Off the Beaten Path - Cruising Sumatra's West Coast!

After our time in Borneo, we needed to start considering our cruising plans.  Would we follow the standard cruiser track and head up the Malacca Strait to Singapore?  Or would we try another route and blaze our own trail around the southwest coast of Sumatra?

The Malacca Strait is a popular topic among cruiser forums, where sailors commiserate about the sheer number of shipping vessels that congest the narrow waterway between Singapore and Indonesia.  Wikipedia defines it as “a narrow, 550 mi stretch of water between the Malay Peninsula and the Indonesian island of Sumatra. As the main shipping channel between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, it is one of the most important shipping lanes in the world.”  The site (link to Wiki article on Malacca Strait) goes on to state that in 2008, the annual number of vessels transiting the strait was 94,000!  These stats weren’t the reason we didn’t take the Malacca Strait path that most cruisers take when they travel from Indonesia to Malaysia, but they certainly added an extra boost to our decision to travel along the outside of Sumatra!

During our few months of cruising Sumatra’s west coast, in fact, we encountered only a small number of other sailboats and relished the last bit of peaceful anchorages before hitting the robust sailing communities here in Thailand.  Our time in Sumatra was amazing.  We explored places rarely visited, saw unique creatures, and learned about ancient cultures.  Everyone furthered their diving credentials and their grasp of the Indonesian language.  Sumatra was our last stop in a year-long exploration of the beautiful, rich islands of Indonesia.  We took the road less traveled, and that made all the difference…

Anak Krakatoa - The Son Of Krakatoa 

E reading her Krakatoa book while volcano erupts!
 Our friends Jack and Marce on SV Escape Velocity recommended a book by Simon Winchester entitled Krakatoa, which proved to be a fantastic book about the events surrounding and resulting from the massive volcanic eruption of Krakatoa in 1883.  It was the perfect audiobook to listen to during my watches as we traveled from Borneo to the Sunda Strait.  The kids and I were also reading a juvenile historical fiction book entitled Krakatoa Lighthouse by Allan Baillie as part of our literature curriculum, to gain insights into what the people experienced before, during, and after the eruption.  Both books offered a deeper appreciation for the immensity of the event and the technology that allowed the whole world to be alerted almost immediately.  The book piqued our curiosity about a few topics - colonialism of the Dutch, native folklore that passes along vital wisdom of the environment, the undersea cable system that interconnects continents, and the humanity that emerges after natural disasters occur.

In the end, we opted not to stop and anchor among the islands that surround the former Krakatoa.  The Son of Krakatoa is the volcano that has built up since that 1883 eruption.  The day we went past it, the smoke and ash plume rose high into the air and we could feel the rumbling of each boom in our chests.  Call us wimps, but we figured it might not be the safest place to drop the hook!  (A few days later, though, our fearless friends on SV Perry would anchor for the night and collected ash off their decks to gift us!)

Family photo by volcano

Just a few days ago, as I was working on this blog post, we received news of a volcano-induced tsunami that hit coasts on either side of the Sunda Strait.  Geologists believe that a portion of Anak Krakatoa slid off, causing a huge displacement of seawater.  The death tolls continue to rise as rescuers investigate the scene and work to help the communities effected by this disaster recover.  The people of this area have suffered greatly and we mourn with them the loss of family members, friends, homes, businesses, and livelihood.  Please join us in praying for them as they attempt to recover from the devastation they incurred.  If you feel so lead and can offer more than prayers, consider making a donation through one of the organizations listed here.

Tambling Wildlife Nature Conservation 

Because we couldn’t stop at Krakatoa for the night, we had to resort to plan B.  Usually, we don’t enter an anchorage after sundown, but the change of plans left us little choice.  The closest protected place we could find was a bay at the southern tip of Sumatra.  It was wide open and ended up being no problem to navigate in the dark.  However, as we were getting settled in, a beam of light shone on our boat and we were called up on deck by a few guys in a boat, one with a gun slung over his shoulder.  After initial questioning, they told Mark that he needed to come ashore to check in.  He tentatively agreed, grabbed our envelope of documentation, and was gone.

The kids and I tried to busy ourselves, but all of us were somewhat rattled by the abrupt reception and wondered what Mark was encountering ashore.  After an hour, he returned, smiling broadly.  Turns out, the men who’d come to the boat were rangers from the Tambling Wildlife Nature Conservation Center.  They helped us get to a mooring ball in the dark (anchoring was prohibited in the bay to protect marine life) and invited us to come in the morning for a full-day tour of their nature conservancy.

The following day was filled with fascinating excursions.  First, we took a shallow-draft boat ride through Sleman Lake where we saw many cranes, heard a troop of gibbon monkeys in the canopy, and even had a fish almost flop right into our boat!  Then we rode through the forest to visit a few of the ranger stations.  Here, rangers are on a rotation, living in the middle of the jungle for a while and then returning home for a break while another ranger comes on duty.  The stations each are responsible for tending a vegetable garden, and any meat has to be brought in, as nothing can be taken from the natural surroundings.  I am impressed at how self-sustained this conservancy is (even raising pigs to feed the tigers!) and how carefully they have thought out their impact on the biome they have committed to preserve.

Loading up in our safari jeep!

Map of waterways throughout park

Looking for birds and monkeys up the river

The rangers monitor the surrounding area, documenting sightings of indigenous species or any traces of their whereabouts such as feces or tree markings.  This area is not only home to the Sumatran Tiger, but also the sunbear, pygmy elephant, and more.  Motion-triggered cameras are placed throughout the jungle to further monitor the fauna 24 hours a day.  One of the rangers told us that the elephants aren’t fond of the red lights that illuminate the night vision on the cameras, and they have found them kicked from the trees and stomped on!

Motion triggered camera

The conservancy houses a tiger rehabilitation center with veterinarians and a full staff who are trained to care for tigers who have been found injured so that they can be re-released out into the wild.  Although we initially thought we would be unable to see a tiger, when we arrived in the late afternoon, they let us view one of the tigers who cannot be released back into the wild.  The enclosures have solid walls in order to limit human interaction, so we could barely see him through a small area.  When we approached, however, he instantly knew we were there and I was shaken to my core by the fiercest, most intense roar and snarl I have ever heard.  Okay, I don’t often hear tigers roar, especially at such a close distance, but it was heart-quickening!

Tiger food.  These pigs are fed 'live' to the tigers.... :)

Our next excursion on the tour took us across the well-groomed grass airfield, past an original Dutch lighthouse which had withstood the Krakatoa eruption of 1883 (another connection to our literature unit!), and along the beach at sunset.  During our ride, armed rangers rode behind us in golf carts (this is tiger territory after all!) and at one point one the rangers had to shoo a couple massive bull water buffalo off the path ahead of us!

Dutch lighthouse survived the big Krakatoa eruption

Horseback riding as part of our jungle safari

Finally, we hopped atop the jeep again for a night ride through the jungle.  One of the rangers was up on the roof with us, shining a spotlight into the dense bush that lined the dirt roads, trying to catch sight of any animal retinas reflecting back.  Alas, there were no tigers peering back at us from the shadows, but we did see a Great Horned Owl, herds of water buffalo and deer (the tiger’s natural prey), and scurrying lewaks (the weasel relatives famous for pooping high-dollar coffee beans we’d seen in Bali).    

This “plan B” anchorage turned out to be a fantastic Field Trip for all of us.  The people of Tambling Wildlife Nature Conservation are passionate in their determination to preserve the unique and diverse wildlife in this part of the world, educate others about the threats to these environments, and evoke change through global awareness.

Padang - The Big City

It was as if we had pulled into a different planet when we arrived in Padang.  Huge cargo ships congested the bay and factories with towering smoke stacks along the shoreline were puffing out a haze indicative of industry.  Trash littered the water’s surface.  Commercial fishing boats rumbled through the anchorage with black fumes billowing from their sputtering engines.  It seemed that every piece of the environment had been tainted in the name of human ‘progress’, a far cry from the awareness of global impact we’d seen in Tambling.  The contrast was shocking.

Provisioning in Padang
Our stop here was necessary, though, because it had an airport!  We’d pick up three sets of guests who’d be staying aboard with us during a two-month time period.  Padang also had an immigration office, where we’d need to renew our visas for our final months in Indonesia.  Of course, civilization does offer some indulgent perks, too.  We found a Wendy’s in the local shopping mall, which became a regular afternoon frosty stop for us amidst the guests coming and going.  The same mall also housed a nice Transmart department and grocery store where we could replenish some hard-to-find provisions (cream cheese!) and household items.

We anchored near a mooring field of boats in Bayur Bay that hosted surfers from around the world, bringing them out to the Mentawai Islands.  The family who owned the dock had recognized a business opportunity, and invested in a few surf liveaboard boats.  They also had started charging a one-time fee to tie to their dingy dock.  This was the first time we’d had to pay to get to shore.  Tourism had created severe inflation that we kept encountering during our stay.  They charged me astronomical prices for the laundry service - more than triple what I’d paid elsewhere, and a pricey car ride into town led us to explore the local bus service instead.

Shopping inside mall downtown Padang

Kids having a fun time socializing at Padang local market

Side note:  Funnily enough, the typical Indonesian child would holler, “Hey Mista!” to us as we walked along, but here, because so many Aussie surfers came to visit, it was, “G’day Mate!”

Wendy's frosty in Padang!! :)

Mentawai Islands - Sumatra Surf

Diving in the Mentawais

These remote islands off the southwestern coast of Sumatra were the main reasons for our ‘off-the-beaten-path’ itinerary.  Admittedly, surfers we are not, but we figured it would offer some gorgeous scenery and peaceful leeward anchorages, opposite the surf beaches, of course.  We were anxious to check out the diving prospects, too, although the diving turned out to be just okay.

The first guests aboard were a family of six we’d met while sailing in New Zealand and Fiji.  Our two kids melded perfectly among their four, and the connection between our two families was quick and undeniable.  Since those shared anchorages, they have moved to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where the kids are in school and everyone is adjusting to land life in the big city!  Because they were boat folks, they knew the ins and outs of sailing already, and their time on land had created a deep appreciation for life aboard.  Their excitement about being back on the water was contagious and offered the Field Trip crew a much-needed reminder of how special this lifestyle truly is.  We took turns diving, keeping Mark busy at the compressor, and the kids struck up a nudibranch-spotting contest!  Genie and I were kept busy in the galley, trying to accurately estimate how much rice we needed to cook to feed 10 hungry people!  I feel like I barely saw my kids the entire time they were with us, as they were fully engrossed in boat kid play - making up dances, paddle board acrobatics, fishing, jewelry making, beach exploration, and even an afternoon with the new microscope - looking at fish gills, scales and blood, dragonfly wings, and whatever they could fit onto a slide!  The short week flew by, and it was hard for all of us to part ways after such a fun-filled time together.

Our dear friends from s/v of our best weeks aboard Field Trip with guests!!!

Next, my cousin, his wife, and their 6-month-old baby came to visit for 10 days as part of a Pacific Ocean multiple-stop adventure from Alaska to Hawaii to Tonga to New Zealand to Indonesia!  Phew!  Baby Roy was our youngest guest ever, and the kids had a great time prepping for their visit by gathering a bin full of age-appropriate toys and a bucket that he could bathe in!  I must admit, I was a bit uncertain about having a baby on board, but my cousin and his wife were completely prepared and amazingly flexible as new parents!  The tropical heat was a big change from chilly Alaska, but they hopped in the water or sat on the foredeck whenever they could to cool down.  Mark played scuba instructor, allowing them to experience the underwater world beyond snorkeling, and Jason got pretty good at spotting Scorpion fish!  On board, many games of Skip-bo and Sequence were played, and gradually, the kids got more comfortable holding Roy and finding ways to make him giggle.

Sarah's cousin talking with locations using Google Translate

Dive class in the Mentawais, having a blast

The two places we anchored with both of these visitors were Sipura Island (near the friendly and luxurious Aloita Resort and between the “Malibu Right” wave set and the small island (as seen in this surf site map from Kandui Resort).  Sipura Island offered a fantastic beach and a nice spot to enjoy lunch and a sundowner at the Aloita Resort.  The sand spit near Kandui Resort meant hours and hours of fort building and wave play for the boys, while the rest of us rotated with the dive gear.

Baby Roy getting a bath on deck in a bucket!
Side note:  On both visits to Sipura, we were visited by the local police who couldn’t quite categorize us.  Since very few cruisers come to these islands, they kept thinking we were a charter boat and wanted to ensure we had the necessary paperwork and receipts to legally run a business here.  It took many conversations (in very broken English/Indonesian) to sort it all out the first time we arrived.  I imagine they thought we were definitely running a charter when we returned the following week with a new set of guests!!  In the end, we tried to explain that these were friends and family visiting us, and that we were not being paid by them to host, but I’m not sure they accepted that as the truth.  Finally, though, we asked if we could please purchase fuel from them (the police), and they were glad to oblige and kindly dropped all allegations.

Nias - Tracking and Trekking

After dropping my cousin and his family back at Padang, we picked up my friend’s daughter, Kate, who would stay with us for 4-6 weeks as we gradually hopped up to Thailand.

Sarah and Kate at Padang airport

n Lagundri Bay on the island of Nias, we had another encounter with officialdom.  While Mark was flying the drone onshore, he momentarily set his iPhone down.  Understandably, one of the young boys hanging around to watch the drone decided the phone needed to be his.  What he didn’t know about, however, was the ‘Find My Phone’ tracking capabilities that all iPhones have.  So, when Mark realized his phone had been nabbed, he turned on my iPhone and started watching the blip on the screen that showed the whereabouts of his.  He and Matt on SV Perry instantly went to shore to somehow get it back.  During their search, someone alerted the police, and before long they found themselves riding in a police van in hot pursuit of the ‘blue blip’ with one officer making siren noises as they sped along!  None of the police officers had ever before seen an app that could track a stolen phone, and they were absolutely enamored with the technology.  Mark said they took this theft very seriously and thrived on the opportunity to showcase their crime-fighting abilities.  At one point, one of the officers was running through the woods, holding my iPhone in front of him, following the screen, and hot on the trail!

The police chief that helped us find the lost iPhone...POLICE POWER! :)

Finally, they located the phone hidden behind an outhouse, where the thief had obviously tried to dispose of the evidence.  All the excitement created a camaraderie between the police and the cruisers.  The lost had been found, and now it was time to celebrate!  We all gathered at the   beach restaurant where we’d pulled up the dinghy and listened as the guys each gave their exciting rendition of the pursuit and recovery.  All of the officers, especially the chief, wore wide grins of pride as they congratulated each other on a job well done.

Jungle trekking in the rain

Finally, the waterfall we were searching for!

The following few days in Nias were spent sightseeing.  Nias is certainly known for its massive waves, a surfer’s delight, but it is also offers a fascinating look into the ancient culture of the area.  We visited a village constructed atop one of the highest hills in southern Nias, called Bawömataluo.  When we arrived, rainy weather had shrouded the entire village in cloud cover, and since the name was a bit hard to pronounce, we dubbed it ‘Sky Village’ instead.  It really did feel as if we were walking around up in the clouds!

Elizabeth and Kate dressed in local attire

Michael, Conrad and Mark hanging loose in the sky village.
Jumping stone in middle of village

The village has been nominated as a Unesco World Heritage site, with stone leaping rituals, unique architecture constructed using only wooden pegs, and moss-covered megaliths.  Kate and Elizabeth dressed up in traditional queen’s clothing while Michael and the Perry boys checked out the pig skulls that lined the rafters in chieftain’s ceremonial house.  Unfortunately, the rain meant we couldn’t see the stone jumping that day, but Mark and Kate would return a few days later and stumbled upon a special ceremony performed to honor an admiral in the navy!

Gomo is another area of Nias Island that offers a glimpse into the past with its huge stone tables.  The hike to reach the stone table collections is not for the faint of heart, especially after a few days of rain.  We slipped and slid down mud paths and moss-slicked stone walkways to get there.  Our guide told us that not many tourists go to Gomo, and an hour into the hike I could understand why.  It was challenging.  The sites themselves were worth the work and left me wondering about the ancient civilization that first settled here so long ago.  How did they haul these stones up the paths I struggled even to walk up?  What did each of the depictions represent?  There was something magical about having hiked to such a remote site and seeing relics that few ever will.

Family photo with ancient megaliths

Megaliths, hundreds of years old

Hinako Island - Pirate’s Prey

On our way up to Aceh, we wanted to stop at a place that looked gorgeous on the satellite images.  There was a narrow channel near Hinako Island with shallow turquoise water that might just offer some nice diving.  Since Kate was learning to dive, we dropped anchor and played around near the anchor chain to familiarize her with the equipment and later checked out some of the reefs that lined the channel.  It wasn’t awesome diving, but the shallow water was a great place to practice.

That night was family night, so we fixed up our traditional taco salads and popped on a movie.  Occasionally, small fishing boats would motor by on their way in and out of the far off village.  We’d see their flashlights glinting along our hulls every once in a while, but otherwise, there were no houses or buildings on either side of where we were anchored.  The beaches were empty and the water was calm.  I was grateful for the prospect of a good night’s sleep.

Sometime during the night, I awoke, thinking I heard something or someone on the back deck.  I nudged Mark awake, “I think someone’s outside.”  He listened for a moment and then we both figured it was my overactive imagination.  Usually, we have motion-sensor lights on at night, but since Kate was sleeping in the guest cabin and the lights were right outside her hatch, we decided to leave them off.  After all, there was no one out here, right?

When we walked outside the following morning, coffee in hand, it was clear that we had been visited by pirates.  The wetsuits that hung on the line were gone, as were dive booties, masks, fins, and gloves.  They had nearly taken everything, leaving us with only a horrible feeling of violation.  Admittedly, we were negligent.  We should have put all our stuff away.  We should have turned on the security lights.  We should have come out to check in the middle of the night when I thought I heard something.  Should have.

The shock of it caused us to just want to lift anchor and be gone from that place.  We were angry, embarrassed, and not in any mindset to pursue the culprits.  There were no tracking devices on our dive gear or local police to join us in a crime-fighting spree.  No, this time we’d tuck our tails and get the heck out of here.  It was just time to move on.

Iboih - Last, But Not Least

As we pulled into the narrow channel between Iboih and Rubiah Island near the town of Sabang, we were a bit down in the dumps.  We’d heard good things about the Iboih Dive Center here, though, so we pieced together enough equipment and rented what we didn’t have in order to check out the dives in the area.  Kate signed up to finish her open water certification, and we decided to let Michael take the course as well.  In the end, actually, we all made the most of our last diving in Indonesia, and everyone advanced their dive certifications.

Michael and Kate finishing the PADI Open Water course

The people of Iboih Dive Center greeted us with smiles, offered empathy about our stolen dive gear, and instantly lifted our spirits.  Quick friendships were formed as we learned together.  In the mornings we’d do our lessons and a few dives, then we’d meet back at the dive shop to share stories over a cup of hot tea and a delicious plate of fried rice.

New guests Leigh and Alex join us aboard

One of the dive instructors, Karine, was living aboard a monohull that was anchored next to us-  a lively, tough French woman who has been sailing for 20+ years, most currently in Madagascar!  Her cruising lifestyle is funded by her dive instruction as she travels, and we loved hearing the amazing stories of her single-handed trip across the Indian Ocean!  She joined us in celebrating Thanksgiving dinner - her first one ever - complete with a few traditional favorites like stuffing and cranberry sauce that Kate had gifted us from the states.

Karine and Elizabeth finishing the PADI Advanced Open Water dives

The people of Iboih became like our extended family.  Soon we were walking along the streets recognizing people we’d met and feeling like part of the community.  We enjoyed the variety of restaurants available and found a few favorite spots - a lady who made the best doughnuts, another who brewed a mean cup of coffee and blended some invigorating health tonics, and one man who baked unbelievable sourdough bread to order!  Our hearts and stomachs were full during our time here, and it would become one of our favorite spots in all of our Sumatra travels.

Sarah and Leigh after a dive together

Heading to dinner ashore

Leigh and Karine during the PADI Open Water course

Mark's new girlfriend during the Emergency First Response class... :)

Off the Beaten Path

When we decided to take the less traveled path, it meant more risks, more unknowns.  There weren’t many blogs written by cruisers about the outside coast of Sumatra, and most of the information we found was geared towards the surfers who sought the killer waves.  We had to blaze our own trail.  In some cases, the risks brought challenges and discouragement, but the rewards were great and well worth it.  We saw ancient relics, towering waterfalls, unique creatures, and beautiful landscapes.  Often, we had entire beaches to ourselves and were the only boat in the bay.  Most of the time that meant we received VIP treatment and were warmly welcomed as guests, but there were times when we were seen as easy targets.


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