27 March, 2015

SeaTrek was pleased to be featured in The Sydney Morning Herald and Traveller.com this February.  Susan Wyndham truly captures the beauty and fun of this specialty culinary cruise with Janet DeNeefe and fellow writers from the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival. Joining Janet in 2015, will be Lonely Planet founders Maureen and Tony Wheeler. We look forward to another fantastic cruise with the UWRF.

By Susan Wyndham

I missed the most exhilarating moments of our cruise through Komodo National Park, judging by my fellow passengers’ faces, and I can only blame my own timidity. However, that one regret is swept away by memories of five perfect days of snorkelling, walks, company, food and the long-overdue revelation that there’s more to Indonesia than Bali.

I’ve enjoyed three trips to Bali, for my first honeymoon in 1983 and twice to the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival. But as a festival guest, Elizabeth Pisani, the British author of Indonesia Etc: Exploring the Improbable Nation, tells me: “Bali is the least representative island: it is the only Hindu island, and the massive impact of the tourist industry is not replicated anywhere else.”

So when Janet DeNeefe, the Australian founder and director of the writers’ festival and a renowned restaurateur in Ubud, decided to spread her entrepreneurial reach I jumped at an invitation to join her first cruise with a literary and culinary theme.

A day after hosting the closing party of another successful festival last October, the warm and lively DeNeefe herds a small group of us onto a plane along with crates of food and cooking equipment and we head to Flores, a 90-minute flight to the east and a world away from the tourist traffic and commerce of Bali.

The first day is a chance to get to know our companions: mostly well-travelled, book-loving Australians, some of them Bali residents, some writers; and the Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh and his wife Deborah Baker, an American biographer, whose talks will give us a mini-festival at sea.

Our visit begins in Paradise, a hilltop bar overlooking the port town of Labuan Bajo and its outlying islands and sea stained pink by an iridescent sunset. It’s not just the Paradise iced tea (pineapple juice, lime and potent cashew-nut wine) that is intoxicating. Although parched at the end of the dry season, the humpback strip of land is so far undeveloped and has an authentic rough-edged charm.

The town is a centre for diving excursions and has a new airport in anticipation of a tourist boom, bright-painted houses, funky cafes on the dusty main street, and a decent hotel with lush gardens and a pool. We eat charcoal-grilled fish at smoky tables on the waterfront and buy fresh seafood and produce at market stalls manned by smiling merchants and their cats.

Next day we sail south on the Katharina, an elegant two-masted, 40-metre sailing boat built in the style of the traditional phinisi used by Indonesia’s nomadic seafaring people. Apart from a few breezy stretches when the sails are raised, most of the trip is spent motoring through calm seas.

With beds for 14 passengers in six compact, air-conditioned cabins with private bathrooms, Katharina is comfortable and well-run by a thoughtful, friendly crew of 12 Indonesians. Joris Kolijn, the Dutch general manager of SeaTrek Sailing Adventures, and our American tour leader, Jennifer Hayes, are knowledgeable guides and fun company. They set a relaxed tone with their instruction to abandon shoes and enjoy the smooth iron-wood decks, though their introductory talk lingers on the alarming ability of the carrion-eating komodo dragon to devour a whole buffalo or Swiss tourist.

DeNeefe and her two assistant cooks, meanwhile, have chopped the fresh ingredients for dinner, which they cook on deck in a laid-back lesson that allows us to take notes or simply watch while sipping a drink. (Most recipes are from her cookbook Bali: the Food of My Island.)

On the menu: coconut sambal with whitebait, mung beans and petals of pink torch ginger; curried fish flavoured with candlenut, chillies, turmeric and nutmeg (“the only mix that uses nutmeg in Bali,” says DeNeefe); stir-fried papaya leaves, amarynth and snake beans; cucumber salad in “a typical Balinese paste” of garlic, ginger, candlenut with fresh coconut milk, lime leaves and a touch of sambal.

Every lunch and dinner is a spread of new dishes with subtle and spicy flavours – spring rolls, tempeh salad, prawn noodles, fish sate, seafood paella, Padang meat and potato soup, whole fish bought from a fisherman who came by in his boat.

DeNeefe throws in tips on the health-giving qualities of turmeric; how sate sauce can be made with Nobby’s beer nuts; or the difference between Balinese curry paste and Sumatran, which uses Indian spices such as cumin. Dinner always ends with a delicious cake or pudding somehow carried from her Honeymoon Bakery in Ubud.

By the time we emerge from our comfortable beds each morning (and early birds have jumped off the boat for a swim), breakfast is being laid out on deck, starring DeNeefe’s coconut muesli with yoghurt and palm sugar; tropical fruit, pastries, eggs cooked to order and local dishes such as sweetened black rice. Each time we come on board we are handed a cool drink or morning tea with cake or biscuits.

Yes, food occupies a lot of our attention and we spend hours each day around the long wood-and-glass outdoor table that cleverly serves as both social hub and skylight to below decks. Fortunately, there are plenty of appetite-stimulating activities between meals.

The whole cruise is within Komodo National Park and we make excursions to Rinca Island and Komodo Island, the two natural homes of the komodo dragon. On Rinca three guides carrying large forked sticks surround our group of 12 as we search for some of the 2000 dragons – the largest lizards on earth – with nervous excitement.

Like us, they are attracted to the aroma of cooking food and a few loll around the staff kitchen building; but we are warned they can spring into action and run at 20 km/h.

Our 90-minute (medium-length) walk is through shady gullies also populated by macaque monkeys, buffalo, deer, wild hogs, birds and butterflies. We pass solitary dragons ambling through the forest, sitting by a waterhole or watching their nests. And then a steep, hot climb takes us up to palm-dotted savannah with views to turquoise bays.

We are rewarded by zooming in our tenders to Komodo Island’s famous Pink Beach, which is tinged with crushed coral, for an afternoon of easy snorkelling among multi-coloured corals and fish. My husband is thrilled to encounter a green turtle and follows it so far he has fight back against the current. With a few tourist boats and boys trying half-heartedly to sell us pearls and carved dragons, this is the busiest spot we visit all week.

Each day Kolijn and Hayes choose a beautiful and slightly more challenging spot to snorkel in the mild waters. On day four, moored off Gili Lawa Darat island, we follow the reef out from the beach to a point where the current carries us back inshore so fast that my husband and I just lie face-down holding hands as a panorama of large fish, turtles and reef sharks rushes beneath us.

On the last day Katharina anchors in choppy open sea and the tenders take my intrepid fellow passengers into the distance to Makasser Reef – otherwise known as Manta Point – to snorkel among the manta rays that come to feed in the channel. Me? I look at the mysterious water, think about Steve Irwin’s fatal encounter with a stingray (not a manta, but still) and decide to settle in with my book.

I know I’ve made a mistake when the others return wide-eyed. “It was like a hallucination. They were playing with us,” says Amitav Ghosh. One of the Australians, Peter Bishop, writes later in an email that as a child he had seen “devil fish” hanging from the ceiling of the Australian Museum in Sydney.

“And now here we were in the turbulent ocean currents with them and their enormous batwings and their curved and jutting jaws and their pale bellies and gaping gills and yes, those spiny black tails – but it turns out they only eat plankton.

“They were incredibly curious – these graceful giants kept swimming up to us, brushing by us, curving and sailing over us and under us, and all the time I’m looking at those long spiny black tails and thinking of Steve Irwin and taking shaky videos. Utter magic.”

Most evenings we sit on deck with a cooling breeze and drinks while Ghosh and Baker talk generously about the writing life. “We moved to New York, had $50 after setting up and never lost our nerve,” he says. His trilogy of novels about shiploads of characters sailing the Indian Ocean during the 19th-century Opium Wars (the third, Flood of Fire, will be published in May) provides fitting stories and opens lively conversations. As do her biographies of adventurous American women who moved to the Indian subcontinent and, in one case, converted to Islam.

Our only encounter with “civilisation” is a short visit to Kampung Kukusan, a village where the Bajo residents, once nomadic boat dwellers, have built tiny houses, a school and mosque along the muddy shore. The adults politely welcome us while the children show off for our cameras and sing the national anthem with Hayes, who assures us such visits are rare and spontaneous.

While there’s time each day for solitary reading and resting, our shared activities form close bonds among the passengers, the hosts and the crew, whose mixture of natural courtesy and cheeky humour is perfectly balanced.

One night the young men give us a concert of Indonesian songs from their various islands. On the last evening, they set up a barbecue on a beach with candles and more music, and we dance under a banana leaf-shaded light and a full moon. The sky has been a constant element of the trip, as much as the sea, and the swelling moon has even turned on a spectacular eclipse.

Labuan Bajo feels like a seething metropolis after this tantalising glimpse of Indonesia’s unspoiled beauty, which still creates calm spaces among the 253 million inhabitants of its 17,000 islands. I leave wanting to sail further and see a lot more.

*Click the link below for the article and photos: Flores, Indonesia:  A literary mini-festival at sea