Last June (one year ago), my good friends and fellow MAF pilots, Paul, and Isaac, and I decided to go camping on some tropical islands way to the south of here. Trust me, there's nothing that looks anything like this here in Tarakan where we live, or anywhere right close by. So this isn't a typical experience for us. The scenery was magnificent! The photo below was taken well after "dark", a time exposure lit only by the light of the full moon and brilliant stars reflecting off the white sand and crystal waters. It was almost light enough to read a book by...reminding me of the northern lights reflecting off the pure white snows in the village where we used to live above the Arctic Circle. Only this was much warmer!
We took along all the provisions we'd need for five days, and hoped to spear some fish to grill along with the rest of our food. You can see our "camp" nestled among the palms and drift wood on the left. What I'm showing you here are the best pictures--the ones that capture the unbelievable beauty of the place we were at...and it was indeed unbelievable gorgeous! What I'm not showing you are the pictures of the many, many hours (all day in fact) that we spent riding commercial speed boats packed full of people like sardines--hot and muggy and sweaty and full of gasoline fumes--followed by death-defying driving on jungle roads for hours by a taxi driver who seemingly was practicing for a future in the Dakar Rally. Seriously, we hit pothole after pothole at breakneck speed, sure that we would drop an axle at any point and checking our teeth each time to make sure we hadn't lost any, all the while passing speeding dump trucks going the opposite direction at what felt like fighter-jet-closure speeds with what couldn't have been more than inches between the vehicles.
At one point (it was amazing it only happened once) he lost control going around a sharp bend where the asphalt suddenly turned into slick red clay (a common occurrence--which begs the question, why not slow down?) and we literally flew off the road entirely at a high rate of speed, did a 180, and stopped just short of an embankment. It was a huge blessing that it just happened to be at the exact spot that some dozers had pushed out a clearing in which to park, because if not, we'd have gone right into the jungle and hit a tree or fell of the cliff. But the driver didn't skip a beat--just hit the accelerator and gunned it, tires spinning in the mud, until he got back up on the road and floored it to make up for the "lost time". Then it began to poor--I mean, really, really poor. You could barely see 50 feet, and if you can believe it, I think he actually accelerated even more. Perhaps he thought the faster we went, the sooner we'd get out of the rain. But it didn't work out that way. I think we hydroplaned the last 10 kilometers, and probably would have been safer driving a boat down the road at that point. It was nothing short of a miracle that we arrived at the coast at all, let alone alive! The guy was smiling from ear to ear, so proud of the efficient way in which he'd just transported the three Americans from Tanjung Selor to Tanjung Batu in record time. We were just staring ahead, pupils dilated, pulse still pounding, head spinning, feeling like a bug that survived a ride on the windshield at at the Indy 500...with potholes! And wondering how we'd made it. We thanked him, payed him, and wondered what the next part would be like. (It's possible to take a nice speed boat directly from Tarakan--much faster too--but the cost is a lot more expensive. We were doing this trip on the cheap, so it was a lot more exciting!)
By then, the rain and wind were so fierce that we had to wait another hour or two before we dared venture by boat any further. But finally we got into a little bathtub size speedboat and took off towards the island of Derawan, where the driver picked up some supplies. Then it was another long leg to Maratua over bone-jarring, ocean chop at breakneck speeds. (The ride back was so "intense" that I actually donned my diving mask, while riding in the boat b/c there was so much water smashing into my eyes that I couldn't see a thing. I contemplated putting on my snorkel as well, because at times I felt like I couldn't breath through the deluge of water spraying down my throat like a fire hose. But I knew I'd never hear the end of it, so just gasped for breath in between each incredible smack of a wave.)
Our original plan was to camp on the uninhabited island of Kakaban, not far from Maratua. But b/c it took so long to get there, and the sun was beginning to set, we opted instead to set up on Maratua, which had more obvious, open stretches of white sand. Maratua is a volcanic, horseshoe shaped island which has four small villages on it. We made camp on a beach that we thought was secluded, far from a village, and separated by several kilometers of jurrassic-type jungle and porous volcanic rocks as sharp as broken glass. Finally, our Robinson Crusoe life had begun!
This was the view from under our "tent", which was just a tarp strung between some drift wood poles. It was a gorgeous location. The water was unbelievably, brilliantly clear and blue, and warm, while the sand was eye-blindingly bright and white. The weather was perfect.
"Our beach" was about 300 yards long from end to end, flanked on both sides by jungle and coral/volcanic rock that stretched directly out over the ocean in an overhanging cliff about a dozen feet tall that, at low tide, was exposed enough to provide a walking path. There was tons of drift wood laying around, so plenty of seats and lots of firewood.
However, as it turns out, "our beach" was not really "our beach". Sometime that first night I woke up to the sounds of something, or someone inside our "tent". I thought maybe it was a big animal. But as it turns out, it was a guy, just casually looking through our stuff and rummaging around. That was the first sign that things weren't going to go according to the plan. The next morning, as we were exploring our surroundings, we found a small crushed coral "road" cutting through the jungle not more than 30 yards behind our camp. What in the world was that??? We were supposed to be isolated! As it turns out, one of the villages got some government money to build a "road" (more like a large path) to connect their village to one of the others. So there were workers walking past our camp in both directions throughout the day, and apparently night.
A few hours later as we were snorkeling hundreds of feet out in the water in front of our camp, we looked up and saw several guys sitting in our camp. They weren't being destructive, but were definitely being overly curious. So we made our way in to see what was up. Several hours later after visiting and sharing our story and re-iterating that yes, we had indeed registered with the local police the night before (our boat driver had promised to do that for us), we were finally on our own again. But before leaving they cautioned us not to leave anything unattended on the beach, because it would most likely get stolen. That was a big disappointment. It meant that the three of us couldn't go snorkeling together the rest of the time we were there. We regretted not going to Kakaban instead.
None the less, we made the best of it and took turns snorkeling in the areas up and down from our camp. This gives you an idea of the coral/lava overhang that flanked our beach. The base was a little smoother form the grinding of sand and waves, but the sides and ceiling were super sharp. A 10 minute walk took you to another, much smaller beach, where you could swim out to the reef and then slowly float with the current back down to our camp.
The skies were constantly changing. I love watching weather--especially tropical weather. It's better than any HD nature show, and every 30 minutes or so it looks totally different.
And this was a sunset...
Stay tuned...next time I'll show you some pictures from under the water, and it's just as beautiful as those above!