I THE SPIRIT OF DISCOVERY Passage to Palembang
A love affair with Indonesia’s two-masted sailing ships started at the other end of the world
I HAD already fallen in love with pinisi [two-masted Indonesian sailing ships] on the coast of East Kalimantan on the other side of this wide, green island. In fact, I was already in love with the idea of pinisi, with tall ships, as a child.
I was in love with the sea, and with the romance of sail. Living in the beautiful old harbour town of Hobart, how could one not be in love with the sea? How could one not love the moods of the ocean; gentle sunlit mornings, sandy beaches and circling white gulls; giant swells, violent breaks and dark, restless vastness.
So when I first saw the pinisi — wooden sailboats gliding on that distant blue line, passing beyond the outer reefs of Sangatta, and then lying at rest, worn and scruffy in the murky harbours of Bontang and Samarinda — and when I first saw the elegant sweeping lines, the widebellied hulls, the twin masts, double rudders and handsawn decking of these beautiful ships, I was in love.
Some years later, living in Jakarta and hemmed in by its endless smog and ugliness, I hitched a ride on a working pinisi. Jakarta, with its jumble of poverty, wealth and grey concrete, is not good for the soul. After months without escape you begin to yearn for open skies, for fresh air, for the feel of sunlight and salt on your skin. My plan was simple. I found my way through Kota, the old city of Batavia in the north, to the port of Sunda Kelapa.
With its lines of shapely pinisi and teams of grimy dockworkers hefting sacks of cement, boxes of food goods and stacks of milled timber up and down the gangplanks, it looked like a painting from the 19th century.
I asked around: ‘‘Where are the vessels heading? When do you depart? How long is the journey? Is it possible to take passage on one of the ships?’’
After two or three such visits, and much shaking of heads, I signed some papers at the harbourmaster’s little office and, with a friend, clambered about Bone Jaya Mulya. We left with the turning tide, just after the predawn prayers of subuh.
Clearing a breakwater at the mouth of the harbour, we motored northwards along a channel through a vast flock of fish traps, their spidery bamboo feet emerging from the shallow waters offshore, pressure lamps still burning to attract fish in the dawning light.
Then, an hour or so out, passing through the Thousand Islands, the sun rose over the ocean and the sky was blue. Jakarta was already reduced to a dirty smudge on the southern horizon. There was a kind of healing in this journey.
The vessel traded routinely between Jakarta, the old port town of Batavia on Java, and Palembang on the island of Sumatra to the northwest. The cargo on this occasion consisted of boxes of noodles and sacks of wheat flour bound for the kitchens and warungs of Sumatra. The crew were a mixed lot — Bugis sailors who lived between the two cities, their real home the ship, their real family the crew; the smiling captain; his grimy engineer; a weath- ered, white-haired character who met all the criteria to be described as an ‘‘old sea salt’’; and a couple of younger lads for the muscle.
‘‘Pak Wahab,’’ one of the boys told me with a wink and nod in the direction of the older man, ‘‘possesses the knowledge, the ilmu.’’ A pause for emphasis. ‘‘He has a young wife in each port; neither knows about the other and he keeps them both satisfied!’’
Onthe second morning, somewhere off Sumatra in the Bangka Straits, we lost power. The diesel motor spluttered and stopped. For a day we floated about in the milky calm while the engineer attempted to fix the problem by improvising a flange from pieces of rubber thong.
I took the opportunity to cool off with a swim in the open sea, causing some amusement among the astonished crew. It seems that none of these hardy sailors was confident in the water. In fact, they seemed to think that I must possess some kind of foreign magic that enabled me to relax and float in the salty sea.
When eventually a police boat came to the rescue, a solution to our mechanical problem was found and we headed on towards the sunset.
Sleeping among the coils of rope at the bow I was woken some time about midnight. Steering by moonlight and stars, we entered the Musi River. Amid much shouting, and depth sounding with a weighted string, our vessel navigated the shifting sand banks at the river mouth and, cruising on up the winding Musi, arrived at the city of Palembang late morning.
A day in Palembang to explore the market, the red bridge and the old colonial fort and I found myself flying back to Jakarta, back to my life. But the short trip had refreshed me, given me a glimpse of another world and renewed my love of the pinisi.
It wasn’t to be mylast encounter with a Bugis schooner. Years later, I sailed around the eastern islands, south from Bira where the boats are still built by hand on the beaches, using the old methods, skimming through a huge school of dolphins at play in the wide bay off Selayar Island. And then, on various trips, out from Labuan Bajo at the western tip of Flores to swim with the sharks and visit the primeval dragons of Komodo, and trawling for tuna as we headed west, passing the volcanic island of Sangeang, across the north coast of Sumbawa, under the giant Tambora and Moyo volcanoes, to Lombok, east of Bali. But the journey to Palembang was my first dance, my first real engagement with one of these fine ships. Australian writer and musician Mark Heyward has lived on Lombok for more than 20 years. This is an edited extract from Crazy Little Heaven: An Indonesian Journey (Transit Lounge, $29.95).
A traditional wooden
moored off a remote beach