The timbers of a wooden ship talk all night to themselves in creaks and sighs. Ours is a phinisi, a classic Indonesian Bugis schooner with gaff-rigged sails and soaring bowsprit that looks like something from the pages of Joseph Conrad’s novels.
Below decks, however, the 42m vessel is air-conditioned, with 12 ensuite cabins and twin marine diesels. Modernity notwithstanding, Ombak Putih’s ribs and planks still speak in the same tongue-and-groove groans that wooden hulls have uttered forever. I fall asleep to their rhythmic gossip as we depart Gorontolo in Indonesia’s northern Sulawesi for the Togean Islands.
Come dawn, as we cross the equator, several of us leap overboard to honour King Neptune before pushing on to Una-Una Island. As we wander through its leafy village, I hear a humming sound above us. Wasps? Bees? One of our passengers has brought a drone and sent it aloft over the palms and fields. Surely it’s the first ever on Una-Una. Another passenger, on a missionary-like quest to bring “advancement” to the locals everywhere, performs to a captive, and baffled, audience of primary school kids. The rest of us skip the ambiguous spectacle in order to explore Una-Una’s fascinating old mosque built in iron and wood, and in pagoda style.
A hearty village farewell to Ombak Putih. Picture: John Borthwick.
We’re on a 12-day voyage on the theme of Corals, Cultures and Dragons amid the eastern islands of Sulawesi and then down to Flores and Komodo islands. Snorkelling is high on the agenda and our first plunges set the tone, spectacularly. We come to the anomalously named Hotel California Reef, which surrounds a classic desert island, a tiny upthrust of bleached coral bones that lack only a sole palm tree with marooned sailor languishing beneath it to complete the cartoon image.
Scooting out to this Eagles-referencing reef, we roll overboard from the ship’s inflatable tenders and straight into a sea floor show. Fish flit past in a phantasmagoria of clown stripes, camouflage or mug lair finery — whatever has worked for selection and survival. We’re adrift, all at once, in a ballroom of the tides, an infinite coral tapestry and samba school. A place where metaphors and similes come to die of inadequacy.
But the memory is indelible. You can surface any time you like but you never quite leave. We swim back to the tenders, buzzing, with black dolphins in the distance.
Ombak Putih (the name means White Wave) cruises on to Papan Island, where formerly nomadic Bajao sea gypsies now live in a village of stilt houses and kids snorkel beside us wearing homemade wooden goggles. Then follows a long overnight and day passage, under power not sail, to central Sulawesi’s Banggai Archipelago, home of a unique cardinalfish. Finding this exquisite critter becomes a Nemo-like quest among our 14 passengers and Indonesian guides, Dian, Jhon and Junita.
On arrival we first tour Banggai town in a fleet of motorised pedicabs, or bentors, an occasion for much mirth among townsfolk encountering this oddball motorcade. Our look-see concludes at the former Sultan’s modest wooden palace, which crowns the town hill and naturally enjoys the best views and breezes.
The surrounding islands are the only place on Earth to see the Banggai cardinalfish in nature. Our guides soon locate a shallow reef with an angel’s maze of corals. We spot the now familiar roll-call of parrotfish, tubefish, silversides, wrasse and barracuda, and then, yes, a fabled Banggai cardinalfish.
Banggai cardinalfish are being taken for aquariums faster than they can reproduce. Picture: Seatrek Photos
Whoever nicknamed the 7cm-long Pterapogon kauderni got it right. Three black bands run down its cream body while a delicate swallowtail and fins are tricked out in pearly dots like a matador’s suit of lights. This cardinal is so flash it could run for pope. We find several of them sheltering protectively amid a thicket of staghorn corals. Sadly, as Dian reports, the Banggai cardinalfish may soon disappear from here because they are being collected for the aquarium trade at a rate faster than they can reproduce.
Back on board, conservation photographer Pete Oxford shares with us similar concerns for other marine species, along with his brilliant images of endangered wildlife across the world. Meanwhile, the ship’s Balinese chef Gede and his team keep the steak, soups, gado-gado, fritters, salads and curries coming. At meals, we passengers fall into three loose linguistic groups, the German-speaking table, the English-speaking table and the Americans, with frequent interchanges.
There’s a limit to how much infinity a person can handle in one morning. I find myself thinking this as we surface from yet another drift through a wonder world of drop-offs, giant clams, batfish, morays, colleges of surgeonfish, choirs of angelfish, genius brain coral and white-edged soft corals like painted Tibetan clouds.
Epic reefs that we’d previously judged as “10 out of 10” are eclipsed by numinous new gardens that score, Spinal Tap-style, 11 if not 12 out of 10, and then go right off the Richter. I ask myself how to draw a line under endlessly logging these raptures of the deep and shallows? And if so, how then to not mention three turtles I see suspended in a blue abyss like satellites in space? And more.
Conrad, who worked these waters in the days of sail, wrote: “Suddenly, a puff of wind … laden with strange odours of blossom, of aromatic wood, comes out of the still night — the first sigh of the East on my face.”
Ombak Putih seen from the Padei Besar village. Picture: John Borthwick
Some things remain constant. On our phinisi’s shaded upper deck we can laze from afternoon into darkness, looking up at times from a book or conversation to catch a burning empire of clouds or lightning twitching like the nerves of night.
We draw breath above water long enough to visit more Bajao villages in the Padei Islands and then cross the Banda Sea to south Sulawesi’s pristine Wakatobi national marine reserve. Going ashore here at forested islands and well-kept villages, we visit a seaweed farm, a traditional ikat weaver and a Dutch-era fort with coral ramparts. On Binongko Island a sweltering blacksmith hammering away on his anvil endures our nosy cameras. Reversing the notion of turning swords into ploughshares, his job is to bash truck leaf-springs into machetes.
With two of our itinerary’s three boxes, corals and cultures, thoroughly ticked, what remains is our long passage south to Flores Island and a rendezvous with the ominous Komodo dragons. Which is when a contrarian trinity of weather gods, technology gremlins and general snafus aligns firmly against us.
Ombak Putih can’t make sufficient headway against the rising wind and swell, and its communication systems are having a bad tropical hair day. Captain Agung has to turn back to Wakatobi to wait out the weather, by which time completing our ambitious itinerary becomes near impossible.
Beyond here be dragons, as the saying goes, but alas not for us.
What to do then but change course, stay calm and carry on snorkelling? On our last day we visit a Bajao family living on an isolated jungle shore. Other than an outboard motor and chainsaw, their only obvious piece of technology is a simple solar panel. Bypassing ho-hum domestic applications such as lighting or cooking, these sea gypsies use their solar power to run a mobile phone and listen to music. Advancement, indeed.
John Borthwick was a guest of SeaTrek Sailing Adventures.
IN THE KNOW
SeaTrek’s Corals, Cultures and Dragons is a 12-day excursion from northern Sulawesi to western Flores; $US6990 ($9017) a person. SeaTrek’s other eastern Indonesia destinations include Papua, Maluku, Rajah Ampat, Flores, Bali and Lombok.