He’s watching me. The fire flickering besides me means I can’t see him in the shadows but I know his eyes are fixed in my direction.
The same man gave us some freshly caught fish, set up his fishing spear to hold the aerial of the sat phone up high so we could get a better signal and lit a fire outside for us. One of the women here swept the leaves away from the sand they are letting us camp on , prepared and cooked the fish and gave us fried bananas. The kindness of the people in Indonesia is humbling and wonderful. I have enjoyed watching the 4 people in this small semidetached wooden hut go about their daily business, skillfully descaling and gutting the fish, the practised ease with which they set up their cooking fire, the tshirt they put over the end of the water pipe to filter out the bits. I love the simplicity of their lives and like learning from the different ways of doing things. So I can’t be surprised that they like looking at us and learning from our methods. But I’d still like to be alone right now. I’ve only got two more days paddling so this is my second to last night and tomorrow is likely to be in a large village so won’t have the peaceful, contented feel to this charming quiet hamlet on the beach. There’s a tree that hangs over the sea that is pulsating silently with fireflies. Hundreds of tiny flashing lights illuminate the tree better than any Christmas lights display. The bushy outline of the branches visible against a black sky. The gentle chatter of insects soothes my ears while the sea lapping on the shore is barely discernable tonight. It’s warm of course, but it’s a comfortable warmth, not sticky and stifling like some evenings. I’d like to sit quietly on one of the beautifully carved wooden benches that compliment this tidy home, feeling the heat from the fire, watching the flicker of fire flies and crunching on the fresh fried fish that was plucked from the sea and plunged straight into the frying pan.
I find myself reflecting on the many positive experiences I’ve enjoyed in indonesia. Yesterday was taken from a book of dream days. In the morning we swam with a young whale shark, watching him feed on tiny fish, close enough to touch although I resisted the temptation. We visited a "bagan", a large wooden platform anchored semi permanently with a small living quarters for 4 men in the middle and fishing nets draped underneath the large criss cross of timbers. They use bright lights to catch fish at night and hand lines with live bait to catch bigger ones. These enterprising boats have learnt to feed the whale sharks so they don’t suck the small fish from their nets with a side effect that they stick around for tourists to see. The fishermen start by pouring water into the sea from a bucket. A whale shark approaches and tiny fish are alternated with the water. The shark sticks it’s mouth above the water and opens wide. We get to watch the feeding up close and study this 4 metre long gentle giant. After a few minutes he moved away swims in a circle them comes back for more.
For lunch we visited an even smaller floating home where 4 other men look after live fish in pens that will be exported to Hong Kong and Singapore. They buy the large fish from local fishermen, and when I first arrived they were injecting them with what may have been vitamins to sustain them as they are shipped to Bali then flown to their final destinations. We asked if we could eat our lunch on their floating platform and started to get out crackers. They said yes then produced a small red coral trout and asked if we’d like that with some rice. Wow and yes please! A slim young man with long hair put on a mask and jumped into one of the pens. He came out with a red stripy lobster with massive spines. This was chopped, fried and served up next to the fish. It was all delicious and I enjoyed talking to Robert and his friends about their work.
Our last stop off the day was a floating mansion, an Australian motor boat that is being delivered to Thailand for it’s owner. The crew of John, Tracey and Jo are taking the scenic route and were also here to see the whale sharks. They invited us to stay overnight and we enjoyed a hot shower, a delicious meal of more lobster washed down with red wine, an air conditioned room and great chats. We even had our clothes washed. As we sat on comfy deck chairs on the front of the boat at sunset with a glass of wine I couldn’t believe the fairy tail day. Swimming with a whale shark, being cooked delicious fresh seafood and a bit of luxury with good company. It doesn’t get much better than that!
I’m the sort of person who ends up with scratched legs or face but doesn’t know how I got them. I get hay fever. Wounds never heal well. In my first week in Indonesia, I cut my ankle on a piece of coral as I pushed my kayak up the beach, my flip flops rubbed my feet. I cut my knee on my split paddles as I scrambled back into the boat after snorkeling with manta rays, my legs got peppered with mosquito and sand fly bites and a mild case of athletes foot between 2 toes took on a life of its own in the constantly wet and humid environment that is my kayak cockpit. My usual attitude of leave it and let my body deal with it was never going to work here. I’ve seen photos of infected coral cuts left untreated which flare up into bloated pusy infections.
One of my biggest fears of tropical paddling was my allergy prone, injury prone body getting covered in heat rashes and unable to cope with cuts that never dry. I quickly made friends with Sandy’s iodine bottle and brown dots and stripes now regularly adorn my legs like war paint. I need to allow an extra 15 minutes every night before bed to clean scrapes and nasty bites and apply anti itch cream, antibiotic cream, antiseptic cream and athletes foot cream to various body parts. It takes 20 minutes if it’s one of those humid nights where sand sticks like glue to everything.
After 2 weeks my athletes foot covered all my toes on one foot and the sole of my foot was tender and swollen. The other foot was even more swollen some nights although had very little athletes foot. Sandy got in touch with a doctor friend who thought I might have got cellulitis. I doubled my dose of doxycycline, the antibiotic I’m taking to try to prevent malaria and swapped from my general anti fungal cream to a specific athletes foot cream that Sandy had. Over the next week, the flakey skin slowly improved although the sole of my foot still looks like most of the skin might come of and my foot is still swollen some evenings.
More recently the tips of my thumbs and some of my fingers have been really sensitive and red. They are throbbing now as I write this in my tent and they keep me awake at night sometimes . I ruled out sunburn to start with because I wear lightweight hand covers made by kokatat specifically to block out the sun without being too hot. They are great and we are rarely apart during daylight hours but I now think that maybe the very tips of my fingers and my thumbs aren’t fully covered and they’ve got burnt. The doxycycline has an unfortunate side effect of increasing sensitivity to sunlight which can’t help.
Now I regularly put suncream on these extremities but they aren’t getting better. Maybe the cream washes off or perhaps it isn’t sunburn. The jury is still out on that one. Yesterday I put electric tape over the fingers and took some ibuprofen and my fingers are a bit better.
As a girl from chilly Wales, spending so much time in the heat I need to be constantly careful and mindful. A paddlers tan is usual brown hands and face. I’ve developed a new trend of a red stripe around each wrist like a thin bracelet. This was from one cloudy day where I wasn’t careful enough to make sure there was no gap between my hand covers and shirt sleeves. I have to be constantly alert to make sure things are tucked in, zipped up, suncream reapplied, lipsil handy and I’m often slightly uncomfortable – too hot, too sweaty, too sandy, too itchy, too tender.
It feels to me a bit like being in the death Zone above 8000 metres where your body can’t survive. You are slowly dying until you come down to lower altitudes. This hot humid climate is not so much life threatening as wearing, it feels like I have a limited time until something flares up or my tolerance runs out.
Having said that, I am proof that a clumsy cold weather lover can survive here. My initial cuts have healed pretty well, faint pink scars remind me of their origin. I’ve avoided heat rash on my body by tucking my shirt under my spray deck and making sure none of my skin touches the seat or spray deck. If I get really hot paddling I pour water over my self! I’ve got a bit too much sun at times but so far my religious application of SPF 20 lipsil has kept my lips blister free.
If you are still reading then hopefully this isn’t too boring or tedious. I am having a good time here but I wanted to share some of the challenges and their solutions!
I have about another week’s worth of paddling with Sandy to reach Nabire And I’ll fly back to Jakarta from there, then home!
Since we started heading slightly south, the NE Headwinds became NW tailwinds for a few days. Wahey! 2 days ago we had a feisty 20km paddle to an offshore Island with a good blow pushing us along and creating some chunky waves. Sandy got her sail fixed in Manokwari so she was flying along. I had a good workout to keep up and couldn’t dawdle or I’d be left behind. I love a good surf though and really enjoyed the ride. When we reached the sheltered side of the island it didn’t seem that sheltered with steep waves breaking over shallow reefs. Fortunately a mile further down the coast was a different world and we slid gently onto a sandy shore to make camp in an ants lair. At least that’s what it seemed like as ants were everywhere. We each had about 10 on each foot as soon as we stepped in the forest.
Yesterday and today we explored small sandy Islands with coconut trees providing the classic paradise view. I had a couple of snorkels and marveled at the magical underwater world. It feels like swimming into a movie set of a strange make believe garden. I’m suddenly surrounded by delicate orange fans growing on the edge of a carpet of short blue tipped plants, a white cauliflower plant sprouts upwards next to yellow spaghetti waving in the wind, bulbous Flintstone size boulders are scattered around in yellow and grey, featureless apart from scratches from hungry fish and the occasional brightly coloured sea squirt with feathers like a fishing lure . Smaller balls are imprinted with amazing maze patterns and luscious purple lips pout temptingly. Every nook and cranny is brimming with fish of all shapes and sizes. Schools of blue tailed fish come close to me, small Black fish which look like they’ve been given white tails as an afterthought frolic around near the surface. Tiny bright
blue fish sparkle in the dappled sunlight. A thin stripy fish eats parasites from the sides of bigger fish. The host usually stays still while the service is undertaken unless the cleaner strays too close to their mouth and then they dart off irritated. 5 big parrotfish slowly loom from the depths before seeing me and accelerating back down where they came from. A monster blue starfish with mean black spikes clings to a dying piece of coral sucking the last life out of it. Somehow an hour passes and I’m still there, enchanted by this magical world that is surely the work of someone’s imagination.
The last 2 days, the northerly wins we had banked on have failed to show with light Headwinds replacing them. I’m going this is a blip and we’ll be blown almost all the way to Nabire, where I’ll leave Sandy in about 10-14 days time. Or perhaps she’ll leave me to continue heading eastwards towards Papua New Guinea. I’ll fly back to Jakarta and then home in mid April.
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It’s a rest day but not like I know it. We’re spending the day on the outskirts of a small village of 200 people and since we arrived we haven’t been alone. About 20kids have followed us closely, sitting shyly to start with then helping us to put up our tents, making a clothes line for us from a plant that grows on the beach, appearing with bananas then a papaya,
trying on my hat and sunglasses, trying out their English words, fascinated by my sparky stick that lights our stove without a lighter. A few break away to draw in the sand or play with a ball and If I follow with my camera then more copy, eager to be on film.
That was a few days ago now, since the we’ve had a mixture of camping in villages and camping on our own private beaches. The variety is great, too much being surrounded by people can be more exhausting than paddling. In another place we were immediately surrounded and the crowd swarmed around us like bees. Sandy and I the Queens. Once I’d put my tent up, 2 chairs were set up in the shade for us and about 30 people sat around in a circle as I moved to the chair. I was brought a coconut to drink then a local fruit called lansak and all the while people took their turn in the chair next to me to have their photo taken with me on their phone, or on someone else’s phone if they didn’t have one. It was quite bizarre, especially as most people made a funny sign with their hand, something I’m too old or too uncool to be familiar with! Or maybe both!
We’ve just had 2 long days on the water, 11 hours each, to make it to surf free landings. Last night we made it 45 mins before dark and just got our dinner cooked before torrential rain poured from the sky. Sandy things she had a guardian Angel and maybe she does although she did get scared when something but the back of her kayak twice in murky water. After having a big crocodile do that in Australia she was understandably worried!
Tomorrow we should reach Manokwari, a town where we’ll spend a few days. We should have internet and phone signal. I’ve been sending a few messages overt the last 2 weeks or so by iridium sat phone.
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