Indonesia, 9 November to 2 December 2010

Java. Semarang, Central Java’s Regional Capital was a pleasant surprise. Although we had enjoyed Pontianak in Kalimantan, driving there had been made doubly difficult by the huge volume of motorbikes on the road and the quirks of their drivers; overtaking on either side of the vehicle; stopping dead in the road to talk to a pedestrian or oncoming motorcycle driver; always joining a road without looking or stopping. But Semarang was not plagued by motorbikes and our first impressions of the city were good. Evidence of the city’s Dutch colonial past were visible in the dilapidated but elegant buildings in the north of the city which we detoured through on our way from the port. Most striking of all was the Dutch church, Geraja Blenduk, which we discovered later had been built in the middle of the 18th C. We saw little else of the city other than modern shops and offices but for us it was a pleasant stop over.

We left early in the morning for what we expected to be a long drive to Malang, an historically important town en route to Bali and which has a good name for many forms of art. We had wanted to visit Yogyakarta but regrettably time was not on our side and long detours from our principle routes were not yet an option. There was also the added problem of the effects on the city of the ash produced by the recent eruptions of Mount Merapi.

Our route dictated that we head east to Surabaya before heading south for the last 100km to Malang.

Hold very tight please....!

It quickly became clear to us that the appalling road conditions were not going to allow us to reach Malang before dark and halfway through the day we made the decision to make Surabaya our night stop. The road was a single carriageway for most of its length on which it seemed the entire Javanese lorry fleet was operating.

Most lorries were very heavily laden, as usual, and each occupied more than half the width of the road. Add to the lorries a very liberal sprinkling of motorbikes and our average speed was reduced to no more than 30kph. Overtaking any vehicle was chancy as it required us to put the two offside wheels onto the hard/soft shoulder which was of indeterminate condition and very often containing well camouflaged drainage ditches.

Wide load!

Even if you got away with the manoeuvre it had to be repeated again to overtake another lorry a few minutes later – and it all seemed a bit pointless when, stopped at the next road works, all the lorries you had overtaken hissed to a halt a few metres behind you and another endless line of them stretched into the distance in front of you!

The scenery was pleasant enough and we delighted in the huge fleets of brightly painted

Part of the fishing fleet

fishing boats in the natural harbours up the coast to Surabaya. Eight and a half hours after we had set off from Semarang we stopped at a small hotel in Surabaya in the north of the city for a well earned rest and an opportunity to stretch aching joints and muscles after a pretty frustrating day’s driving.

We had an early supper in the hotel’s restaurant during which a waitress announced to us that we had a flat tyre (would you like anything with it sir?). After finishing the meal we went to inspect Genghis and sure enough the right rear tyre was as flat as a pancake. By now we had three members of the hotel’s staff huddled around the offending wheel offering their help. We had the wheel off and replaced by the spare in a matter of a few minutes after which a short search identified a headless nail just showing itself in the tread. After the discovery and without hesitation the wheel was rolled across the main road to what looked like a food hawker’s stall until closer inspection in the dim light revealed a large air compressor – this hawker was a tyre repair specialist! He quickly extracted the offending nail, reamed out the hole with an auger and then pushed in a fibre plug and trimmed it. He pumped up the tyre to the correct pressure, checked that there was no air escaping and charged me the equivalent of £2 for his work! The repaired tyre was fixed back on the spare wheel carrier and after thanking and remunerating our band of helpers we turned in very grateful for their alert and for helping us to resolve the problem so quickly and satisfactorily; yet another example of the generosity of spirit with which we had been met throughout our trip.

With all four wheels functioning normally we set off early in the morning (again) to follow the north coast round to Ketapang, the ferry point on the east coast that feeds Gilimanuk in west Bali. The roads were far less crowded than the previousday and we made good progress, passing through the massive electric generating power stations on the east coast in the early afternoon before reaching Ketapang at around 2pm.

Bali. A ferry was waiting ready to go and so we handed over our Rps 95,000 for the car and two passengers and drove straight onto the car deck. Five minutes later we were in the channel between Java and Bali heading for the clearly visible Gilimanuk ferry terminal just forty minutes away.

We were not sure what to expect from Bali. A number of friends gave it a so so review and had advised us to stay well clear of Denpasar and the south of the island generally and some of the travel blogs we’d seen had recommended a streak through to Lombok. We opted to head to the north coast for our first night after which we would decide where to go – but we only had a couple of days, three at most on Bali. On arrival at Gilimanuk we shot through all the customs and immigration checks and stopped in the main street for a late lunch at one of the many warungs. Choc a bloc with rice, beef rendang and some wicked sambal we set off for the homestay

The ceiling in a traditional Balinese house

we had booked at Pemuteran. The drive was very relaxing, no traffic and very pretty, lush countryside. Half an hour after finishing lunch we arrived at our destination and settled down for an ice cold Bintang to wash the dust away. The usual map and guide book poring exercise concluded with a route for the following day that would take us over the hilly centre to the south coast town of Padangbai, the ferry port that feeds Lembar on Lombok’s west coast.

We left our night stop and headed east towards Singaraja, Bali’s second largest town. We hadn’t travelled far before the eagle eyed Navigator saw a road sign indicating a track at the end of which was a pearl farm! And what a place it was – situated right on the sea, the compound comprised two two-storey buildings in front of which was a long jetty. The first building appeared to cater for the divers whilst the second comprised a showroom and admin offices upstairs with the working are of the pearl enterprise below. Having ummed and ahhed our way through the showroom and its exquisite produce we were taken downstairs to see the operation. The pearl bearing oysters are grown from scratch and after their nursery time in land tanks is over they are sent to sea where they are reared in mesh bags suspended from long lines.

After having a 'nucleus' inserted into them, oysters are bagged before being returned to the sea to grow their pearls

 As they grow they are re-bagged into ones with a larger mesh size thereby giving them the increased water flow that they need. Once they reach a certain size the oysters are opened carefully, a wedge is placed between the two shells, a slit is made in the tissue at a specific point and a hard ‘nucleus’ is inserted into the slit. A piece of tissue from an oyster that has produced a particularly beautiful pearl (this tissue can also dictate the colour of the future pearl) is also inserted with the ‘nucleus’ after which the shell is closed and the oyster goes to the recovery room. Later it will be returned to the sea to grow its pearl and after periodic x-rays will be re-opened and its pearl will be removed. We were allowed to watch each stage of the very slick operation and left the centre highly impressed by what we had seen.

A pearl being extracted from a live oyster

All non-pearl producing oysters were sold to the seafood trade – incentive for the oysters to produce a pearl and a cash alternative for the growers if they didn’t – win, win!

Back on the road, we headed east and having passed Lovina Beaches and Singaraja we went a little further before turning south at Kubutambahan and headed up towards  Gunong Batur and the lake that occupies the crater it made after its eruption in 1917, Danau Batur. The drive up the northern slopes took us through small villages and beautifully lush vegetation and the views across to the west and Gunungs Sangiyang and Batukau (both 2000m+) were spectacular. As we crossed the summit of our route and began the descent, the nature of the countryside changed as it became more populated and farmed.

A Balinese school run!

 Traffic increased and after lunch in Kintamani as we headed south and into Penelokan we came across tens of tourist buses and mini buses collecting their clients from modern restaurants overlooking Danau Batur and returning them towards Denpasar. We were fortunate that we didn’t have to take their route but instead took a narrow, traffic free road all the way to the coast where we turned east towards Padangbai. At this point it was noticeable that Bali was suffering a diesel shortage as we were hunting for a station at which to top up before Lombok and came across the fifth that day that was out of it. In no time we arrived at Padangbai where, having confirmed the ferry charges and times we set off to find the accommodation we had booked. Unfortuneatly, despite their having assured us that there was secure parking for Genghis, there wasn’t any and so we moved a little further up a crescent shaped beach full of moored boats and found an alternative. The accommodation wasn’t the best we’d had, bunk beds, desk fan and cold water only but what it lacked in creature comfort it more than made up for in atmosphere – and secure parking. After a refreshing swim, a wander around the beach front and a good supper we turned in ahead of the early start for Lombok in the morning.

Lombok. By 8am, having paid the Rps 550,000 for the 3.5 hour trip to Lembar on Lombok’s west coast, we joined the queue and waited. This was quite an exciting time for us as geographically; we were entering the last phase of our journey to Australia. Lombok is the western most island in a chain known as Nusa Tenggara after which we would follow the chain through Sumbawa, Flores and West Timor before crossing into independent Timor Leste from where we would ship to Darwin in Australia’s Northern Territory, the Top End.

Boarding late, a pretty common practice in this neck of the woods, we had a good crossing to Lembar and immediately after disembarking headed off to Penujak in the bottom, middle part of the island to find a pottery that we had heard was doing rather well and exporting a significant amount of pottery to Australia and Europe through Surabaya. Traffic in Lombok is much gentler than in southern Bali and it didn’t take long to get to the town – but it took a very long time to locate the pottery. Much as we had discovered when searching for textile manufacturers in India’s Gujerat, this type of enterprise isn’t based on one easy to find building we expect to find in the West. These enterprises are reliant upon the collective skills of a whole community and as in this case, can cover large areas of closely interwoven dwellings that don’t necessarily have a core. Anyway, we found a lady who introduced us to another lady and eventually we found the lynch pin. We were taken for a bewildering tour of the site, met numerous families and their friends and eventually arrived at the banks of a river where a kiln was located.

The basic kiln and part of the order for Australia

This was not a conventional potters kiln but more a thatched, open sided roundel at the centre of which large dried earthenware plates had been stacked on their sides on a bed of rice husks that had also been tightly packed around each plate before a thick layer was bedded in on the top and the whole ensemble set alight. The husks smouldered for hours giving off sufficient heat to ‘fire’ the plates which were sold ‘as is’ around the world. These were not the only items made by this pottery, just the latest order for several hundred being prepared for a client in Australia. Huge and beautiful earthenware jars decorated with traditional motifs headed the list (1.5m tall, 90cm in diameter) followed by smaller versions and many other interesting vessels, all made using the same black clay, the same building techniques using moulds and wheels and the same firing process.

We counted ourselves very fortunate to have been given such an interesting tour of the pottery and set off in high spirits to the north, to the town of Tetebatu that nestles in the southerly slopes of the 3726m Gunung Rinjani, Indonesia’s second largest volcano. With no detailed maps available were reliant on the GPS to get us there and for the first part of the trip all appeared OK.

Sunset over the rice padi near Tetebatu

We departed sealed roads quite early on and it wasn’t long before we found ourselves surrounded by paddi fields and driving on very narrow compacted mud roads better suited to a motorbike than to a wide vehicle. We were headed in the right general direction but as light was beginning to fade so the pressure was building to get back onto a sealed road which we knew was somewhere close. At every narrow junction we asked passers by if we were on the right road for Tetebatu to which they either nodded or indicated a different direction to take. We continued to drive down dark tracks made all the more dark by huge bamboo groves until finally we came across a sealed road that led us into Tetebatu.

The GPS had done its job but had ignored the main roads and taken delight in introducing us to a countryside the more direct route would never have shown us – and it was delightful with a beautiful sunset thrown in for good measure.

Our accommodation for the next two nights was a homestay with views of field after field of rice paddi to the south and the three peaks of Gunungs Senkereang, Baru and Rinjani to the north – very picturesque. We slept badly that night because the mosques were very busy throughout the night with non-stop prayers. In the morning it was explained to us that the ‘haj’ in Mecca was about to officially get under way and that the prayers were for those Indonesians attending the pilgrimage. A little bleary eyed we set off with our self-appointed guide Abul (the ‘d’is deliberately missing) to the big Wednesday Market at which we were promised all types of produce, cooked food and handicrafts.

A cloud wreathed Gunung Rinjani from Tetebatu

Our route took us over an hour of stumbling through paddi fields, through a stream and onto surprisingly substantial aqueducts feeding paddi fields for miles. Sweating profusely we bust onto the site of the market to find it empty – the mullah’s had given everyone a bad night and in anticipation of a sleepless night the vendors had decided to stay at home!

Planting out the new rice crop

Another hour’s walking and we returned to our homestay where after a cold drink, we re-arranged Genghis’ interior to make room for Abul and set off to a village some 15km away well known for the quality of its textiles. At midday we arrived at Pringgasela to visit The Young Art Shop, a co-operative that like many similar enterprises in Gujerat, coordinated the work of a village so that they achieved better sales and better prices. It certainly seemed to be working and there was a noticeable muting of the more traditional and very bright colours to ones that were softer and generally more appealing to European tastes. We eat lunch of satay and bulaya, sticky rice wrapped in a banana leaf, with Han, the co-op’s front of house man before taking our leave. Not surprisingly we didn’t depart empty handed!

Examples of Pringgasela's textiles

We left our idyllic spot very early the following morning for the town of Labuhan Lombok from where we would catch the ferry to Sumbawa. It was an easy drive with only a trickle of traffic on the road and we rolled into the ferry terminal at well ahead of our estimated 8am. We paid Rps 322,000 for the one and a half hour journey to Sumbawa’s Poto Tano port, and drove over to our loading lane. Only one car was ahead of us in the queue but it wasn’t long before a handful of others joined us and then the inevitable heavily laden lorry or two squeaked to a halt beside us. Quite a few motorcycles lined up in their lane but all in all it seemed that we had a partially empty ferry. And that is the way it was; the ferry appeared from Sumbawa, unloaded and we were marshalled on board.

Sumbawa. The departure from Lombok was very picturesque and as we left the protection of the natural harbour Sumbawa was clearly visible. In no time we were parallel to Sumbawa’s south west coast heading north. There were few signs of habitation until a beach and a what looked like a resort came into view shortly after which an inlet appeared with a large number of cargo vessels and dormant ferries moored in it. We headed east down the inlet and then did a u-turn into Poto Tano, a very well concealed and pretty natural harbour.

Fishing at Sape

As in Labuhan Lombok, fishermen and women were standing neck deep in the sea fishing with long willowy rods, shielded from the hot sun by their distinctive conical hats.

Our GPS was still functioning as a position indicator but the information it signalled was overlaid on a very crude map without any roads depicted on it. Not totally useless but not a reliable map reading aid. We had a very simple paper map and after disembarking set off on what we thought was our route. Twenty minutes in to it the GPS’s compass confirmed that we were not heading in the right direction and we were forced to backtrack.

Two hours later, having travelled on a well surfaced road, we came to Sumbawa Besar, the principle town in West Sumbawa. Up until then we had not seen a paddi field, a stark contrast with Bali and Lombok. Here, cattle and goats took pride of place in the food production chain and most of the land that had been cultivated was given over to grazing land. Later, in the hills, the paddi made a re-appearance but never in the density with which it’s sister islands were covered. The vegetation on Sumbawa was also different to that of the other two islands. It was drier, less fulsome and seemingly stunted, clinging tightly to the hillsides and valleys without much variance in canopy height – a bit of a crew cut (no4) as opposed to the long flowing locks and beehives of Bali and especially Lombok. It was also far less populated that fact manifested in the absence of torrents of motorcars although that was more than made up for by the masses of heavy produce delivering lorries.

A north coast fishing village

Just prior to entering the town a sign post indicated a bypass which would take us towards Dompu, some 150km to the east. The bypass had not been completed and was in a very poor state. The reason for the fact that we didn’t see another vehicle on it was now evident. Once more we reached a surfaced road and rejoiced in the smooth ride it gave us – but only for a matter of minutes. For the next four hours we lurched down one of the worst roads we had encountered anywhere on our travels. The road was narrow, covered in huge, well concealed, suspension breaking potholes and more twisted and undulating than a snake in its death throws. It offered very little opportunity to overtake the many huge, overloaded lorries that were reduced to walking pace in many, many places and in the hills the situation became even more dire. Had it not been for the (calculated!) risks we took overtaking on blind corners and on the inside of the juggernauts we would never have made our destination by nightfall – and travelling on these roads at night was not an option.

As we coasted down the long and winding road from the hills onto the plains and into Dompu we contemplated the effects on the economy these terrible roads inflicted. Ferries and lorries are the life blood of the islands – there is no way of getting the fuel, food stuffs, fertiliser etc into the communities and the produce out without their collective efforts. Whist the ferries (in our experiences) did not operate to a strict timetable they were constant and provided the essential inter mainland/island transportation network upon which the lorries depended. In Java and on the islands generally the lines of road communication were in such a poor state that lorry journeys were prolonged by days, not just a few hours. The cost of this lack of efficiency grossed up must have been considerable not only in financial terms but also from an environmental perspective. A view through western eyes? – maybe.

Pantai Lakey's surf watching/judging towers at sunset

From Dompu we headed south to the coast to the fishing village of Hu’u and the beach at Pantai Lakey, a location well known to Australian and the more intrepid international surfers. We arrived at our hotel just after sun set after a bone shaking journey of nearly nine hours. The amazing properties of an ice cold Bintang set the world to rights and we settled in to a two night break.

The next day, our only day, we swam, watched a variety of mainly Australian surfers young and old paddle out to the break on the reef and then followed their fortunes on some very nicely shaped waves. We have not experienced many more laid back places – the spirit of the hippy lingers on!

After another early start following our second night of relaxation we drove east to Sape where we intended to overnight before catching an early morning ferry to Flores. The journey was much easier than our first on Sumbawa and we rocked and rolled our way into the sleepy harbour at Sape and checked into our accommodation.

Sape harbour

This was in stark contrast to the relative luxury we had enjoyed in Pantai Lakey. The room was overpoweringly hot, it smelled of cat pee and the bed sheets were of very dubious cleanliness – another case for the silk sleeping sacks.

We had a late lunch in a warung and sauntered around the ports buildings trying to obtain information that would confirm the rumour we were operating on – that an 8am boat (the only ferry of the day) to Flores would depart tomorrow morning. We failed to get any assurances so went back to our room, which was only a matter of metres away from the port and had a sweaty siesta. After 4pm the temperature had dropped a little and we made another foray to the port. There was a little more activity by this time and an English speaking local took us to the car registration kiosk, a building that had been closed on our arrival. After some loud shouting by our befriender, a sleepy official appeared and a process of registration began. Our details and those of the car were written down in a register and we were given a number which turned out to be our loading number – we were no 6 and yes there was a ferry in the morning and we were to report to the kiosk, ready to go by 7am.

We didn’t sleep well that night not least because caterwauling cats were jumping up and down on the thin, flat roof throughout the night. At the appointed hour we were parked up behind five other cars and there were a few more behind us joining a considerable number of large and medium sized lorries stacking up in their respective lanes adjacent to us. There were too many vehicles for one ferry unless it was the size of the one we had journeyed from Pontianak to Semarang in and the harbour didn’t look capable of handling a ferry of that size. Another English speaker joined us for conversation and he very quickly enlightened us on the loading procedure; the ferry would take 8 large lorries, 4 medium lorries and 4 cars so if you have a car number higher than 4 you are unlikely to get on! Being No 6 this wasn’t news we wanted to hear and it became especially galling when we learned that the registration kiosk had been open when we arrived, the official was merely taking a siesta in the back room, and that had we woken him up we would in fact have been No 1. The four vehicles in front of us had registered in the afternoon when we were ‘enjoying’ our sweaty siesta! We watched the vehicles loaded on to the ferry, a very long process over the make shift and precarious loading jetty. At about 9am the process was complete and the ferry set off whilst we sat disappointed in Genghis and contemplated the prospect of another night in cat litter. As we resigned ourselves to a return to our room, our genial English speaker knocked on our window and announced with a huge grin that there was a second ferry being prepared to leave for Flores later in the morning at around 11am. And so there was. As we were now No 2 in the car section we were almost guaranteed a place – why the ‘almost’? Because if you slipped the registration official and the policeman a little ‘coffee money’ it was possible to leapfrog the queue! So we paid up to ensure that no one jumped in front of our rightful spot and at 11.15am, having paid Rps705,000 plus a little ‘coffee money’ we boarded the ferry and set off for the six and half hour voyage to Labuhanbajo, on Flores’ west coast.

Flores. We found seats next to a porthole in the VIP soft seat section and settled into books. The sea was like a mill pond, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky and there was always something going on on the sea – flying fish, a huge shoal of tuna feeding on the surface with terns hovering and diving to pick up left overs, other ferries and as the journey progressed Komodo and its attendant islands came into view.


After meandering through a group of smaller islands and promontories Labuanbajo came into view. The town surrounds the port, rooted into the hillside overwatching it facing west towards Komodo. The journey had passed quickly and having offloaded quickly we were at our hotel on the town’s main street within a few minutes. With Genghis parked in front of the hotel’s foyer we climbed a steep flight of steps to our room where we had spectacular views over the port and the bay it sat in and then beyond to Komodo.

A sunset over Komodo from Labuanbajo

Sunset came quickly after our arrival and it wasn’t long before we were sitting at a table outside our room savouring a cold beer whilst marvelling at a spectacular sunset that seemed to set Komodo on fire – no wonder the stories of the fire breathing dragons!

We spent two days in Labuanbajo revelling in its ability to absorb tourism without letting it interfere with its charming, unhurried and unspoiled way of life. We also visited the area of the bay that is clearly visible from the town and which has been given over to expensive resorts and hotels. Most have respected the environment in which they exist and have set themselves back from the beach and camouflaged relatively low rise buildings with natural vegetation and clever design.

Fresh fish in Labuanbajo's market

Regrettably, in a manner not dissimilar to Kuching’s water front, money has spoken and an awful and large multi storey hotel dominates the foreshore and stains the beauty of the bay.

On the third day, a Wednesday, we set off to Aimere, a port on the south coast from which, we were assured by several sources, a ferry leaves for Kupang in West Timor  each week on a Friday at around 8a.m (but mention also of a Thursday departure had determined that we leave on a Wednesday) .

Labuanbajo's beautiful fruit market

The first section of the journey took us over the forest covered hills to the south-east of Labuanbajo and into the rice growing plains around Lembor before heading east on the twisting, turning roads through beautiful forest covered hills that shoot you out into another fertile rice growing area that surrounds the long, drawn out market town of Ruteng. By this time we had enjoyed about three hours of sparsely populated, lush and very hilly terrain – and there was another three hours of similar countryside to go before reaching Aimere. Two hours from Ruteng we reached Mborong and an hour later rolled into the dusty and sleepy town of Aimere. Having eventually found the ferry terminus, an inconspicuous building by a an equally inconspicuous jetty we set about confirming the information we had wrestled out of tourist offices and guides in Labuanbajo.

23 November - a birthday dragonfly!

The first problem we encountered was that there were very few people around to ask and those that were around didn’t speak our language or perhaps more to the point, we didn’t speak theirs. So we retired to a warung for a late lunch of rice and Kampung chicken accompanied by an excellent and fiery sambal. (Kampung chicken: scrawny chook that play in the dust on the outskirts of villages and forever sprinting in and out of passing traffic helping it to develop long, muscle bound legs that an Olympic sprinter would be proud of. The trade off for the energy spent developing these powerful pistons is a complete lack of  a breast, something no doubt a Vivian Westwood model would be proud of! ) The warung was adjacent to a bank that was still open and as luck would have it one of the startlingly pretty cashiers spoke excellent English. She very kindly used the bank’s phone to get in touch with a string of people which ended with a conversation with a ferry official who confirmed that the ferry left on Saturday at 8a.m. – so the time at least concurred with our sources. An elderly man waiting his turn in the bank’s queue confirmed the Saturday sailing and so we left the bank confident in the knowledge that we had some time to kill.

Fresh from the boats - a fish seller in Aimere

There is no accommodation for tourists in Aimere so we set off inland for an hour’s drive up a long and winding hillside to the town of Bajawa. We found accommodation out of town and booked in for three nights and of course sought further confirmation of the ferry’s movements from a variety of passer’s by including a carpenter and a lorry driver we met in a filling station. Their verdict – it definitely leaves on a Friday at 9a.m.! Dilema! After much wailing and gnashing of teeth we opted to pack-up in time for a pre-dawn start on Friday so that we arrived at the terminal well in advance of any Friday sailing time. If there wasn’t a sailing until the following day we had lost nothing but a little sleep.

You can't be in a rush in Aimere!

We spent the rest of the day preparing Genghis for our dash through West Timor and Timor Leste to Dilli where he would be thoroughly (and expensively) cleaned in advance of the Australian Quarantine Services’ rigorous inspection of him on his arrival in Darwin.  

And so, on Friday, we arrived at the port at dawn to be met by a stream of passengers and a few vehicles – we thanked our instincts and sauntered over to the terminal to pay for the voyage. There, in very broken English, a ferry official informed us that we could not buy a ticket to Kupang because ‘dat sheeps’ was headed south to the island of Sumba! We did however get confirmation that the Kupang ferry would depart at 8a.m. on Saturday and we managed to leave our personal and vehicle details with our very helpful and tolerant ferry official who appeared to understand that we would be returning the next day.

Looking across Aimere to the west from Bajawa

We immediately reserved another night at our hotel and returned to Bajawa where we spent the day shopping for provisions for what we believed to be a 22 hour ferry journey!

On Saturday, again before dawn, we set off for Aimere for what we hoped would be the last time. As we reached the lower slopes of the hills the light was good enough for us to see a ferry approaching Aimere on a flat calm sea under a cloudless sky – the omens were good! We joined the vehicle queue as the boat we had seen the previous day bound for Sumba eased onto the ferry pier and disgorged its cargo of humans, vehicles, horses, cows and pigs!

Our ferry arriving at Aimere from Sumba

We paid our Rps 1.8m ferry ticket and were called forward to load amongst the general chaos of arriving and departing passengers and vehicles on a ferry loading ramp designed at cope with, at best, either departures or arrivals but not both at the same time!

West Timor and Timor Leste. Tucked into the lea of a heavily laden lorry on one side, a large stack of rice sacks on the other, a straw filled area alive with pigs in front and a car behind we locked Genghis up and headed for the passenger decks. The economy class seating area comprised rows of broken fibreglass seating in the midst of which were a couple of low platforms on which some foam filled plastic sleeping mats were scattered. Towards the bows was ‘Firstklass’ where the seats were padded and although filling rapidly we managed to secure a row of four seats which we defended with great ingenuity and skill! We were right at the front of the boat which meant that we were just ahead of the open sides, open sides that would let in rain (although there were drop down canvas screens) but more importantly would let air into what was already a very hot and stuffy place. As we set sail it became clear to us that we would not benefit from any air flow but on the plus side, having hired a sleeping mat we had two berths, one along the four seats and one on the mat on the steel deck. It was a long day and a much longer night during which we sweated continuously. We eat our picnic lunches and supper, downed a few litres of water and dosed, read and finally slept our way through to Kupang where we landed just as the sun was making its first appearance of the day at 6a.m.

Not all the passengers were waiting for a mobile phone signal!

Unloading was the loading chaos in reverse and we finally broke free unscathed about half an hour after we docked. The road surfaces were good and we sailed through Kupang stopping only to test an ATM and to visit a fish market on the beach just outside the town that was just setting up.

Our destination that night was Kafamenanu, a small town a couple of hours short of the international border between West Timor and Timor Leste. The road continued in good condition and we made very good progress through a clearly impoverished and sparsely populated countryside that was noticeably less rugged and hilly than its contemporaries in the Nusa Tenggara chain of islands. From the outset we were assaulted by clouds of yellow butterflies that diminished in the border area, grew in number again just before Dill and which we found again, later, in the Kimberly area of Western Australia – put that in your pipe AQIS!

A typical West Timorese hut

Road kill had been a rarity in the other islands so we couldn’t help but notice the number of dead snakes on he road, more than ten, that appeared to be of the same variety, black and obscenely thick and shiny. Timor’s distinctive round, thatched buildings were a very pleasing addition to the countryside and without really knowing it we tumbled into Kefamenanu in the afternoon after six hours driving. Our hotel was adequate but being a Sunday, it was difficult to find anywhere open where we could get a meal and eventually the hotel rustled up a late lunch snack for us and supper. We left early on Monday, hoping to be first in line at the border when it opened at 8a.m.

Thatched, round buildings exclusive to Timor

The drive down was pleasant enough particularly when we met the coast and followed it around to the border check point at Atapupu. It was a hot, cloudless morning and the sea was so calm and of such a colour that at the horizon it was impossible to distinguish sea from sky. We stopped at the police check point at around 7.30a.m. and with half an hour to kill went to a warung on the opposite side of the road for a coffee. Just outside the entrance on a small BBQ, the proprietor was basting fresh, sardine like fish with a thick sambal before gently grilling them over the coals – a perfect start to the day and quite delicious.


At the appointed hour we reported to the Indonesian authorities to go through our exit procedures. After being checked by the police we moved on to immigration where, in the act of lifting the official stamp to record in our passports our departure from Indonesia he asked us to show him our visa for entry into Timor Leste. We informed him that as far as we were aware British subjects were entitled to apply for and receive visas on the border, a fact that we had double checked earlier in the year. After a telephone call to the Timor Leste immigration officials two hundred meters up the road we were informed that the visa regulations had changed in April and that we were now required to apply for visas by email after which the application processing time would take at least ten working days! After we had picked ourselves off the ground we began to consider our position. We had a container shipment booked for 2 December that required us to be in Dilli in good time for the vehicle to be cleaned and loaded. Any delay of more than a day would cause us to miss the deadline and we would be forced to wait another week for a similar shipment and as things stood it was highly likely that the visa processing time would rule this option out too – there wasn’t another boat until 22 December! First and foremost we had to find an internet facility – the very obliging Indonesian immigration official had supplied us with the Timor Leste Visa site address. The Timor Leste official had suggested that we return to Atambua, a largeish town we had passed through on our way to the border from Kefamenanu or if that failed we’d find an internet connection in Kupang but a kindly soul in Indonesian immigration suggested we go twenty metres down the road and ask the owner of the very small convenience store if he could help. Downhearted and sceptical we did as was suggested – and the gods smiled on us – he’d very recently opened a rudimentary internet café!

Angel and the soldier

To cut a long story short, with the help of his non-English speaking daughter, her English speaking soldier boyfriend and numerous phone calls to Timor Leste Immigration’s Visa section we only had to spend that night in Atambua before our visa was issued the following morning and we crossed into Timor Leste and put our watches on an hour and a half. The additional silver lining to this cloud was that we were able to enjoy another BBQ grilled fish breakfast before crossing the border!  

From the outset the roads were in much, much worse condition than those in West Timor despite the rumoured affluence of the country since its Independence and assistance from the UN.

Timor Leste's north coast

We bucked and rolled our way along the deeply potholed roads for three hours until we arrived in Dilli where we spent another two hours trying to find our shippers! The official with whom we had been dealing had omitted to tell us where they were or that they were co-located with a better known company that were in fact the shipper’s agents! Having finally arrived at the shippers we finalised the documentation and to our surprise were sent off to the nearest local car washdown for a hose down. We had been led to believe that we were in for a USD$500 minimum ( Timor Leste’s currency is the US$) car cleaning process so it was with some pleasure that we found ‘Mr Clean’ whose gang gave Genghis a thorough squirting for $10!

One of the many bridges in Timor Leste

We booked into our out of town hotel, spent a pleasant night there and the following day went off early to load Genghis into his container. With a little time to spare we decided to return to a travel agent (who had been responsible for giving us the correct directions to our shippers) to see about our flights to Darwin. We were rocked back by the $416 per person for the one way, one hour flight to Darwin so searched through all the options available – and hey presto, if we left the next day at 7a.m. we could get tickets for half that price – no contest!

Fish for sale at the roadside in Timor Leste

We loaded Genghis into his container, paid the bills having queued in the ANZ bank for nearly two hours, returned to our hotel, packed and enjoyed a good supper before turning in early.

At 5a.m. Nurt, a young taxi driver we had met the previous day, turned up bang on time. The previous day’s loading of Genghis had not gone that smoothly and during the loading a temporary support under the container had collapsed rendering one of the doors incapable of being shut. We were unhappy at the thought that the container was insecure and had urged the shippers to confirm that the door was properly closed and Customs sealed before work finished for the day, which they did. Despite the company’s assurances ‘seeing is believing’ and so we diverted Nurt passed the agents where we confirmed for ourselves that the container was indeed secure. At Dilli’s airport we checked in, bought some duty free hooch and boarded our North Air’s Embraer 170 Flight TL511 to Darwin which took off a few minutes after its scheduled departure time of 7a.m.!  

Dilli's protector

We were very satisfied with ourselves – we had hugely enjoyed Indonesia, extracted ourselves (with much help) from a potentially devastating delay and were now, on Thursday 2 December, seated in an aircraft that would deposit us in Australia in an hour’s time. Genghis was scheduled to depart Dilli on the same day as us arriving in Darwin on Saturday with a likely clearance procedure beginning after the weekend on Monday 6 December – back on schedule! Everything in the garden was rosy!

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