Lawrence Blair

Notes on Cruising the East Banda and Arafura Seas
By Lawrence Blair

Just before Christmas 2001 I returned from an Indonesian adventure that included my pleasure boat being boarded at night by 25 angry men fully armed with parangs and drawn bows and arrows. This was to be a two-week private charter cruising the hairiest, easternmost end of the archipelago, amongst the Kei, Tayandu, and Aru islands, just off West New Guinea. Local charter captains haven’t visited this region over recent years due to its remoteness and inter-religious violence. However, I’d been employed as guide, interpreter and “minister of cultural affairs” for an eccentric landed English couple who had chartered a 100-foot converted prahu captained by a wild Australian, with a young English first mate, chef and dive master, plus nine Indonesian crew members.

Since Suharto's ouster in l998, Indonesia's general lawlessness has resulted in the galloping degradation of human security as well as the degradation of the nation's forests, reefs, and wildlife. Were the reefs being cyanided and bombed here, too? Were the Birds of Paradise, the pearl shell beds, and all of the strange creatures unique to Aru still surviving? Had the Chinese Tan family, who had nursed Lorne and I back to health after our grueling 1972 voyage to Aru, survived the massacres here of only 18 months ago? And in the Tayandu islands, were there any signs of the dwindling Dugong, the Asian Manatee, the origin of the mermaid myth -- and was it still amongst the last refuges of the huge leatherback turtle?

It was a hell of an adventure, which included paddling into the mangrove swamps of Aru on a moonless, starlit night to spot crocodiles basking on the mud banks. We paddled in dugout canoes that were about eight feet long, while some of the crocodiles measured 23 feet. (The world record from these islands is 34 feet.) The trick to doing this safely, according to the locals, was to keep the torch in the crocodiles’ eyes so they can't do the math.

We found an island where marine animism survives in the form of a shrine of whale and dolphin bones, and where the skulls of the leatherback turtle -- looking like the large bleached skulls and beaks of griffins -- are kept as power talismans.

Getting boarded in unfriendly manner put a certain strain on my capacity as “minister of culture.” We were anchored off a beautiful beach in southeast Kei Besar, a spot with no sign of human habitation. Shortly before sunset, while the charterers were still ashore, beach combing, the first mate Ian and I ascended from a dive beneath the ship. We had just passed our tanks up to the captain waiting on the bottom step of the gangway when, seemingly out of nowhere, an outboard-powered, 35-foot single log-carved canoe roared up to us. Two women with their children sat amidships with six angry men at either end. Ian and I were almost crushed between it and the gangplank as we scrambled out, defensively, as they tried to come straight aboard behind us. The captain vociferously shouted them off, but the firebrand leader of these invaders leapt aboard anyway. I greeted him as if he’d been invited. He scowled around, at our tanks, at our galley, then angrily demanded a cigarette, at which time I advised him that this wasn't going to work and he should kindly disembark forthwith. We ushered him off, and he left demanding that we report to the village.

"What village?"

"The village that's out of sight, behind the point over there," he replied. "And by six o’clock tomorrow morning." We didn't take this very seriously, as we had all our cruising papers in order, and it was only a courtesy, though an important one, to report to a village and its headman if we were actually going ashore there or anchoring opposite.

Two hours later, after dark, the long boat returned, minus the women, but with 25 ululating and fully armed men. As they pulled up to our stern, we thought they were just going straight for our tender. I got our charterers locked in their cabin, in the dark, hiding their valuables. The captain and first mate greeted the boarding party astern with defensive expletives, which died on the wing upon appraising the reality of the situation.

Bows were drawn. A single wrong move and both the captain and first mate would have been full of arrows. It was agreed that I lock them aft to talk their way out, while I tried to secure the main deck. I got our now suddenly snow-white Sumbawa crew to raise the gangplank. Moments later, the invading canoe pulled forward and alongside us. People fully dressed for the part -- muscular, wearing red-bandanas and wielding splendid parangs and longbows -- poured up over our sides and forced their way aboard. The firebrands amongst them rushed to our tanks and diving equipment and accused us of pirating their reefs.

Out came itchthyological reference books to attest to our interest in only looking at little fishes. That wasn't working. Out came my Ring of Fire book, with explanations that I wrote about Indonesia and filmed my experiences as well. Out came the cameras. Everyone would be on TV, I said. Showing the film back to the invaders prompted a blood-curdling howl of excitement even louder than the one that had first met us. Our quaking passengers, smoking up a storm in the darkness of their locked cabin, were later to report that they had assumed the first howl accompanied the attack, and the second, the victory dance over our bodies.

Though they were soon persuaded that we were not, as they claimed to have thought, Thai or Javanese hit-and-run cyanide-and-reef-bombing pirates, it still took an hour and a half to talk them off the ship. When they left, in high spirits, most of our canned drinks, sunglasses, penknives, and anything else that wasn't nailed down went with them.

The episode was a sobering indication that with the absence of support from local government the island communities are being forced to police their own environments. When we left on our flight home, the air force chiefs informed us that several local fishermen had been shot in recent months while attempting to defend their reefs (from which they derive 80 percent of their food) from foreign, high-tech fishing pirates. These same air force chiefs had welcomed us to Tual on arrival by plane at the start of our cruise. I had planned to ask them how the interception of illegal bird and animal trafficking was going round here, but as they already had a King Cockatoo in a cage at their feet, ready to be shipped off on the same plane we had arrived on, I swallowed the question.

It was then too that the air force chiefs had offered to send an armed security guard along with us on our cruise, though they didn't think it was necessary. I'm glad I agreed with them. Having a loaded firearm in the hands of a local “professional,” under the boarding circumstances, would not have been good.

When we reported our experience to the air force, one member said, "We've already heard about it. The participants have already been severely beaten behind the knees." Our informant, however, despite his rank, proved to know neither the name nor even the vague location of this village. But as he freely admitted, being an airman, he didn't venture round the archipelago at all if he could avoid it. Kilwat, as it is called, deserved more of a medal, it seems to me, than a caning behind the knees. Armed with traditional weapons, they leapt to defend their reef, and their ways, from the encroaching tentacles of both the fishing and the tourism industries.

LAWRENCE BLAIR is currently writing Dynamo Jack about a Chinese psychic. He and his brother created the documentary series Ring of Fire.


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