The No Fear and Unloathing trip, Part 3: At Ashmore Reef (the surfing bit)

(Part 1 here)

(Part 2 here)

ashmore reef good
(the red x marks the allowed anchorage for vessels)

Captain Steve of the Coast Watch vessel on guard at Ashmore, a congenial fellow who was happy to see fresh faces to talk to, told us about the surf at Ashmore. He wasn’t a surfer, he said, but the skipper of the Australian patrol boat that did regular sea patrols in the area was a keen surfer. The navy captain timed his patrols so he could anchor up at Ashmore during swells to go surfing all by himself. He had the ultimate dinghy service.

“He surfed right over there,” Steve said, pointing his cold beer in the direction of the main channel entrance. “Coming up to one Christmas, the surf was too good so he stayed over schedule. The crew mutinied. They wanted to get home.”

A late afternoon sun burnished the sea. An easterly wind that wasn’t strong enough to be trades groomed the lines of a swell starting to show on the southern stretch of reef, but there was no white water anywhere around the channel entrance.

The next day, Mike and I went diving. We had a compressor and gear on board the Hati Murnih. As I said, there was another vessel at Ashmore with a bunch of scientists studying the banded sea-snake. Mike and I saw hundreds of these things, swimming up and down like ribbons. We later talked to one of the scientists and I said I was sure glad the snakes couldn’t open their mouths wide enough to bite a human. He chortled genially as science experts do and said that sea snakes could bite you anywhere they wanted, it was just that they were docile and not genetically programmed to do so. But, on rate occasion, they do bite. And you’re dead.

We’d caught a wahoo earlier, fresh fillets on ice, and for dinner we invited Steve over from his grand spit-and-polished ship with its air-conditioned salon and well-stocked galley for dining al fresco off our coconut husk barbecue, by the light of kerosene lantern. Chilled bintangs from the eskie. After the wining and dining, Mike put it to him, as only one Aussie can to another, “Hey, mate, about letting us sail around the reef and go fishing and having a look.”

Sure, no worries, said Steve, except do not go ashore on the eastern islet (see photo) or go reef-walking. Strictly prohibited by marine reserve law, nothing I can do about that.

Fair enough, although reef-walking sometimes can’t be avoided if you lose your board or get caught inside, but we didn’t spell that out for him.

Next morning we woke to a pure glass sheet conditions and a medium-sized five foot swell, but not quite enough oomph or angle to wrap into the channel entrance, although we did see the potential.

Now, let me say this: I am uncomfortable with x-marks-the-spot type public surf reporting. So in I will keep things general, but anybody who is well-schooled in surf search will see the obvious potential points on the photo above.

What we first did, though, was throw out the trolling lines. We had two rods. In a minute we got a double hook-up. Ten minutes later, another double hook-up, but losing the fight on one on them, reeling in GT head about the size of a washtub. Something bigger with really sharp teeth had gobbled the rest in one bite.

Hmmm. Food for thought, you know.

(to be continued—blog posts shouldn’t be more than 500 words. More surf to come.)


(Note from your blog correspondent as author: If you’ve read Bones of the Dark Moon (see the new cover I put up for the Amazon Kindle edition on the sidebar to this blog) and have an Amazon account, it’d be very much appreciated if you could take a minute to write a brief review of the book and post it. You can post your review here: scroll down and look for the click button that says “write a customer review”.

The 50th anniversary of the 1965 mass murders is coming up next year, and reviews greatly help in getting the novel noticed in western countries. )

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The no fear and unloathing surf trip, Part II: At Ashmore Reef.

(Part 1 here)

ashmore from rote

ashmore reef good

(The x marks the spot where we anchored up)

The sky was a big blue bubble over a big blue puddle of sea. This was in late April, or early May, in order to avoid the trade winds. But it had its own risks, especially in those days before Internet forecasting, because that is also the tail end of cyclone season. Many traditional fisherman from Papela Rote who had rights to fish the Australian reefs and islets (one basic requirement: sail only, no engines) never returned home, vanished in cyclones. One of the largest ever recorded was in late April, 1989 (producing one of Bali’s biggest ever swells.

The birds led us to Ashmore reef, marked by a hump of sand that was the main islet, although we first saw the radar mast of the ship anchored there. An Australian Coast Watch vessel, a private boat hired by the Aussie government and stationed there with crew. At the time, Ashmore was in a kind of territorial limbo, not sovereign Australian territory that required us to show our passports (Mike had checked with the Aussie government earlier), so many migrants aimed for Ashmore, as it was quasi-legal for them to land there.

They saw us too. The Aussie captain zoomed out in the Zodiac. The Hati Murnih sure looked suspicious, a slow wooden diesel chugger, the kind often packed with illegal immigrants. You should have seen the Aussie skipper’s face when he saw me and Mike, two sun-crisped bulés, hanging out on the back bed with our books and ice chest of cold beers. White folks in these parts were normally found on yachts.

“What are you lads doing here?” he asked.

“Looking for surf,” we said.

He ordered us to anchor up beside the ship and zoomed back. We trundled along, our local skipper Taone at the tiller picking his way through coral heads. He and the other two crew were in great high spirits. They knew these waters by way of illegal poaching, and here they were, in broad daylight without a care in the world.

Mike and I had been eyeing the reef setups and counters, but the surf was flat.

Another ship was at anchor, a bunch of scientists doing research on the banded sea-snakes, of which Ashmore has an abundance. After the Hati Murnih was anchored, we dinghied over to the Coast Watch ship, bearing our gifts of whiskey for the captain. Let’s call him Steve. The booze considerably softened his stiff upper lip and he showed us around his command but sadly said that we were not permitted to cruise around the reefs.

(to be continued)

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Interlude: Any German surfers in the dawn line-up this morning?

If so, they were probably in a state of euphoric inebriation after Germany won the 2014 World Cup.

Congratulations, Glückwünsche, Gratulation, und Gratulieren! The Brazilians were even happy! May the good will between the Latin and the Germanic continue in the Indonesian lineups!

I recall the first time I met a German surfer in Bali, which was about thirty years ago, back when Germany was still East and West and divided by the Berlin Wall. It was one of those time-slip whaaaa? moments because a German surfer just didn’t compute. Germans, surfing? Weren’t they a landlocked country? Well, no, there’s the Baltic Sea, but it’s mostly mud flats. North German surfers go to Danish islands (so says Google, anyhow, but sometimes I think they’re all here in Bali).

Anyway, this guy, I forget his name, he’d lived in France and went surfing there.

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Interlude: 9 July, Indonesia votes for the new President, and what does have to do with you?

If you’re an Indonesia citizen, a lot.

If you’re an expat or regular visitor, a lot.

Your blog correspondent has been around for all of Indonesia’s Presidents, from Sukarno the Great Leader of Independence from the Dutch, to Soeharto the Father of Development, through a few others, all the way to President SBY, who hasn’t made much of a name for himself, to be honest.

In all the previous elections, it was pretty much a big yawn feast. It was clear who’d win, it was clear there wouldn’t be a great deal of change or difference in governance.

This year it is different. A close race between Jokowi, an unknown “man of the people” and former mayor of the city of Solo and then Jakarta and so thrust into the limelight, and Prabowo, a former general from Soeharto’s time, and in fact Soeharto’s son-in-law (now divorced).

I don’t know much about Jokowi except what I read in the papers and see on TV. He is famous for his random visits to everyday places and talking to ordinary people. I know considerably more about Prabowo. He is an authoritarian figure. A very authoritarian figure who by his own admission made student activists disappear. He does not have delusions of grandeur. There is nothing delusional about him. If he were to become president, he would be a very grand president indeed. In this presidential campaign of 2014 he started out as underdog months ago but he’s been trained in psychological warfare and he’s put together a brilliant campaign that has closed the gap and divided this country in a way I’ve never seen before.

Those who want a Man-of-the-People who works together with them, vs. those who want a Strong Leader.

The Prabowo team has taken a lesson from the US presidential elections, where the right wing spread slander and innuendo that Barrack Obama was a foreigner and a secret Muslim. The Prabowo team is spreading slander and innuendo that Jokowi is Chinese and a secret Christian. Pretty ironic, the symmetry reversal there.

Prabowo has taken the FPI under his wing. These are the fundamentalist zealots who want you to live under sharia law.

Just that alone…


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The fearless and unloathing surf trip to Ashmore Reef, Part I

rob dave nembrala

(above, Rob Nicols and David Radford on the Hati Murnih at anchor, Rote, early days.)

At sunset, the good ship Hati Murnih set sail from Rote Island, heading for Ashmore Reef, in Australian waters, on a whim and prayer and no radar or GPS. This was in 1995. We did have nautical charts and a compass, and Bapak Taone Umar, a salty sea dog from Papela, Rote. For centuries his people, the piratical Bugis, had been sailing below the wind to Australia to fish and gather sea cucumbers, sold to China. They knew those waters.

ashmore papela

The above is Papela village, and below is the traditional sailboat, without engine, that the fishermen sailed for centuries down to Australian waters. When at anchor at Nembrala in the trade wind season, we’d see dozens of these sail past on their way home on the trade-wind broad reach, going a good dozen knots, faster than the old Hati Murnih ever did. Of course, we’d also see them on the top side of the island, trying to go up-wind, tacking back and forth and back and forth and back and forth — while we chugged along in a straight line. Today, though, you don’t see too many of these old-style sail boats anymore. The fishermen have switched to narrow fast hulls with engines.

ashmore papela boat

So on an early May evening, after several months of planning for the trip, Michael McHugh and I and the crew of the Hati Murnih left the Nembrala anchorage and headed south. We had no running lights. In fact, no lights at all, except the stars and a flashlight rigged to throw its beam on the compass by the tiller so we could see the heading.

ashmore crew

ashmore from rote

That’s a lot of open water, and the Hati Murnih was a small boat, so when we pissed over the side we made sure to keep one hand on the railing at all times.

Chug-chug-chug-chug. At first light of dawn, all we could see was open ocean with a little swell. We had no clue where we were. The skipper stood on top of the cabin scanning the horizon for the tell-tale sign of bird piles. And there they were, to the south-east, feeding on bait fish. They nest on Ashmore, so, land-ho! Although it is such a low-lying reef (with a tiny sand dune island) we couldn’t actually spot any land.

(Next week: part 2)

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Ekas Bay, 1990

Ekas Bay in East Lombok was one of our stops on the Hati Murnih itinerary. Our first trip there, in the 80s, the admiralty charts had us in a state of excited dither, because the potential of that reef bend into the bay looked so frickin’ fine. Remember, all we had then were charts — no Google Earth or satellite imagery of any kind. Flat swell, so we played around in the outside reefs, wave bumps of no consequence, then motored into the bay to anchor up inside. Our Balinese skipper, Pak Ngasti, an old turtle-fisherman, knew all these waters like his backyard. Our radar and depth sounder was in his head.

hati murnih huu

Next morning at dawn when we woke up, the good ship was surrounded by local fishermen in their outriggers, staring at us like we were either aliens, or zoo specimens, or fine dining. Back then, no roads into the area, and no white folks either. We were probably the first they’d seen. They weren’t particularly friendly. They could hardly speak Indonesian. Pak Ngasti told me to get my snapshot and take their photographs. That scared them off.

The swell came up the next day. We found that outside Ekas did not live up to its potential, big and offshore for sure, and with some lined-up walls, but pretty much all over the place (remember, we were spoiled by perfection). Below is a photo from a later year (1990). I’m not sure any photo exists of earlier years, so this probably is of some historical value.

Ekas 1

However, we did discover that the swell marched into the bay and broke on in inside reef, offering the most fun and playful right. The photo below was taken from our anchorage spot. I haven’t been there in a long, long time so I’m sure it gets its regular crew these days. But gosh, after the outside beatings, what fun we had.

Ekas 2

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Taking a sick day


Check out this class photo from Bukit Bear.

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