The starfish are blue, but not in an emotional sense. Nor are the golden damsel fish in distress. After all, it’s difficult to feel despondent when you’re paddling the warm seas which flank Indonesia’s lesser-known islands with their underwater fields of lilac and gardens of lime coral. As for the angelfish, it looks like it’s in heaven
Australians have an unwavering love affair with Bali. But there’s so much more to Indonesia beyond the Island of the Gods. I am on a nine-day sailing trip aboard Al likai or ‘Queen of the Seas’, a traditional Indonesian timber boat that will carry me from Sanur in Bali, east across the Bali Sea and into the Flores Sea, ending at Labuan Bajo, just before Timor. This 50-hour journey, covering some 350 nautical miles, will showcase some of the best of Indonesia, from its remote eastern villages to the mighty manta rays that ply its waters, and the gargantuan komodo dragons that prowl its lands.
Days one and two
The seastars in these waters are blue, but not in an emotional sense. Nor are the golden damselfish in distress. After all, it’s difficult to feel despondent when you’re paddling the warm seas that flank Indonesia’s lesser-known islands, with their underwater fields of lilac and gardens of lime coral. As for the angelfish, they look like they’re in heaven.
We have calm seas on day one for our nine-hour sail along the coast of Bali and up the Lombok Strait to South Lombok, where Gili Layer awaits our anchor. On day two we snorkel off ‘no name’ island, home to seahorses and nudibranch sea slugs, and where the Spanish dancer flaunts its red flamenco cape. A spaghetti worm wraps around the coral where the juvenile boxfish fancy a frolic.
By mid morning it’s all grappas and thick, muddy Lombok coffee onshore at Gili Asahan Eco Lodge & Restaurant, which was built by Italians. Later, we drift snorkel with the current off Gili Ringgit, where the coral chatters in one of Indonesia’s 300 dialects and the trumpetfish are tooting their own horns.
Back on board, we feast on Indonesian delights such as gado gado and chicken laksa, and drink ice-cold Bintang. There’s homemade orange cake and the juiciest of mangoes for dessert. By late afternoon at Ko-ko-mo Resort Gili Gede, where the well- heeled lounge in private villa plunge pools and dine with their feet in the sand, it’s lychee martinis and local kids on pink bicycles.
When we awake on day three Mount Rinjani in the distance is shrouded in a mystical cloak, but this active volcanic madam rests peacefully today. We snorkel off Gili Nanguu where coral restoration projects have attracted thousands of fish. Nemo is there in droves, but it appears his existential crisis has long since abated.
We explore the wreck and hard corals off Gili Meno, and our boat tender roars past the heart-shaped Honeymoon Island. Late afternoon it’s turtle time off Gili Trawangan, while onshore the distant heartbeat of reggae music thumps from a bar.
We are travelling at a leisurely eight knots an hour, and our days involve sailing, snorkelling, sleeping, eating and exploring. A 12-hour sail takes Al likai around the other side of Rinjani to Keramat. The water is pure glass and we snorkel to a tiny island where there’s an ageing woman, her husband and their two grandchildren, faces painted in ochre to protect against the sun.
At another nearby village, population 500, the swarms of children follow us like we’re rock stars. Goats slouch on doorsteps and young women wash their long, black hair in buckets of water. We snorkel back toward the boat over streets of sea urchins, spiky in name and nature, and discover a sailor’s eyeball – a type of algae which looks precisely as its name suggests and is one of the largest single-cell organisms in the world.
By late afternoon we are at Moyo (the village school here received funding from Australia after the island was devastated by the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami) and take a 2.5-kilometre walk to cool waterfalls and a swing rope. Back on board, we’re escorted by drifting dolphins who like to surf the wake of the vessel in the early evening when the hauntingly beautiful melody of Muslim prayer calls out from a village over the ocean.
Days five and six
Around halfway through our journey we arrive at the island of Satonda, behind which sits Mount Tambora on Sumbawa Island. Substantially more destructive than Krakatoa, Gunung Tambora lays claim to being the site of the largest volcanic explosion in recorded history. On Satonda itself, a crater left by an ancient volcano has been filled with warm saltwater from the Boxing Day tsunami. Locals and visitors hang coral on a wishing tree here for good luck.
Another long sail through the night brings us to the weaving and boat-building village of Wera on Sumbawa. There’s another active volcano around here, which turned these once-white beaches to grey ash three years ago, but Sangeang Api (or ‘Mountain of Spirits’) is quiet today. The plump cushions scattered around the decks and day beds on Al likai are made from the intricately woven cloths on this island.
Days seven, eight and nine
By late afternoon on day six we’re in Komodo National Park, where it’s all swirling sea eagles and stingrays in the calm cove where we moor. The next morning the mantas are mooching along the ocean floor as if the coral is crooning a beautiful ballad. We drift snorkel along Manta Alley, a white-pebbled path along the ocean floor off Komodo National Park, and it’s a 30-manta morning on this magnificent day.
On our penultimate day we arrive at Rinca, home to the komodo dragons. Around 10 lazy lizards are sunning themselves in the early morning warmth, as if to say, “Forget the snorkelling, it’s us you’ve really come to see”. And indeed, these million-year- old dinosaurs make a point.
But the ocean is beckoning again, and our last snorkel features a sea snake and reef shark before the sun sets on our final sail, and our intriguing glimpse into the mysterious life beyond the magic of Bali.
Al likai carries a maximum of 16 people. For more information on the boat and her sailing itineraries, which may vary depending on local weather conditions, go to www.indonesia-yacht-charter.com