From Timor to Papua
A discovery of Indonesia’s forgotten provinces
Text: Manu Bouvet, Carine Camboulives
In the 70’s, Indonesia appeared on the world map of surfing spots. It quickly became the other Mecca of surfing with Hawaï. But 40 years later, Indonesia (with Bali as the premier surfing location), is a victim of its own success. From the islands of Mentawais to Sumbawa via Lombok, the waves are often overcrowded.
To find a wilder playground, Carine and I are looking for a way to get to the islands of West Timor. The most eastern province, East Timor seceded in 2001 and became independent, thus becoming the youngest nation in the world. Opposite Kupang, West Timor’s capital, scattering out to the West, are some very promising islands for surfing. Whether for surf, kite or stand-up paddle, our favourite disciplines, all the ingredients are there: the south-east trade wind and the southern swells meet up there from May to September. The ferries sailing to the main Indonesian islands don’t go all the way up there, or very rarely. So we have to find our own boat, which is not an easy task.
Thanks to the word-of-mouth between travelers, – which remains the best source of information, with all due respect to Google disciples-, we hear about Xavier Pithon. Don’t look for him on Facebook, he won’t be on it. To contact him, just use the “coconut wireless” (the local grapevine). Based in Indonesia for the last 20 years, he is fascinated by the elegant curves of Indonesian ships. To study their building, he settled on the island of Sulawesi, which is the cradle of this traditional way of building, as well as being the cradle of the Indonesian Navy, whose most adventurous representatives sailed all the way to Madagascar as soon as the 7th century.
Xavier is building his first boat. Using no metal at all but executing a few ancestral rituals to accompany the building of his Pirinis. According to custom one must ask the tree if it agrees to become a boat. Considered as a person, a ceremony will celebrate its birth. The middle of the keel (“the navel”), is marked by a “priest” with chicken blood. Then, all the guests eat on board. Then at last, a coconut palm is hung on top of the mast, to keep storms away.
Most probably protected by these rituals, Xavier, with his crew Yann and Michel the Kanak, managed to moor their splendid 60-foot Zirbad on the agreed day, off Rote island.
We embark our bags under the skeptical look of the crew who wonder how we can need so much gear. Heading west, Zirbad is quite majestic with her checkered mainsail and foremast rigged on her yellow mast and bright red boom. We slowly settle on board for the 24-hour long crossing to Savu island. Sailing a broad reach is ideal for everyone’s comfort. At the helm, with an eye on the GPS, Yann shouts the boat’s performance as a trader would his purchases: “9.6…10 10.5…10.7…11 knots!!!” A record! Xavier says nothing, but rejoices inwardly.
First mooring on Savu island, very pleasant, to Carine’s greatest joy. Protected from the swell, after having cleared a path in small narrows, the lagoon where we anchor is bordered by a long, white sand beach. A row of coconut trees bend under the 20-knot trade winds that are blowing from the continent.
Alone in the world
With Lou, as is our usual habit, we sleep on the spacious aft deck, looking at the stars, and so as to be the first ones to wake up with the sun. I then have a look at the reef to estimate the swell. Because I know the wind rises early in the morning, I want to make the most of the first hours of the day to surf on the beautiful left waves (the ones unfurling from left to right). There is not a soul around. The virgin waves we came so far to find are waiting for us open-armed. Just as I get ready to go in the water, Jeremie points to a multitude of black fins, which he immediately takes for sharks. I am suddenly less eager to go in…After some observation, I lament the substantial size of the fins, but am surprised at the great number of them (except for hammerheads, sharks don’t usually swim in schools). I am designated volunteer to go and take a closer look, which I do, standing safer on the paddle than lying down on the surf board. As I get nearer, I discover a fantastic spectacle: a dozen huge mantas seem to fly through the water like flying saucers. The tips of their wings are the exact shape of a fin when they breach the water! This is what scared us. I wave at the others to come and join me. Five minutes later, Carine and Jérémie are surfing amidst the large black forms with their immaculate underside. Benjamin, our photographer, nearly gets to touch them. The wave is hollow and long, the water crystal clear and the spectacle under and above water is unforgettable.
Heading west: Raija, Dana and the islands off Sumba are just more of the many stopovers packed with virgin surfing spots, wild landscapes and crossings. A few days later we reach Komodo where we leave Zirbad to embark on the second part of our voyage, West Papua. We change from the quietness of sails to the non-stop hubbub of an engine…
The last frontier
Formerly called Irian Jaya, the “other” Papua became part of the world’s largest archipelago nation in 1969. After a terrible repression, the Indonesian central power manipulated the referendum on the island’s sovereignty to incorporate the region. The province of Papua is now Indonesia’s poor relation, yet its natural and cultural wealth make it one of the last hidden treasures on Earth.
Searching for waves, we make new discoveries and this is what we like: beyond the wind and the waves, our quest opens new, different horizons. At the end of a trip, our experience is always more intense, richer, stronger.
Our Papua experience is the realization of a child’s dream: to discover those who still live the way they did at the origin of the world, in total harmony with their natural environment.
In Nabiré, in the North of the island, we meet our American guide, Kelly Woolford. Kelly has been working for more than 20 years in Papua. An ethnology and wide spaces enthusiast, he explores deep into the forest looking for tribes. While preparing our expedition, he warned: “I’ve prepared this unique expedition to discover a tribe, the Debras, who have only been seen by some gold-digger friends. They are a nomadic tribe so I cannot guarantee we’ll find them, even if I send some of my guides to reconnoiter a few days ahead of our arrival.”
Very early one morning, here we are on board a motor boat sailing along the coast for six hours, up to the mouth of the Memberano river. Another few long hours and we finally reach the last village where we’ll spend the night.
The next morning at dawn, we set off again on our journey on the river that narrows as we go along. We have to slalom among tree trunks. The sounds of the jungle are really loud. Lou opens her eyes wide when a ballet of cockatoos, bats and other toucans fly over our heads, as well as when she sees crocodiles on the banks. When we finally get to the junction with tributary rivers that are too narrow for our boat, we board a small local canoe, with an engine knocked up with bits of a weed trimmer.
Meeting the Papuans
As we land on the muddy banks, the Papuans are not there, which worries Kelly a bit. Just as we finish setting up our camp, torrential rains pour down on us. We can’t even talk! Time seems to have come to a stop. What are we doing here? For how long? But Kelly’s face brightens up, as his guide rushes back to say the Debras are coming!
We catch sight of part of the tribe, and do not dare to move. Lou is getting impatient and says: “so, are we going to meet the Papuans or what?” We walk towards them. Kelly first introduces the Chief, we then shake everyone’s hand, small ones, big ones, in a religious silence. “Makalido”! (hello). They are standing up, right in front of us. Women wear skirts made of dried organic fibre, men wear bird-feathered headdresses, a bone through their nose, holding spears and bows. We find it hard to “memorize” what we are seeing. It’s a very emotional moment. We look at each other, scrutinize each other. Lou is more at ease, and moves closer to the chief to check his hunting trophies that are hanging from his bag: pigs tails, bird legs, crocodile teeth. His grins make us all smile: we have been adopted!
Life goes back to normal at the camp. Fascinated, we follow our hosts like their shadows. Forget the leeches and spiders! To walk around the muddy tropical forest, you may as well be bear-footed and with a loin cloth on. We take part in all their “survival” activities. Preparing the “sagu”, the base of their diet, savouring worms and live beetles, building bird traps. The men, without appearing to, are keeping a close eye on Lou who plays with the pig: it is considered as a child by the tribe and often breastfed by the women.
It’s absolutely incredible to see how the Papuans live in such a symbiosis with nature, which protects them, feeds them, dresses them. It’s a perfect illustration of the very fashionable notion of “zero-impact” on the environment. All our gear packed in our bags suddenly seem trivial. It’s hard to think we cannot bring them anything without the risk of polluting them.
It’s also hard to have to leave them.
Expeditions to Papua : www.papua-adventures.com
Cruising in Indonesia with Xavier Pithon : email@example.com