Cruise Indonesia: An expedition cruise on Star Clipper leaves Bali far behind

Benoa is Bali's gritty working harbour. The wharf smells of rust and salt, and out in the bay dredgers groan and clank. Airplanes claw their way upwards before turning towards Australia with another cargo of the Kuta Beach faithful. But as Star Clipper sails out at dusk, the harbour's twinkling navigation lights seem festive. The call to prayer from a village mosque drifts over the water like a siren song. The ship surges and tilts beneath my feet and I grin in anticipation.

Sails are hoisted and Star Clipper bolts forward like a racehorse out of the gates and Bali, with all its traffic, concrete, racks of batik clothes and badly behaved barflies, disappears. There's only the creaking of timber, the crack of sails and smell of the salt sea. Ahead lie places with alluring names such as Moyo, Tambora and Sumbawa. I know nothing about them. No nightclubs, surely. Tin-roofed villages, no doubt. Volcanoes, and the smell of spices in the air.

Next morning, Star Clipper is anchored off Gili Kondo and only scuttling little crabs on the beach seem in a rush. We're on an uninhabited island in an archipelago off Lombok's eastern coast. It takes me 20 minutes to walk around the entire island, toes squeaking on sand fine as washing powder. The sea is blue as Midori. I plunge in and find fish masquerading as clowns and zebras and fashion models trailing yellow-chiffon fins.

This cruise moves at a slow pace. You can see passengers decompressing, shedding their clothes, giving up on trying to comb their wind-tangled hair. We float for hours past splendid biscuit-brown coastlines topped by volcanoes that occasionally burp up thin plumes of ash. We click photos and snooze and clink chilled glass at the Tropical Bar. We goggle at lurid sunsets. We sail into Komodo and disembark to hunt dragons, but secretly we all enjoy the lazy afternoon on Pink Beach more.

One morning I wake to find a big volcanic island puffing contentedly to starboard. Sails snap above. Star Clipper lulls me with its slow movement as an early sun twinkles in the rigging. The volcano is Sangeang, just off the town of Wera on the north-east coast of Sumbawa. Sumbawa is one of the poorest and least fertile islands, with most people making a living from subsistence farming or fishing.

We disembark by Zodiac. Wera has dirt paths and stilt houses beneath which goats and chickens shelter from the sun. Mosques are brightly painted. Women weave textiles for sarongs. Young men are racing blue-sailed boats on the bay.

The villagers are shy but friendly. Few speak English, but I encounter a student home from university who takes me to see Wera's famous boatyards. This is one of few places anywhere that still make ships entirely of timber, except for a metal keel. These phinsi cargo boats are built not from blueprints but from handed-down experience. They line the black-sand beach like dinosaur skeletons, rib cages partly formed, scented with sawdust.

We sail off cautiously. This journey into Indonesia's islands east of Bali is a true expedition cruise. Some of these coastlines were last charted 100 years ago, says captain Sergey Tunikov, and earthquakes constantly alter the seabed. Unlike big cruise ships, we're enveloped in our environment. We have to sail against the swell. Strong winds and currents may alter our sailing route.

"Star Clipper only sails at a maximum 11 knots, so if the current is stronger than that and in the wrong direction, we'll only go backwards," explains Tunikov wryly.

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There's little separation between crew and passengers on this ship. We're free to interact, watch the crew at work and hear their stories of sailing. The officers teach us how to tie knots, read a sea chart, use a sextant. Captain Tunikov is a raconteur who once sailed tall ships for the Russian navy. He tells tales of sails being ripped away by storms, and waves higher than the crow's nest. Once, the masts on a ship he was sailing were stripped of paint, down to the metal, by the wind.

"So you can imagine what our faces were like, you had to turn your face away from the wind just to breathe ... "

Fortunately, we aren't crossing vast stretches of open water on this cruise. Our route is threaded through a thousand islands and convoluted coastlines. Some are arid rocks with crewcuts of golden grasses, others vivid green. Many are fronted by sweeping beaches. Occasionally we spy villages of tin-roofed shacks and green-domed mosques. We stop at Labuan Haji on Moyo Island for excursions to waterfalls, but I'm sidetracked by a football match and farmers working the fields with buffalo.

The marine park that fringes Moyo Island is a good place for a beginner dive. This cruise is as remarkable beneath the water as above it.

"Indonesia is generally accepted as the world's best destination for sea life, with more marine diversity than anywhere else on the planet," Star Clipper's PADI instructor James Macintyre says. "It has 20 per cent of the world's coral reefs, some 3000 fish species and endless macro life."

More advanced scuba divers enjoy a gentle drift dive off Gili Kondo and Pink Beach, where they return with tales of manta rays and barracuda and metre-long bumphead parrotfish tearing at the coral with their teeth.

Towards the end of our cruise we're back in Lombok waters at Gili Nanggu. Dive here and you might spot turtles floating in the big blue yonder. The water shimmers with all the colours of a peacock's feathers. The past week on Star Clipper has made me indolent. I flop in the warm shallows. Somewhere over the horizon is Kuta Beach, but it feels like it might be a million miles away.

SHIP SHAPE

Star Clipper is a nothing like a regular cruise ship but rather a replica tall-mast ship. Technically it's a four-masted barquentine with 16 sails, of the type once used in the Baltic timber trade. It seldom has all its sails hoisted, but has some sails operational most of the time. It also navigates under engine power.

It is a small, pared-down ship carrying 170 passengers, so expect cramped spaces and none of the facilities of regular cruise ships such as theatre, casino or multiple dining venues. What you do get is a lounge, library, bar and restaurant, plus deck space that squeezes in two plunge pools and loungers amid coiled ropes and rigging.

The big plus is you experience the real flavour of sailing the way it once was, amid a decor of polished brass and wood embellished with paintings and photos of the great sailing ships of yesteryear. You'll feel very connected to the sea and your environment of wind, waves and sun. Less is more on this ship, the greatest asset of which is the sheer exhilaration of being under sail.

TRIP NOTES

Brian Johnston travelled as a guest of Star Clippers and Alila Seminyak Bali.

MORE

traveller.com.au/cruises

traveller.com.au/indonesia

indonesia.travel

FLY

Virgin Australia flies to Denpasar in Bali from every major Australian city. Phone 13 67 89 or see virginaustralia.com

STAY

The chic Alila Seminyak Bali sits right on the beach at Seminyak and has considerable contemporary flair, with a spa, excellent dining and very helpful staff. Rooms from $455 per night. See alilahotels.com/seminyak

CRUISE

Star Clipper next sails seven-day cruises round-trip from Bali between June and September 2019, some heading westwards and taking in Lombok and Java. The writer travelled on an eastbound itinerary that visits Lombok, Komodo, Satonda and Bali. Prices from $2874 a person, twin-share including meals, entertainment, water sports and Komodo dragon-spotting. Port charges, beverages and other shore excursions extra. Phone 1300 295 161 or see starclippers.com/au


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