Dawn in Borneo

balicareen_1999 (Medium)

The 32-foot ketch Tosca is careened for a coat of bottom paint in Benoa Harber, Bali.

Date: January 1999

Place: Bali to Borneo (Indonesia)


Dawn in Borneo. Fat drops of rain, blessed rain, splatter on the deck of our ketch, Tosca. A blanket of clouds hangs low overhead, rose-petal pink to the east and gun-metal blue to the west. The swelling Kumai River slips silently beneath the hull. Its tannin-stained waters carry dead leaves and fallen limbs.

Anchored along the eastern bank, Tosca lies at the edge of a dark green labyrinth where our water world vanishes. The shoreline reveals a thin patch of spongy peat quickly consumed by a nipa palm swamp. Beyond the palms, mountainous lumps of impenetrable hardwood hammocks belie the region’s irrefutable flatness. Every green thing seems engaged in mortal combat. Branches and roots crawl with successively smaller biota competing for whatever light penetrates this place. The air, thick with the smell of honey-scented flowers and filled with the constant whining buzz of cicadas, rests heavy in the palm of my hand. Each bird’s cry sounds to me like a plea for help. Welcome to Kumai, Kalimantan, in Indonesian Borneo. The heart of darkness, indeed.


TMP heads upriver toward Tanjung Puting in Kalimantan, Borneo.

As the rain rinses Tosca‘s salty decks, images from the 500-mile trip from Bali still linger. It began the night before we left with a typical yachtie send-off, a beer-fueled barbecue on the back of Surfer Don’s catamaran Moggy. A North Carolina boy turned North Shore surfer, Don comes from the bonfire school of barbecue. Each time he opened the grill’s lid, flames leaped high into the night. Dick, the marina manager, nervously pulled his mustache as he imagined the marina disappearing in a puff of pork-rib scented smoke. Don removed the flaming chars one-by-one, treating them like perfectly toasted croissants. Australian Tony Doris—surfer, sailor and board-shaper extraordinaire—waxed nostalgic about saying goodbye.

“Mate, I tell you, we’re going to miss you and Theresa around here, but y’know you’ll come creeping back someday. Kind o’ like me ex-wife. I thought she was long gone and then I found a bottle o’ her perfume on board. Mate, did that bring back some memories. I took that sweet smell and poured great big dollops into the oily bilge. That felt great, pouring me ex-wife into the bilge. I saved a bit of it for when the dunny begins to stink again.”

We spent three months in Bali. Our attachment to the land and people there grew deep. Sailing may enhance your five senses, but it wreaks havoc with your sense of time. Each new landfall—be it a year or a day—takes on a life of its own. When you depart by small sailboat, there are no in-flight magazines, closed window shades or movies to distract your thoughts. You just sit and watch people and places you knew disappear, tugging at your throat as they fade slowly behind the horizon. Leaving a good place is always the hardest part.


A rescued orangutan orphan joins Jessica and T in Tanjung Putin National Park.

Leaving Bali by route of the Lombok Straits made it even harder. The worst part was five miles off Bali’s northeast coast where Mt. Agung, Bali’s holy volcano, soared like a castle over the fairy-tale land. I watched that mountain for six hours as the four-knot current held Tosca motionless. At sunset, I remembered the climb to the top of Agung and tried to imagine the gods looking down at me now. From their abode at the summit, I’m sure they’d laugh at what they saw below — a sailing contradiction. A man who loves to wander, but eagerly grabs each landfall and yearns to call it home.

Jukungs, the Balinese outriggers, caught the last rays of light in their blue, and red, and yellow sails. They sailed homeward in almost single file, looking like multi-hued ants marching homeward toward a mountainous anthill. Even the sight of my arch enemy, the sand barge lumbering past us at dusk brought a lump in my throat. How many times had near collisions with that rusted hulk kept me awake at night in Bali’s Benoa Harbor? When the moon rose high above Agung’s jagged peak, too many images clouded my mind. I wondered if the prospect of a new landfall would ever replace my attraction to Bali.

By morning the next day, Tosca escaped the clutches of the Lombok Strait and Agung vanished in the haze. Our weeks in Bali returned to far corners of my mind. Tosca was slipping along on a perfect broad reach (with the wind on the stern quarter) and I occupied myself with pushing her faster. A slight sail adjustment here, a tweak of the tiller there. Our self-steering windvane worked like a charm. Theresa kept a hot thermos of coffee always at hand and cooked up a storm on our ancient Shipmate stove. We dove into our basket of goodies–chocolate, Indonesian fig bars, mangos, oranges and a barrel of twirled chocolate wafer-sticks called Joddies. Nothing like a Joddy dipped in hot coffee to lift the spirits.

We worked three-hour shifts through the night. The 15-knot easterly kicked up silver whitecaps beneath the full moon. At midnight we jogged west to avoid a collision with Kangean Island, 170 miles northwest of Bali, and just as Tosca entered the narrowest part of the strait, the sand barge, now fully loaded, heaved by on its way back toward Bali. I nudged Tosca windward, as close to an unseen reef as I dared, as the tug and the mountain of sand behind it rumbled past. Too close for comfort. When the smell of diesel disappeared, so did my longings of Bali. Borneo was on my mind.

After another night at sea we anchored at Bawean Island where we caught up with two other boats bound for Borneo. One, a sixty foot Bowman ketch called Papagayo, contained a young couple that we instantly fell in with. The amiable red-haired woman, Jessica Rice, is an artist known in the northeast for her silk screens and the clothing company she founded called Tradewinds. Her husband, Richard, “has been around boats all his life.” Both hail from Maryland, where they set sail from in 1997.


A friendly gibbon at the Tanjung Puting Preserve latches on to TMP.

Along with Tosca and Papagayo, three other yachts are now anchored off the jungle frontier town of Kumai. On the opposite side of the river an armada of wooden ships load huge timbers harvested from Borneo’s highlands. The ramshackle town of 2,000 buzzes with the activity broken five times a day by a call to prayer from five mosques. Motorcycles bounce down the muddy streets and a layer of plastic bags, bottles and paper collects beneath the stilted clapboard waterfront houses. The people are engaging, friendly Malays. Dayaks, Borneo’s native people, sometimes descend from their interior villages in sputtering diesel-powered long boats, the buses of this watery region. Outboard juiced speedboats race up and down the river on their way to closer villages along the Kumai River.

The next few days will be spent provisioning and weaving the paperwork web required for our trip eastward into the Tanjung Puting Preserve, Borneo’s largest protected lowland forest. Jiji, the industrious yacht ambassador in these parts, is taking care of the details. Our first stop will be Camp One at Camp Leakey, which lies up the narrow Sekunyar River at the western edge of the park. For more than two decades, the camp has been engaged in long-term research in orangutan behavior. Jiji has already promised close encounters with orangutans, proboscis monkeys, gibbon monkeys, crocodiles and possibly a python or two.

For now, though, I’m happy just to listen to the rain. Fat sweet drops falling on the deck. It’s the first real rain we’ve had in three months. Yesterday, Theresa and I danced on deck in the tropical downpour. It felt just like coming home.


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