Bone Rate, Flores and the Komodo National Park
Barry and Margaret Wilmshurst
Wed 16 Sep 2009 09:12
"Thar she blows!" At last, after three years of myopic peering across the watery wastes we have seen our first whale - a solitary humpback cruising slowly north blowing gently every two minutes. All the other cruisers have seen dozens of the great beasts and, knowing the pathetic quality of our look-out, have sometimes called us on the radio to report sightings in our path. By the time we arrived the whales had scattered or dived. Now the frustration is over. Satisfaction at last. We can sleep easy.
From Wakatobi towards Flores we sailed south-west and the island of Bone Rate was conveniently across our track at about half the distance. The most interesting feature there was the large boat building industry on the beach. There are probably few places in the world where so many boats are being built or renovated using only traditional tools and hand-held electric drills. All are laid up by eye; there are no plans or drawings. We watched iron fastenings being hammered home through thick planks and frames. The joints between planks are filled with caulking driven in with the traditional tool and mallet. It takes about five months to build one of the big 100 footers (33 metres) and we were told (we think we were told) that the large boats were then towed to Singapore to have machinery fitted. The small ten metre boats all have single cylinder Chinese diesel engines without gear boxes. They are said to cost about £200. To go ahead the mate lifts a couple of loose deck planks, drops down into the "engine room" and winds her up. To stop, the captain pulls the decompression lever in good time and the boat carries her way slowly until she is alongside a yacht or head-on to the quay. To help stop at the quay the crew throw over the stern an anchor made from bent pieces of reinforcing rod welded together. The noise of these craft is very characteristic and can be heard at great distances.
In fact the distant thump, thump, thump of an approaching diesel is often enough to generate gloom and despondency in a yachtie's breast. Fishermen use the boats all over the country and around here many of the young men make part of their living by serving/preying on the yachting community. Most come from the village of Komodo and swarm round the National Park and the town of Labuan Bajo in their long, narrow boats looking for customers/victims. It is difficult to know how to respond sensibly and with humanity - some of the people are so lacking in resources compared with us. Some become rather unattractive when they plead to be given money or possessions, but others have lovely smiles and offer a service or a fish at a price to be negotiated. Our first transaction in Labuan Bajo was with Ben: the purchase and delivery of 400 litres of diesel. We discovered later that we had paid well over the odds and might have been subject to criticism from the fleet had people found out but it did not sour our relationship with Ben. He had to buy the fuel, carry it in 20 litre plastic cans down to his boat on the dock, load it, transport it two miles to JJ Moon, lift it and pour it into our tanks through the slow filter funnel. He and his brother made two trips because they had only ten cans. I would have paid practically any money for delivery of that quantity of diesel without even getting my hands dirty in 30 degrees Centigrade. To be fair to the boys, once a local boat has taken possession of a visiting yacht it will not be troubled by others at that anchorage. We were now on the edge of dragon country and Ben carved a mean wooden dragon, as good as any we saw. A couple of days after the fuel purchase we succumbed and bought two of his carvings - later a third. We also bought pearl necklaces and bracelets, none of which we really wanted. Ben's was a reliable taxi boat and he served us well. We left him as he was taking over another boat, clad in Mags's "A Fish Called Banda" tee shirt. We waved a rather emotional farewell.
Ben with one of our dragons in the making, still without its finishing coat of Kiwi shoe polish.
Over time and in a series of anchorages round the park we developed a modus operandi and polished our negotiating skills. In essence, we are happy to pay over the odds for a service we want, we will buy things we don't really need in order to help out but we find it more difficult to respond generously when we are just asked to hand over stuff. Last Friday evening we were sitting on a good heavy buoy off the Pink Beach not far from Komodo Village. Tapestry was casting about inshore for a patch of sand on which to drop anchor. Out of the gloom came the dreaded thump, thump, thump of the Chinese diesel. It's a little like listening out for doodlebugs during the War. You hear the engine cough and die and wait with bated breath to see whether "your number's on it". This time it was and Lupus, Goffrey and Austin drifted to a standstill alongside. Three bright smiles. "'Allo!" "Hello." "Where you from, America?" "No! England." "Ah, England.... would you like dragons?" "No thanks, we already have seven". "Necklaces?" "Thanks, but we have enough to weigh down the necks of all our female relatives." "Bracelets, dragons' tooth charms?" "No! No! Enough! Enough!" "Diesel?" "Our tanks are full." "Water?" "We make our own." Long pause. What about food? "You want chickens; fish?" Ah, now we are interested and we enter into negotiations for two medium size chickens, one large fish, and a kilo of red tomatoes. A price is quoted, but Mags is tougher now; she offers half. Not enough. Calculations are made, negotiation takes place and agreement is reached, sealed with a formal handshake; the goods for delivery at 0800 the following morning. Tapestry rafts up alongside on our buoy and we enjoy a very pleasant evening. At 0815 the lads are back with two small chickens, five small fish and a kilo of small green tomatoes. But are they farm fresh; free range? They certainly are; these fresh chickens are so free range they are ranging free around the bottom of Lupus's boat, each tethered by a leg. "Er, could we please have them a little readier for the pot?" No problem. "Please, Papa"..... no, no, that is an _expression_ of respect properly due to gentlemen of a certain age, clearly imbued with grace and wisdom - truly!, ....."pass up your sharpest kitchen knife from below." The chickens are beheaded and plucked in front of us. Unfortunately Mags's bargaining was a bit too tough. After Lupus had deducted his very proper businessman's commission there was only enough cash left over to buy two chickens the size of under-nourished wrens. We are going to eat them with a stir-fry based round our home-grown bean sprouts. You probably know all about growing your own bean sprouts but I did not until a few weeks ago. It is exciting watching them grow from boring mung beans to mature bean sprouts in three days and they are a culinary delight.
One chicken being prepared for the pot.
The principal reason for going to Labuan Bajo at the west end of Flores was to arrange for our visas to be extended. Indonesian social visas are issued for 60 days and can be extended for successive periods of 30 days. Those yachts with the main body of the rally were taken care of but one of our loose renegade group arranged for the rally organisers to be in Labuan Bajo before the official stopover to receive the fees, help with the form-filling and send off our passports. This operation took a great deal of organizing and the woman who got it off the ground was driven nearly spare in the process. Of course, there were Chinese whispers, ridiculous special pleading and a number of skippers getting their under garments severely twisted. In the end 30 boats availed themselves of the special service and we were all very grateful. It is typical of this rally that insufficient thought seems to have been given to the visa business. The rally officially ends with a big celebration and dinner about ten days after the extended visas expire. It is very difficult to imagine many boats, however keen to conform, prepared to pay another fee and hand over their passports for a further couple of weeks at that stage. It will be very disappointing to the organisers if it all ends like a damp squib.
Business apart, as usual we enjoyed our time in another scruffy but rather appealing place. We anchored some way out of town opposite a very attractive eco-lodge where they served good food, local Bintang beer, wine (unusually for Indonesia) and were pleased to play host to yachties. The most welcome service offered was to take several large bags of our rubbish with the assurance that it would be disposed of properly and not just tipped into the sea. The only snag was the difficulty of getting ashore from the dinghy across the soft sand and mud at low tide. The town itself boasted an ATM and a small supermarket. It was possible to buy bread, unsweetened in the western manner, but there was no meat. Freezers and fridges are becoming seriously under-stocked throughout the fleet.
Then it was off to see the dragons, firstly at the ranger station at the north end of Rinca. Komodo dragons, really monitor lizards, are curious and interesting creatures but not very appealing. They lie somnolent, disguised by their colouring and wait for food to pass by. In spite of appearances to the contrary they can run very fast over short distances and can take down a man with the snap of a jaw or swish of a tail. They eat water buffalo, deer and monkeys and require a good meal about once a month. Having bitten their prey in a fleshy part they track it for a couple of weeks (their smelling organs are in their long forked tongues) then gorge themselves when the victim succumbs to the many bacteria in the dragon's saliva. We went ashore for a 0700 guided walk but, typical of this country, it took about an hour before we had been issued with several tickets for different purposes and paid our several small fees. Our "ranger" was a high school pupil on work experience but he had apparently learnt his stuff well and had good English. We thought we had good value on our hour's walk, seeing dragons, a buffalo, a bat and a long tailed macaque among other interesting fauna. Later we visited a large protected bay on the west side of Rinca where dragons and groups of monkeys came down to the beach.
A Komodo dragon on the prowl.
We are on Gilli Lawa now, a small island off the north-east tip of Komodo. They have all gone off snorkeling. This involves wet suits, flippers and serious looking goggles. They are doing a drift snorkel where the tidal stream runs through the gap between two islands. The snorkelers will hang on to the dinghies and look at the coral and small fish. It is very beautiful apparently.