Kuta, Ambon & on to Sawai on Seram Island

We’re off to spend six weeks in Indonesia, which we last visited in 1992, and previous to that in 1977. After a couple of nights in Kuta, Bali, we’re off to spend a week in Maluku (Ambon Island and Seram Island) and then flying to Sorong in Papua, where we’re P1000075meeting up with Debbie and Mike our regular travel companions from America, and Jerry and Sharon our friends from Sydney. The six of us are then going to spend ten days on a fairly basic, adapted traditional wooden phinisi fishing boat exploring the reefs and islands of Raja Ampat. After this we all fly to Makassar in Sulawesi where the six of us have hired a van and driver to take us to Tana Toraja which is famous for its tribal culture and stunning scenery.

Sharon and Jerry leave us then and, with Debbie and Mike we head to Ubud for three nights in a luxury hotel to take it easy and recover, before joining another ten-day boat trip on a much larger, much fancier (and much more expensive), adapted wooden phinisi. We start in Kuta, and head as far East as Komodo, before returning to Kuta.

Tuesday 4th April, 2017 Sydney to Denpasar
We’ve booked very cheap fares with Jetstar (Sydney/Denpasar return for two, including baggage and assigned seats, but no meals for A$1071 for the 6 ½ hour flight)

Our flight is not till 4.40pm, but we go pretty early as we have plenty of reading matter while we wait. We have a normal trip to the airport via ferry and train, missing the scuds of rain which pass through regularly. There is a massive queue at the Jetstar check-in, but Dianne finds the Web check-In line, which is quite short. There are lots of families, and quite a few surfboards – pretty obvious people are getting a low cost fare by taking kids out of school before the school holidays start next week.

We have only paid for one meal on the flight (A$24), so do the long trek to Macca’s for a top up. The plane is pretty full, nominally boarded by row blocks, but it is just a bun rush. Our latest seat strategy is to have one aisle seat and one window one, hopefully with the middle seat vacant. We arrive at our empty row, and Dianne finds a glasses case in the pocket, so Murray takes them to a steward, thinking they have been left by a passenger on the previous flight. A French woman from New Caledonia arrives, and we find she has boarded early and gone to the loo, taking everything with her except her glasses. Murray tells the steward who calls the boarding gate, and the woman also goes to look, and eventually the glasses turn up. Not an auspicious start to our six hour flight, but there are no further problems.

Jetstar has movies and entertainment, but almost all of the program is pay as you go – even the audio costs. There are some podcasts, including Mitsubishi sponsored fishing videos which are interesting, but generally, the level of entertainment is pretty low. Murray reads some of Dianne’s cache of “Good Weekend’s” and Sunday Life Magazines, and tries to catch some sleep. Dianne also reads, and watches an episode of “The Crown” on the IPad.

The flight is smooth, and we are making good time, but an hour out of Bali, we are told there is a large thunderstorm over Denpasar, and we would be delayed for up to an hour in a seven-plane queue. It is a little bit quicker, and we land in heavy rain – glad to see that we are in a new airport with fly bridges and all the mod cons. In spite of the seven plane queue, we have a reasonably short time in Immigration, but Dianne’s bag is one of the last to turn up.

There is a major traffic jam through Customs, but no search, and we exit into the meeting area with hundreds of placard-carrying greeters. Dianne looks for money, finds a queue, and has to wait while a woman puts various cards through five times before she gets the required amount. It turns out the maximum is 1,250,000 rupiahs. Sounds a lot, but at 10,000 to the $A, it is only A$125, but at least the arithmetic is simple once you get the 10,000 rather than 1,000 in your brain.

The best offer we can get from taxi touts in the waiting area is 200,000Rp to the hotel, so try our luck outside. Can only get 250 and 300 offers, but haggle down to 200,000, then do a long walk to a multi-storey car park, to a newish, air conditioned van, obviously someone’s private car and not a taxi. We were able to follow our progress on maps.me, along a major highway, then into the narrow streets of Kuta. We had dropped a pin on the map, but our driver went to somewhere close but not the exact spot. Turns out he was right, and the Adi Dharma has an annex, Adi Dharma Cottages, close by, which caused the confusion.

We follow a bellboy with a rubber tired cart around what looks like a complicated route in the dark past the swimming pool, lush gardens and a koi carp pool to our ground level room. Run into our common problem of arriving with no small change for tips, but hopefully will run into the bellboy again.

The room is large and pleasant, though a bit dated, and not well lit (as usual). We have a free safe, which is always nice, complimentary mineral water, tea making facilities, and a mini-bar which has spare room in it for outside purchases. While we are unpacking, Dianne finds some mosquitoes, and goes to reception to borrow some spray, but we end up with a worker who does the place over pretty thoroughly.

The Aircon is icy cold, so we turn it off, and decide not to bother with the reasonably priced room service, so ate some dried apricots and went to bed slightly hungry, as it was now about 2AM Sydney time. The bed was excellent – firm and the two sides well isolated, so both had a good sleep.

A$1 = 10,000 Rupiah

Wednesday 5th April Adi Dharma Hotel, Kuta Beach, Bali
In the light of day we are very impressed with the Adi Dharma Hotel (A$65 per night earlybird price). The gardens are very lush, and there is a lovely pool area. Incredible that we are in the heart of Kuta Beach – feels like we are in the countryside.

We decide to give the hotel buffet a miss, and decide to walk down to the beach, which is only a couple of blocks away on the map, but we find access to it is not that easy. We walk down the long alley to the nearest busy road, follow maps.me south and west through narrow streets and alleys to find the main road along the beach. The beach has an ornately decorated wall all the way along it with regularly spaced ornate gateways to the beach. The beach has trees close to the wall, a fairly dirty slope of dry sand down to a gently sloping surf beach with smooth water. The waves, some up to two metres trough to crest, were breaking nicely a long way out, for either board or body surfing, but there weren’t a lot, if any, body surfers. May have had something to do with the fact it was still only 9am.

We took photos of record with the small camera and IPhone for Facebook, which gave a false impression about how empty the beach is normally. Decided it was too early for a drink, so walked north the full length of the promenade, then cut inland and back toward our hotel, on the lookout for food. We discovered a small restaurant with an outdoor eating area, Warung Tujuh, where we enjoyed a very pleasant Big Breakfast, fruit plate, large omelette, papaya juice drink, all for about $A15. Back at the hotel, we took it easy then headed for the swimming pool, doing our aquarobic exercises and swimming a few laps to get ready for our snorkelling expeditions. In the pool we talked to an Australian man from Perth, and a woman from Waratah in Newcastle, who lives very close to where Dianne’s grandmother lived. We swap travel tales and child/grandchild stories.

After a break, we go in search of a bank where we can get a decent amount of money. Following instructions, we find the back gate of the Adi Dharma Cottages, and walk through the gardens and out past the dining room to Jalan Raya Legian. We walk north to find the BNI Bank, but it is closed, and has an ATM cubicle with some rather strange machines, so carry on further down the street to find the Commonwealth Bank, also closed, but with machines we trust. We get out 3,000,000 rupiahs (A$300) in two tranches without problems. Apparently there is some sort of holiday today. Decide this is enough to keep us going for a while, and walk back to the hotel.

Dianne has a second swim, and we eat a fairly strange nachos by the pool, then get dressed to go down to the beach for the Sunset Experience. We have now found the shortest route to the beach, which is a lot longer than as-the-crow-flies, but a lot more direct than our first try.

At the beach, the sea is glassy, with a fair surf running. It is very crowded compared with our early morning visit. Most of the crowd are not swimming, and a lot of the women are in head scarfs.

The western sky is full of clouds, and the sunset, while having some colour, is a bit of a fizzer. Murray takes a lot of photos with the big camera anyway. The beach, though very attractive, is strewn with all sorts of rubbish, a lot of it left by departing beachgoers. Murray tries the water, finds it not quite as warm as the swimming pool, but pretty pleasant.

Back at the hotel, we have a look at the dining room, decide it is deserted because we are too early, so repair to the room, coming out later to find the dining room is empty because we are too late. We try our luck out on the Main Street without getting much inspiration, finally settling on the Smiling Frog on a side street, for a reasonable Nasi goreng that Murray finds acceptable, a Gado Gado that Dianne finds a bit strange, and some OK fruit juices.

Back at the hotel, we join a couple of Australian women at the bar for our complimentary drink. They are repeat customers for Bali and this hotel. Their husbands seem to be having a good time, but look a bit worse for wear when they turn up. A lot of the Australians we see are from Western Australia, which is only a short flight away.

Dianne settles up our bill and confirms a hotel van for 6AM in the morning to go to the Domestic Terminal for our flight to Makassar. We pack all our gear for a quick exit in the morning, put on the A/C to combat the thickness of the doona, but turn it off later in the night when it gets too cold and breezy.

Thursday 6 April Kuta Beach to Ambon, Maluku via Makassar, Sulawesi
We are awake before the alarm, and almost finished packing when the hotel phone rings at 5.45, and are away by 6 AM. The streets are pretty quiet, but we manage a near miss with a car travelling fast up a narrow street. Find we are going to the same airport we used coming in, but in the Domestic Terminal. This terminal is also new, not very crowded, and the check-ins are operating when we arrive for our 8.40am A$69 each Garuda one and a half hour flight to Makassar. We have a slight problem with liquids in the checked luggage, but we assure the clerk that the coke bottles with our gin in, are robust, and she lets us go with a couple of Fragile stickers on the bag.

We have scored a three seat row for the two of us, but it is up against the bulkhead, with no room for our daypacks, so have to stow them overhead. This is a Boeing 737, and seems to have a lot more room than the 787 we flew from Oz. It has very strange padded seat belts. We get two windows, and a view in front of the engine heat haze, so we are in pretty good shape. We get views over the coast then over the green fields and sprawling townships of Bali before the clouds close in. Out over the sea to the north of Bali, we climb above the clouds, seeing blue sea and white clouds below all the way to Makassar. The lunch box was basic, but had a nice custard-filled pastry.

Makassar has a wide, flat and waterlogged coastal plain with a couple of big rivers, paddy fields and wet lands. The villages tend to be long and narrow, curving to follow watercourses, or roads. Nearer the airport, there is the usual sea of rusty iron roofs tightly packed with narrow alleys running between.

There seem to be a lot of transit counters, but we’re told we have to transfer our own bags and go out and come back through X-ray and security, as we’re flying Batik Air to Ambon (1 ¾ hour flight for A$84 each). We have a 4 ½ hour wait between flights. We could have taken an earlier connecting flight, but we’d read that all airlines are notorious for being late, and we wanted to be sure we got to Ambon OK. Can check bags in immediately, then pass through to the boarding area. We have the right gate, but the electronic board seems to be running well behind reality, and our flight doesn’t show up till the last moment, so we have to keep vigilant. We have a meal of local food, negotiated without much language, but sufficient to get something edible.

We were coming up on flight time with no information, and suddenly the last call for passengers was made, and we had to hurry through, looking like the last to board as we descend stairs for a bus. We wait while about 20 stragglers join the bus, then proceed to an A320 Airbus, which is less than half full. Get window seats on opposite sides of the plane, as hoping for good views. Get some good photos of intricate patterns of rivers and rice paddies, plus some rugged karst limestone peaks and ravines, which are being rapidly attacked by a large quarry, then some highland plains with villages and fields. The clouds closed in, then opened up over the coast to give us views of isolated coral reefs, some with small sand cays. The airport for Ambon is a long way down a narrow gulf, on the west side. From the airport you can look across to the city of Ambon, built on the steep slope of a mountain range running along the east side of the gulf.

The main things we know about Ambon is that a lot of Australians died here during the second world war as there was a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp here, and that there were a lot of riots between Christians and Muslims between 1999 and 2002, and that it has some good snorkeling.

Domestic air travel is very civilised compared with International, and we are out with our bags in short order. From the gaggle of taxi touts, we choose a middle-aged driver for 150,000 Rp to get us to the Hero Hotel in downtown Ambon. The new bridge over a narrow part of the gulf is now open, halving the distance to Ambon, and we make pretty good time until we strike the afternoon peak hour traffic as it’s now about 6pm.

The hotel is on the edge of the CBD, quite handy to the shops, restaurants and travel agents we need. Dianne has gone to some trouble to phone and confirm our reservation by email, but they can’t find it, so have to start from scratch. Fortunately there is no Frog Dance (an in-joke) or similar cultural festival on this weekend, so we get a non-smoking room on the top floor on the quiet side of the building. It is right next to the lift, but it is pretty quiet. The room is very modern, has good wi-fi, nice bathroom, plenty of lights, although none overhead, a comfortable bed, and a TV with poor picture quality, but some English language channels. At $A45 a night, this is about as good as it gets. While checking in, Dianne finds they also don’t have the booking for two rooms on the 13th, so re-books them. It is too late to go out exploring, so we order a meal of local food at the hotel restaurant, with two fairly good, but not perfect, fruit juices.

Murray watches a pretty ordinary remake of Starsky and Hutch on TV, while Dianne reads. Go to bed with the A/C on, but turn it off later in the night when it gets too breezy around the ears.

Friday 7th April Ambon, Maluku, Indonesia
We have booked for the breakfast buffet, hoping to get a handle on the local cuisine, but don’t find too much that isn’t highly spiced. We gear up for an expedition into the city to find the travel agent who can sort out the logistics of getting to Lisar Bahari Guest House at Sawai on the island of Seram.

When we originally made our plane bookings, we had intended to go to the Banda Islands, which were originally famous for their nutmeg, which was produced almost exclusively here. Now they’re famous for their great diving and beaches. There were flights there before, but they had been cancelled when we were making bookings in December. It appears different airlines get the contract when it is renewed, and no-one had been given the contract when we were looking a few months ago. The other way to get there is by a twice-weekly boat that takes 6 hours. We were considering doing this until we read that it is frequently cancelled due to bad weather. It is important that we get our flight to Sorong next Friday, so we had to come up with a new plan. We read that Sawai on Seram Island was good for snorkeling, and there was a daily boat to the island, so tried to get in touch with the Lisar Bahari Guest house. Found a phone number (+62 81247331588) so sent an SMS asking if this was the correct phone number for making a booking. Message came back saying “yes” so sent details of the booking we wanted to make. Had no reply from this number, but another number (+62 821 98399172) sent me an SMS saying “OK, I will do” which we hoped was a booking confirmation. We had another SMS which confused us even more, and we had also read very confusing information on how to get there, so we decided to go and see PT Daya Patal, an English-speaking travel agent recommended by Lonely Planet.

We negotiate streets with no footpath, footpaths with broken pavers, and missing grates over gutters filled with indescribable filth, (the usual SE Asian signature attractions). Pass the recommended Sibu-Sibu coffee house, and find the travel agent in a tiny, crowded, low ceilinged office. The girl in charge speaks very good English, and is very helpful, and phones the Guest House to confirm our rather nebulous phone message booking, and arranges a 150,000Rp taxi to pick us up at 7.30 in the morning to get the 9AM fast ferry to Amahai, from where we will be on our own to find a car or a bemo, plus possible speedboat to get us to Lisar Bahari.

We buy a 150,000 Rp voucher for the car, partly to put some business her way after being helpful, then decide to walk south and west to find the harbour, and possibly a market. By now it is quite hot and sunny, so we take it pretty easy, finding shade where possible. We get to somewhere promising, but it turns out to be a collection of private houses on narrow alleys. We reach the harbour at a graveyard, and have to carefully find a path between the graves to get to the sea wall for a photo. There is a military compound blocking our way, so have to walk back inland, and around it into the CBD, looking for a cold drink. Eventually find a woman manning a small stall with an esky, and buy a couple of very cold Cokes. While we are drinking, we get approached by a local man with good English, who is a tour guide. We explain that we are already set up, but take his phone number and email address just-in-case. He directs us towards the market, but we buy rambutan and green skinned, but ripe, mangoes on the way.

The market is right on the bank of the harbour, north of the commercial shipping area, and has the usual combination of fruit, vegetables, clothes, hardware, chicken and fish. The fish section is particularly revolting, but has a wide variety of tuna, mackerel types, mullet, squid, bream types and reef fish. This is a surprise as the only fish dishes offering at the hotel were all tuna-based. The market extends to the north, past the massive collection of colour-coded bemos (depending upon whether they are inner-city or out of town) at the bus depot, to a major stream and bridge, and beyond.

We call a halt at the bridge which has an over-water cafe beside it, where we stop, hopefully for a cold Coke, but end up with two warm micro-cans for a surprisingly high price of 15,000Rp each. We call into a bank to see if we can get out a reasonable amount of money, as it disappears remarkably fast in spite of most things being relatively cheap. We are shown upstairs at the bank, where a young woman explains we can only get out money from the ATM, but it has a reasonable dispense value of 2,500,000 per time, and we can take 3,000,000 a day each, which suits us, and we end up with a very fat money belt.

We cut inland through the market, and plot a course back to the hotel, taking occasional reference points from our electronic map, but still get lost and have to backtrack, looking carefully at the map as we go. Our course takes us past Sari Gurih, the recommended fish restaurant, and we look in to make sure the large black smoke stain on the wall was just a cooking stain, and not a recent kitchen fire. We tell them we will be back later, and move on to Sarinda, the recommended bakery, where we buy pastries to eat in our room.

We take it easy in the afternoon. Take sunset photos out of our window, and head out about 8PM to the fish restaurant. We choose two bream-type fishes to be grilled, for 95,000 Rp, then go into the restaurant proper which is set up with long tables facing a stage and band-stand setup for the signature karaoke. We order two excellent mango smoothies some rice and a couple of other vegetable based dishes – a bean and a morning glory type, to go with the grilled fish, which arrives with four sambal dishes, two of which were quite nice, and two of which were incredibly hot. Dianne made the mistake of trying a tiny amount of the hot sambal, and had to get a second mango smoothie to try and cool her mouth down.

The fish turned up at about the same time as the first karaoke number. The fish was well done, so much so that the flesh is welded to the skin and bones, and very hard to dislodge. It was tasty enough, but the fish flesh yield was pretty low, more so for Murray than Dianne. The quality of the Karaoke was pretty good, as it goes, but we were ready to leave when the meal was over. The 95,000 Rp for the fish managed to escalate to 270,600 Rp with the drinks, side dishes and service charges. Our 28 Degrees Master Card was not acceptable, so we were glad we threw extra cash into the purse. Back at the hotel we were pleased to see our valuables concealed in a packaged towel were still there. The old dilemma – take it all with you and risk getting mugged for the lot, or leave it in the hotel room.
We packed our gear and set alarms for 6.40am, and called it a night.

Saturday 8th April Ambon to Sawai Village, Seram Island, Maluku
As usual, we were up before the alarm. Packed and headed out at 7AM looking for pastries and mosquito spray, and an ATM for some more cash. The close bakery was not yet open, but we found another and bought a small selection of pastie- like pastries, but had no luck on the mosquito spray front, and were back at the hotel by 7.30 to find our car waiting. We tried to make a deal with the front desk for the mosquito spray they had loaned us, but they suggested asking our driver. After two tries, our driver located some spray, but the deviation cost us 15 minutes we could ill-afford.

Traffic was heavy but moving, with lots of motor bikes weaving through the gaps. The route took us under the approaches to the new bridge and along the east shore of the gulf, on what must have been the main road until the bridge was completed. To our left were ship yards and marine operations, and fleets of trawlers rafted up out on the water. At the end of the gulf we passed through a large town Passo (?) before crossing a low divide to the southern shore, and carried on with the sea on our right. Traffic had thinned, and we were making reasonable time, getting to the ferry terminal about 8.20.

Our driver dropped us at the terminal with no instructions or help at the ticket office, so we were left on our own. There was a group of about twenty people crowded around two ticket offices, one either side of the terminal. We didn’t want to go to Banda, so somehow got the information that we should go to the right ticket booth, and Dianne lined up (more or less, a better description would be joined the melee), and got to the head of the line surprisingly quickly, only to find out, after some exchanges in English and Indonesian, that she was in the wrong line, and had to start again at the other booth. For those who read signs, there was a notice above this booth setting out fares to Amahai, our destination.

We got two tickets (115,000 each) with Pryor 1 and Pryor 2 scrawled on them, and made our way to the dock where three ferries were loading. Boarding with all our baggage was interesting, with a single entrance door well below the wharf level, and a cleated gang plank projecting well above the wharf deck, but we managed without injury or loss of gear.

By now the boat was full, particularly the forward ekonomi section, so we had to haul our bags along aisles crowded with baggage, through two compartments to find some baggage space near the forward bulkhead, and some bum-space for one cheek on a cargo hatch on the foredeck, and room on the deck for one to sit among the mooring ropes. We were a bit worried about the security of our gear below, but we had the important items with us and didn’t want to lose our deck location.

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We were under way about 9AM, more-or-less on time, and the 20 knot breeze over the bow kept us pretty cool under the hazy sun. There were a few people who spoke English, one girl a student in Ambon going home for the weekend.

Normally the boat is direct, but apparently on Saturdays it stops at a small village (Tuhaha?) on Pulau Saparua. This was a bit of an ordeal, as the sun had come out fully, and there was no breeze in the shelter of the bay. The girl we were talking to deployed her raindrop-decorated umbrella, which reminded us to do the same, and we managed to survive half an hour in the sun with no breeze, though we were sweating profusely.

We both managed a catnap or two on the final run into Amahai, but by the time we arrived, and got off through the crowded, sweltering cabins we were very hot and bothered. The port complex was obviously a long way from the city. As our instructions for catching a bemo were to get a car to the city bus station in Masohi (6kms away) and then a bemo from there to the village of Saleman and then a speed boat, we were easily seduced in to taking a car possibly all the way for 1,000,000 or to Saleman for 600,000 and then a 400,000 speedboat. Our selected driver had almost no English, and even though we were on the same page, it took a lot of discussion, writing of numbers, calling in outside help, before both parties were satisfied we had a deal. Part of the difficulty was the word for speedboat, but that was sorted by Dianne finding prahu (boat) in our mini-dictionary. All was going smoothly, and we were halfway through the city when Dianne found a dictionary app on the IPad, and showed our driver some translation. This confused him so much, he did a U-turn and headed back into the city to find his “brother” who spoke English. He was located at a kiosk which seemed to be a depot for motorbike taxis. The “brother” turned out to be a friend, but close enough. He spoke good English, redefined the terms to everyone’s satisfaction, gave us his number for the return trip, and we set off.

The city was a fair size, and had at least one substantial hotel, in case we needed to overnight on the return, and looked clean and well set out. The two lane tarred road was in excellent condition, and we made good time across the coastal plain and up into the mountains. The mountains were steep and covered in rain forest, with all sorts of creepers hanging from the trees, and what looked like banana, coffee and cocoa plants on anything vaguely level. Views off to the left side showed deep valleys and rugged mountains, difficult to photograph through the roadside vegetation.

As we climbed higher, the driver shut down the AC and opened the windows, to save power for the steep slopes, which was OK, but he didn’t turn it back on when we were on the downhill run. Towards the top of the range, road conditions deteriorated, with frequent diagonal slumps of the road surface, and the odd bite out of the road due to landslides. In several places there were major scars above the road from recent landslides. After the road split to go left to Saleman, the condition deteriorated, and we were reduced to walking pace at times.

Saleman Village was a collection of small cottages with a concrete road running through. The locals seemed to be expecting us, so we paid off our driver, and followed two locals across a bridge over a substantial creek to the beach, where several banana boats and one fibreglass runabout were moored. To our surprise, the runabout was the selection, so we took off our shoes and climbed aboard, sitting on a bench either side with our bags. There was a delay while more petrol in a plastic bottle was procured, and set up behind the driver’s seat with a filter and thin plastic tube dropped into it. There were already several half-full petrol containers. Maybe each driver has his own petrol?

The boat was an interesting combination of control from the outboard at the back, and control from the driver’s seat, with a steering wheel so loose it looked about to fall off at any moment, and a worn out throttle/ gear shift, but it all sort-of worked. When we took off, it was with a rush. We don’t know if our driver was late for tea, whether he thought that there was bad weather coming in, or whether the boat handled the choppy water better at speed, but the ride was very rough and noisy, and we had to hang on grimly to avoid being thrown out of the boat. The chop increased as we got further out, and the violent motion of the boat increased with it. Murray thinks the boat was too short and flat to handle rough water, particularly with very slack steering, and the driver having to drive with one hand while he manipulated the fuel feed as the engine faltered.

Just as we arrived off Lisar Bahari Guest House, the motor died as we were approaching the dock, and we nearly drifted into one of the stilt houses while our driver sorted out the gears and throttle to allow local control from the outboard tiller. It wasn’t too hard for us to agree that we’d go home the long way, using the road the whole way, and avoiding another “speedboat” ride!
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Our host was on the dock when we disembarked. The guesthouse consists of about four different buildings, each with about 8 bedrooms in them, and all connected by walkways. He led us to the front room in the furthest overwater building. Prime position, in a very well ventilated room, with 3-metre bamboo clad walls and no ceiling below a high pitched palm thatched roof, and an attached bathroom with tiled lower walls and waterproof wallpaper above. We think the water in the shower is salt, but aren’t game to taste it to find out. The bed is large and fairly firm, but suffers from the tropical problem of no top sheet. Others may find this satisfactory, but it leaves us nervous about midnight insect attack. Fortunately we have a single silk sleeping bag liner and Dianne’s sarong, so we make do.
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We are the only ones in this building – it would not be as good if the other rooms were occupied, as there is no soundproofing because the rooms are only separated by a 3-metre bamboo wall, which stops well short of the roof.

In the afternoon, we meet a Dutch couple, Chris and Maria who are also staying here. They came first class, down the stern on the same boat as us, so we didn’t meet. They have a woman guide, and took a car from the boat all the way by road to the village, arriving a fair bit later than us, illustrating that a fast, uncomfortable boat trumps a slow, comfortable car. We ended up having snacks on their verandah which segued into the evening meal of ikan (fish), rice, beans with soy bean pieces which tasted a bit like meat, and condiments for those not faint hearted. The Kopi (coffee) is ground coffee powder used like instant coffee, tastes pretty good with a fair helping of sugar, and reported as safe because all the water used is rain water collected from a roof, presumably not thatched.

We discuss travel, the ways of the world, the European migration problem, Australian scary animals till late, before hitting the sack about 11 PM. There was a late storm, with light rain, and not much wind, but it cooled things down. We met Midun, the son of Mr Ali, who has fair English, and arranged for a full day boat trip tomorrow (800,000Rp), mainly snorkeling, and paid for the boat and three days accommodation (60,000Rp per night including three meals plus afternoon tea) to slim down our money belt a bit.

Electricity is by generator, and only comes on when it is dark, so we have to make sure we do all our charging when it is on. In spite of the humidity we managed a good night’s sleep without any annoying insects, apart from the prolonged (at least quarter of an hour) 5AM prayer drifting across the water from the next village, and various boat motors revving up from just before light.

Sunday 9th April Sawai Village, Seram Island, Maluku, Indonesia
We are up at about 7AM for a breakfast of omelette and halved sweet bread buns, plus coffee for Murray, water for Dianne. We assemble our considerable pile of snorkelling gear, put the clothes and towels in the waterproof sack, wait for the Dutch couple and their guide to depart in the fibreglass prahu with the roof before we get into our large open dugout canoe with a 40HP outboard. Supposed to start at 9am, but close to 9.30am by the time we get away. The canoe moves nicely in the still morning sea, and we are glad we are not in another “speedboat”. Our course takes us a long way north before we swing around a point with small lagoon waves breaking on it, and learn that we will be looking at the river, if that’s what we want. The Salawai River looks pretty big, winding through palm-covered wetlands with a massive mountain for a backdrop. As the river narrows, the vegetation gets thicker, with large palms along the river, dense jungle behind, and occasional very large pandanus, up to 20-metres high, with prop roots fanning out from halfway up. In the narrower section of the river, we catch up with the other boat from the guest house, and proceed as far as a steel and concrete road bridge.
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We were surprised how few birds we saw, which was very unusual for this sort of setting. May have something to do with the fact that on Saturday on the way up we saw at least four groups of people walking along the road with a large shotgun over their shoulder.

At the bridge there is a collection of primitive processing plants for extracting sago flour from the crushed and shredded trunks of sago palms which grow here in abundance. The flour which is flushed out with river water is strained through a synthetic mesh and settled in a large box lined with plastic. The processing section is ingeniously fabricated from two half-conical palm frond bases fitted together at the large ends, with water introduced at one small end, and the sago flour slurry exits the other small end to the settling box.

The finished product is stored damp in about 50 kg sacks, looks like an easy target for mould and fermenting, but apparently it lasts up to a year if dried. The bags are only worth 6 to 8 dollars when there is a surplus, which isn’t a lot for a lot of hard yakka, but this is what subsistence is all about.

After looking at the sago operation, we turn around and return to the river estuary, then cut across to the south side where there is a coconut plantation, and rejoin the other boat. The staff climb some pretty tall palms to cut down bunches of green nuts, some of which smash on landing, but the intact ones are kept for drinking later. Using a very sharp panga, our guide fashions spoons which we use to gouge out the thin coating of semi-sweet pulp from the inside of a broken nut. While we were there a local boy turns up with a coca bean cut in halves to expose the fleshy casing with an orange skin, and internal beans looking similar to the arrangement of seeds inside a mangosteen.

Here we part company with the other boat and head out away from the coast to find an isolated reef where we anchor and get into our full kit of Lycra suit, bootees, mask and snorkel, and go over the side, rather than use the wooden ladder pulled from under the bow locker. The water is coolish, but a relief from the sun and heat on deck. Murray is using the bootees originally for Dianne, because his bootees were left in Australia.

The reef is pretty healthy, but is mainly in shades of green, without too many other colours. We are breaking in our masks and fins as well as the new waterproof SJ 4000 cam (our $180 Chinese version of the Gopro), so it is a pretty experimental snorkel. It is hard to see the small screen on the camera when it is pointing down because of surface reflection, so our photographic technique is mainly point and shoot. Transitioning from photo to video also takes some getting used to, so we are not expecting a great result when we get back to process the photos. After about an hour in the water, we get back into the boat, and head for a nearby island for lunch. During the time we were in the water the breeze had picked up, and was now pushing up towards 20 knots, so by the time we set up on wooden reclining benches beside our picnic table we have to hold onto our plates to stop them blowing away. Quite a few locals were picnicking on the island, and a group of girls, dressed with black headcoverings, came over to talk to us. They only knew one word in English – “selfie?”.` We obliged, and they took photos of us with them. Some “culture” is universal!
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While still in his Lycra suit, Murray walked along the beach in the shallows to find some seclusion, and finds the water almost hot enough to make a cup of tea. Lunch took a long while to come together, but the result was good. We started off with two grilled fish, a red snapper and some sort of reef fish. The snapper was moist and tasty, but the reef fish was very strange, almost tasteless and with a powdery texture. Murray decided not to try a second bite, indicated to our guide and cook that it was not OK, and we got another large trevally style fish with taste and texture, and very few bones, too dry for Dianne, but just right for Murray. With the fish we got the usual massive serving of rice, plus a noodle and cabbage salad and cholo-cholo which went well with the rice and was not too spicy. To drink, we had a coconut each – must have held a litre of coconut water, plus coffee and tea and mineral water.

After lunch we went not far from the island to find a reef with a drop-off into deep water, and a shallow plateau above the drop-off with lots of soft coral. The reef was more damaged here, but had more fish, and a lot more coral varieties, including gorgonians, tube worms, large black sponges, small yellow sponges, and some colourful mystery items, some of which looked a bit like mushrooms, and others like flower heads. Dianne spent a lot of effort filming a bommie with a large variety of corals in many colours – a single photo didn’t show the incredible variety on it, but the video did. In the shallower water we see some clams, including a massive one in greenish camouflage colours – probably the only reason it was still there. Murray’s mask proved less misty this time, but was painful across the lip, so we need to look harder at beard trimming so we don’t have to have the straps so tight.

CAMERA
Seram Island

After the snorkel, our driver was heading back to the other boat to get some interpreter service from their guide, but we decided we had had enough and headed for home across rough water, with the round bottomed dugout rolling severely in the waves, and throwing up sheets of spray which kept us drenched all the way home. We got back after 3pm for a cold salt water shower, then loaded the results from the camera to the computer and took a rest before afternoon tea.

After a well-earned rest, we get dressed, then check out a major commotion in the village to the west of us. A large group of men is involved in getting a large, heavy wardrobe into a stilt house which is quite close to the shore, but still has a short gangway, and a narrow deck on the side of the house leading to the main entrance. The situation has a lot of “right, said Fred” about it. The wardrobe has been carried down the road on its back by about 8 men, and the commotion caused when they set it down outside the house to consider their options is what first alerted us to a colourful incident in the making. While the movers are sizing up the gangway, the side deck, the height of the roof eaves hanging out over the deck, another dozen men lounging on the sea wall are offering unwanted advice. It is finally decided that the wardrobe is too tall to miss the roof, so it will have to be moved on the flat of its back. They managed to get it across the gangway to the house deck, but the deck is less than half the width of the load, so, even with a wooden beam under the outside, it will fall into the water unless some heroes can be found to walk in the water, about waist high, and support half the weight of the load above their head. Two volunteers get a cheer from the peanut gallery, but they are not enough to support the load, so more are required.

We would have loved to take photos or video, but decided it unwise, particularly if there is an accident and people are hurt, drowned or just embarrassed. When we came back later, the wardrobe was not to be seen, so presumably made it into the house.
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We walked through the village, surprised how large it was, how many alleys and streets, and how many kids. The people were generally friendly, and the kids were trying out their school English. The village definitely had a nice feel to it, and it was remarkably clean, apart from the usual gutters and drains full of horrors. It had concrete paths everywhere, which helped keep it clean. It also had a fresh-water spring at the foot of the hill, which was collected in a concrete pool which kids and men used to bathe in. There was a concrete channel off this, with tiled benches, which went as far as the sea, and the thumbnail.large.2029.1492102907.38-washing-and-bathing-sawai-village

women were using this to wash clothes and bathe – a very practical arrangement for a village clinging to the steep shoreline. We walked down a side street to emerge at what looked like a public dock, then out the far side and the main road, with a viciously steep and rough last hundred metres into the town. After reaching the top of the climb, beside the school complex, the road improved to a well-made bitumen surface, leading past houses on the steep hillside, and more stilt houses down in a river estuary. On the other side of the river is what has to be a resort with over-water accommodation.

There are large steel tapered poles lying beside the road, and holes excavated for them. It looks like 24 hour electricity may be on its way to the village. We walk until the road enters the jungle proper, hear a few birds, but see none. On the way back we see a sign for Oanain Munina Guest House. Dianne had seen information on this but there were no reviews, so we decided on Lisar Bahari, which has been around for a long time. We walk down the driveway, and find a newish overwater Guest House. Get to talk to the Chinese owner, who lets us into one of the rooms for a look. The rooms are the same price as Lisar Bahari, but look bigger, better appointed, and newer, with a lovely verandah looking out over the water. Being further away from the village would have the plus of, hopefully, being quieter. In the village you hear everything that goes on – from music and conversations late at night, the 5am mosque (though that is so loud at 5am, for at least quarter of an hour, that you couldn’t escape it anywhere in the bay), and outboard motors starting up at any time during the night, and especially early morning.

Back in the village, Dianne goes on a Coke search, finally finds one which has mini-cans, and a fridge, with a couple in the fridge. Only problem was that as electricity is only on at night, they weren’t that cold. Dianne buys twos anyway, and carries out fractured instructions via a schoolboy to the effect that if you have put more Coke in the fridge, she will come back tomorrow and buy more.
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Back at the rooms, we edit underwater photos and kill time waiting for our evening meal of fish, rice, salad, and banana-flavoured pastries. By now the wind has dropped, and we hang out drenched in sweat, waiting for the occasional breath of breeze. Just on dark, the sand flies come out, so you can’t go shirtless, but later it is possible, and a great relief.

Murray has had enough salt water for the day, but Dianne showers before bed. Later in the night she abandons our room for one of the empty ones down the corridor, returning at dawn to avoid being pinged.

Have an example of how the brain adapts – Dianne was woken by the usual very extended 5am call to prayer. Went back to sleep, and dreamt she was at a very bad concert. Dreamt someone else left it, and she was plucking up the courage to get up and walk out too.

Monday 9th April Sawai Village, Seram Island, Maluku, Indonesia
Today we have settled for a half-day snorkelling trip, starting at 8AM to beat the breeze which comes up later in the day. We are sharing the boat with a “German” tourist who later turns out to be a Frenchman. We are up early to assemble our snorkelling gear, putting in extra sun protection as Murray’s Lycra suit is getting pretty threadbare, but don’t take the wetsuit as it looks like being heavily overcast. We manage to get our fried egg with sweet bread breakfast just before eight, and are sitting waiting on the dock by eight. Jerome, the Frenchman, is from Paris, just near the end of a five week Indonesian holiday. He sports the classic patchy tanned feet of the traveller. We leave on time (Island), heading west for Ora Beach, passing some good scenery with cliffs dropping into the water, and micro-beaches with palm trees below the cliffs. We pass an interesting patch of green water with a small platform and a thatched shelter, and carry on past over-water accommodation to the jetty off the clean coral sand of the upmarket Ora thumbnail.large.2029.1492102907.24-landscape-near-sawai

Beach Resort. The place looks pretty good, with a good coral garden right at the wharf, deep water with a drop-off not far out, palm trees and rain forest behind the beach, and over-water accommodation at the west end of the beach. There is a flash restaurant over-water at the wharf, and we look forward to investigating, but we are told there is a 25,000 visiting fee, which isn’t a lot, but our Frenchman had left his money behind, and didn’t seem to want to snorkel here. At this stage we didn’t know he was only travelling for five weeks, and thought he may have been on an extended trip with little money, so didn’t push the point, which we quickly regretted.

We headed out to sea, looking for the offshore reef with a steep drop-off near Pulau Raja. We used a reef pick to anchor on the seaward and windward slope of the drop-off, and geared up. Because it was heavily overcast, Murray decided to go with his threadbare Lycra suit, without a T-shirt over. We had decided against using the wet suit, but after an hour in the water, it seemed like a good idea.

We headed north along the drop-off, with Dianne taking plenty of photos, and Murray still trying to stop the fogging of his mask, a different one from yesterday – this one with a valve in the nose piece to easily expel leakage. This worked OK, but every time he pressurised the mask to blow out the leakage, the mask fogged up from breath moisture. Masks are a work-in-progress still, but by flooding the mask, at least he could get an idea just how good the visibility was. On the way back to the boat, we covered the shallower part of the reef, but found ourselves pretty close to breaking surf, so headed back to deeper water.
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We were in for just on an hour, long enough for Murray to get pretty cold. Saw a lot of familiar stuff, the odd bit of new, and Dianne became more familiar with using the camera. It was definitely better than yesterday’s snorkeling, with much more colour.

About now Dianne finds she has her swimmers inside-out – the sort of thing that happens when you dress in a dark room with only one small window, and no electricity.

From here we moved back towards home, stopping at the small beach and platform we passed on the way out. This site was a combination of a shallow shelf with a sandy beach, and a vertical drop-off disappearing into the blue. We checked out the shelf, then swam west along the drop-off, getting closer to the undercut vertical cliffs, being careful not to get too close as the waves, now up to a metre, were slapping up under the overhang. We did our classic “let’s just go to see what is around the next point” exercise, and found our way around at least three points to where the shelf widened out, but by then we were well out of contact with our boat and the other swimmer, so returned along the drop-off, then into the shallow water near the platform. Interesting sightings were a barracuda, a pale blue ray with narrow wing span, but a very long tail, some excellent gorgonians, a possible stone fish, or something very similar, a large yellow pipe fish, and colourful sponges. Definitely a worthwhile snorkel.

Returned to the boat after an hour in the water, but staff were taking it very easy on the platform, so we did another forty minutes snorkelling on the shelf, then called it a day, as we were close to home, our half-day was nearly up, and the sea was getting rougher.

Lunch consisted of a large bowl of warm rice, a vegetable soup, noodle salad and another trevally look-alike fish, grilled, but this time smothered in a spicy sauce. The fish was cold, but well cooked, and most of the cholo-cholo came off with the skin, so we had plenty of fish.

After lunch, we had a well-earned sleep, then dressed and headed out to try for a photo of cloves drying, as Dianne had seen this on her earlier expedition for Coke, but by the time we got there, it was spitting rain, and the cloves had been put away. We took a swing past the washing ghat and bathing pool, convinced the women to let us take a photo or two, then carried on to the end of town, getting a photo request from a man with a baby, and another couple of workmen shaping a curve in a timber plank, using a machete for the finer trimming work.

We climbed up to the collection of green buildings on a terrace above the town. It looked like some kind of school, possibly a boarding school. We’ve also seen two other schools near or in this one village. From here we took photos over the town and up along the cliffs. Further east, we took photos of the villages across the bay, then returned to the guest house ahead of the rain which threatened, but came to very little. The wind was coming in strongly from the north, with waves a metre trough to crest, and in the distance we could see swathes of falling rain, but it all passed to the north. About 5pm, our belated afternoon tea of chocolate covered banana fritters turned up while we were editing diving photos and writing the diary. Dianne was finding ants continually appearing from inside the Acer computer, and had previously had them all in her handbag which she had left on the floor. Soon after, the wind had dropped completely and the sand-flies turned up in force. Murray put up with them last night, but tonight applied repellent which seemed to work. Dianne repaired to the room, which, while pitch dark, was relatively sand-fly free.

Our evening meal arrives about 7.30 – fried squid pieces, fried tofu, vegetable soup, a big bowl of rice, and bananas for dessert. The meal was spicy, but not savagely so. After dinner we did a certain amount of packing, as we won’t have electricity in the morning. We were joined by our host, Midun, who set up his laptop and played videos of the area around the Guest House, including the river cruise, and Manusela National Park with the tree house in the canopy. Dianne had read a blog with one line talking about this treehouse, but had found no other mention of it, so asked Midun about it, so he showed us pictures of the platform, and the system of getting up there, which was enough to convince us that we didn’t want to do it. Apart from the savage expense ($190 for two to go up or $270 for two to sleep the night) the idea of being pulled 45 metres in the air by a group of men pulling on a climbing rope which was state of the art in 2003, using American technology, was not enticing. Going 14 metres up a yacht mast with two separate rope systems, automatic jammers and geared winches is enough of a risk for Murray.

We settled our bill, paying two thirds (334,000Rp) of the 500,000Rp half-day snorkel trip, and Dianne mentioned casually if we could borrow a torch to search the trees above the village for cuscus, as Midun told her it was possible to see them around here at night. Not only did we get a torch, but we got a torchman, plus more torchmen and hangers-on. Quite an expedition up to the west end of the island, along rickety and slippery gang planks to beyond the last house, and over slippery rocks to the beach at the end of the island. Murray had the camera and our head torch, which was a bit weak for the job when there was a lot of ambient light, but was handy negotiating the gangplanks and rough paths. We ended up patrolling almost the full length of the mountain slope behind the village, even climbing up through the grave yard, but no cuscus.

Back at the Guest House we tipped our torchbearer 50,000 for his trouble and called it a night, heading back to the room to pack for our 110,000 each car public transport in the morning at 7.30 (nominal).

It had been a bit of an expedition to get here, but we’re definitely glad we did it. Lisar Bahari Guest House may be showing its age a bit, and be a bit basic, but this is more than made up for by the great position – over-the-water, with coral, tropical fish and even a turtle, visible from the verandah; a colourful village behind, and a steep jungle-clad mountain above it, and very helpful staff.

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