Wakatobi water time

David got back from his trip to the UK finding the feeble flashlight with which I was supposed to ward off intruders unused and the kids and I eager to leave Wanci. Although we’d been making the best of the location, hanging out with our awesome friends, diving, snorkelling and even doing some kite surfing while he’d been gone, we were keen to see more of the famous Wakatobi National Park. Established in 2002 to protect the largest barrier reef in Indonesia and the associated area of astounding marine diversity, the National Park covers an area of 1.39 million hectares and is recognised as one of the highest priorities for marine conservation in Indonesia.

Lukie free diving down to high-five scuba-diving David.

Wakatobi is a veritable water paradise. Small sand-fringed islands are dotted over a large area of deep, clear water, each island surrounded by lush seagrass beds bordered by current-swept plunging coral walls. The ocean here is teeming with life – whales, dolphins, fish of all descriptions, several species of turtles, sea snakes, squid, and octopus.  

Seasnake on the shallow reef.

The ocean is especially important to the local people here, the Bajau sea gypsies who are a traditionally nomadic sea-dwelling tribe. Originally the Bajau lived exclusively on boats, which they sailed around in large flotillas of extended families, fishing and trading for food within a larger home area. Nowadays, the Indonesian government has encouraged the Bajau into permanent settlement and most live in wooden stilt houses built over the shallows, the walls of their small houses made from palm leaf mats, their longboats hoisted up underneath the house. Everywhere we sail in Wakatobi are these sea villages: dotting the perimeter of remote atolls, stretching out from the coastline of otherwise uninhabited islets, and extending seawards from larger, more traditional land-based townships.

Bajau township, stilt houses stretching out in neat rows over shallow water.
A Bajau-style mosque – I love the street sign.
Bajau boy, plaing in a bucket next to the boardwalks connecting the stilt houses.

Legend has it that the Bajau originally lived on land, but after their king lost a daughter at sea in a storm the tribe went searching for her. When they failed to find her, they feared returning to face the king’s wrath, and so they stayed afloat, travelling on the ocean forever after, following the bounty of the seas. Since they stopped being nomadic, the Bajau have been struggling to catch enough seafood to live, and in the recent past started using destructive fishing methods like blast and cyanide fishing to increase their catches. To limit resource damage, the Indonesian government has been encouraging them to use Fish Attracting Devices (FADs) instead, and the water around the Wakatobi islands is littered with little bamboo structures anchored in deep water.

Matias surveying two baby lionfish.

The international research organisation Operation Wallacea, a branch of which is based on Hoga Island in Wakatobi, has seen the destruction first hand.

“There were just dead fish everywhere, floating on the water,” explains Nina, a student from Austria doing her marine biology project on the island. She is describing a famous dive site within the marine reserve, where she and her buddy surfaced in a tide of dead reef fish. “We’re not sure if it was blast fishing – we didn’t hear any explosions – or if it was cyanide.” She says that the Indonesian government is working with locals to promote non-fishing based livelihoods and the use of sustainable fishing practices.

The rare mandarin fish, spotted at a Wakatobi jetty.

“The government knows that this site is special,” she says. “I mean, it is the largest barrier reef in Indonesia! They want to protect it, but in reality they can’t stop the locals from fishing, and I’ve even seen big commercial fishing boats within the reserve.”

Lukie surveying the seagrass beds.

It is certainly hard to keep the Bajau from fishing. The sea is everything to them – their home, their work, their entire world. Fishing is not just a job to them; it is in their blood, the way of life of their forefathers and their children. They are famously adept at free diving and the deepest dive recorded for a working Bajau is 79 m, although most of their dives will be shallower than that. Traditionally, they spearfish, spending up to 60 per cent of their working life under water, with the result that they have some fascinating genetic adaptations to apnea diving. They have enlarged spleens that hold more haemoglobin-enriched blood than normal people’s. When they dive, the spleen contracts, pushing these extra blood cells into the general circulation, thus boosting the oxygen levels in the blood. They also have a genetic adaptation which allows them to reduce their metabolic rate and thereby lower their need for oxygen whilst diving, one which prevents dangerous levels of carbon dioxide to build up in their blood, and another which increases the degree to which blood is squeezed out of extremities when they dive, which keeps the blood circulating just in the core region where it is needed to keep up vital functions.  

Made to fish – Bajau women heading to market in Wakatobi.

All in all, they’re the perfect diving machines, and we watch them with awe as they spearfish from their fragile boats, wearing only their traditional wooden goggles. Every day a new canoe comes to the boat, it’s owner wanting to sell today’s seafood – lobster, crab, mantis shrimp, fish, squid, cuttlefish, octopus, shellfish… We buy some to support the local population and they take the rest to the local markets where the Bajau dominate the fish aisles.

Bajau woman offering up fish for sale.
Bajau woman at the fish market. She’s wearing the traditional Bajau Sunscreen made from bark.

We spend our days in Wakatobi diving world-class spots – circling pinnacles rising from deep blue drop-offs, swimming under dramatic overhangs, drifting along sheer coral walls pushed by swift currents, finning leisurely over shallow reefs and seagrass beds. Everywhere you put your head down here there is something to see. Swarms of fish clouding the vision so that you can barely see the surface when you look up, seasnakes deftly exploring coral crevices, boring their heads into incredibly small holes, their tongues flicking in and out as they taste the water to find prey, and swimming vertically up and down when they go to and from the surface for a breath. On the reefs, delicate nudibranchs slowly move along sunlit coral and lazy turtles sleepily look out from deep crevices.

Pipefish in the seagrass.

Evil-looking crocodile flathead and scorpion fish blend in superbly with the reef surface and white flatfish are almost impossible to see against the white sand. Fragile pipefish and incredibly rare cryptic filefish hide in the seagrass beds, and giant trevally and large snapper hide in the depths of a fast-flowing channel. At a late afternoon dive on a pier we are treated to about fifty mandarin fish dancing to attract a mate and see mantis shrimp coming out of their burrows in the fading shafts of yellow sunlight dancing down from the sky above.

Spot the crocodile flathead on the rock.
Look hard and you’ll see the incredibly rare diamond filefish (head down, centre of image) we found lurking in the seagrass shallows.

Wakatobi is a magic underwater paradise, and we hope the local people can find ways to fish sustainably so that it will remain as diverse and productive as it currently is.  

Well-camouflaged scorpion fish on the reef.
Nudibranch hanging out on the coral.

All alone in Wanci

“And so, if the red light goes on permanently, it’s because it is overheating. That’s normally if the fan is failing to turn on. So then you need to check that it’s on and if it isn’t, just tap it to get it going.” David looked sternly at me.

“Uh huh,” I responded hesitantly. “What fan? I mean, where is it?”

“It’s the one under Lukie’s bed. You just have to stick your finger in there and tap the fan to restart it…”

“Okay…” I sighed. “Look, I don’t think I’ve ever seen that one. Can you show me?”

He touched my arm and started downstairs, keeping me following closely behind. Entering Lukie’s bedroom he straddled the bed and lifted up the mattress, pushing the wooden slats underneath to one end of the bed whilst doing some subtle acrobatics to ensure his weight didn’t break the fragile wood. Crouching on the upturned mattress he stuck his head down the space below the bed and from the dark void came his muffled voice saying something only barely audible.

I balanced gingerly on top of the pile of slats and crawled closer. “What’s that?”

“The fan – it’s just here. Stick your finger in and tap lightly.”

I pushed myself up next to him and stuck my head down the under-bed space, trying to make out the small fan in the semi-darkness. “I can’t see it. I’ll have to go get a torch.”

He straightened up. “Well, it’s just here. Stick your hand in and feel. And then there’s the engine…” He crawled back out into the corridor, leaving the bed a mess, and took the stairs in two steps. I rushed after him. “I forgot to get a new starter battery for the port engine, so it may not start….” He ran his fingers through his hair.

“Okay…” I looked at the gear levers uncertainly. “Then do I just use the starboard engine?”

“Yes, just start the starboard one and then wait until the battery is high enough for you to start the port side.”

Right. Makes sense. “But it is still working, right?”

“Yes, but I’ve had problems starting it the last couple of times. I was going to buy a new starter battery in Ambon, I just forgot.”


“And if you move the boat, just remember that the anchor winch sometimes shorts out. If that happens, just lift the little lever in the starboard engine room back up again, that’ll reset it.”

“Right.” I sighed again. “Can you show me where that is again?”

“It’s here,” he said, opening the starboard side engine room and pointing inside.

I stuck my head down the engine room. “Where, exactly?”

“You need to crawl in – it’s under the other box, over there.” He hovered above me, his dark shape blocking out the light, a barely visible outstretched finger indicating the direction of the lever. “If you look up you’ll see a little lever. Just push that back up.”


“And the other thing that can go wrong is that if the button gets stuck.” He pressed his thumb against his index finger, simulating pushing a button. “If that happens, just switch off the starboard engine electrics. And then just unscrew the little unit from the wall and unplug it.”

“Hang on, I need to take notes.” I went inside to get my phone. This was going to require a bit of documenting. I started typing. “This is if the button gets stuck when we’re trying to raise the anchor?”

“Yes, if the switch sticks – it should be OK, but remember it used to sometimes stick?”

I nodded, remembering trying to frantically stop the chain from when the ‘up’ button got stuck, shouting “It’s stuck, it’s stuck,” in frustration from the anchor locker until he managed to switch off the electrics to make it stop.

Raising the anchor – squid eggs stuck on the anchor chain in Wakatobi.

“Run the water maker as much as you need – but if you don’t use it, do a fresh water cycle at least every other day.” He looked at me. “We don’t want the membrane to dry out.”

I shook my head and typed: ‘don’t let membrane dry out.’

“And try to keep the batteries above 75% charge. So if there’s no solar, run the engine to charge. Switch the fridge off once cool in the evening, so it doesn’t run all night.”

I nodded again. I knew all about fridge maintenance and battery charging. No instructions required.

He ran his fingers through his hair again. “Lock the doors at night and if you get intruders this is the safety knife.” He pointed up at the sheathed knife fastened above the door leading out into the cockpit.

“Okay… So just stab them with a sharp knife?”

“Well, don’t let them in, obviously. And if they are outside the door, use this torch.” He unclipped the torch secured just to the right of the door. “Shine it in their face – through the door or in the open. That should blind the person looking at you momentarily. Which will hopefully scare them off, buy you some time if someone’s trying to break in…” He touched my arm. “Keep the VHF on, and your best bet is to lock the door and just call the other boats if you’re in trouble.” 

Right. I swallowed. Sounded fine. I looked around us, out over the still water of the inlet, the turquoise waters bordered by dark seagrassy reef patches, the busy shoreline, the fishing boats anchored nearby. Not a bad place to be. We could do this, the kids and I. We could survive for a week without David on the boat, here in Wanci, southern Sulawesi, Indonesia.

“And what about your lift to the airport?” I asked. “Should we organise that?”

He paused. “I guess we should go ashore and do that… If we can find a driver, then you can drop me ashore in the morning at 4 am and I should be able to make it to the airport by 5.”

I grabbed my bag. “OK, then let’s go and organise that now. Kids? Come along! We’re just going ashore to find a lift for Daddy!”

Boats in Wanci. Hopefully we’ll stay afloat while David is gone.

It was all a bit of a rush. David had had a family bereavement and was going to the UK for the funeral. It was 3 pm, we’d just arrived in Wanci, Wakatobi, and he was flying out the following morning at 5:30 am. He had been undecided about leaving for a week, wanting to wait to see what Wanci was like, check that he felt the anchorage was secure enough for him to leave us on our own. It looked fine here – a wide channel, safe holding, a busy town. Several friend boats to keep us company, and some interesting stuff to do in the general area.

The worst thing about travelling so far away from family is that you barely get to see them. The second worst thing is that you may be out of reach in emergencies; that you might not be able to travel back fast when needed. Thankfully we were in a populated area when he heard, had had internet to look up flights, had been able to make it to Wanci in time for him to fly back.

Now it was just a question of making sure that I remembered everything that I had to do, was able to do all his normal chores, and that I had enough knowledge to deal with the most foreseeable problems the kids and I might encounter in our week alone.

After living on this boat for several years, you would have thought that I would have no problems managing on my own. You would have thought that intimate knowledge of all our systems would, by now, be imprinted in my brain, allowing me to effortlessly retrieve any and all information required to deal with any issue at hand. You would have thought that I would be completely competent at the troubleshooting and fixing required to get by on an older boat on a daily basis, that I would have a solid handle on all battery-related questions and breeze through any conversation about how best to deal with a sticky solenoid switch for raising the anchor. You would have thought that I would be competent at changing water-maker filters and doing the backwash, proficient at dealing with plumbing emergencies, a whizz at reconditioning outboard engines and possess a steady touch for repairing scratches to the gel coat.

Alas, for me this trip hasn’t worked like that. To save time and because one person can only do so much, we’ve ended up specialising on the boat, dividing labour between us, with the result that we’ve ended up with sharply demarcated territories. David is, of course (being a weather forecaster and a much more experienced sailor than I), in charge of forecasting and route planning to optimise weather. He’s also responsible for systems and in charge of most boat repairs, although I tend to do the painting. I’m responsible for home-schooling apart from music and coding, and for all provisioning, food planning and storage, as well as most cooking. He researches diesel, I download maths resources. He sits poring for hours over weather charts, I download tempeh recipes and Google the price of wine in East Timor. He discusses batteries and gets samples of dinghy glue endlessly from other cruisers; I swap food storage tips with their wives whilst concocting a new recipe involving copious amounts of eggplant.

In summary, we’re like a super-conservative 1950s western family – he is responsible for fixing and planning, and I parent, cook and clean. It works super well most of the time: I can’t think of many things more boring than batteries; he panics whenever he enters a grocery store and tends to leave with nothing on the list bar one tin of tomatoes. I have no idea how he’s organised the tool cupboard; he can’t find the flour to save his life. We both do our share of unpalatable chores: he unplugs blocked toilets, I school the kids. But it does mean there’s no redundancy in the system, requiring a heavy handover when he suddenly ups and leaves for a week.

I’m not sure he struggled much, though, when I went to New Zealand for a week last August, leaving him and the kids to fend for themselves. He just reduced home-schooling chores, didn’t provision or clean, and lived on fried rice, effectively cancelling most of my jobs. Whereas I’m not sure I can get by with just cancelling battery charging or ignoring if we can’t raise the anchor should we need to move….

Gender roles on boats are strangely old-fashioned – in most cruiser couples I’ve met, the man does the boat maintenance and the woman cooks and does the laundry. The difference between male and female roles seems to be most pronounced on kid boats and I haven’t met any cruising families where the woman is not in charge of home-schooling and has the ultimate say in provisioning, and where the man is not responsible for refuelling. On boats sailed by couples the gender roles are more often blurred, with some men cooking up a storm and some women helming the boat and shouting orders from the cockpit. My theory is that when sailing with a family the two adults are busier (add all the kid-related chores, and cooking for, and cleaning up after, a family, to the normal chores of boat life), and as there is more work to be done, the division of labour becomes more pronounced, each party specialising and thereby saving time overall. After making (and cleaning up after) breakfast and doing the home-schooling, I feel like I have enough work on my plate, and don’t have a lot of energy left to inquire as to the state of the water-maker filter or to second-guess David’s weather routing choices other than a feeble question or two about how seasick I’m likely to get on the next passage. And I imagine that when he comes in sweaty after spending two hours bent over double in the engine room he can’t be bothered looking over my shoulder as I decide where to store the canned peaches or seriously question my new-found use of tea tree oil to wipe down interior mould.

In our case, as he is leaving, it feels like this specialisation of labour has led to an astounding level of incompetence on my part, and I am annoyed with my lack of knowledge, frustrated with my limited ability to diagnose and problem-solve boat-related issues, and angry that I’ve allowed myself to become dependent on David’s knowledge to the extent that I now fear being left alone.

At home division of labour doesn’t mean that one party can’t leave. There, specialist are everywhere and if I have problems starting the car or can’t find the ingredients to cook, I just call the roadside insurance and the pizza shop, respectively, and my problem is solved. At home, I enjoy it when Davis is gone – the kids and I spend all afternoon on the skate park and have TV dinner late, all snuggled up closely on the sofa. Here, in the middle of Indonesia, there is nobody to call, each yacht must be a standalone unit of self-sufficiency, and I’m dreading being left alone. The kids are of course helpful – Matias is adept at driving the boat, dealing with the anchor and setting the sails, and Lukie is an expert at using a winch handle and ties a mean bowline. On top of that, we have friends here – two family boats we’ve been travelling with are in the anchorage, and if I have any problems I know I can call on them.

I dropped him off the following morning at 4 am, returning to the boat housing our sleeping children in the pre-dawn darkness. As I let myself in, my eyes fell on the ‘defence’ torch. I playfully snapped it out of its clasp, weighing the little black cylinder in my hand. I hadn’t ever realised it was there – when I hear a sound in the night, I just roll over and elbow David, mumbling: “I think there might be someone here,” and wait for him to deal with it. I switched the torch on and watched the bright pulses of light illuminate the cockpit.

Hopefully all the information that I had typed into my phone would similarly illuminate my mind, pushing aside the dark fogs of boating-related ignorance clouding my brain and allow me to enjoy this week alone safe and sound on the boat in Wanci.

Matias’s boat blog 6 May ’19

Me diving.

Impressions from Wakatobi

I have not had an idea of what to write about as we have been moving from city to atoll to reef to a dive resort, which is where we are now.

Last week, a Swedish boat with two 10 and 11-year-old girls and a 6-year-old boy invited us over for dinner. The kids didn’t speak much English so we played card games and pillow fights where Lukie attempted to suffocate me. When we arrived Mum and Dad got out of the dingy with Lukie. I was about to get out too when I noticed a moving rope on the petrol tank.

It was a sea snake! It slithered off the tank into the water at the bottom of the dingy. I picked it up and put it in the bailer. They are very poisonous but their mouths are so small that they can only bite the skin in between your fingers, so that’s why I didn’t hold it.

“What does it feel like Matias?” asked Lukie as I dropped it in the water.

“Like a sea snake,” I answered as I was getting out. It felt like a rough rubber hose.

Sea snake

The Swedish boat had bought a big trevally that we had for dinner after Lukie had decided I was not a soft toy that he could strangle. This also happened to be the first time I have tasted cuttlefish. A woman from another boat had brought a curry to the party. I ate the curry, it tasted good. Afterwards, my mum asked me if I liked the cuttlefish and I said:

“What cuttlefish?” The cuttlefish was in the curry.

The day after the dinner, I did a try dive with my mum. I had to put on my BCD, buoyancy compensation device, and roll backwards into the water from the dinghy. I was wearing my short wetsuit so as soon as I went down to 5 metres I was freezing.

The day after, me and my mum did another 2 dives, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. On both I was wearing a longer wet suit, but on the second when I went to 11 metres I was a bit cold.

Under the water were some bamboo platforms where we practised some skills like taking off my mask and recovering my regulator so I could get it back if it fell out of my mouth. We did a tour around the area and had a spade fish follow us around. When I waved my finger at it, it started to chase my finger until the last second where it turned away and started to do fishy things again.

Me and my mum on the bamboo platform.

We also saw some nudibranchs that we had never seen before.

I like diving because you get more time in the water than when snorkelling, so you can get a better look at things.

In the afternoon a local in a boat tried to sell us a fish. We already had some so we said no thanks. Then he offered us some crabs. They were half a foot long and still alive so we decided they could be dinner.

After thanking the local fisherman and giving him some money, we put them in a bag which we tied to the boat and dropped into the water. My Dad cooked them at lunch time, and at dinner I tried some. I am not a big fan of crab or crayfish, and I was not expecting it to be so cold. I would have liked them more if they were warm.

The day before yesterday I did my last dive. On the dive we did no skills and saw lots of sea snakes. When we got out Lukie said:

“Matias did you see all those sea snakes? One zoomed out from the water and nearly hit me!”

I nodded and unclipped my dive gear. Lukie asked my mum whether he could have a go so a second later he was under the water looking for more snakes.

Luki.e and my mum

Yesterday a local in a boat came up to us. He offered us a bucket of water. Inside were a bunch of lobster tails.

“Wait here,” I told him.

I went to Dad and said:

“A local want to sell us lobster tails.”

My dad looked puzzled and went to see.

“Ah, mantis shrimps!” he said.

I went inside to Mum. “What are manta shrimps?”

Mantis shrimps are fat shrimps the size of your foot with eyes and legs like a praying mantis, just only more scared-looking than evil-looking.

In the evening we had some other people over. Lukie and I were mainly playing in my room while they were there, and when they were leaving I asked: “What did we do with the mantis shrimp?”

“We had it for dinner, did you not get any?” my Dad said.

“Aw, I wanted some!” said Lukie, a little bit annoyed.

Apparently, it tasted like lobster.

Wildlife on the way to Wakatobi

“Mummy, jump in now – it’s just here!” yells Matias.

I hold my camera tight to my chest and jump off the boat, starting swimming as fast as I can as soon as I hit the water. With my mask half out of the water, I can see the big dark shape on the surface, and then, suddenly, it disappears from the surface and appears in my underwater vision. A huge shadowy figure swimming below me. I fin as fast as I can towards it, my heart bursting with excitement.

It is more than a thousand metres deep here. The afternoon sun is sending shafts of light down through the clear water, obscuring my view like lace curtains in front of a window, a soft, whitish filter which billows through the water, lightening the dense, dark shape below in everchanging patches as the waves above refract the light through the water column in different directions. Wow. It is so close – and so very large. I swim above the dark creature for five minutes before it slowly dives down and disappears into the blue depths. Pausing, I raise my head to check where the boat is. Time to swim back.

Huge, dark shapes in the water.

We’re on the last day of the trip from Ambon to Wakatobi in south-eastern Sulawesi, and somehow found ourselves in an area full of sperm whales. The afternoon is getting on, but we’re only 6 miles from the anchorage by Hoga Island, and as the whales don’t seem shy or scared we decided to jump in with them.

We’re going to Wakatobi because of the famous Wakatobi Marine Park, a large marine sanctuary which provides for amazing marine life. So far our trip has been full of marine mammals. On the first leg, from Ambon to the island of Buru where we stayed for two nights to break the journey, large pods of dolphins came to swim off our bow, playfully frolicking in our wake. At the anchorage at the southern end of Buru Island spinner dolphins came in every morning, huge groups of 20-30 animals trawling through the shallows, leaping out and spin joyfully in the air only to crash down with a huge white-water belly flop.


Jumping and frolicking.

Buru is the third largest island in the Moluccas and doesn’t leave a great impression. The anchorage off the township of Namrole is rolly and exposed and the town dirty, rubbish thickly scattered in the roadside ditches, full of foraging chickens, goats and children. We’re there a couple of days before the Indonesian general elections, and the town is full of soldiers, present to ‘keep the peace’. Namrole is sharply divided into a Christian and a Muslim neighbourhood and the two don’t mix much, which probably doesn’t help in terms of minimising conflict.

Local kids on the rubbish-strewn beach in front of the obligatory shipwreck that graces every Indonesian harbour.


Serene goat relaxing in roadside rubbish.

Local children accompanying us as far as the gate signalling the end (or beginning) of the Christian part of town.

Pretty half-built mosque.

Local children swim out to Bob to play.

Heavy weather on the way from Ambon to Buru.

Marine mammals are not the only excitement on the passage. One the way from Buru to Hoga Island we get a visitor when a blue-beaked, exhausted-looking booby hitches a ride for 50 miles. The bird lands on the solar panels at the back where it sits stoically through waves and wind, steadily defecating onto the edge of the dinghy below. When it starts raining it jumps onto the bow of into the dinghy where it spends a while, head in feathers, getting absolutely drenched by the runoff from the solar panels below which it has positioned itself, the accumulated rainwater in the dinghy turning green with bird excrement. After half an hour of solid rain it figures out that it could move somewhere drier, and tries first for a submerge in the unappetising sludge at the bottom of the dinghy before it decides on the outboard engine as a more permanent resting place.

Bird staring me down.

On the dinghy outboard – and not willing to move.

“Go on, get off our outboard.”

Never have we met a bird this tired. It tries to stare us down with its tiny, beady eyes but the eyes keep closing behind the blue wrinkly skin of its eyelids, the head drooping down as it relaxes into sleep, the large red feet clinging onto the bouncing boat. We don’t much like it sitting on the outboard (we don’t want poo on the engine) but it is impervious to our attempts at dissuading it, not moving when we come close or even touch it. In the end, David picks it up and places the indignant but accepting bird gently back up on the solar panel where it relaxes into a long nap, head nestled into its back feathers.

The booby only leaves when we stop to swim with the sperm whales. After realising that we are no longer any help in terms of getting it to wherever it wants to go it flies off impatiently, leaving a heavily stained dinghy and solar panel behind. But we don’t care, we’re too excited about the whales.

David (the small dot in the front is his head) and the whale.

They’re everywhere, mother and calf pairs logging at the surface, the adults easily 15 as long as our boat (14 m), breathing misty sprays and occasionally exuberantly jumping halfway out of the water only to slam back down, sending huge waves of white water off in all directions. After I get back onto the boat, David jumps in next to a pair and stays with them for ten minutes until the mother yawns, at which point David realises how big its teeth are and beats a hasty retreat.

Mother calf showing off her teeth.


Oh the things you see when sailing Mother Ocean – the amazing life that exists alongside, and nowadays largely in spite of, us humans. It is humbling and awe-inspiring to witness these creatures going about their business in their natural habitat – and infuriating how poorly we take care of their ocean. In 2018, a large, dead sperm whale stranded in Wakatobi not far from our encounter with them, making the international news because its stomach was so full of plastic waste there was little space for food. I’m sure at least some of it came from the filthy township of Namrole on the southern coast of Buru.

Sunset off Hoga Island.

Birthday in the ‘Bon

“What do you want for your birthday, Lukie?” I ask.

From his spot by the chart table, David looks at me, eyebrows raised. He’s trying to remind me of the folly of open-ended questions given our circumstances, and I quickly start layering on the caveats. “I mean, you know the score, it has to be something we can get here, something of reasonable quality, which suits your age, not too expensive….” I smile. “I guess you could have a good look around, see if there is anything you fancy?”

“I don’t need to look around, Mummy. I’ve decided.” Lukie looks up from the book he’s reading. “I just want Blutack. Can I please have a big, big pack of Blutack?”

Right. I guess that’s not asking too much. A bumper pack of Blutack. Can you even get Blutack here? I guess they must use something to hang up their posters…  I haven’t seen any stationary stores, but they do have an aisle of paper and pen supplies at the supermarket. At least it’ll be cheap, if I can find it.

“Well, I’ll see what we can do,” I promise. “Thanks, Lukie. And if you see anything else, you know, just let us know…”

We’re back in Ambon to renew our visas early before we travel on to the southern end of Sulawesi. As usual we have three days to wait for the visa, which means plenty of time to provision, eat out, explore Ambon – and hunt down some Blutack for Lukie’s birthday present.

There isn’t much to choose from in terms of presents here, at least not much that a child of Lukie’s age will enjoy. There’s plenty of cheap plastic – action figures, guns, and animals – but they’re the kind you buy in the two-dollar store at home, brightly coloured Chinese wares in crumply plastic packaging backed by cardboard, toys which will fall apart as soon as you open the packet. I’ve seen a roadside plastic toy store where I plan to buy a couple of water pistols, thinking that not much can go wrong with those.

There’s plenty of cheap plastic toys tempting the children of Ambon.

I hadn’t thought of Blutack – but now that he mentions it, I can see the possibilities.

The Blutack craze started on the passage from Banda, a hot and humid 24-hour trip where we plodded along under engine much of the time, just managing to keep clear of most of the heavy thunderclouds lining up in our path. The kids were bored and peeled some Blutack off a picture hanging on the wall, and thus started the Blutack Battles. Hours and hours of fun, using the Blutack as plasticine, shaping little soldiers and setting up armies which attack larger blobs surrounded by mythical creatures. They create and reshape the little figures, the game accompanied by an excited narrative about what the different characters are doing. They are playing a lot of chess at the moment so there is a king and a queen and an army of prawns, which are being attacked by ice gollums and barbarians, the goodies sustaining heavy losses with damage levels plummeting in prolonged attacks at sundown. There are cannons too, and a fortress, possibly inspired by the evidence of historic battle we saw in the Banda Islands. In the end, the good guys always win but not without sacrificing scores of prawns, who lie misshapen and limp in hapless mountains decaying in the strong midday sun.

Heavy weather departing the Banda isles.

There was no moon but plenty of lightning on the way to Ambon – the small shape just left of the lightning striking the water is SV So What.

I could, of course, always try and find some plasticine for his present – but I’m not keen on the prospect of having brightly coloured goo ground into our sheets and textured cushions. Blutack, with its non-descript grayish-blue colour seems safer. But will we be able to find Blutack in Ambon? Can we even fulfil this most basic birthday wish from our youngest? The search is on.

Blutack games.

At least I’ve got access to food. We can buy most things here, so it is with confidence that I ask: “What about the cake, Lukie? What kind of cake do you want?”

“You choose, Mummy.”

Right. Maybe I should just buy some of the local delicacies – in the supermarket here we bought some doughnuts the other day that were topped with fine, brown flakes.

“What is that?” I asked David as he opened the box. “The ones between the chocolate and the coconut sprinkles?”

“It looks like tuna floss.” He sniffed a doughnut suspiciously. “Yep, smells fishy. I’m pretty sure that it’s tuna floss.”

“Really?” cried Lukie, leaning over David’s shoulder. “Can I try one?”

Tuna Floss is a big thing here – it is liberally sprinkled on top of many vegetable dishes in the little rumah makan (eating houses) lining the roadside, and also present in many baked goods, the brown dusty sheen instantly recognisable next to the green bread and the keju cokelat (cheese chocolate, a combination that the kids are roaring to try) topped buns. Keen to know more, we picked up a tuna floss package in the supermarket and read the back apprehensively: ‘Tuna Floss: Inspired by the highly raved about chicken floss, Ayam Brand ™ Tuna Floss is a mixture of tuna fish and spices blended together to produce a luscious spread. Toast your favourite bread and spread generously for a delicious sandwich’. It goes well with rice too, apparently; indeed my impression is that the locals feel that a bit of tuna floss adds depth to almost any dish, although I’ve yet to seen tuna-floss-flavoured ice cream.

Local delicacy: chocolate-cheese topped bread.

Now might be my chance to use the packet we bought – or should I try and get hold of some of the raved-about chicken floss, perhaps? “Should I just make a tuna floss cake, Lukie?”

He shakes his head and looks at me, outraged that I dare joke about such serious matters. “I would prefer a banana cake, Mummy,” he says seriously.

Banana cake – isn’t that a bit boring? That is what we have all the time, using up our never-ending supply of soft bananas. “But we have those all the time. I would like to make you something special – we can get anything here. What about chocolate – you can have a chocolate mud cake, or a vanilla cake, with cream cheese icing?” I offer, keen to spoil him with lavish homebake given I’m in the rare position of being able to bake almost anything.

“Chocolate mud cake, then,” he says.

“And what about dinner? You can have literally anything?”

David shoots me a glance.

“I mean, anything that we can get – so you know, no pork, of course, that means no bacon or ham. And there is obviously no broccoli or capsicums, no snow peas or brussel sprouts…” my voice trails off.

Lukie looks at me. “Can I have either pizza, or lasagne, or chicken curry? Any of those?”

I nod. We can definitely deliver on one of those.

Street art at the local beach.

The birthday is shaping into a success. Now there’s just the question of what to do. We’re anchored in the quiet Baguala Bay, in peaceful surrounds a bit out of town. The water is clean and teeming with fish, and the kids can jump in here any time. We’ve already used some of the glassy mornings to wakeboard, and have been to the beach where the locals gather on weekends to have some water fun and eat from the little fruit stalls lining the foreshore. There are numerous sights in Ambon, and we toy with the idea of visiting a waterfall many miles out of town, or a fortress and an old mosque on the northern shores of the island, but decide against them because they have only received lukewarm reviews on TripAdvisor, and also it would mean many hours of sitting in minibuses in the, frankly unbearable, heat.

In the end we decide on Waterland, a garish and loud water amusement park situated alongside brand-new gated communities for the rich in the hills above Ambon.

Lukie at the waterpark.

The day arrives and the lavish festivities begin – a hot and humid day of heavy rainfall interspersed with searing sunshine where we have pancakes for breakfast followed by an impossibly rich chocolate mud birthday cake with friends before heading off to the waterpark, where the kids and their friends exhaust themselves on the waterslides alongside scores of local uniformed school kids and a few fun-loving adults. The park is heavily staffed, uniformed men and women with whistles who sternly direct the children queuing up for the slides to ensure that there is enough of a break between sliders to prevent total carnage at the bottom. The pool at the bottom of the long, steep slides is a little short, but the situation is rectified by a dedicated staff member whose job it is to run around in waterproof pants bearing a portable crash pad which he extends to protect the squealing children as they come down the slides, full speed, from smashing into the rough concrete wall. It’s a hard job, and hot too, and no doubt he’s saved many lives. After an afternoon of waterpark mayhem we head back to the boat where we skype with family and have lasagne for dinner.



Smashing into the crashpad.



Race you to the bottom!



Hello Ladies…. Matias bumping into a posse of local school girls at the waterpark.

I’m glad the food worked out because the presents were less successful.

Perhaps not unsurprisingly given the cheap price, one of the two water pistols I bought didn’t work at all, and I was never able to find any Blutack in Ambon. I did, however, dig out a couple of strips from the homeschooling supplies, and by mid-birthday morning we’d already cleaned Blutack off the saloon seats twice and had to shave off Lukie’s hair to get rid of large lumps of Blutack stuck in the blond curls he’d been trying to grow long.

Hijab-wearing thrill-seeker at the waterpark.


Burkhini clad beauty relaxing in the water.

Hot and bewitching Banda

David and kids atop the ruins of Fort Hollandia on Banda Besar.

I’m standing in the galley preparing some lunch when Matias shouts from the trampoline, his voice carrying clearly through the open hatches.

“Incoming! Mummy, incoming!”

“Where?” I call as I drop the spoon I was holding into the sink and crouch down on the floor in one fluid, much-practiced move. Ninja-mum.

“At the back.” He leans in and speaks through the open hatch. “I think they’re coming right by us.” The lawnmower-like sound of a local boat engine grows stronger, the donk-donk-donk-donk-donking drowning out the music playing from our stereo.

From my kneeling position on the galley floor I glance at the clock. Ten to twelve. I might as well give up. “OK, thanks for the head’s up” I shout as I crawl along the saloon floor, keeping my head up so I can see where I’m going and my bottom down so that the passers-by can’t. The raised floor of the saloon is the trickiest and I lower myself so that I slide along the floor on my bare tummy, keeping both head and bottom low. The floor really could do with a sweeping, I think as I almost inhale a hairball and bits of sand and crumbs wedge themselves painfully into my sweaty thighs during my elegant progress. When I reach the staircase I shuffle around and descend the stairs into the port hull with a low backwards crab-like crawl.

The donk-donk-donking is now earsplittingly loud. They’re definitely close, and I can hear calling and hooting. It sounds like children.

Down in our cabin I stay low and reach up to quickly close the side hatch before I sweep a well-worn t-shirt and a skirt from the hook next to the bathroom door. I awkwardly dress in a crouched position, kneeling to pull the skirt up over my bottom and struggling to pull the t-shirt down over my sweat-soaked back. Once dressed, I stand tall and quickly step upstairs, tidying my hair. I can hear calling, and the engine noise is still present, but is it getting fainter?

“Who is it?” I shout out into the cockpit. “Are they still here?”

Matias stands in the doorway, a dark shape against midday brightness. “They just did a fly-by and took some photo. They’re heading away now.”

I breathe a sigh of relief and quickly tear off the t-shirt and yank off the skirt. The clothes are already damp from sweat and I hang them on the hook next to the kitchen so they’re ready for when the next boat comes.

Fishing boats and water taxis are everywhere on the Spice Islands.

We’re in Banda, the southernmost islands of the Moluccas, and staying cool is a problem. The weather has been hot and heavy since we arrived, humid squalls interspersed with blinding sunshine. It’s a lot warmer here than up north, and we’re constantly soaked in sweat, the frequent rainfall meaning that we can’t open the hatches half the time, which makes the interior of the boat like an oven. We do have fans, but their feeble flows are inadequate to cool down the 30°C humid air. The only way to cool down is to wear as little clothes as possible and jump in the water as often as possible.

Both those options are somewhat restricted by the high volume of boat traffic on the anchorage. The main bit of Banda consists of three islands clustered closely together and the anchorage is just off the main town, right in the middle of the local boating lanes. It’s like being parked in the middle of a four-lane highway. The long, slender, local water taxies drive between the islands, and local fishers navigate smaller fishing canoes from town to the many FADs gracing the channels, fishing and transporting catch to the market or to the large refrigeration ship moored in the bay. Low-lying broad barge boats sluggishly move large amounts of ocean-weathered rock from the volcanic island of Banda Api to town, and shiny dive boats full of tourists zoom from the many dive resorts on Banda Neira across the channel to access dive sites off the surrounding islands.

To make matters worse, Bob’s wrap-around windows make her a bit of a glasshouse. It is great to be able to look out, but unfortunately it also means that people can look in if they come close enough – which they do, and not just because we’re in the way. Yachties are a bit of a curiosity here, which means that the local boats will go out of their way to pass within a few metres so passengers and crew can take pictures and shout greetings, hooting and hollering as they wave their cellphones and gesticulate wildly in our direction.

All in all not a very private anchorage, and out of respect for the strictly Muslim population of Banda there is no doubt I should remain thoroughly and decently dressed whilst parked in such a public space. And I would, I really would – if it just wasn’t so crazy hot! Wearing clothes mean a constant trickle of sweat down the small of my back, a permanent film of liquid behind my knees, a sticky forehead and an itchy neck, as well as a steady stream of t-shirts to wash with our limited water-maker fresh water supplies. David and the kids just go bare-chested, greeting the traffic with friendly waves as they stand in full view on the deck, legs wide apart and feet planted firmly, only wearing shorts. Whereas I hide indoors in my bikini, crouching low every five minutes to prevent anyone spotting my indecent near-nudity, only putting on clothes for when I’m outside on the boat – eating in the cockpit, hanging up clothes, tidying or loading the dinghy.

Lunch is nearly ready, and I gingerly step just outside in the cockpit for a breath of fresh air, towel at the ready should a boat approach. I survey the landscape and sigh contentedly. Other than the stuffy heat, Banda is bewitching. Steep, dark green volcanic islands rising from the deep sea, the conical volcano of Gunung Api shrouded in cloud, the lower lying islands of Banda Neira and Banda Besar shimmering aromatically under the hot sun.

Piles of nutmeg drying in the sun.

The native trees of these islands have shaped their history dramatically. Home to all the world’s nutmeg, the Banda Isles have been important for traders for thousands of years. Since prehistoric times nutmeg and mace have been used as flavourings and medicines, and Arab traders used to come to the Bandas to trade cloth for the coveted spices, which they then on-sold in India and Europe. The Arab traders kept the exact location of the spice islands secret, but as Portuguese ships began to enter the region in the early 1500s, European powers became aware of the lucrative islands. The Portuguese tried in vain to establish themselves in Banda but when the locals steadfastly withstood the attempts to Christianise them, they eventually gave up and moved their attention further north. This made way for the Dutch East India Company, which after realising how lucrative a monopoly on the world’s nutmeg would be, moved in with force, enslaving the few locals they didn’t manage to kill in the Banda Massacre of 1621. Realising how a Dutch spice monopoly would harm them, the English occupied the outlying Banda Island of Run, and in response, the Dutch got ready to defend their territory. And thus the Spice Wars began.

View from the low-lying Fort Nassau on Banda Neira.

Evidence of centuries of spice conflict are everywhere in Banda. The quaint little township of Banda Neira (the Banda Island capital) with its narrow, fragrant streets lined with multi-storied colonial buildings, is situated below the imposing Fort Belgica, built in 1611 and reinforced and expanded in 1672. It overlooks the lower-lying ruins of Fort Nassau, which was built earlier not far above the high tide level by the Dutch at a site of an old Portuguese attempt at a fort from 1529. A third bastion, Fort Hollandia, built in 1624, graces the hills of the nearby island Banda Besar, its canons pointing out over the narrow channel between the islands, ensuring that any enemy ship was within range of the Dutch forces. We visit the dark, stone-walled forts, gazing out over the luscious landscape through tiny windows perched high on thick walls. To the kids’ delight, old, rusty canons are everywhere – in the forts, but also on street corners, perched at the end of narrow park areas, littering the roadside amidst a drift of rubbish.

Boat kids at the entrance to Fort Nassau.

King of the world! Matias and a friend scaling the heights of Fort Belgica’s reinforced towers.

Old canons littering the streets of Banda Neira.

Spice is still the key to wealth on these islands. On the large island of Banda Besar, the nutmeg trees grow in the shade of giant kenari trees bearing their sweet tropical almond-like nuts. Nutmeg hangs in rich bunches off the slender trees, ready to be picked three times a year whereas the kenari nuts drop to the leaf litter on the shady ground, where they are picked up daily by industrious workers. Cinnamon trees abound in roadside gardens, the fragile young trees cut down when the bark is thick enough to peel, the leaves spreading a spicy aroma mingling with that of nearby colourful flowerbeds. Clove trees are grown in plantations, the aromatic flower buds picked only once annually after the flowers have turned bright red. The plantations are owned by the Indonesian government who pays each family for harvesting and drying the valuable spices, providing a steady and not insignificant income for all households in this outlying region of Indonesia.

Smelling the nutmeg on the streets of Banda Besar.

The boys and I at the roots of a giant kenari tree.

Spices are everywhere in these fragrant isles. Nutmeg and mace are drying on mats in front of local houses, the vivid red of the mace livening up the narrow, sun-baked streets. Bags of cinnamon bark the size of large papyrus scrolls are offered for sale in the local market alongside dried lacy mace and chewy, candied nutmeg peel, the scent of which complements the spicy gingery tones emanating from bags of cloves, powdered turmeric, and numerous piles of fresh ginger and turmeric. We buy spice cakes and almond slices heavily infused with cinnamon and nutmeg, drink chilled cinnamon tea and nutmeg coffee in street-side cafes, and taste the islands’ signature dish of terong goreng kenari – fried eggplant with a spicy kenari-nut sauce.

Local lady cutting up freshly harvested nutmeg whilst her husband looks on.

Fresh mace drying in the sun.

Outlook from the hills of Banda Besar, the volcano Gunung Api in the background.

In the 17th century the spice trade was the driver of the global economy, nutmeg was worth more than gold by weight, and the Dutch were very keen to have a monopoly over the nutmeg trade. The English occupied a tiny island (Run) in the Banda group, and after 60 years of fighting over it, the two countries finally compromised in the Treaty of Breda in 1667 (later labelled ‘the real estate deal of the millennium), whereby the Dutch surrendered Manhattan, an obscure island of low-lying swamp in New Netherlands in North America in exchange for the English surrendering the tiny island of Run in the Banda archipelago.

Thus set up for a lucrative monopoly, the Dutch East India Company ran the Banda Islands in spectacularly brutal fashion, decimating the original Bandanese population and importing hundreds of slaves each year to replace those who died under the savage conditions on the Dutch-run plantations. To protect their resources the Company destroyed all nutmeg trees on the outlying islands of Run and Ai, imposed the death penalty for stealing, selling or growing nutmeg elsewhere, banned the export of trees and rendered all exported nutmeg infertile by dipping it in lime before shipping.

The monopoly ended in 1810 when the British stormed the island of Banda Neira and quickly removed many nutmeg trees, which the British East India Company successfully transplanted anywhere tropical and fertile they had access to – Penang, India, the West Indies and Grenada. By that stage the Dutch East India Company had gone bankrupt and the Dutch government had taken over the running of the Dutch East Indies, the precursor of Indonesia.

Gunung Api, mountain of fire. The lava flow continues under water.

In recent years the only violence in Banda has been the eruption of the volcano, Gunung Api, on the island of Banda Api in 1988. Fortunately, the wind was blowing the hot ash off the main township and only one person died. The settlements on the island were abandoned thereafter and nowadays only few houses grace the steep foreshore. You can still see the black flow of lava down the hillside, continuing into the sea and making for incredible snorkelling, the shallows full of wave-swept lava boulders where the boys and their friends snorkel to find gems, little white and yellow crystals locked within the cooled, solidified lava. Deeper, the lava was quickly colonised by corals and the site now boasts more coral diversity than the surrounding, non-impacted reef.

Diving for diamonds on the lava flow.

There are many tourists in Banda, mainly divers who have come to sample the wonders of the famously clear waters. The Banda Trench which is 6000 m deep is located to the south of the islands and the strong currents in the area makes for wonderful drift diving and famous wall drop-offs graced by large pelagic fish, including hammerhead sharks, one of which Matias spotted whilst snorkelling. We dive and snorkel clear, deep reefs, coming close to huge Napoleon Wrasse, enormous moray eels, well-camouflaged octopuses and swarms of colourful reef fish.

Shy octopus on the lava flow reef.

David and a needlefish.

Menacing moray eel.

Unfortunately, there is quite a lot of rubbish in the water here, although it is clear that, unlike most places in Indonesia, the locals are trying to do something about it. Colour-coded bins line the narrow streets everywhere, and generally the town of Banda Neira is clean. We find out why when we meet the local school teacher, Mr Man, a short middle-aged man on a moped who stops us on the street of Banda Neira.

“Hello,” he says, clasping my hand with both of his. “My name is Mr Man. You must come and meet the school children.” He smiles and keeps hold of my hand. “You must come and help clean up the plastic from the beach, with the children.”

“Yes, the plastic is very bad for the ocean,” we respond. “What are the school children doing?”

“It is big, big problem. Education is very important. Come tomorrow and the children will pick up rubbish with you, and dance, and then we converse in English. The children’s parents will be very happy if you converse in English.”

We agree to meet him the following afternoon and he takes us to meet his keenest students, a group of lovely teenage girls who, clearly briefed, perform like well-trained actors. Their first task is to do a traditional dance for us (“Again,” shouts Mr Man when the music stops), veiled Muslim girls adorned with fern leaf crowns gyrating to traditional Indonesian music in their tight black jeans, iPhones poking out of their back pockets. After the dancing, we gather inside the classroom for the scheduled English conversation.

Banda school girls performing a traditional dance.

“Speaking English is very good for them,” Mr Man explains as he barks orders in Indonesian at the girls seated in front of us on old-fashioned school benches. “Their parents will be very happy.” He looks out over the girls. “Now, plastic!” he yells, and the class obediently hold up laminated cards spelling out the evils of plastic whilst they shout “Keep Banda Clean” in unison.

Keep Banda clean!

“Now, introduction!” he shouts after we’ve taken pictures of the earnest budding environmentalists, and one by one the girls stand to introduce themselves.

“Hello Mister and Missus, my name is …, my mother name is …, my father name is…,” they continue, introductions dragging painfully on and on until all their relatives have been properly presented. Next, Mr Man commands us to introduce ourselves, after which the girls are allowed to ask us questions: “What is your work?”, “Where do you come from?” and “Can we visit your boat?”

The day finishes with a couple of songs (“Sing Brother Jacob,” Man bellows, and they break into song. “Now in French!” he commands, and they sing along in non-recognisable French: “Fraca Shaka, Fraca Shaka, doray vous, doray vous…”), finishing off with ‘If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands’.

It’s a bizarre, if well-meant, performance, and our role is clearly to listen and applaud, a live audience witnessing the success of Mr Man’s teaching practices. We never get to pick up any rubbish with the girls, but after the performance Mr Man shows me a book he has drafted on the evils of plastic contamination of the local seas and we contribute generously to its publication.

Fish gathering under a rubbish slick in Pulau Pisang, Banda Islands.

The following afternoon the girls visit all the yachts in the harbour, exclaiming about our taps, the trampoline, the deck, in between chasing after our children, cellphones outstretched, clamouring for close-up shots and selfies. The kids and their friends take it as a game and flee enthusiastically, screaming as they scramble through hatches, pursued relentlessly by veiled girls. After we’ve had tea and cake, the girls request music (Ed Sheeran, Katie Perry) which we play loud on the stereo, the visitors crooning along, eyes closed.

Group photo on Bob the Cat.

The girls relaxing after the school performance.

Caught! Matias reluctantly obliging a selfie request from a female fan at the school.

I’m in constant awe of the women here, wondering how they survive the heat, fully covered up as they are in jeans, long-sleeved pullovers, thick veils covering their hair – and then dancing, running after my kids, playing ball in the backyard gardens. It must mean that I could get acclimatised!

Back in the galley I wipe my brow. Lunch is ready and I call the children to start putting things out so we can eat in the cockpit. I look around. No boats nearby. Dare I eat in my bikini? David and the kids come out and sit down, cutting bread and cheese, slicing tomatoes. I make a sandwich and rush to seat myself in order to provide less of an obvious figure, and have just sunk my teeth into the sandwich when I hear the donk-donk-donking of a local engine.

“Duck, Mummy, duck!” urges Lukie and I quickly lie down, pressing my body against the sticky seat, clutching my sandwich to my face, hoping that my behind is not sticking up beyond the line of sight of the local boat.

“Have they gone?” I croak, still clutching my sandwich to my face.

David looks around and starts laughing. “You can sit up now,” he says. “They’re gone – and besides nobody is looking at us anymore. Check this guy out!”

He points, and I sit up to look out and see a completely naked man standing at the back of the German yacht which is anchored nearby. The boat came in early that morning and the man is having a long shower, rubbing generous helpings of soap into his private parts before turning around so that he can rinse off his behind, bending slightly to make sure that the water gets right in where it’s needed. Once his bottom is clean, he stretches out, closing his eyes and holds the showerhead up high, letting the cool water splash down his naked body, obviously relishing the rinse. We stare in disbelief as we chew our sandwiches, and when we look around we see that all local boat traffic has come to a complete standstill, the fishers staring at the naked man parading in full view of the entire town, their jaws hanging open.

“Bloody Germans,” I quip with a grin, “always naked!” and I swallow the rest of my sandwich and move my scantily clad body back inside the boat before anyone sees me.

Nude goats desecrating a local graveyard on Banda Besar.



This cruising life is awesome. We get to go to beautiful places, off the beaten track, and see amazing sights. We are free as birds and have only loose plans, steering a course that can be changed at a moment’s notice, changing destination on a whim to explore new and exciting shores.

The most interesting locations are often the most remote, places where few people live and even fewer visit. Invariably, these places have no internet, and so most of our lives now are lived offline, a fact that comes with its own challenges.

It is at once liberating and frustrating to not have internet access. It gives us a lot more time in our lives – once offline, we realise how much time we normally spend online, checking news, emails, social media, browsing TED talks and looking up any questions that come to mind.

At the same time, it is frustrating because many aspects of modern life simply assume uninterrupted internet access. Take schooling – we joined Te Kura, the New Zealand home schooling system, when we first started the trip. Their teaching is mainly done online, and students use applications such as Mathletics, Reading Eggs, and Google Classroom as a platform for student-teacher communication and collaboration. At first we thought we could work offline in Google Classroom, syncing when we got internet access, but it soon became clear that this only works if being offline is the exception rather than the rule. For example, we couldn’t start new files offline, and the syncing once online used unfeasible amounts of data.

Then we tried Microsoft Office, emailing documents, presentations and the occasional spreadsheet to the teacher. However, gone are the days where you just download Microsoft Office and use it. Nowadays, hefty periodic updates are required to run it, and even if you switch off the updates, the application is still required to connect to the internet monthly to validate the Office subscription and download more glossy screensaver imagery. Which means that for our two laptops with a Microsoft Operating System, Office doesn’t work half the time because internet wasn’t available when a check-in was due. Every time we reach internet the laptops stall for a day to update, the tiny little dots spinning round and round on the screen as we stare at it in impatient disbelief whilst our data is sucked dry.

This leads to many frustrations, where David, a staunch Linux-only-user, derides all Microsoft products and rants for hours about how badly Bill Gates’ products suck as he triumphantly continues to use his Linux laptop (which never needs any updates ever) while the rest of us are reduced to pen and paper. It is not news that anyone technologically minded abhors Microsoft’s clunkiness and there is no doubt that OpenOffice is almost as good, although I worry about the conversion when we have to email documents to official institutions like Customs in the countries we sail through.

Drawing the old-fashioned way.

As an added complication, I keep forgetting my Microsoft account password, the retrieval of which is complicated by the fact that my Microsoft Office account was set up for my old, now obsolete, Vodafone email account. Vodafone discontinued their email service promising to forward any emails sent to the account in perpetuity, but for some reason the Microsoft emails are delayed by anything from an hour to a month. This means that all efforts to reset the password so that we can change settings (like update the email address) or renew our subscription are doomed – or at least incredibly time-consuming and the cause of much frustration.

“It is ridiculous! You need to use a safe password system! Anyone could hack all your stuff in ten minutes!” grumbles David when I admit that the password to Microsoft may be the same as that for Amazon, which possibly is quite similar to the online insurance login.

“I know,” I whisper, looking down on my hands as I promise solemnly to start using an online password vault. I spend the next three days painstakingly turning all my easy-to-guess passwords into impossible-to-break complex codes and storing them in LastPassTM, feeling proud of my efforts as I report back to David that finally, I too have joined the password-savy tech crowd. This still doesn’t help the ongoing Microsoft login problem, which now is delayed by a month as Microsoft only allows you to change email after a one-month waiting period (where they do what, exactly???) but at least we can sleep at night, knowing that nobody can easily log in to pay my insurance for me.

Out here there is no internet.

Anything electronic is complicated by limited internet. A couple of months into the trip, on a rare visit to a port with excellent internet, I tried to download some more books on my Kindle. Because we’re all avid readers, David switched us to some sort of family account which allows book sharing at the start of the trip, but for some reason this change means that I couldn’t buy any books at all. Once again, rectifying the situation took many days and numerous screenfuls of online chat with the friendly Amazon employee in the help centre located somewhere in northern India:

“Hi there, my name is Ravindran,” blooped the computer as the message popped up on my screen.

“Hi Ravindran” I typed, determined to remain polite and friendly despite the high levels of frustration I was experiencing.

“How may I help you?”

“I’m travelling with my family and am having problems downloading Kindle books…”

It turned out that for some reason the family account was set up for the UK, which means that we are not allowed to buy books when in any other country.

“I can change it to Australia or New Zealand,” blooped Ravindran. “But then you can only buy books in those countries.”

“But we are travelling. Do you have any options for people who travel?”

“You can buy many books now, and then just read them later?”

“Well, we will be travelling for the next year. What do people normally do when they travel? Or does Amazon have some sort of policy preventing travellers from buying Kindle books?” I typed, my resolve to stay patient ebbing.

In the end a solution was found, and we were granted permission to continue to buy books even though we are not fixed in any one country. I ended the three-hour-long chat by thanking Ravindran profusely for allowing us to continue to spend money with the company he works for.

Less accommodating are the people working for Garmin, our chart plotter company, who bluntly state that providing access to the charts we’ve paid for, and which we need to go offshore, is not their highest priority. Downloading charts is data-consuming and costly, and sometimes best done overnight where the internet is faster and cheap data packages can be bought.

We need internet to download charts so we can avoid sharp rocks.

We do have satellite email through our Iridium service. This allows us to make emergency calls and send and receive texts and small emails. It takes a long time for even a small amount of text to be received, and attachments are almost impossible to download. I guess that’s rare in this world of causal attachments of huge files, and we constantly have to remind those with whom we correspond to limit the size of any mail. It becomes clear to me that few people read emails carefully when I develop a toothache and use Iridium to email my dental centre back in New Zealand, and the receptionist disregards the post-script warning to limit attachments and quickly attaches my entire dental file, including all x-rays ever taken, to her reply. Which means that my Iridium is stuck for a week as I’m trying to clear her mail, downloading her 4 MB attachment in 25-50 KB chunks, spending hours sitting alertly pressing the ‘send/receive’ button to progress the slow download.

“Mummy, do you want to come snorkelling? You haven’t been for two days now?” ask the kids, to which I can only reply, “No, I’m busy downloading an email – only 2 MB to go!”

I’m busy downloading an email and have no time for water fun.

A monthly clog also occurs every time Raymond, our Indonesian agent, sends us letters for visa renewal, unfailingly sending his attachments to the Iridium account despite specific instructions to use our gmail address. This gets particularly frustrating when he repeatedly spells our names wrong on the attachments and therefore has to mail a new version. After a while we start adjusting his documents, correcting the spelling using a PDF editor in an attempt to save both bandwidth and time.

When we get to inhabited places and internet after a while away, we greedily indulge, relishing news and Wikipedia, the kids getting on with coding for maths and self-directed inquiries for reading and writing as well as downloading music and joining multi-player online games with friends from all over the Pacific. We download recipes that we’ve missed while offline and renew our music collection (Spotify requires all offline-stored music to be re-downloaded once a month, which costs us huge amounts of time and data), catch up with the achievements of our friends’ children on Facebook and email family members to set dates for Skype calls, as well as attend to more serious matters like flight bookings for our upcoming trip to Europe, insurance renewal and payment of yet more Microsoft bills. After a week of internet, we’ve generally done all things necessary and are getting thoroughly depressed with the ever-yet-never-changing news (Brexit, Trump, climate calamities and their victims, and widespread environmental degradation largely ignored by the leaders of the developed world) and are looking forward to leaving the internet behind again and escape to somewhere remote.

Lukie in the surf – the nicest places are often remote.

Yet, there are so many things about life before internet that I now find hard to fathom. How did we ever used to be able to travel without Google Maps showing us where to go for food, fuel and local attractions? How did yachties ever know where to go without satellite imagery showing all the cool spots, anchorable depths depicted nicely as a turquoise hue of water between the sandy white beach and the deep blue deeper waters? How did cruisers share their knowledge of where to go, where to provision, what sights to see, without platforms like Facebook or Cruiser forums like Noonsite? Nowadays, when planning for our next location we just do a bit of quick research online, downloading cruising guides which handily tells us where to go and what to avoid, posting questions on online sailing forums to seek guidance on anything we can’t easily find, and getting responses containing handy hints and specific advice within minutes. There are even forums for cruisers with kids, where families advertise where they are every month so that if your kids need some friends you know where to find them!

The internet is certainly handy when you need help, especially here in Indonesia where in the IT revolution the population bypassed computers to go straight to mobile devices and everybody is clutching a phone, busily interacting online. When I needed an x-ray for a suspected tooth problem I located an English-speaking dentist in Ambon on Facebook within minutes and had lengthy Messenger chats with him as to the pros and cons of periapical versus panoramic x-ray before agreeing that I would come and see him a month hence when we planned to reach Ambon. When, a month later, I went for my x-ray and asked him if he knew of an ophthalmologist he instantly provided the WhatsApp details of his eye doctor friend who, although surprised at my calls (“Where exactly did you get my number?”) nevertheless agreed to grant me an appointment within 24 hours.

Modern tech helps in other ways too. Getting by in this part of the world where nobody speaks English is made impossibly easy by Google Translate, an ingenious app which allows offline storage of dictionaries, which means that with the help of our smartphones we can instantly translate any word or phrase of ours into Bahasa Indonesia and translate the response of a local back into English. When there is internet the app allows the user to speak into the device to get near-instant voice translation, which means that we don’t even have to be able to spell the Indonesian – we just hold out our phone and have people speak into it. I remember pre-internet travelling clutching Lonely Planet Guides and little phrasebooks and marvel at how quickly times have changed.

Offline schooling is fine too.

After eight months of frustrations with reporting we decided in December to leave the NZ home schooling system, opting instead for a more flexible approach where we use the internet when available but don’t sweat it if it isn’t. This means there is no teacher to report to and no deadlines, allowing us to work more organically with whatever suits the location we’re in. It is liberating, and particularly satisfying to just open the laptop at any given morning and check what is working, and adapt to that, rather than spend hours battling an untimely update request.

And so, after almost a year on the boat we are learning to live offline, often preferring the peace and quiet that it offers. The places with internet here in Indonesia are often the less pleasant larger settlements where we renew our visas, crowded cities full of rubbish; busy, smelly and noisy places, the mayhem of which we enjoy for three days after which we exhaustedly flee to recuperate in the wilderness of remote atolls and quiet anchorages.

Getting to, and leaving, Ambon

Boys getting ready for passage.

Sailing around Indonesia is not easy. It is an island nation, but with the bulk of the country hugging the equator there is rarely much wind, which means that sailors quickly become dieselers, using the engine more often than the sail. Winds are most commonly associated with thunderstorms, which frequently rise out of seemingly nowhere to whip up the seas and light up the skies. What the country lacks in steady winds it makes up for in tide, and strong currents rage along the island coastlines, sucking boats over shallow coral reefs or pushing them towards narrow channels between small islands. Added to this, Indonesia is a famous surfing destination and large swells pummel its coastlines, making some anchorages unpleasantly bouncy and upwind sailing uncomfortable (upwind sailing is always uncomfortable if the sea is not dead flat – and it almost never is). And that’s just the weather – in this country born from fishing and trade the seas are full of floating logs and rubbish, lurking just under the surface ready to wreak havoc with propellers and damage hulls. And then, of course, there are the boats, which are everywhere and few of whom follow international sailing conventions.

Dangerously overloaded Indonesian vessel presumably carrying something very heavy.

So, as can be expected, our two-day passage to Ambon was interesting. At first the wind was blowing, and we flew along at 9 knots on a flat sea, glamour sailing throughout the heat of the day. Then, in the late afternoon, the glamour gave way to grim reality as we came out of the shadow of the islands and hit the waves and were tossed mercilessly, banging and crashing our way across a disturbed sea. Normally on a catamaran you do not need to tie anything down when sailing, and most of the time we have glasses, books, plates and toys freely out on our table tops. However, this was a rough sea, and as we smashed over wave after wave we carefully placed all glasses and cups in the sink and stuffed rolled-up towels into the bottle storage to keep the glass from smashing. Prepared for wavy conditions, I had smugly cooked early, a spaghetti sauce concocted on flat seas standing ready on the stove so that all we would have to do close to dinner time was to boil some pasta.

Alas, even this proved too much.

Close to dinnertime, I put the pasta water on, bracing my body against the cabinetry as I heaved the heavy saucepan up onto the stovetop and lit the burner while we banged and crashed along. Pasta water takes a long time to boil on our boat (slow burners combined with big appetites which means lots of water = about 40 minutes to boil the water) and half an hour after putting the water on, I was sitting outside looking out over the wavy seas trying to control my seasickness, when suddenly a loud crash sounded from the kitchen.

“Whoa,” I yelled, running inside expecting the worst. And sure enough, in the galley all was mayhem – the large saucepan of pasta water had somehow evaded the metal pot-restrainer affixed to the stove and landed heavily on the floor, near-boiling water steamily sloshing about in the galley.

Holding onto the corner of the counter with one hand and the edge of the cupboards with the other to steady myself on the wildly jerking boat I surveyed the damage. “Could you grab me a sponge and a bucket?” I asked David. “I’ll try to clean it up.”

Just as he approached with the bucket another crash and a lurch heralded the boat hitting another wave and the pot holding the pasta sauce flew over the restrainer, smashing against the cupboard door just under the sink before loudly crashing to the wet floor, discharging spaghetti sauce everywhere. The boat did another violent heave and the steaming water sloshed over the semi-solid pasta sauce, splattering droplets onto the wall as it retreated with the next lurch, the galley floor turned into a shallow wave tank with the pasta sauce an island quickly eroded away by the boiling seas.

Matias cleaning up the galley mess.

It is the first time we’ve ever had pot kamikaze on Bob the Cat and as I sponged up the hot water and scooped up the sauce, I suddenly understood why the galley floor is sunken on most boats – it is presumably to contain the damage in situations like this! How clever they are, yacht designers.

It wasn’t just the waves that kept us on edge. The seas off Ambon Island are littered with Fish Attracting Devices (FADs) – tiny wooden rafts attached to small buoys anchored in impossibly deep waters (some in depths of more than a thousand metres) far, far away from the coastline. Hard enough to spot in the daytime, small, insubstantial and surprisingly far from land as they are, the FADs are near impossible to see at night. Some of them are lit with small blinking lights but many are not, which makes coastal night sailing in this area somewhat like walking blindfolded through a minefield – you never know whether you will make it out unscathed.

Fish attraction device off Ambon Island.

On my night watch, I sat tensely alert peering into the moonlit sea, trying to guess the distances to the myriad of blinking light. The radar is useful for revealing bigger targets but the FADs are too small to register, and as an added challenge Indonesian vessels don’t follow international lighting conventions – most boats here just display a set of blinking Christmas LED lights with no colour-coded port and starboard lights, which means that there is no easy way to determine whether a boat is headed towards us or away from us. All of which made for a harrowing night watch where I sat staring at the dark sea through hefty binoculars trying to make out the small shapes accompanying faint blinking lights on the waters, sometimes coming so close to FADs that I could see their shadows on the moonlit sea. The only light relief was a little pod of dolphins that followed the boat, squeaking up encouragement at me.

Floating logs pose a danger to yachts too.

Even big ships are hard to spot at night in Indonesia. Automatic Identification System (AIS – a transponder tracking system for ships) is mandatory for all foreign vessels that enter Indonesian waters, which is ironic since almost no Indonesian boats have AIS.  Even huge ships and large tows pass us by without leaving a trace on our AIS, and with the haphazard lighting employed by even large vessels, it is a wonder that we don’t end up colliding with anything.

Local fisherman far from shore.


On the plus side, on this particular trip we had a hefty current pushing us along the entire way south which meant that even when the wind disappeared later on in the night, we were still going 6-7 knots, pushed along by a 3-knot invisible tide.

Fishing boats in Ambon Harbour.

In the afternoon on the second day we finally made it to Ambon, anchoring in deep, rubbish-strewn water in amongst cargo boats and tiny wooden fishing rafts, right in front of the city centre, with a splendid view of two large churches and one gleaming mosque.

A modern church by the waterside in Ambon City.

Ambon is roughly half Muslim and half Christian, and since the secular fighting in the late nineties the two religions have co-existed peacefully. Somewhat passive-aggressively, the churches here have adopted the Muslim way, and from large loudspeakers in the street a female voice broadcasts prayer and a sermon twice a day. Sound travels far, and out on the water the day starts at 5 am with the muezzin melodically singing the usual call to prayer, followed by a long Christian broadcast starting at 7:30, and the cacophony of loud religious transmissions continue throughout the day and into the late night. Insofar as it is a competition, Islam comes out the clear winner – the mosque starts and ends the day, and the singing is way better.

The old mosque in Ambon City Centre.

It is entertaining but loud, and after a full day there we moved around the peninsula and anchored in the middle of the huge Baguala Bay where the call to prayer from the Muslim township of Passo only rings faintly out over the otherwise quiet bay.

Supermoon over Baguala Bay, Ambon.

Our three full days in Ambon went by in a whirlwind of shore visits and endless shopping, bemo rides, eating out and walking, dripping with sweat, through narrow streets and pungent markets in the heat of the day. It is a busy place and with about half a million inhabitants it is by far the biggest city we’ve been to in Indonesia. Large, dirty, noisy, colourful and hectic, but surprisingly easy to navigate with the aid of a little Google Translate and the ever-helpful Indonesians advising us which of the nicely colour-coded bemos cruising the streets, each on their set route, we should take to get to where we need to be.

Street scene from Ambon.

Lukie in the back of a bemo.

We deposited passports at Ofisi Imigrasi and picked them up again three days later. We visited small Chinese-owned shops selling everything from dive fins to lamps, nails, rope and chain and large, air-conditioned hypermarkets where live eels are held in tanks ready for the discerning shopper to pick their dinner. We frequented tiny, roadside restaurants where no English was spoken but the food was exquisite, and a smart upscale restaurant with English menus where the owner divulged the secret ingredients of his popular fish soup. I completed a new round of medical engagements, somehow managing to score an appointment with a dentist capable of doing x-ray (I’d had a sinus ache for a while and wanted to rule out a tooth problem, but had been unable to find anyone suitably qualified in Halmahera or Morotai) as well as a visit to one of the only ophthalmologist in the Moluccas for a quick consultation. We saw churches and mosques and a Hindu temple, and visited the museum where a collection of traditional wedding robes from all the provinces of Indonesia were displayed, as well as three huge whale skeletons and a 5-metre former man-eating stuffed saltwater crocodile from the neighbouring island of Bura.

Throughout our visit we monitored New Zealand and international news, following the post-shooting mood of the world all the while pretending to be Canadians, English or Danish. Only to the immigration officials and the dentist did we reveal our true country of residence, and both expressed their horror at the massacre.

Door detail from Ambon’s Hindu House.

Not reassuring – a dental clinic in Halmahera.

Even when being on anchor there are navigational hazards to avoid, and on our very last morning in Ambon as we were taking the dinghy back to the boat after a last-minute shore run for fresh vegetables, our luck navigating Indonesian waters safely finally ran out. Two local outriggers with fishermen were circling the bay slowly.

“I think they’re setting nets,” said David shading his eyes against the sharp sun.

We slowly drove away from the beach, standing up to see better, gesturing to the fisher in the nearest outrigger, arms wide, asking which way we should go. The nets are fine and have hundreds of tiny white floats that are hard to spot on the glistening water.

“I think he is saying we should go right.” I indicated to David the direction the fisherman had pointed in and narrowed my eyes as I squinted through my sunglasses, trying to see the net on the sunlit reflective surface of the water.

David turned right and we drove along for a while. “He’s pointing out now,” I said. “So we can probably turn.”

David turned the dinghy and increased speed when suddenly I spotted the tiny little floats right in front of us.

“Stop! Pull up the engine, quick!”

David slammed the outboard into neutral as the propeller hit the net and we stopped, the boat lurching forward as the outboard caught on the net. The fine mesh was wrapped around the propeller but still intact and the two fishing boats quickly paddled over to check the damage and help us unravel the delicate net from the propeller.

Relieved that no damage was done we quickly pulled up anchor to head for our next destination: Banda Island.

Removing net from propeller.

Fishermen in the sunset in Baguala Bay.


Of atrocities and peace – southern Halmahera to Ambon

Weather over serene atoll, Halmahera.

We were in Pulau Joronga, an atoll south of Halmahera, when we heard about the attack. It was early morning on Saturday 16th March. I was sitting in the cockpit looking out over the tiny islet we were anchored next to, a cup of steaming tea in my hand. Birds were singing and a large sea eagle was soaring above the tall vegetation growing on the little island. It was doing loops, away from the island and back again, surveying the shallow sea for fish.

I heard David come upstairs and put the kettle on. The children were chatting quietly in the background while he was rustling the bread bag, lighting the stove to make toast.

Pulau Joronga is a super quiet spot, a large lagoon surrounded by tiny islets. There was a mild breeze, but the air was already hot, the sun shining through the clears and warming the cockpit like an oven. The eagle passed over again, but the wind was ruffling the sea making it hard to see the fish, so it returned once more to the island, wide wings outstretched as it glided darkly against the light sky.

David came outside, hair in disarray, phone in hand.

“Did you hear? There’s been a shooting in New Zealand!”

I tore my eyes away from the eagle and looked up at him. “Oh, that gun scare – near a school? In the Bay of Plenty? That was a couple of weeks ago.”

“No, this is yesterday.” He ran his fingers through his hair. “A shooting in a mosque. 49 people dead.”

I sat up straight. “What?”

He handed me the phone and I read – CNN news, delivered via satellite. Mass shootings in two mosques in Christchurch. Men,women and children shotat. 49 dead. Right-wing, white supremacist, anti-immigration terrorist attack. In New Zealand.

It is incomprehensible. In New Zealand? But there are so few Muslims in New Zealand. It is not an issue there. I’m used to conversations about ‘the Muslim problem’ with European relatives, conversations echoing sentiments of unfamiliarity, crowdedness, foreignness, and most of all fear. I’m used to the blanket hostility against Islam of some Americans. But New Zealand? I can honestly say I’ve never heard anyone voice that Muslim immigrants pose a problem there. I’ve heard Kiwis worry about Chinese buying up land and ‘taking over’ New Zealand, and of course, we have our conflicts between Maori and Pakeha. But I’ve never heard anybody voice fear, or anger, about Muslims in New Zealand.

I sat stunned, tears in my eyes, my head in my hands. Incomprehensible.

Kids on the jetty in Pulau-Pulau Widi.

Pulau Joronga, where we were, is just south of Halmahera. Since leaving Morotai, we’ve been working our way slowly south, needing as we do to be in Ambon for the next monthly visa renewal. Ambon is in Central Maluku and so we’ve been sailing south, down the coast of Halmahera, past little townships discerned through the heat haze only via the reflection of the green, shiny mosque domes perched just uphill from the glistening water.

Mosque in Buli.

It is a peaceful part of the world and we’ve been sailing slow, sightseeing, having conversations and playing music, meeting the locals in this part of the world. And they’ve all been so nice – like all Indonesians, everyone we’ve met has been exceedingly helpful and friendly.

Home-made sail – kids in Buli.

Disembowelled shark carcass on the black sand beach of Buli town, Halmahera.

We visited Buli town, a small mining town based at the foot of scarred hills whose narrow waterside streets were drenched in the stench of drying fish. Here we bought vegetables, took selfies with local shop-owners, and went out for an immensely delicious lunch at a Padang-style restaurant, where customers choose from the many delicious dishes advertised on the shelves in the restaurant window. By pointing at different dishes, we managed to order exquisitely delicious sticky-fried sweet and sour tofu, curried jackfruit, tempeh fried with peanuts, chilli and tomatoes, beef rendang curry, vegetable-filled omelettes and potato cakes, all of which we ate quietly under the supervision of the eager restaurant matron.

A waitress serving the food from the window display.

Ready for a feast.

Halmahera is tuna country, and several commercial operations are based there. On the way south from Morotai we caught a huge yellowfin tuna, which at about 30 kg was only just lighter than 8-year-old Lukie. After we’d filleted half the fish our freezer was full to brim of sushi-grade tuna and we shared the rest with the fishermen we met at our first stop at some small islets off central Halmahera. When David offered them half the fish, they first refused it, saying that they had no ice or refrigeration to keep it, but once he’d filleted it we managed to distribute half-kilo chunks of tuna to the surrounding fishers no problem.

Monster fish, larger than Lukie.

Fishing boats off Buli town.

Nobody there seemed to know where New Zealand is – when we said where we’re from they just smiled uncertainly and nodded, no glimpse of recognition in their eyes. People know Australia, the UK, the Netherlands, the US. But not New Zealand.

Females of Islam – different levels of hijab in Buli town, Halmahera .

A couple of days before arriving at Pulau Joronga we were in Pulau-Pulau Widi, a huge atoll about 12 nautical miles east of southern Halmahera. Here, we met Carlos, a young builder from Java who has been contracted to build a high-end resort on the little islands lining the lagoon. The first person we’ve met who spoke English since Anna in Morotai, he came by in a longboat full of men on our first morning there.

“Hello,” he shouted.

“Hello,” we yelled back. “Selamat pagi.”

“Where are you from?” he asked, one hand holding onto our deck as he balanced upright in the wobbly longboat, the other hand shading his eyes from the sun as he squinted up at us, standing above him on the deck.

“New Zealand.”

“Ahh. Europe.” He nodded sagely.

“No – more like Australia. Near Australia.”

“Ahh. Australia. Australia. Welcome to Paradise.” He smiled and widened his hands, indicating the still lagoon, the quiet, mangrove lined islets, the turquoise sandbar behind the seagrass-filled shallow bay.

“Thank you. It is very beautiful here.”

“You come and see my buildings? Maybe one day you come and stay here, not uncomfortable like on a boat, nice houses, very comfortable.”

We were chagrined at having to describe ourselves as Australians, but now, a few days later, after this attack, we’d give a lot to go back to anonymity. Presumably, New Zealand’s status as largely terra incognita in Indonesia has changed now that we’re associated with a terror attack on Muslims, associations that will likely take many years to fade in this country already torn by secular conflict.

When we visited the building site, Carlos explained the plans. The project is run by an English lady called Natalie, who has visions of turning Pulau-Pulau Widi into a Maldive-like resort, with little cottages dotted on all the islands.

“We will build a hundred houses,” explained Carlos, extending his cigarette pack towards us and raising his eyebrows when we declined. He makes the houses in Ganelua, the nearest village on the Halmahera mainland, and then ships them to Pulau-Pulau Widi for assembly there. He is employing twelve men from the village and has so far constructed one house which they were assembling when we visited. Carlos has done business elsewhere in the world, has shipped houses to Darwin, Australia, the Philippines, and the Netherlands, and he wants to do business with us.

“You must be rich,” he said, grinning. “To be able to sail in a big boat like that.”

We smiled and said that we had been working hard and that we have to go back to work when we return to New Zealand. And that we are very happy to be able to see beautiful Indonesia.

“Well, happy is good, but happiness, it costs money.” He laughed loudly and wiped his hands on his t-shirt before offering us cigarettes again, shrugging his shoulders when we declined once more and lighting one for himself.

“I can build houses for New Zealand. You buy from me, you sell in New Zealand. I ship the house. Good, strong Indonesian hardwood. You have hardwood in New Zealand?”

“Yes, but it was all felled. It takes hundreds of years to grow. They used it all. So nowadays houses are made from pine, grown in plantations.”

“I can ship you hardwood houses.” He slapped David on the back. “I ship to you, you sell on, you take 50%! We do business together, you a businessman, yes?”

They were beautiful houses, but we’re not sure we want to be part of the demise of the Indonesian hardwood forests. On this atoll, all trees are protected.

“We can’t get wood from this island,” sighed Carlos. “We’re not allowed to cut trees. There are many good trees, good wood, here. But we can’t use.”

David and Carlos shaking hands on no deal, with two of Carlos’s crew looking on.

Apart from Carlos and his crew, there were about 30 fishers in the lagoon, living in stilt houses perched over the turquoise shallows. From the village Ganelua on the Halmahera mainland, they come to Pulau-Pulau Widi for months on end to fish, salting and drying their catch to bring back to the village to sell. The entire atoll is a forest reserve and no forest clearing or agriculture is allowed on any of the small islets surrounding the calm lagoon, so they bring vegetables along and get new supplies from the village when they run out. A policeman comes a couple of times a month to stay in a little stilt house and check that nobody is felling any trees.

The policeman’s stilt house.

We met Amat and Labeebah, a young fishing couple who live here in their stilt house for two months, then go back to the village for one month, then back here for two months, and so on. With them, we spoke in stilted Bahasa using a lot of gestures and when they asked if it is just the four of us (empat orang – four people) sailing around and we nodded they laughed and laughed, repeating it over and over, chuckling with mirth. Empat orang sailing around and around! How crazy! They served us tea and fried cassava in their immaculately clean house where we sat chatting, our faces zebraed by the stripes of the light blue water shining through the gaps between the dark hardwood floorboards. They have elegant hoisting systems for their two larger traditional outriggers, a small generator for electricity at night, and lots of small fish (bream and snapper) drying out the back – ikan garam (salt fish) as they explained. They offered to give us cassava and salt fish to go, and we declined politely even though Matias looked longingly at the cassava, and when we returned to the boat Lukie and I baked some chocolate brownies for them in an attempt to offer something back to these people who have so little and yet are willing to part with it to total strangers at the drop of a hat.

Amat and Labeebah’s stilt house.

Posing for photo amidst salt fish with Amat and Labeebah at the back of their small stilt house.

When interacting with locals here, our fish books are always a hit. Most people we meet are fishers and we have hour-long discussions about which fish we and they catch, what we see in their seas. In Pulau Widi, two middle-aged fishers came to our boat for a cup of tea, poring over fish books and our Indonesian Cruising Guide and excitedly discussing the sizes of the different fish they catch here as well as the ones they’re not allowed to catch. They can’t catch turtles, sharks, manta rays. Blast fishing is prohibited because it is bad for the reef, although we’ve seen evidence of it everywhere around Halmahera and Morotai, large patches of smashed up coral next to areas of thriving, live coral bursting with life. They laughed at the sounds of our children playing and asked whether we really only have two kids? When we answered yes, they laughed again, slapping David on the back as they held up their fingers to show how many they have – six and five, respectively. All grown up, back in Ganelua Village.

Are they Muslims, we asked? Yes, there is no mosque here, but there is one back in the village – everybody in Ganelua is Muslim.

Visitors on Bob the Cat.

Visiting fishermen poring over fish and guide books.

Stilt house of Pulau-Pulau Widi.

Pulau Widi was perhaps the serenest place we’ve ever been, and along with Morotai certainly the cleanest (no plastic pollution) location we’ve been in Indonesia – a glassy lagoon bordered by tiny, narrow islands, thousands of small white beaches backed by lush green jungle resonating with birdcalls. Mangroves line stretches of the little islands and herons took off and millions of fish jumped as we glided past silently on paddleboards. We hope that the tourists visiting the upcoming resort won’t disturb the peace and traditional way of life of the fishers in their stilt houses, but rather that they will benefit this community, create other means of income – at least for a while. I’m reading about climate change and am surprised to see anyone willingly want to copy the famously soon-to-be-under-water Maldives. Here, a major resort is planned for sites less than one metre above sea level; nowhere in Pualu-Pulau Widi is more than a couple of metres above sea level and the reality is that these atolls will all be gone in 50 years’ time. But I guess maybe there is some profit to be had in the meantime.

Pulau Joronga.

A couple of days later in Pulau Joronga, we were sitting stunned and numb, no longer noticing the eagle flying overhead, trying to process that a terrorist attack against Muslims has taken place in our country. We could only access snippets of news via satellite and learned that New Zealand is reacting by tightening gun laws and renouncing the Australian who carried out the attack. We feel awful for the families of the victims, for all the Muslims in New Zealand and for all Kiwis in general, who have had our peaceful country violated by the zealous hatred of a disturbed individual.

After the news had sunk in, we considered what it meant for us, travelling as we are in a Muslim country. We spent a day on the boat and on the beach, swimming and snorkelling, chatting to passing fishermen who brought us fresh drinking coconuts unprompted and without asking for payment. The people living there hadn’t heard the news – there was no internet there – and we tried to find out as much as we could about the Christchurch mosque attacks via satellite news before we got ready for the two-day passage to Ambon. The capital of the Moluccas, Ambon was the origin of the anti-Christian violence erupting in the Moluccas in 1990 and we’re nervous about how people feel there about this recent anti-Muslim attack. The anti-Christian sentiments in the more remote parts of Indonesia are fuelled by historic differences between neighbouring communities. But in larger cities like Ambon, there is always a risk of Muslim radicals, anti-westerners like those that engineered the Bali bombings back in 2002.

It is bad timing to go to a large Indonesian city less than a week after people have committed atrocities against Muslims in your country. Apprehensive about retributive violence we removed our New Zealand flag and covered up the large ‘New Zealand’ port of origin painted on our stern.

Port of origin erased.

I looked at David. “Where should we say we’re from, if people ask?”

“Denmark?” he suggested.

“No. They did the Muhammad cartoons, they’re known in the Muslim world.”

“Well, it sounds like the attacker was Australian, so we can’t say Australia. And the US is out, obviously. UK is probably safe, but then there’s the history of colonialism. We could just say ‘Europe’?”

“Or how about Canada? They haven’t done anything to Muslims, have they?” David is Canadian by birth, so it wouldn’t be a total lie. “Or I could say that I was born in Iran.” After all the interrogation I’ve faced in western airports around the world whilst travelling with my Danish passport listing Iran as my birthplace it would be nice to finally be able to state that I was born in Iran and receive a positive response.

“Well, I’m not sure what the status of conflict is between Sunni and Shia Muslims. So maybe not.”

He’s right, we don’t know enough about it. So we resolved to say we’re from Canada if people ask and set off towards Ambon hoping that there were no Indonesians amongst the victims and that there are no crazy radicals residing in Ambon. As a minimum, we must spend three days there (that’s how long the visa takes to process), and with nothing indicating we’re from New Zealand we hope to slip below the radar of any discerning fundamentalists patrolling the harbour or walking the streets.

New Zealand will never be the same after March 15th 2019, and neither will we. Travelling the world as we do, we never take for granted the kindness of strangers, all the people of different countries, religions, and political persuasion that we meet who go out of their way to make our acquaintance. Such tolerance and kindness make the world a better place, and I am ashamed that Muslims in New Zealand were not safe from the vile hatred of the minority.

We can only echo the many when we say: Kia Kaha to all Muslims in New Zealand, to Christchurch, and to all New Zealanders who find their world forever changed by this senseless act. From here in Indonesia we too unite with you in grief.

Kids’ blog 11 Mar ’19 – Beach cleanup

Plastic in the ocean is a problem. While sailing around in Indonesia we have seen a lot of plastic on beaches and in the ocean.

Plastic in the sea is bad because fish die. They eat plastic because they think it is food. If they keep eating plastic, their bellies will get full because they cannot digest it. The fish will keep on eating because they are hungry, but they will have no space for any more food, and then the fish will starve. Plastic ropes and nets can tangle up animals like turtles and dolphins underwater, who will die because they will not be able to move to the surface to breathe.

We came up with an idea to collect data on how much plastic there was on an island called Pulau Leleve for our boat-schooling.

Pulau Leleve is a small island east of Halmahera in the Molucca region of Indonesia. Nobody lives on Pulau Leleve but fishermen visit it sometimes. It has a beautiful white beach and further up the shore perfect, shady, plastic-filled areas of shoreline for us to sample.

Our hypotheses were:

  • There is more than 20 pieces of plastic per every 10 metres of shoreline.
  • Every ten metres of shoreline there is more than a bucketful of plastic.
  • We will find more plastic drinking bottles than any other category.
  • Most plastic on the island is under thirty centimetres long.


We went to a beach and found a place to collect rubbish. We measured a 10 x 10 m square with a measuring tape above the high tide line. Then we gathered all the plastic and counted and sorted it into categories. The categories were:

  • Drink bottles
  • Other bottles
  • Cups
  • Shoes
  • Styrofoam
  • Bags
  • Rope
  • Fragments
  • Ice lolly tubes
  • Lighters

We weighed all the categories and estimated the total volume of plastic found using a 10-litre bucket. We then repeated the process in a different area.

The beach on Pulau Leleve.

Picking up rubbish.

Weighing the plastic.

For analysing the data, we put it into an Excel spreadsheet. We plotted some graphs and made some tables. We then measured the perimeter of the island on Offline Maps and used this to estimate the total amount of rubbish on the island.


This graph shows the amount of plastic we collected in total. The most common type was plastic water bottles, followed by fragments, then styrofoam.

This graph shows how much the plastic weighs. We only found six shoes, but they weighed a lot.

This is a dot plot to compare how much the different types of plastic weighed and how many pieces there were. We found more water bottles in weight and number than any other category. Even though we had a lot of fragments and styrofoam they did not weigh a lot.

These tables shows how much plastic we estimate is on the entire island. If the amount of plastic we found is present everywhere, there will be close to 7000 bottles on that small island, weighing more than 225 kg! If this rate of waste keeps up there are soon going to be entire islands that are made of plastic.

We think there are 7 cubic meters of plastic on the island – that’s enough to fill more than 2 large family cars. In total we estimate there are more than 17,000 pieces of plastic, weighing more than 350 kg on this small island.


Our hypothesis was that there would be more than 20 pieces of plastic per every 10 metres of shoreline. In fact, we found more than 120 pieces per 10 m – that is more than 6 times the amount we thought we would find!

Another hypothesis was that for every ten metres of shoreline there would be more than a bucketful of plastic. We found 5 bucketfuls.

We thought that there would be more drink bottles than any other type of plastic. In Area 1 there was more Styrofoam, but after adding Area 2 we had more drink bottles than any other category.

We also thought that most of the plastic would be under thirty centimetres long, and we were right again. The only plastic over thirty centimetres long was a piece of Styrofoam that was thirty-two centimetres.

We think this is a lot of rubbish to find in a small area. We reckon we probably missed out some because some bits would be too small and some could be buried under dirt and leaves.

If the plastic went into the ocean the fish and turtles in the area might die or go away. Boats might get their propellers stuck in plastic and the water will get full of microplastics.

We think the Indonesian government should ban some types of plastic that are used a lot, like water bottles. We also think the Indonesian people should be educated to stop throwing plastic on beaches and in the ocean.

Writing down numbers.