At a fair clip
By comfortable tall ship on a voyage from Bali
“Anyone know where the ship is?” the tender driver asks as we motor though the monsoonal rain towards the vessel’s last known location off the coast of Indonesia’s Madura Island. There’s a hint of a smile as he turns back around to the steering wheel, but as I look out across the Java Sea and see a wall of white fog in every direction I’m not quite sure whether he’s joking or not.
Passengers look at each other nervously until, a few minutes later, the towering masts of Star Clipper appear through the mist and relieved smiles erupt from under raincoat hoods. Within minutes I am back in the comfort of my cosy cabin, feeling warm, dry and content after a rejuvenating hot shower.
It’s a far cry from the heyday of clippers in the 18th century, when the Californian gold rush spurred a boom in these fast, manoeuvrable sailing ships. Back then it would have been “a nightmare, a fight for survival”, cruise director Peter Kissner says during one of his pre-dinner lectures in the ship’s library. “It was not getting out of wet clothes for months,” he says. Despite his infectious passion for sailing, Kissner says there’s no way he would have wanted to sail in the “good old days”.
Fortunately, in the modern age, Star Clipper Cruises gives landlubbers the chance to sail on a four-masted, 16sail barquentine without having to do any of the work. Sure, you can have a go at climbing the mast or steering the ship if you like, or you can just relax and sip a cocktail at the bar on deck as the sails are unfurled and the dramatic Conquest of Paradise, by Greek composer Vangelis, plays over the loudspeaker. “We have to maintain our itinerary but I promise you whenever we have the opportunity to sail the ship we do so,” Kissner says. “We’re all a bit cuckoo here because we love to sail.”
Star Clipper and its sister vessels, Star Flyer and Royal Clipper, provide a welcome alternative for cruisers who don’t want to travel on 5000-passenger mega liners. “Forget everything you have heard about cruising,” Kissner says. “We don’t have shopping arcades or casinos.”
All teak, mahogany rails and swing doors, the 170passenger ship has two small pools, a piano lounge and one dining room. “Thanks for coming back to my restaurant,” head waiter Hermann jokes each night. Men must wear a shirt with a collar and sleeves to dinner, which features an a la carte menu with an Indonesian option for those who prefer some local flavour. Although small, the cabins have clever storage areas and come equipped with a flat-screen TV and a DVD player, with movies available to borrow from the purser’s office.
Owned by a Swedish businessman whose childhood dream was to have a tall ship, Star Clipper was built in Belgium in 1991. Many of the crew hail from Europe, including Bavarian Kissner, and the euro is the on-board
currency. Announcements are made in English and German — except for one about being on time. “I don’t need to translate because the Germans are always on time,” Kissner quips at our briefing, before wryly suggesting passengers shower together to conserve water.
In the past Star Clipper has mostly sailed in the Mediterranean and Caribbean, but began offering two Indonesian cruises, departing from Bali, in May. The eastbound itinerary includes Komodo Island, home to the largest lizard on Earth, the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Buddhist temple complex Borobudur, and Lombok’s popular Gili Islands. While the westbound itinerary offers the chance to climb Mount Bromo volcano on Java and see the majestic Ulun Danu lake temple, which appears on Indonesia’s 50,000 rupiah note, in north Bali, it is more suited to travellers who prefer offthe-beaten track destinations and cultural experiences.
From the moment we arrive on Madura Island, off the coast of Java, we can tell they see few tourists here. People awaiting our arrival at the port ask to take photos with us, and our local guide Hambali reveals it’s the first time he has guided foreigners. We tour the 18th-century palace in Sumenep, peeking inside the king and queen’s rooms, see displays of asymmetrical kris daggers, which are said to have magical powers, and learn about traditional bull races still held here annually.
After a brief visit to Agung Mosque, which is a mix of Chinese, Javanese and European architectural styles, we receive a police escort to Asta Tinggi Royal Cemetery. Filled with colourful gravestones, commoners come here to ask the deceased for help, returning when their wish is granted to place a scarf over their headstone.
At Probolinggo the next day, children giggle and clasp their hands over their face at the sight of us before running away. Fishermen on brightly painted wooden boats at the jetty proudly hold up their catch to show us.
While Hinduism is the most common religion in Bali, the rest of Indonesia is predominantly Muslim. From Carik Harbour on Lombok, we visit Bayan Beleq Mosque, which is unlike any other I have seen. Overlooking rice fields, it is built of bamboo with a temple-shaped thatched roof. The people here are refreshingly tolerant of other religions; during the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan, even non-Muslims refrain from eating or drinking in public to show their respect.
It is here we connect with our local guide Katni Wati, from Rinjani Women Adventure. Wati taught herself English and began leading tourists up Mount Rinjani volcano as a teenager, and is currently training 50 female guides. In a country where poor families can only afford to send boys to school, it is a way of providing women with a source of income and independence.
Before leading us on a trek past coffee, cocoa and cashew nut plantations to Sendang Gile Waterfall, Wati takes us to her village, Senaru, where 100 people live in four houses. The villagers are animist, believing that all objects, places and beings have a spirit or soul. We venture inside one home, where the parents sleep near the door to protect their teenage daughters. There are no windows so they can’t jump out and elope.
We spend the last day on the white sand beach at Gili Sudak, with a barbecue, water-skiing, kayaking and snorkelling around a nearby islet. It’s not until the final evening that we see Star Clipper in all her glory. There’s not a drop of rain or hint of fog in sight as the crew unfurl her sails off the coast of Lombok. As we bob in tenders nearby, cameras at the ready, the sails take on a yellowish glow in the late afternoon sunshine, slowly transforming to a striking black silhouette against a bright yellow sun on the horizon at sunset.
Angela Saurine was a guest of Star Clipper Cruises.
Star Clipper, main; dining room, top right; children in Senaru village, Lombok, centre right; Ulun Danu lake temple in Bali, above left; Lombok rice fields with Mount Rinjani in the background, above right