Sunday, 7 October 2007

Kupang to Komodo Islands - September 18th

Komodo Islands National Park

Kupang to Komodo

Still no winds. We left Kupang motor sailing which we continued right into the night. Later we cut the engine to save fuel and drifted mainly with the current at a slow rate of knots. Below it was hot and humid. We stayed about 30-50 nautical miles off the coast trying desperately to find wind. We found enough just 5 knots again. Before leaving we had received a tsunami report over the HF radio from a number of major earthquakes that had just hit Sumatra not that far away to our west. We knew once out of port we had nothing to fear but up till then it was a little concerning. If it did come we never saw it.

The trip took 3 days so it was back to a watch system and harnesses on again. When off watch following the sun around the boat or should I say the shade actually. We all used double clipped biner system on our harnesses so we could walk around on deck. On rough sections we would be confined to the cockpit except for essential work.

On the way we passed the island of Flores known for its active volcanoes. Made for quite a spectacular rugged mountain scenery but they smoking volcanoes made it very hazy.

We stopped first at Rinca island. Brown and barren just one fishing boat in a nearby bay but even he left. Fiona was happy as she did not want to offend the Muslims but desperately wanted to swim in the now stinger free waters. We dinghed ashore and within minutes spotted several large komodo dragons. There are about 2500 of them on Rinca and luckily the tourists don’t yet know that. I followed one back to his nest basically several depressions in the sand beneath cliffs in the shade. I am glad that at this time I did not know they had deadly bacteria in their saliva!

We also saw loads of monkeys running and playing on the beach they were Macaques and were very shy. Sighted some small deer too.

Kokodos are one of the oldest forms of monitor Lizard on this planet. They look ancient and also powerfull some being over 100 kgs. They can run up to 18 kms/hr but are usually sluggish. They kill their prey by a toxic bacteria when they bite so by this method all they need to do is bite there vitim on the leg. The victim then runs away but dies up to two weeks later. Then it is feast time and several dragons can devour a whole Water buffalo. In fact buffalo and Timorese Deer are their main prey. We later learnt that a small 9 year old boy was killed by a komodo on Komodo island just a couple of months ago.

After a bit of snorkeling in not so clear coral waters I decided to get some exercise so head off up a creek. I was a bit wary of confronting a komodo which are hard to see because they lie so still and are camourflaged.. Luckily I saw them first and gave them a wide berth. There was no track so I boulder hopped the easiest way to get through the vines and vegetation. Off on the hills it was dry and hot and full of snakes. Well I trod on one anyway. Did not see him till the last minute. He was not aggressive and just took off under the leaves like Aussie snakes do. I noted his markings and took him to be a python. Triangular head and mottled heavily patterned beige/bron colour. In fact he was a very dangerous Viper and could easily have killed me. Lucky, I suppose.

After the snake encounter I took to the hills climbing higher and higher until I could see over the other side of the island and for miles and miles. All I could see were islands galore and reefs everywhere. I came across a large area of dirt and dust and droppings soon realizing this was the main home to the deer on the island. I surprised quite a few getting to within metres of them before they saw me. It upset a couple of stags with their big antlers and they roared at me for quite some time until I left. The walk back was easier along deer tracks. Any other way was impossible. The nice grassy sloping hillsides were covered with volcanic boulders, ankle breakers so walking was very hard and concentration intense. But I felt free enough to whip off my clothes and do the nudist bit as it was a long way back to the beach. I saw few flowers and most trees had lost their leaves due to the drought.

The view from our anchorage had to be one of the most stunning I had seen. Surrounded by rugged hills and distant mountain peaks and white coral cays and beaches. Sunset here was truly beautiful. Once anchored the liquor locker is opened again and vast quantities of duty free alcohol are consumed aboard. Except for me I like to keep it in moderation so enjoyed a nice Vodka on the rocks as the sun went down.

After two days we left for Komodo island a day trip away. It was a difficult passage with light wind and very strong and scary currents. I have never seen such wild waters before. One minute smooth water next in 2 metre standing waves splashing the decks. We had to switch off the auto pilot because it could not handle the conditions or preempt the pull from the current. One second we were being ripped sideways to the left next to the right then the left again.

Once we were turned a full 90 degrees instantly all 13 tonnes of our boat with motor flat out. I was hand steering sending the wheel spinning through 80 degrees at a time just to keep the boat going straight. Ian had a go at me which I did not like because I had not been following his allocated bearing. He later apologized when he realised the track I had achieved on the chartplotter was a straight one. I think I am a better sailor than he and he did not like that. This created some tensions and from then on I was not happy with a few of Ian’s instructions or attitudes.

Dodging the reefs that often extended way out from island points became quite challenging and we were all on the lookout for them. When we did finally come into the bay that we were heading for we quickly realized that the reefs we could see were well down beneath us. We could see a full 150 feet clear to the bottom. When our anchor went down we could see the full 200ft chain and the anchor from aboard the boat. Once again Ian and I collided when I suggested he drop the pick in a large sand patch within the reefs. He told me to drop the anchor and I called out that we needed to be a bit further in. in fairness to Ian he was worried about the depth but I could see it was fine. I had to drop it where he said then he let out way too much chain. We ended up back on the 80ft Bugis Schooner behind. When an hour later the currents changed they swung around right over our anchor and we could nearly pass drinks to the guests aboard. Some smart New Yorker aboard kept yelling at us to pick up our anchor and move to a nearby buoy. He did not listen when we tried to explain that we couldn’t as it was under there boat and also the pilot book listed this third buoy as unsafe and unreliable.

Ian let out more chain then drove the boat in a circle to wrap around the coral and keep us shorter away from the schooner. I did not like this method of solving the problem either as later on when the wind picked up it snapped the top off the pristine coral below.. oh well.

Needless to say the diving here was probably the best I have ever experienced. This might explain why there were diving charter vessels calling in there. Superb coral everywhere, every type you could imagine and an equal variety and quantity of tropical fish. It was so clear it felt like an aquarium. One dive at a place called crystal rock saw me swimming with millions of large fish. They blotted out the light there were so many. As I swam towards them they would part and then close all around me. Unfortunately I forgot to put the card back in my camera at this place so all the stunning photos I took were not recorded.

At another spot we drift dived near a drop off. Here I had a sea snake swim right under me then shortly afterwards as I dived to the drop off two different sharks swam very close. One was a white tipped reef shark the other looked like a gummy shark. This area is known also for giant manta rays which I thought I saw but cannot be sure.

Fiona and I swam ashore then climbed the nearby mountain startling a white bellied sea eagle sitting on the top. Impressive to watch him take off from so close. On the way down the other side we hit boulder grasses again and Fiona had a hard time with cut on her ankle getting knocked. The beachcombing on the rocks and deserted coral beaches made up for it. So much to see, a beach combers paradise. Ian never seemed to join us on any of the hikes or the swims. He just sat on his boat and relaxed. I suppose as skipper and main navigator the passages are quite demanding and he just feels like chilling out. For me passages are an ordeal to endure to get to the places you really want to be. That is what it is all about and certainly with the fickle winds you can’t say the sailing has been fun recently. So I wonder what he gets out of it?

If sailing my own boat I would plan to spend more time when near land and to day sail when it is possible rather than just do multi-day passages that need watches to be maintained. Perhaps the reason he does not like stopping so often is that he has no electric anchor winch and even his manual one does not work. For me it has been really hard as he always puts out an excess of chain so pulling it in by hand is pretty hard work. A simple investment here would avoid a lot of worries and dramas especially when hauling in the anchor in crowded anchorages in not so ideal conditions. I am certainly learning much here on this cruise.

We sailed back to Rinca Island where we found a very sheltered narrow cove in which to anchor. We had been cautious about the depth here but need not have been. later one of the Schooners sailed in and anchored off the trees right next to the beach. Obviously the beach dropped away sharply there to good depths! Here we went ashore for a guided tour by the National Park staff. There are only a few staff here living in two huts with basic facilities and in a remote location. Komodo Dragons were hanging out in the shade under their huts. As we waited for our guide to finish his lunch two heavikly armed policemen arrived. They must have noticed our scared faces as they inserted a fresh magazine into the M16 then cocked the trigger right in front of us. Fortunately they did this to be ready to protect us had one of the Komodos got a bit frisky.

The tour was informative but pretty basic. We saw more Macaques watching us from the trees on either side and had to walk around several sleeping Komodos just a metre from us. The guide carried only a long stick as defence. Strangely we came across the only waterhole on the island with two water buffalo wallowing in their muddy waters. Six Komodo Dragons were lying on the ground within 20 metres of them. Talk about sleeping with the enemy!

It was very hot and dry here and mosquitos swarmed the boat at night as we were surrounded by shoreline. As the sun went down I sat on the deck playing my guitar (which i had bought in Timor for just $10) and watched a a very poor family in their tiny long boat as they fished with nets and lines catching only tiny fish that they sold to the 'Parks staff. It looked like that baot was also their home. What an existence. Two adults and one child on one tiny boat with few possesions and little to eat. On the back was a claypot burner their heating and cooking facility. They were very friendly and humble people with huge smiles that remain with me even now.

We left Rinca in the early morning with a good tide to cross the bar then set sail for Lombok and Bali. This leg of the trip was very tedious with little wind. Ian kept chasing the wind trying to find the compromise between the calm seas well offshore and the onshore sea breeze near the reefs. We ended up about 30 Nms off the coast. We managed a very respectable 5 knots of speed. Not bad for a 13 tonne boat in light zeyphrs. It was hot and humid so there was little relif from the heat. As we were now coasting our deck watches became more demanding keeping a lookout for hidden reefs and overfalls.
Ian timed our arrival in Bali for the early hours of the morning. The entrance to Bali marina is in the pasage between bali and Lombok known as one of the most treacherous waters in the area. Extremely strong currenst, whirl pools and shallows either side. At first we had to ease the sails to slow down our progress but as the tide changed and we had the current against us we hardly made any progress under full motor and sails. in fact we were going backwards which means the helmsman has to think backward too and use the helm in the opposite direction.
We spotted a slow moving yacht between us and the entrance but they made no attempt to radio us or answer our calls. We could not understand why they stayed so close to us without moving. We later found out that they were marooned having limped in from Ashmore reef with a dead engine and no wind. Now they were having to fight the same currents as us. The Welsh skipper had tried to hail us by voice and radio but we had not heard them. eventually they got towed in by the Indonesian Customs boat.

NEXT POSTING: BALI - The land of the most beautiful people in the world!

… more to come folks stay tuned!