Highlights of a caffeine-rich trip through Indonesia
(CNN) — Even after traveling extensively through Indonesia for over two decades, I sometimes struggle to grasp the true scale and diversity of the largest island nation on earth.
It is the fourth most populous nation in the world (home to around 10% of the world’s languages) and yet many people would struggle to find Indonesia on a map.
Kopi dulu means “coffee first” in Bahasa Indonesia, which serves as a unifying second language for the majority of Indonesians. For me, the phrase came to encapsulate the attitude of unhurried hospitality that is ubiquitous among the unimaginable diversity of cultures found along this part of the Ring of Fire of volcanic countries bordering the Pacific.
Whether Muslim, Hindu, Christian or animist, sometimes it seems that little happens without a prior “cut of Java”. This suited me because I learned early in my travels in Indonesia not to rush; jam karet (rubber time) is another national slogan that is an ideal antidote to the routine of our hyper programmed western lifestyle.
Where myth is indistinguishable from reality
I first visited Indonesia in 1995, leading an expedition in central Borneo, and have since traveled on missions to all the main islands. I must have explored 100 or more of the nearly undocumented islands and quite a few of the estimated 12,000 that are officially listed as uninhabited even today.
Skeptics will tell you that there are no unexplored regions, but Indonesia offers a level of adventure that few countries can match. My travels across the country have naturally passed through most of the iconic tourist hotspots (including the Borobudur temple, the Batak and Komodo highlands) and a number of places that have become almost household names despite the fact that they see relatively few international travelers (Krakatoa, Maluku’s “Spice Islands”, Borneo).
In Palasari, the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus rises in an unexpected majestic facade against a backdrop of smoky jungle.
I’ve surfed the legendary reefs of G-Land, Nias and Occy’s Left, and pioneered a previously unsurfed wave in the remote archipelago of Alor.
I have searched for orangutans and stalked tigers in Sumatra and told people in communities all over the islands about the great plethora of mythical creatures, spirits and hantu (ghosts) that seem to occupy every corner of this fascinating archipelago.
Indonesia’s phinisi cruisers
While traversing this sprawling chain of 13,466 islands, it was of course necessary to travel frequently by boat.
The southeast coast of Sulawesi remains the traditional homeland of the Bugis, an ethnic group once famous for their feared pirates who, according to legend, introduced the word “boogeyman” into a million childhood nightmares.
Today the Bugis (and the closely related Konjo people) continue to build the majestic Sulawesi schooners known as phinisi.
These vessels often represent the only viable way for travelers to visit Indonesia’s most remote islands and they are able to bring the benefits of tourism to isolated and underrepresented communities without leaving a lasting impact.
Plus, there’s an element of irresistible romance to be had exploring a chain of paradise islands under full sail with your bare feet on a warm teak deck.
Sulawesi’s Teluk Palu Festival is an intoxicating explosion of noise and color.
I’ve explored parts of the Ring of Fire in a 65-meter luxury phinisi called Lamima (the largest traditional Sulawesi schooner ever built) but I’ve also often sailed in infinitely less salubrious conditions.
Among these was a traditional fishing boat, which I rented to explore the Komodo Islands and tied my hammock in the hold of a cargo ship for a six-day trip down the Kapuas River (the longest from Indonesia, 1,143 kilometers away).
I’ve done this riverboat trip into the true heart of Borneo three times over the past two decades and have come to think of the Kapuas as the Indonesian Amazon.
Far from being tired of the road
Despite large-scale logging and the devastation of oil palms, the rainforests beyond the jungle town of Putussibau represent one of the greatest jungle adventures in the world. With guides from the local Da’an Dayak tribe – renowned by their neighbors for being mystics and sorcerers – I paddled by canoe through uncharted valleys near the very center of Borneo in search of the last of Kalimantan’s rhinos. .
Indonesia is listed as the second most biodiverse country on the planet (after Brazil) and has more mammal species than any other country in the world.
From the wildlife markets of North Sulawesi to the tiger reserves of Sumatra to the marine reserves of Wakatobi, I was constantly reminded of the fact that almost a quarter of Indonesia’s 667 mammals are listed as “threatened”.
By the time I reached the easternmost extremities of the Far East – in this case at the end of a trek to the Papua New Guinea border – I had covered the equivalent of a roadtrip from Seattle to Tierra del Fuego or from Paris to Bangkok.
Thanks to the warm welcome reserved for me in each community, I was far from tired of the journey.
In fact, I wish I could have taken “rubber time” and twisted it on itself…so I would have gladly started the trip again.