Oswald Huma is an Indonesian fixer working for Cairns-based cruise company Coral Expeditions. In January, he approached the elders in a Sumatran fishing village called Sungsang. Would they be interested in welcoming passengers off a brand-new vessel called Coral Adventurer? The elders were confused. Their community is one of subsistence, elevated on stilts at the wide brown mouth of the Musi River; their crude timber houses, shops and mosques are squeezed along a spidery network of gantries.
"They didn't believe that a cruise ship wanted to visit their village," Oswald tells me. "I had to go back three times to convince them I was serious."
Six months later, Sungsang wakes to find a $US75 million cruise ship moored on the horizon. The villagers watch a minor miracle as two aluminium pontoons, each loaded with 60 passengers, are hydraulically lowered from an upper deck into the water, then wait anxiously as 120 strangers are ferried towards their wonky town in the mangroves.
On the wharf, they invite us to sit on plastic chairs for a display of traditional dancing. The torpid sky threatens to both scorch us and drown us, but the young dancers dazzle with a performance of colour and brio. Then we're led through the village, with thick cordons of people lining our route.
The villagers are amazed by our ages (the oldest passenger is 87, an unthinkable age here) and by the taller male passengers, which makes the young women giggle. Eventually, someone asks if it's OK for a selfie, and suddenly it's on for young and old. We're in thousands of selfies, snapped on cheap, state-subsidised phones, a whirl of excited greetings, shy requests and grinning poses with schoolkids, boat builders, fishermen, storekeepers, policemen. I've done shore excursions on cruises before. But never one like this.
Getting into less charted waters has been Coral Expeditions' modus operandi since the 1980s when it began taking nimble 46-passenger cruise boats into the Kimberley. The 5600-tonne Coral Adventurer is very different. She's bigger, more luxurious and she can cross oceans, and her paint has barely dried when I board her in Singapore.
Most of the 120 passengers on this maiden voyage are Australian retirees, and all but four have sailed with Coral Expeditions before. Trish, for instance, is 76 and on her 15th trip. She volunteers that mega-vessels offering bingo and stage shows hold zero appeal. "These cruises really are like expeditions," she says. "We go to places other ships don't."
The 18-day itinerary ostensibly follows in the wake of Dutch mariner Abel Tasman. Sailing from Singapore to Darwin, it promises sights less seen off the coasts of Sumatra, Java and Sulawesi, stopping at more than a dozen locations, including dive sites in the Spice Islands. Suites on the voyage start at $29,500, so unsurprisingly the Adventurer is billed as "luxurious". However, she has no jacuzzis, no chandeliers and no gargantuan dessert buffets. The Norwegian design is sleek, with lots of blond wood, white-grey tones and Aboriginal X-ray art. The lounge has a $32,000 coffee machine and Stressless reclining chairs, but the bar at rear is muted, executive almost. In my modest, comfortable suite there is no TV, though there is a heavy brass astrolabe, the navigational tool Tasman used to fix latitude in 1633.
Dining is similarly refined and sensible. Lunch is finished with fruit, not dessert, and dinner is a matter of three polished courses with two choices of main. (Not that the choice isn't challenging, for example, does one go with chilli marinated barramundi in a miso hollandaise sauce? Or slow-braised duck with a hint of aniseed?)
The Adventurer's greatest luxury is on deck five, where two 70-seat aluminium pontoons called Xplorer one and two are stowed. They're hydraulically lowered to the back of deck three, where passengers are seated in a civilised fashion before being gently descending to the water. The Xplorers incur none of the aggro of loading Zodiacs, but these powerful, shallow-draft tenders can go almost anywhere. Including the empty beaches on the island of Peucang. Here, we split into groups to do a two-hour jungle trek, before snorkelling and kayaking in warm lagoon-like waters. On the return, the Xplorers deviate to inspect floating fishing platforms – strange and elegant bamboo structures used by the Bajau people who have lived exclusively on the sea for centuries. It's a chance to call across to the fisherman and inspect his catch.
There's a certain panache to the shore excursions that surprises me. Before one landing, expedition leader Jamie Anderson candidly admits, "We really don't know how tomorrow is going to go." And so it sometimes proves, like on the island of Bawean, when a kilometre-long descent between beautiful mountain villages proves overly ambitious. Among emerald rice terraces that have rarely seen Westerners, a sweat-soaked line of elderly expeditionaries ends up having to negotiate narrow and muddy bunds. It's a touch hair-raising but the party is invigorated to make it through.
The spirit of the cruise is facilitated by a young and able-bodied crew, but it's perhaps embodied by its captain, Gary Wilson. A maritime enthusiast who re-enacted Tasman's original voyage in a replica vessel in 2002, Wilson uses his own charts and soundings to get the Adventurer into fresh country. He sails us through the craggy relics of the Krakatau caldera, the volcano that blew itself to bits in 1883. He navigates the narrow lagoon off Banda Neira in the Spice Islands, where two huge warrior canoes position themselves on either side of the prow to escort us in. And in the Bunda Strait he locates the grave site of HMAS Perth. During World War II the crew of Perth held out against a Japanese convoy during a ferocious night of fighting.
When the Adventurer is over the wreck we gather around the ensign at half-mast; our skipper commits wreaths to the waters and raises three cheers. It's an especially moving moment because we've learnt about Perth's courageous stand in a lecture. There are 40 lectures and educational videos on the cruise, and passengers don't like to miss them. "I attend every single one," says Jo, a retired geoseismologist. "They give me context for the things we see and do."
And so it proves. We're enlightened on the Wallace Line, the boundary in the Indonesian archipelago where Asian biota ends and Australasian biota begins. It's a lovely primer before entering a jungle camp in Ujung Kulon National Park, to talk with rangers who safeguard the world's last 67 Javanese rhinos.
Professor Kath Robinson's lectures on Indonesian culture, politics and religion help me look upon our vast neighbour through new eyes – though not even she can prepare me for the welcome in Sumenep, where a truck has been converted into a vast winged Garuda and installed with a dozen "tong tong"' drummers. (They lead us on a 500-metre procession to the Royal Palace for a lavish feast.)
Marine biology lectures follow after scuba dives and snorkel sessions in Taka Bonerate National Marine Park and Banda Neira, and allows a chance to put names to the abundant soft corals, fish and turtles we've seen. And I even learn how to use the heavy brass astrolabe through a week of Wilson's charting lessons (though I never quite master the damned thing).
When I arrive in Darwin, I feel I've experienced a rich, multi-layered cruising experience, skilfully arranged for people whose expectations are as high as their pockets are deep. And for the record, I have never seen such gung-ho people, dedicated to squeezing every drop out of every day. Age – and even blindness on the part of two passengers – simply does not weary them. As cruise director Mark Fifield tells me, "I'm as amazed as you. But most of these passengers leave younger than when they came on board!"
I have a few negatives: sailing so close to the island of Komodo without stopping to see the famed dragons is frustrating; the odd Bruce Willis movie would've been a welcome respite from a fairly intense 2½ weeks; striking out on your own is just not really possible, since the duty of care to this group is serious and the landings often remote.
But I regard this Coral Adventurer voyage as a singular one – a hybrid thing that combines the comforts, distance and facility of big-vessel cruising with the more thoughtful ambit of expedition cruising. This is especially true on the speck-like island of Saparua where we spend an afternoon in the company of the islanders at the foot of a 17th-century Dutch fort. We meet the island's young king, who wears a red feathered crown, and we sit on grassy banks to listen while schoolkids sing. The whole time, we can see the Coral Adventurer on the blue horizon. Since many of the islanders subsist on just $50 a month, I can only imagine how they look upon this gleaming vision of wealth and prestige.
So it's a moment of real delight when Captain Wilson invites the king and a group of islanders to return with us to the ship. We have an evening of canapes and drinks on the gleaming prow and people from very disparate parts of the world watch together. It's cruising cast in a very good light.
The 18-night Islands of Indonesia cruise departs February 2, 2020, sailing from Singapore to Darwin (and including a stop at Komodo). Coral Adventurer suites start at $29,500 (twin share) all-inclusive except flights, drinks outside meals and scuba diving. See coralexpeditions.com
Max Anderson was a guest of Coral Expeditions.