Erupting volcanoes, earthquakes, visits to communities who bury their family next to their doorstep, swimming in a caldera and searching for dragons – hardly the ingredients of a normal holiday.
But then, cruising around Indonesia in a luxuriously-appointed, four-masted sailing ship with 90 other passengers and 78 crew was never going to be anything other than extraordinary. Eye-opening? Undoubtedly. Memorable? Certainly. Life-changing? Whilst it may sound like an exaggeration, I honestly think so, yes.
Travelling with my two flatmates from long-ago university days, the omens were good from the start. After landing in Bali, spending one night in a tucked-away bed and breakfast delight that proved the epitome of warm, Balinese hospitality, we headed into the first of a succession of impossibly beautiful sunsets.
As the sails filled and billowed to the rousing chorus of Conquest of Paradise by Vangelis, we collectively felt a million miles away from daily chores and routines and were instead confronting the unknown and undreamt of. Adventure, in relatively safe, companionable and very comfortable form.
Indonesia is made up of thousands of volcanic islands in what is known, with good reason, as the Ring of Fire. Look up at the flattened-out peaks that regularly hove into view and there are often a cluster of clouds above them, the only bubble of vapour in an otherwise clear blue sky.
When our captain first pointed out what was happening, I found it hard to believe I was watching an eruption. Not a violent one in that instance – just a steady discharge of steam. When the three of us later joined an excursion to Mount Bromo in Java, after a climb that started on horseback and ended with steps, we peered into a turbulent cauldron that last unleashed its lava-filled might three years ago.
Yet, beyond the sea of sand and swirling dust that surrounds the peak and its ominous active crater, farmers tend their land and families raise their loved ones. Death could be one shocking blast away, but life goes on regardless.
That sense of being in a place that experiences some of Nature’s more extreme moods was reflected in our changing voyage itinerary. We were on a sailing ship – small enough to anchor in idyllic locations that no massive cruise-liner monster could ever hope to access but, when going ashore in a tender often meant disembarking into thigh-deep water and wading to the beach, weather conditions and currents had to be respected. That was why, on our first day, we didn’t land on Gili Kondo – a tiny, uninhabited coral-reef island to the east of Lombok that promised wonderful snorkelling.
The sea was unusually choppy, so our captain rightly decided we should view the low-lying, perfectly white-fringed sandy outcrop from our ship’s upper deck, rather than risk a boat transfer. We still got our photos and, whilst we may not have been able to go diving in the impossibly clear blue water on that occasion, there were plenty of other opportunities to do so in similarly memorable places to come.
A highlight of our journey was always going to be Komodo National Park and it didn’t disappoint. Home to the world’s largest, heaviest and, by a long stretch, deadliest lizard, this was a land of dragons.
Our guides, armed only with what looked like a simple pitchfork, found at least five on a trek that took us into the island’s wild, untamed hinterland. Lying flat to the ground, legs splayed to the side, talons and tail inert, the individuals we discovered looked deceptively sluggish.
One bite from those shark-like teeth, however, and a venom is unleashed that kills within hours. As for being slow, those massive bodies, with their folds of snake-like skin, can run almost as quickly as a sprinting human.
Ruthless (they’re known to eat their own young), solitary (given their cannibalistic tendencies, hardly surprising) and full of silent menace, they tolerate visitors to their remote, untamed kingdom but there’s no question who’s really in charge.
Despite strict instructions to stick together, I unwittingly managed to switch the group I was in when we overlapped at an observation point. Worried that my friends would think I’d been eaten (they weren’t!), I hung back when we reached the makeshift market at the end of our route, so I could reassure them I was safe as quickly as possible.
Gazing towards the path we’d just walked along and where my original group would shortly be appearing, I watched as a Komodo nonchalantly emerged from the undergrowth. A much livelier beast than the ones previously spotted, it crossed the track in a purposeful manner – unaware of, or simply uninterested in, my presence. The moment passed but the impression left is indelible.
That’s equally true of our whole trip. Members of a generation that rarely took gap years but, motivated perhaps by our offspring and their tales of far-flung travel, we’re just as hungry to see, know and experience more. I never thought I’d be welcomed into a community that still cooks on open fires, hangs dead chickens from the rafters to ward off evil spirits and reveres their ancestors by entombing them next to their thatched-roof home but I have now – and loved it.
Add to that the wonder of spending several hours on one of only seven naturally pink beaches in the world (coloured that way thanks to the microscopic animals that leave a red pigment on the coral reef); the fascination of meeting villagers on the north eastern tip of Sumbawa who still build ships without mechanical tools and entirely out of wood; the joy of snorkelling off a tiny uninhabited island formed millions of years ago by one of the largest, most devastating eruptions in human history and the huge sense of achievement felt having walked seven kilometres along a dirt track in searing heat to discover a magical waterfall – unforgettable moments bound together by shipboard camaraderie, delicious food, immaculately-presented accommodation, laughter, fun and fellowship.
Indonesia offers vast, stunning landscapes, primeval wildlife and dramatically different lifestyles. Sailing around it on the Star Clipper, the three of us forged new friendships, shared the buzz of exploration and re-discovered such youthful energy and enthusiasm that one of us climbed a mast, two of us swam in mid ocean and all three of us climbed a volcano.
A holiday? No, it was so much more than that.
The 10-night Bali to Bali cruise costs from £1,995 per person but for more information, visit www.starclippers.co.uk