All genuine knowledge originates in direct experience. – Mao Zedong.
On September 3rd, 1988, my girlfriend Linda and I set off overseas. We intended to be away for two years. As it turned out, by the time we returned home for the final time, six years had passed by. In that time we had visited 35 countries on five continents, taken thousands of photographs and written home dozens of times. We had also found time to become engaged in Vienna and get married in New Zealand.
These are my diaries from those years. They chronicle our journey from a couple of naive country kids from the South Island of New Zealand to hardened world travellers and adventurers. They also chart my emergence as a writer, beginning with farmer-style notes in a 1988 New Zealand Farmer’s Diary, to long, descriptive entries as our adventures unfolded out in the world.
There will be occasional gaps in the narrative: times when we were settled somewhere and I didn’t keep up with my entries. There will also be letters we wrote home, letters we received on the road, photographs, maps and other bits and pieces.
Where it is necessary, I will add relevant explanations in the form of annotations at the bottom of each entry. And although I will reproduce these diaries as they were written, occasionally, I may omit details that are too personal or sensitive. But rest assured, all swearing and offensive material will be left intact and included for your delectation!
We were all up for breakfast at 4:30 am and we are down at the waterside by 5:30. The boat turned up and we ferried ourselves and our gear out to it in a dugout canoe. The harbour was still peaceful at that hour with only a few small boats on the sea as we chugged out of the bay and across a smooth stretch of water to a small island where the crew moored the boat on a white beach. We all disembarked and walked along the shore then inland across the rocky ground to a promontory where we could look out across the ocean: blue and calm, and dotted with steep islands. We all split up and went separate ways to explore and I followed the beach back to the boat where Dan and I proceeded to frolic in the beautiful, cool, clear water by running down the beach and crashing and headlong into the waves and playing catch with a coconut.
The crew served a coffee and it was then that we noticed the clouds of small colourful fish around the boat. I put on a mask and snorkel and then discovered for the first time the amazing spectacle of coral. Once I’d mastered the correct way to breathe – something which, until now, I’ve never been able to do – it was amazingly easy to just float above the coral and peer down at the pageant below.
And what a pageant it was. Corals in shapes and colours of such variety that the sense of sight would barely comprehend; delicate branches, solid, bulbous, swaying in the current, rooted to the bottom and amongst it all the fish. They made the colours of the rainbow look pale insipid compared to the array of colours of the fish: such blues I’ve never seen or imagined; such crimsons, purples, hues of green and gold and grey.
We snorkelled for an hour or so then put to sea again and ate a delicious meal of fish, rice and vegetables. At Rinca Island, we went ashore and a guy took us for a walk up into the hills where wild horses snorted at us from the shade and the sun beat down on the landscape of dry hills dotted with palm trees and patches of dry scrubby bush. It was far too hot for walking around trying to spot animals, and apart from the horses and a Komodo dragon near the Ranger Station, we saw nothing on our walk.
Back at the boat, we sailed out amongst a maze of islands with the sun beginning to dip towards the sea which shone like glass. We anchored for the night offshore from a small mangrove-covered island and the crew set about preparing an evening meal while we drink cocktails of arak and orange squash. As the sun set the western sky aflame and tinted the eastern sky with violet and indigo, thousands upon thousands of fruit bats took flight from amongst the forest on the island and flew silently eastward towards Flores. The stream of huge winged creatures continued until well after dark and the orange moon, full and languorous, rose behind the shadowed outline of the mainland.
East of the sun west of the moon we slept comfortably beneath a blanket of stars, lulled by the gentle sway of the ocean.
We hung around in Labuhan Bajo and spent a part of the day organising the boat that would take all of us out to Komodo and to explore some of the snorkelling beaches around the bay. The deal we worked out was for nine of us to hire the boat for three days at a cost of R250,000 including food, entry fees, snorkels and masks, and guides. We would provide our own drinking water.
The ferry bound for Flores left from the small fishing village of Pelabuhan Sape and we all caught dokkas (small motorized carts) down to the harbour from the town centre in Sape. Pelabuhan Sape was a tranquil collection of stilt houses with a backdrop of still water and hazy hills. We boarded the ferry, which had a very small area of seats and it was crowded with Indonesians and a good number of tourists as well.
The water across which we travelled was very strange. It was flat and calm and the water was the colour of obsidian with the same sheen and textures. Upwellings boiled to the surface and whirlpools contorted the water where currents rippled and roiled between patches of millpond calm water.
About 2:30 pm as we set a course through a maze of dry, steep hills, Thierry saw a small boat capsize. Our ferry turned about and steamed over to where 20 or so people with clinging, terrified, to the upturned hull of the boat. The ferry nosed against the boat and the survivors were brought on board. Several were resuscitated by a German woman who was a nurse. A small child was dead and two others were almost so.
Apparently, the boat was capsized by a whirlpool and one person had been sucked down. It was not the first time a boat had sunk in that area, which was known as Three Rocks after three pinnacles of rock protruding from the sea nearby and around which a fierce rip current was running.
About an hour later, after we had dropped some people off at Komodo Island, we sailed back past the Three Rocks where the current was so strong that the engines of the ferry could only hold it in one position for several minutes before slowly inching forward out of the rip.
There was no trace of the capsized boat…
We arrived and Labuhan Bajo at 8:30 pm and made our way wearily up to the Losman Shea Felix where we met two other guys from the ferry: Dub, who was from Holland, and Dan, a New Yorker.
FOOTNOTE: We will meet Dan again in New York in 1994 when we set off on our next set of adventures. But that is another story…
From Bima, we went to Sape where we met up with the first four of the people who would eventually make up our group who would spend days in the waters around Komodo island. Sean and Trisha were from England, and Thierry and Ed were from Belgium and Holland respectively. Thierry, we had already met on the climb of Batur on Bali and we also had with us a Canadian girl called Michelle who we had met on the bus over from Lombok.
At 6 am we went down for an early morning swim in the funky surf which was so warm that the sand across which it was breaking was noticeably warm. We breakfasted expensively: our 11,500 rupiah room didn’t include breakfast but did include walls so thin that every conversation in the hotel could be heard. There was a man selling T-shirts outside the restaurant and I swapped my Simple Minds Streetfighting Years T-shirt for a LOMBOK PRIMITIVE one.
In the town of Ampenan, after a short cheap Bimo ride, we found the Hotel Sabir where a mouldy, insect-infested room was only R5,000 including breakfast and was, therefore, a much better value than the Senggigi Beach Resort. We passed the day somehow and arranged a bus ride to Bima, on Sumbawa Island for the following day.
We caught the 8 am ferry across to Lombok. As the vessel sailed away from Bali, the mighty cone of Ganung Agung rows above the land and the sea, with only the sky taller than its menacing grey and ochre flanks and broken summit, from which the island of Bali itself at issued over the dark and violent millennia.
The hazy coast of Bali was dotted with smaller cones: some perfectly symmetrical, others truncated and jagged, but each one subservient to the giant Agung, a king and his princes, a demon and his attendants.
The crossing of the mirror-flat channel took four hours and we docked on the green island of Lombok: it too a product of volcanoes and savage upheavals. A couple of tourist bus rides took us out to Senggigi Beach, which was horrendously expensive and I won’t waste paper describing it, save for a brief description of the sea.
The beach at Sengiggi was of coarsely-ground lava and coral sloping steeply down to the water. The steepness of the beach caused the swells to surge in and out in such a manner as I’ve never seen before. The water would rise two or 3 metres every time a wave came in, and when a breaker crashed onto the beach it sent shockwaves up through the sand which could be felt even while sitting in one of the bars 30 m back from the water.
The traditional day of rest, so we did nothing more strenuous than go for a walk out to the rocky headlands where the sea surged ferociously over the twisted black lava flows and the sun beat down from the sky like a hammer on a broken anvil.
We spent the morning at a small beach just around the headland from the Padangbai Harbour. The beach was steep and composed from pure white sand enclosed by stark black lava reefs between which the ocean surged up to crash on to the beach with an unpredictable force which made swimming too dangerous to risk. A couple of people braved the surf but I was content to stand and let it buffet me and suck it my legs with such a strength that could easily pluck and unweary person off their feet. Back in Padangbai later on we swam in the more docile waters of the bay then ate at another of the beachside restaurants.
Linda, Marty our Canadian friend, and I made an early start getting up for a 6:30 am breakfast. Marty was a little the worse for wear after a night on the arak (ARAK-NOPHOBIA!) but after a cup of tea and some fruit salad he perked up and we were on the road at 7 am.
We hitched a ride on the back of the truck up the hill to Penilokan and then down to a village called Bangli. The day was fine and sitting in the wind on the deck of the truck is it sped down the hill through the jungle was refreshing. At Bangli, we took a bimo van down to Gyanyer and then another out to Padangbai on the East Coast of Bali island.
We had a drink at a rumah makan (café) I can then went off and searched for place to stay. Marty was catching the 12PM ferry to Lombok but Linda and I reckoned on staying in Padangbai for a couple of days as it seemed a quiet picturesque place, with a beach sweeping around at the head of a calm blue inlet and rows of brightly painted fishing boats pulled up on the crystal white sand.
The Padangbai Beach Inn had the best value rooms at R8,000 including breakfast for two. Marty and I went for a swim in the wonderfully cool, clear water which swelled up onto the beach with a strong gentle force.
When Marty left to catch his ferry, Linda and I went down to one of the mini small restaurants on the beachfront for lunch and then relaxed on the beach for the rest of the day.