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Darwin to Southeast Asia: Leaving Oz with regret

by Hugh & Heather Bacon 21 Mar 10:03 UTC
Darwin via Bali and Borneo to Singapore © Hugh & Heather Bacon

In the last article from Memories of a Circumnavigation Hugh and Heather explored Australia and prepared to leave for Asia. This segment of their world cruise sees them leaving Australia and venturing into Bali and Singapore.

Lets continue to follow the adventures of Argonauta I, from when they began their journey in 1997 in the Caribbean, until the completion of the circumnavigation in 2006, when they crossed their 1997 outbound Caribbean track.

Reaching Darwin evoked a definite feeling of achievement! David headed for McDonald's, Heather checked out the spa and I initiated serious boat tasks. Exploring social and cultural offerings of the City was very much on the agenda, as we caught up with good friends whom we had met down south. It was our last opportunity for land touring in Australia, so we drove some 1400 km to Western Australia to see the Bungle Bungles. Later, our nephew David returned to Canada for school and Heather spent three days in Broome. She wanted to be there at full moon to view a phenomenon known as, "Staircase to the Moon", and to ride a camel along Cable Beach.

All arrangements were made for our departure from Australia, scheduled for September 8, 2002. Westbound crews reaching Darwin must choose either to go south or north of Africa. Two considerations are: the challenging seas off Southern Africa and piracy in the Gulf of Aden and in the Strait of Malacca. The decision should be taken before departing Darwin, otherwise the yacht must be supplied with navigation material for both options. We chose to go north of Africa with the Island of Bali, Indonesia, as our first port of call followed by Borneo and Singapore.

Sailing to parts of the world where culture is very different inevitably poses challenges. For example, bound for the Arab world, we prepared for the custom of Baksheesh. Non-smokers, we nevertheless stocked many cartons of Marlboro cigarettes, said to be favored there. As well, we bought such recommended items as cosmetics for wives of customs officials and canal pilots. Except for Malaysia, we never hired a car in South East Asia, Sri Lanka or North Africa. That was because driving was more of an "adventure" than we needed and chauffeur driven vehicles were inexpensive and relatively safe. Indeed, riding around in a tuk tuk or rickshaw was lots of fun!

Given our upcoming passages, the question of carrying a weapon did arise. We chose not to because I believe that unless one is willing to be the first to use a weapon, one would likely be on the wrong end of any conflict. Moreover, paranoia could lead to an inappropriate response as innocent fisher folk do not look much different from bad guys. Instead, we relied on networking and "street smarts" to stay out of trouble and it worked! As well, carrying weapons complicates the customs process, although most authorities do accept their presence. For example, in Australia weapons need to be declared at the port of entry where they will be taken into safe keeping and returned to the yacht at port of departure. It was much easier to say "no" to the oft posed weapons question.

Darwin has a great chart copying service, which we found perfect for our needs. We already had the applicable electronic charts and cruising guides, as Australia offers excellent tax free purchase options. We loaded 515 liters of diesel, as well as a generous supply of libations. Just about every spare sheet, towel or t-shirt was wrapped protectively around Aussie wine or emergency liquor. We don't drink on passage, so this was for the long term until reaching the Mediterranean. We knew it would be very dry once we entered the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea.

Inevitably there was a slight change in plans! At the last minute, we learned that the Darwin Symphony Orchestra was to perform at the marina on the day we were to leave. The ever helpful Australian Customs and Immigration people allowed us an extra day. It was the Symphony's final performance of the year. Yachties shared champagne, prawns and other delicacies. Visitors ogled us, believing that it is always like that! It was indeed a memorable night.

Early morning September 9, 2002, we down-locked from Cullen Bay Marina to begin our passage to Bali, about 958 nm across the Timor Sea and eastern Indian Ocean. At the beginning of the Rainy Season, or "Buildup" as the locals call it, winds off northern Australia are mainly light and calm. With no particular arrival time in mind, we kept engine use to a minimum. Our initial plan was to remain close to the coast to take advantage of land breezes. There were none, so we rerouted to a more northerly direction. Then, headed by westerly winds of 6 to 10 kn, we ended up further north. We again changed our route, this time to pass east of Ashmore Reef rather than west. Ashmore Reef is over halfway to Bali; some 520 nm from Darwin.

Once again we fished and succeeded in boating a smallish shark: shark burgers à la Trinidad, though not as good! Later we found ourselves sailing in 6 to 8 kn of northerly wind, making about 4 kn, which held as far as Ashmore Reef. That was when our feathered Max Prop really paid off! We passed the Reef at night and began to encounter unlighted traffic, perhaps Asian fishing vessels or possibly, vessels transporting illegal immigrants. Clearing Ashmore, we entered the Indian Ocean and from there we enjoyed southerly winds of 10 to 15 kn.

The last couple of days we had good SE winds. As we neared the Indonesian Archipelago, we found ourselves on a broad reach as favorable currents of up to 2.5 kn, some 30 degrees or more off our stern, allowed us to head into the wind giving a speed over the ground (SOG) approaching 8 kn. High water at Benoa Harbour was 0830 hours, an ideal time to make the approach. We reached the entrance on September 18, more or less on time, and had a smooth ride up the channel to the anchorage. We had covered the 958 NM passage in just less than nine days, with only 47 hours of engine time.

Here's what Heather had to say in an email:

"The longest passage we've done in over two years! The first few days are always hard for me and I dread the long nights on watch. Then, suddenly, you get into a routine and you can't believe that nine days have gone by. In some ways, passages are the best part, provided there is "no drama". Conditions were benign; we saw almost no traffic and most of the time I could cook: (my only creative outlet on a passage except for the convoluted workings of my never-silent imagination!) Read a book a day and listened to several at night, decadent indulgence! So, here I am in Indonesia, having been pried screaming and kicking out of Oz. I'll probably succumb to the exotic attraction of Asia and start my perpetual "bonding" again."

We dropped the hook among a motley fleet of rusty coasters, tour boats and yachts. Seadoos and inflated yellow sausages topped with screaming tourists whizzed by as ancient fisher folk, wearing coolie hats and standing chest-deep in water, hand lined the shallows. We dinghied to the nearby marina for a customs check in. The marina was full, but next day a slip was available so we hung on the hook for the night. We knew we were in Asia as we quaffed sundowners and listened to the wailing call to prayer of the local Muezzin.

Once we secured the boat, we taxied to Ubud, a town among hills and rice paddies, where in recent decades many expat artists had gravitated. Inevitably, the place had become noisy and full of tourists, but the surrounding country retains much of the legendary charm one associates with Bali. We stayed at Villa Indah, about 5 km from Ubud, high above a river valley. The verandah afforded an unobstructed view of a very deep valley and river. Graduated terraces were built into the slopes. Emerald was the dominant colour, as the terracing enclosed bountiful rice paddies. Here we spent three days visiting Ubud and touring the Island.

While Islam predominates in Indonesia, Hinduism is the principal religion of Bali and it is highly visible. We soon became aware of the importance of a balance between good and evil. Material resembling black and white checked table cloths wrapped the lower part of most of the many shrines. Locals explained that the white represented good and black evil. The white checks of the material ensured there was a safe balance between these extremes. Shrines are everywhere and small offerings of food are seen on steps leading into many buildings. The yacht club was no different.

Prices were low and the Canadian dollar went a long way. We were in no rush to go anywhere. The Malacca Straits beyond Singapore were in the throes of the adverse monsoon: thunderstorms/low visibility forecast daily. Here it was dry and pleasant.

Here's an excerpt of Heather's email:

"I loved Bali. First glimpse was "in your face Asia": a crowded harbour with all manner of archaic vessels, a marina which was secure but not "flash". At Villa Indah, I do believe it was the most beautiful room we've ever had. In fact it was a Balinese apartment: high bamboo ceilings and fan, tiled floor, enormous bed with colourful spread, a walk in bathroom the size of our boat with, thankfully, North American standard facilities. The staff served us our meals here on our own patio. The grounds were landscaped beautifully; the view over the rice paddies reminded me of an illustration in a book of Chinese fairy tales. Oh yes, there was a warm and lovely pool which I had to myself."

The following day we engaged a driver for a tour. It began with a morning performance of a traditional Balinese play, much like a pantomime, in a small temple and backed by a gamelan instrumental group of at least twenty men. The costumes were flamboyant and the dancing and miming were excellent. The theme was the eternal conflict between good and evil. The Barong, a mythological animal, represented a good spirit and Rangda, a mythological monster, represented an evil spirit. Unlike much western theatre, harmony between good and evil remained; there was no winner.

In the town of Sayin, Cremation Day was coming up! This is a major celebration. Tickets were on sale, and the locals were stock piling offerings in the community grounds. The event provides a way for the poor to finance a commitment to their dead. Balinese believe there are three elements to the person: physical, cerebral, and spiritual. The body is seen as the temple of the soul and only when the body is destroyed may the soul go to the spiritual level. This community cremation involved sixteen families. We saw the effigies of Bhoma, son of the earth, lined up to be burned with each corpse and the sarcophagi awaiting their burdens. In yet another ceremony, relatives take the ashes to the sea. Families might keep a corpse for a year or more before being able to afford a proper funeral. Cremation is thus a day of jubilation rather than one of sadness. A wealthy person will put aside funds to pay for a speedier passage of his soul. We were leaving Bali before cremation day; otherwise, we might have been among the spectators!

A second tour took us towards the high country, through winding roads and mountain villages. One village was especially notable for its Poinsettia-lined streets. We stopped at a vantage point for an excellent view of 1700 metre Gunung Batur, an active volcano, and the crater lake at its base. On the way back, we had a close look at the many rice paddies and marveled at their complex terracing. The Asians are masters of water management. Throughout the countryside, there is a network of streams, dams, diversions, channels and conduits to control water to the paddies. Paddies are maintained as a swamp for planting. They are allowed to dry somewhat during the growing period and dried out completely for the harvest and subsequent ploughing.

Then it was time to return to the marina to prepare for departure. Ubud market provided a stock of fruit and vegetables. With the purchase of 147 litres of diesel to top our tanks, we were ready to go. September 25, we slipped out of Benoa Harbour just after sunrise to attack the formidable Lombok Strait. It separates the Islands of Bali and Lombok and leads north to the Java Sea. Currents of up to eight knots flow south.

Lembongan Island was our first stop, only 12 nm from Bali. This is a day-tour destination from Bali and a reasonable anchorage. There we over-nighted to be in a good position the following day to clear the Strait northbound in daylight. Large Indian Ocean swells rolled through the anchorage, but it was secure and not too uncomfortable. Early next morning in company with our new buddy boat, Carillion, we departed northbound.

We did not hear of the October 12, 2002 Bali bombing tragedy until several days after. Ironically, it was via our onboard e-mail that details filtered through from family in Canada. Three weeks after we had departed, over 200 people were killed and as many more injured. We grieved for all the innocents: young people out for a night on the town, hotel workers and taxi drivers all in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Stay tuned for the next episode: up the Lombok Strait to the Java Sea; island hopping to Borneo and on to Singapore.

This article has been provided by the courtesy of the Bluewater Cruising Association.

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