Couchfish Week 4: Always get out of the boat. Part II

Couchfish Week 4: Always get out of the boat. Part II

With a couple of exceptions, the further east in Indonesia you go, the better it gets. One of the places out east that is closest to my heart is a blip of an island off the west coast of Alor called Kepa.

Sunset at Kepa. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

We’ve been there a few times—we rent a large but basic wooden house on the cliff. When I say basic, I mean if you want hot water you heat it up in black rubber bags on the grass during the day. But there’s a desk and a great window looking out to sea, plus baby reef sharks swimming out front. Bliss.

The next island to the west is Pantar and in its southern reaches rises Gunung Sirung. I’m always one for a climb, so on this trip I decide to give it a go. 

My day office at Kepa. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

There’s a daily public ferry from Kalabahi on Alor, to Baranusa on Pantar so I aim for that. Due to gas-bagging with staff at the guesthouse then struggling to find an ojek, I miss the ferry.

I’ve missed more than my share of flights, and arriving at the pier seeing my boat chugging away was all too familiar. Chatting to a couple of guys at the wharf, they tell me there is boat to Kabir in an hour or so, so why don’t I get that?

Chugging up the west coast of Pantar. Classic Indonesia. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

In a case of framing the question perfectly wrong, I say:

“Ok great. So from there I can get a bike to Baranusa right?”

"Boleh!” (Sure, in Indonesian.)

Sure enough, a couple of hours later a wooden freighter pulls up. The captain is bemused to see me get on, but whatever, he doesn’t mind and we’re off.

Cargo class works for me. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Pantar kind of looks like something out of Thunderbirds, flying off to the northeast. By Google Maps, roads are, well, limited. My freighter rounds the northeast point and we start chugging down the coast. By my calculations, Baranusa can’t be more than 25 kilometres away ... as the crow flies.

I’m no crow.

About 10 kilometres down the coast, we veer in towards the shoreline. A long slender pier, anchored to the coast by an enormous tree, juts out to sea. Kabir. The boat leans to by the pier, and a guy I’d been chatting to along the way asks if I want to stay in his house.

Kabir in sight. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

“Thanks, but I want to go to Baranusa.”


“The guys in Kalabahi told me I could get an ojek there.”

Much laughter. 

There are no ojeks, according to my new friend, because there is no road.

We all get off the boat. Because, well, when the boat stops and is going nowhere, that is what you do.

A huddle emerges as some of the locals discuss what to do with me. A young woman says her father has a boat, perhaps I could charter that?

Welcome to Kabir. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Next thing I know we’re on scooters heading south to her Dad’s house, I dunno, a few kilometres away. This is typical rural Indonesia. The road painted on five years ago, today is more potholes than blue steel. My driver weaves through, just about eyes closed. Off onto a dirt road and we pull up at her family home. Simple, plain, basic—they all fit. But Mum is out in no time, ushering me to sit and put my bag down. Before I know it I’m on a plastic chair, cowboy coffee on knee, sharing cigarettes and waiting for Dad.

He surfaces. I’d guess early forties, thin but fit, with ruffly hair and a dark cap. Open shirt, cigarettes in pocket, sarong. No bullshit.

He eyes me up. Yes, he has a boat, I can charter it. Here we go, I think. His opening price seems so reasonable though, I don’t even want to bargain—like I said, no bullshit. 

Gunung Sirung. Where I am actually trying to get to. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Of course, he says, I’m welcome to stay in his house and get the public ferry the next day. His daughter chimes in they can sort me out with dinner and so on, but I reply I’d like to go to Baranusa today if possible. I’d like to climb the volcano tomorrow I say. 

“Sirung?” Eyes roll.

“Ok we go,” he says.

The entire family walk with me down to the beach where his sampan sits there, well above the high tide mark. The father, his sons and I try to push it into the water but it ain’t going anywhere. Wood is heavy, you know.

Thumbs up! Lets go! Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Before I know it, a half dozen or so are helping us get it into the water. Cheers and thumbs up as it hits the wet. Then a few minutes to top up the gas and then we’re off.

The boat is a bit dinky and by this stage the afternoon breeze is picking up. It is more bang bang bang than smooth cruising as Dad and his son and me belt our way through the chop. 

At one stage we pull to while Dad tops up the gas. I can feel the current pushing and twisting us the wrong way as soon as the engine is off, but they seem unconcerned. Baranusa is maybe five kilometres away, I can just make it out, but the swell, wind and current are pushing us off.

Are we there yet? Photo: Stuart McDonald.

The engines roars again (I’m being generous here) and we’re off. Like pinnacling a volcano I feel like it is one wave forward, two waves back. Nevertheless, as the sun sinks, Baranusa inches closer.

Finally we pull up at the pier. I pay Dad, adding a generous tip, and both he and the son high five me before spinning the boat around and heading back. At least now they have the current, wind and chop in their favour.

Baranusa be pretty. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

I walk into Baranusa—little more than a crossroads village—and I find a losmen. The owner, Mukhtar, walks out and and introduces himself. He shows me through his lodgings, tells me where I can buy beer (“the Chinese shop” of course), and we relax.


His English is excellent. Turns out he used to work on the trains out of Hornsby—my home town in Australia.

I stay in Pantar longer than planned. 

Always get off the boat.

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