Saturday, 10 September 2011

Labuan Bajo – Lombok

5 -10 September 2011
When we upped anchor and left Labuan Bajo the plan had been to sail straight through to Medana Beach on North Lombok with the trip planned to take two and a bit days including two nights. We headed straight out to sea well clear of the islands of the Komodo National Park to avoid the tricky currents that are common around the three major straights in the area that connect the Pacific and Indian Oceans. The water here is extremely deep but there are a number of huge under sea mountains, so when the water rushes through from one ocean to the other with the tides these underwater obstructions generate some really weird eddies and back currents.

This was as close as we got to Komodo Island this trip

As it turned out we ended up with a strong current pushing us along and surprisingly a 15 knots wind kicked in so we made a lot better progress than anticipated. For the first night, luck of the draw saw Rob with the midnight to three am watch with Karen following on from there so we headed to bed early to try to get some rest before hand but with the boat getting pretty rollie in a partially beam sea it was pretty much a forlorn hope. More so when all of a sudden about 9.30pm the wind unexpectedly whipped up to 25-30 knots in an instant and caught us totally overpowered with full main and headsail out. We were quickly on deck to help get things reefed down and back under control.
Taking over at midnight Rob enjoyed a pretty good sail for almost all of his watch and then the wind disappeared almost as quickly as it had arrived. So much so that he furled away the headsail completely and started motoring just before Karen took over for three hours of chug chug. Even so when dawn broke we were far further along than planned which provided its own dilemma. If we kept going for Lombok we’d arrive at our anchorage at Medana Beach Marina in the early hours of the following day and have to negotiate our way in through the reefs in the dark. Not a good idea so Milin came up with plan B and just after lunch we anchor up in the lee of the delightful little island of Palua Madang in an extremely remote area just off the north coast of Sumbawa.
There’s a very small fishing village on the island and we were quickly approached by some young locals in canoes. Good news for us, they had just been diving for lobsters. One guy in particular was very keen to talk purely to improve his English. His pronunciation and grammar were surprisingly good for such an isolated place but it was his vocabulary which was pretty limited. What he could say he said well but struggled at times to be able to convey all he would of liked to say.
While we were quick to offer to buy some lobsters he was able to explain that money wasn’t much use to him as there was nothing he could buy on the island. The village was very poor, with no electricity or any of the services we take for granted. There’s was a subsistence way of life. He would rather barter goods for the lobsters. What he really wanted was an Indonesian-English dictionary so he could further improve his English. He explained that better English meant better chance of moving to a bigger community and getting a job. Unfortunately it wasn’t something we had had the foresight to bring so we couldn’t help him. He then pointed to his very threadbare shirt and said “T-shirt”. No problem there. Rob grabbed a good clean one out of the cabin and we had a fresh lobster on board. Then our friend pointed to Rob’s sunglasses. Still no problem. He couldn’t have Rob’s prescription pair but we did have a brand new pair of Oakley knock offs in the cabin amongst our spares and another two of the tasty crustaceans came aboard in exchange. How good is this. We then wondered what it was going to take to secure the one nice example remaining in the bottom of the canoe when he again pointed to Rob’s head and said “Hat”.  Absolutely no problem here as Rob’s very sun bleached cap came straight of his head and onto our new friend’s. For all of our drag racing friends reading the blog, we bet you would of never thought you could get a beautiful fresh lobster dinner for a Willowbank Raceway cap. We did eat well that night. Four lobsters for one second hand t-shirt, a very second hand cap and one $5 pair of knock off sun glasses.
In all honesty we would of much rather given this young guy, so keen to improve his life, the dictionary that could of helped. Before he left, we even asked if we could post him one when we could get it but he explained there was no postal service to the area. If we ever sail this way again we will be making sure we have a supply of these life changing books on board as everywhere we’ve been in Indonesia language skills have equated to increased opportunities. Our Palua Madang experience was an eye opener. Here in this land of millions, where every second person seems to have a mobile phone and the most modest hut a satellite TV dish outside, there are still communities like this one where money is of little value because it won’t buy anything without a full day’s or more canoe travel to a market.
On Nae Hassle the master cabin is located in the stern, just below the cockpit. As Colin and Milin regularly head to bed early, in the evening we three crew often lock up the companion way and retire to the bow with a bottle of wine and chat there rather than disturb the bosses. Rob and Karen have the port side cabin in the bow while Marc has the starboard. Being a big 57 footer, both are  very comfortable and much larger than you would usually find on a yacht. Both also have a large hatch in the deck above the bunk through which we emerge on to the bow for evening chill out time.
If you can envisage the sight of a head emerging from the deck, looking around 360 degrees to see if anyone’s about to be followed by another doing the same on the other side of the boat before said heads disappear again to grab a bottle, plastic cups etc and then re-emerge you will understand why we’ve nicknamed the bow “Meerkat Manor”.  Us three meerkats now regularly emerge from our burrows and spend many a very pleasant hour discussing philosophy and solving the woes of the world while enjoying the tropical evenings under a sky full of brilliant stars. If only we could remember next morning all the solutions we came up with the night before.
Anyway, a much enjoyed good night’s sleep was followed by a leisurely departure about 9.30am but again Milin’s passage plan came unstuck as, with no tidal assistance and only an hour or so under sail with a weak land breeze before the engine came back on, we hadn’t left ourselves enough hours of daylight to reach Medana Marina. Time to find another anchorage for the night. We settled in behind another small island, Gili Lawang, this time off the north east coast of Lombok. On the mainland we could see the reasonably big towns of Koloh Sepang and Dasan Baru but on this occasion no one came near us. Unfortunately no lobster for dinner tonight.

Gili Lawang anchorage

We departed early next morning for the run across the north of Lombok and it’s coastline constructed of thousands of years of black lava flows from the volcanos that tower above all in the centre of the island. Once again the early land breeze faded quickly and we had to resort to internal combustion power to aid the flaccid mainsail. It was a pleasant but fairly unremarkable morning passage but, as only Murphy’s Law can predict, within minutes of furling away the main to head inshore through the coral surrounded channel the wind began to blow. With gusts regularly reaching over 25 knots the sea soon became a world of short, sharp chop and white caps as far as the eye can see. Not ideal reef spotting conditions to say the least.
Nae Hassle is equipped with a great array of electronic navigation aids including GPS chart plotters etc but it has to be remembered that these wonderful electronic charts have been developed directly off the good old paper versions. In Indonesia many of these were originally charted by the Dutch well over a century, or in some cases, two centuries ago. We have regularly found islands and reefs to be half a nautical mile from there shown position so obviously the nearer the coast we get, the more careful we are. Fortunately on this occasion the chart proved to be fairly accurate and with the latest electronics backed up by good old Mark One eyeballs we were able to pick our way through and anchor up in time lunch. Murphy did have one last twist for us though as after being blown all over the place getting the anchor down and hooked in nice and firm, no more than five minutes later the wind dropped out completely again. It seems the Irish Legislator just likes playing with us.

Nae Hassle anchored offshore at Medana Beach Marina
The Medana Beach Marina is actually a fairly lose use of the title marina. It is actually a fairly tight bay lined by reefs which dry at low tide with a collection of mooring buoys closely bunched near the beach. With almost all the moorings already occupied we took the safer option of anchoring out a little further with plenty of room to swing. It also better suited our Scottish skipper’s character as we then didn’t have to pay an $8 a day mooring fee.
We enjoyed a casual afternoon ashore and backed it up with an even more laid back time visiting a nearby resort the next day. Visitors like us could use the pool and other facilities as long as we had a meal at the poolside bar. Cold beer, great food, free wifi AND a fantastic pool for a salt free swim or five, sheer heaven.
Lombok is a large island we have been very much looking forward to exploring so on Wednesday morning we headed up to the ATM in the nearby township by the local pony and cart taxi service to top up the cash reserves before heading off. The six kilometre round trip took about an hour and cost less than $3 each. It was a real experience as trucks, cars and untold motor scooters wound their way around our trotting pony and little cart on the main coastal road.
The population here is predominantly Muslim and while not as hectic and crowded as Bali, the island has certainly embraced the tourist dollar with a lot of development over the last decade or so. It’s becoming increasing popular though with much of their marketing describing Lombok as “like Bali 20 years ago.” The catch 22 is that if they’re successful with their campaigns, Lombok may soon be “just like Bali now.”

Karen grabs aTaxi Lombok style

Just nearby to our anchorage are the three perfect coral islands, fringed with white sand and swaying palm trees laying in sparkling clear waters off the north west coast. Over recent years the Gilis have been come very popular with western backpackers and visitors looking for something beyond the Bali experience. Gili simply means small island but these three are a bit special and have become known collectively as the Gilis. There are no cars or motorbikes on the island and other than walking the only form of transport is by pony and cart known locally as cidomo. (ch-id-o-mo)
All three islands have developed separately and have their own character and style. Gili Air is the closest to the mainland and has the largest population of local people. It also has a good anchorage and many of the Rally boats chose to stop here rather than at Medana Beach. With good restaurants, great snorkelling, diving and even a good surf break why not.
Gili Trawangan is the largest and furthest away but most famous of the three with a reputation as a party island. Popular with the younger crowd there is no shortage of bars, clubs, watersports of all varieties and accommodations options ranging from cheap home-stays to up market 5 star resorts.
In the middle, Gili Meno is the smallest, with lowest population and least developed. This is where we decided to spend a few relaxing days getting away from it all before heading off for some exploring on the main island and what a good choice it was. The island has a laid back, castaway feel with small restaurant bars and beach hut accommodation. We stayed at the “Malias Child” in a nice little hut literally on the beach and only five metres from the high water mark for the equivalent of $45 a night including breakfast. This was actually one of the dearest places on the island but we couldn’t go past the location. Their restaurant also featured private bamboo pavilions built over the beach in which we were served a great range of Indonesian or western style food while we reclined with a cool drink on plush cushions gazing on the unbelievable scenery and, much to Rob’s delight, a never ending parade of skimpy, bikini clad backpackers passing by. (Not that Karen wasn’t also enjoying the equivalent stream of fit, young six pack equipped travellers)

Now that's what we call a seafood restaurant
Forty metres down the beach was another similarly laid out resto which has the most amazing seafood bbq at night. Take your choice of big, whole fish, hige prawns, fresh squid or an array of fish steaks and fillets. Karen chose a huge marlin steak while Rob went for a very big, whole squid which were both beautifully bbq’d on the spot and served with a baked potato, whole bbq’d corn cob plus salad. Throw in a few drinks and the bill was $19.
We needed the two and half walk circumnavigating the island next morning to wear some of our excesses off. We were really pleased to find out Gili Meno is a sea turtle sanctuary with an active program where turtle nests are guarded by locals and when the hatchlings dig their way to the surface from deep in the sand they are taken and raised in protection to a larger size more likely to survive before they are released to the wild.

Turtle bath time as they and their pond are cleaned
As recently as 2007 there was a problem with Chinese poachers who reportedly took over 150 mature turtles and an estimated 10,000 eggs from the area. As Karen’s favourite sea creature is the leatherback turtle she was delighted to be able to get up close and personal as one group of little turtles went through bath time with each shell lightly scrubbed with a brush before their pond was thoroughly cleaned and filled with fresh sea water.
Life is good on Gili Meno.We’re supposed to head off exploring more of Lombok tomorrow but it may be hard to leave our latest piece of paradise. Whatever happens, we need to be back on Nae Hassle on the 14th to head for Bali. Time, and the next episode of our blog, will tell.

Cooling off on Gili Meno - Life is good.
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