Monday, November 11, 2013

Across the Java Sea

Taking in a sunset seascape from the bow of the Orion II, en route to Kuching, Sarawak

An expedition cruise between Bali and Singapore by way of Borneo, the world’s third-largest island, provides wildlife enthusiasts with a tantalizing combination of creature comforts and creatures

By Jamie James
Photographs By Martin Westlake

Cruising from Bali to Borneo to Singapore on the Orion II

The Orion II’s 50 suites are appointed for seagoing luxury, complete with plush beds, separate sitting areas, and in some cases, balconies

There was a time in my life when I was a veritable sea dog, shipping out on a cruise whenever the opportunity presented itself. Ten years ago, however, I swore it off. I wasn’t disenchanted with the concept. As a way of seeing the world, seafaring has some great advantages—mainly, eliminating the “travel” part of travel. The reason we go on a trip is to visit faraway places, not to manage the logistics of getting from here to there. Packing and unpacking, checking in to and out of hotels, rushing to catch a flight and then waiting in the taxi queue at the airport when we arrive is all time spent not enjoying the destination.

The Orion II’s gourmet cuisine includes dishes such as this black-cod fillet with saffron risotto, wild rice, and Australian crayfish

Cruising reduces travel to its ancient, adventurous essence, skimming across the bounding main into a blue horizon, to see what lies beyond. True, the adventure can be too exciting on a rough sea, and sometimes the horizon is gray with rain; but even a choppy crossing may be less stressful than arriving exhausted in a strange city to find that your hotel room won’t be ready for six hours, or any of the other dreary disasters that lie in wait for the ordinary traveler. A ship is truly a home away from home, complete with maid service and gourmet meals.

At anchor off Masalembu, a group of islands in the middle of the Java Sea

No, it was the social aspect that drove me away from the sea. On a cruise, every time you venture out of your cabin you expose yourself to conversation. It’s like a never-ending cocktail party where you don’t know anyone. An eccentric friend of mine once told me that whenever he went on a cruise he packed a book prominently entitled Coping with Chronic Diarrhea, which he read in the saloon on the first day out to ensure that he would be left alone for the rest of the voyage. I’m not antisocial like my friend, but there’s a limit to my capacity for small talk.

Yet as the years passed, I often found myself on the beach at sundown, gazing wistfully into the offing and wishing I were on the water instead of looking at it. So when the editor of this magazine called me up and asked if I could hop aboard a Borneo-bound cruise ship departing in a week’s time from my home port of Bali, I didn’t hesitate to sign on. I loaded up my Kindle with some good books, took my silly straw hat out of the closet, and headed for Benoa Harbor.

The ship’s aft-deck café

The ship was the Orion II, a sleek, sexy 88-meter craft operated by Sydney-based Orion Expedition Cruises. Built in Italy two decades ago as a zillionaire’s bespoke superyacht—this is an actual shipbuilder’s category; megayachts start at 100 meters—and refitted last year for expedition travel in Asia, the ship is registered in Malta, captained by a Frenchman, and crewed by Filipinos. But it’s Australian from stem to stern, with a team of sunny-faced, khaki-clad explorers supervised by expedition leader Max McGuire, a Tasmanian who earned his sea legs on dive boats in northern Queensland. Most of my fellow passengers were also Australian.

Wildlife spotting on the Sekonyer River

The Orion II offers every comfort of a luxury hotel, with spacious cabins fitted out in polished mahogany and gleaming brass. But there’s nothing fussy here: passengers are advised to leave their tiaras and tuxedoes at home. The ship has 50 staterooms for a maximum of 100 passengers, which is just the right number, affording adequate ground cover to escape from bores at the breakfast buffet, but not enough to permit bridge tournaments or bingo. In any case, I needn’t have worried: the cruise’s itinerary was very much focused on wilderness exploration and wildlife encounters, and the passengers were a smart, independent-minded group. They were also less elderly than I expected, with the under-60-year-olds in a bare majority. Given the cost (almost US$8,000 per person) and length (10 nights) of the voyage, that’s young.

An island in the Anambas archipelago

In some ways, the cruise was run like a true expedition. Owing to tide and current conditions, the ship encountered a delay of a few hours before it could land in Borneo, so it made an impromptu stop along the way at Masalembu, a tiny archipelago in the middle of the Java Sea. Our intrepid Aussie hosts did a predawn recce of Masalembu Kecil, the smallest island in the group, in hopes of finding a good beach for swimming and snorkeling. Though the coastline proved to be rocky and inhospitable, the locals were very inviting, so we went ashore on Zodiac tenders for a brisk tour.

Arriving at Indonesia’s Natuna Islands, in the South China Sea

Masalembu Kecil isn’t the most remarkable island in Indonesia by any reckoning; coconut gathering seemed to be its inhabitants’ principal occupation. Yet there was an inherent fascination in visiting such a remote place, little more than a dot on the charts. It reminded me of my early days of wandering across the archipelago, when I was as much the object of curiosity to the locals as the other way around. Improbably, a paved road wended through a patch of heavy forest to a headland that offered a sparkling view of the sea and our ship at anchor.

The sense of adventure was only heightened by returning to the ship for a dinner that would satisfy the most demanding palate. It was surely the first time that a mess of grass-fed tenderloin of beef parmentière with braised oxtail and mushroom duxelles, finished with shallot confit and Shiraz sauce, was served in the waters off Masalembu. The menus of the Orion II were created by Serge Dansereau, the Quebec-born chef whose Bathers’ Pavilion in Sydney has been a landmark restaurant since 1999. The ship’s cookery shone with the flawless service of the genial waitstaff, who learned all the passengers’ names far more quickly than we did ourselves, and remembered even fine points of personal preference.

The passage to Setaih Island

The ship’s restaurant soon began to resemble a high-school lunchroom, with discernible cliques emerging. The group sorted itself along predictable lines, though not necessarily by nationality. The youngest passengers gravitated to each other, as did the ancient mariners; there was a table for the glamorous and well dressed and a table for the brains. A charming lady of a certain age from California with a girlish, silvery laugh was Miss Popular; everyone tried to lure her to join their table. Two extroverted Australian wags competed good-naturedly for the title of class clown.

Once the high school metaphor occurred to me, it explained everything. A cruise is a little world in itself, with no interest in what lies beyond its own narrow confines. Gossip was endemic, though never malicious; if someone let slip an interesting facet about their life on land at breakfast, it was passed along at lunch and common knowledge by the cocktail hour. Intense friendships sprang up, especially between couples. And, of course, the main reason we were here was to learn.

A black-handed gibbon spotted in the trees of Indonesian Borneo's Tanjung Puting National Park

On our fourth day out, we arrived off southern Borneo for the class trip that was the primary focus of the cruise, summed up in its title: “Camp Leakey: Faces in the Forest.” The faces were those of orangutans, Asia’s great ape, which survives perilously in Borneo and northern Sumatra. The passengers loaded onto Zodiacs and put-putted deep upriver into Tanjung Puting National Park, at 415,000 hectares one of Indonesia’s largest protected areas of pristine rain forest, to Camp Leakey. Founded in 1971 by anthropologist Biruté Galdikas, the “camp” was the first center for the study and preservation of the orangutan. Now operated by Galdikas’s Orangutan Foundation International, it’s the longest continually operated research project devoted to a single animal species.

On the boardwalk at Camp Leakey, founded in 1971 for the study and preservation of the orangutan

Unfortunately, Camp Leakey did not make for a particularly fascinating visit. The facility appeared deserted, with little more than an unmanned information center to greet us. Nor did a long hike through the forest turn up more than a couple of orangutans. But our ride back to the ship offered ample compensation. We boarded traditional two-decker riverboats called klotok, the name derived from the chugging sound of their inboard engines. It was the golden hour of dusk in the forest, when the animals come out to play. Crocodiles yawned in the muddy inlets of the mangrove-edged river, and the forest canopy was alive with leaping proboscis monkeys.

A palm-fringed beach on the uninhabited island of Setaih

The next day, we set out for the foundation’s main center of operations, located on the verge of the forest outside the city of Kumai. Here, orangutans rescued from degraded habitats are sheltered in semi-captivity in the hope of eventually reintroducing them to the wild. Our first stop was the nursery, where baby apes, most of them orphaned by poachers, are reared. It was hard to say which side of the encounter was more fascinated, them or us. Aged one year and younger, the orangutans were as well equipped with the instinctual power to endear themselves as human babies. They climbed into laps and buried their hairy little heads, begging for attention and affection. Crusty old men visibly melted into memories of first fatherhood; one grandmother in our group begged to be allowed to skip the rest of the tour and remain behind.

The next stage of our tour was a boardwalk through the forest, where slightly older immature orangutans are allowed to forage for themselves, in a bid to wean them off the bananas and rambutans that the researchers provide for their sustenance. The young apes flew through the air from vine to vine with the greatest of ease, showing off for us. One common way for them to show interest in visitors is to urinate on their heads; forewarned, we all managed to escape dry-headed.

On the ship that night, we were joined by Biruté Galdikas, the cruise’s guest lecturer. Born in Germany to Lithuanian parents, Gal-dikas grew up in Toronto and went to graduate school at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she met Louis Leakey, the great progenitor of modern anthropology, in 1971. Leakey chose three young women to direct research into the great apes: known as Leakey’s Angels, they were Galdikas; Jane Goodall, the chimpanzee expert; and Dian Fossey, who studied gorillas. Galdikas, more than 10 years younger than her colleagues, was just 25 when she founded Camp Leakey; she had made the cover of National Geographic before she turned 30, in 1975.

Passengers returning to the Orion II aboard a klotok riverboat

An imposing, broad-shouldered woman, her face framed by long, straight hair parted in the middle like a ’60s folk singer, Galdikas sparkled with erudition and smoldered with passion as she spoke in the ship’s lounge about the apes she has devoted her life to protecting. Her lecture was two hours long, yet the audience was entirely rapt, and would have gone on asking questions for another two hours had dinner not been announced. The ship’s call at Camp Leakey is an Orion exclusive. Galdikas explained that she was impressed by the line’s commitment to wilderness and wildlife preservation, and participates in the cruises because they have made a significant contribution to her work by “adopting” many orangutans; that is, Orion subsidizes the apes’ maintenance with a cash donation. Galdikas emphasized, “My relationship with Orion is not a commercial one.”

On the sixth night out, the ship crossed the equator, which necessitated a ceremony to initiate all passengers doing so for the first time into the court of Neptune—literally a rite of passage. The burliest member the expedition team donned a blond fright wig and wrapped himself in a toga and necklace of seashells. He was Neptune himself, there to supervise the ritual humiliation of the equator-crossing first-timers. In the British navy of the 19th century, “crossing the line” ceremonies could be a terrifying, dangerous proposition, with sailors sometimes being keelhauled and dragged on ropes in the ship’s wake. On the Orion II, the worst of it was kissing a very smelly fish and having a slimy mixture of seawater and spaghetti poured over one’s head.  (Still, I was glad that I had previously been initiated; my hazing had been limited to a symbolic glass of water poured over me by the captain of a container ship in the Indian Ocean.) Then the ship’s musician played nautical-themed dance music on his synthesizer, and the scene turned into a graduation-week kegger for the middle-aged. All cliques were dissolved by the brine.

A palm-fringed beach on the uninhabited island of Setaih

The next day the ship arrived in Kuching, the state capital of Sarawak, for the first of two days in Malaysian Borneo. Here the Orion II reverted to standard cruise mode, with a touristic dinner and floor show at the Sarawak Cultural Village and a choice the next day between excursions to the Semengoh Orangutan Rehabilitation Center and a city tour of Kuching. I chose the city tour: the historic seat of the White Rajahs, with its fairy-tale crenellated castles and forts straight out of Sir Walter Scott, is my favorite small city in Southeast Asia. Among the places we visited was the Sarawak Museum, a stately Victorian manor house that contains much of the 19th-century naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace’s own collection of animal specimens, stuffed and exhibited in old-fashioned vitrines.

The tour was expertly done, though being herded on and off coaches and listening to the well-worn witticisms of the local guide began to remind me of my early cruising days, and made me long for another adventure. It was soon in coming. The cruise had originally been intended to make calls at Gunung Palung and Pontianak, West Kalimantan, but the port channels had not been dredged recently enough to make it possible for the ship to land, so two stops in Indonesia’s Riau Archipelago were substituted at the end of the trip. There was some grumbling about the change early in the cruise, but our visits to these exquisite tropical islands in the South China Sea were the highlight of my cruise.

In the morning we called at Tanjung Sembik village, in the Natuna Islands. This clean, prosperous settlement built on stilts over the water welcomed us warmly. At the dock, a line of Muslim women in headscarves performed the rebana qasidah, a traditional Islamic song. Led by an intensely soulful singer and a brilliant rebana (tambourine) player, the ladies danced with abandon as they thumped small drums. Then we wandered through the village to an open platform, where children aged eight to sixteen danced a few jigs for us. Afterward, they invited passengers to the platform to dance with them under the noonday sun.

The expedition staff may have slightly overstated how remote Tanjung Sembik is—the presence of satellite dishes and mobile phones were tokens that it wasn’t altogether isolated—but it was obvious that these performances were typical fare on the island and not created for visitors, and that our arrival was a major event in the community. The young children were dressed in their best clothes—pink frocks for the girls, pressed shirts for the boys—and they latched affectionately onto the passengers. Then we boarded the Zodiacs for the short ride to a tiny nearby island called Setaih, for a barbecue lunch and snorkeling.

 Everyone who roams the tropics, whether they admit it or not, is searching for the perfect tropical island. The essential ingredients are easily identified: a powdery white-sand beach shaded by graceful, arching coconut palms embraces a cove of sapphire-blue waters, where a pristine coral reef thronged by schools of gaudy fishes glints in the sunlight. The backdrop is a steep volcanic hill cloaked in deep green; overhead, dainty white clouds lace an azure sky. That was Setaih, where my personal search for perfection ended, at least for a while.

The island is charted, to be sure, but that’s the sum of its existence in the outside world. Later, a search for Setaih on the Internet turned up exactly nothing, because exactly nobody lives there. As we approached it on the Zodiacs, we saw that the ship’s staff had established a very civilized beachhead of party tents, where they were grilling burgers and ribs. A seafarer’s appetite never needs whetting, but I dove straight into the cove to have a look at the reef.

If you’ve ever tried to describe the experience of a great day of snorkeling, you know how hopeless it is. At Setaih, I saw squids and giant clams and cobalt-blue starfish, clouds of clown fish, and sinuous anemones and corals in colors that we don’t have on land. It was simply, indescribably mysterious and beautiful.

After lunch, the children who had performed for us at Tanjung Sembik turned up to join us for ice cream cones, having cajoled a ride on one of their father’s fishing boats. As the shadows lengthened, I sat in a circle with other passengers discussing how the day could have been improved. We came up empty-handed.

The next morning at first light I went up on the bridge deck as the Orion II cruised into the port of Singapore, crowded with commercial ships as it always is. The city’s skyscrapers were glimmering dimly into view. Soon we would be in our street clothes again, shuffling through the immigration queue, the taxi queue, the check-in queue at the airport. I was ready to go home, but when I thought of the Orion II heading off later in the afternoon on its next voyage, I felt an embryonic twinge. I knew the sea would call me back.


The Camp Leakey: Faces in the Forest expedition cruise described in this story is one leg in the Orion II’s annual Asia-Pacific circuit, with four more sailings scheduled for 2012. The next departure leaves Singapore on August 14, arriving in Bali 11 days later, and is priced from A$7,335 (about US$7,830) per person, double. For details about other Orion itineraries in the region, including voyages to Antarctica aboard the original Orion, visit

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