The Friendly Island

Arrival & Checking In

The short overnight passage to Natuna was an uneventful one. Just twenty-four hours after we left in company with Mai Tai both boats were at anchor off the northern tip of the island. It took us a little longer than Mai Tai to decide where to anchor as we followed the Pilot Guide only to discover that the patch of sand waypointed was miniscule. We headed the mile or so back to the start of the shallows, a way off the coast and dropped the hook beside Mai Tai who had sensible anchored as soon as it became shallow enough to do so.

Like the Anambas Islands, Natuna is also part of the Riau Province and is Indonesia’s northern most territory in this part of the South China Sea. As China is disputing boundaries and fishing rights with most of her neighbours, it was unsurprising to see ashore a huge new army camp. This may be a relatively small island but with oil and gas fields within its waters, it is an important outpost to Indonesia. Actually named Natuna Besar or more properly Bunguran Island, it is another place with multiple names, the name Natuna officially refers to a whole chain of islands.

After a calm night’s sleep we continued on our way early the next morning heading south along the island’s east coast to Teluk Selahan. Here Raymond Lesmana of Sail Indonesia and Zain, the local tourist officer meet the rally fleet on the beach as they arrived to collect our paperwork. Natuna is not usually a port of entry/exit for yachts but the rally had organised for us to clear immigration and obtain port clearance from here to Kuching, Malaysia. Also the islanders had laid on a series of events and tours for us as well as helping with refuelling and more.

Temptress’ larder was almost bare of fresh food. That first afternoon we managed to buy a dozen eggs from a small shop close to the beach. The elderly owner had a flock of chickens in a large wire enclosure alongside the wooden building. The shop otherwise had very little of anything in stock, small packets of instant noodles, plastic bottles of benzine (petrol) for the scooters everyone rides in this part of the world and a few baskets of onions and garlic. Across the road a stall was selling oval watermelons, which proved to be sweet and juicy. Late afternoon we had our first taste of local hospitality at the arena across the road from the beach & landing stage. On stage were five young lads playing mostly western pop music, the drummer using a wooden crate and a top hat cymbal! Under a covered area running the length of the grass were tables and chairs covered in shined white fabric with pale blue runners. All the crews who came ashore were seated and plates of snacks brought to the table, chilled soft drinks and coffee were made available to our bemused group too. No speeches just an hour or so of listening to the band and nibbling on local savouries and cakes whilst we caught up on the news.  

Exploring & Provisioning

The next day Wednesday, Lane, Kay, Kevin and I hired a car and driver for the morning for the princely sum of 400,000 Rp (which worked out at around £5 each). Our first priority was a trip into town to shop. Ranaii is some 15 km from the anchorage. First we bought vegetables at the market, the choice and quantities available amazed us, still not huge but a very welcome sight after the past few weeks. Before heading off to some of the tourist sights, we also made a stop at a bakery which had a large selection of cakes and Indonesian rolls (baked with fillings like red bean paste or chopped up chicken sausage or cheese) but little actual bread and a mini-market whose shelves were mostly filled with packs of snacks or toiletries but where we stocked up on a few litres of UHT milk enabling us to have cereal for breakfast again.

Natuna’s east coast is scattered, both on land and in the sea, with rounded granite boulders ranging in size from a small car to massive hill-sized one’s. Worn away by water or wind many look as if they have been squeezed by a giant hand to form ridges running from the top to the bottom. They are mostly a pinkish colour with dark stripes and give a weird sci-fi appearance to the landscape. After driving around the grand mosque with its green and yellow tiled domes we stopped at the tourist information centre to view the rocks standing in the shallow sea just off the beach. The TIC itself had little to offer, no printed information, just a few architects models of the building and a loo!

Then onto another much larger collection of boulders that form a hill just below the light house and coastguard station. The official access gate was locked but we followed our driver/guide up through a banana plantation and down onto the rocks for a spectacular view of yet more boulders. These apparently were the by-product of some massive volcanic eruption but I’ve been able to find very little detail. They look as if a giant has thrown a handful of massive pebbles out to sea.  A few kilometres further north close to the southern edge of our anchorage, yet more moonscape rocks have been built into a park by the addition of wooden walkways.

The Alif Rock Park was incredible, part on land with flowers, trees and butterflies, part in shallow water. Tucked in amongst the rocks too is a homestay which looked cosy and welcoming. After that we visited a nearby waterfall on the slopes of Gurung (Mount) Ranaii which unlike the one near Terempa actually had water. There was a tiled pool to swim in but as it was starting to rain we took a few photos then dived for cover in the car and drove up the coast. Away from the mountain whose peak dominates the island, the land was very flat and sandy, coconut palms cover almost everything. The villages are built close to river mouths, groups of wooden houses on stilts lining the banks and this being the road that leads to the army camp in the north the bridges were well built, the road surface almost new.

The weather turned grim, everyday Mt Ranaii collects a huge black pile of clouds which produce a torrential downpour on the east coast for several hours, miserable and grey. It was time to head back to the boat. That evening was the official welcome and our hosts put on a wonderful show of local music and dance as well as feeding us and a few speeches. The show even managed to carry on when a power cut turned off all the lighting. A generator kept the music and microphones going.

Meeting the Locals

On Thursday afternoon the locals entertained us again with games all afternoon. We watched coconut shelling and grating contests. Kevin and I joined in the balloon dancing against the kids; each pair held a balloon between their foreheads and danced til the music stopped or the balloon escaped. We were good but not good enough to make it through to round two but it was great fun. And yet more locals wanted to pose for photos with their guests.

The Natuna tourist office was determined we should see what else the island had to offer so on Saturday morning most of the rally crews climbed into a bus for a long drive south and west. The southern end of Natuna Besar is joined to the rest of the island by a narrow hinge on the eastern side, making it officially an isthmus. Aside from the oil terminal or integrated seaport as it was described to us, there is little down here. Eventually we were dropped at a rickety bridge close by a small power station on the other side of which we all transferred into a series of well worn minibuses and 4x4s. It was in the middle of some hilly countryside. Where were we going?

The next hour or so was interesting – in places the road had almost perfect tarmac, in others it was a dirt track or somewhere in between. The planks for vehicle wheels across the wooden bridges were held together with motorbike chains! But it was worth it for the welcome that awaited us. The first village was down by the sea in the mangroves. After the smiling crowd the thing that hit you was the scent of cloves drying, tons of them on tarpaulins spread on the concrete walkways over the river. These are destined for the popular Indonesian cigarette, the kretek.

After a welcome dance and formal handshakes between a few representatives on either side we scruffy yachties surrounded by the villagers in their best clothes were ushered into a covered hall where the 30 or so of us were seated and fed snacks whilst the villagers stood around and watched. The last visitors they had were the Japanese in WWII! Our guide anxiously informed us this was not lunch so don’t eat too much. I bought a couple of useful cane baskets made by the local ladies and we posed for photographs with everyone. They may be remote but they all had camera phones.

Eventually we tore ourselves away, after all lunch awaited us. The next village a few miles along the track was in two parts, the first up on the hill, the second down by the water. Up on the hill was the school and the community hall which actually had a stage. Out front on the hall verandah waited a gamelan orchestra. After we had shaken hands with a long line of villagers we stood and watched another welcome dance. This is a set piece that we’ve seen performed all over Riau Province with a group of young elegantly dressed ladies and a box containing betel leaves. The music and the moves are always the same, just the costumes vary.

Then two ancient men in traditional dress of loose trousers and shirt with a length of songket wrapped around their waist demonstrated the local martial art which seems a cross between dance and the Kiwi Rugby teams efforts to unsettle their opponents prior to a big match. In the hall we sat and watched more local dance and music then back outside in the sun we watched the younger villagers perform the Indonesian version of a Maypole dance with ribbons hanging from a suspended hoop. I am amazed by both the standard and variety of dance performances we have seen as well as the fact that they always seem to involve large numbers of the villagers across the generations. I can’t imagine English villages retaining and passing on traditional dance and arts like this.

Then back to the main village for a walk down into the mangroves for a crab lunch. The villagers have recently built a series of walkways over their precious wetlands and included a social area with roofed platforms surrounding a bar area. We were their first guests but they hope to attract tourists to the village to use it as a restaurant in the future. According to our driver earlier in the week Natuna, aside from the rally boats that bring in around 50 visitors, welcomes about one hundred tourists a year! Now there are flights from elsewhere in the province which make the journey easier than relying on the inter-island ferries.

After lunch, in the other half of the village, we admired their crab catch. Then were shown several large wooden boats in various stages of build and met the man responsible. Each takes several months, mostly because it takes time to acquire the timber and once afloat is equipped with a truck engine. These long solid boats are essential to island life not just for fishing but to get the kids to college, to do the shopping or visit the clinic.

Departure Delays

After a long drive back to the anchorage, many of us were dismayed to find that our clearance paperwork, promised for 5pm had not arrived. A few lucky yachts were able to depart for Malaysia but the rest of us had to wait until the morning. In the morning it became 5pm and eventually at 18:00 our passports and boat clearance were in our possession. The dinghy was hauled back on deck and Temptress along with a small flotilla of yachts departed into the sunset, in our case for the 200 mile overnight passage to Kuching.

Ships Log since leaving Singapore: 808 nm