Sailing Indonesia: Borneo to Singapore


In late October we headed off to Kumai in Kalimantan, Borneo to join friends Sue and Bryan Drummond on their Hylas 54 Gypsea Rover. Sue and Bryan left Australia in July and have been sailing steadily N W through the Indonesian Archipelago with the Wonderful Sail @ Indonesia Rally organised by the Island Cruising Association.

Our first stop was to visit the Orangutans at Camp Leakey in Tangung Puting National Park. This entailed quite a different boat trip, a five and a half hour trek up the Sekonyer River in a traditional Klotock. A klotock is a two story wooden boat with a covered deck. On the upper deck there are seating, sleeping and dining spaces. Below deck is the territory of the captain, deckhand/ engineer, cook and the guide. Because of time constraints we elected to take a one day trip but there is an option to spend three days on the trip. Highlights were sightings of Kingfishers flashing through the jungle, Hornbill sightings and the many smaller monkeys close to the shoreline as we made our way up through the progressively narrower river. Close to Camp Leakey the water was almost black with tannin from the forest, but so crystal clear we could spot crocodiles lurking near the banks. After a dramatic monsoonal thunderstorm we left the shelter of the small museum and hiked up to the feeding station. Around twenty Orangutans presented themselves, with first the dominant males climbing onto the platform, then the females and their tiny babies joining them. A gibbon in a nearby tree made several lightening raids, scrambling back  to the safety of his tree with a bunch of small bananas in one hand, one foot and his mouth!

Returning back down the river we watched the smaller Proboscis monkeys and the Long Tailed Capuchins settle into the trees overhanging the river, apparently they feel safer sleeping there at night as in the case of a fall its a softer landing! Our guide told us that in the mornings they simply let go and splash into the river to wake up! After another delicious meal prepared by the cook we settled in to watch the sunset fade. With the dark came the fireflies and the river changed yet again putting on a spectacular display of fairy lights.

We reprovisioned with fresh vegetables in Kumai. Walking down the street we could hear continual birdcalls and soon discovered that the large buildings which looked like office blocks were in fact ‘bird hotels’. The street facing side of the building is painted like a regular building, but hundreds of small holes in the sides of the buildings allow the swifts to enter and build their nests. The local Chinese community harvest the nests of the swallows which are an expensive medicinal delicacy. All day and night loud speakers blare out a cacophony of twitter to attract the swifts from the jungle across the Kumai River into the bird hotels.

Large tracts of native jungle have been demolished in Kalimantan to make room for palm oil plantations and to our sorrow we saw enormous barge loads of woodchips being towed  to the power station a few miles downstream on a daily basis.

Our first passage was a lengthy one. 310 nm from Borneo to Belitung Island. On paper it should have been shorter, but there is an area of 50 nm of uncharted shoals which we had to avoid. Night watches consisted of dodging several hundred tiny wooden fishing boats. Some well lit, usually squid or prawn boats, others with just a small flashing LED. Most of the boats have a low profile and with their engines so low in the boat, don’t show up very well on radar. Two days and nights later we made our way into Keliyang, our anchorage for the next week. Keliyang is on the north western tip of Belitung and boasts fine white sand beaches, stunning rock formations and fantastic coral. Unfortunately as an anchorage it can be a bit exposed to weather but it more than delivered on all other aspects.

For the Indonesians, the purpose of supporting a sailing rally is to try and promote tourism beyond the established areas. Belitung Island is a relatively wealthy island, having mining resources and a thriving pepper crop. It has an airport which connects with Jakarta an hour’s flight away. It is now emerging as a viable tourist centre as well with several hotels on the western shore near its main town of Tanjung Pandang. Keliyang has one abandoned hotel, just a concrete skeleton really, overgrown by jungle, but several beachfront Warungs (restaurants) , a huge open sided entertainment space, and an active fishing and snorkelling industry. The road to Tanjung Pandang is excellent, having been upgraded a few years previously when the President visited.

On the day we arrived busloads of Girl Guides and Scouts arrived to attend litter collection duty on the beach and to enjoy a function in the entertainment space. We shook many hands, took many portraits and enjoyed watching on enterprising young man who simply walked up to a bin and filled his litter bag from there…. job done!

Our days were spent snorkelling in the crystal clear water over unbroken coral beds, taking boat trips out to the outer islands, one with a lighthouse and tiny graveyard, and wandering up the beach to inspect the progress on a 130 ft. long hand built traditional Indonesian boat. It was built by a team of six or so men who used but a few tools. Magnificent to see!  I celebrated a birthday here and Margie kindly cooked me an orange cake.

The Regent invited us to a traditional lunch in a restored traditional house in Tanjung Pandang. All the regional heads were there in full regalia, from the army, the navy the police, to local administrators. It was a sit down affair, literally on woven floor matting. Cutlery consisted of the right hand and food was from a shared plate. Andrew and I were the nominated guests to partake of the welcoming offering. This involved taking a lime leaf from a ceremonial box and adding to it a pinch of several other compounds. This must then be chewed and appreciation shown. Unfortunately in amongst the betel nut was lime powder which burnt my tongue. It was very difficult to smile, sound appreciative and shake hands with the Regent at the same time and my lunchtime passed in a haze of mouth burn. We resolved to dodge all welcoming ceremonies in future and later learnt that one of the Rally members had mastered the art of palming the leaf!

The city of Tanjung Pandang itself was impressively well laid out, easy to navigate and very friendly. It has a large supermarket, a good passar (market) and a large department store where we were able to buy Indonesian SIM cards.

We used a driver to transport us into town from Keliyang and he turned up in various roles during our visit. Never let it be said that Indonesian men can’t multi task! On our first trip into town he stopped us at a roadside house to allow us to observe a wedding. We tentatively tiptoed in only to find ourselves ushered right up to the front of the room and encouraged to take photo’s. Rather cutely the groom’s mother fussed around him correcting his pose! On our journey our driver told us about his time spent in Singapore, training as a computer technician. On our return journey he stopped off at his family’s farm to enable us to harvest organic salad vegetables. He turned up that night at a rally dinner as our keyboard player but sadly was unavailable the next day as he had to work …. as a schoolteacher!

During our stay we attended one primary school and spent a great morning on the beach talking to secondary school students. Our final function was the Regent’s dinner, held in the entertainment area at Keliyang Beach. This was quite a spectacular performance! Musicians, dancers, poets and the fabulous Unique Belitung Dancers. They looked like they had come straight from a Mardi Gras with their platform shoes, feathers and sequins! Our meal was a multi course banquet. We ended the evening with an offering of our own (ahem) musical prowess. A whole rally choir singing “we are sailing:. …. Not sure they want us back really!

From Belitung we sailed 45 nm NNW to Genasa Island. This little gem is uninhabited but a fishing fleet came in over the lagoon edge to anchor for the night. We snorkelled the reef where we saw the largest fish during our whole cruise. A magnificent sunset completed the day.

Up early and onwards for a big day sail of 95 nm to Bangka Island, again heading NNW. We left at seven am and arrived at eight thirty pm having had to motor sail to keep speed up. We almost caught a decent sized tuna en route but he bolted when he saw the boat and took $30 worth of lure with him. We saw a small pod of dolphins, sadly the only ones all cruise. Coming into the anchorage after dark we could make out what we thought were anchored squid boats with a triangular pattern of very bright lights.

Anchor down and a long and rowdy dinner ensued, Korean beef with organic Bok Choy from Belitung Island instead of the anticipated sushi. The yacht’s stock of Aussie white wine was severely dented  and late in the evening port was served from egg cups….ambitious plans of naked swimming were hatched to celebrate the upcoming equator crossing  in the next few days.

We rested a day at Bangka, watching the truly enormous and evil looking jellyfish glide by and pondering the site that was revealed by dawn. The anchored ‘squid boats’ were in fact fixed structures, built on a platform above poles in the seabed. We later discovered that they are called a Kelong and that fishermen come out to camp in them overnight. They wait for darkness, light up the area below the kelong and lower nets down to catch the fish. This will be repeated every two hours all night. In the morning they transport the fish to the local market.

Later in the morning a fishing charter boat came alongside a we chatted a while with the skipper and his guests. One of his guests was a keeper of the endangered Sumatran Rhinos. There are very few left. The skipper of the boat cheerfully told me that they deal with the enormous evil looking jellyfish by harvesting them and selling them to the Koreans who consider them a delicacy. I wished they would put them on special, no swimming today!

Up and off the next morning on our way to tiny Pekachang Island. This time we headed ENE, and were starting to make our way over towards Lingga Island to the north.

A perfect day for sailing and with the last remains of the monsoonal rain clouds dissipating by mid morning and stable wind flow,  the spinnaker went up. Not too long later so did another! We claimed victory and the better anchorage at this delightful island. It’s worth noting that the electronic charts for this area aren’t exactly accurate. We anchored in nine metres of water and could see the bottom when diving off the back of the boat in the early afternoon. The island had good coral and lovely white sand beaches. We stayed a day and visited a small fishing village, probably an outpost village but the locals had no English and didn’t seem keen to interact so we retreated to our boats. Bill and Caroline, English circumnavigators hosted a potluck dinner on their catamaran Juffa.

Sue and Bryan kindly offered to do the first watch for the 12 am start for Penubra anchorage, rattling up our anchor chain with noisy bursts of the bow thruster. Margie and I took over at 3 am and sailed a peaceful three hours before Andrew joined us. There was plenty of thunderstorm activity and shipping about but happily we made out way around the edges of it all. By early afternoon and just on 80 nm we made our way into Penubra anchorage. This was the most picturesque village we had seen so far. The anchorage was between a small island and a village on the western side of Lingga Island. The tidal stream running between was fierce, around 4 knots at times. The island and village had their houses built out over the water on stilts, which provides cool air and an airflow to discourage the mosquito’s.

The main thoroughfare between them was the waterway and we saw many boats, one a school bus, pass us daily. Lingga island, like Belitung has made its wealth through mining but it is also an important fishing port. Much of the local catch is exported live to Singapore. Boats laden with workers would head downstream and return at the end of shift. Quicker and cooler than by road apparently.

Onshore the small town looked for all like a wild west movie set, with covered veranda’s, wooden footpaths and dimly lit rooms above with men in singlets lounging and smoking over the railings. Shopfronts opened directly onto the street and I saw for the first time green cloves drying in the sun on hessian sacks. There were old style coffee houses and a small town square where we were treated to the spectacle of local dancing. Interestingly the women who danced were divided into young and old and I suspect there was more than a bit of rivalry between the two groups. It seemed that the whole town had turned out for the welcome festivities and not a single rally member was immune from being invited to join in the dancing.

We also attended a school function where the principal was retiring. Speeches appeared to be quite emotional and were halted for the call to prayer. We were sustained by the provision of small lunchboxes as every possible local dignitary made their contribution. Andrew opted out and had a great time making new friends in the village.

A day or two later we moved on down to Benar Island. Benar is a small island just off the middle of the west coast of Lingga. It is closest to the main town of Diak. We spent a week here, enjoying a visit to the traditional village of Benar, visiting the main town of Diak and exploring the hinterland by bus. We visited and swam in a refreshing waterfall  high up in the mountains, toured the island’s extensive museum, visited a batik demonstration and attended another Regent’s function. Access to town was by way of dinghy to the main pier, a huge long concrete pier which the interisland ferry visited several times daily. We had a quick swim off the back of the boat on arrival but were soon warned off swimming by the locals as crocodiles were frequently seen in the area and an attack had happened just the day before our arrival! Visiting Benar Island was wonderful. The entire village turned out to meet us and show us around their island. They guided us around the island pathways and showed us the ancient forts which had been used to defend Benar and Lingga for many years. We picked and ate tiny little apples straight off the trees and I managed to have a private tour of a typical kitchen garden, complete with tamarind trees. We lunched on the local specialty of smoked fish with a coconut sambal, delicious prawn fritters and washed it all down with a cooling juice made of cucumber, coconut and thai basil seeds. Benar anchorage is overshadowed by the vast mountain which gives Lingga Island its name. It’s tall peak was often shrouded in mist in the early part of the day and it was quite a beautiful sight to sit on the wharf and watch the small traditional fishing boats glide by.

My greatest culinary disaster occurred at Lingga Island. Our home made ginger beer exploded , completely destroying it’s two litre PET bottle and drenching the contents of Bryan’s hanging locker in sticky ginger beer before trickling into the bilge. Not my finest moment…

Time to move on again and this time we sailed south under the bottom of Lingga Island to reach an anchorage off the east coast of the island. We anchored for the night at tiny Kongka Island and enjoyed a glorious sunset reflected in its calm still waters.

We were up early the next morning and eager to be off as we had good wind for our sail across the equator. Our plans to stop and swim across the equator were shelved as it was deemed too rough to launch the dinghy. Three  sailing wenches splashed the latitude across their bare bottoms as they poured alcoholic libations from the bow to appease King Neptune at the critical moment. It must have appeased him for as we rounded the next island the wind eased and sailing was once again comfortable. Here we saw the highest concentration of Kelongs for the whole journey. We must have threaded our way through a couple of hundred of them, and were pleased to have cleared the area in daylight.

Our next stop was tiny Benan Island. Benan, like Benar is a regional centre for outlying islands. As such it also has a huge concrete wharf. The wharf functioned as a village street with many local restaurants built straight off the wharf. Ferries came in several times a day and many people from this island commuted to others for work, leaving their children either in the school or with older family members.

Our first evening was spent onboard, watching the local fishing fleet returning to harbour in a golden sunset off the portside and watching massive thunder clouds massing to starboard. The lightening show was spectacular to say the least and we five Aussies sang Gangajangs old hit ‘This is Australia’ as the lightening cracked over the island.

On an island so small land is precious so most of the houses were stilt houses. One owner kindly opened his home to us as a meeting place for sundowners. We were impressed by the use of space, with the main house fronting the street onshore then a large fenced enclosure serving to hold fish livestock behind it. Further out was a roofed platform where we were invited to relax and enjoy the sunset.

A ten minute walk took us through the village to the other side of the island where small homestay houses have been built in an attempt to encourage tourism. We enjoyed a welcome meeting there and returned later to snorkel.

Wandering through the village we encountered may goats. Like the chickens on Benar Island, ownership of the animals was designated by a colourful piece of raffia around their necks. They wandered free, following us into shops and ‘tidying up’ after our welcome feast. Benan Island seemed peaceful and content to move at it’s own pace. On  our last morning we enjoyed a traditional Indonesian breakfast, cooked by the owner of one of the resto’s on the wharf. It was a great place to catch up as many of the fleet were heading on to Tanjung Pinang but we were heading on to Batam Island alone.

Another fifty nm took us to Batam island. Batam was by far the most industrialised island we had seen. It had a huge port, a busy airfield and mining scars everywhere. It was quite a culture shock! Small traditional boats chugged around in all the chaos, delivering workers to and fro the industrial area.  We up anchored in the morning and made a 15 nm passage around the corner of the island into the Singapore Straits. We skirted the shipping channel and made our way into Nongsa Point Marina, our haven for the next week, and Gypsea Rover’s first Marina since leaving Cairns in Australia four and a half months previously.

Nongsa Point welcomed us with hot showers, a vast swimming pool and an air-conditioned reception and restaurant area. There are numerous villa’s available for rent or purchase and it had a small general store with icy cold drinks and ice cream….pure luxury!!  We took the shuttle bus into the main town, around 45 minutes drive through mostly urban and industrial area’s. Whilst we waited for Gypsea Rover’s clearance papers to arrive we enjoyed visiting the resort next door, catching up with other cruisers and eating out at the local seafood restaurant whose chilli crab was to die for. On our final night we dined in the Nongsa village after wandering around the night markets with the other cruisers.

Singapore could be clearly seen across the Strait and Andrew and I caught the ferry across to spend a few days exploring on our own. The ferry terminal is enormous and highly organised. There’s a ferry at least each 15 minutes in peak hour. Crossing the strait was busy to say the least with the Marine Traffic app on my iPad registering at least 2,000 vessels in the immediate area. Never so happy to be on a fast moving ferry!!

After three days of non stop sight seeing, dining and shopping we were footsore and happy to return to the confines of Gypsea Rover. We berthed at One 15 degrees marina on Sentosa Island. If Nongsa Point marina had seemed luxurious to us last week, then One Fifteen raised the bar further. Beautiful marble bathrooms, a gym, infinity pool, day spa and several restaurants were all within a two minute walk from the boat. Further around the dock there were restaurants, bars and cafes. A large well stocked supermarket allowed us to provision for Bryan’s 60 th birthday party.

The party lights went up, the music on and the crews of all the boats who had arrived in Singapore from the rally descended to help Bryan and Sue celebrate! GR sat considerably lower in the water with twenty odd guests on-board!

A day or two later we left Bryan, Sue and Gypsea Rover to return home to Melbourne. GR and new crew Tom continued on to Langkowi where GR awaits her next adventure before returning to Australia.
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