Transitions: Papua New Guinea to Indonesia
We are right now waking up in a slightly roll-y, but gorgeous anchorage in the Hermit Islands of Papua New Guinea. This is one of our last stops in this country as we make our way quickly towards Indonesia. These islands are little more than craggy tree-lines poking up above a concentric series of reefs in the midst of the Bismark Sea, north of the big island of New Guinea. We’ve been here about five days and tried out a few anchorages, visited the village, swam with the famous Manta rays, and dove and spearfished the reef. Basically, we’ve completed the triathlon of island cruising.
We’re moving back to a previous, calmer anchorage this morning to do some preparatory work on the boat before we head out on a 3-day trip to a city on the north coast of New Guinea, Vanimo. This is a necessary but dreaded stop. We need to check out of the country and visit the Indonesian consulate before crossing the border into Indonesia. We also need to fill up on diesel as the winds are against us and will be for another month before the monsoon season turns in March. We’ve hopefully arranged for a six month cultural visa that will allow us to stay in Indonesia without needing to fly out every 2 months to reset our visas. I’m a little nervous about it all working out as arranged. We’ve heard so many tales of inconsistency and corruption at these consulates. Our goal is to manage the business in Vanimo in just one day so we can avoid having to stay the night in the harbor. Again, the tall tales of theft and pirates are apocryphal, but we’d prefer not to test that theory.
Once we clear out and get our visas sorted, we will scurry along the long coast of Indonesian West Papua (formerly Irianjaya) to the port town of Sorong. To us, it’s mostly a provisioning port with brackish water at the mouth of a river and dirty harbour, but here is where we expect to find internet, western-style grocery stores, and our first taste of Indonesian food. Woohoo!
After I wrote the above, we left with high hopes and some mediocre weather forecasts for our multi-day voyage to Vanimo. We could see from the start that the wind was not going to be as predicted by the gribs, but we didn't realize how strong of a counter current we would face, as well. We sailed out through the reefs and almost immediately dropped our speed by 2 knots. We put up our newly-mended main sail with 2 reefs and tried to make headway with both engines going full steam. We were hoping to make the trip in 3 days, but at 2 knots of progress it would be much longer than that. And we could only keep that speed with the assistance of heaps of diesel. When the diesel was gone, we might very well start going backwards. We spent several hours adjusting our track to try and see if we could get out of the current a bit. We downloaded grib after grib all reporting conditions that sounded great but sadly, weren't the reality on the water. Then our main sail ripped off of the halyard, again, and that was pretty much all we could take.
After about 8 hours of sailing, we decided to turn back and try to make it to our anchorage at Luf before dark. This was the first time we had ever turned around on a boat, but it seemed like our only choice. Once we made the sad decision, we turned the boat and started showing 7-8 knots of speed. We covered the distance back into harbor in two hours. This is the reason sailors travel seasonally. This season was meant for going east. But, alas, we were stuck going west and we've promised ourselves not to make this mistake again. Schedules be damned.
Pulling back into Luf was disheartening, but more importantly, it posed another problem. We were running dangerously low on food. Now, don't be alarmed. There is pretty much no chance that any one on Dafne could ever starve, but we were completely out of fresh food, and a bit of fruit and a squeeze of lime makes all the fish and rice go down a lot smoother. Given the economic landscape on Luf (nothing, that we saw) we gathered up all our trade items and bags of clothes and headed over to the village to beg for some of their garden produce. The lovely, friendly ladies of Luf came through once again. We had a nice few visits with this village already and were even more grateful for their help, now. They spread the word through all the houses and then we walked through the "street" and saw the families sitting out front with bowls of whatever they could spare. We were three boats full and we each ended up with plenty of food. We traded all our extra clothes, some fishing lines and hooks, and other odds and ends. In exchange we got greens, papayas, bananas, breadfruit, and even eggs. It was enough to last us until the next supermarket.
After our experience over the previous month with the gribs, which we'd begun to call the 'lying liars who lie' for emphasis, we were starting to question our plan to get to Sorong by late February. We still had 800 miles to go. I didn't want to calculate the time and fuel consumption that distance would require at a speed of 2 knots—not to mention the anticipated damage to the boat. Maybe it actually wasn't possible. Where did that leave us? We pulled out some maps and cruising guides and the list of international test sites for the SATs and began crafting 'plan B.'
The closest downwind airport to us was in Madang, Papua New Guinea, on the main island. I've already mentioned our concerns about the main island above, but Madang was a bit of an exception. It had regular tourism, an old colonial center, and much better reputation. From there we could fly to Port Moresby for the test. Now, Port Moresby is a little intimidating. We'd never been nor known anyone who had been much farther than the well-guarded yacht club. Flying in, finding a hotel, getting to and from the test site, was all a lot more involved than a few days docked in the harbor. I started looking into it, but not for long.
Luckily (or unluckily for some of us) we saw a small break in the winds and decided to make a break west once again. This time was also tough, but not quite so bad, and we stuck with it and made it into Vanimo in time to check in with the harbor master and get a quick taxi tour of the places we needed to see. We'd definitely not be making it out before dark, but we would have to take our chances. Mostly, we were just delighted to have been able to click off another 300 miles towards Sorong.
We pulled in on a Thursday and figured we had better get things moving or we would end up stuck here until Monday. We all desperately needed diesel so started on that. We sorted the fuel with the local station and between our three boats, took aboard several drums of diesel, all brought out to us in a small boat with an electric pump. It was nice not to have to carry the fuel by 20-liter jerry jugs, but seeing the ray boat carrying a 200-liter drum and several more liters sloshing around at the feet of the guys pumping got our attention. We'd seen a few hand-pump set ups as well as a few electric pumps before, but this contraption was a diesel generator connected through an electrical cable to the pump. It was one of the guys' job to hold the two ends of the cords together with diesel soaked rags. Inevitably, there was a spark and the whole thing caught fire. Luckily, our buddy boat had a fire extinguisher on hand and they managed to get the fire put out before the whole drum went up. Close call. The guys brought the rig back to the dock and got the system straightened out before they came back out to fuel up the other two boats—ours included. We made sure to have the fire extinguisher on hand just in case.
Next we needed to get our Indonesian visas. We hired a car to take us around to all the government offices and met a friendly diplomat at the consulate. He had been posted all over the world and Vanimo was his final post before retirement. He was making the most of it and enjoyed meeting all the folks on boats who passed through. We brought him out to Dafne for a visit and he gave us loads of tips about Indonesia and Jakarta. His favorite posting (yes, I also ask these kinds of questions) was Bogota, Colombia, FYI.
All the officials from both countries were very helpful and professional. We had a bit of a scare when we found out that we hadn't properly cleared into PNG through immigration. We had only cleared customs and health. We luckily had a record of our emails with PNG immigration and that seemed to do the trick. Phew. I am really not prepared to be detained in Vanimo.
It was getting late on Friday as we wrapped up our quick re-stock and errands, and we started to notice a change in the feel of the town. We had a worrisome stalker follow us through the market who seemed interest in our bags, there was a noticable increase in intoxication, and we saw long lines forming at the banks: pay day. This was an industry town and it was Friday night. We got our kids and headed back to Dafne for one more sleep before heading out of PNG.
Indonesia is only 30 kilometers from Vanimo, the European colonizers decided to split the island straight down the 141st meridian, topography and geography be damned. The first town across the border is the capital of West Papua and its largest city, Jayapura. We couldn't technically go ashore in Indonesia without clearing in, but we arrived on a Saturday and figured we could take our chances until the offices opened on Monday morning. We didn't really know what to expect. How much could possibly change in 30k? This is the same land inhabited by the same people and left largely alone until 100 years ago. We're all curious to see if West Papua is any different than Papua New Guinea, so let's go...
What's different? The colors, the food, the electricity, the houses on stilts, and mostly the language. That 30 k sail meant we couldn't communicate any longer and had to start studying our Bahasa and carrying around our phrase book and google translate.