Indonesia: Cruising to Komodo, Bando and Other Islands

Indonesia cruising: Being welcomed on Banda Island, Indonesia. Tab Hauser photos.
Being welcomed on Banda Island, Indonesia. Tab Hauser photos.

Indonesia Cruising: Remote Culture, Spices and Giant Lizards

By Tab Hauser

Traditionally dressed Takapalan Indonesia cruising.
Traditionally dressed Takapalan.

Indonesia has 17,508 islands of which 922 are permanently inhabited with 1000 ethnic groups and subgroups speaking 600 languages.

Indonesia cruising is an experience that takes in many, many cultures on one trip.

Many of these islands have a unique form of wildlife, culture or geographical feature worth a look. To visit a dozen of these islands over 15 days we boarded a Royal Geographical Society sponsored voyage aboard a Silversea expedition ship.

Headhunters and Dragons

Our Indonesian cruising had us meet former head hunters, walk up unusual extinct volcanoes, visit whalers using ancient hunting methods, swim in pristine coral reefs, get close to the Komodo dragons and stop by deserted islands for a swim.

For history buffs, we followed explorers and pirates to the original Spice Islands that can only be done by small ship.

The Discoverer

Expedition ships focus on the learning and the doing experience of remote places.  They go where larger cruisers cannot.  The Discoverer, at only 245 feet had 95 passengers and a crew of 98.

Of the crew, there were two Royal Geographical Society lecturers as well as a dozen expedition leaders who specialized in several different sciences and history.

Their job was to guide us through the different experiences we would be encountering and give lectures on board.  To get around they would pilot small groups on Zodiacs for what were mostly beach landings.  What is nice about a small ship is that a shore landing in a remote place does not overwhelm it.

The author hiding from a Komodo dragon.
The author hiding from a Komodo dragon.

One Nasty Dragon, One Pretty Pink Beach

It was a pre-sunrise arrival to Komodo Island beating out the day tour boats to view one of the nastiest creatures on Earth.  The Komodo dragon is a lizard that grows to 10 feet and weighs 330 pounds.

Using their sharp bacteria-laced teeth, they will casually walk up to a deer and give it a quick bite.

They will then follow it (sometimes with several other lizards) for a few days until the animal gets so woozy from an infection that it starts to stagger only to be eaten alive.

We were lucky to see up close eight of these super lizards.  To protect us, the park guides go low tech with a six-foot stick having a forked end.

If any Komodo dragons get too close they just put the forked section under their neck and push them away. Simple technology for a dangerous problem.

A dragon tasting the air on Komodo Island.
A dragon tasting the air on Komodo Island.

The second part of our day had us at Pink Beach on a different side of the island.

Here we were able to snorkel on a pristine coral reef finding various species of tropical fish, soft and hard coral.  Amongst the sea anemones were several colonies of Nemo’s as everyone called the clownfish.

Men on the beach here sell very good freshwater pearls for excellent prices.

Don’t engage them until you are ready to leave the beach or you be hassled until you do.

Leaping At Whales

On our arrival at the Lembata, we were welcomed by a small flotilla of whaling boats. This included an open motorboat pulling three large rowboats and a sailboat made with palm sails.

Whaling is permitted by the village of Lamalera because it is their means of subsistence and because they use ancient hunting methods. The boats greeted us for a rather bizarre demonstration.

Once the boats were near the Discoverer a young man would stand on a ramp on the bow of a rowboat keeping his balance in the waves while holding a long harpoon.  To get to a whale several men would pull hard on their oars.  Once the whale was close to the boat he would take a giant leap in the air throwing the harpoon midflight before splashing down.

Whale hunting demonstration off Lamalera, Indonesia.
Whale hunting demonstration off Lamalera, Indonesia.
Indonesia Cruising. Visiting 12 islands in the vast archipelago.
Indonesia Cruising. Visiting 12 islands in the vast archipelago.

We viewed several demonstrations from the ship’s deck. Click here to see a  30-second of the action.  Last year 28 whales were killed along with anything else that got close to their boats. While I do not agree with whale hunting, I was not here to judge their culture nor wish their village extra hardship.

Different islands have their own dance style and costumes. Bando Island.
Different islands have their own dance style and costumes. Bando Island.

After the demonstrations, we went ashore for a look at the village where we were met with a ceremony at the beach.  Both children and adults were excited to see us as we were the first ship to visit in a year.

In the village center, local school children and young ladies performed dances mimicking their way of life.

Around them were woman weaving on looms.  Life here is all about subsistence from the sea and trade with the people in the hills.

Spice Islands and the Manhattan Connection

Nutmeg, mace, clove and other spices were of the most demanded products 500 years ago. The remote Banda Islands were the only source for nutmeg and mace until the mid-1800s.

These small, hidden away volcanic islands were ruled by the Dutch from 1600 until 1810 where they monopolized the trade.

At our arrival in the channel two large ceremonial canoes welcomed us.  Going ashore on Banda Besar we learned the Dutch negotiated a truce with Britain to keep the Banda Islands while giving up New Amsterdam (Manhattan). The deal and the monopoly last until 1810 when the British kicked the Dutch out.

The monopoly ended shortly after when nutmeg seedlings were smuggled out.   On the island, we walked through a meticulously clean village and past old groves to an area set up as a spice workshop.

Two different colored lakes at the crater in Kelimutu National Park
Two different colored lakes at the crater in Kelimutu National Park

At its conclusion, we sampled spiced infused tea and coffee. The morning concluded with fresh coconut milk high up on a ruined fort with some of the locals.

That afternoon we were given a simple map to stroll around the village on the opposite island of Banda Neira.  Here we met the people eager to say hello.

Welcome at Takapala Village
Welcome at Takapala Village

The village consisted of an impressively preserved fort, the former colonial headquarters in fair condition, the main street with colonial buildings in different forms of restoration, a fish market by the dock and a church that survived the last eruption 30 years ago.

On the walk back to the dock we saw many smiling children coming home from school on bicycles.

Head Hunting and Wood Carving

Visiting the Asmat people in Agats in Papua was a memorable two-part experience. This region was one of the last explored areas of the world. Our own exploring concerns started with the need to get up the river and over the sand bars at night due to the tide and current.

Early the next morning we boarded zodiacs in heavy rain to view several dozen menacing-looking men on narrow dugout canoes reenacting their age-old “welcome”.

Boys dance about whaling
Boys dance about whaling

As they got close, they ranted, jeered and threw bursts of white powder.  Between their taunting welcome, headhunting and their difficult location, western explorers kept their distance until the 1950s!

This tribe of Asmat’s life along the river in a simple off the grid houses several feet above the low tidal mark connected by splintered walkways.  They get by as hunters and gatherers of animals, fish, and grubs.

Headhunting and cannibalism was an important part of their culture because they believed that death, even by sickness, was caused by an enemy and revenge at a nearby village needed to be sought out.

This practice was outlawed in the 1970s but still continued in areas until the 1990s.  In the 1950s Catholicism was introduced and today coexists with some old traditions.

Rockefeller Eaten

The Asmat’s are now known as master woodcarvers and are internationally collected.

There work is on display in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Michael Rockefeller is believed to have become a victim of cannibalism here in 1961 while on a buying mission.

Our shore visit had us walk the elevated village to the men’s “long house” where meetings are held and wood carvings were for sale. Here ladies offered baked grubs to snack on. Afterward, we witnessed a ritual dance in celebration of a new canoe.

Indonesia cruising in the luxurious expedition ship.
Indonesia cruising in the luxurious expedition ship.

For the afternoon we visited the northern part of the village that had motor scooters, markets, electricity, better homes, shops, school, and a small carving museum.

People went about their business of work and sport playing volleyball on an elevated platform. It was a strange divide of culture separated by a 5-minute walk.

The Beauty of Triton Bay

The 2300 square mile marine sanctuary that includes Triton Bay on the west side of the Island of Papua New Guinea is one of the most pristine places in the world.

This beautiful bay was formed inside 3000-foot limestone cliffs and is lined with thick forests full of birds.  The bay has several limestone pillar mini-islands making it an awe-inspiring 90-minute nature zodiac ride.

Triton Bay, located in the Coral Triangle, has 76% of all coral species living in just 1.6% of the ocean. Due to remoteness, it was first scientifically investigated in 2006.

Rice patties we saw while Indonesia cruising among the nation's many islands.
Rice patties we saw while Indonesia cruising among the nation’s many islands.

Marine biologists broke a record by observing 330 fish species on one reef.  For our afternoon we swam and snorkeled on a deserted beach.

Interesting Port of Calls

Our expedition cruise visited several other noteworthy islands.  This included Endes, Flores where we were driven 90 minutes to Kelimutu National Park.

There we hiked up to the rim of an extinct volcano to see the unusual geographical feature of three different colored lakes on the top and learn of its local spiritual meanings.

There was a three-part stop on Alor Island that started in a traditional morning market where our Royal Geographical Society lecturer discussed the different fruits and vegetables that we were not familiar with.

Betal Nuts

It is here that she bought betel nut to prepare on board before a lecture for guests to try. Betel nut is a red looking “chew” that numbs your mouth and acts as a mild stimulant.

We saw many local ladies (with rotting teeth) chew this.  From the market, it was off to a small museum which specialized in ornate kettle style drums that were used in marriage negotiating along with intricate weaving on display.

Traditionally dressed Asmat walks to his canoe
Traditionally dressed Asmat walks to his canoe.

The last stop was at the traditional village of Takpala an hour up the coast.  Here we were greeted by warrior attired men. Afterward, we viewed the families dancing and visited their open-air homes.

Islands to Ourselves

A fun part of the voyage was making three swim stops at uninhabited islands.

During our evening briefings, the expedition leader would drill down to a grouping of tiny islands on a Google satellite map to show us what looked like a beach or possible coral reef.

Once chosen she would consult with the captain to see if the stop was possible based on the sea conditions.

Because no one on board had ever visited these islands, a scouting Zodiac was lowered to investigate the swim and snorkeling conditions and decide if a beach bar can be brought in.  Dropping 95 people on dot size picture-perfect island was easy, never crowded, nor hurt the local environment.

Enough Venom to Kill

On one beach we opted for a naturalist walk to learn about the fresh turtle tracks, nesting and view birds. Here our expedition leader showed us a pretty shell with a creature inside that had enough venom to kill a person in minutes.

16th-century Portuguese fort Beliga still stands tall
16th-century Portuguese fort Beliga still stands tall

He said bites are rare because the shell would have to be pressed tightly against your skin and that the venom is not released often because of the energy needed to produce it.  It made everyone think twice before picking up another seashell.

Cultural Moments:

Seeing the children on the islands was a lot of fun and cultural experience.  On one island I took a few mini-cans of Coke which would be considered a treat.

When I tossed a can to a 10-year-old just a few feet away, he stepped aside and let it drop.

Puzzled by this, the local guide told me he probably never played catch as there are no small balls in the village.

At another village, I was “high-fiving” the kids who came by but they were not sure about it and wanted to be taught.

Walking away I turned back watching them teach each other to high-five.

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