This is a little out of date as we left Nemberala a couple weeks ago. However, it’s a great memory for us – and might give you a chuckle. The boys created little “pocket books” of interesting facts about Nemberala – here are a couple of extracts.
This is a little out of date as we left Nemberala a couple weeks ago. However, it’s a great memory for us – and might give you a chuckle. The boys created little “pocket books” of interesting facts about Nemberala – here are a couple of extracts.
Can you believe it – we finally left Nemberala! Not that we went far, mind you – just to a nearby island called Ndana (“pulau” means “island”). It’s the southern most island in the whole Indonesian archipelago, and is uninhabited apart from a small military base.
We motored the whole way into a moderate south-easter – which took about 1.5 hours, being less than 10 nm away. The big Indonesian flag at the military base could be seen from a couple miles away, and our anchorage was in the bay right in front of the military base – which is actually hidden from view when you get there. We were blown away by how beautiful the bay is – clear turquoise water, jagged limestone cliffs with birds soaring the updrafts, waves peeling down the reefs on both sides, an incredible white beach – and not a soul to be seen!
Our first mission was to “report in” with the military. They allow people to visit the island (which is fantastic), but we were told that one has to report to them on arrival – preferably with a gift of sorts. I was expecting quite a formal bureaucratic atmosphere, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. At the top of the beach is a little palm-fringed beach hut, complete with hammock, benches and table – and a big sign welcoming visitors to Ndana.
From there, it’s a short walk along a track (complete with solar-powered street lights!?) to the main group of buildings. We found a couple of “marines” (as they called themselves) playing cards, and they entered our names in the official “Visitors Book”. Check in complete! They were young, down-to-earth and friendly, and we had a good chat and a couple laughs with them before heading back to the beach. They appreciated the Cokes we brought them – but I doubt they were necessary. One gets the feeling that it’s more of a holiday camp than a military base – and is probably there to maintain a presence in case of trouble / uprising in the area.
We now had the bay to ourselves – what a treat! The waves were beckoning to the guys, who went off to try them out. The swell was a little smaller and the waves were perfect for Josh, who relished having them all to himself! I grabbed the SUP and headed for the beach, where the reef forms a calm lagoon – perfectly for SUPing, swimming and exploring. The beach sand is really beautiful here – made up of tiny perfectly round balls like mustard seeds, interspersed with flecks of bright red coral and tiny seashells. I could have examined it for hours!
The next couple of days were spent much the same way – mostly in the water. Marco found a heavy hollow wave around the northern headland which he enjoyed, and the boys surfed the left right near the boat. Noah had a slight cold (I didn’t think one could get a cold in Indonesia!), so spent a little more time reading and resting.
One morning, when the tide was low, we went exploring the limestone cliffs and exposed reef. The cliffs are really jagged and look like molten lava that has solidified into strange shapes. There are many caves and tunnels made by the waves, and the cliff faces are full of crabs that scurry away into crevices and holes when you come near, making a bizarre rattling noise. One lost its footing and fell onto Marco’s bare back – aargh! There are numerous “brittle stars” (closely related to starfish) on the reef, and many unusual seashells and hermit crabs. We enjoyed a refreshing swim in a rockpool in a cave in the cliffs, and couldn’t stop photographing the reflections and unusual angles in this picturesque setting.
We came across a most unusual sight in the shallows – a snake/eel type fish that had literally bitten off more than he could chew! It was a long white snake/eel with a fish sticking out of its mouth – both dead. After some research I identified it as a “crocodile snake eel” – I had never heard of these before. They burrow in the sand and wait for their prey to come near, then grab it in their jaws. This one must have been too greedy, and choked to death! How bizarre!
We also did some snorkelling along the reef – there were some beautiful sections, with bright blue and turquoise schools of fish and big sea sponges. We didn’t venture too far from the boat channel, but I’m sure the reef would have been more pristine away from the main thoroughfare (albeit with minimal traffic).
I got a little experimental with food whilst we were here – making Nasi Kuning with fresh turmeric and lemongrass and Cah Kangkung (stir-fried water spinach) with dried shrimp paste. It tasted delicious – but I think I overdosed on the turmeric and ended up with a woozy tummy and pounding headache. Everyone else was fine – but I’d had seconds and more leftovers for supper, and maybe absorbed extra turmeric through my hands (or not). Anyway, I had a day of feeling horrible – and vowed to use the turmeric juice rather than the whole root next time (as stated in the recipe – but I thought I knew better).
After about 4 days we headed back to Nemberala. We’d run out of milk and milk powder (Noah’s worst nightmare) and cereal (Noah’s second-worst nightmare), and I was dying for a pizza or hamburger from Bekky Boos (no turmeric please!). Farewell Ndana – stay as untouched as you are!
4 weeks later and we still haven’t managed to move from Nemberala on Rote Island. After all the effort it took to get here, it’s lovely to just stay in one place and enjoy it – no navigating, no night watches, and generally fewer problems when you stay put! It’s also such a stunning place with something for everyone to enjoy – surf for the guys, a safe anchorage, a great market, and a friendly village. Why leave!?
The surf has continued unabated. The boys tend to surf for about 4 hours each day – that is, until their bodies cry out for rest. Josh was forced to take a couple days off after he developed a fever and sore throat – probably just run down after all that exercise in the sun. They have improved so much in the time we’ve been here – Noah is doing bottom and top turns with ease and has even gotten into the barrel a couple times. Josh has surfed some HUGE waves for his size (more than double-overhead), and is learning to drive to stay in the sweet spot.
The reef is about a kilometre out in the sea and is exposed at low tide. It’s a great place to watch from – but not that easy to get to. We managed to weave our way in the dinghy between the agar-agar farms and their submerged wooden stakes to get me and my camera onto the reef. It was probably the smallest swell of our 4-week stay in Nemberala – but I finally managed to get some decent footage of the boys (including above pics). Once the water started lapping at my feet it was time to head back to the dinghy – before being swamped by the ocean.
After all that time in the surf-attire, the boys have even developed an interesting surf tan. Spot the short wetsuit and bootie look!
Marco and Rob have had their share of waves. The swell got really sizeable for a couple of days and they had some amazing surfs – with only 6 people in the line-up. Rob pretty much ate, surfed and slept – well deserved after all his hard work in helping us get here!
So what does mom do when the boys are surfing? Why cooking and cleaning and washing of course! Ha ha – there is a bit of that, but I’m also enjoying having time to myself to do a variety of things. When the wind is light I enjoy SUPing to the beach or amongst the agar-agar farms, having a swim and then whizzing back with the wind. I’m getting into my painting again – finished one and am now busy with one of my favourite Indo boats. I’m also playing classical guitar again, trying to get back to the level I was at when I was a teenager. When I need to escape the boat I go for a walk, sometimes followed by a smoothie or coconut yoghurt at Indika – mmm.
Here’s some proof of the “chores” that I do:
I’m really getting into the food here. Did I mention that the market is amazing!? I’ve been getting a little more experimental and branched out into some more unusual foods. I’ve also started trying out some Indonesian recipes and typical dishes … it really excites me, but more of that in a separate blog post to come.
We’ve tried out a couple other warungs / restaurants in the village, and have had some delicious meals. The one (Bekky Boos) served western and Indonesian food, and the boys were thrilled to have a big juicy hamburger – red meat baby! We also discovered that one of the local shops sells ice-cream – what a treat!
The one day we bought a barracuda (ikan alu-alu) from the market and decided to braai it on the beach. It was such a beautiful evening, with so many stars and the Milky Way like a big puffy cloud across the night sky. All the die-hard surfers who got out of the water after dark came round the fire for a chat. With a Bintang and campfire, what could be better. The fish was delicious too!
We hired motorbikes again and explored a bit further south of Nemberala. We found the gorgeous little bay of Bo’a, with a cute eco-resort tucked away on the headland – a beautiful place for a picnic and swim.
We continued journeying south and came across a group of boys with a soccer ball. Without a moment’s hesitation Marco jumped off the motorbike and organised an “Africa Selatan vs Indonesia” soccer match. Wow were the Indonesian guys good – twinkle toes! We ended up with a lot of spectators who seemed to think this situation was rather hilarious. We all had a great time and the boys felt rather pooped afterwards – it seems running is a different fitness to paddling!
We also said a sad farewell to Rob, who had to head back to South Africa for work. He’d been with us for about 3 months and has been such an integral part of this trip! Thanks for all your hard work Rob – and we’re glad you made it back despite missed ferries, typhoons and cancelled flights!
So now it’s just the 4 of us again. Our plan is to explore a couple of the islands off Rote, and then slooowly head north-west towards Komodo (to renew our visas). Who knows, however, we may never leave Nemberala …
We left Kupang headed for Pulau Rote (Rote Island), an island south-west of Timor, and within a day’s sail. Our destination was Nemberala, but we stopped overnight at Ba’a, the capital of Rote, so as to sail in daylight hours.
Ba’a is a small village with a prominent lighthouse. We didn’t spend much time there, but did go ashore to try and get charts from the harbour master – we’d completely forgotten to do this in Kupang! From Ba’a it was a couple hours’ sail to Nemberala, through a fairly narrow passage between Rote and Pulau Ndau. We had created KAP files of the south western coastline of Rote – these are basically Google Earth images that you overlay on your navigation program, so get a more accurate idea of where the reefs and channels are. We plotted a course through the narrow passage, as well as a course into the anchorage at Nemberala (which is between 2 reefs), and it worked brilliantly!
The big and small boys were completely frothing as we arrived, as we were surrounded by beautiful peeling waves! We found a suitable anchorage in 15m of water – with waves on both sides, all within paddling distance of the boat! The biggest decision for them was which wave to surf first. They were all exhausted that first evening as they hadn’t had quite so much exercise in a looong time!
I’m not going to try and describe the waves and the surf sessions here. I’m not a surfer, so it wouldn’t come across as authentic – and I’d probably just write the usual descriptions like “epic”, “cooking”, “top to bottom”, “barrelling”, “hollow” etc. I’m hoping that Marco will write a post on it – but let me just say that the boys (big and small) are very VERY stoked to be here, and surf about 4-6 hours each day. There are bigger gnarlier waves out the back, and smaller waves on the inside, so something for everyone. The (little) boys have been progressing fast, and Marco officially deemed them to have become “men” after yesterday’s surf, which was apparently big, powerful and hollow.
Nemberala is a cute fishing village, with a couple of low-key resorts that blend in with the local environment. No monolithic flashy resorts here – thank goodness! Lontar palm trees are prolific on the island, and the leaves are used in many of the roofs. Some of the houses are made from wood, but quite a number are brick. Many of the boundary walls are made from chunks of reef piled on top of each other – which looks really cool (yet slightly unstable). Most homes have a well outside, and there are lots of frangipani and bougainvillea trees. Rote is quite a dry island as it is quite far south (around 10 degrees south of the equator), and the soil appears quite chalky. There are many pigs, goats, chickens and cows that stroll around. One of the funniest sights was watching a couple pigs forage for food on the reef at low tide – I’ve never seen pigs on the beach before! I also noted a number of “Tsunami Evacuation” signs, directing people to paths that lead upwards. Something one has to consider when living in the Ring of Fire I suppose!
There are a couple of little eateries in town – sadly, many of them serving western food. Who wants to sit in Nemberala and eat a hamburger and chips!? One of our favourites is a place called Indika, run by Max, who’s half Indonesian / half German and his girlfriend from Guatemala. They’ve created such a peaceful place to spend a couple of hours, and serve divine banana lassies, mint iced tea, paw-paw and honey smoothies, coconut yoghurt, as well as freshly baked bread and tamarind jam.
The sea provides much of the activity, and I just love watching the “Rote Rush Hour” every sunset and sunrise when the boats head out to sea and then return from a night of fishing. The boats are too gorgeous – wooden, handmade and brightly painted in unique designs and colours. The “cumi” (pronounced “choomi”, meaning chocca or squid) boats are really interesting, with big side supports that they string with lights to attract the squid. They all have loud lawnmower-type engines, that make a definite “putt-putt-putt” sound. As Noah says, it does sound like a helicopter coming in to land when they come near. They all anchor around us during the day – sometimes pretty close – and then head off at sunset. They must feel like superstars as I can’t stop photographing them, especially at sunrise.
I think the studs of the village drive the resort boats – which are often Indonesian boats with bigger outboard engines. They take surfers from the resorts out to the backline every morning and evening, and look very cool with their sunglasses and James Dean hairstyles.
Another big activity here is seaweed farming – they call it “agar-agar”. They set up a network of ropes in the shallows, and the seaweed grows along these. At low tide – and presumably after a period of time, they come and harvest the seaweed, and then dry it out on big wooden platforms at the top of the beach. A lot of it gets sold to Japan – probably for seaweed sheets used in sushi. It looks like such a calming, peaceful thing to do, kind of like vegetable gardening in the sea!
Whilst on the subject of vegetables, I must mention the local market (“pasar”). Tuesday is market day, and we were advised to get there early. We have actually been waking up before sunrise (probably due to the coming and going of the fishing fleet), and I managed to drag Marco off at 6:30am! We followed the general foot-traffic and arrived while it was still cool and pretty empty. What a lovely market it turned out to be! Delicious fresh fruit and vegetables of all kinds, eggs, pulses, rice, noodles and yummy baked goods (called “kue”, a generic term meaning “cake”). We filled our backpacks and bags, and headed off with at least a week’s supply of food for $36! I vowed to practice my Indonesian numbers after this – including the hundreds and thousands, as prices are generally obtained verbally and get pretty complicated, with most vegetables costing Rp5,000 –50,000. It was actually a really good school lesson one day!
Motorbikes (or scooters, really) are the main form of transport, and are really affordable to hire (at $6 per day). We decided to hire 2 motorbikes and explored the coastline south of Nemberala. What a fun day that was – I could definitely get used to this mode of transport! The roads are really mellow and the traffic is minimal and slow – even the “bemos” wait patiently for you to move aside so they can pass, not like our crazy taxis back home! There are lots of side roads and paths, ending in deserted little bays and stunning beaches, just beckoning for a swim. A lot of the land is empty, but seems to be in high demand, as there are many “for sale” signs and unofficial agents wanting to sell land. It’s really “for lease”, as foreigners can’t buy land in Indonesia, but is really untouched and unspoiled, so the attraction is obvious. We ended up in a village called Bo’a at lunchtime, but unfortunately could not find anywhere to eat – apart from some snacks at a roadside stall. So back to Nemberala it was, to a little local “warung” which served “nasi kuning”, rice cooked in turmeric and other spices, served with a boiled/baked egg in a tomato-based sauce. Really tasty – although a little spicy for Josh!
Rote is a predominantly Christian island, and there are many crosses and churches dotted around. The church bells sound on Sundays, and we decided to attend one of their services. We arrived too late for the service at the closest church (it starts at 7am!), but as we walked on through the village, we couldn’t mistake the sound of praise coming from one of the houses. It turned out to be another church, totally alive and on fire for God! We snuck in at the back and enjoyed being surrounded by like-minded people. The language and culture may be different, but the Spirit is the same everywhere! Google Translate did a good job of translating the sermon for us too – thanks Google.
So, a week and a half later and we’re still in Nemberala. It’s so great to stay in one spot for a while, especially a place like this where there is something for everyone. Our plan is to visit some of the smaller islands off Nemberala for a couple days, and eventually head on to Sawu and Sumba.
This is what Josh had to say:
The people in Kupang are really kind and generous. They are always willing to help. An Indonesian took us in his taxi to all the places we needed to go to one day. In the taxi he was always joking and laughing with everyone. Another Indonesian, called Lambertos, watched our dinghy, which we had pulled up the beach, for two or three hours for us, when we were at the market.
Indonesians always have time for you. In a taxi, the driver taught us a bit of Indonesian for a while. When you walk down the street, you meet Indonesians who can chat to you for hours and teach you new things about Indonesia. On our first day in Kupang, someone came up to our boat. We chatted with him for a long time, and he taught us a bit of Indonesian. He also told us that he would help us with customs, immigration and quarantine.
Kupang also has a good vibe. When you go in the town you see stalls on the side of the road, night markets, motorbikes, taxis with people hanging out of them, trucks with people on the roof and small villages. It may sound chaotic, but it actually isn’t. The cars drive slowly and when a car gets in another car’s way, they give a friendly hoot and it moves.
The Indonesians are always smiling and happy. Some teenagers came on board and we joked, laughed and chatted for ages. A couple times we got smoothies from a shop and chatted to the happy, jolly cashier for ages. Wherever you walk everyone is smiling. Overall we had a fun and eventful time at Kupang!
These were some of Noah’s thoughts:
The food was really good, and really tasty. We went to a pasar malam (night market) and had nasi goreng and chicken. We also had really yummy smoothies – buah naga (dragon fruit) and another really yummy fruit which I can’t remember what it’s called. My favourite food that we had in Kupang was a tender juicy chicken soup with crispy skin and vegetables, and the flavour was so strong and tasty! And it only cost $1.30 for a whole bowl of soup.
What was really funny in Kupang, was that Josh and I were like celebrities, or famous film stars, to all the Indonesians. For example, the first thing some teenage girls asked us when we met them at Teddy’s Bar (a small bar and market) was: “Can we have a photo with you?” We didn’t want to be rude, so we said okay. All three girls took turns in taking photos with us one after each other. Another example, was at an iPhone shop when we were getting internet. All the workers at the shop wanted A LOT of selfies with Josh and I. Again, we didn’t want to be rude, but they wanted at least 9 or 10 selfies with each worker. Not to mention this one ladytook 10 billion selfies with Josh and I at every single angle possible! 0 degrees, 45 degrees, 50, 90, 120, 300, the lot. We were thinking about charging 10 000 Rupiah ($1, or R10) per selfie, since we were the top dudes around town!
The boats at Kupang were like small ketches without a mast. Every boat was a different colour, and the engines had to be hand cranked to start them, and when the boat was going, it made a putt-putt sound. I thought a helicopter with pontoons was landing next to where we were anchored every time a boat came past. The boats usually have a deck and a little cabin at the back. They are called “longboats”.
Kupang was a really fun place, but I think I might have a bit more fun in Nembrala at Rote island where we can finally surf. But by the time you read this, we would have already surfed for ages and ages. HOORAY!
The sail from Darwin to Kupang (in West Timor) was mellow and easy. Unfortunately I felt queasy for a while – and this was exacerbated by me downing half a cup of sea water, thinking it was fresh water! The sailing conditions were lovely – very calm seas, a gentle to moderate breeze from behind or off the beam, and sunny weather. It is about 500 nautical miles from Darwin to Kupang, and took us 5 days, 4 nights. We deliberately slowed down at the end as we wanted to approach West Timor in the light.
The islands of Indonesia are known to be scattered with “fish attracting devices”, which are basically moored floating drums / platforms, presumably to attract fish. One really doesn’t want to hit one of these, especially with the engines running. We did actually come across 2 of these on our 4th day at sea, still far offshore from land. I think they had come loose from their moorings and drifted out to sea. Although the wind was very light that last night, we decided not to switch our engines on so as to limit any damage in case we hit one of these. Fortunately we were protected and kept safe from any dangers – thank you Lord.
The boys (and Paul) entertained themselves by making little wooden boats that they dragged behind our boat whilst we sailed. They started off quite rudimentary, and got more advanced over time – with sails, drag shuts etc. There was a bit of a panic when one of Joshua’s came loose and was lost at sea (tie a bowline knot Joshi!). Marco turned us around and we began the hunt for the 5cmx5cm boat – and found it! Successful “boat overboard” mission completed! The little boat was consequently named “Lost at Sea”. Unfortunately her desire to return to sea must have been too strong, as she again managed to come loose and was ultimately lost.
The boys (big and small) also had fun jumping off the bow and grabbing onto the stern as the boat sailed passed. We had a rope tied off the back – and I was a little anxious that they might miss the rope and be left behind in the Timor Sea!
As we approached Kupang we first passed the port with a number of large ships anchored in the bay, including a gigantic “power ship”. There seemed to be a lot of industry in the area – what looked like a power station and a cement factory up on the hill. There were also thousands of “fish attracting devices” moored along the coastline and in every little bay we came to.
We rounded the headland and came to the more traditional part of Kupang – brightly coloured houses dotted along the shore and up the hill, and the bay full of bright wooden fishing boats. It was a delightful sight! There was also a large ornate building which we discovered was a church, and along the shore, a constant stream of scooters, bicycles and “bemos” – bright minibus-taxis with huge mudflaps, shiny stickers and loud music. They reminded me of the minibus taxis back home in South Africa, except they drove slower and were brighter and shinier.
We anchored a little further along, opposite the main part of the city. Some of the buildings were built right out of the cliffs and seemed to blend right into them. As we sat down for a cup of afternoon tea we heard the call to prayer from the nearby mosque, and the loud putt-putt-putt from the wooden fishing boats heading out to sea. Yip, we were definitely in a foreign country – how interesting and exciting!
We had our first visitors too – Ayub and Lambertus, who are “yacht agents” and offered to guide us through the process of checking into the country – for a fee of $100 (including taxi-fare). We had read about Ayub on various websites, as well as in our “Cruising Guide to Indonesia”. He was thrilled to see his name in the book, and there were high-fives all round as he revelled in this fact. Checking into Indonesia involves visits to 4 offices: Quarantine, immigration, customs (including a boat visit) and harbour master. It is totally possible to do it independently, but it’s supposed to be quicker and more efficient with an agent. He seemed like a friendly enough guy, so we agreed to use his services, and he met Marco at the beach the following morning for a day of formalities.
Marco said the whole process went smoothly, and the officials were very friendly and easy-going. They had to criss-cross town to get to the various offices, and customs came on board at around 4pm for a brief inspection. Again, they were really friendly – they viewed our medicine cabinet, asked about morphine (which we don’t have), looked under our mattress and in the engine rooms. And then we were free to take down the quarantine flag and go on land!
Marco dropped the boys and I off at Teddy’s Bar, an open-air area with tables and chairs, some food stalls, pool tables, a brightly lit up carousel for kiddies and a general meeting place. We were definitely the attraction, and had many people come up and chat to us, shake our hands, and high-five the boys. The girls seemed to like taking selfies with the boys, and really loved Josh’s long blonde hair! It seems that 3 students took us under their wing until Marco arrived, and we managed to have a fairly decent conversation using Google Translate and the bits and pieces of Indonesian we’d learnt so far. We ordered a smoothie made from a big green melon of sorts, as well as the standard condensed milk and sugar. Rather sweet, but tasty. We could have tried the avocado smoothie instead – also with condensed milk!
Marco had dropped the dinghy off near the Pasar Malam (night market) where Lambertus lives. He was Ayub’s “fuel guy”, who had a gentle disposition and was more than happy for us to leave our dinghy with him. We headed off to the night market to track down some food – what a selection, and so difficult to choose! I felt like nasi goreng (fried rice), pretty much the staple dish of Indonesia, and we thought we’d ordered that – however, we got plates of everything separately – rice, chicken, and kangkung (water spinach). It was really tasty though, and we felt very satisfied.
The next day we had to clear out of Kupang with the harbour master. The boys and I went along this time, to get a feel for the city and off the boat a bit. It’s a little chaotic, but is a lot smaller and more laid back than I thought it’d be. The cars drive slowly and people seem quite relaxed on the roads, and cars, scooters, goats and people seem to understand each other and keep out of one another’s way. The people are so friendly and helpful, and gave us so much time. They didn’t seem to be jaded or wanting a quick-buck out of us, which was so refreshing. There were very few westerners around – which is probably why. We bought some fruit from a roadside fruit stall, where we discovered “salak” – a fruit with brown snake-like skin with firm white flesh that tastes like bubblegum! We were surprised to find that some fruit was even more expensive than in Australia (e.g. oranges, rockmelons and apples). We went to a rather scruffy downtown market to buy some vegetables, and had most of the local schoolchildren following us from stall to stall by the time we’d finished.
We also organised internet for our phones, and drew some money. Our cards worked fine and we drew money in 5 batches (as the maximum limit per transaction is quite low). On the last attempt the ATM processed the transaction, stated “please take your money”, we could hear it being counted, and then it suddenly returned my card and stated “next customer”, without producing the money! Oh boy! Luckily the bank office was right there, and we went in and explained the situation to the manager. He wasn’t overly helpful – said we’d have to fill in a form to be sent to Jakarta, and they’d have to take it from there. I was preparing myself to write off $200, but managed to get into my bank account online and saw that the last transaction actually didn’t go through – thank goodness!
We returned back to the boat after a full day, and I enjoyed relaxing on my bunk with the sunset illuminating the city in front of me and the muezzin chanting me to sleep.
Paul left the next morning, and we were all sad to see him go. We felt like a family after journeying together for 6 weeks, but understood his commitments and other endeavours. Josh moved back into his room, and we prepared to leave Kupang for Rote island. Sampai jumpa lagi Kupang – until we meet again, you were a great introduction to Indonesia!
What a surprise when we woke up on our first morning in Darwin to the sight of 60 or more boats in the anchorage! We had anchored in Fannie Bay the previous night, and could only spot 3 anchor lights, so figured that the anchorage was pretty deserted. Some of them hadn’t had anchor lights on, but we’d also (somehow) missed spotting the others – I think they’d blended into the lights on the land. Anyway, we were glad we’d been prudent and anchored far offshore!
My first priority that morning was to get onto land and enjoy a hearty brunch in a cool café. I’d done some research the previous day (thanks TripAdvisor) and had picked out a spot called “Laneway Speciality Coffee”, which was voted on of the top deli/cafés in Darwin, and was also, conveniently, within walking distance of the Darwin Sailing Club, where we could leave our dinghy. It turned out to be a really funky vibey café, with great breakfasts and coffee. What a treat! We stocked up on a couple of expensive groceries from Parap Fine Foods (only place nearby), and then headed back to the Sailing Club, where we spent the afternoon.
Darwin Sailing Club is a total gem. It is situated right on the beach in Fannie Bay, and has huge lawns that overlook the bay. There is open-air seating for at least 500 people – and it’s pretty much full every evening, even during the week! There are deck chairs for those just wanting drinks, a playground for kids, a restaurant and bar, and a big clubhouse. The beach varies in width from about a metre to about 30m in width, depending on the tide (8m tidal differences!). One has to plan quite carefully when leaving the dinghy on the beach – if you arrive at high tide and get back to the dinghy at low tide, you’ll end up having to drag it a long way! Alternatively, if you arrive at low tide, you have to pull it up really far to avoid having to wallow in the crocodile-filled sea for too long.
Anyway, we made extremely good use of the Darwin Sailing Club. We spent many afternoons and evenings on the beach and having sundowners at the club. The boys enjoyed stretching their legs and playing Frisbee, beach bats and soccer. Noah loved flying his new drone and getting great aerial footage of the bay. I loved just relaxing on the lawns, reading a book or watching the boats coming and going. I became a temporary member ($15 for a week), which gave me access to the laundry and showers. I only used each once (I did shower more often – but on the boat) – but I must say that I relished every moment of that shower!
We had quite a few errands to do in Darwin – the most important of which was applying for our Indonesian visas. We decided to take the dinghy around the headland to the CBD, and then walk from there. Whew, we hadn’t anticipated how far it actually was, and that the last half would be straight into the wind! After about an hour and a half in the dinghy we made it to the main jetty, looking wet and windblown. We quickly tied up the dinghy and raced off to the Indonesian embassy to make it on time. We got there 10 minutes before closing time – but the officials were friendly and seemed to be in no rush. The application was straightforward and painless, and we were told to come and fetch our passports a week later.
From then onwards, we used to buses to get around. The bus network in Darwin is great – children are free, and adults pay $3 for 3 hours’ use. It was a 10-minute trip into the CBD, and similar time to the various other shops and suppliers that Marco needed to get to. There was a rather long (and boring) list of things we needed to buy – boat spares, gas fittings, oils, a bigger pump for our watermaker etc, and it took a number of days for Marco to source the right parts, check availability and track them all down. There were a couple of irritations when the wrong parts were given, or the parts weren’t actually available etc. I don’t think the shopowners quite appreciated the effort involved in actually getting to their businesses – it’s a little more difficult than just jumping in your car and driving to them. Eventually all the chores were done and parts purchased.
We decided to beach our boat in order to clean the hull, change the saildrive oil and check and replaces the anodes. The beach in front of the Sailing Club is perfect for that, as long as you time it well so you don’t end up stranded! We ended up with 4 hours in which to complete these jobs, which was just enough time. I also used the convenience of being able to step off the boat to my advantage – I took all the salty sticky bedding to the laundry, and got Coles to deliver some supplies.
We did fit in some fun stuff too. One of the boys’ highlights was the wave pool at the Darwin Waterfront. Darwin is a hot place – the temperature was probably around 30 degrees most days, but not too humid with it being winter (yes, that’s 30 degrees in winter!). Unfortunately the sea isn’t a great place to swim as it’s full of saltwater crocodiles, and one really does want to cool off. The wavepool was built for this purpose then – and is so refreshing! The waves are pretty relentless and come from different angles, but people just seem to love bobbing around on inflatable tubes or boogie boards. The boys, obviously, tried to ride the waves, which wasn’t that easy to do as they didn’t really peel.
We all really enjoyed Darwin as a city. The CBD had a good feel to it – a cool pedestrian street with bookshops and cafes, restored old buildings near the main bus terminal, and a well laid out pedestrian route from the CBD to the more modern waterfront, with an array of apartments, cafes, restaurants and swimming pools. There are a number of weekly markets too – we went to the Parap Food Market, but it didn’t come close to Rusty’s in Cairns in terms of fresh produce. We did find some good smoothies and laksas there though, and enjoyed them under a shady tree whilst listening to some funky tunes from DidgEra, all the way from the Sunshine Coast.
There seems to be quite a big arts and music scene (as judged from our perusal of the Darwin newspapers). We were (involuntarily) privy to an all-night/morning rave that boomed out across the bay from a warehouse near the beach. I woke up at various times of the night wondering when the continual thudding would stop. Rob described his night as “angry”, but Marco said the music rocked him to sleep. Either way, I can definitely conclude that sound travels better over water than land!
Our visas were ready when promised, and we made an appointment to clear out with immigration the following day. We decided to anchor in Francis Bay, which was nearer the CBD and also to the refuelling dock. One of Paul’s friends had just arrived as crew on a superyacht right next to us – what a complete coincidence! She invited us to come for a visit, which was a real treat – especially for Noah, who loves designing boats and their interiors. It felt like like walking into a penthouse apartment, so immaculate and beautifully laid out. And so it should be – it gets rented out at $160,000 a week! The thought of cleaning all that space freaks me out though – imagine how much clutter one (or one’s husband) could fit into it! And how much it would cost to fix anything! So back to reality we went, back to our “little” boat with “little” problems.
Immigration clearance was straightforward, refuelling was pretty easy (we just had to remember to keep lengthening the lines as the tide went out), and we set out on one last shop for fresh produce. And then we were ready – ready to set sail for Indonesia! Bye bye Darwin, bye bye Australia – we’re off to Indo!
We left Cape York in good spirits, ready to tackle the Gulf of Carpentaria and the Arafura Sea. This was to be our first crossing far away from land, with no bolt-holes if things turned sour. It’s about 350 nm from Cape York to the top of the Wessel Islands, and then similar distance from there to Darwin. This area is renowned for strong trade winds (actually one of the strongest trade wind spots worldwide), but from the south-east / east, which would be behind us all the way. The weather forecast predicted south-easterly winds of around 25 knots for the next couple of days, and we decided to head off.
Well … our pleasant sailing trip took a turn for the worse the further we got from Cape York. The wind increased as predicted and the Arafura Sea became a bit of a cauldron. The fetch wasn’t far enough to create long period swells, and we were continually being hit by short steep swells from behind. In addition, there was a very uncomfortable side swell that would send waves crashing into our port beam, or slap under the bridge deck. As a result, the boat battled to get into a smooth rhythm and it was really uncomfortable. There were also patches of rain – but generally just squalls that would pass over fairly quickly.
We had to limit the time we spent preparing food, playing games, sometimes even reading, as it was important to always keep the queasiness at bay. Josh probably fared the worst in this regard, but still heaps better than at the start of our trip!
After 3 horrible days we passed the top of the Wessel Islands. Around this time we used our satellite phone to get an updated weather prediction – the wind prediction had now increased (30-35 knots). If only we’d known this before passing the Wessel Islands – we could have anchored on the lee side and waited for the weather to pass! However, we definitely did not want to turn around the beat into the wind and waves so had to keep going. There was no danger really, as the winds were in our direction, but a respite would have been nice. We did vow to check the weather more regularly (i.e. daily) in future – even if the thought of staring at a computer was enough to bring on a bout of queasiness.
As time passed the days seemed to blur into one. We did a lot of sleeping, reading, staring at the horizon, watching the waves, watching some movies and documentaries and playing the odd game (when the sea gave us some respite). School was pretty much out of the question – I had no energy for it, nor did the boys, and none of us could have cared less at the time. I battled to sleep at night due to the sudden slapping of waves, and felt exhausted most of the time. We ate decently – iron-stomached Rob whipped up some meals when the sea became really rough, and Paul provided the much-loved almost-daily bread. We had a lot of fish in the freezer from our flurry of catches earlier on in the trip, so we enjoyed lots of Thai curries and fried rice dishes.
One thing that gave us immense pleasure (strangely) was fantasizing about the meals we craved the most. Rob’s pick was undoubtedly Ultramel custard. Noah dreamed up some amazing desserts, generally including Nutella and strawberries. Marco lusted after Coke, Paul mentioned homegrown pears from the orchard of his childhood home. Fresh, crunchy salads were up there, as were Magnums. Anything icy cold too. We felt strangely satisfied after these conversations, and then went back to our lukewarm water, crackers and raisins (ok, with the odd Timtam thrown in).
The conditions probably reached their climax on the 5th or 6th day from Cape York. The sun had just set, and the wind increased to a consistent 30-35 knots. The sea was really messy and some big waves were crashing into the cockpit from all sides. I find it worse in the dark as you can’t see where they’re coming from, so they really take you by surprise. Rob had just served supper and we were sitting in the saloon with the doors open when a wave broke over the stern and crashed across the cockpit right into the saloon – mainly onto me! I saw it coming in slow motion – a spray of white coming out of nowhere and lurching towards us. The boys thought it was fantastic and couldn’t wait for the next wave. Luckily there wasn’t another one quite as bad, but it was a rough couple of hours until the wind abated.
We generally had the jib up and no mainsail. We hardly had to gybe as the wind direction was pretty consistent, but had to watch for an unsuspected gybe with the messy swells. The boat handled the conditions well, and the autopilot kept us on course throughout.
After about 6 days we reached Croker Island, which finally presented us with an anchorage and some rest. We didn’t go ashore – it’s Aboriginal land and one needs a permit to land there, but mainly because we were also too tired to even think about exploring. The sunset was incredible – so red and fiery, reflecting the colour of the land around us. We slept very soundly in calm waters after an exhausting week.
We spent the next morning doing some schoolwork and filling up the water tanks. We replaced the filter in our watermaker and it worked brilliantly. It seems that the water in the Cairns river was really silty and had totally sullied our previous filter. We left Croker Island at 4pm to make it to Cape Don and the Dundas Strait by 4am the next morning. The currents in Van Diemen’s Gulf are very strong (up to 4 knots in places), so it’s best to time the passage with a convenient current. By arriving at 4am we had calculated that we would enter the Dundas Strait with the strongest current, and indeed, we raced through at 11 knots in very light winds. The current eventually slackened and we ended up having to motor part of the way, making it to Cape Hotham before sunset.
Cape Hotham was really peaceful and serene – apart from a visit from a bunch of rather drunk, foul-mouthed louts in their tinny. I’m not sure whether they thought we’d be keen on a party, or whether they were trying to pick a fight, but after being ignored they eventually left. We hoped this wasn’t a precedent to what we could expect in Darwin.
From Cape Hotham it was one more day to Darwin – through the Clarence Strait and Vernon Islands. The currents here are very strong, so again we had to time our passage. We zoomed through at up to 13 knots in a perfectly calm sea and gentle breeze – finally wonderfully enjoyable sailing conditions! The boys even climbed the mast and took in the views from above, whilst I sat on deck and just appreciated it all. Finally Darwin came into view – and what a welcome sight it was! We made it to the Fannie Bay anchorage after dark, so dropped anchor far out, with 10m of water under us to allow for the massive 8m tidal differences.
What a voyage this had been (especially for the boys and me) – we hadn’t put foot on land since Cairns (about 12 days before), we’d endured a relentless week of rough seas, we’d kept seasickness at bay (mostly), we’d kept our spirits up (ok, not always) and we’d navigated through some tricky straits. I won’t say it was enjoyable – in fact, the adjectives “tired”, “queasy”, “bored”, “smelly”, “dirty”, “hungry”, “gatvol” came into my mind quite often during the trip, but it felt like an achievement to have endured and to have actually made it! And now I was totally ready to get out and explore Darwin!
We left Cairns on another wet day, but the sun came out shortly after we were out in the ocean. It seems that the mountains around Cairns attract clouds and moisture! Our next mission – to round Cape York, the northernmost part of Australia. There are a number of routes to get there, all of which involve dodging many reefs and islands, which get closer and closer to land the further north one goes. The charted passages are well marked, and although there are a lot of hazards, we never felt uneasy.
The charted passages are also shipping channels, and we saw a lot of tankers, warships and container ships. The guys said it made the night watches quite interesting and the time passed quickly, as they had to always be on the lookout and in contact with approaching ships. It was quite a highlight to see them from such close distances.
The wind was generally south-east at 15-20 knots, and swells small/average. It was a comfortable sail, and we generally had the genoa out in front, sometimes switching to the jib at night when the winds got up. The bumpier passages were when we headed directly north and got a bit of a side-swell, but nothing too terrible.
This seemed to be the area in which to catch Spanish Mackerel! I woke up one morning to a very chuffed Marco who had caught one on his morning watch. Until now we’d only caught tuna, and we were looking forward to the change. Spanish Mackerel is also supposed to be one of the best eating fish, so was a real treat! Unfortunately they seem to be really clever too, as the next 3 we caught managed to get themselves free before we could pull them on board! Chuffed-Marco turned into Angry-Marco. I reckon we were only meant to catch our “daily fish”.
Paul also continued as our “daily bread”-maker, which was really appreciated. He’s now started experimenting with adding onions, cheese etc to the dough. Hot bread with copious amounts of butter is a big favourite on board!
We were keen to round Cape York in daylight, so anchored in Escape River opposite Turtle Head Island the night before. It’s a wide river, with fairly strong currents and the odd pearl-fishing raft to keep clear of, but a nice protected anchorage. The landscape up north is very different to the south – much flatter islands and stark white windswept beaches, alternating with bright ochre-coloured cliffs and rocks. Turtle Head Island was rocky and red – the colours of an Aboriginal painting.
The next morning we left for the 2-hour passage to Cape York. We decided to go around Albany Island rather than the shorter passage between that and the mainland, as we’d read that the currents can get really strong in the passage. It was a really beautiful sail, getting even more pleasant as we rounded the Cape and were out of the south-easterly swells. We sailed close to many islands in bright turquoise waters, reaching 10 knots at times due to favourable currents and tides. There was good internet reception the whole way around the Cape, so we were able to share this milestone with family and friends. It’s hard to spot the actual “point” from the boat, but it was a definite landmark to have reached the top of Australia and start heading west.
From the Whitsundays we headed north to Cairns. It’s not a long sail – took us 2-3 days, with pretty consistent weather: 10-25 knots of SE or ESE wind, smallish swell. It was a little more roll-y when the swells came from the east, but nothing too terrible and we all felt good most of the time. We passed quite a few tankers, which was always a spectacle. If we were ever concerned about our courses crossing we’d call them on the radio to confirm they were aware of us. They usually answered immediately and confirmed a port-to-port crossing.
We caught 2 more tuna, which was awesome! I still can’t work out exactly what type of tuna they were – but either skipjack or tuna mackerel. Not the deluxe tuna, but still really good fresh – especially in a Thai curry or fried rice. The boys have been learning all about fish in their “Sea Creatures” schooling topic, so it’s been great to actually see the gills, lateral line, swim bladder, fins etc up close. Rob is more than happy to act as fish-disecter.
We wanted to anchor in Cairns during daylight hours, so stopped over at nearby Fitzroy Island the night before. It’s a really pretty lush island, with a little resort on it, which meant we could go ashore for a cold beer and chips! We wanted to go for a walk too, but it was high tide and much of the beach was under water, or covered in rough coral.
Cairns was an hour or two away from Fitzroy, and we had an easy sail into the river. We decided to anchor further down the river, as it was closer to the industrial area of Cairns (and hence easier to get boat parts). We needed to get the UV-protector on our genoa resewn, as well as have the zip replaced on the mainsail cover. We passed a huge American warship moored along the river – complete with 11 helicopters on board and a 24-hour Australian police guard boat.
We dinghied in to the Cairns Sailing Yacht Squadron – which is a really cute little marina on an offshoot of the main river. It has a big lawn area, and the boys were thrilled to find some other kids there. They ended up having a 3-a-side soccer match, while Marco and I had a drink on the lawns, lovely!
The sailmaker was actually based in the town of Cairns, so the next day we moved and anchored opposite the Marlin Marina. There’s a real buzz there – so many boats taking people out to the reef every day, come rain or shine. We found a cool Prawn Star restaurant-boat that served fresh prawns and cold beer, and had a really enjoyable meal there, followed by a wander through the town, which was bustling, even on a Thursday night! The boys (big and small) amused themselves by trying to climb up lamp-posts and palm-trees. Paul was undoubtedly the expert – his Maldives experience obviously paying off.
Unfortunately it rained every day we spent in Cairns. It wasn’t cold, just wet – but that didn’t stop the boys and I exploring the town. I really like Cairns – I was here in 1995 and loved it, and really enjoyed it again this time. It’s got a relaxed tropical vibe to it, is buzzing with people but without feeling crowded. It’s also pretty multicultural – lots of foreigners, and also local Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. The town itself is cleverly set out, and has lots of trees and artistic meeting places – like mosaic benches, Aboriginal artworks and buskers. There is also a big swimming pool/tidal pool just off the river, and pedestrian walkways branch off from here.
I took the boys to the ZoomDome, which is a rather bizarre animal shelter cum rope access playground in a glass dome on top of a casino! I wasn’t really interested in the rope access part (although the boys were – but really expensive), but was interested in showing them the local animals. We saw koalas, lots of birds, pademelons, snakes, lizards, and the highlight … a 4m long saltwater crocodile! We watched them feeding “Goliath” – and it just reminded us why we have to be really careful in the northern Queensland waters!
My favourite part of Cairns was undoubtedly the sensational Rusty’s Market. It’s a sprawling maze of colours, all the fresh fruit and vegetables you can think of, a real feast for the senses! I felt like a kid in a sweet factory, and was really taken with the huge array of Asian greens. We were limited only by carrying capacity – and I must confess I made the boys lug heavy backpacks and packets all the way back to the boat (2kms or so).
Marco, Rob and Paul were busy with boat-chores. We had issues with our watermaker – it seems they supplied us with an undersized pump, so it battles to force the water through the membranes. Unfortunately we couldn’t get a consistent answer regarding the right pump for our set-up, so we’ll probably change our filters and try various pumps that we have on board. The sails were repaired quickly, which was great. We also cleaned the bilges (always fun), wiped down the boat surfaces – they were getting rather sticky and salty, and took a massive load of washing to the laundry.
Marco did take some time out to watch Despicable Me 3 with the boys. He, Josh and Paul also went to church on Sunday night, and ended up meeting some interesting people and enjoying some delicious soup and bread.
Overall – a great 5 days in a great town!