overland-underwater.com - A charity drive from the UK to New Zealand
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Final Statistics: Alex & Maz Total distance: 93,550km
Furthest Point: Rotorua, NZ Now settled in Sydney, Australia
Final Statistics: Martin Total distance: 79,698km
Furthest Point: Hobart, Australia Now settled in Bristol, UK

Black magic

Written by Maz Towns. Uploaded 5 November 2006.

Indonesia, Country 24, Diary entry 28th Aug - 1st Sept 2006, Total distance in Indonesia: 8396KM


Disappointed that you didn't win the diving holiday in Thailand? Well here's your chance for another superb prize. In conjunction with Reefseekers Diving based in Flores, Indonesia, the Overland-Underwater team are raffling a 5 day package of diving in the Komodo National Park with accommodation and a trip to see the Komodo dragons!


Uvan rang at 8.30am on the dot to say there were tickets for the boat and he would come over with some paperwork to be completed. Once all done, we sped over to his office to get internet and check emails. Having arrived at his office, we realised he wasn’t in shipping at all, just a mate of a mate from the IOF (Indonesian Off Roading) who happened to live in Balikpapan and therefore available to help with shipping! Time to head back to the port where we had been just the night before. After being introduced to the captain, the wait began. Uvan, two friends and Alex waiting at the port

Not expecting a lush cruise liner, but more than a rowing boat, we had no idea what would be taking us and our vehicle across the Sulawesi Sea. It happened to be what I can only describe as a floating tub on which you drive your car onto with a lid to carry its passengers. We had 24 hours to kill. We were first in line and along with a couple of other trucks, had the whole deck to ourselves. Wanting to position the vehicle so we could put the tent up later to sleep in, the boat crew insisted on parking the car right to the side until we explained for a third time why we wanted the car in the middle of the deck (it was flat). It wasn’t as if they were short on space! Accompanied by crate loads of chicks chirping away to our right, we entertained the locals and crew on board. Amazingly the boat left pretty much on time, as we stood side by side with the captain on the bridge watching him navigate out of the harbour and into the open sea.

Doesn't look like your normal ocean liner! 24 hours at sea, floating into the void of nothingness, peace and quiet at last; well that was just wistful thinking on our part. You didn’t think that just because we’d be alone in the sea, away from the hustle and bustle of the cities and town life that we could actually get away from the mosques too. NO, we brought the mosque along with us, on the boat! And bloody loud it was to. We couldn’t believe it when at dusk, the prayer call went off, which was so loud I thought someone had actually held a loud speaker to my ear and personally shouted down it just to make sure I didn’t miss the call.

A latecomer joins the boat Maz offering last minute tips to the captain

We were plied with Nasi Goreng (fried rice) with a bit of fried chicken for dinner, breakfast and lunch the next day before we disembarked the ship. The time went pretty quickly and in between reading, catching up on emails and sleeping in our tent, much to the amusement of everyone else, before we knew it, it was time to land.

Maps and binoculars - all you need for a safe crossing Home for the next 25 hours, along with boxes of chirping chicks to the right

Having driven off the boat and into the ‘port grounds’ – the port needing some imagination as it looked just like a scrap bit of concrete enclosed by a fence - we were stopped and asked to show our papers. Not really sure what to show, we gave them our tickets for the boat and that seemed to suffice, along with 45,000 rupiah as a required ‘port’ fee! Driving to the petrol station to fill up Tinfish to the brim, we then set off in search of Manado, our next destination.

We cross back to the north - the equator through Sulawesi. A bit more of a land mark. The roads were incredibly windy, which was surprising as much of the way was coastal. We knew we were going to hit some peaks and expected the roads to get tough, but the only conclusion I can come to is when they built the road, they were under strict rules to ‘follow the coastline’ and they did this to the letter of the law, following every nook and cranny there was. There was not one straight section to be driven on. Hairpin bends were frequent and every other bend seemed to be a 90 degree angle which with a 4 tonne truck cannot be taken at anything but slow (although there were a couple of unexpected attempts when they crept up on us unnecessarily) which made driving incredibly slow and frustrating. The drive was made worse by having a splitting headache for most of the afternoon. You’d have thought it would be easier and cheaper to build straight roads!

A familiar site along the roads Back to the northern hemisphere today and to mark the occasion was a statue with a picture of Sulawesi. Most of the locals came out to greet us and have their photo taken with us before we carried on the journey. All villages are on the road side making them long and narrow. Again, its amazing the differences we’ve seen, something that is new and very different from any of the houses we’ve seen so far in Indonesia, maybe on the whole trip. Very neat, small white concrete houses, set back from the road with a small white picket fence enclosing them. A clean cut grass verge at the front of the fence with flower pots adorning window sills and verges, giving a chintz, small town American feel to them. Very strange but sweet non the less. Through each village, red and white prevailed with 17-08-45 to 17-08-2006 stamped on big crosses and banners every 100 yards celebrating the anniversary of the independence of Indonesia, the week before we’d arrived in the country. The further north we got, the more Christian the area became with churches dominating the villages. Finding camp late, we crashed for the night on a patch of dirt land just off the road and fell swiftly to sleep.

The neat houses set back behind the picket fences Tired and desperate for more sleep as the alarm swarmed round our heads at 7.30am the next morning, we continued the journey. Another day of tedious driving. This has to be the hardest drive I have done in a long time. Not sure whether I was just needing a break, or too tired to enjoy it but I found it hard. Maybe it was because we were on yet another timeline, needing to be at the tip of Sulawesi by the evening, but I still found it hard. This section of the land had more height to it and therefore justified in its windy roads and hairpin bends, but it didn’t make it any easier. Slash and burn is very active here and on parts of the journey we passed through smoke screens rising up from the steep sides below the road. On every right turn the car squeaked in tune with the bend as it made the corner, the windscreen being loose and moving at a different pace to the rest of the car. After another 10 hours we made it to Manado.

The roads made for tiring driving With oil leaking out of the right rear wheel bearing we headed straight for a garage to get it fixed. Thankfully we found one relatively easily and the owner could speak English. A quick job; wheel off, bearing out, replacement fitted we’d be on our way. That was the theory anyway. As reality always presents itself in a totally different light, we ended up replacing both rear wheel bearings as a quick check on the opposite wheel showed wear and tear too. Of course just changing those should have been quick enough, but who’d have guessed that a bolt would have become stuck in the drive shaft while removing it and upon trying to pull it out, promptly snapped off and therefore had to be drilled out! These things are just never straight forward. The garage was incredibly kind and bought us a pizza thing to munch on while we waited. Three and a half house later, we were eventually on our way. So much for a quick visit (we really should face up to the fact they never are) and found ourselves at the harbour in Bitung at 10.30pm! Bang goes our relaxing evening with Rob and Linda from Divers Lodge Lembeh. By the time we’d unloaded the kit from the car, and parked it at Linda’s brothers the other side of Bitung, Alex boarded the water taxi nearing midnight! A quick drive over the Strait took us to the lodge. Greeted by Rob on the waters edge, we soon found ourselves with a beer in hand and chatting away about our evenings activities and how we had found ourselves here so late at night. It was soon time for bed.

Tinfish being pampered at the spa! Having only a short space of time to enjoy the Strait before needing to head off again, we opted to dive the next day. Normally up at dawn o’clock, to dive for just after it was a lovely surprise when we were asked what time we would like breakfast. A little confused, Rob explained that the normal procedure was to do two dives a day and you can do them when you like. We were knackered so a 9am breakfast it was, to dive for 10am. Normally there is a role call and bells ringing and clangers going off announcing ‘time to dive’ but when none of this happened and nobody came to find us, we wandered down to the water to find the dive master and boat crew patiently waiting for us. All kit was assembled and exactly how we liked it and everything ready to go. Fab! What a relaxed way to dive – so novel! What was even more novel was that we had a boat all to ourselves…..Divers Lodge Lembeh have 3 boats in total, but catering for only 10 guests, the maximum numbers aboard are only 4 – it really is your own personal dive service. Catered for what you want to do, when you want to do it. Never have I had this luxury before and I would recommend Divers Lodge Lembeh to everyone.

The view from our bedroom - Walenokoko Bay The locals battle against the the white horses

Now this area is very special; with the once towering volcano now blown, only a mighty crater is left and very different to anything I have ever seen before. The whole area is covered in black volcanic sand - a very strange sight indeed underwater. The phrase ‘muck diving’ was born here and it’s obvious to see why. Searching for little critters, lying on or in the black seabed, it’s a weird and wonderful world here.

The first dive of the day was Nudi Retreat. For Alex and I who have the patience and concentration of a goldfish when looking for macro life, a guide is essential and Man, who was our guide for the dives we did there was an absolute star. Having dived this area for a number of years, he knew where exactly all the good stuff was. After a rough crossing as the winds were tunnelled down the channel, we found shelter in the small bay we were to dive. We dropped down into crystal clear water giving a shudder as the water temperature was much colder than Brunei, the last place we had dived. We were first shown electric cell, flashing in the crevice of a rock. Banggai cardinal fish - these are beautiful in schoals

Descending down the gentle slope, over the black sand, the whole area felt strangely exotic. Passing an anemone flowing in the gentle current, as always the clown fish were lovely to look at, but there was also another family of beautiful looking fish nestling round the back of it, for me, stealing the limelight. Banggai cardinal fish, only found in this area, cream to white in colouring, with 3 white-edged black bars through the eye, the first dorsal fin to ventral fin and finally the long second dorsal fin to anal fin. Very beautiful fish, which I sat and watched for a while along with the porcelain crab nestling in the anemone, until Man was waving telling me he’d found something else. Over I swam to him looking at the black sand. So I stared too, and stared. Not really sure what we were looking at, I suddenly saw movement; three dragon-like creatures scurrying over the sand – the Pagasus sea mount. With a long narrow snout and wing-like pectoral fins, brown in colour, they were incredibly hard to see until you managed to focus on them.

A porceline crab hiding in the anenome On to the sexy shrimp (this was the name I was told, not because I thought they were gorgeous!) before we came to one of my all time favourites; the pygmy seahorse. The teeny little thing only millimetres in size, pink with large orangey-red warts taking on the look of the sea fan it was so desperately clinging on to. Man then took us to see the winged pipefish – a snake like shape with a seahorses head and about 8 pairs of skin flaps on its back giving it a ‘winged’ look hence the name! – yellow in colour and very pretty to look at. On to two more pygmy seahorses, via a whip coral with a beautiful porcelain white crab on the tip of it. The pygmy seahorses were hard to see, once focused, I turned to signal for Alex to come over, turned back and it took me 5 minutes to find them again. It is amazing how they camouflage themselves so well, the very reason they’re so hard to find in the first place.

A shrimp scavenging off the eel Passing over the blackness we found a very small cuttlefish only an inch or so long hovering in some coral. Changing colour to its surroundings, trying to blend into the background, its back developed little ridges as it hovered, standing its ground. We then ventured slowly back up the sand to the small coral wall in the shallows, emanating oranges, yellows, reds, blues, and greens, a stark and beautiful contrast from the blackness all around. 70 minutes had passed and it was time to come up for a break. Following Man really felt like being found by a curator in a gallery. We were looking at a huge painting, nice but nothing special, until the curator comes along and points out the oddities and subtle parts giving depth and feeling of which you’d never have spotted otherwise, transforming it into a masterpiece.

The odd looking painted frogfish The second dive of the day took us to Kudalaut two. This was very different and more of a scavenging dive, sweeping the seabed to see what we could find. No corals or nooks and crannies of the walls to hunt in. A dive Alex and I would have become very bored on, very quickly, had we not had Man to show us the weird and wonderful animals again. Immediately we saw two frogfish which really are funny looking creatures, both of which you would have easily mistaken for a sponge had Man not pointed out the eyes. Little porceline crabs on anemones keeping the families of clown fish and banggai cardinal fish company. While we passed time on what Man had just found us, he went off in search of something else. Flying gurnards, an underwater looking lizard with pectoral fins than extend like fans, exposing beautiful colours like a peacocks tail. Another hour passed and it was time to head back to shore.

The graceful flying gurnard We had planned to return and dive on the house reef to see the brightly coloured Mandarin fish, but after mixed communications earlier in the day, the best time to see the them was at dusk and as we had spent this time photographing the sun setting behind Klabat volcano, we had missed the prime viewing time and so just had to settle for a beer instead and catch up on our days activities with Rob and Linda wowing them with all we had seen during the day.

Having found the 2 day drive up to Manado from Palu quite stressful, we decided to look into shipping the car from Bitung to Surabaya instead of driving for 5 days down the length of Sulawesi to Makassar. From the spark of an idea, Rob got one of his boys to enquire about town for us to find quotes and schedules. We’d have also had to drive through central Sulawesi past Poso where 3 Christians had just been executed by the government and tensions were rising high in the area – somewhere to avoid if possible had been the advice. Sunset over Klabat volcano

Divers lodge is a very relaxing, comfortable place. With only 5 chalets hidden across the rocky end of the island, accommodating only 10 guests at a time, you feel you have the place all to yourself. We had a fantastic view of Walenokoko Bay, while other chalets had the view of Klabat volcano. We couldn’t see another chalet from ours or from the restaurant. This is tranquillity at its finest. Time seemed to stand still and the evening blended into the night seamlessly. Dinner was family style and we eagerly delved into the pizza (Edy and Dewi had called in advance to tell them our preference :)) suddenly realising our appetites were crying out. The other 8 guests were a group from Holland and we chatted the night away and watched footage from the day which one of them had taken with his video camera.

Alex preparing the camera for our next days diving The next day after only a slightly earlier start, we had another fix of a bit of metal. The Mawali wreck, a Japanese WWII freighter. Being openly told about the engine room and how nice it was inside was extremely refreshing from the normal, robotic “do not penetrate” statement we usually receive. Lying on its port side, we descended and headed to the stern where the propeller was decorated with soft corals blowing along in time with the current. Fining round to the decks we found the first hold to swim into. Onto the next where I found a smallish hole that led into the engine room. Excellent. A quick squeeze through and I was gliding along the silted boilers. Man had spent the time so far hovering above us along the starboard side of the boat looking slightly uneasy. I hadn’t realised that when I delved into Pandora’s Box he went mad flashing his torch and gesticulating frantically. Blissfully unaware, I pulled my way round as Alex gave the ‘OK’ sign and followed me. Realising only one other torch light was following me, I just presumed Man thought it too much of a tight squeeze for us all and would meet us the other end. We emerged unscathed with Man hovering just above our exit. A quick look at the bow and it was time to come up. Apologising to Man for seemingly scaring him, but explained this was home to us, he said it was fine, but being a critter man himself, was just a little concerned for his customers. When he talked about seeing the engine, he meant peering in through one of the skylights, not disappearing into the bowls of the ship through the smallest hole possible, like a rat up a drainpipe – each to their own! With the temperatures plummeting from Brunei, we’d borrowed hoods for the day, which made a huge difference to our comfort levels.

Luxary at its finest - the boat all to ourselves The last dive of the day was back on black sand at Jahir. The flat seabed to scurry over, we didn’t see too much, chunks of coral with the obligatory small fish to go with it. We then came across some Damsel fish, which must have thought I was getting too close to their territory as they began nipping at my head. Thank god for the hood! Man then found a Toerny seahorse and a clown frogfish on one small bit of coral in the middle of nothing which was an impressive sight indeed. I could spend hours watching the bashful seahorses, bowing its head as if embarrassed with all the attention we were lavishing on it. We passed a huge patch of sea urchins scurrying along as if late for school, before finding an octopus that looked as if something had had a nip out of it. Changing colour, it looped its tentacles under its body to move along, like a lady in a ball gown being whisked around the dance floor. Another fantastic dive.

Rob and Linda who own this excellent resort Back to shore to pack up our dry bits, Rob updated us on shipping news and possibilities of getting to Surabaya. It was looking very positive indeed. Unfortunately it meant missing out Toraja with its traditional Tongkonan dwellings, but you always need some excuse to return to a country! Returning to the boats to pack away the dive kit we found it had already been sorted, including regs in peli box. These boys were good! Not once on the trip so far had we entrusted the kit to anyone but the training and judgement of Divers Lodge Lembeh is impeccable.

Sad to say, it was time to leave the island as we had more fun to attend to - more diving! A HUGE thank you to Rob & Linda and the rest of Divers Lodge Lembeh for their very generous hospitality while we stayed with them for 2 days. A place we will definitely be coming back to to enjoy the personal service they so readily give and the fantastic diving in the area. It really is a weird and wonderful world out there!

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