Monthly Archives: April 2015

Maratua.

Looking at a clean page and wondering how to explain Maratua and I have no idea where to begin. How about the beginning? I was in Samarinda after the river trip and at dinner there was a young woman on the next table with multiple phones, gabbing away in foreign on one, then in highly accented English English on another, intrigued I struck up a conversation over the rice and chicken. Seems she was the sustainability manager for a palm oil company (huh, good luck with that I didn’t say) and out of the blue she starts showing me photos on her computer of a small coconut treed beach with the whitest sand. “You must go to Maratua” she said and went on her way. Back then to Balikpapan on the Kangaroo Bus, yes really, and to the hotel where, next morning at breakfast was a Swiss family. Mom, Dad, eleven year old girl, boy seven and we got to chatting. They had arrived in the middle of the night from Zurich, bright and sparkling, no grizzly jet lag, with just layovers here and there on the way. I complimented them on their sparkliness. “Oh thanks says the Dad, we are leaving in two hours for Maratua”, as if that explained everything.

You can imagine, all my antennas went onto ‘receive’ and I heard the story. First you must get a ninety minute flight to Berau, then find a car and driver for the two hour plus ride to Tanjung Batu, and after that you must find a speedboat and captain for the two hour plus trip out to the island. They left and out came the computer. A couple of expensive diving resorts on Booking.com, nothing on Agoda but then Trip Advisor had these reviews of a guesthouse, all five stars but no way to book. Checked the guest house web site and the only way to book was through a random lady called Amelia who was somewhere, New Zealand as it turned out. Back and forth with the emails, pages and pages of instructions and guidance, helpful hints and guidance, all this for a guest house (?), and pay upfront with PayPal. I took the leap, paid, booked the flight and next morning, early, I was on my way.

The flight was typically uneventful, Berau airport equally unremarkable, found a car and driver who straight away started asking me questions, the indication was that he wanted to stop off somewhere for something, well sure I shrugged. We stopped outside a house, he beeped and three teenage girls fell, giggling into the back, and off we went. Terrible road, full of holes, half washed away in places with no signage of imminent catastrophe, the occasional stop for yet more bananas, some nice Rain Forest bits, other bits devastated by slash and burn, heartbreaking charred remains. The jetty at Tanjung Batu all of a sudden, fishing boats, yachts yachting in the bay, some very expensive looking speed boats, some others, not so much. The car was approached by a team of rum looking coves and negotiations began, fortunately the aforementioned Amelia had given guidance on how much to pay and when I got a few dollars under her suggested price the deal was clinched. I bid farewell to my fellow passengers who all did the hand shake and touch the clasped hands to their forehead thing. All the young people do that, it’s most delightful. Embarked into one of the less expensive looking boats, bags followed, I sat in the back and we rocketed off, straight out to sea.

I felt bad for the next couple of hours because for the first time on my trip I was almost glad that certain family members were not present. It wasn’t really a rough sea but every time we hit a wave we basically took off, me two feet up in the air landing heavily back down again. I tried moving into the front seat behind the miniscule windshield, it didn’t help much. Out of sight of land for a while there was eventually a dot then a blob and Maratua loomed. (Finally Tim, finally!) and we approached the beach with the small blue roofed guest house beckoning. A large gentleman, Jun, took my bags off down a boardwalk into the jungle to my little hut with an outside bathroom, a big water tank collecting rainwater for showers etc. A bed and mozzie net, open around the top of the walls which let in the bugs and beasties, some quite large. The blue roofed large hut was the restaurant/bar, I use bar loosely, beer only. There was a kitchen that after a few days I felt comfortable helping myself from, tea, Sprite etc. There were omelets or scrambled eggs for breakfast, toast even, rice and fish or chicken for dinner, curried, spiced or not. Very good considering how far we were from anywhere. There were some others around, not many and they all left until it was just me, a guy from Minnesota, Thano, on his way to his job in McMurdo Sound Antarctica and Meredith from South Dakota on her way home from two years of Peace Corps teaching in Thailand. We were soon joined by Ola and Mattius from Poland who added a little continental je ne sais quoi to our small American enclave. Conversations, meals, beers and good company made our little bit of Paradise even better. It was almost Robinson Crusoe land, a coral island, an atoll in fact, complete with reef and lagoon.

There was a surfeit of divers around, scuba types, I couldn’t keep up with their special language which consisted of discussions based around PADIs, BCDs and REGs, I had no idea, but did enjoy the forays into the encyclopedia of local fish. There are a lot of fish in the book. I did tag along on one excursion to a Dive Resort, Nabucco, set on its own tiny island, no more than ten chalets, a private beach and scrambled egg with bacon for breakfast. It looked very, very pleasant, a little expensive perhaps and absolutely nothing to do except for the diving. That’s why people go there. Oh, and I missed the Swiss family by two hours.

There was another outing one evening to the nearest village for a wedding. The whole population was there on the dusty main street, under a large canopy, sitting on chairs or on the verandas of the adjoining houses. There was a band on stage at one end with the happy couple sitting on thrones beside the speakers and they looked absolutely miserable. They must have been there all day, all dressed up in their finery, but to my eye the bride’s dress bore every resemblance to a multi colored meringue. I sat myself down at the back, as you do, and thought I would just stay incognito but oh no, the Headman of the village comes along, grabs my hand a marched me right to the front where I was placed on a junior throne. Not quite what I had in mind, nor I think what Ola and Meredith had in mind either when they were hauled up on stage and encouraged to dance. They did very well. I was not invited to participate!

I’m probably not doing Maratua the justice it deserves because the atmosphere of the place is just about impossible to describe in words. The little restaurant overlooked the sea and every morning we would see turtles feeding right below us. There were Marlins out at sea doing that strange walk on the surface they do on their tales, Trumpet fish swam lazily by, there were barracudas, sharks and Napoleon fish, a whole encyclopedia full of fish in fact. And I did swim and snorkel with the turtles so that’s another thing knocked off the bucket list. The days absolutely flew by but all I did all day was sit on the restaurant edge and scan the one hundred and eighty degree sea view back and forth, back and forth to see what could be seen, read my book, point something out to the others or follow their pointed fingers and watch the tide go in and out. It was all just delicious. The owner, Jun, was a big local type, his wife Anna was quite wonderful and their four month old baby cried once, once! As it happens Jun lived in Edinburgh (Stockbridge) for three and a half years and has a kilt. We talked about the weather there. He didn’t wear his kilt. But on a similar subject I was thumbing through the magazines and came across a Nat’ Geo’ from last year with a big feature on the stone circles etc of Orkney. The Standing Stones of Stenness on the cover. All that way to Maratua to find an article about Orkney, who’d have thought?

There were many ‘moments’, one of the better ones was when I dropped my wallet in the sea. I quickly grabbed it and laid out my notes on a towel to dry. The sight of me chasing five dollar bills down the beach went, sadly, unrecorded. Or trying to Skype back home which involved a scooter ride to the village and connecting under the only cell tower on the island, much to the amusement of the population. etc etc.

Then it was time to leave, how sad. If you think you might go, go soon, they are building an airport.

Turtle.

Turtle.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Again.

Again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Too many turtles?

Too many turtles?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Part of the beach.

Part of the beach.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Always lots to see.

Always lots to see.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The cats caught a snake.

The cats caught a snake.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A boat.

A boat.

 

 

 

 

 

 

That golden moment, with Mattius and parts of Ola.

That golden moment, with Mattius and parts of Ola.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anna and the delightful baby.

Anna and the delightful baby.

 

 

 

 

 

 

This post may need a bit of editing, apologies, but thought I would upload it as the connection in North Sulawesi is spotty at best.

 

 

 

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The Mahakam River.

The challenge for river enthusiasts in Borneo, after experimentally testing themselves on the minor rivers, is the Mahakam, the country’s longest river. Rising some one thousand kms in the central mountains it wanders down to the coast near Samarinda where it empties its self into the the Makassar Straights by way of a large delta. The immediate problem is finding a way onto it as the first two hundred kms are heavily trafficked with vast mineral barges and coastal craft while the banks are crowded with stilted villages, shacks, shops, restaurants, cafes and of course mines. Not too  edifying. Coal is loaded onto barges from huge conveyor belts crossing high above the dwellings and poured down into the waiting barges, with of course, the resulting dust and stink. There are bottlenecks on the road along this part of the river where a bridge crossing has been built, unfortunately said bridges tend to collapse periodically leading to sad  loss of life. To avoid this hive of activity requires either a car rental or a bus ride, I chose the latter and up ready and waiting at 5am my guide, the excellent Abdullah, showed up and immediately hailed a passing scooter coaxing me onto the back for the ride to the bus terminal. I got the idea early on that this was not going to be any type of luxury cruise! The bus turned out to be a short, thirty seater, raggedy seats, cargo down the center aisle, doors and windows open for ventilation, every seat taken, crowded with Moms and children, farmers, miners and me. Sure got some interested looks. Off we wheezed casting clouds of fumes through the aforementioned hive of activity. Two hours and we were through and into the countryside, the hills loomed, no jungle, just palm oil plantations, the road twisted and turned, rose and fell, and the passengers started throwing up. Like I said, no luxury cruise this one.

Five hours of that and we reached the river, broad and brown, wide and lazy, and there was my boat. A ces, a glorified canoe with a lawn mower engine, the propellor attached to a long pole sticking out the back. The propellor sits quite high in the water and throws up a spectacular curved wash high in the air as we race along, it’s pretty impressive. In some parts of Asia this is known as a ‘long tail’. Settled into the one seat and roared off upstream where we promptly stopped. Propellor jammed. This has happened before here and there so I wasn’t really perturbed, just take it as it comes. We slowly made our way to the first village, tied up, unjammed the prop’ and set off again, noisily. Many, many villages along the river and judging by the number of satellite dishes these fisherfolk were doing just fine. Floating shops, floating gas (petrol) stations, floating houses, stilted walkways, tons to see. Different too, a Muslim majority village, a Dayak majority village, a Catholic majority  village, a village of immigrants from Sulawesi, another with people from Banjarmasin in South Kalimantan, totally fascinating, each with different languages but they all speak Dayak as well.

We crossed some big lakes, negotiated reed beds and huge banks of weed, almost impenetrable and of course we got stuck periodically. Harry, the driver, didn’t seem too concerned and bashed the cloying weeds with his paddle, freeing us. The problem was that as soon as we stopped clouds of mosquitos descended on us, out with the bug spray which helped a little. Eventually to our village for the night and the accommodation turned out to be a Dayak communal tribal longhouse. We wandered around the lanes and paths, watched the children fishing off a bridge, tried to find a replacement charger for Abdullah’s phone and ate some very good food for dinner.Then it was time to attend a Dayak Tribal Ritual featuring five drummers, a very large Shaman (medicine man?), wearing bells on his feet and a long skirt who danced and chanted, many female attendants and two chickens. There were maybe fifty people gathered in the big hut, mainly women with some sleeping children plus a smattering of men, everyone was Dayak, and me. People have written books about what I observed, suffice it to say I accepted that I was no longer in Hertford, Hereford or Hampshire any more, not even in Marin. It was all very strange and got stranger when two chickens became part of the Ritual. Oh no, I thought, but no, it was ok, they lived another day. I would love to have the words to describe it, the Ritual, but I don’t, probably because I had no idea what was going on, everyone seemed very happy though, much smiling. I think Abdullah told me we were communing with the ancestors, certainly offerings were made to someone/something, stuff was set alight and burned smokily, fruits were placed around in bowls and on plates clearly not to be eaten by me. I took some video on my tiny ipod, maybe it will make it home and I can find someone to shed some light on it. Again, it was all very strange.

Next morning it was back out onto the lakes and rivers, more getting stuck in the reed and weed beds,  more mosquitos, lots of bug spray. We traversed big lakes, made our way down narrow waterways, enjoyed the wildlife, failed to take photos of kingfishers, again, and passed by many, many more floating villages. There were more Bird Hotels. Did I mention these before? Can’t remember. All the villages had their bird hotels, big concrete or wooden structures, quite ugly with small holes in the walls and amplified bird song emanating from speakers on the roof. The birdsong attracts the swiftlets who build their nests within using their saliva, thousands and thousands of them. Their situation, beside the river, provides an abundance of food, mozzies etc. The nests are then harvested with the price at source being $100 per kilo, the nests are then exported to China where they are the basis for Bird Nest Soup, at vast expense. I became quite obsessed with Bird Hotels, eagerly pointing them out to the long suffering Abdullah who would smile, indulgently.

All day on the river, thundering along on the wide open parts, creeping along to observe the banks, more getting stuck in the reeds, it was a fabulous day, exhausting but far, far away from the humdrum. We eventually tied up in a village for the night, a village with no dogs. No dogs? No, no dogs. This I noticed quite soon as it is the sign of a 100% Muslim village. Apparently The Prophet, when on the run from the authorities had his hiding place betrayed by dogs, so no dogs in Muslim villages. Also, no beer. We passed the evening pleasantly enough at the house of one of his friends, the wife made local delicacies, the kids watched cartoons on tv, the menfolk chatted away while I rested on the sofa wondering what to do. It wasn’t as if I could read a book or play music on the headphones, that would be impolite just about anywhere. But I drank lots of tea, enjoyed the delicacies except perhaps the stewed bananas in, I think, rancid condensed milk, whatever it was it was horrid, truly awful. After a couple of hours it was time to go, back on the scooter, back to my concrete box to sleep. Ten o’clock came and there was a great wailing, up and down the street wailing. That’s new thinks I, turned over and tried to sleep again, my concrete box was very hot on account of no window or a fan.

Dawn came, eventually and peering over the edge of the upper floor there was a huge canvas covering the street outside the accommodation, chairs everywhere, people gathering, food being prepared and much sawing of wood and hammering. Odd, it wasn’t there when I went to bed. Abdullah appeared, what is happening says I. “oh didn’t you hear the Morning Prayers, the owner died last night”. Of course I had heard the Morning Prayers but as for understanding them, not a chance. The hammering and sawing came from the local carpenters, building the elderly Gent’s coffin, right there, on the street, he was quite elderly and his demise was not unexpected, but still!

I’m going on a bit sorry, lets wind it up.

Off back downstream in the ces to the jetty, found the car to take us back to Samarinda with a young woman already in the back. Turned out she was the one and only local midwife who delivers babies up and down the river and we were giving her a ride to town. Very charming, no English, but wherever we stopped she would find children she had brought into the world and chat chat chat. Nice. Abdullah insisted that I go to his home and meet his family, oh no, not another social situation where I do not understand a word spoken, all I wanted to do was take a nap. It seemed churlish to refuse so we arrive at his house, slip and slide up the steep path with no steps, fall in through the door and collapse on the sofa. I heard singing and from the back of the house comes Mrs Abdullah, Diana, bearing a cake, with candles all lit followed by many children of all ages singing Happy Birthday, in English. Oh my goodness. I had to blink seriously. It was quite lovely. There were presents. More tea. We always had Birthday Tea back in Marin but I didn’t make a big deal out of my birthday, I just mentioned it when Abdullah, at some point, asked me how old I was. There I was in far away Samarinda, having Birthday Tea, it was all a bit much and I was quite overcome. What could I do in return, fix the family computer of course, hahaha, they were all thrilled.

I have been off the Internet for over ten days hence the lack of communication. I was a plane, car and boat ride away on a coral island, an atoll, complete with reef and lagoon and little to no connectivity. It was a miracle to find in these days of mass tourism, only a handful of other wanderers were there, less actually.

It was called Maratua.

Floating village shop.

Floating village shop.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Floating gas station.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Child fishing for dinner.

Child fishing for dinner.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Statues outside Tribal Longhouse.

Statues outside Tribal Longhouse.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Very bad lighting but this is the Shaman.

Very bad lighting but this is the Shaman.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stuck in the reeds.

Stuck in the reeds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Coffin making.

Coffin making.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fishing on the river.

Fishing on the river.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Clouds and river.

Clouds and river.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bird Hotels.

Bird Hotels.

 

 

 

 

 

 

More Bird Hotels.

More Bird Hotels.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mending nets.

Mending nets.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A very peculiar looking bird.

A very peculiar looking bird.

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is a Marabou stork and seemed to be almost domesticated, in a way.

It is a Marabou stork and seemed to be almost domesticated, in a way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happy people.

Happy people.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fishing.

Fishing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eagle.

Eagle.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A rare black long tailed monkey.

A rare black long tailed monkey.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I seem to have mislaid the Birthday photos. I will upload a couple when I find them.