This story is an excerpt from Mark’s soon-to-be published book, tentatively titled ‘Crazy Little Heaven; travels in Indonesia, a journey through life’.
The book follows the adventures of four misfits on a journey across the island of Borneo. Part travel story, part autobiography, and much more than that, it is a journey of the imagination, of the spirit; it is a journey through life, through marriage, through religion. It is a journey that spans two centuries and takes the reader from a childhood in Tasmania to a life in Indonesia, from one end of the archipelago to the other, from the jungles of Kalimantan to the riots and political turmoil of Jakarta. The writing is thick with lucid description, anecdotes and reflections on this ‘sweet disappearing world’.
We’ll let you know when it is published and where you can get it.
I had already fallen in love with the pinisi when first I laid eyes on her on the coast of East Kalimantan on the other side of this wide, green island. In fact as a child I was already in love with the idea of the pinisi, with tall ships. I was in love with the sea, and with the romance of sail. Living in the beautiful old harbour town of Hobart, how could one not be in love with the sea and the vessels who rode her? How could one not love the moods of the ocean; her gentle sunlit mornings, sandy beaches and circling white gulls; her giant swells, violent breaks and dark restless vastness. And how could one not love the wooden ships who rode her?
So when I first saw the pinisi; wooden sailboats gliding on that distant blue line, passing beyond the outer reefs of Sangatta, and then lying at rest, worn and scruffy in the murky harbours of Bontang and Samarinda; when I first saw the elegant sweeping lines, the wide bellied hulls, the twin masts, double rudders and hand-sawn decking of these beautiful ships, I was in love.
Some years later, living in Jakarta and hemmed in by its endless smog and ugliness, I hitched a ride on a working pinisi. Jakarta, with its jumble of poverty, wealth and grey cement, is not good for the soul. After months without escape you begin to yearn for open skies, for fresh air, for the feel of sunlight and salt on your skin. My plan was simple. I found my way through Kota, the old city of Batavia in the north, to the port, Sunda Kelapa. With its lines of shapely pinisi and teams of grimy dockworkers hefting sacks of cement, boxes of food goods and stacks of milled timber up and down the gangplanks it looks like a painting from the nineteenth century.
I asked around.
“Where are the vessels heading?”
“When do you depart?”
“How long is the journey?”
“Is it possible to take passage on one of the ships?”
After two or three such visits, and much shaking of heads, I signed some papers at the harbourmaster’s little office and with a friend clambered about the Bone Jaya Mulya. We left with the turning tide, just after the pre-dawn prayers of subuh. Clearing a breakwater at the mouth of the harbour, we motored northwards along a channel through a vast flock of fish-traps, their spidery bamboo feet emerging from the shallow waters offshore, pressure lamps still burning to attract fish in the dawning light.
Then, an hour or so out, still passing through the thousand islands, the sun rose over the ocean to the east and the sky was blue. Jakarta was already reduced to a dirty smudge on the southern horizon. There was a kind of healing in this journey.
The vessel traded routinely between Jakarta, the old port town of Batavia on Java, and Palembang on the island of Sumatra to the north-west. The cargo on this occasion consisted of boxes of noodles and sacks of wheat flour bound for the kitchens and warungs of Sumatra. The crew were a mixed lot: Bugis sailors who lived between the two cities, their real home the ship, their real family the crew: the smiling captain, his grimy engineer, a weathered, white-haired character who met all the criteria to be described as an ‘old sea salt’, and a couple of younger lads for the muscle.
“Pak Wahab,” one of the boys told me with a wink and nod in the direction of the older man, “possesses the knowledge, the ilmu.” A pause for emphasis. “He has a young wife in each port; neither knows about the other and he keeps them both satisfied!”
On the second morning, somewhere off Sumatra in the Bangka Straits, we lost power. The diesel motor spluttered and stopped. For a day we floated about in the milky calm seas while the engineer attempted to fix the problem by improvising a flange from pieces of rubber thong. Matthew and I took the opportunity to cool off with a swim in the open sea, causing some amusement amongst the astonished crew. It seems that none of these hardy sailors were confident in the water. In fact they seemed to think that we must possess some kind of foreign magic which enabled us to relax and float in the salty sea. When eventually a police boat came to the rescue, a solution to our mechanical problem was found and we headed on towards the sunset. Sleeping amongst the coils of rope at the bow I was woken somewhere around midnight. Steering by moonlight and stars, we entered the Musi River. Amid much shouting, and depth sounding with a weighted string, our vessel navigated the shifting sand banks at the river mouth and, cruising on up the winding Musi, arrived at the city of Palembang late morning.
A day in Palembang to explore the market, the red bridge and the old colonial fort and I found myself flying back to Jakarta, back to my life. But the short trip had refreshed me, given me a glimpse of another world and renewed my love of the pinisi.
It wasn’t to be my last encounter with a Bugis schooner. Years later I sailed around the eastern islands; south from Bira where the boats are still built by hand on the beaches, using the old methods; skimming through a huge school of dolphins at play in the wide bay off Selayar Island; and then, on various trips, out from Labuan Bajo at the western tip of Flores to swim with the sharks and visit the primeval dragons of Komodo, and trawling for tuna as we headed west, passing the volcano island of Sangeang, across the north coast of Sumbawa, under the giant Tambora and Moyo volcanoes, to Lombok, east of Bali. But the journey to Palembang was my first dance, my first real engagement with one of these fine, traditional ships.
And I am still in love with the pinisi.
Copyright © Mark Heyward, 2011
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