Liz Cleere and her partner Jamie Furlong discover the remote beauty of Indonesia’s Anambas Islands
‘Back, back, back!’ I shouted, as a wall of rock about 3m beneath the water’s surface reared up from a deep blue lagoon.
I could see the bright colours of sergeant majors and parrotfish swimming beneath us.
Jamie slammed Esper’s engine into reverse. We were on our own in the middle of the uninhabited Penjalin islands in the north-eastern corner of the Anambas archipelago, half way between Malaysia and Borneo. We couldn’t afford to make a mistake.
Situated in the South China Sea, halfway between mainland Malaysia to the west and Borneo to the east, Kepulauan Anambas falls under the sovereignty of Indonesia.
Its isolated position means the islands have remained almost untouched by tourism, and very few yachts have visited the area.
But with a new port authority in the capital, Terampa, all that is about to change.
Yachts can now arrive and be issued with a 30-day visa to cruise its islands without having to obtain an Indonesian visa before hand.
Only Pulau Bawah, on the southern tip of the group, has become a private luxury resort; no anchoring is permitted, and yachts are discouraged with fees of around $5 per foot per night to use its moorings and go ashore.
But this is a one-off at the time of writing, and elsewhere we saw only a couple of basic hotels in Terampa and a few home-stays on the island of Jemaja.
Anambas is the dream destination for many world cruisers – remote, undeveloped, sparsely inhabited and accessible only by boat. The tiny islands and their spectacular bays fringed with lively reefs provide good shelter from the prevailing winds and fetch.
The warm, gin-clear water is filled with rainbow fish, turtles, rays, sharks and coral gardens. All kinds of birds, insects and other animals get on with their lives in the subtropical rainforest covering the hilly islands.
We watched sea eagles, kites, frigate birds, and various types of terns through the binoculars. Swiftlets, their valuable nests farmed here for bird’s nest soup, sang from the rigging while our cat, Millie, eyed them from the cockpit. Monkeys (how did they get here?) played on the beaches.
We were delayed, and it was late in the season when we raced from Pangkor in the Malacca Strait, round Singapore and up the east coast peninsula of Malaysia to the sleepy island of Pulau Tioman.
As the murky water of the straits turned bluer and clearer the further east we sailed, the ubiquitous jellyfish from Thailand to Singapore disappeared and were replaced by boiling shoals of jumping fish.
Checking out from Tioman, a 24-hour passage took us through water criss-crossed with container ships towards Jemaja, before our first stop in Anambas.
When land appeared on the horizon, it was through thunderous clouds and curtains of tropical rain.
As we crept closer, a waterspout swept along the shoreline.
The weather in this part of the world is dictated by the monsoons. From June till early October, a fierce south-west monsoon rages across the Indian Ocean, bringing strong westerly winds.
It is followed by an unsettled transitional period when the wind is unpredictable, often with heavy squalls, until it finally settles into the north-east monsoon in December.
The logical time to sail in the Anambas is from July to September when there should be a consistent south-westerly wind from which you can shelter in plenty of natural bays scattered across the islands.
It would be a lively place to sail during the north-east monsoon because the fetch builds and the winds can be violent, often interspersed with tropical cyclones and even typhoons coming across from the Philippines and Vietnam. We arrived in mid-September.
At customs, I asked the officials which of the islands we shouldn’t miss.
We only had 30 days, and although it’s a small group covering an area of around 637km², there are enough islands and islets scattered here to keep you occupied for months.
They pointed at the edge of the chart on their office wall. ‘Penjalin, it is most beautiful,’ they said.
Under the sea
So here we were, two weeks into the trip, trying to find somewhere to drop the hook.
‘I think we better move further out. It means deeper water but it’ll be safer,’ said Jamie.
After an hour of dropping the anchor twice, snorkelling out to check its position and then flying the drone overhead to see exactly what was around us, we determined that it was too dangerous to remain in the middle of the group.
Using the drone to scout for a good spot as you actually enter an anchorage is a nice idea, but with one eye-balling and the other steering, we would need someone else to operate it.
We agreed that if a squall blew up or some awkward fetch found its way into the bay, we would have little time or room to manoeuvre and we might end up in a dangerous situation in the night.
We both like a good sleep, so moving further out was the right decision. We dropped the hook in 21m on a coral-free bottom.
After feeding Charlie, a remora (suckerfish) who had been travelling with us for six weeks, we sat back to take in the view.
Penjalin is Blue Planet gorgeous. Virginal white-sand beaches lie to the west and south, acres of coral stretch towards each small island and the water is every colour from palest green to turquoise to ocean blue.
In 11 years of sailing and cruising this planet, this ranks as one of the most beautiful anchorages we have seen.
We were both tired but desperate to get exploring, underwater and on land.
We launched the dinghy, and while Jamie snorkelled, I finally got to grips with our new kayak.
My nerves soon evaporated as I watched turtles swimming beneath me and picked out the bright colours of reef fish among stacks of coral.
Tying the kayak to the dinghy, I joined Jamie underneath the water. Penjalin seems to be oblivious to the massive threat to coral reefs elsewhere in the world, because here it is thriving.
Columns of hard and soft coral stretch up to just below the surface, while tunnels and caves have formed below.
Fields of staghorn coral shelter clouds of clownfish and pairs of foxface rabbitfish. Rays stream past while slower-moving turtles dive deeper.
We don’t carry dive gear on SY Esper, so had to content ourselves with the top layer, but we could see long drop-offs with plenty of life disappearing into the shadows.
It would be a spectacular place to dive.
Lay of the land
On shore, the beach is powder perfect.
After three years in Thailand sailing among the limestone karsts, it was refreshing to walk next to glittering granite worn smooth by the elements.
Lines of cowries and tiny gems of colourful shells lay in waves on the sand. Giant clams the size of basins were whitening in the sun, presumably washed up in some earlier storm.
At our previous anchorage, off the island of Semut, we had found convex marble-like discs the size of our palms.
On the flat underside they have a spiral pattern, and at the time we thought they were fossils; later, we were told by a diving instructor in Malaysia that they are operculum, a kind of trap-door which sea snails pull up when beached or under attack.
He said he had never seen any as big as those in our photos.
The undergrowth was too dense to penetrate and there are no paths, because nobody comes here other than a few fishermen seeking shelter in bad weather.
We were happy to just walk along the long stretches of sand and take in the kind of dramatic views of ocean, sky and rainforest that every sailor dreams about.
The charm of the Anambas, though, is not found just in its astonishing natural beauty. It is the people, too.
With a small population of around 37,000, most derive their income from fishing.
Terampa, on Pulau Siantan, has a few shops where you can buy basics, as well as a wet market for fruit, vegetables, meat and fish.
There are a couple of hardware stores and because the population relies on getting about by boat, they include some basic items for diesel engines, outboards and boat repairs.
In Pulau Jemaja, we hired scooters and rode around the interior.
It is a beautiful island with a wide valley that has been turned over for farming both livestock and arable, including those birds’ nests.
We were welcomed into a school and shown round by one of the pupils.
‘Where are you from?’ he asked.
‘Wow, that’s cool. Welcome!’
A warm welcome
But most of the rest of the people live in tiny fishing villages scattered around the centre of the archipelago.
Because the land rises sharply from the seabed, the houses are built on stilts over shallow reefs.
Wooden homes are joined together by pontoons, which all lead from one connecting path that runs along the shoreline.
It’s a predominantly Muslim part of the world, so there are no bars, just a few coffee shops (usually the front of someone’s house) and the occasional warung (a family-run café).
Each village has one or two shops in the owner’s front room selling basics – shampoo, washing powder, crisps.
We spent days with various families in different villages, laughing uproariously while we discussed life using the Google Translate app.
We drank sweet coffee for which they refused payment, until we insisted (less than 10p per cup).
Our Indonesian bahasa (language) improved as the conversation flowed, and once over their shyness, our hosts practised the English they had learned at school.
Towards the end of our trip, Jamie found another settlement on Google Earth with no name, tucked away in a shallow channel.
Air Putih (white water) turned out to be our favourite village.
As we pulled up the dinghy on to a sandy patch, we were greeted by Bajar, a chatty boy of 10, who took on the role of tour guide.
Like a pair of pied pipers, we soon attracted a raggle-taggle group of his friends.
Whenever we went ashore, it was always the children who came running to greet us.
Mums with babies would wave from windows and doorways, sometimes coming up to hug me and get their photograph taken together.
Everyone stopped what they were doing to shout ‘hallo!’
Air Putih was no exception, but there was something innocent and joyful about the people.
First, we inspected a new pompong (local small fishing boat) being built, then Bajar took us to his school, closed that afternoon, where we peered through the classroom windows at desks and maps and paintings on the wall.
San, his dad and the local schoolteacher, joined us.
He explained that we were the first yacht to ever visit their village.
Some of the people had never seen one before, but were not phased by the idea that we lived on Esper.
To them, a life on the water seemed natural.
A few of the houses have televisions, but Bajar and his friends don’t have phones.
There is no access to the internet in the village, so the children spend their time making up games and playing around the area.
They know the names of all the trees and plants, and made it their mission to teach me too.
Kelapa (coconut) and pisang (banana) I could already identify, and I was pretty sure I could pick out a mangga (mango) tree, but this was the first time I discovered what a cengkeh (clove) tree looks like.
Their guileless enthusiasm for the natural world around them was almost heartbreaking.
Sadly, we were coming to the end of our 30 days, and it was time to leave.
The dinghy was well and truly beached, with about 50m of black mud between us and any kind of water, so Bajar and the gang rolled up their trousers and with Jamie leading, helped us to push it across the ooze.
Their laughter and screams as they sunk up to their bony thighs and fell face forwards into the gooey mess echoed around the bay.
We waved all the way back to the boat, and carried on waving from the deck as darkness fell.
We will be back.
Follow the adventure
Liz and Jamie have been living aboard Esper since 2006. Built in 1988, she is an Oyster 435 cutter-rigged ketch.
They picked up Millie in Turkey, then sailed through the Red Sea, stopping in Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea, Yemen and Oman before heading to India, the Maldives, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia.
Each week, they upload episodes to their popular sailing channel, Follow the boat.
Follow their adventure at www.followtheboat.com
They have one of the oldest sailing blogs on the net.