There are few places left on this planet that are untouched by the human hand. One of these places is Pulau Bankaru, an island at the very Eastern edge of Indonesia. It is said to be cursed; only a handful of people have cut down a tree there, and all died a horrible death. It is also home to the turtle conservation project that Mahi Mahi funds. Jolly good then, lets go there!
This adventure has had an emotional build up for the family, as Millie does not like boats. The problem with islands, is that they need boats. The problem with islands in Indonesia is the boats that appear are pretty unexpected, borderline adequate for the job they are doing and the seas are at the whims of a near constant barrage of tropical storms that blow in from the South East. Charlotte in her usual amazing way has coached Millie to confront her fears, and at least get on the damn thing if supplied with copious amounts of sugary snacks.
We set off to the town of Sinabang, the “big smoke” on the island, and home to around 20,000 island inhabitants. Given that a storm was brewing, we stocked up on ponchos and other travel essentials.
Stocking up on travel essentials …
On the day before our departure our guide Ricky turned up in a bit of a mess. His eyes were bloodshot from being out fishing all night, and he was stressed as one of his family had been hurt in a moped accident. We managed to glean from him that the regular overnight ferry was in dock for repairs, and we would have to take another that crossed further up the coast … this would add a long drive on the mainland to connect to a speedboat that would get us to Bangkaru and push our travel dates further towards a big inbound storm. And another little thing, that due to this change there were no private cabins available for the family to sleep together, so we’d be bunking local. Can’t be that bad, right?
Our intrepid party of Tom, the amazing volunteering program lead, the lovely Pras, a divemaster who had just arrived at Mahi Mahi to help on the volunteering program and Ricky, the fixer who knows someone somewhere and everywhere set off to catch the overnight ferry. Charlotte, Bella and Millie were dressed in the long shirts and long trousers appropriate for this conservatively Islamic place, and each sucked in a deep breath as we arrived at port and were confronted by a big hulk of a ferry and a swarming mass of overloaded trucks, motorbikes, animals and families waving goodbye to their loved ones. We threw ourselves into the sweltering night; sharpening our elbows and working our way through the crowds and stares to the loading ramp.
All aboard! The calm before the storm.
On the grand scheme of things, we know we are privileged to have any cabin space at all. As we wade through the throngs, the deck has already been marked out by families, laying down mats to sleep on. Ricky guides us through to two cabins just behind the main deck where I say goodbye to the girls and hello to the boys as we split male/female. It turns out the boys lucked out, as we are approximately 2 to a bed … for the girls it started at about 3, and by the end of the night, after the big storm rolled in, they are up to 4 as anyone sleeping on deck had to beg and plead for some kind of shelter.
This provides ample opportunity for hilarity, and endless selfies, including the girls actually being woken up for a selfie with their jolly and enthusiastic roomies.
A beautiful dawn breaks over the mountains of Sumatra
Ahead of us lay a 6-hour minivan transfer and a 4-hour speedboat ride, and as the morning slipped away while we waited for the transfer we realised we were not going to make it today. At the same time the weather for the following day was getting worse with rain and high wind forecast. This was about to get gnarly (surfer speak, for very challenging). We plugged the girls into Audible for the transfer, and supplied on demand snackage. The next challenge was to find a hotel for the night and having been turned down from a couple of reasonable looking places, through sheer desperation, we settled for a night at the Island Hotel.
A bit of a fixer upper … Fortunately the chap having a smoke had checked out.
Through luck the girls room remained fairly mosquito free, though unluckily the mozzies chowed down on tasty Rob (thanks, mate). At first light we locked and loaded onto a couple of motorickshaws to go meet The Captain, and start our journey to Bangkaru as soon as possible as the wind and waves were picking up.
All wrapped up and good to go … see ya later.
When we got to the boat it turned out not to be quite the speedboat of dreams, but nonetheless a solid and remarkably buoyant looking craft to cross a few hundred km of open sea in. The Captain also did not wear a life jacket, which is confidence inspiring, right? However, The Captain did not like our odds of getting to Bangkaru as it sits unprotected on the eastern edge, and hence the swell here is bigger, so we’d scratch that plan and go to Pulau Tailana where we were planning to go after Bangkaru. As we left port, the rain started, so we donned our ponchos and buckled down for the ride. As we have seen at other hard parts of the trip; like when we had nowhere to sleep in the insect infested jungle, or when we were thrown off the river taxi in Brazil to fend for ourselves in an unknown town, it really brings the best out in the girls. Despite Millie not liking boats, she remained smiling the whole way through and kept us entertained, while Charlotte and I gripped onto our seats ‘till our knuckles went white.
After a 5-hour roller coaster ride, with the boat taking in water from all sides, and much to The Captain’s relief we arrived at the picture perfect island of Tailana where Mr Mahi and his family live. If you ever need to run away from life, and are accepting of simple living, then look no further.
For the next few days we battened down the hatches as the storm raged on. A sign of the turbulent seas is that a number of local fishing boats were moored up for shelter inside the island’s reef … well, either that or they were keen to catch a glimpse of Charlotte in the outdoor shower by the mooring point. So we kept a beady eye on them as our barometer of calm seas as without a change our hopes of getting to Bangkaru to see the turtle protection project were likely to be dashed.
After the storm. The beautiful island of Tailana, home to Mr Mahi and his family.
It was great to have Pras on the adventure with us, as using his conservation skills, we tried out a number of techniques for surveying the reef at Tailana, with the hope of finding an approach that other volunteers could follow. We had a lot of fun, and drank a lot of saltwater, getting to grips with the pesky CoralWatch laminated colour charts that gauge coral bleaching.
Bellafish in action
Anyone remember how to snorkel?
The CoralWatch kit
Happily, the reef at Tailana was not bleached, so the water here had likely not reached the temperature at which the coral polyps expel the algae that lives inside their tissues, making the coral turn white. Pras’ dive computer registered the temp at 30°C, so there’s a couple of degrees to play with here.
As the days slipped by the reality slowly dawned that we were not going to make it to Bangkaru, as the expectation was that the waves would still be too big to land the boat on the beach. This was a genuine disappointment for the family as we had chosen to volunteer here predominately for the turtle conservation, and although we were happy that by joining the program we were providing financial support, we thought it would have had a bigger impact on the kids; and frankly it would be AWESOME to see a big mamma turtle come and lay her eggs. Our emotions flipped from anger to annoyance to acceptance, which is a bit ridiculous, but all who know us know that Charlotte and James do not like to fail! For the family as a whole it was a good lesson about how to deal with disappointment, keep our chins up, and make the most of whatever we are blessed to have.
Fortunately our way home was much smoother, literally and figuratively, with glassy seas and blue skies we speedboated back to port in half the time it took to get out in the storm. On our way we passed the home of the Bajau tribe, who are semi-nomadic seafaring people. Their hulking tri-meran boats jostled together at the foot of the makeshift village, who’s rusty tin roofed houses clung precariously to the land, desperate not to fall into the sea.
Bajau fishing boat relaxing in the calm waters.
We had a last moment of entertainment as we motored around the headland into the river estuary, to approach the port. The Captain was finally defeated in siphoning the last drips from each of the boat’s petrol tanks, as the engine spluttered to a thirsty halt within sight of the port. Again, the girls were very cool about this, especially Millie, who does not like boats (was this adventure was therapy or torture!?!). Charlotte and I were relieved that we ran out here, in the relative shelter of the estuary, rather than out in the swell. A few animated phone calls later, and The Captain has got one of his mates in a fishing boat to mount a rescue.
Cheers mate! Getting a tow back to port. So close, but yet so far.
The adventure overall was challenging, exciting and rewarding, and huge credit to Tom, Pras and Ricky who attempt these missions in a place where you never know what spanner is going to be thrown into the works. We got closer to what real life is like for many an Indonesian through the ferry experience, and saw again that in the face of adversity the girls are at their best.