13Jul2011

And, Once Again, All Roads Lead To Bali…

Tanah Lot Temple Bali

“Could you find out what day the next boat to Papua leaves?” I ask Aka.

We’ve ploughed our way east from Bali on our undersized motorbike en route to Papua, and reached the island of Timor.

Some folk here not only look Papuan but speak Papuan languages. Many landscapes are brilliant brick red and royal blue — Australian, not Asian.

We’re so close to our goal, now, that I can almost taste it. Even if my spawn is now having second thoughts…

“Sure,” Aka says. “The Dobonsolo, right?”

“Yeah,” I say. “The Dobonsolo.”

I listen to Aka’s end of the Indonesian conversation, with Edwin of the Lavalon, the fount of all knowledge of travel in Timor, with mounting horror.

He hangs up.

“The boat’s not running,” he confirms in English. “You need to go to Makassar and get the boat from there, through Ternate.”

“What do you mean not running?” I say. “Bad weather? It’s out of service?”

“It’s stopped,” he says. “The Dobonsolo used to run to Papua through Ambon, but now it’s stopped.”

This is the stuff of nightmares.


Now. I suppose I should explain that going to Makassar is not like heading for Boulogne instead of Calais.

Makassar is almost 800k to our west, as the crow flies, and the boat takes a longer route. Papua, even its uninhabited fringes, is 1200k to our east. Pelni ferries are not fast.

Essentially, we’d need to spend three, four, or possibly five days on a boat going the wrong way, wait around in a city we’ve already visited for a week or so for the next boat, then spend a week or more heading back east on the new boat.

“Well, Mum,” Z says chirpily. “Looks like we’re not going to Papua after all.”

“Yeah,” I say. “It does look that way.”

I realise I need to do something. You know, be parental, and all. Come up with a replacement plan.

On the spot.

“OK,” I say to Aka. “There are boats to Bali, right?”

He checks. “Yes. They have them.”

“Yay!” says my spawn, breaking into a chant. “We’re going back to Bali! WATERBOM! WATERBOM! WATERBOM!!!”

My feelings are rather more conflicted.


We have, in fact, trekked several thousand miles on a motorbike plus hundreds of miles on boats, to get to Papua by a boat that no longer exists. I feel a toxic mix of leaden disappointment and seething, livid frustration at my own stupidity.

“You know,” says Z. “You really should have checked.”

I’m not going to throw my toys out of the pram. I nearly did that when our bike broke down.

I’m not going to cry either.

Hell, no!

I’m going to shout at my kid!

No. I am not going to shout at my kid. I am better than that, honest.

I take a deep breath. “I thought I had checked!” I expostulate (not, definitely not, shout).

“I have the Pelni ferry document all the travel writers use, and that boat’s on it. I talked to people from NTT in Bali, and they all said you could get from Kupang to Papua. Even Aka thought you could, until he rang Edwin! It’s not like I relied on Lonely Planet! Although that says the boat’s running too.”


I should, perhaps, contextualise my stupidity. There is no such a thing as a Pelni ferry schedule.

The company’s website was last updated five years ago. Its offices normally only have any information on boats that pass through their individual ports and never knowingly answer the phone.

Further, because Pelni boats loop round and round their routes on 2-6-week cycles, the local offices can only provide arrival dates within the next three to five days or ballpark dates within three or four weeks.

So it’s only now, that we have the 60-day visa we’ll need for ease of travel within Papua, that it makes any sense to check the time of the next boat. Which, though it exists in folk memory, stopped running a while back.

“Well, at least you didn’t rely on Lonely Planet Indonesia,” says Z. “A bunch of monkeys with typewriters could produce Lonely Planet Indonesia. And there wouldn’t need to be a billion of them either, let alone an infinite number.”

“Trust me,” I say. “I would *never* rely on Lonely Planet Indonesia.”

It still seems almost inconceivable to me, looking at a map of Indonesia, that there are no boats running east out of Kupang, by far the biggest city east of Bali. I know there are no flights. But no boats?!

“OK,” I say. “Let’s double-check with Pelni in Kupang.”

“Well, let’s just get back to Kupang, already!” Z says.


It’s a holiday when we get to the city that Z describes so memorably the lovely sh!th*le of Kupang. The next day, Pelni’s window is five deep in people, but a printed schedule shows there’s a boat to Bali in five days.

It’s going to take three days and three nights, plus or minus.

I get chatting to some helpful loafers, kicking their heels in the rocky dust outside the Pelni office. “Oh!” one says. “You can’t take your motorbike on the boat!”

This should be gutting. In fact, I’m actually past the travel stress stage — long past — and into a sort of zen state where I could, basically, be mugged and not give a toss.

I’ve been on Pelni boats. They are bloody enormous.

CLEARLY they have space for a bike. Somewhere.

“Yeah,” another loafer proffers. “There are other boats you can take, though. Go to the office…”

“Is that ASDP?” I ask. “The boats, I mean?”

“Yeah,” he says.

“But that’s four or five separate boats, right?” I say.

(One of the things I love about Indonesian is that you can say, “ya” for “yeah” or “right?” and “kan?” for “innit?”)

We’ve done these boats, already. Z hates them.

“Yeah,” he says. “But very cheap.”

An increasing cluster of guys nod in sympathy at the crazy lady who’s driven from Bali to Timor on a motorbike with a ten-year-old on the back.

I run a quick search on flights from Bali to Papua. It’s going to cost us north of two thousand dollars just to get there and back, and Z doesn’t really want to go.

Clearly, it’s game over.


Has the trip been a total bust?

No, we decide. It’s been bedeviled by visa hassles, bike breakdowns, a couple of atrociously timed deadlines on my side and one absolutely horrendous road.

But we’ve dived with sharks and turtles in Komodo National Park, swum in natural cascades, built castles on white sand beaches and explored landscapes of quite dazzling beauty — including the painted lakes of Flores.

We’ve learnt to surf — or, stand up, at least.

We’ve watched brick-making, ikat weaving, magnesium mining and rice threshing, and enjoyed an impromptu pottery class. We’ve experienced life in convents, headhunting villages and matrilineal tribal cultures, seen a traditional Sasak wedding, watched men box with deer antlers at a Ngada harvest festival, and come face to face with animism and magic.

We’ve discovered East Timor, its bitter past and dazzling colonial buildings, sat by the fire in a Portuguese government resthouse high in the mountains, swum in spring-fed pools. We’ve met people from a world of different circumstances.

Not a bust, at all, in fact.

But definitely, also, not a success.

And so, we sit down to decide exactly where we go from here, and further HOW…

19 Comments

  1. Success is whatever you want it to be! With all the stuff you guys did, and experienced, every day was a win. Even the shite ones. Looking forward to seeing what you crazy kids get up to next… :)

    • Theodora says:

      Thanks, Dalene! We’ve been having a lot of fun (and some craziness) lately — will catch up andpost it all very soon…

  2. bali beach says:

    wow, that’s a really brave adventure.. even a balinese, I never go to papua or Timor. Please be careful when you go there.. somehow, it’s not really ‘safe’ place, especially for children..

    • Theodora says:

      Timor struck me as pretty safe, to be honest. I think with the independence movement that there is in Papua, now, it’s a more challenging place to visit.

      • Tai says:

        Papua is the best place to visit. And easy also. The only danger for kids in Papua is malaria. Indonesians usually have no image of Papua (or other parts of Indonesia) other than it’s wild and untamed, dangerous, OPM etc. But the every day military oppression of its people is very real.

        You could fly to Papua from Makasar. It’s expensive but no way it’s north of 2000 bucks for two. But anyways, great blog!

        • Theodora says:

          Thank you! Yeah, we could have flown, but the whole point of that journey was to get there by bike and boat, and when that wasn’t going to happen, it just seemed like it wasn’t meant to be. I WILL visit both halves of Papua at some point — it just wasn’t going to be on that particular journey…

          • Tai says:

            Yeah, it’s gonna be cheaper and easier next time you go. There is as of this August a Garuda service Jakarta- Bali- Port Moresby (first time you can fly from Indonesia to PNG straight). I’ve just discovered AirAsia has a route KL-Makassar. I hear also Russians are establishing a competition to Air Nuigini in PNG, so at least flights are getting cheaper :)

          • Theodora says:

            Stop it. You’re making me obsess about diving the Raja Ampat now…

  3. Interesting… I think the moral of the story is that just because there is a string of islands relatively close to one another, it doesn’t mean you can travel along them in a straight line as one would assume. Which is rather depressing because I have visions of doing a trip to London from Sydney without using an aeroplane… and it looks easy enough, but obviously it’s not.

    • Theodora says:

      Yeah. What bums me out is that our leg *used* to be do-able — so much so that the boat still exists in folk memory for everyone in the region — but now isn’t.

      I can tell you, fo’ sure, that none of the cargo boats from Timor Leste to Darwin will take people: we were chatting to some shipping guys who work that route, and they just will not carry people. Not sure if there’s any boats from Kupang to Darwin, but pretty sure there aren’t.

      Did you check boats from PNG to Darwin? That route might be doable.

      • Tai says:

        PNG to Cairns is probably doable. The rumor is in Alotau there are lots of Aussie expats with boats. There must be some private boat traffic between PNG South Coast and Christmas islands/Cairns. Also I know people sail to Oz from Merauke but some of them end up on Manus island based outsourced concentration camp…

        • Theodora says:

          Oh really? Boats big enough to do PNG to Cairns? Wow.

          And, yes, I don’t think “concentration camp” is entirely overstating the aspirant immigrant’s experience of Australian hospitality, although I tend to avoid it as it’s used as a synonym for extermination camps.

          • Tai says:

            Yeah, I think it’s not so far. There are hundreds of Aussie boats sailing those waters, fishing mostly, or just travelling. Actually it’s one good way to escape the logistical nightmare and explore coastal PNG. I used to live on Groote Eylandt and nearly all aussie males there were obsessed with boats and fishing. It’s like they measure their masculinity by the size of the boat there. And yeah, many of them are big ass modern boats :)

  4. SVV says:

    Ouch! +1 on how crappy Lonely Planet. Also, you’re still in that zen place methinks. Sounds like a good place to be.

    • Theodora says:

      Thanks, Scotty. We have a chequered relationship with Lonely Planet Indonesia, but it sort of hit a lowpoint when we got to Sumbawa. (And the road to the Ijen plateau in Java is not doing our relationship with LPI any favours, either…)

  5. Dominique says:

    Sorry to hear about all the hassles but I’m sure the road ahead holds many awesome things for ya’ll. I do like the attitude you took of looking on the bright side and recalling the cool things you guys got to do. :)

  6. Treva says:

    Hello there, I love reading your blog adventures. I’ve been following you for a bit and just wanted to say, thanks– you make my day quite often!
    Treva Dea

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