Across the Banda Sea to Palau Buru

Buru Island, Indonesia

Oct 2022

Having crossed the Banda Sea over night, I had another self-inflicted early morning, but this time even earlier due to the time change 🤔.   It was a beautiful morning as we travelled towards Buru Island as the sun rose from behind it. Buru Island lies between the Banda Sea and the Pacific Ocean and is the third largest island Maluku Island group.  It is not a big island, at 130km long and 90km wide, but it soars from the sea to 2,700m at its highest point. Around 210,000 people live here.

As well as being between two seas, Buru is located right on the boundary between the biogeographic zones and its flora and fauna is quite unique – there are 4 endemic mammal species, 14 endemic birds and a number of endemic butterflies (not sure if we will actually see any of these lol).

To look at the island today, you can never imagine the tragic past that Buru has had.   Between 1969 and 1979, Buru was the site of Indonesia’s most infamous prison camp, where approximately 12,000 political prisoners (mostly academics, artists, teachers, journalists) were held without formal charge or trial.  They were forced to do hard labour without adequate food or clothing and hundreds died.

We were the first expedition ship to visit Pasir Putih, and I believe even Buru Island and as such it appeared to be a pretty big occasion.  The ship was greeted by officials in their small ‘official’ boat with a flag and a video camera recording the event – maybe we made the local news lol.  There were also a number of locals coming out in their small boats to look at the odd foreigners.  I was pleasantly surprised to see them all taking photos of themselves with the ship behind (I did try to photo bomb a few of them lol).

Despite the momentous occasion, the plan for the day all seemed a bit disorganised. There would be nature walks, there might be snorkeling, they did not know till our local guide went over for a reccie – had they not done this before they put the island on the itinerary?? 🤔 Because of this disorganisation, those of us who chose to go on the nature walks, missed the grand welcome which apparently consisted of 1000 villagers from 6 villages, including the Chief of the Regency who had apparently travelled for 6 hours to greet us.  There was local food and dancing and it sounded like a wonderful occasion.  It was the kind of event that everyone should have had the opportunity to experience especially given everything we are missing due to the delays!  To say I was disappointed is a bit of an understatement. 

My disappointment at the disorganisation could not take away the beauty of the island, it was stunning, beautiful turquoise water lapping upon small palm covered beaches, leading up to lush rolling hills and spectacular jungle covered mountains behind.   We were dropped off on land and after a short scramble up a bush covered incline, we made it to an old logging road where we proceeded to wander, stopping to spot the local wildlife.   

We spotted Red cheeked parrots, black eagles, sunbirds, red lorikeets along with some very cool spiders and insects (describing them as cool is a matter of opinion I guess lol).  It was an easy walk but so very hot (it had already been 31C at 8am!).

Unfortunately, we then had to wait over an hour on a small gravel beach area to be picked up by the zodiacs!    Thankfully the area turned out to be a washing area for the locals – washing the bottom of their boats as well as their clothes so it was interesting to watch their techniques. It was not long before other locals turned up to take selfies with us – now pretty much everyone has smart phones, I love that they want to take our photos, and more importantly selfies with us.

When we finally got picked up, we got a chance for a short snorkel from the beach where the grand welcome was held.  It was a nice snorkel, but it was low tide again, and there was still a rather large crowd of locals on the beach and in boats so was a little embarrassing having to wade out in front of all the spectators lol.    They were definitely as fascinated with us as we were with them. They did not know much English, but they knew ‘selfie’ 😂

The afternoon was spent at sea, with a great lecture from guest lecturer, Neil Nightingale and another from our resident historian.  His lecture was cut a little short as the call went out that there were sperm whales in the distance.  There was great excitement around the ship, and we made a short detour to get closer to the pod of sperm whales that had been spotted. 

Of course, I was out on deck trying to get the perfect photos (another failure lol) and from whales I moved on to trying to photograph the birds – today there were more boobies as well as a large flock of red-necked phalaropes (over 700 of them apparently).

It was a lovely end to the day

Dragons and coral …

Flores/Komodo, Indonesia

Oct 2022

Did you know the Indonesian archipelago is made up of over 17,000 islands extending over 5,000 kilometres west to east and crossing from the Indian to the Pacific Oceans.  When I finally board the ship, I will be travelling from Flores right across to the eastern most islands in the archipelago, but in the last couple of days, I have only travelled as far as Flores and Komodo.

The island of Komodo is part of the Lesser Sunda chain and is, not surprisingly, part of the Komodo National Park – and, more importantly, home to the Komodo Dragons, the largest lizards in the world and my main reason for visiting. This island group sits near the Wallace line – a faunal boundary that is a transitional zone between Asia and Australia.  In simple terms, this means it is an area where you can find fauna from Asia and Australia living together which makes it really rather unique.

Endemic to 5 islands in Komodo National Park, Komodo dragons are part of the monitor lizard family (with ancestors from Australia) and can grow up to 3 metres in length.  There are approximately 6,000 dragons left and around 1,700 of those call Komodo Island home.  Our guest naturalist and film makers had some wonderful stories of filming these amazing creatures and the lengths that film makers went to create some of the amazing programmes there are about them. 

There are pretty amazing and can eat up to 80% of their body weight (around 70kg) in one sitting and they can be incredibly patient.  They can attack prey as large as water buffalo and then follow it and wait for it to die from infection that starts around the wound!

And with that preamble, I find myself getting up at 5am (again) for a quick breakfast before being taken by bus 4 minutes down the road (yes, literally 4 minutes) to another hotel with a large wharf where we board 3 large launches, apparently the “best available transport”.  I must say, they were pretty impressive, each with 3 or 4 250 HP outboard motors on the back of them. 

I would like to call the boarding “orgainsed chaos” but really there was not a lot of organisation as we clambered from one boat to the other (as the wharf was only big enough for one boat to moor against it) and then back again when it was decided there was too many people on one of the boats. 

Finally, all divided up between the boats, the safety briefing tells us the capacity is 24 … we had closer to 30 🥴, despite that, we covered the 35km between the islands in around an hour, arriving on Komodo just after another large group despite the early hour.  Komodo is 390 Sq km in size and the dragons who live there have no particular territories.  Also probably worth noting, around 2,000 people share the island with the dragons. 

I had decided to go on the ‘medium’ walk but our first dragon encounter was right in the compound area, not far from the wharf.  In fact, there were two dragons, one of which was a big male which was amazing to see.    As we continued the walk we saw no more dragons but quite a few beautiful birds including a Green Imperial-Pigeon, Yellow-crested Cockatoo, a small raptor (not sure what), Barred Doves, Wallacean Drongos, Black-naped Oriole and a very cool little flying lizard with little yellow throat pouch.

Returning to the compound near the wharf we came across a couple more dragons – this time babies, just 2-3 years old.  Probably about the size of their normal monitor lizard cousins. 

Although seeing the dragons was great, it was sadly not the experience I remembered. In reality, it was never going to be the same with so much development and so many people now coming.  As all the dragons I saw were around the compound, I wonder if they get food from there as there was rubbish everywhere and always large groups of people surrounding them which was not ideal.  There were also a number of shops set up with pretty aggressive sales people who were not happy to take no for an answer which always detracts from any situation, more so when it is supposed to be a remote wildlife experience. Despite all of that, if you are interested in wildlife, I would highly recommend going to see the dragons as they truly are incredible.

From the dragons, we got back on the boat and moved around the island to the Pink Beach –  named for its beautiful pinkish sand … and don’t forget its beautiful turquoise water.  It really was beautiful.  The beach gets its unique colour from Forminifera, microscopic organisms that produce red pigments on coral reefs.  Here on Pink Beach, small pieces of coral mix with the white sand creating the soft pink hue that you see.

It was beautiful, particularly so when the other large group left, leaving just my group to enjoy the beach and waters.  The snorkeling wasn’t amazing but the water was a perfect temperature, and it was great to get a chance to cool down before heading back to Labuan Bajo.

The only scheduled activity for the rest of the afternoon, was the first of a number of talks by Conrad, an expedition staff member who was an history expert, not just of Indonesia but also of the war in the Pacific.  He had such an incredible knowledge and great way of sharing what could be somewhat boring lol.  He was even more impressive as this was only a side gig for him – his day job is Oncology surgeon!!

To end the day, we had been invited to dinner at the rooftop restaurant of a new government built hotel (as we were the first large group to visit the island since covid).  Dining at the Meruorah was like being in Singapore with a beautiful rooftop restaurant and pool overlooking the harbour.  The evening was topped off by us seeing our ship finally arrive in the harbour.    We could still see it from the beach at our hotel – it was so close we all just wanted to get on it now and get moving but no, it was to be another night before we can do that.