatively shy of humans. Both camps conduct morning and afternoon feeding sessions that involve the placing of multiple bunches of bananas upon elevated wooden platforms. There is no guarantee that any Orang-utans will take advantage of the free food – it often depends on the season and if there is an abundance of wild fruits and flowers available for the picking.  

Above: Camera Shy?  

Below:Big Fella

Luckily for us, our long trek through the jungle to find a feeding station was amply rewarded when the tree tops started to shake alarmingly and we spotted a large dominant male swinging his way cautiously through the green canopy before sidling down a final sapling adjacent to the platform.  What a magnificent animal – easily identified as the Alpha male by his large cheek jowls and swollen neck pouch (apparently the result of an excess of testosterone). Amazed, we watched the other orang-utans warily hiding in the branches – too frightened to drop down in the presence of the ‘boss’. Eventually ‘his highness’ had eaten his fill and, with a mouth stuffed with bananas, retreated back up to his treetop hideaway – allowing the waiting females and young males to claim their share of the goodies on offer.   


  We had one final stop to make at a village that had been relocated to make way for the National Park – but this proved to be a quick visit for the rain that had luckily held off for the last 2 days finally threatened to dump on us and we quickly retreated to the shelter of our river boat for the journey home. We were very glad to see our yachts still safely anchored where we had left them and the boat boy reported that there had been no incidents during our absence.





We reluctantly left Kumai the next afternoon – passing by the large ‘bird houses’ looking for all the world like multi story office blocks, where millions of swallow nests were harvested and sold at great profit to Vietnam and China to make Birds Nest Soup. The thought of all that bird saliva in ones soup did nothing for my appetite but apparently the sought-after delicacy fetches over 15 million rupiah a kilo ($AU1800) – and that is only the market price that the suppliers get before it is processed and cut into small amounts! The price in the wholesale markets later up the chain we were told can be 10 times that amount. No wonder they can build such large structures while most of the population live in modest residences.


Above: not high rises but Swallow Hotels - bird's nest soup coming up!


We encountered a nasty storm as we motored our way back out along the Kumai River towards the Java Sea and were not overly impressed when the pelting rain meant we had trouble seeing the large, but shallow draft , tanker we met at the narrowest stretch of the river. Eventually we anchored at the mouth of the river and waited for unsettling electrical turbulence to pass by before turning our bows westward for the overnighter to Billaton – our final rally stop in Indonesia. It proved to be a calm but busy night – at one stage we had 40 targets appearing on our radar (which was set to a range of only 4 miles). The really scary part about this was that we could only eyeball 15 lights on the horizon – the rest proving to be unlit fishing boats! Later in the night we had a second occasion to be grateful for our radar when we had an encounter with tug pulling a massive unlit barge that was impossible to see in the pitch black night.



The only other excitement occurred the next morning when we spotted a 3 metre rope as it floated passed the starboard hull – and we were not quick enough with the throttle to prevent it wrapping around the prop. Luckily we found neutral just as the line caught so it was relatively easy to cut the offending rope – although Martin was not that happy to dive on the prop when several large, ugly looking jelly fish were spotted in the water! 


The people of Billaton had pulled out all stops to welcome the rally yachts and we were again reminded of the wonderful friendliness and hospitality of the Indonesian people. Boat boys wearing official volunteer uniforms welcomed us warmly when we beached our dinghy and helped drag it up the sand. Our arrival (which unfortunately was rather a wet one due to the large onshore rollers that threatened to swamp us as we gunned it for the shore) was witnessed by hundreds of family groups who were crowded around a small cordoned off area to enjoy the novelty of having so many foreigners on their shores.

  It was very humbling, but also slightly intimidating, to walk through the welcoming, hand-shaking crowd towards the official rally reception tent where more uniformed volunteers presented us with gifts. They could not do enough for us, offering to provide a car for us the next day and to escort us to Immigration and Customs so we could clear out of Indonesia. One friendly chap even offered to lend us his motorbike (free of charge) if we wanted to have a look around the area.  
Above:Gifts - a new hat and a wooden clock    


Initially we had not intended to make this our checkout point for Indonesia – but given our reception we quickly revised our plans and next day we did the rounds of officialdom – overwhelmingly grateful that we had our English speaking helpers. To us the stamping and shuffling of the many official forms seemed a pointless exercise in petty officialdom – but to the uniformed officials we seemed to be the most exciting thing that had happened in their office for a long time! 

Above: The three stooges?   Below: Eric, the very naughty boy!
The administrative red tape took us most of the day but at least we had a chance to look around the neat, prosperous looking town as we travelled between Immigration, Customs, Quarantine and finally the Harbour Master’s office where Eric was asked to pay 1,100 rupiah ($1.30c) for declaring his boat tonnage to be 14.5 tonnes (when the free limit was 14 tonnes!)  

Finally back at the boats we took advantage of the cheap diesel (at 50c a litre) and when we finally upped anchor to head off towards Singapore, our tanks were bursting to almost overflowing. Just as well we did, for the weather during the 400 nautical miles it took for us to reach Singapore and Malaysia was calm and we did not even bother to hoist our mainsail in the windless conditions.



So ends our sojourn into Indonesian waters. It has been a journey of nearly 4,000 nm over 4 months and has been every bit as rewarding as we had hoped it would be. We have discovered that Indonesia is a land of amazing diversity – both in terms of its world-class natural beauty and its multitude of cultures and traditions. And along the way we have met a wide variety of new friends and acquaintances and experienced some incredible, often scary adventures.  However, our lasting memory of the Sail Indonesia rally will not be the scenery or the adventure – but the unbelievable friendliness and generosity of the Indonesian people – who despite having very little went out of their way to welcome us into the homes and to make our visit so memorable.