Saturday, 13 April 2013

Borneo (5) - Berau and the Journey to Pulau Derawan

Paul in First Class luxury
Our next destination was Pulau Derawan, a small island off the east coast of Kalimantan which involved flying from Pangkalan Bun to Berau with a 4 hour stopover at Balikpapan.  As we would be arriving quite late at Berau we would need to stay overnight before travelling by kijang (basically, a 4WD car) Tanjung Putin and then speedboat to Pulau Derawan.

Everything went smoothly at Banjamarsin Airport and in fact we were given seats in first class (again, it was noted that Paul is quite long) which meant that we had more room travelling than we had had since we travelled by sleeper train.  If only this happened on long flights!  However, this flight was only 40 minutes which was a shame really because it was so much more comfortable that flying by our usual cattle class.

On the flight across the south east of Kalimantan it became clear just how much of the land is used for palm oil and why it is such a threat to the indigenous wildlife.  For a large part of the trip we could see nothing out of the window except a patchwork of palm oil fields stretching as far as they eye could see.  It is alarming just how much of this beautiful island has been stripped to grow this crop which saps the land and leaves it worthless after just a few years.  The palm oil producers continued to inch their way even into protected areas (money talks in Indonesia) and threatening, most famously, the orangutans and many other creatures.  You can only hope there are enough people like our guide Jenie who realise what is at stake.

After the short flight we disembarked at Balikpapan both silently wondering whether our luggage would also be transferred because it occurred to us then that if ever there was anywhere luggage would go astray it would be changing flights at an Indonesian airport.  As it turned out our fears were unfounded..

Palm oil fields as far as the
eye can see
With 4 hours to kill at Balikpapan Airport we decided to have lunch in the airport restaurant which was a bit pricey by Indonesian standards but the food was good.  We had WiFi and could smoke, drink coffee and just generally hang around there in comfort rather than sit on uncomfortable seats in the departure lounge staring into space. 

It may be obvious by now that we don’t do proper budget travel, particularly when the money you save is minimal and certainly at this stage of the trip (and at our age) comfort is worth paying for.

It was as we were drinking our coffee that we noticed that on the television in the restaurant under the heading in English of “Breaking News” (in the style of the BBC) a picture of a Lion Air plane floating in the sea with land just visible in the background.  On closer inspection the back end of the fuselage looked like it had split in two and the nose of the plane looked like it had taken a battering too.

Lion Air is one of the many Indonesian airlines and in fact we had tried to book one of our flights with Lion Air but weren’t able to get through on their website.

Indonesian airlines are not renowned for their safety record; it would be more accurate to say that they are notorious for it.  I am sure there are many reasons for this and among them would be the fact that in a country the size of Indonesia which comprises of more than 17,000 islands, travelling by air is so much easier and quicker, but airport and runway facilities do vary.  Furthermore, although obviously Indonesian airlines must surely be bound by Civil Aviation Authority rules, we were in an Asian country and you can’t tell me that little corners aren’t cut to save money and that bribery and corruption don’t play their role in the airline industry.

Anyway, back to the crash of the day.  We weren’t able to establish whether there were any casualties but live footage on the TV did show people standing on the plane wings and also people in the sea wearing life jackets.  All we could work out was that the crash had happened near Bali

Our reaction was one of disbelief and very slight hysteria, not least because they did not change the channel anywhere throughout the airport as though it was of little relevance.

I later did have a something only vaguely representing a conversation with a kind Indonesian man using sign language and one word questions and he assured me that all passengers and crew were safe.  When we reached Berau we checked for news on the internet and this was in fact true.  There were some injuries but miraculously everyone survived.  The plane appeared to have overshot the runway and landed in the sea.  The live pictures showing the damage to the plane seemed to suggest at there would be some fatalities so it was good news.  We later found out that Bali Denpasar airport is one of those “difficult” runways (whatever that means!) and that it was pilot’s skill and his decision to crash land in the sea that saved everyone’s life.

Always look where you are
going in Indonesia
As we continued our wait for our connecting flight to Berau we noted that Lion Air were continuing to fly regardless.  In fact no-one really seemed that bothered by the plane crash and you’d think at least some people would be showing signs of anxiety as everyone here was about to get on a plane themselves, and some of them were flying Lion Air).  Everyone seemed a bit blasé about the whole thing, as if it was a regular occurrence (which in fairness, it probably is).  It all seemed a little bizarre to us.

So, when we eventually boarded our plane I listened carefully to the in flight safety demonstration, and in particular how to inflate the life jacket.  I realised that I had in fact never before bothered to listen to the in flight safety demonstration beyond showing a polite passing interest because had I not paid close attention on this occasion I wouldn’t have had a scooby how to inflate the bloody thing.

One false step...
Our flight went smoothly and we arrived in Berau, as did our luggage which we were both grateful for.  We caught a taxi to our hotel which, in comparison to the hell hole in Banjamarsin (the Hotel Regenerasi in case I haven’t mentioned it before) was absolute luxury.  It was a little more expensive than we were used to paying, but Berau is a coal mining town and accommodation is notoriously difficult to secure on arrival.  The hotel was all posh tiled floors, minimalist décor and not a cockroach in sight.

Berau itself was a nice little town.  Not somewhere you would particularly want to visit for itself but not a bad place to overnight before heading to Pulau Derawan.

The next morning at about 11.00am we headed to the embankment where we were told we would be able to catch a kijang to Tanjung Batu and from there a speed boat to Derawan.  We walked as far as the end of the road by our hotel and as we turned right onto the embankment someone shouted “Tanjung Batu?” in our general direction.  We nodded and were sent to a kijang parked across the road which already had two occupants, Boris and Léa, a young Swiss couple, and within 5 minutes we were on our way just as started to rain.

An Indonesian
man up a coconut
tree - more common
than you'd think!
The journey, including a half hour break, took about 3 hours and it was a typical Indonesian car journey along roads of varying quality, made a little more exciting because of the rain.  Rather conveniently Boris and Léa were also heading to Derawan and so we were able to share the cost of the speedboat.  The kijang driver phoned ahead and arranged for his friend with a boat to meet us at the harbour so when we arrived we immediately transferred to the speedboat for the 30 minute journey to the island by which time the rain had cleared up.

Before we knew it we had arrived at the Losman Derawan pier where we had booked to stay online (as had Boris and Léa).  However we took one look at the rooms (cramped with shared bathroom facilities) and decided we would try and find somewhere else.

Paul and Boris marched off with purpose while Léa and I waited with the luggage.  The boys returned some 5 minutes later and we made our way to the next pier where we were shown to 2 adjoining wooden huts halfway down the pier, each with their own bathroom, and a veranda with a view across the bay.  They were perfect and we didn’t hesitate.

And so began our week long stay on Pulau Derawan, the island famous for its turtles.

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