Heidi Sarna had been to Bali and Borobudur, but the rest of Indonesia was largely a mystery – until she discovered a small, off-the-radar cruise company that had been quietly tootling around the far-corners of the Indonesian archipelago for 25 years.
SeaTrek Bali is a two-ship company that focuses mostly on the eastern islands, but in April, an old school friend and I signed up for a weeklong trip on a new exploratory route along the northern coasts of Java and Sumatra. The 16-passenger, 108-foot Katharina, built in the style of an old Indonesian phinisi (or bugis) schooner, was the home base for our adventure. Though our one-off voyage is not on the schedule for 2014, it was a good taste of the unconventional SeaTrek experience.
Go with the Flow
Though most SeaTrek journeys start in the Indonesian islands of Bali, Flores, Maluku, Sulawesi or West Papua, ours began in the industrial port of Semarang, Java, next to a loud flourmill. Our charming old-time schooner looked like a prop in a pirate film, though Katharina is only 15 years old and Jack Sparrow was nowhere in sight.
A helpful crew of Indonesian sailors was on hand to assist us over the chunky railing and along the dramatically sheered (curved) ironwood deck. A thick wooden dining table was protected from the sun and rain by a tarp positioned between the two masts – this would be our eating and “hang out” spot all week. The compact cabins, with bunk beds, a slim armoire and a bathroom with a shower nozzle above the toilet, were down a steep set of steps and meant for sleeping and not much else. Life on a ship like Katharina, after all, is up top on the open decks – this is for several reasons, including the fact that it’s where lectures are held.
Over the past few years, SeaTrek has started offering a handful of annual expert-led cruises, including the popular Wallace Cruise through Indonesia’s eastern Raja Ampat Islands. Led by Dr Tony Whitten, a Cambridge-educated conservationist, author and Indonesia expert, the route follows in the footsteps of the great British naturalist, Alfred Russell Wallace, and was recently named one of National Geographic Traveler magazine’s “50 Tours of a Lifetime”.
My April voyage offered a humbler version of the Wallace cruise, with National Geographic magazine writer and guest expert Simon Worrall speaking about the ancient maritime silk route. Simon spoke with the flair of a thespian, at times putting on accents and asking us to close our eyes to help us imagine what it might have been like sailing on an Arab dhow in these waters 1,000 years ago, carrying cargo between China and the Middle East. He focused his talks on the famous ninth-century Belitung shipwreck discovered some 15 years ago, close to where we were sailing, with most of its Tang Dynasty ceramic, gold and silver cargo intact. The Singapore government now owns the collection.
A SeaTrek cruise is hardly an all-cerebral affair, though; mostly it’s a lot of hanging out, soaking up the passing scenery and jumping overboard. Two bouts of snorkelling in the middle of nowhere had us climbing into Katharina’s two small skiffs to zip over to a coral reef to snorkel above schools of neon-bright topical fish, moray eels, sea turtles, and crazy clusters of brain, lettuce and elkhorn coral.
When we weren’t off the boat in the water or exploring on shore, we were left to entertain ourselves in ways that didn’t involve electronic devices. (Katharina has no TV and often no satellite signal for phones or the internet.) One spry English grandmother shared her watercolour supplies and led impromptu sunset painting sessions. Another passenger set up a slideshow of the photos he had taken so far, while others napped, read and sipped Bintang beer from cans.
One afternoon at anchor with no land in sight, some of us dove off the rails and swam around the ship, revelling in our freedom. We watched storm clouds on the horizon transform the sky into an inky canvas of brooding blues and greys, and I confess to spending a moment or two admiring the sinewy physique of one of the sailors as he pottered around the ship.
Sunsets were always the high point of the day, and we’d all swoon over the silhouette of the ship’s masts and lines against the fading burnt-orange sky. We snapped endless photos and downed glasses of Jacobs Creek Chardonnay (the top shelf of the ship’s little bar), intoxicated by that “life is good” feeling. After dinner one evening, several crewmembers brought out their guitars and sang local songs for us around the dining table, and it wasn’t long before the liveliest of our group got inspired.
Along with an elegant sarong-wearing divorcee from England with a wicked sense of humour, a fun-loving American couple and their arty 40-something daughter who promised to make me earrings from Bintang bottle caps, I got up to dance around the open decks as our funky wooden ship pushed through the waves somewhere off the coast of Sumatra.
As much as a voyage on Katharina is about being on the ship and at sea, the ports of call were a big part of the reason we were there. When the lines had been pulled up and we’d left the clanking flourmill behind, we headed west on engine power (the sails are used only occasionally when the wind is cooperating), riding swells large enough to make a few passengers queasy. A few of us popped seasickness pills just in case, but SeaTrek tends to attract experienced sailors who feel fine on a rocking ship.
The next day we made landfall in Pekalongan, Java, to visit the town’s batik museum and make a piece of real batik fabric with hot wax and traditional copper stamps. Later we shopped for batik, our group buying dozens of sarongs and shirts.
We spent the following morning at the palace of the local sultan in Cirebon, Java, where we were greeted with royal fanfare. We were served jasmine tea and local sweets while being treated to a classic Indonesian dance performance by a young man artfully imitating the movements of a bird.
The friendly sultan, a portly fellow in royal headgear and traditional sarong, then invited us to dance, and again we found ourselves in a circle twirling and laughing without a care in the world as the gamelan ensemble played on. We enjoyed ourselves enough that day to forget that our minibus had been inexplicably held up for an hour by bureaucrats when we first came ashore in Cirebon.
At times like these, our clever guest speaker Simon would share helpful little morale-boosters. Paraphrasing the great travel writer Jan Morris, he told us with a smile, “Travel without a few hiccups is no fun at all.”
From April to early September, SeaTrek does seven- and nine-night itineraries among the Bali, Komodo and Flores islands to see the famous Komodo dragons, trek along volcanic mountain trails and snorkel in vibrant reefs. Then the ships venture further east on longer, more remote itineraries in the Banda and Halmahera Islands, where waterfalls and white sand beaches are the backdrop to exotic wildlife like the elusive Red Bird of Paradise. Some itineraries visit Papua New Guinea to have a peek at the strange customs of the tribal people. Seven-night voyages between Bali and Flores start at US$2,380 per person and include all meals, soft drinks and excursions. Beer, wine and cocktails are extra.
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