This trip traverses some little-visited island cultures and introduces you to the Indonesian archipelago’s most famous maritime ‘suku’ seafaring tribes. Yet our first destination is a mere overnight cruise from Bali. The graceful ship takes us far away from the tourist routes into the Java Sea, stopping first at the remote Kangean island group with its maze of inhabited and uninhabited islands, coral reefs and cays. Close to Indonesia’s geographical centre, this is the meeting point for many living maritime traditions. We will encounter the legendary Sea Gypsies as well as Mandar, Makassar, Bugis and Buton mariners from Sulawesi, while enjoying island hospitality, beachcombing and snorkelling. Sailing onwards to the nearby island of Madura, we will visit an ancient royal palace and harem baths, and a monumental mosque and tombs that recall a turbulent history of dynasties, princes and prophets, alliances and sea-borne invasions. Once renowned as warriors, the Madurese remain hardy seafarers, inventive and artistic boat-builders. On Madura we’ll see the world’s most spectacular traditional fishing fleet, stunningly decorated and steeped in ritual, religion and magic.
Note: Seafarers & Sultans departs from Sanur in Bali and ends at Benoa Harbour, which is just 8 kilometres from Bali’s International Airport. We will be happy to assist you with any information you need.
You and your party will be met at Sanur Beach, Bali, by our tour operator, plus our guest expert Jeffrey Mellefont. From here, we will travel by bus to a port on Bali’s scenic eastern coast. This is a pleasant and beautiful drive and a great opportunity to see a little bit of the island. After we board our handsome, traditional, timber, ‘pinisi’ boat, The Katharina, you will have a chance to settle into your cabin and meet the other passengers and crew before we enjoy our first alfresco meal together on the main deck. Your tour operator will brief you on all the activities and safety aspects of the cruise at this time. We will then set off on the first leg of our voyage, which takes us north into the Bali Sea while the majestic cone of Bali’s sacred volcano, Gunung Agung, recedes astern.
By the time the first tropical dawn breaks, we will have reached the Java Sea and the remote Kangean Islands. This archipelago, stretching 85 kilometres from east to west will be our maritime playground over the coming days. Its population is a nautical melting pot because it lies at the crossroads of the Java, Bali and Flores Seas, and the Straits of Makassar. Kangean islanders live from the sea, catching, trapping, farming and transporting fish, cultivating edible seaweed and pearls, boat building and trading between the islands.
As well as migrants from Madura to the west and Sulawesi to the east, these islands are home to sea-folk who might have come from any direction in this watery world: the legendary sea gypsies called Sama or Bajo. Previously these landless people spent their entire lives on their boats, from birth to death. Some still do, but most have now built villages on stilts over unclaimed reefs and the tidal margins of beaches. Their seamanship and knowledge of the marine elements remain unmatched.
Our first landing is on Seppeken Island, the administrative centre of the eastern Kangean islands. We can walk easily around this island in 45 minutes. There’s a rare fleet of sail-powered outrigger fishing boats here called ‘perahu pakur,’ and the larger ‘perahu lete’ with their big lateen sails; we should see them preparing to venture off into Australian waters in search of valuable trochus shells or ‘beche-de-mer’ (sea cucumbers). We will return for lunch on board before sailing to Little Pagarungan, a typical Kangean maritime community on a flat, clean, sandy, palm-shaded island. Local traders visit to load fish on ice, or coconuts, for markets as far away as Kalimantan (Borneo). We will later share a traditional meal at the home of a famous boat builder.
Depending on tides and winds, we may visit a reef-dwelling Sea Gypsy village built on stilts over coral. Alternatively, we will land on Little Seridi Island, a remote white-sand cay that will dazzle you with the emerald or sapphire hues of its clear waters. With no cars on its sandy roads, a stroll across the island is leisurely, peaceful and friendly. It is home to migrants from Buton in Sulawesi, their tidy households and mosque shaded by nodding coconut palms. Relaxing on the verandah of the village head, we will hear about their origins and their island lives and lifestyle. By the afternoon we will be anchored off Saur Island, where pretty villages and white-sand beaches line the shores and where we can go ashore and meet beachcombing people who rarely, if ever, receive foreign visitors. Their frank, friendly demeanour will delight you. This is also one of several places where we can snorkel.
Our captain will weigh anchor before you awake to head west to the largest island and the one that gives this remote group its name: Kangean Island. We will round Saubi Island, most of which is a nature reserve with extensive mangroves, coasting close to Kangean’s shores and past a shipwreck that sailed too close! We will pass bays and isolated hamlets below a long, jungle-covered ridge that’s famed for its forests of teak – the tough, durable timber favoured by boat builders. Today’s landing place is Batu Guluk, the main port for the largest of this island group. We will travel in a local mini-bus fleet to Arjasa, the main town, where a few heritage Dutch colonial buildings still survive. Here we will witness tamratan, the unique local cultural tradition of dancing horses, which are called upon for ‘rite of passage’ ceremonies such as weddings and circumcisions. En route to the wild northern sea coast, we will visit the extensive underground complex called the Cave of the Yellow Princess, and learn of its sacred significance and legends amid the ancient stalactites and stalagmites.
Having cruised overnight from the Kangean Islands, we will anchor off the major port of eastern Madura Island. The approach is through an ocean dotted with spectacular bamboo fishing platforms. Madura, the Bali-sized island close to north-eastern Java, is the home of a hardy, wide-ranging seafaring culture whose traditional sailing craft or ‘perahu’ were always the most colourful and unusual in all of Indonesia. The nearby regional capital of Sumenep was the seat of ancient ruling sultanates as well as the Dutch East Indies Company. Hugely prosperous in the eighteenth century, the city is now a quiet, peaceful backwater, yet its past glory is still in evidence. We will visit the 18th-century Kraton (sultan’s palace) with its unique architecture, harem bathing pools and museum loaded with royal heirlooms. Here we will be welcomed with cultural performances staged especially for us. The nearby 18th-century Grand Mosque features multicultural architecture – Portuguese, Dutch, Indian and Chinese – as do the picturesque Asta Tinggi royal grave sites. Before returning to our ship we will linger for the start of the night market at the ‘alun-alun’ (town garden/square) and ride the extraordinary ‘odong-odong’ – fanciful and fantastic joy-ride vehicles like nothing you’ve ever seen!
Next morning our taxi fleet drives us up to Madura’s north coast to view the amazingly decorated, traditional fishing fleet of big, teak-built ‘selerek’ (‘seine net boats’) that line the banks of the palm-shaded river ports of Ambunten, Pasongsongan and Pasean. These may well be the world’s most spectacular fishing boats. They’re decorated with a vibrant artistry of carvings, paintings, ornaments and bunting that’s hard to believe, incorporating symbols and imagery drawn both from high, courtly traditions and robust folk styles, featuring religious themes as well as pop culture. On the way back to our ship we will relax for lunch, pony rides or swimming at Slopeng or Lombang, our choice of clean, local, ocean-beach resorts. Don’t be put off by the term ‘resorts’: these are unsophisticated and unspoiled, for simple local recreation and family visits on holidays and holy days.
Days 7 & 8
An overnight passage from Madura will bring us back to Bali’s Pulau Menjangan, where we will moor in the waters of the West Bali National Park, renowned for its diving and snorkelling. This is in the northwest corner of Bali, so from here we will cruise during daylight hours so that you can enjoy the spectacular scenery as we coast along Bali’s northern littoral. The voyage continues through the night to return to Benoa Harbour near Sanur where the journey started, to have you ashore by the following morning.
Meet the expert – Jeffrey Mellefont
Jeffrey Mellefont is research associate of the Australian National Maritime Museum; a former blue-water mariner and navigator; a writer, photographer and editor who has made a lifetime study of the fascinating maritime world of Asia and, in particular, of Indonesia. Every evening, within the comfort of our boat, Jeffrey will reveal more of this amazing maritime realm in a series of richly-illustrated talks, which include photographs taken over years of sailing with Indonesia’s native seafarers.