Snorkelling and sail­ing ad­ven­tures in In­done­sia

With snorkel and mask in hand, John Borth­wick sets sail on a 12-day voy­age on a clas­sic schooner.

Paradise - - Contents -

With its soar­ing bowsprit and gaff-rigged sails,

Om­bak Pu­tih looks like a clas­sic Bugis schooner that has just sailed out of a Joseph Con­rad novel. Our good ship might seem like a tra­di­tional In­done­sian

phin­isi, but be­low decks she’s air­con­di­tioned with en suite cab­ins and twin ma­rine diesels.

We set out from Gorontalo in north­ern Su­lawesi on a 12-day voy­age through the prov­ince’s east­ern is­lands and then down to­wards the is­land of Flores and its Ko­modo dragons. Snorkelling is the main event on our agenda and our first plunges set the tone, no­tably at the cu­ri­ously named Ho­tel Cal­i­for­nia Reef. The ship’s two in­flat­able ten­ders shut­tle us to the drop-off point and we are im­me­di­ately im­mersed in an oceanic floor­show. Count­less, name­less (at least to me) fish flit past in a phan­tas­mago­ria of clown­like fin­ery or cun­ning cam­ou­flage.

The reef is a ball­room of the tides, a samba school with fins – and a place where sim­i­les come to die of in­ad­e­quacy. But the mem­ory is in­deli­ble. You can sur­face any time you like but you never quite leave. After an hour we swim back to the ten­ders, minds buzzing.

Om­bak Pu­tih (the name means ‘white wave’) cruises on to Pa­pan Is­land where we visit a vil­lage of for­merly no­madic Ba­jao sea gyp­sies who now live in over­wa­ter stilt houses. Ex­cited kids come out to snorkel with us, wear­ing their home­made, wooden div­ing gog­gles.

After a long pas­sage, un­der power, south to Cen­tral Su­lawesi’s Bang­gai Archipelago, we reach the home of a unique species of car­di­nal­fish. These is­lands are the only place on earth to see the Bang­gai car­di­nal­fish in the wild and find­ing this exquisite an­i­mal is a Nemo-style quest among our 14 pas­sen­gers. Our In­done­sian guides soon lo­cate a shal­low reef,

where amid an an­gel’s maze of corals, we spot the tiny, fa­bled car­di­nal­fish.

The seven-cen­time­tre long cre­ation is per­fectly named. Black bands run down its cream body while its del­i­cate swal­low­tail and fins are tricked out in pearly dots re­sem­bling a mata­dor’s suit of lights. Sadly, this glit­ter­ing crea­ture might soon dis­ap­pear be­cause it is be­ing col­lected for the aquar­ium trade faster than it re­pro­duces.

Back on board, our Ba­li­nese chef Gede and his team keep re-fu­elling us with steak, soups, gado-gado, frit­ters, sal­ads and cur­ries.

Om­bak Pu­tih has a sturdy wooden hull whose planks and ribs whis­per to each other in the tongue-and- groove lan­guage that wooden ships have al­ways spo­ken. Each night I drift to sleep while eaves­drop­ping on their deep-sea gos­sip.

Ev­ery day we dis­cover an­other reef’s won­der world of drop-offs, gi­ant clams and morays.

Down be­low are col­leges of sur­geon­fish, choirs of an­gelfish and brain corals. Epic reefs that we judge as ‘10 out of 10’ are soon eclipsed by the next nu­mi­nous gar­den that scores 11, if not 12, out of 10.

Nov­el­ist Joseph Con­rad, who worked these waters in the 1880s, the last great days of sail, wrote: “Sud­denly, a puff of wind … laden with strange odours of blos­som, of aro­matic wood, comes out of the still night – the first sigh of the East on my face.” Some things re­main con­stant. On the ship’s shaded up­per deck we can laze from af­ter­noon into dusk, look­ing up at times from a book or a cold beer to catch wild­fire light­ning twitch­ing across a far hori­zon.

How to draw a line, I ask my­self, un­der record­ing all these rap­tures? How can I not men­tion, for ex­am­ple, the three tur­tles I see sus­pended above a drop-off’s blue abyss like satel­lites adrift in space?

We draw breath above wa­ter long enough to visit more Ba­jao vil­lages in the Padei Is­lands, and then cross the Banda Sea to South Su­lawesi’s pris­tine Waka­tobi Na­tional Ma­rine Re­serve. Here, on Bi­nongko Is­land a black­smith swel­ter­ing at his anvil en­dures our nosey cam­eras while he in­verts the noble tra­di­tion of turn­ing swords into ploughshares by bash­ing old truck leaf-springs into new ma­chetes. The fi­nal leg of our cruise is to be a long

We visit a vil­lage of sea gyp­sies who now live in over­wa­ter stilt houses. Ex­cited kids come out to snorkel with us, wear­ing their home­made, wooden div­ing gog­gles.

pas­sage south­west from Su­lawesi to Flores Is­land and its leg­endary Ko­modo dragons, but a tri­fecta of weather, tech­nol­ogy fails and air­line sched­ules con­spires against us. Om­bak Pu­tih can’t make head­way against the swell and we have to turn back to Waka­tobi to wait out the weather, by which time com­plet­ing our am­bi­tious itinerary be­comes near im­pos­si­ble.

Be­yond here be Ko­modo’s dragons but, alas, not for us this time. In­stead we change course, stay calm and carry on snorkelling.

Bound by the Bis­marck, Co­ral and Solomon seas, Pa­pua New Guinea is one of the world’s best ma­rine tourism des­ti­na­tions. With about 45,000 square kilo­me­tres of reef sys­tems, its co­ral gar­dens, wrecks and kalei­do­scopic fish species are ideal for snorkelling.

1. Kimbe Bay, West New Bri­tain

The huge ma­rine re­serve of Kimbe Bay, with over 400 va­ri­eties of hard co­ral and 350 of fish, is among the best snorkelling ar­eas any­where. Its Walindi Plan­ta­tion Re­sort, famed among divers, al­lows equally rich op­tions for snorkellers.

2. Ni­vani Is­land, De­boyne Is­lands, Milne Bay

Tiny Ni­vani could also be called ‘Nir­vani’, so crys­tal-clear are its waters. Snorkellers here can eas­ily reach a rel­a­tively in­tact World War 2 Ja­panese Zero fighter that lies in just three me­tres of wa­ter.

3. Nusa Is­land, Kavieng, New Ire­land

Across the chan­nel from Kavieng town, Nusa Is­land and its ad­ja­cent har­bour waters boast ex­ten­sive reefs with plen­ti­ful co­ral gar­dens, sponges, rays and a vivid pan­theon of trop­i­cal fish.

4. Tawali, Milne Bay

At Tawali, near the east­ern­most point of the PNG main­land, a snorkel and mask are all you need for ma­rine thrills. Clouds of fish flit be­side a reef drop-off whose walls are lay­ered with co­ral antler forests.

5. Simp­son Har­bour, East New Bri­tain

For divers, Simp­son Har­bour has nu­mer­ous World War 2 wrecks and reef walls to ex­plore, while for snorkellers there are bril­liant shal­low reefs and an old Ja­panese sub­ma­rine base at Tavui Point.

Full sail ahead ... the Om­bak Pu­tih (above right); over­wa­ter abode at Padei Be­sar (be­low right).

A rare sight ... the Bang­gai car­di­nal­fish (left); an evening in quiet waters after a day of snorkelling (right).

Es­sen­tial gear … home­made gog­gles used for snorkelling by lo­cal chil­dren. Fish­ing line holds the two pieces to­gether.

Air Ni­ug­ini flies from Port Moresby to Bali weekly. See airni­ug­

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