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

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Afloat -

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).

ALAMY

A tra­di­tional wooden

moored off a re­mote beach

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