A Spice island adventure, 1989

For sometime I had been fascinated by the Bugis people of Sulawesi, Indonesia. They still worked some of the last sailing cargo boats of the world. I was inspired by the 1970s film Ring of Fire”Spice Island Saga” https://youtu.be/OUK0hZKeahI
where Lawrence and Lorne Blair sail with the Bugis  in the footsteps of Alfred Wallace, the great 19th century naturalist and anthropologist. Their voyage took them from Old Makassar to the Aru Islands in search of the golden-tailed bird of paradise, the symbol of eternal life.

The Bugis had quite a reputation. The romantic villains of Joseph Conrad’s books, seafaring gypsy pirates who the early western spice traders were terrified of.

This is an account of our search for a Bugis ship that would take us on a voyage, in our quest to have a taste of sailing with these people, like it had been for hundreds of years. It includes extracts from letters that we sent home.


Our journey started in the old port of Jakarta, where there were a good hundred schooners docked. It was a place of frantic activity.  Labourers running sacks of cargo up the narrow tree trunk gang planks, loading these mighty timber ships. The air was thick, the heat was sweltering, the noise of shouts, as people toiled moving timber and cargo from trucks and carts to the dockside. There was no mechanisation or cranes this was hard labour. We got on board a few ships and talked with the crew, trying to befriend them and see if we could join them on their voyage. They were friendly. We drank Chinese tea with them, smiled and communicated in no particular language. It was exciting and interesting to be with these people on board their sailing ships, but it was becoming apparent that the Indonesian authorities forbid any passengers, including locals to travel aboard these ships. They said this is due to safety reasons and that quite a few sink due to overloading of cargo. Indonesia at this time was very strict with rules and quite a controlling country. This was a set back and we gave it some thought. We decided to head to Borneo where hopefully they didn’t know so much about the rules! Maybe on a remote river in the jungle we would find a ship with a friendly captain that we could talk round to letting us join a voyage.

We crossed the Java sea to Borneo on a small rusty cargo boat, the Kumana Suri,  that carried  quite a few passengers crammed onto its small aft decks. We squeezed onto a small piece of metal deck and settled down for the 300 mile voyage to Banjarmasin, South Borneo, covering ourselves with a piece of cloth to get some shade.

Stripy shirt man at the wheel


From letters home ” there was no distinguishing among the crew of the ‘Kumana’, the captain dressed the same as the cook. We went up onto the bridge where a man wearing a stripy shirt and shorts was steering the boat with a massive wooden spoked wheel. Michael Jackson was playing full blast on the stereo system. This was as far as mod cons went on this boat. They had  a compass, and the cook showed us a rather torn photocopy of a chart with a line on it from Surabaya to Banjarmasin.”

Busy river of Banjarmasin with floating markets

” The approach to Banjarmasin was really impressive, a wide river that cut deep into the jungle leading lead to the town. Villages could be seen in small clearings along the river bank; houses on stilts, people travelling by canoe, everything revolves around the river. As we got nearer to Banjarmasin the river became clogged by boats of all shapes and sizes, some carrying passengers others carrying cargo”

We had arrived in Borneo; hot, humid, and dense lush wild green vegetation. This is how I imagined it. Thick jungle right to the edge of the rivers that penetrated it.

Our search for a Bugis schooner continued. Bugis ships came from these jungle hanging rivers and sailed to Sulawesi, Java, and Sumatra. Our journey took us by jeep along tracks of deep mud, by bamboo raft with people transporting bananas to market, and we encountered Dayak tribal people living in their longhouses, 20 to 30 families living together. We walked through thick jungle, either crossing rivers by bamboo bridges or wading through them. Paths turned to mud flow in torrential tropical storms. At night we often would stay at the Village Headman’s house as this is customary.

Eventually after a month of searching and boarding  Bugis ships, chatting with crews and captains, we found a boat on the Mahakam river just up stream of Samarinda. They were sailing the 700 miles down the east coast of Borneo and across the Java sea to Surabaya in a few days once cargo was loaded. There she stood, moored along side some low thatched roofed warehouses built on stilts, the Bunga Melati, a fine looking craft.

The Bunga Melati, before cargo loaded

They seemed happy at first for us to join them on their voyage, but what followed was a roller coaster of excitement and disappointment. It seemed we needed permission, but from who? It started with the captain, who was not a kindly chap, then the Harbour Master, who was happy to give permission as long as the Shipping agent who was dealing with the cargo gave permission first. Then permission from Immigration was needed. With the help of a young kind Indonesian, acting as a translator we went from one person to another. It was frustrating and looked like it would never happen. Until a visit to the Immigration office where we weren’t even sure what we were meant to be asking, a smartly dressed official who spoke perfect English, listened to our story and replied ” you want something to show  for your visit”  we said “yes that’s what we need” He wrote in our passports permission to sail on board the sailing ship ‘Bunga Melati’, which was endorsed by official stamps.

Permission to sail stamped in our Passports

The Captain, Harbour Master, and Mr Harry from the shipping agent all gave their permission. It looked like we were on our way. Another week passed as the loading of the cargo was delayed and a dispute with the captain over money, which was resolved by the shipping agent, who was now becoming our good friend. Somehow Mr Harry had arranged with the Captain that we could do the trip free of charge, so we would remember them he said. Such kindness and of course to this day I still have vivid memories of this amazing experience which will still rank as the top travel adventure we have ever been on.

I am reading from a letter sent home” We are now on board the ‘Bunga Melati’ crossing the Java Sea. It is our fifth day at sea and should reach Surabaya by lunch time tomorrow.”

“On the morning of 15th September we received a phone call from the Shipping Agent saying that we were to leave at 1.00pm, which came as rather a surprise as the captain had told us that we would leave on the 16th. Anyway, we rushed around to the Shipping Agent with our luggage and food for five days, to say our farwells to the staff. We were taken to the boat by the company car, followed by Mr Harry on his moped.”

“At exactly 1.00pm the boat left and we motored out of Samarinda along the Mahakam River, passing through the delta where, after running aground, found an anchorage for the night. We paddled ashore in the ship’s tender, a dug out canoe, to buy  coconuts for our voyage. After a walk ashore we returned to the boat and slept on the back deck under the stars. As we bedded down the ships wildlife woke up and we realised we were sharing our sleeping quarters with two well fed rats. The crew played cards and gambled all night long”.

The delta, first night at anchor, a truly tropical scene

“To a fantastic sunrise the anchor was hauled in and we were on our way. The river widened and we met the sea which was calm and blue. The crew washed frantically in the last of the fresh river water. For the next two days and one night we motored down the coast of Borneo as there was no wind(we were in the doldrums).”

The Bunga Melati is a single masted, gaff rigged vessel,  with topsail, about one hundred feet long, and built from what the locals call iron wood, which is heavier than water. It also has an engine which replaced the mizzen mast of earlier boats like the ones that Lawrence and Lorne Blair sailed on in the 70s. The sweeping bow ended with a bow sprit that secured the two foresails. Two steering oars lashed to either side of the counterstern aided direction when under sail. The cargo was mainly timber that filled the main part of the vessel to an alarming level which gave us little free board at midships.

Bunga Melati, looking back towards the bridge. Deck cargo and the dug out canoe tender

Large sacks of what appeared to be recycled plastic tied to the deck cargo. The ship’s tender, a blue dugout canoe was also lashed to the deck cargo, only just allowing clearance of boom and heavy dark brown cloth mainsail to pass over. The faded turquoise green superstructure at the rear of the boat contained the compact living quarters for the 14 crew.  The bridge was the largest space on board, with room for everyone to just about squeeze in and play cards. It was lined with rather tacky wood effect Formica, which made it rather slippery.  The captain’s cabin was behind the bridge. Two cramped walk ways led to the stern and passed the crews’ cabins, two rows of coffin like shelves, each with about a metre of head room and the width of perhaps two small people to lie side by side. The stern, with its slatted deck for drainage, was counter levered above the water which made a good place for the bathroom and kitchen areas. In the centre there was a place where you could lean over the stern and haul in water using a bucket with a rope attached. To one side was the bathroom with a hole in the floor to squat over, and to the other side was the kitchen. A large wooden shelf contained a fire for cooking on. This was our home for five days and nights and we settled into the routine of life onboard the Bunga Melati.


Back to from letters, “On Sunday night we anchored at Batulicin on the south east tip of Borneo. This was an amazing place where they build wooden Bugis Schooners. There must have been 25 of them under construction on the river banks and some of them were over 100 feet long.”



“The approach to Batulicin was really impressive, passing through shallow straits that run between the island of Laut and the mainland. We first sighted Kotabaru on Laut Island and then passed between many small islands that are dotted along the straits. All of them densely forested, with small fishing villages, and lots of small sailing boats passed by. We proceeded very slowly, with one of the crew at the front of the boat taking depth readings with the lead line. The Captain took the wheel as he always did when things were tricky” There was a tense atmosphere on board as we navigated the shoals. “The wrecked ships that littered the Straits were a reminder of the hazards here.”

Fishing boat

“On arrival at Batulicin we were met by a police speedboat, who were somewhat surprised to see Westerners on a Bugis ship. This area used to be a popular place for pirates but we were assured that they had all been imprisoned now and if there were any left we were told they would only want the Captain and not us! The police took us for a spin in their speedboat, taking much delight in showing off their fancy craft, and then they dropped us on the shore so we could look at the boat building. Accompanied by the Purser and the Capatin’s son we felt quite safe, We returned to the Bunga Melati by motorised canoe. The crew played cards all night.”20161104190957_01

“The next morning we pulled in the anchor, a ten man job, (no winch just muscle, 10 men in a row along the anchor warp), sails were unfurled and and hauled up. The wind filled the heavy brown canvas as we set sail for Surabaya across the Java sea. The weather was now much worse, driving rain most of the day and the wind blew strongly filling the sails well. Occasionally the Captain would come to life and there would be a mad rush of the crew as sails were lowered when small squalls approached. Crew confidently climbed the mast to bring in the topsail”.

Aloft, about to furl the topsail

Again reading from my letters, “The boat was being thrown around the sea and as we slept on the wheel house floor we slid helplessly from one side of the boat to the other. Even at night the crew were sent up the mast to bring in sails when the wind became too great. The helmsman worked hard that night to keep our course, in the big swell. He used a torch to see the compass as the compass light had broken, which felt uncomfortably makeshift. The captain emerged from his cabin hourly and prowled anxiously round the boat. As we tried to sleep, with the wind howling and the sea tossing us about, we couldn’t help thinking of the story that Hasman the cook had told us earlier in the voyage “crazy Captain, he swims for three days, clinging to wreckage, when his ship sunk, until he was rescued by another passing boat!” It was an exhausting night and luckily we were still afloat by morning when the weather improved and the sun shone on the rolling blue sea. Full sail was set and the steady wind pushed us across the Java sea, towards Suarabaya. We passed between coral bound islands and saw small inter-island sailing boats. The fishing lines that we had trailed from Samarinda were now starting to bring in fish, one of them nearly three feet long, chopped into steaks and fried by Hasman. An afternoon of listening to sailors’ yarns in the fine weather was followed by several hours of serious gambling by the crew led by the captain. We found a better space to sleep that night wedged in a small walkaway outside in front of the bridge. It seemed to be free of the ship’s wildlife too.”

The ship’s crew consisted of 14 people, most of whom didn’t seem to do much work at all. The only time you saw all of them working was when they pulled the anchor in. There was the Captain, who certainly had an air of authority to him, he never raised his voice and the crew moved quickly under his command. He  didn’t really work, apart from taking the wheel occasionally  through the dangerous bits, he just told others what to do and spent a lot of time counting his money in his cabin. We were never sure whether he was happy to have us on board. He played cards with the crew and always seemed to be winning – probably because he raised the stakes too high for them. I think one of he only times he really smiled was when I took a photo of him having his grey hair dyed by the cook. The cook was an excellent bloke called Hasman, who worked by far the hardest on the boat.

Hasman, The Cook

He cooked over an open fire in the back of the boat and brought us vast quantities of rice twice a day, along with endless cups of Chinese tea. He looked after us really well and could speak a little English.

Hasman’s father was one of the three helmsman. He had sailed around Indonesian Islands for 25 years and new every island. He told us stories of when he had to fight off pirates when carrying coconuts in small sailing boats to the Philippines. If only we could understand more Indonesian he must have had so many seafaring  stories to tell. Our Indonesian improved alot over the 5 days at sea, although it did have a rather nautical slant.

The Purser

The Purser had made it his job to look after us and where ever we went we were escorted by him. He was a good bloke and as he didn’t work the boat he spent much time teaching us Indonesian. The rest of the crew consisted of an engine man, a scrawny character covered in oil and always smiling, a carpenter, who seemed to be constructing some bunk beds with carved headboards from the ships cargo, and seven sailors who worked the boat.

The Carpenter

One of them, who was older than the others, was just how you would imagine a sailor to look like. He had tattoos of anchors and ships’ wheels on his arms and always looked at you with one eye half closed. A bawdy Catholic with a weakness for beer, gambling and women, he used to be a rice farmer in Malaya, but lack of money drove him to piracy which only lasted nine months as he got caught and after a short prison sentence returned to Indonesia.

Mr “Tattoo”,  not the best pirate!

He liked the money of piracy, but his kindly character wasn’t suitable for being a pirate and as he said, “he has been a good man ever since” He wore a large gaudy ring which contained some sort of white smokey coloured stone in it, in which he thought you could see mountains. He really liked this ring, every day he would show it to us so that we could admire its splendour. To my amazement, on the last day he wanted to give it to me for memories sake. Luckily I managed to persuade him to keep it. I was so touched by his absolute genuine generosity and it is something I will never forget. All the people on the boat were excellent and really generous. Not one asked for money or even scrounged a cigarette, they would have given their last bowl of rice.20161104190732_02

Before dawn on our last day we spotted the light of Madura lighthouse, an island off Surabaya. Our journey and adventure was soon coming to an end. We passed tiny boats from Madura, with disproportionately large sail area, laden with baskets of vegetables. Approaching the old port, we ran aground and rather  than waiting for the tide, we paddled precariously ashore in the dugout canoe. The next day we returned with gifts for the crew and a photo album with photos of the trip for them to keep aboard the Bunga Melati. We felt sad saying goodbye to the crew who had become our friends”



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