Liz Cleere and her part­ner Jamie Fur­long dis­cover the re­mote beauty of In­done­sia’s Anam­bas Is­lands

Yachting Monthly - - CONTENTS - Words by Liz Cleere Pic­tures Jamie Fur­long

The fi­nal fron­tier: In­done­sia’s un­touched ar­chi­pel­ago. One cruis­ing cou­ple head east away from the crowds to dis­cover the beauty of the Anam­bas Is­lands


Back, back, back!’ I shouted, as a wall of rock about 3m be­neath the wa­ter’s sur­face reared up from a deep blue la­goon. I could see the bright colours of sergeant ma­jors and par­rot­fish swim­ming be­neath us.

Jamie slammed Esper’s en­gine into re­verse. We were on our own in the mid­dle of the un­in­hab­ited Pen­jalin is­lands in the north­east­ern cor­ner of the Anam­bas ar­chi­pel­ago, half way be­tween Malaysia and Bor­neo. We couldn’t af­ford to make a mis­take.

Sit­u­ated in the South China Sea, half­way be­tween main­land Malaysia to the west and Bor­neo to the east, Kepu­lauan Anam­bas falls un­der the sovereignty of In­done­sia. Its iso­lated po­si­tion means the is­lands have re­mained al­most un­touched by tourism, and very few yachts have vis­ited the area. But with a new port author­ity in the cap­i­tal, Ter­ampa, all that is about to change. Yachts can now ar­rive and be is­sued with a 30-day visa to cruise its is­lands with­out hav­ing to ob­tain an In­done­sian visa be­fore­hand. Only Pu­lau Bawah, on the south­ern tip of the group, has be­come a pri­vate lux­ury resort; no an­chor­ing is per­mit­ted, and yachts are dis­cour­aged with fees of around $5 per foot per night to use its moor­ings and go ashore. But this is a one-off at the time of writ­ing, and else­where we saw only a cou­ple of ba­sic ho­tels in Ter­ampa and a few home-stays on the is­land of Je­maja.

Anam­bas is the dream des­ti­na­tion for many world cruis­ers – re­mote, undeveloped, sparsely in­hab­ited and ac­ces­si­ble only by boat. The tiny is­lands and their spec­tac­u­lar bays fringed with lively reefs pro­vide good shel­ter from the pre­vail­ing winds and fetch. The warm, gin-clear wa­ter is filled with rain­bow fish, tur­tles, rays, sharks and coral gar­dens. All kinds of birds, in­sects and other an­i­mals get on with their lives in the sub­trop­i­cal rain­for­est cover­ing the hilly is­lands. We watched sea ea­gles, kites, frigate birds, and var­i­ous types of terns through the binoc­u­lars. Swiftlets, their valu­able nests farmed here for bird’s nest soup, sang from the rig­ging while our cat, Mil­lie, eyed them from the cock­pit. Mon­keys (how did they get here?) played on the beaches.

We were de­layed, and it was late in the sea­son when we raced from Pangkor in the Malacca Strait, round Sin­ga­pore and up the east coast penin­sula of Malaysia to the sleepy is­land of Pu­lau Tioman. As the murky wa­ter of the straits turned bluer and clearer the fur­ther east we sailed, the ubiq­ui­tous jel­ly­fish from Thai­land to Sin­ga­pore dis­ap­peared and were re­placed by boil­ing shoals of jump­ing fish. Check­ing out from Tioman, a 24-hour pas­sage took us through wa­ter criss-crossed with con­tainer ships to­wards Je­maja, be­fore our first stop in Anam­bas.

When land ap­peared on the hori­zon, it was through thun­der­ous clouds and cur­tains of trop­i­cal rain. As we crept closer, a wa­ter­spout swept along the shore­line. The weather in this part of the world is dic­tated by the mon­soons. From June till early Oc­to­ber, a fierce south-west mon­soon rages across the In­dian Ocean, bring­ing strong west­erly winds. It is fol­lowed by an un­set­tled tran­si­tional pe­riod when the wind is un­pre­dictable, of­ten with heavy squalls, un­til it fi­nally set­tles into the north-east mon­soon in De­cem­ber. The log­i­cal time to sail in the Anam­bas is from July to Septem­ber when there should be a con­sis­tent south-west­erly wind from which you can shel­ter in plenty of nat­u­ral bays scat­tered across the is­lands. It would be a lively place to sail dur­ing the north-east mon­soon be­cause the fetch builds and the winds can be vi­o­lent, of­ten in­ter­spersed with trop­i­cal cy­clones and even ty­phoons com­ing across from the Philip­pines and Viet­nam. We ar­rived in mid-septem­ber.

At cus­toms, I asked the of­fi­cials which of the is­lands we shouldn’t miss. We only had 30 days, and although it’s a small group cover­ing an area of around 637km², there are enough is­lands and islets scat­tered here to keep you oc­cu­pied for months. They pointed at the edge of the chart on their of­fice wall. ‘Pen­jalin, it is most beau­ti­ful,’ they said.


So here we were, two weeks into the trip, try­ing to find some­where to drop the hook. ‘I think we better move fur­ther out. It means deeper wa­ter but it’ll be safer,’ said Jamie. After an hour of drop­ping the an­chor twice, snorkelling out to check its po­si­tion and then fly­ing the drone over­head to see ex­actly what was around us, we de­ter­mined that it was too dan­ger­ous to re­main in the mid­dle of the group. Using the drone to scout for a good spot as you ac­tu­ally en­ter an an­chor­age is a nice idea, but with one eye-balling and the other steer­ing, we would need some­one else to op­er­ate it. We agreed that if a squall blew up or some awk­ward fetch found its way into the bay, we would have lit­tle time or room to ma­noeu­vre and we might end up in a dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tion in the night. We both like a good sleep, so mov­ing fur­ther out was the right de­ci­sion. We dropped the hook in 21m on a coral-free bot­tom. After feed­ing Char­lie, a remora (suck­er­fish) who had been trav­el­ling with us for six weeks, we sat back to take in the view.

Pen­jalin is Blue Planet gor­geous. Vir­ginal white-sand beaches lie to the west and south, acres of coral stretch to­wards

each small is­land and the wa­ter is ev­ery colour from palest green to turquoise to ocean blue. In 11 years of sail­ing and cruis­ing this planet, this ranks as one of the most beau­ti­ful an­chor­ages we have seen. We were both tired but des­per­ate to get ex­plor­ing, un­der­wa­ter and on land.

We launched the dinghy, and while Jamie snorkelled, I fi­nally got to grips with our new kayak. My nerves soon evap­o­rated as I watched tur­tles swim­ming be­neath me and picked out the bright colours of reef fish among stacks of coral. Ty­ing the kayak to the dinghy, I joined Jamie un­der­neath the wa­ter. Pen­jalin seems to be oblivious to the mas­sive threat to coral reefs else­where in the world, be­cause here it is thriv­ing. Columns of hard and soft coral stretch up to just be­low the sur­face, while tun­nels and caves have formed be­low. Fields of staghorn coral shel­ter clouds of clown­fish and pairs of fox­face rab­bit­fish. Rays stream past while slower-mov­ing tur­tles dive deeper. We don’t carry dive gear on SY Esper, so had to con­tent our­selves with the top layer, but we could see long drop-offs with plenty of life dis­ap­pear­ing into the shad­ows. It would be a spec­tac­u­lar place to dive.


On shore, the beach is pow­der perfect. After three years in Thai­land sail­ing among the lime­stone karsts, it was re­fresh­ing to walk next to glit­ter­ing gran­ite worn smooth by the el­e­ments. Lines of cowries and tiny gems of colour­ful shells lay in waves on the sand. Gi­ant clams the size of basins were whiten­ing in the sun, pre­sum­ably washed up in some ear­lier storm. At our pre­vi­ous an­chor­age, off the is­land of Se­mut, we had found con­vex mar­ble-like discs the size of our palms. On the flat un­der­side they have a spi­ral pat­tern, and at the time we thought they were fos­sils; later, we were told by a div­ing in­struc­tor in Malaysia that they are op­er­cu­lum, a kind of trap­door which sea snails pull up when beached or un­der at­tack. He said he had never seen any as big as those in our pho­tos. The un­der­growth was too dense to pen­e­trate and there are no paths, be­cause no­body comes here other than a few fish­er­men seek­ing shel­ter in bad weather. We were happy to just walk along the long stretches of sand and take in the kind of dra­matic views of ocean, sky and rain­for­est that ev­ery sailor dreams about.

The charm of the Anam­bas, though, is not found just in its as­ton­ish­ing nat­u­ral beauty. It is the peo­ple, too. With a small pop­u­la­tion of around 37,000, most de­rive their in­come from fish­ing. Ter­ampa, on Pu­lau Siantan, has a few shops where you can buy ba­sics, as well as a wet mar­ket for fruit, veg­eta­bles, meat and fish. There are a cou­ple of hard­ware stores and be­cause the pop­u­la­tion re­lies on get­ting about

by boat, they in­clude some ba­sic items for diesel en­gines, out­boards and boat re­pairs. In Pu­lau Je­maja, we hired scoot­ers and rode around the in­te­rior. It is a beau­ti­ful is­land with a wide val­ley that has been turned over for farm­ing both live­stock and arable, in­clud­ing those birds’ nests. We were wel­comed into a school and shown round by one of the pupils. ‘Where are you from?’ he asked. ‘Eng­land.’ ‘Wow, that’s cool. Wel­come!’


But most of the rest of the peo­ple live in tiny fish­ing vil­lages scat­tered around the cen­tre of the ar­chi­pel­ago. Be­cause the land rises sharply from the seabed, the houses are built on stilts over shal­low reefs. Wooden homes are joined to­gether by pon­toons, which all lead from one con­nect­ing path that runs along the shore­line. It’s a pre­dom­i­nantly Mus­lim part of the world, so there are no bars, just a few cof­fee shops (usu­ally the front of some­one’s house) and the oc­ca­sional warung (a fam­ily-run café). Each vil­lage has one or two shops in the owner’s front room sell­ing ba­sics – sham­poo, wash­ing pow­der, crisps. We spent days with var­i­ous fam­i­lies in dif­fer­ent vil­lages, laugh­ing up­roar­i­ously while we dis­cussed life using the Google Trans­late app. We drank sweet cof­fee for which they re­fused pay­ment, un­til we in­sisted (less than 10p per cup). Our In­done­sian ba­hasa (lan­guage) im­proved as the con­ver­sa­tion flowed, and once over their shy­ness, our hosts prac­tised the English they had learned at school.

To­wards the end of our trip, Jamie found an­other set­tle­ment on Google Earth with no name, tucked away in a shal­low chan­nel. Air Pu­tih (white wa­ter) turned out to be our favourite vil­lage. As we pulled up the dinghy on to a sandy patch, we were greeted by Ba­jar, a chatty boy of 10, who took on the role of tour guide. Like a pair of pied pipers, we soon at­tracted a rag­gle-tag­gle group of his friends. When­ever we went ashore, it was al­ways the chil­dren who came run­ning to greet us. Mums with ba­bies would wave from win­dows and door­ways, some­times com­ing up to hug me and get their pho­to­graph taken to­gether. Every­one stopped what they were do­ing to shout ‘hallo!’ Air Pu­tih was no ex­cep­tion, but there was some­thing in­no­cent and joy­ful about the peo­ple. First, we in­spected a new pom­pong (lo­cal small fish­ing boat) be­ing built, then Ba­jar took us to his school, closed that


af­ter­noon, where we peered through the class­room win­dows at desks and maps and paint­ings on the wall. San, his dad and the lo­cal school­teacher, joined us. He ex­plained that we were the first yacht to ever visit their vil­lage. Some of the peo­ple had never seen one be­fore, but were not phased by the idea that we lived on Esper. To them, a life on the wa­ter seemed nat­u­ral.

A few of the houses have tele­vi­sions, but Ba­jar and his friends don’t have phones. There is no ac­cess to the in­ter­net in the vil­lage, so the chil­dren spend their time mak­ing up games and play­ing around the area.

They know the names of all the trees and plants, and made it their mis­sion to teach me too. Ke­lapa (co­conut) and pisang (ba­nana) I could al­ready iden­tify, and I was pretty sure I could pick out a mangga (mango) tree, but this was the first time I dis­cov­ered what a cengkeh (clove) tree looks like. Their guile­less en­thu­si­asm for the nat­u­ral world around them was al­most heart­break­ing.

Sadly, we were com­ing to the end of our 30 days, and it was time to leave. The dinghy was well and truly beached, with about 50m of black mud be­tween us and any kind of wa­ter, so Ba­jar and the gang rolled up their trousers and with Jamie lead­ing, helped us to push it across the ooze. Their laugh­ter and screams as they sunk up to their bony thighs and fell face for­wards into the gooey mess echoed around the bay. We waved all the way back to the boat, and car­ried on wav­ing from the deck as dark­ness fell. We will be back.

Mak­ing land­fall in the Anam­bas Is­lands

The is­lands have re­mained un­touched by tourism, mak­ing them vir­gin cruis­ing grounds

Fish­ing is the main source of in­come for the is­lands

The Anam­bas Is­lands are only ac­ces­si­ble by boat. BE­LOW: We were given a warm wel­come wher­ever we went

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