Tomorrow I leave for the Morowali Reserve to spend five days exploring and fishing in a wild and remote area populated by the island’s most primitive tribe.
According to my guidebook, the Morowali Nature Reserve is a 395,000 acre wilderness of unspoilt rain forest, containing three major mountains (Tokala, Tambusisi & Morowali), five major rivers and the mystical Moon Lakes.
The approach to Morowali is via the small city of Kolonodale, and from there by boat across Tomori Bay. Inside the reserve lives the Wana people, who practice shifting agriculture and hunt and gather forest products in the mountainous interior. This is a wild part of Sulawesi, where nature reigns, literally. In May up to 4,500 centimeters of rainfall can transform the low-lying areas into seasonal swamps and suddenly change the course of rivers.
As for the Wana, I don’t really know what to expect, other than their basic, simple lifestyle. When I asked my guide Luis (aka Indiana Luis) about the history of the Wana, here’s what he said: “The Wana don’t really know much about their history. If you ask a Wana how old he is, he only says, ‘My Mother say I was born during the harvest many years ago.’ The Wana have no concept of time.”
The Wana also move their settlements constantly. “They believe that when a person dies, their area is diseased, so they move away,” Luis said. “Eventually they come back, but not for a long time.”
In Morowali, we will not encounter any roads, hotels or facilities of any kind. The reserve is purely wild.
Today I am the happiest person in this whole giant country. There are 250 million people in Indonesia, scattered across some 13,000 islands and not one has a bigger smile or better feeling in their heart. I love you so much - you are the best, the most beautiful woman in the world, inside and out. I am so damn happy you’re coming to see me.
Believe me I know it wasn’t easy for you to do this and so not only am I touched, but I’m also totally and completely in awe. You have made me so happy by booking your flight to Vietnam. For the past four months, the thought of seeing you there has always been in the back of my mind. Will she come? Won’t she come?
The thought of seeing you in Saigon, hugging you, kissing you, just talking to you (real talk, not long-distance phone talk) over a cup of coffee or beer, just makes me want to explode inside. To be able to tell you face to face about some of the places I’ve seen in Asia — I cannot wait. My grandfather used to have a saying when he really liked something. “It’s zee verrry verry best,” he’d say with his Spanish-French accent. Well that’s what you are, Sunny, the very very best. Thank you so much for making me so happy.
Now let me say that I think you - we - are going to find Vietnam to verry verry interesting. From what I hear from fellow travelers along the road, ‘Nam is getting a bit touristy and transportation can be expensive. But I hear it’s a beautiful country, especially in the North. And I know it will be an education, particularly because of our connection to the country as Americans.
I just met a guy here in Indonesia who lives back in Denver - a really cool dude named Peter Scheetz. He just went to Vietnam and said that the locals invited him in to their homes for coffee and tea. How cool does that sound? To spend a few moments in the private home of a Vietnamese, in a country that the U.S. was at war with only 20 years ago.
I also heard that the Central Highlands - which include the old Demilitarized Zone - is off the beaten path and fascinating. Oh man, I am so psyched to wander around Asia with you for three weeks! It will be our first trip together, hopefully the first of many.
I have enclosed two postcards from Sulawesi. This place is truly fantastic — the most adventurous place I’ve been so far. I’m spending about five weeks here, and I’m barely scratching the surface of this island. There is much to see.
Well, I’m going to finish this letter now, so I can send it off to you tomorrow. Sunny, thank you thank you thank you. I am flying so high right now just thinking about seeing you in Saigon. I love you so much.
Hey beautiful, how are you? Things with me are going well. I just completed a bus journey across Flores. It was a grueling trip but this island is so beautiful that it was worth it. The whole island is mountains and jungle, and there is not one straight stretch along the entire Trans Flores Highway, a windy 2-lane road that goes from Larantuka in the east to Labuanbajo in the west.
After landing in Larantuka by ferry from Timor, I traveled through Maumere on the northeast coast (devastated in an earthquake last year) to Paga on the southcentral coast. And guess what? I caught a fish! I was at Paga Beach and staying at the one bungalow in town. I came to Paga because I saw a card of theirs in Maumere that advertised “Fishing with traditional fisherman.” What a load of crap! I finally got there and asked the girls who ran the place about the traditional fishermen, and they just shrugged their shoulders, smiled and said, “Oh sorry!”
So I set off into town on my own, fly rod in hand, looking for some traditional fishermen, damnit! I passed by women wrapped in colorful sarongs, baskets of corn perched perfectly on their heads. Finally I came across a gang of little boys, who led me down this immaculate sandy beach to — yep, you guessed — a traditional fisherman.
His name was Louis, and by now the entire village was surrounding us and watching this spectacle. Louis jumped at the chance to take me out on his hand-carved outrigger boat, when someone in the crowd shouted at me, “What’s your bait meester?” That’s when I realized I had left my box of flies — my “bait” — back at the bungalow. A mile away.
With the sun getting lower in the horizon, in my best Bahasa Indonesia, I said, “Besok tuyuy pagi, saya jalan jalan disni — memacing,” which roughly translates to “Tomorrow morning at 7 a.m. I’ll walk back here and we’ll go fishing,” to which Louis nodded an enthusiastic yes.
So that’s what we did. I fished with my fly rod and Louis used a bamboo hand reel. We fished in his boat about a mile off the coast of Paga, on top of a pristine coral reef. Needless to say, I caught nothing while Louis caught all the fish. So finally, he gave me his hand line and I landed a small trout using his gear.
That night — or later that day — I hopped on a bus to Moni, a town in central Flores. I had hooked up with a crazy English bloke named Rich, and we decided to tackle the island together. The main reason travelers go to Moni is to see Keli Mutu Volcano, which has three craters at the summit, each with a different-colored lake that’s constantly changing. Keli Mutu was a bit of a tourist pilgrimage but it was still pretty cool. We hiked there in the morning in the clouds.
From Moni, Rich and I took a 7-hour bus to Bajawa, my favorite place in Flores, mostly because it was in the highlands and the weather was like perma spring. A towering volcano called Gunung Inerie loomed over the town, and Rich and I got the bright idea to climb it. We recruited two other fools, a young couple from the UK, and spoke to a local named Floryan, who told us it was “no problem” to climb Inerie — “three hours up and two hours down.” He recommended we hire a local guide named Anuk, a friend of his who lives in the speck of a village called Watu Meze at the base of the volcano.
On March 31 we set off by bemo (bus) for Watu Meze. Anuk unfortunately wasn’t around, but his father invited us into his hut for kopi (coffee) and we debated our options. While I wanted us to spend the night and wait for Anuk, the others wanted to climb the volcano tonight. Under dark skies at about 3 p.m., Anuk’s dad happily led us to the trailhead and we started up Inerie.
We hiked for 3 and 1/2 hours, in a driving rain, and just before sunset reached the crater near the summit, where we decided to camp among the lava flows. Rich had a one-man tent but Phil, Linda and I were forced to scrunch together under a blue tarp in a 3-foot crevice. My socks totally wet, I wrapped my feet in sleeping bag stuff sacks for the night to stay warm.
After a cold night, we awoke to moderately clear skies and we quickly started hiking toward the summit, along the edge of the crater, a pitch so steep we had to crawl on all fours at one point. At the top the view was epic — two coastlines, volcanoes all around and the rising sun casting a pyramid-like shadow of the volcano over the sea.
But soon the clouds reappeared, swirling around the summit and cutting off our view of the landscape below. “Let’s get off of this damn volcano,” Linda said, and I said hell yeah let’s. We started our descent, hoping to be down in 2 hours like Floryan said, but we got completely lost.
Clouds and mist cut off our visibility to about 20 feet, and we had no clear bearing of where we were. We could hear a chainsaw in the village below but we couldn’t see it. And then after a bit, we could no longer hear it. Had we wandered to the far side of the cone-like volcano? All the lava flows near the summit looked the same. We were searching for the spot where the flows met the trees, but four times we hiked down to the edge of a huge cliff. So four times we hiked back up to the crater, with our packs on, to retrace our steps.
We were running out of energy, daylight and most importantly our water supply. For the first time in my life I felt like I was on the edge of life or death. A lot of shit went through my mind, and I want you to know what kept me going was my responsibility to you and to my family. I know I couldn’t stop fighting until I got off that damn volcano.
As for the Rich, the English guy, he totally lost his cool and was contemplating climbing down into one of those cliffs, an idea which I argued against since he might never be able to climb out and he’d die. Finally with daylight fading, we found a path into the trees, and we bushwhacked for 100 yards before emerging on a grassy field about a third of the way up the 7,306-foot volcano. We could see the base from here and knew we’d live.
We climbed down a bit more but after 14 hours of walking up and down lava flows, we were cut up and bloody, and completely exhausted and parched, so we decided to collapse on the ground under the stars, overlooking the town of Bena. That night we all dreamt of water and in the morning — after taking our final sips — we staggered toward the village.
Along the path we met a young villager using a banana leaf as an umbrella who led us into town, where the locals thought we were pretty silly. We spent the day in town, wandering around the weird stone megaliths and odd burial ornaments before catching a pickup truck back to Bajawa.
That night the four of us went out for dinner, thankful to be alive. We ran into Floryan, who had been worried about us when we didn’t come back to Bajawa last night. We told him what happened.
"You should have gone there with a guide," he said. "It’s like a Swiss couple last year. I told them to go with Anuk and they said, ‘No we are Swiss, we are mountain people, we don’t need a guide.’ They didn’t come back after one day, two days. Finally I went to look for them. I found them on the other side of the volcano, lying down on the rocks. They were out of water and waiting to die." Thankfully Floryan didn’t need to rescue us too.
It’s now 3 days later and I’m still exhausted from the experience, both mentally and physically. I think you all the time, Sunny, but during the crazy day of the volcano I thought about you even more intensely, if that makes any sense. You really mean a lot to me.
I am now in Labuanbajo, a fishing village on the western end of Flores. From here I will take a ferry to Sulawesi. I think you should definitely book that flight to Saigon so that we can meet in Vietnam in July. Anyway I’m tired now so I’ll end this letter. I love you, Sunny, and miss you terribly. Can’t wait to see you.
Selamat tingall. Live in peace.
Greetings from Indonesia, where right now I am camped underneath the lifeboat, above the engine room, on a ferry traveling from Timor to Flores.
Thanks so much for your letter describing your recent honeymoon on Sulawesi — very helpful and I’m hoping to fish some of the rivers you described.
My plan is to spend two weeks on Flores, traveling from Larantuka on the east end of the island, to Labuanbajo on the west end, and then catch a ferry to Ujung Pandang. That would give me five weeks on Sulawesi. The only problem is that I have no idea what I will do after Indonesia. I have 45 days to kill before I meet Sunny in Saigon. Here are my options:
• The Philippines - Take a ferry/flight from Manado to the Philippines and spend three weeks there, then two weeks in Bangkok, before traveling on to Vietnam.
• Back to Indo - Fly from Sulawesi to either Singapore or the Philippines, and then fly back into Indonesia with a fresh two-month visa. I met a traveler who told me that Rinjani Volcano on Lombok Island is a beautiful hike and inside the crater is a lake where you can catch perch.
• Burma option - Fly from Sulawesi to Singapore or Kuala Lumpur, then travel to Bangkok and fly to Rangoon. I heard Burma just extended tourist visas from 7 to 28 days.
I’m not sure which option to go with, but as I write this the Burma option is sounding the most interesting. I’d love to spend more time in Indo but for the sake of my writing, it might be best to mix it up a bit. Yep, it’s decided. Burma it is.
Tonight I was sitting on a stack of rice sacks and reading my book “The Year of Living Dangerously,” when I looked off to the horizon off the back deck of the ferry and and saw the giant tail of a whale breaching the surface of the sea. Not sure what kind of whale it was, but from a distance of 100 yards it looked about 20 feet long. A breathtaking sight and nobody else saw it but me. I also saw lots of fly fish and debated rigging up my fly rod and casting off the ferry!
I hope it doesn’t rain, I am seriously screwed if it does. Will write more from Flores. We should be there in the morning.
Miss you, bro.
I feel so far from home, here on this peaceful, untouched island, the southernmost in the Indonesian archipelago.
I traveled here hoping to find some fishing — I heard some stories in Kupang about an idyllic beach town called Nembrela where there was surf and lots of fish — but my plans seemed to have been delayed.
After taking a ferry here yesterday from Timor, and befriending a local named Thius Ufi, who invited me to stay in his family’s home in a kampung (village) called Busalengga, I slept on a small mattress under a mosquito net, protection from the malaria that is a problem on this remote island.
The bemo (bus) from the ferry terminal at Pantai Baru to Busalangga was wild. Very beautiful scenery along a bumpy, dirt road, with a few river crossings. Grass huts along the coast, beach side real estate that would no doubt fetch millions back home. The road continued on, past traditional homes, rice fields with water buffalo and white-stone churches. We reached Baa, a dry, dusty place, barely a town, and continued another 15 kilometers to the kampung.
Woke up early and set out with Thius to the town of Baa, to meet the local pastor, a Mr. Franz Lackner. He is of Austrian descent, though he is Indonesian now, having lived on Roti since 1967. A nice man, strange though the way he laughs to himself. The father told me many things about the island “lontar culture,” so named for the type of palm tree can be seen all over the countryside on Roti and provides so much.
According to the father, “The palm sugar gave the people of Roti a cultural advantage. It gave the people leisure time, which is a requirement of any culture. The whole Rotinese system of church, government and school was set up a long time ago because the people had time to do it. In 732, the first school was built on Roti.”
Leisure time stems from the fact that the main tapping season of the lontar palms starts in July and goes strong through August before tapering off in November. The tuak (sugar) that is tapped is either made into “ant sugar” or converted into a syrup. “This makes up the people’s main diet,” Lackner said, as it’s full of vital carbohydrates.
"This is how they live here. It’s their staple food. It is proved that the Rotinese can live for weeks even months on this stuff. They may eat nothing else and they’ll be quite healthy. All they need is a bottle of this syrup, mix it with water, and they can go on and on."
Many of the homes here on Roti are built entirely from this lontar palm tree — the walls, ceiling, beams and even the fence outside around the property. The lontar palm juice is tapped from the trees twice a day, in the morning and at night. The tappers climb up these 100 foot tall trees, and use knives to start chopping at the leaves. They climb down with a sweet-tasting juice in their palm baskets.
"It’s very similar to tribes in Papua New Guinea who live on sweet potatoes. No proteins in this food, but the body itself grows colonies of bacteria, which becomes proteins. The people drink sugar — they don’t eat — and they can get on quite well."
The tapping, the father said, is a precise act. It’s a game of millimeters, and the exact amount of the lontar leaf must be cut or acid will invade. The process must be done religiously and once it’s tapped it must be baked in the ovens immediately.
According to the local government information office in Baa, there are about 30,000 farmers on Roti Island producing tuak from more than 870,000 lontar palm trees.
"It’s a very demanding job, to keep the trees from going sour," the father said. "It’s the same thing as having a cow in the stable. You feed and milk the cow every day, but if you fly off to Atlanta and forget about the cow, maybe it’ll die. It’s the same thing with the trees.
"If you’re a tuak tapper, no matter what happens — even if your wife and kids are dying — you have to tap the tree every day. If you stop for one day, it’s all ruined.”
The rest of the day was spent walking around Baa, to a waterhole, past ricefields, and then a visit to the home of Thius’ uncle, and then finally to the police station in Busalangga, where the local officer wanted to see my identification.
Hopefully everything will be tidak masala, no problem.
Kupang ain’t a bad place. It’s a pretty mellow town, aside from the swarms of people who encircle any westerner to simply say “Hello Meester” or ask “Where are you going?”
"Jalan jalan" is how I usually answer, a local phrase that literally translates to "walking, walking" and is a way to say you’re just crusing around. Every time I say it, people smile back and repeat the words: "Jalan jalan…"
Today I traveled with Rob, Dawn and Tony to a small town inland called Baun, in the hills surrounding Kupang, about 20 kilometers away by bemo (bus). Our goal was to attend the Saturday market.
Arriving in Baun, I immediately noticed some of the locals were dressed in traditional Timorese ikat weavings and turbans. I have to admit, though, that we were the main attraction at the market today; no matter where we walked, a crowd of about 20 or 30 people followed, just staring at us.
Along the way, we also picked up two “freelance guides” — George, a bizarre Amway salesman/journalist, and Peter, a mild-mannered who led us from Kupang to Baun. Most of the people at the market spoke Timorese, not Bahasa Indonesia. They sold various items, from dried fish to peanuts, pork, chilies, shirts, sandals, juice, hand-rolled cigarettes, cows, etc.
After checking out the market for awhile, we were taken to the home of Mrs. Koroh Loesi, who goes by Marie and is the widow of the last rajah (king) of Baun. She spoke some English, was fluent in Dutch and is known as one of the finest ikat weavers on the island of Timor. Marie showed us how ikat is made using the back-strap technique, a process that takes two days to make one weaving.
Ikat is amazingly rich on Timor, and each district is known for its different motif and the use of different colors. Marie said she uses 38 colors in her ikats, extracting them from the earth, mainly leaves and trees. “The leaves from the koolabah tree — beautiful red,” she said.
Now I’m just kicking back at Eden. Rob and Dawn just left to explore another nearby village called Soe, but I want some down time, as I haven’t had much in what seems like awhile, which is surprising considering I am traveling solo.
I just finished some writing and now I think I’ll go for a swim in the natural spring that’s down the street from this homestay. It’s so damn refreshing. As perfect as this seems, and as I’ve documented in previous entries in this journal, the political situation on the far side of this island has deteriorated greatly in recent months.
Just before I left Australia for Timor, an Indonesian commission — charged with investigating the death of 6 East Timorese in January — concluded that “improper conduct” by the military resulted in these civilian deaths. Apparently the situation is so bad that armed ninjas roam the streets of Dilli, abducting people at will.
Although I briefly considered traveling to East Timor, to see and write about the situation first-hand, I ultimately decided it wasn’t in my best interests or anyone’s. I do wonder about East Timor, though. Essentially it has been an occupied country since 1975, when Portugal granted East Timor its independence and the Indonesian government followed with an invasion.
Alfred Russell Wallace, the famed naturalist and explorer whose classic book The Malay Archipelago inspired Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, traveled to Timor in the late 19th century, when Portugal was the colonial master of the eastern half of the island and the Dutch ruled the western part. He observed a place that was challenging for its citizens back then.
"The Portuguese government in Timor is a miserable one. Nobody seems to care the least about the improvement of the country and at this time, after 500 years of occupation, there has been not a mile or road made beyond the town and there is not a solitary European resident anywhere in the interior," Wallace wrote.
"All the goverment officials oppress and rob the natives as they can, and yet there is no care to render the town defensible should the Timorese attempt to attack it … In its present state, Timor is more trouble than profit to its Dutch and Portuguese rulers, and it will continue to be so unless a different system is pursued."
I am in Eden. Literally. I’m in Kupang, West Timor, staying in a bungalow called the Eden Homestay. It’s so damn great to be back in Asia.
Arrived here yesterday on a Merpati Airlines flight from Darwin. Just before landing, the island of Timor came into view and I saw a mostly dry landscape of mountains and rolling hills dotted with palm trees and beehive-shaped huts.
At the airport, the Indonesian customs agent toted a semi-automatic rifle as he checked my passport. “Do you have a ticket out of Indonesia,” he asked, his brown eyes scanning me from head to toe. I told him that I didn’t have an onward ticket — a requirement for entry — but explained that I planned to purchase one once in country.
"Are you a travel writer?" he asked, reading my customs declaration. I nodded and said that I wasn’t planning on writing anything political. "Then why you come to Timor?" Behind me stood a nervous Canadian, who was about to be taken to a side room with three customs agents, intimidated and strip searched, all for a shakedown of $30. I reached for my backpack, grabbed my fly rod tube, and produced my four-piece Sage.
“Ikan?” the stern-faced agent asked incredulously. I pulled out my Bahasa Indonesia phrasebook and saw that ikan means fish. Yep, you got it, buddy, I’m a fisherman and my plan is to fish my way across Indonesia and write about it. And just like that, his frown turned to a smile, his eyes widened and softened, and he stamped my passport and visa enthusiastically.
"Welcome to Indonesia," he said. "We have good fish!"
Kupang is a sprawling Asian city, and its most glaring characteristic is the colorful fleet of bemor (minibuses) that whiz around all day, all night, blasting music, and emblazoned with catchy Americanized names like MacGyver, Beverly Hills, Chycago and The Best.
Most of the tunes are American pop and rock songs covered by Indonesia singers. My first night in town, I hopped on a bemo that was rocking out to the Red Hot Chili Peppers classic’ “I Want to Party on Your Pussy.” The ladies sitting on the bus, oblivious to the actual lyrics, were bobbing to the beats.
Here in Eden I am hanging out with three other backpackers whom I met on the flight from Australia - a funny Irishman named Tony and an American girl dating a Dutch guy. They’re all nice but soon I’d like to head off on my own.
As the customs agent said, there is some good fishing here in Indonesia….I just need to find it now.
Barra! Barra! Barra!
The healing power of a good day of fishing never ceases to amaze me. After nearly two months of excellent luck and good fortunes while traveling through Australia, I finally hit a low point here in Darwin.
It came in the form of outback dust and ants. To explain, the dust got into my laptop computer, causing the machine to short-circuit, a cost of $80 to fix. But later I was sitting in my hostel, working on a story, and my “a” key wasn’t working.
I hauled the laptop back to the Apple Center in Winnellie, on the outskirts of Darwin, capital of the Northern Territory, and when the technicians opened it up they found hundreds of little ants breeding inside my keyboard. That was a first, they said, and cut me a break at $130 to fix.
Bottom line: I was down and out in the land down under. A good day of fishing is what I needed, so I called Lindsay Mutimer, a guide who runs Top End Barra Fishing, to help me cure my traveling blues.
Barramundi, a legendary fish indeed. “The legend of the barramundi,” said Danielle Warnock, director of the NT Fishing Office, “is based on the acrobatic nature of this fish. The barramundi are very strong, very good fighters.”
Australia’s barra grow to as much as 100 pounds, though fish more than 60 pounds are rare these days, even in the remote parts of the NT such as nearby Kakadu National Park. The barra inhabits both estuarine and freshwater habitats and is a close relative of the Nile perch, which roams the rivers of Africa.
Here in the NT, it is said that Australia’s barra fishing doesn’t get any better. I wanted to experience this fish before I left the country, wanted to feel its power. As the Top End Barra Fishing brochure promised, I wanted my trip to the Territory to be a “barra to remember.”
Our fishing grounds was a private billabong south of Darwin, in an area called Howard Springs.
It was a pretty area, a wetlands environment surrounded by tropical gum trees and pontinas palm trees. Fishing with my 8-weight, I casted a light-colored Muddler Minnow out from the far side of the billabong.
Barely 15 minutes after I started fishing, I felt a tug at the end of my line and then — before I could even say barramundi — a huge fish came leaping out of the water a few feet from where I was wading.
I had no idea what I was doing, overcome with the shock of it all, and the fear of the unknown. It was over before it started, and the bugger broke me off.
"Oh boy, that’s a shame," said Lindsay, my trusty guide. "That was a big fish!"
Was my past coming back to haunt me? A decade of fishing mishaps across Colorado and the Pacific Northwest have resulted in numerous nicknames mocking my inability to catch fish, the sarcastic Big Water and blunt Fishing Jinx, to name two of my faves.
Compounding my predicament, a fishing friend of mine back home — a certain burly Alaskan named Jens Laipenieks — warned me before I left on this journey: “If you don’t catch a fish in every country you visit, I’m going to break that fancy fly rod of yours when you get back.” When he first said this to me, I laughed. But Jens assured me, “I’m not kidding.”
With only a few days left in Australia, and after my failed attempts to catch Tasmanian trout, this was my last chance. In a sense the game had boiled down to this crucial moment. It was fourth down and 10 and I needed a TD, to give it a sports analogy.
A giant sea eagle perched on a tree above me, staring at my fly as it touched the calm waters of this billabong, as if it was a supportive fan. “Come on, you loser,” the bird seemeed to say to me. “It’s not that hard. I catch barramundi all the time. There are tons of fish here, dude.”
The setting sun neared the western horizon, and I almost began to panic. But I regained my senses, tied up a different colored Muddler Minnow, and commenced my casting, aiming for the middle of the billabong, where the weeds gave way to clear water.
Finally, at 6:39PM Central Australia time, I got bent with a barra. It wasn’t huge but it was quickly followed by another barra, and another barra, and another barra, and then a foot-long tarpon, and then another barra.
Our day was nearly done as I made my final casts into the night, trying with all my power and concentration, to get my fly out as far as possible. Enough of this chicken shit barra, I wanted a real Northern Territory barra.
It happened so fast.
I heard a gulp … then a violent tug at the end of my line, and within a split second, the water erupted with a silvery flash, as the barra lunged for the wide Australian sky and humid tropical air.
But this time I was game for the fight was was able to land the fish in about 10 minutes. Plucking the beautiful barra from the billabong, I admired its pinkish red eyes, so large and bright.
This was not just any fish. Not only had it made me forget the depressing and potentially debilitating ants-in-my-computer situation, but this fish also assured me that Mr. Laipenieks ins’t busting my rod anytime soon.
Of course the future will hold many challenges, as I fly-fish my way through Indonesia, Southeast Asia, China and Far Eastern Russia.
The sky was a peaceful orange-red as I placed the impressive fish back in the water and released it. Off he swam. And off I will go to Indonesia, content with the knowledge that my journey through the Territory was a barra to remember.
PORT AUGUSTA, Australia - The red-dirt runway appears as a mirage amid a wasteland of barren mountains and endless desert.
Piloting what may be the world’s most grueling mail run, Steve Davis readies his Aero Commander 688S for a landing at the Moolatwanna sheep station, in the heart of Australia’s impressively empty outback.
Seconds later, as the plane lands, tires screech on the sand, rocks and weeds of the runway. Off in the distance, a gray Land Cruiser rumbles toward the landing strip, sending dust from the Strezlecki Desert into the brilliant, blue sky.
"G’day, Steve. It’s nice to see you again," says Audrey Sheehan, as Davis piles from the plane to deliver the Moolatwanna mail bag. In return, Sheehan hands him a bag of outgoing mail.
Wearing a blue blouse, sandals and a wide-brimmed leather hat, Sheehan owns the ranch along with her husband, Mike. At 485 square miles, Moolatwanna is the smallest property along the Channel Mail Run — a weekly route that provides services to more than two dozen small towns and “stations” (ranches) in the Australian interior.
Covered with dust, I stepped off the plane after Davis. I am along the ride, taking part in a “tour” offered by Augusta Airways, the carrier contracted by Australia Post to make deliveries to some of the most remote mailboxes in the land down under. In all, there are about a dozen mail runs serving the outback, and a few tourists are allowed on each ride.
From my perspective, I’ve chosen the most intriguing of the bunch. Billed as the “world’s longest,” the Channel Mail Run serves a forgotten 1,800-mile stretch of desolate land where distance and isolation create an environment that only people of the utmost strength and resourcefullness can call home.
As Davis put it, “It takes a different breed to live out here.” Indeed, Port Augusta — the nearest population center as well as the jump-off point for the mail run — seems a world away.
Every Saturday morning, the mail plane heads north from Port Augusta’s small airport, and every Sunday night it returns. Along the way, it traverses the Great Artesian Basin, perhaps the world’s greatest reservoir.
"That’s why it’s called the Channel Mail Run," said Deb Grantham, an employee of Augusta Airways. "When it rains in northern Queensland, the rains come down in channels and flood the inland desert areas." This runoff — along Cooper Creek and the Diamintina and Georgina river systems — occurs across 800,000 square miles of arid land.
As I later learned, the floods are an omen and a blessing. While the water is essential for raising cattle and sheep, it also leaves ranches and towns isolated for days, weeks, even months.
This is often bad news for people such as John Talbott, who seems to embody the spirit of the outback with his hand-rolled cigarettes, Blundstone boots, blue jeans and wide-brimmed cowboy hat.
Talbott lives with his wife and two children at Durham Downs, a 4,000-square-mile cattle ranch on the banks of Cooper Creek, at the edge of the Sturt Desert. In a sentiment shared by many, Talbott said he treasures the isolation that comes with living in the world’s flattest and driest continent.
"I love it out here," he explained, offering a one-word reason why: "Peace."
"Out here you know everyone," said Allison Bammann, a gardener at the 12,500-square-mile Innamincka station. "Down at the pub, we’re pretty much the only people there, and we can have parties just for the people who work at the stations around here. It’s great!"
Or is it? As Talbott pointed out, there is one obstacle to outback life, and it’s not the intense heat, powerful storms or the unbearable bush flies, which buzzed all around his eyes, ears, nose and mouth as he spoke.
For this cowboy, the one “crook” thing about life in the Channel Country was, simply, “I’ve got to drive 150 miles to the nearest pub.”
That would be the Birdsville Hotel, a 112-year-old watering hole in the tiny town that bares its name. Inside there is a wall decorated with dozens of wide-brimmed hats, all torn, tattered and frayed, with names of their former owners: Highway Jimmy, Chopper Tony, Bazaa Skolee, Dylan Stoddy, Pee Wee Clark…
"You’ve got to live out here at least a year before you get your hat on the wall," said Richard Calliss, bartender at the pub, which is just across the street from the airstrip.
Birdsville was one of five towns on the mail run, along with Leigh Creek, Innamincka, Bedourie and Boulia — the unofficial extra-terrestrial capital of the outback. For decades, residents of this town (population: 250), where we spent a night, have been baffled by a strange phenomenon called the Min Min Lights.
Apparently, the Min Mins are ghostly luminous lights, which float through the air as if someone is carrying a lantern in the mist. Yet no one has managed to capture or photograph them.
Talk to Tania Tully, the co-owner of the Australia Hotel, and she’ll tell you the Min Min Lights are merely liquid-induced lies. “The best way to see the Min Mins,” she said, “is to grab a seat at the bar and start drinking the rum.”
So I took her advice and even increased my odds by drinking a “stubby” (bottle) of Australian lager. But much to my dismay, after climbing atop the water tower on the outskirts of town for a panoramic view of the surrounding landscape, I saw no signs of the Min Mins.
Tania’s husband, John, has had better luck. “Yeah, I’ve seen them — twice — when I was a little boy,” he explained. “I was camping with a bunch of friends. At first we thought it was a car coming toward us in the distance, but it never got any closer.”
Over the years, there have been many guesses, theories and explanations (fireflies, birds covered in fungi, moon mirages, etc.), but as of yet, none have disproved the Min Min phenomenon.
As John Tully said, with not a shot of rum in his hand, “Yep, the Min Mins are out there. They’re definitely out there.”
Some might say, though, that the only thing “out there” are the folks who live in Australia’s interior. Yet for all its isolation, some Australians say that life in the outback is becoming more mainstream.
"Up until a few years ago, all the communication was by high-frequency radio, which wasn’t all that good," Davis said. "It used to break down a lot. Now they have television, radio, and last year they got telephones. Some people even have fax machines."
But make no mistake — this is wild, unpredictable country, and there are still times when Mother Nature takes the upper hand. Our return flight from Boulia was case in point.
Sudden rains on the Queensland coast had triggered floods in the Channel Country, and the muddy waters of the Cooper River were threatening to keep the town of Bedourie and a few ranches isolated for months.
During such a crisis, the mail runs take on added importance. As Bedourie’s Jim Smith said, “We’ve got telephones now, but apart from that, we really got nothing. We don’t even have newspapers. Most people rely on the mail service. They call it an essential service.”
Pee Wee Clark, station manager at Glengyle, which was also besieged by floods, echoed the sentiment. “Mate, we would really be stranded without the mail runs,” he said, after Davis flew in mail as well as disaster supplies. “Seriously, if we ever lost this service, we might as well roll up our swags and leave.”
Which was exactly what Davis planned to do. Leave his job, that is. Once Davis, 36, made his final pick-up at Leigh Creek on the way home, he was officially an ex-pilot of the Channel Mail Run. His new job will be with the Royal Flying Doctor Service, working out of Alice Springs. Part of the reason he resigned was better pay, but he also admitted that exhaustion played a role.
"This mail run is crazy," Davis said. "By the time I get home, I’ve made 56 landings and takeoffs in two days. And by the end of the weekend, I’ve used up as much adrenaline as most pilots do in a year."
Indeed, I was just along for the ride, but by the time we reached Port Augusta, my pillow was calling.
Yet I felt exhilaration as well — from the stark, almost haunting beauty harbored in the huge skies and timeless landscape of the Channel Country; the opportunity to share time with a community of people who don’t see many visitors and the chance to see how vital a form of communication the mail is in places such as the outback.
As Davis explained, with bags under his eyes and sweat on his brow, “The thing we try and get across to people is that this really isn’t a tour. It’s a mail run. A fair dinkum mail run. And our first priority is the mail.”
- 30 -
Timor, my first stop in Indonesia in a few weeks, has been in the news a lot lately.
First there was a challenge in the International Court by Portugal, which originally colonized East Timor, that Australia illegally dealt with Indonesia for valuable gas and oil rights in the Timor Gap Treaty.
Now comes word that Indonesia’s National Human Rights Commission expects to complete its investigation of the shooting of six East Timorese in the Liquica region by the end of this week. The incident took place January 12.
It’s been reported by some inside East Timor that those killed were civilians, who were picked up by the military and later executed in cold bloond near the village of Beniquito. Jakarta has acknowledged that a number of troops had “committed irregularities” in the killings, and the armed forces have promised that those found guilty will be punished.
Meanwhile it seems as though masked ninja gangs have been terrorizing residents of Dilli during the past weeks. These groups, believed to be organized and paid for by the Indo security forces, are said to be responsible for abducting a number of East Timorese from Dilli last month who have been been seen since.
In a story in today’s Australian, the chairman of East Timorese provincial assembly, Mr. Antonio Freitas, was quoted as saying, “There are abuses of power but in my opinion it is being done by individual parties and not by the government.