14 September, 2020

By Sarah Oliver

If there’s one memory of the voyage around Indonesia’s Lesser Sunda Islands I cherish above all others it’s the moment I found a pile of lemony sleeping bags on the deck of our boat, the Ombak Putih 

They were there as an invitation to adventure. Abandon your cabin, they said, and sleep on deck. Dream under a canopy of southern stars and wake up in the rose-gold bliss of daybreak at sea.  

I didn’t need asking twice.

Our Ship, Ombak Putih.

There were many other perfect moments on our sailing trip. I could have chosen the morning the setting Moon seemed to fall into the crater of the great volcano Rinjani on Lombok. 

Or our visit to the island of Rinca, where we had a welcome party of four slit-eyed Komodo dragons, yellow forked tongues slithering in and out of their killer jaws. 

There was the afternoon we sailed towards Sangeang and watched its active volcano belch clouds of smoke and ash. Perhaps I should have picked the bit where we swam in open water with manta rays, 15ft from wingtip to wingtip, or held our breath and dived to see turtles with shells bigger than I am tall, in the shallows just off Siaba island. 

For me, it was all about the sleeping bags.  

It’s not that the Ombak Putih’s cabins aren’t comfortable – they have cool white linen, Balinese batik and polished wood. The freedom to bed down on deck with my husband Ciaran and sons Rufus, 13, and Felix, nine, captured the footloose spirit of this journey through the Flores Sea. For a week we sailed away from everything apart from each other. 

Inside Ombak Putih

Indonesia is one of the world’s biggest archipelagos. Its great islands have beckoned the curious for centuries: Java, Bali, Sulawesi, Borneo, Sumatra.  

But most of the thousands of land masses which speckle the atlas down here have less familiar names and are a long way off the tourist trail. You cannot go unless you go by boat. 

Ombak Putih belongs to SeaTrek, an Indonesian company which pioneered small-boat adventures 30 years ago.  

Today they’re still straddling the gap between backpackers with time to hustle rides from fisherman and the uber-rich, like the Kardashian clan who last year hired a yacht to film an episode of Keeping Up With The Kardashians in the Komodo National Park.  

On a SeaTrek cruise, however, you’ll need a ‘rash vest’ and reef shoes rather than a cocktail frock. 

Under the guidance of tour leader Nita CJ, 18 of us set sail from the island of Flores. While on land we’d visited the mountain village of Melo to watch a Caci, the ritual dance performed by Indonesian warriors with whips and horns and belts and rattan shields. I’d chewed a betel nut (a mild stimulant) there.  

Komodo Dragon

But it wasn’t that which had my heart racing: it was the boat. Ombak Putih means ‘White Wave’ and seeing her for the first time, at anchor, navy sails furled, made me gasp at the romanticism of our journey. She is a head-turningly lovely 138ft pinisi, a twin-masted ironwood ketch built in centuries-old Indonesian tradition. 

For Rufus and Felix our new home would prove a playground of gangways, ladders and hatches.  

Within minutes they’d jumped into the sea from the steps ‘easy’, the top deck ‘whoah’ and the bowsprit ‘aaaargh!.’ By the end of the first day they had a drop-in card school (Uno) running in the salon with ten-year-old New Yorker Elizabeth. By the end of the second they’d discovered that the 14-strong crew had all the best kit.  

From then on sea kayaks were paddled towards the horizon (with a dinghy patrolling at a discreet distance) and paddleboards were turned into wakeboards whenever they could persuade the dinghy pilots to turn doughnuts in a lonely bay. ‘Scream if you want to go faster’ is an international language, apparently. 

swimming with sea turtle
Sea Turtle. Photo by Nita CJ

Daily life became a blur of snorkelling in places where our boat was the only one on the horizon, beachcombing along far-flung shores, watching sunrises clutching mugs of coffee and sunsets savouring a cold can of Bintang, Indonesia’s malty lager. Arriving somewhere as wild and lovely via a splashy landing or a weathered jetty with sea eagles circling, became what we did. 

On the island of Bungin we explored a village of the Bajau people, sea gipsies who build their houses on stilts, escorted by the local band and two dozen children.

Bajau sea nomad’s kids. 

On Komodo we played on distinctive pink sand, made from ground coral the colour of blood. On Sangeang we watched boatbuilders working on another pinisi, its skeleton held up by bamboo scaffolding. 

We loved the mystical island of Satonda where we swam in Lake Motitoi, created by the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815. The tsunami which followed spilled the sea into the crater of the Satonda volcano where it is still trapped today.  

Satonda Lake, Sumbawa, NTB, Nusa Tenggara Barat

The water is so dense you can float effortlessly and it leaves a salty rime on your lips when you climb out – which you should because the slippery hike to the crater’s edge is abundant with butterflies. 

One evening we watched thousands of fruit bats take flight from their mangrove homes, silhouetted in front of chocolatey mountains. Another morning saw us plunge into the bright waters off the palm-fringed atoll of Bedil with its coral gardens and populous fish. 

On our last night, crossing the turbulent strait between Lombok and Bali, the swell finally sent me from my outdoor bed back into my cabin where the hull’s noisy creaking told the story of the wind and waves outside.  

As a family we only travel independently. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about someone ringing a bell, albeit on a boat, to summon me for something. In the end though, this voyage with its ‘help yourself’ pile of sleeping bags, didn’t just show us unseen Indonesia, it set us free. 

*This post was originally published on Daily Mail Travel