As the crew heaved and tied off in practiced unison, the seven sails billowed and flapped as ropes snapped into place. The sails filled and caught the breeze. The sleek wooden schooner came into its own; we were sailing. We cut through the white waves (Ombak Putih) with ease and, from the comfort of my lounge chair, on a freshly polished deck, I felt life couldn’t get any better at that precise moment.
Such are the delights of taking a sailing adventure, but it was not all smooth sailing. In addition to the extraordinary sights; deserted beaches, untouched coral reefs, crystal clear waters, sunrises, sunsets and friendly tribes people, we were to ride out a storm in the Sunda Straits great enough to force us to change direction and take a less dangerous route. We were to stand captivated as we watched Eddy the dragon slayer take on a Komodo dragon and we were to witness the age old custom of whip fighting during our visit to the mountain people on the island of Flores.
Relax, sit back and join me on this captivating journey across the Lesser Sunda Islands. A journey as timeless as the ship which brought us there, the Ombak Putih, which in itself is worth telling a tale about, as it captures much of the mystique of the trip itself.
The Birth of A Bugis Schooner
The Ombak Putih is a bugis schooner, meaning it was built by the Bugis people, a legendary tribe of sailors and boat builders who use a ship building technique that has remained unchanged in hundreds of years. The shipwrights and apprentices learn their skills as early as 12 years old. The Bugis people are from South Sulawesi but many conduct their trade from other places in Indonesia, like Kalimantan, where the Ombak Putih was built.
Before starting the design of a bugis schooner, much planning and preparation is involved. The master ship builder and the ship owner must forge a working relationship, which centers around harmony, as this implicates a long life for the ship, little risk and good fortune. The strength of the ship is not only determined by construction factors but also by mystical factors.
The master builder must go into the jungle, on his own, in order to commune with the spirits before he may choose and fell the first tree. The first tree is the most important and before it is cut he must enter into a dialogue with the tree and pay honor to it’s spirit.
With axe in hand, the master builder strikes in an upward direction symbolizing the fortune of the ship will always rise. He plans the building of the ship in the jungle, in his mind, and in fact no written designs or blueprints are ever used. The Buginese people build by oral tradition and know exactly how much wood will be used, how much it will weigh, what type of construction factors they will employ and of course, the mystical factors plays a part as well.
Ceremonial acts are held when the three pieces of the keel are joined together. Inside the holes that join each piece, gold is placed symbolizing wealth. Iron is added for strength and hulled rice is also placed, for prosperity.
The launching of a 200-ton Bugis pinisi schooner is done manually and takes around 200 men to push the boat into the water. The night before, Islamic songs and traditional Buginese songs are sung and the supernatural spirits are honored.
Once the boat is in the water, the shipbuilder stays with his ship. He becomes the Captain, presumably for the life of the ship or his. When I was introduced to our Captain on board the Ombak Putih, I had an enormous respect and admiration for exactly what this title meant.
The Journey – Sumbawa to Flores
We set sail from Bima, in Eastern Sumbawa. Our 8-day journey was to take us to the islands of Komodo, Rinca, Flores, Sumba and Savu, however when you are in the hands of nature on the high seas, things can change.
March is typically the best time to sail in the Sumba Strait, as the calmest seas prevail. However, we battled an unexpected huge storm on the second night and ended up with a different outcome and as any travel addict knows well, these are the moments when travel becomes an adventure; when the best laid plans go astray.
After dinner, our cruise director handed out the seasickness pills. The dark, looming waves started to get noticeably larger and soon the dining room chairs were lifting and flying across the galley. When the large dining table rose, accompanied by glasses nervously clattering in the glass cabinet, the Captain called a meeting. It was only 45 minutes back to a sheltered bay, so the decision was made, and we turned back.
After a smooth night’s sleep we woke up in Flores, one of the biggest, most rugged and beautiful islands of the Lesser Sunda Islands. We were given our first glimpse into the Flores culture with a visit to the traditional village of Ngada. This involved a one-hour bus ride up into the highlands where we were made very welcome by the village chief.
We were invited to take our honorable seats in a small hut and soon we were sipping palm wine, chewing beetle nut and munching on some tobacco. The giving was then up to us, and our European cruise director, handed the chief a couple of rupiah which served to symbolize the act of giving.
Soon a full-scale whip-fighting dance was in progress involving a group of men cracking their whips, and yelping as they danced, challenging each other to the power of the whip. The men were extremely animated and vocal in challenging their adversaries. This was accompanied by the antics of the local crowd (us), which made sounds equivalent to a WWF wrestling challenge.
The women then performed a bridal dance involving bamboo poles and some speedy intricate footwork keeping them out of harm’s way, as the bamboo poles opened and shut quickly. After the ceremonial dances we were invited to beat the gongs and in a very friendly, hospitable way, we were made to feel very welcome. We didn’t want to leave; however lunch was calling and the food served on the ship was worth the bus ride back. Every day the chef presented a new menu, which was a blend of European style food and local Indonesian fare.
After lunch we enjoyed some solace and relaxation time. In fact, every day offered a cultural trip in the morning, lunch back on board and then setting the sails for a new destination, usually a remote uninhabited island for some snorkeling.
Our beach afternoons became a bit of a ritual, and our crew would row over with chilled wine and cold drinks and a freshly baked batch of muffins or scones.
We were in for another adventure when we visited the island of Komodo. We were only off the boat 5 minutes we saw our first Komodo dragon. On closer inspection we realized when we were actually surrounded by them, as they blend perfectly with the scrub and grass. The ranger, Eddy explained it was quite unusual to see so many dragons in the one area and we should consider ourselves very lucky.
There were seven Komodos in total and although the size makes you a little nervous (they stretch out to about 3 meters), they have gentleness about them, which I found quite captivating. When one started to move slowly towards us, our ranger, who stood guard with only a 2-pronged stick, assured us we were in no danger and then went on to explain how one of his colleagues had his arm ripped off by a Komodo!
One Komodo dragon started to make an advance, with a very determined look on his face. He began to make a beeline for the ranger’s hut. He proceeded to haul himself up the staircase and nose his way in, successfully opening the door.
Eddie the dragon slayer reacted with lightening speed, charged at the dragon and grabbed him by the tail. We couldn’t see what happened next, as the two of them were now inside the hut, but there was plenty of banging and crashing and then Eddie emerged triumphant, having managed to wrestle the dragon and to haul him out (by the tail).
As we stood open-mouthed in wonder, Eddie explained calmly, “He was after our food. We have fish in there and he must hunt for his food naturally.” Eddie was not just a dragon slayer; he was an environmentalist as well.
Komodos are actually slow movers and live to a ripe old age of about 50 years. Their hunting strategy is based on stealth and power. Although they can run at speeds of up to 30km an hour this is only in short bursts. Poor hearing and limited vision means they hunt mostly by smell. After an attack, the wounded prey will slow down and eventually die. The septic saliva of the Komodo left on the animal eventually poisons the prey and allows for the final kill.
The Komodo dragon is a large monitor lizard and although related to the dinosaurs, they are not descended from them.
KeliMutu Lakes – Flores
One cannot visit Flores without seeing the stunning three-colored crater lakes. This involved a slow and windy bus trip up the mountain. It is well worth the arduous ride, with outstanding views from the summit.
The lakes of Keli Mutu, which lie within the volcano’s crater, actually change color. Our guide told us that on his previous visit, one of the lakes had turned silver. On the day of our visit we saw one lake turquoise, one green and one maroon. Due to the varying mineral content you never know what you are going to see until the day. The area is steeped in tradition and the local people say the dark colored lake, which varies between black and maroon, is where the bad souls go.
The lakes are caustic and in 1995 a Dutch tourist accidentally fell in and only a part of his body was recovered one week later. He was exploring in an out-of-bounds area, which was foolish and he met his fate in the turquoise lake. Apart from the unfortunate tourist, no one has ever ventured down to the lakes.
The people of Watublapi are skilled weavers and after the performance they invited us to view their looms and spinning devices. They showed us all the steps – from taking the cotton from the kapok pod to spinning it on a wheel. As the wheel whirred away they demonstrated how a ball of cotton was made. They simply stretched the kapok out from the wheel, creating a long strand and before our eyes we saw it turn into a ball of cotton.
The women sat together on the jungle floor, clacking on their weaving looms and most seemed to have a permanent meditative smile. It was clear to see they really enjoyed their work and their traditional way of life.
We found Flores a very friendly place. The people are not poor, but live mostly by subsistence, growing rice and crops and providing for their families with supplementary income from things like weaving and carving. They are aware of the need to preserve their culture and heritage by keeping their traditional way of life. For them, it is how they pay homage to the spirits of their ancestors. With the Christian missionaries arriving in the 1920’s, 85 % of Flores people are Roman Catholic, however they also honor their ancestral beliefs and practice their animist customs together with Christianity.
Our journey ended in Maumere with no one wanting to leave the ship and board the plane home. The places we visited had woven a memory of white sandy beaches far from anywhere, spectacular volcanoes and mountains, the natural habitat of the Komodo dragons, plus the smiles of the wonderful people we met along the way. A sailing voyage on the Ombak Putih allows the journey to be equally as good as the remote destinations you experience.
Story by Stephanie Brookes
Photos by David Metcalf
Indonesia Cruises – PT. Ombak Putih
Benoa, Bali, Indonesia