the journey


September 26, 2009

Story location: Kumai, Kalimantan region of Indonesia, Borneo

You know when you experience something really incredible and you try to take photos to show your friends how amazing it was and then you find yourself telling stories about it. And once you're finished telling the story you realize its not nearly as good as the experience itself and finally you just have to say, "I guess you had to be there". Struggling to find words to accurately express our three days on the river in Tanjung Puting National Park with the orangutans is one of those times I realize it would be better to say, "you just had to be there". But since most of you weren't and won't be this will have to do.

We sailed from Bali to Kalimantan, Borneo to see the orangutans. Borneo and Sumatra are the only islands in the world orangutans still live in the wild. To get to the orangutans we traveled by a traditional Indonesian klotok boat, aptly named for the sound the engine makes as they chug up the river.

Met early morning by our blue and white klotok boat named "Sempurna", which means 'perfect' in Indonesian, and our 4 crew: the smiling and flirtatious captain known as the "land crocodile", his assistant with the most brilliant wide-gapped smile and kind heart, the shy and skilled cook who hid when we first arrived, and Eddie, our determined and ever observant guide. We left Dreamkeeper in the safekeeping of our "boat boy", Alpha, who slept on our boat and watched her day and night. Once we stepped on the klotok, we quickly made our new home on the top deck under the welcome shade of the roof, cozying up on two black plastic paco-like pads with gigantic pillows covered with cartoon race cars on them. Throughout our journey we alternated spots between the bow of the boat on the top deck and our mats.

Meandering up wide and narrow stretches of the Sungai Sekonyer river we saw its many colors. We began by traveling up the river through mossy green murky waters past riverbanks lined with pandanas and palms, to waters that changed, swirling cafe-au-lait. The prehistoric pandanas gave way to diverse tangled overgrown jungle. In the first hour the only people we saw were villagers fishing in their small canoes along the banks of the river. We felt like we were really on an adventure. Cicadas hissed as the heat settled heavily upon us. And then somewhere we crossed an invisible line where the coffee river turned clear like a healthy potion of strong dark tea, thick with tannins and crocodiles.

We were headed to Camp Leakey in Tanjung Puting National Park. This is one of the main feeding stations for orphaned or rescued orangutans and was established by Dr. Birute Galdikas in 1971. (She is the mother scientist of orangutans, like Dian Fossey to gorillas and Jane Goodall to chimpanzees.) Stepping off our little blue klotok we clambered over a few more tourist boats and hopped our way onto the pier. After following a long wooden raised walkway and walking through one of the few established paths leading through the forest we wiped rivers of sweat from our faces and listened to the rangers calling the orangutans to the feeding station in a deep ‘EEEuuuuW, EEEuuuuW’. We waited, I was holding my breath as usual when something exciting is about to happen, watching the tops of trees shake and sway until at last we saw our first orangutan.

We stopped and stared, our eyes glowing with joy as we clung to each other smiling. Nothing could really prepare us for this. We don’t usually enjoy seeing wild animals with other tourists and instead are happy to appreciate when some incredible creature crosses our path. But some of our cruiser friends had told us this was the highlight of their entire sailing journey. While we appreciated their enthusiasm, we weren’t sure we’d have the same reaction. We did.

Seeing a patch of orange high above in the trees backlit by the sunlight our hearts raced a bit more and we watched in awe of the orangutan gracefully dancing across the treetops towards the feeding platform. You really have to see them to appreciate their beautifu and lithe, calculatedly cautious movement. They move from tree to tree by climbing high up a tree until it bows towards the next one. Often they will grab whatever leaves on a tiny branch they can and then keep reaching and pulling more and more of the next tree until they have a safe purchase, then they begin shifting limbs without letting go of the safe branch until all three out of four limbs are attached to new tree, and then they continue. Sometimes, if the next tree is too far away for her baby the mother will use her body to make a living bridge for it to scamper across. And then they continue traveling together.

Food is brought to the feeding platforms once a day at scheduled times. The ex-captive and orphaned orangutans can choose to come to supplement their diets when food is scarce in the forests and help them adjust to living in the wild. Only seldom do wild orangutans show up to curiously view the feeding. Once above the feeding platform, the orangutans climbed over a huge trunk of a tall tree or crossed over small vines and climbed up the platform. At the feeding platform they enjoyed a predictable meal of bananas. Each orangutan seemed to have a different method of eating. Some of them used their dexterous hands to peel each banana and put it into their mouths, others just stuffed them in, peel and all and spat out the peels once they had separated them from the fruit. Some ate quickly and greedily and some of them took their time, lazily enjoying the feast.

Watching them through my telephoto lens I often found myself laughing out loud. The mother orangutans we saw seemed to have great patience. We saw many scenes like this: while a mom breastfed her adorable little baby who had hair sticking straight up like she had stuck her fingers in an electric socket, her adopted son stepped and climbed all over her so he could get a perfect spot in a tree. She continued to eat and feed her baby unperturbed and only became irritated, pushing her child's hand away after he was a bit too greedy with his wants for bananas. The entire thing reminded me of a typical day that my friends might be having at home with their kids.

At least 8 different orangutans came down to feed while we were at the Camp Leakey station. Our faces hurt from smiling so much. We stood watching, feeling blessed to be in their presence and awestruck by our similarities. We waited until well after four hoping for a visit of the dominant male, Tom. We knew he was coming when the other orangutans quickly melted back into the forest, hoping to escape Tom's tenacious advances to mate or his challenge to the younger males in his territory. Sauntering to the platform, he knew his place as king of the forest. Watching him walk on all fours we could feel his power, his hanging throat pouch almost shook like a fat man's. He seemed regal and had a supremely confident and commanding presence and had much more hair on his back than Gar. Beautiful and strikingly powerful, male orangutans are said to be 8 times more powerful than a man. He sat at the platform, comfortably eating fistfuls of bananas. His method was to put them in his mouth peel and all and spit out what he didn’t like. Sometimes, he would just stare at us sticking out his mouthful of banana like a tongue. Again, I couldn't help but giggle.

The heat began to lift as the sun slipped beyond the forest. Mosquitos buzzed and the whine of cicadas reached higher pitches. It was time to return to Sempurna. Motoring down river the forest turned grey to purple and then black. We stopped for the night beside a troop of proboscis monkeys. Taking our evening mandi (shower with buckets of river water) I couldn't help but love this adventure we had chosen. There I was having seen my first semi wild orangutan, taking a bucket bath on a jungle river with crocodiles lining the banks, monkeys in the trees and tropical birds in the forest. And a few fireflies blinked on and off while we ate dinner by candle light on our mats.

We fell asleep under mosquito nets and a thin sheet listening to frogs croaking, cicadas hissing, and proboscis monkeys settling down in their sleeping trees. We awoke throughout the night, clinging to each other shivering under our sheet while listening to the sounds of the monkeys. We could hear them shifting up in the trees and peeing, and pooping. It sounded kind of like a quick light rainstorm once it hit the leaves and cascaded down. Their poops fell heavily through the leaves until it eventually plopped into the river beside us.

Early mornings on the river began dreamily, misty and damp. The proboscis monkeys sleeping above us woke up slowly, well after the birds. Striking blue, turquoise and yellow kingfishers flirted with us and disappeared into the tangle of forest. Ridiculous looking hornbills flew gracelessly with their skinny necks stuck far out and their wings beating loudly.

Once the proboscis monkeys did wake, they never ceased to entertain us. They seem to have no fear of heights as we saw some of them leap fifty feet down grabbing at any branch they could and land, then continuing their journey across river to a feeding tree or some other destination. We were entertained regularly by their skills. One hot steamy morning we watched three leap 40 feet across a narrow stretch of river right before we crossed and land 10 feet from the bank in the river and quickly swim to the side and clamber up and into the trees. (Supposedly they wait until a boat comes by so that the crocs are more likely to be disturbed and they are less likely to get eaten. Smarties! Modern adaptation at its best.)

For three days we walked in the park, went to different feeding grounds, and looked for orangutans. After visiting a really impressive and well tended to tree reforestation project we visited Tanjung Harapan for our final visit with the orangutans. Here the orangutans are semi wild and much more cautious of people. In some ways it seemed we shouldn't have come. A mother with her baby clinging to her chest sat above us making kissing sounds and throwing sticks. A clear sign she didn't want us there. After twenty minutes of watching us all, she eventually decided to climb across the forest and down a tree to the feeding platform. With one hand on the tree and a foot on the platform, she grabbed as many bananas as she could, stuffing a hand of them (about 7-10 bananas) into her mouth, a bundle into her foot, and a few more in her free hand and scampered quickly up into the safety of the trees to eat. Slowly peeling the bananas with her teeth or hands she ate banana after banana. Stopping only to give her baby a bite from her hand.

Their interactions were so tender. Watching her, I was filled with respect. Her strength and vulnerability was so clear and I saw a reflection of myself. It is an honor to share over 95% of our DNA with such graceful, thoughtful, caring animals. And so saddened that we hold their future in our hands.

The orangutans rainforest habitat is shrinking rapidly from the pressures of illegal logging and the slash and burning of rainforest land to plant legal and illegal palm oil plantations.
For this reason, we are boycotting all products made with palm oil. Check these 2 links for more information:
Link 1 Palm Oil
Link 2 Palm Oil

Additionally, their lives are greatly threatened by the illegal trade in orangutan babies as pets. Tragically, unless drastic measures are taken to protect the forests it is estimated that within thirty years orangutans in the wild will be a thing of the past.

We left the orangutans in Tanjung Puting feeling both joyful and heavy, like we might have seen some of the last great apes in their native habitat. Chugging slowly down the river we watched the river change colors again. Purple twilight spread slowly across the horizon and fireflies began their dance. Thousands of them clustered in pandanas trees blinking on and off like layers of dancing stars in the leaves themselves. There were entire firefly cities glowing in different parts of the river. It was pure magic. Watching the fireflies, it was easy to think we had been in the Jungle Book and this was all just a story, a thing of the past. I hope not.

Embracing Bali

August 29, 2009

Story location: Bali, Indonesia

DK nosed through the narrow reef-lined passage leading from the current-swept channel, Selat Badung, into another world. It wasn't just a contrast to where we have been in the last year, it was complete pandemonium! Motoring through the narrow channel leading to the Bali Marina we had entered the busiest and most chaotic piece of water we had been to since Cabo San Lucas. At least 7 jetboats towing para-gliders zipped around us, weather beaten Indonesian fishing boats rumbled alongside, jet skis passed at full speed just arm-lengths away, and the newest tourist attraction to the scene were what we have coined "the magic carpet ride". (Our arrival to Bali deserves a story unto itself, one I will hopefully expand on in a future blog). All of this was happening in a 100 yard or so wide channel with shallow reefs lining the shores where Balinese fisherman lined up to cast their bait into the mix. Our pictures couldn’t do it justice, it was just one of those times on our journey we just looked at each other, shook our heads, kept the boat going forward, and embraced the chaos.

Fifteen minutes later we pulled up alongside the crumbling Bali Marina to be greeted by the smiling and helpful crew that run the facility. What the marina infrastructure lacks in character or warmth, the office guys, security, boat boys, and restaurant workers make up for in spades. We squeezed DK into a barely big enough space between two huge catamaran’s to fuel up, a feat I was quite proud of, then back out again and around the corner to another slip to tie up.

We had made it to Bali!

Bali has been one of destination places for us we have thought of as a marker on our journey. The end of one phase and beginning of the next. We hadn’t tied DK up to a marina or dock since Fiji, about a year before. That’s one whole year living at anchor and on moorings, never leaving our boat for more then 1 day and always ALWAYS on alert for potential problems: dragging anchors, broken moorings, potential rascals, etc... Not only were we at anchor for a year, but also in places like Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, PNG, Palau, and some very remote parts of Indonesia. We have often been truly "out there" on our own and especially in the last 3 months through Indonesia, we have been the ONLY sailing boat we have seen.

So you can imagine the shift going on for us now. Tied up to a marina in a bustling tourist destination, lots of sailing boats around, and Indonesian people who speak English and are used to dealing with tourists. We were both a bit in shock, our world had once again taken a dramatic change and we were both overwhelmed and relieved by it.

We had set up our marina reservation months ahead of time as we were planning on a surprise trip back to the U.S. to see our families. Plans were set to fly out in about 2 1/2 weeks, so we had some time to see Bali before we took off.

We took it slow. We spent the first week mostly cleaning out our boat and dealing with all the boat projects so we could relax and enjoy being tourists. At first we took taxi’s around town to get the lay of the land and feel out the reality of driving in one of the most crazy places we had ever seen. The Balinese people are some of the most easy going warm people we have met, but get them on the road and everything goes. Speed limits. what are those? stop sign? Didn’t see it. 2 lanes? Yeah, right, it just depends how many cars you can get side by side, usually 4 or 5. And for every vehicle on the road there is at least 10 motorbikes or scooters around it.

Soon enough I was ready to rent a car. We picked an old-school Bali beater called a Toyota Kijang that looked like an old Landcruiser and didn't look like a tourist car, with the bonus of having room for our surfboards inside. We wanted to blend in, and let's be honest, the price was right. For $12 U.S./day, everything included, we were set. Compare that to the $80/day in San Francisco we paid when back in the U.S. or the $500/week we paid up in Portland, Oregon. Plus, no hassles, no crazy insurance schemes, and the car is delivered and picked up right at our boat. Does it get any easier??? And now, having driven in Bali for almost 6 weeks, I absolutely love it. Very intimidating at first (FYI Americans, In Bali they also drive on the left), but you get comfortable with the rhythm and learn to embrace the chaos, or at least I did.

We had wheels, we had our boat safely tied up, and we were free to be "normal" tourists again! For the next 12 days or so we relaxed in hotels, saw some of the tourist sites, did some surfing and got our legs moving again on some great walks through the small villages of traditional Bali. We celebrated Nicole’s 35th birthday in a nice hotel on the beach in Legian, surfing, chilling out, and blending in with the heaps of Aussie tourists that were there on holiday.

We spent 4 days up in touristy Ubud, enjoying good food, some traditional Balinese massages and went to see 3 different cultural dances at the local temples.

In the Mt. Batukaru area we spent a few days in the village of Sarinbuana at the little eco-resort there enjoying the rainforest, cool mountain air, and long walks through the plantations and rice fields.

We drove over the pass to the north side of the island and stayed up in the mountain community of Munduk where we trekked through the clove and coffee plantations, stumbled into a community "spinning top" competition with some local gambling events thrown in, and enjoyed the simplicity and peaceful energy of the area, drinking tea and local coffee as buckets of rain poured down on our world.

A few more days back on the sunny beach side and it was time to fly. It’s about 30 hours of travel to get to San Francisco from Bali. It wasn’t fun, but it wasn't that bad either, and in the end, worth it.

We spent a week with Nicole's folks in the Bay Area and also with some good friends. Then up to the Columbia Gorge between Washington and Oregon for a week of camping/windsurfing/kiting with my family and some friends. My folks and Nicole's dad had no idea we were coming to the States, so the surprise was successful and we had a great trip back.

I'm not going to write anything about the U.S. trip but I did put a little photo gallery together of the Columbia Gorge trip for our family and close friends who want to see them:

Columbia Gorge Family Trip Photo Gallery Link

And then back in Bali again. No rest for the weary. Our good friend, Hardy, from Australia, was on holiday in Bali and invited Nic and I to hang out with him and his friends for a few days in nearby Jimbaran. Reconnecting with him, chilling out, and eating copious amounts of delicious food washed down with many Bintang's was mostly what we did for a few days before saying good-bye and reentering our sailboat world.

And here we are, almost finished with getting the boat ready to go, almost finished provisioning, and almost in the mindset of traveling again. It's our last day in Bali and tomorrow we will set sail for Kumai, Borneo, about 450 miles away, where we will pilot DK up a muddy river, drop the hook, and take a local boat into the rainforest to visit the orangutans.

We are back in the mainstream again; sailboats are arriving from Australia all the time and we are heading towards Singapore and Malaysia, the well-travelled course for us mariners. Another phase is beginning as we say our good-byes to Bali, head back towards the equator, and embrace the life of being sailors again.


June 30, 2009

Story location: Komodo Island, Indonesia

Komodo Dragon

The massive 12-foot long 400 pound Komodo Dragon was blocking our path. The dragon was only 30 feet away and it was walking in OUR direction. We could appreciate its rough scaly skin, wispy tongue and sharp clawed toes as it approached...closer and closer. Our guide, Joesef, told Nicole to quickly take some photos because we all knew who had the right of way. The dragon slowly plodded onward getting to within 15 feet of us before our guide told us to turn and slowly walk back down the dusty trail the way we had just come, lined with thick scrubby bushes on the sides.

We walked another 100 feet back or so and into a small clearing and waited. Sure enough, along came the dragon. He was definitely in no hurry and not intimidated by our presence in the slightest. A minute later the dragon sauntered lazily by, 20 feet away.

To be so close to such a prehistoric looking animal in the wild is a rush. Just to know that these creatures are lurking around the tall grasses and deadfall stalking their prey of deer and buffalo is pretty intense. Unsuspecting locals and tourists, though not the preferred choice of dinner for the dragons, have still managed to be eaten or maimed every so often. To me, watching these gigantic monitor lizards is the closest I have felt to witnessing the dinosaur age. Crocodiles, certain sharks, Komodo dragons, Grizzly bears, lions, tigers, oh my, the few creatures on Earth that can still humble us and allow us to appreciate that there is still wildness, not wilderness, but wildness, left on this planet. Without the dragons in Komodo National Park, there is no doubt it would still be a gorgeous desert environment, but with the dragons presence the flavor is more raw, and, yes, wild.

We took two guided walks on the island of Komodo. They were both ok, but we sure are happy we went to the island of Rinca first. The islands had different effects on us and Rinca was more our style; a bit off-the-beaten track, prolific wildlife, with a more local feel. Komodo Island is all spoofed up for the tourists and the walks we did, even though we paid more to go on the longer 4-hour walk hoping for more animals and more interesting sights, weren't as interesting. Not to say that Komodo isn't cool too. The bird life for one is prolific as there are no monkeys in Komodo. Not enough fruit trees to feed both, its either birds or monkeys on these arid islands. Noisy squawking cockatoos flew by constantly, white and green tropical pigeons lounged in the fruit palms, crows cawed around us, and we even were lucky to spot a few more beautiful bright yellow orioles. Gorgeous birds, the orioles, and I'm not much of a bird lover. Butterflies danced around our heads and strange insects like preying mantis' were spotted.

To our surprise, and our guide Joesef's, we also saw a green pit viper on the trail. Joesef jumped back 3 feet when he almost stepped on it. Iiieeeee! Yeah, it can kill you. More wildness. Back at the ranger station, Joesef showed us another green viper curled up in a tree branch next to one of the cabins. Two deadly vipers in one morning.

After our morning hike, we unhooked from our mooring and rode the fast 5-knot plus current to an island called Gili Lawa Laut on the north side of Komodo. We were lucky that the currents were heading in our direction and at one point our SOG (speed over ground) with a light wind on our butt was almost 11 knots, our fastest yet. Currents in and around the park are intense, but luckily we never got into a "poop our pants situation" with scary whirlpools or huge standing waves like some boats have here.

At sunset, tied to another mooring in the bay of Gili Lawa Laut we watched schools of thousands of blue fusiliers break the surface as they gorged themselves on the incoming tidal nutrients. We were also keeping our eyes open for manta rays, which we have read are sometimes in the anchorage feeding at sunset. Sure enough, we saw a fin break the surface right behind our boat. Nicole and I both stood on the gunnels scanning the clear blue liquid when 3 baby manta rays, probably no more then 2 feet across circled our boat. They were in a V-formation like a gaggle of geese in the sky, one leading and the two others right behind with wings almost touching. We aren’t sure if they were newborns, but they were definitely the smallest mantas we have ever seen.

Komodo Park has been good to us these past 8 days. Right before we got here Nic and I both got sad news that we had each lost someone we knew and cared about. Nicole lost a family friend that she had at one time been close to. I was informed of a recent climbing tragedy in China, where 3 young men were killed. One of them, a famous climber named Jonny Copp whom I knew when I was part of the climbing circle in Boulder, Colorado, was one of the 3. Johnny and I weren't good friends, but he used to be in a relationship with a friend of mine I had worked with for years at the Colorado Outward Bound School. I had been to their house for Jonny's inspiring slideshows and occasionally hung out with them around town. He was one of those special people that lives life fully, but is still humble, generous, and rich in spirit. He had become arguably one of the best climbers in the world and his tragic death at the age of 35 wasn't unexpected, as he was constantly pushing his limits, but certainly still extremely sad and a huge loss for the climbing community and his large circle of people who loved him.

Receiving this sad news along with looking at pictures of old friends on Facebook of my recent 20 year high school reunion, once again it reminded me of how quickly our life flashes by. For days I reflected on old high school faces I hadn't thought about or seen since I parted ways from my hometown and community I was once a part of. Then, Jonny's death, would get me thinking about my other circle of people I had belonged to, outdoor educators and athletes who push themselves to the limits on rocks, snow, and water. How thankful I am of all those soulful people I have connected with and all those intense adventures I have shared with them.

Having some close up encounters with the wildness in Komodo and creating time to sit and contemplate my life, I am once again appreciative for the chance to live fully and witness these special places that still exist on our planet. For me, the wild places create a space to be unpluggd from the world, from it's pressures and it's artificial vices. These places, like Komodo, are always under threat from human population expansion, development, pollution, and greed, and there is no guarantee that our children or children's children will live in a similar world. But I am hopeful. I am hopeful that in another 20 years the dragons will still be haunting the savannahs of Rinca and Komodo, that sharks won't be a thing of the past, that baby manta rays will still be seen swimming in the currents, and there will still be wild places that exist where we can feel connected to our primal essence and be challenged by natures magnificence and power.

I May Have Seen Three Hundred Stunning Sunsets

June 3, 2009

Story location: Bandas Islands, Indonesia

(Taken from our BLOG)

I may have seen three hundred stunning sunsets, twenty breath-stopping beautiful views, and the most majestic and incredible animals in the sea but what I remember most are the moments I have had with the special people we have met around the world.

We wandered into the rain soaked forest searching for the old nutmeg and almond plantations and found so much more. Roots twisted like a giant octopus from the green earth to the base of old tree trunks towering hundreds of feet in the air. Men passed barely stooped from the heavy load of carefully balanced chopped firewood they carried slung over their shoulders attached like a scale to ends of a sturdy stick when they passed us barefoot, mud squishing between their toes. Smoke curled slyly from the small fires of forest shacks people tended to keep the mosquitoes away.

It was under a gentle rain and over the smoke of one of these fires we met her. Peering through raindrops we looked towards a small shack wondering what they were used for when a woman dressed in shorts and a men's plaid shirt beckoned to us. She motioned with her hand down, the Indonesian way of saying come here, which is still confusing for us. Machete in hand, barefoot and smiling, she invited us to her small fire and went searching with her toes for fallen almonds, known locally as kandalera. She offered us the two she found and pounded them open with a rock. Asking us the usual polite Indonesian questions of where are you going and what are you doing. We replied with "jalan, jalan" (just walking around).

Then she motioned again for us to follow her and guided us through the forest. She stopped to talk to men carrying big baskets overflowing with nutmeg and women carrying greens on their heads. She picked us stunningly fresh nutmeg and glowing red rose apples. Always looking behind her to make sure we were ok, she spoke to us in Indonesian that we could not understand and we responded with smiles and English she did not understand.

Yet there is a universal language where words are unimportant and actions are so much louder and clearer to understand. The essence of our new friend was beautiful. She was kind and giving and glowing with happiness. I am sure our happiness mirrored her own.

After hours of walking through the towering old forest dripping with rain, we turned around, passing the shack where we had met her and expected her to leave us. Instead, she motioned she would walk us to the village. Once we arrived the sky opened up again and buckets of water poured down. She rushed forward and for us to follow her into a modest house with turquoise walls and fuchsia curtains three plastic chairs and a table. We had escaped from the rain into her home.

Instead of leaving after the rain shower and making our way to the docks we asked her for lunch and I photographed what I think were her nieces and her mother. After eating an omelet, rice and MSG noodles had the excuse to pay her for her time. She was glowing and proud.

The two beautiful girls I photographed accompanied us as she walked us down old rock steps, slippery with moss, past the two town wells for drinking and mandi (shower). We stepped over street drains full of sewer water and past chickens bobbing along the paths. She held my hand the entire way smiling and squeezing it and looking at my thorough happy eyes. She held my hand on the docks waiting for us to negotiate a price for our ferry ride back to Bandaniera all the while asking us to return and stay in her home. It was with gratitude in my heart smiles on our faces we waved goodbye to her and those sweet girls.

The Flavor of the Bandas

June 6, 2009

Story location: Bandas Islands, Indonesia

(Taken from our BLOG)

We came to the Bandas Islands to see the old spice trees and remnants of the old spice wars left over from the Dutch and English East India Trading Companies. They fought wars in the remote Bandas Islands for control over the spices: nutmeg, mace, cloves, cinnamon, and peppercorns. We have stumbled over some old canons casually strewn on the side of the street seemingly waiting to be picked up and used later aide from the slick layer of moss that coats them. Stepping through the crumbling doorways of old forts we find it hard to imagine the old days. But in the stunning natural anchorage with the smoking volcano and beautifully still bay I can see trading vessels and warships at anchor and can see the town bustling with action. Almost all of that is gone but for some crumbling old buildings and the hope tourism will come back to the Bandas.

Not only are the Bandas an attraction for the historical value and what little spices are still grown but also for the pristine coral reefs and clear waters off many of the islands. Through rainstorms we have snorkeled beside dried lava floes and along Hatta's coral shelves and even along the pier. We have seen some special things but we are also very spoiled and have quickly lost interest in the mandarinfish and pretty waving soft corals.

Mostly, we are appreciating the warmth and kindness of the people here. I have already made friends with three special women I can barely communicate with. A Muslim 18 year old girl who bravely approached me while I was sitting alone on a lava rock beach and proceeded to tell me about her soul mate love and sing me American love songs (the only one I recognized was "Titanic") with an angelically high pitched voice. The rest of our time together we practiced English and Indonesian and we were smiling the entire time. One woman I met at the market buying weird lemons from her (you know the kind with the warts on them that are very sour?) she taught me to say sampai jumpa (my favorite new phrase, meaning see you later), now we see each other in town daily and I love her. We always depart with each of us laughing and almost shouting, "sampai jumpa" with huge grins on our faces. And then there was the woman in Banda Besar. We met her wandering through the old nutmeg and almond forest where she was collecting almonds, machete in hand barefoot. We came to her through a rainstorm. Then she took us walking through the forest and got us stunningly fresh nutmeg and glowing rose apples. She walked us to the village and wanted nothing. Instead we asked her for lunch and I photographed what I think were her nieces and her mother. We ate an omelet, rice and msg noodles and then had the excuse to pay her for her time. She walked us down old rock steps holding my hand and smiling the entire way. Lucky me.

The remainder of our time in the Bandas has been spent farming out our laundry to Abba's wife Dilla at the Mutiara Guest House and eating scrumptious meals with them, hanging out with our new Italian tourist friend Claudio, doing boat jobs, teaching an abysmal two classes of English (remind me to take an ESL class if we ever do this again) and recovering from a nasty flu. We're leaving here with our fist's full of nutmeg, a fully stocked fridge, and a joyful heart.

The Four Kings

May 11, 2009

Story location: Raja Ampat, West Papua, Indonesia

(Taken from our BLOG)

Raja Ampat was always one of those mythical places we had only heard reverent stories about. Fittingly, the name is the stuff of legend and means "four kings". It is now well known because of the tremendous species diversity that resides here both above and below the water. Raja Ampat's reefs have been referred to as "a species factory."

Even the rocks are alive in northern Raja Ampat. Jagged sharp limestone islands are undercut by the consistent presence of the sea all around them. Trees cling to whatever soil and rock their roots can find on the seemingly inhospitable earth. As the swell gently rolls in, the rocks breathe, gurgling loudly with the intake of water and hiss violently as it is caught in air pockets and pushed back out.

Under the islands' lips hundreds of fish gather in the nutrient filled water. Currents meet here, bringing with them vast amounts of nutrients. This is why there are hundreds of sweetlips big enough to be on steroids staring at use with pursed lips, while schools of bumphead parrotfish move as an organized unit, gorging on the abundance of coral. Juvenile turtles and sharks patrol the reefs and butterfly fish the size of salad plates lazily meander by.

It because of these currents and this life we chose to visit Kri Island and eco-resort to dive. We motored 40 miles north of Sorong past fishing boats with long arms, through pods of leaping spinner dolphins, maneuvering through boiling currents and whirlpool eddies to arrive in the early afternoon with a current pumping against us at 2.6 knots. We passed back and forth in front of the resort searching for a shallow spot. Yet, we were told to anchor in 35-45 meters (110-135 feet) 250 meters off the resort, really deep for us. We debated trying it or abandoning our diving plans for Kri. We searched for anything shallower and found nothing.

So we committed and dropped all 280 feet of our chain attached our 300 foot piece of mega braid line and let 100 feet of that out and waited. The current was racing past DK's hull and I stared wide-eyed finger on the line hoping she would hold while Gar backed down on her hard. We'd never anchored this deep before or in current this strong. She held. The anchor jumped a few times against the bottom and then stuck, the line quaked as the sea rushed by if it was mirroring my own nervousness.

We stayed and swung for four days back and forth on our anchor in front of the channel leading to the resort where we were welcome to make our new home. Diving three times a day and eating scrumptious meals in between at Kri eco-resort we returned to DK only after dinner and the tide would allow us to escape from the channel we parked super dingy in. Did I mention how lucky we are.

If you look carefully through the nutrient rich water there are wonderfully beautiful and startlingly ugly creatures that make Raja Ampat home. Nudibranchs of every size, color, and pattern imaginable can be found on sand flats, in the arms of branching Acropora coral, and under the edges of rocks. I saw a baby pink scorpion fish the size of my thumb and we have seen three species of pygmy sea horses, stealthily camouflaged in sea fans. Mantas appear literally out of the blue like phantom angels. Walls are plastered with corals, tunicates, sponges, fans, and sea whips with colors and patterns so wild they would make Dr Seuss grin.

Leaving Kri we headed north back across the equator and to the islands that first called to us up in Wayag. The surface of the water glows in an otherworldly aqua green and quickly changes to midnight blue as we search for anchorages beside the deep craggy islands. A sea eagle has just stretched her white wings and landed in a snag above us while red parrots pass by squack squaking until they find a good spot to roost. Small birds tweet tweet tweet in the mornings and evenings and something whack whak whaks early in twilight of morning.

We spend our days getting up early to sand and varnish DK's weathered teak and try unsuccessfully to hide from the heat of midday. In the afternoons, at high tide we slip into the sea to search for whatever she is willing to reveal. Swimming through a sea of mirrors, schools of thousands of silver blue sardines and fusiliers we see blue spotted rays munching on critters hidden under the fine white sand. Spanish Mackerel, barracuda and giant trevally make elusive quick passes hinting at what lives deeper in the channels. After hours in this other world we return to DreamKeeper water logged.

At dusk the rain starts. It is not a normal rain as no none hits our deck but one that bubbles up from the sea. A constant gentle pitter patter of rain drops begins reliably at dusk and continues into the night even when the sky is cloudless and sparkling with the stars of the southern cross, Orion and the dipper. Fish really are everywhere in Raja Ampat; the rain comes from them feeding on the surface.

But all is not well with the Four Kings. While there is incredible species diversity here and it has been recognized by some big NGO's and the Indonesian government as a marine hotspot well worth protecting it is not immune to human impacts. Thick trails of trash ride in on the currents and a nickel mine is planned on one of the northern islands. Illegal logging threatens to choke the reefs and gas and oil prospectors visit the region searching for liquid gold. Let alone the pressures from local subsistence fisherman cyanide and blasting the reef and international fishing fleets that threaten to leave this kingdom destroyed and empty.

With hope to be recognized as a World Heritage site and efforts being made to protect the 3,500 square miles of newly formed marine protected areas we hope the crown jewel can be defended and will remain sacred so that Raja Ampat will not only be remembered in myths.


May 20, 2009

Story location: Helen Reef, Palau (almost to Indonesia)

The twenty terns that dove gracefully around our boat as we approached Helen Reef in the early morning were just a small hint of what was to greet us on the island. Seven miles out a tiny boat with the three Helen Reef Rangers, Paul, Hercules, and David, came out to escort us through the maze of patch reefs to our anchorage in front of their island. As we wove our way through the yellow and aqua patches of shallow water we smelled the island before we could really see it. Not the familiar sweet smell of earth and gardens but the sour fish smell of bird guano.

We are in the southern most islands of Palau on a tiny atoll 350 miles from Koror and 234 miles from Sorong, Indonesia. It is an island that has more to it than a stunning white sand beach and water the colors of tropical dreams. It is an island well worth protecting as it is home to an abundance of reef and ocean fish, thousands of nesting sea birds, and is the nesting ground of green sea turtles.

Our passage was a gift that lead us to an even grander one here on Helen Island. We sailed under double-reefed main and a reefed jib that soon unfurled to its full 130% as the wind continued to decrease by the second day of our passage. Leaving Koror after a swift check out our sails were filled with wind from the NE at 20-30 knots. The first day and through most of the first night we flew across the ocean on a broad reach sailing at 7-8.5 knots. The swell was small and the squalls sparse. Perfect ocean sailing. The moon filled the sky and threw light across the empty horizon almost as if it were twilight all night long. When the wind decreased we learned to appreciate slowing down as we had to arrive at Helen Reef in good light and favorable tide to clearly navigate the reefs. We have never really appreciated moving at 2-4 knots an hour but riding with perfectly set sails and a small swell with the moon shining through gossamer clouds and the squalls steering clear of us, it was simply beautiful. I can't remember having a passage so peaceful.

And then we arrived in an unforgettable world. There aren't many places in the world you can see 20 turtles in ten minutes, swim in crystal clear water or have your pick of fresh fish for dinner. But what really makes this place special are the guys who work to protect it. We feel lucky to be able to call Paul, Hercules, and David not only our teachers, but our friends.

Our first lessons began our first real day at Helen, Easter Sunday. We awoke Easter morning to sunny skies doted with puffy cotton candy cumulus clouds. A perfect day for fishing and a beach BBQ.

Palauans traditionally fished from canoes, with nets or spears. While there are very few traditional canoes still in use throughout the Palauan archipelago these guys from Tobi and Meriil islands use confiscated Phillipino outrigger canoes outfitted with something resembling lawn mower engines. They are sleek, fast, fun and built for fishing. Part of the rangers' job is to look for Philippino or Indonesian boats illegally fishing in Palauan waters. If they find them they report them to Palau's patrol boat up in Koror, or if possible, confiscate the outrigger fishing boats, lines, and nets and send the fisherman and their mother-ship back to the Philippines or Indonesia. Not only do the fisherman illegally poach tuna but are always found with shark fins in their holds.

Snorkeling among 'the rangers turned fisherman', I was often greeted by a sinister looking smile painted along the side of the white outriggers. David and Hercules were masterful hunters to watch. Slowly sinking into the blue stalking their prey, leveling out with their seven foot spear guns held so familiarly they were like another limb, and then shooting almost always coming up with their goal wriggling on the shaft of their spear. As swiftly as they shoot the fish they wait for their twitching to pause, grab their head between their fingers and remove them from the spear, killing them with a well aimed poke through the brain. David loves to fish and would have fished all day everyday if we could have eaten it all. But he knew we could eat no more than 12 red snapper 6 parrotfish, 3 grouper, a giant trevally and a sweet lips for one big meal.

As the sun sank lower into the sky and the heat was sucked off the island the boys lit two cooking fires. Standing in the yard waiting for the coals to form, the hissing and popping of dry wood interrupted the bird's chatter and our own. We felt so lucky to be celebrating a holiday with guys we would now consider family.

We had a fantastic Easter celebration with full holiday spirit. The boys even laid out a table cloth on the picnic table and made delicious fried fish with the grouper and parrotfish and tasty whole barbecued snapper, pumpkin rice and pumpkin with sweet coconut milk. Additionally we brought short ribs sent by Paul's mom and a pineapple upside down cake. The dogs on the island were happy as their dinner was the trevally and sweetlips. Easter wasn't complete until we found our eggs at 11pm when a momma green sea turtle chose to come ashore and nest.

I have never seen anything so magical. She had to navigate to her native beach long distances across the ocean, to the place where she was born. Then find her way through logs, roots and grass and find a suitable place to dig a smallish hole about three feet down with her hind flippers and then position herself properly above the hole so all of her Ping-Pong sized white wet eggs were laid in the right place. Then she had to cover them up and return to sea to do it all over again. For me just watching the eggs come out was incredible, they just fell out wet and glistening in the beam of our light. Once she starts laying eggs, supposedly she can't stop. So we watched over a hundred and twenty eggs fall into their incubating hole. And then in no time it seemed, she was finished, covering up the nest and patting the sand down, leaving her babies to fate.

Days at Helen slipped by faster than we could appreciate them. We found ourselves participating in the rangers' daily ritual of hunting snapper, orange-spined unicorn fish, grouper or parrotfish for dinner and as a special treat for us a few lobsters (they don't really like them). Afternoons were spent preparing to share a dinner, playing chess, talking story, or learning to make hammocks or baskets out of cast away fishing line. We learned a lot in the few days we spent together: if you are dying of thirst and you can find any water, look for a box fish as it may have fresh water in its stomach. If flies don't land on the fish you are about to eat don't eat it, it's bad. You can use a sawed off claw of a coconut crab for a smoking pipe. The young fruits of coconut trees are used as a substitute for beetle nut at least if you are Hercules. Turtles usually come up to nest sometime during mid to high tide and will lay 130-180 eggs. The babies will wait until they know it is night to come out of their nest and can tell by how hot the sand is. If you use enough soil from the base of trees and fertilize your raised beds with blood and scales from fish you can have a great garden even at sea level very close to the salt water table. And if the clouds are low and dark on the horizon it will rain early in the morning in Helen.

Our arrival on shore was always announced by the flight of thousands of back noddy terns. Their high pitched rattly call is a constant on Helen Island, day or night. Trying to avoid getting bombed by bird guano as the black sea birds lift into the air by the hundreds has become a daily, albeit unsuccessful ritual. Our shirts are stained with white chalky splatters and we have taken to wearing hats at all times on the island.

As the weather looks good to go and the moon grows small again we feel the pull to move on but this time its not so easy. We have settled into our lives here at Helen. Just thinking about leaving these guys and this place makes me breathe deeply and hold back the sea that threatens to fall from my eyes. It is hard to put into words how deeply these guys have nestled into my heart. Paul is always a teacher. I have learned about turtles and making beer cozies or baskets out of old discarded fishing line. Hercules reminds me to watch the world and remember what I see. As the quietest one, he sees so much more. And he plays, works hard and makes everything beautiful. The world responds to him. I love my conversations with David. I am always enlightened by something, marveling at his grace and complete connection with the ocean, touched by something he has said or am filled with easy laughter. They all remind me to appreciate each and every day, to live simply in the world, to make things beautiful and to celebrate life and friendship.

It would be easy to find myself staying for months inside of Helen's protected lagoon, floating in another world, living like the boys, being in nature where the world is more simple, the birds call, the turtles come, and the fish is sweet.

Often people ask us what we love most about sailing. For us it is the people and a place that really make it special for us. We would never have made it to Helen Reef if we had not sailed here. The only people who ever come are the resupply boat from Koror every six months to a year and sometimes the rangers' families come from their home islands if the weather is calm. We, along with one German sailboat, Alk, are the first sailboats they have seen since last April. All too soon it is time, the wind is filling in again, a bad weather system is threatening to turn our sanctuary into a frothing, swell-filled uncomfortable anchorage and we are already late checking into Indonesia.

We waved goodbye to our friends at Helen and retraced our track out through the brilliant turquoise maze into the open ocean. Months later, tears still fill my eyes when I think about our friends and our time at Helen.