Ships and Dragons: Singapore to Darwin

This is the second post on our round the world trip August – November 2016.

Go here for a picture gallery.

Deciding to take the cruise

Booking the cruise from Singapore to Darwin on P&O Australia’s Pacific Eden was something of a hassle. Martin found it on the Internet after we had booked our flights to KL and a trip through the Kimberley in NW Australia. The days fitted well except that the cruise terminated at Cairns. It took several weeks of e-mails to and fro, an initial refusal (after we had paid in full), and finally a fax to the Managing Director of P&O Australia before we were told that we would be able to disembark at Darwin.

We really wanted to visit some of the ports of call, but this hassle and uncertainty did not endear us to P&O Australia. Neither did the reviews of this cruise which we had read on the cruise critic forums on the Internet. However this was mostly dispelled once the ship sailed.

The Pacific Eden

The Pacific Eden previously belonged to Holland America and it is about half the size of the previous cruise ships we have been on. It can take some 1200 passengers and has a crew of about 550. The captain and some of the other senior officers were British.

The Pacific Eden anchored at Komodo Island

The Pacific Eden anchored at Komodo Island

We had a balcony cabin which was big enough for a king bed, and a sofa and desk area.
A real bonus was that the TV had BBC World.

The public areas had recently been renovated and, if you wanted to drink all day (we didn’t), there were plenty of bars to choose from. The ship also had a huge theatre at the front which was used for lectures as well as evening entertainment.

Eating and drinking on board

Except for breakfast and lunch on shore excursion days, we ate most of our meals in the more formal Waterfront restaurant where most of the dinners were themed. The lunch menu in the Waterfront had a variety of dishes but it did not change at all.

Most of the other passengers were Australians with a sprinkling of New Zealanders. The food reflected what we later found in Australia with large meat portions and not so many vegetables. There was plenty of variety and some of the dishes were quite imaginative. Huge meals were served at lunchtime in the self-service Pantry and it was a bit more difficult to assemble a light lunch. Curiously there was no cheese. We were told by the Food and Beverage Director (an Irishman) that the menus came from Head Office but in any case the Australians don’t eat much cheese. A visit to any supermarket in Australia will confirm that this was an entirely spurious reason.

We also soon discovered that if you order muesli in Australia, it is soggy with milk already on it. And the bread was mostly sliced and not very exciting. Tea and coffee were available round the clock and made UK not US-style. We noted that Australians seem to drink more tea than the Brits.

There was no fixed seating and we ate at shared tables whenever we could. We met plenty of interesting people including many who had cruised around south-east Asia and the South Pacific. Several asked us about the Brexit vote which had mostly shocked them. We met only one other British couple.

On board

As on the previous cruises we have been on, the time passed quickly on sea days. The lecture on the ports of call was informative without being too much of a hard sell. The latter concentrated on the ship’s zip line and similar activities none of which interested us. I went to a session in the fitness centre which claimed to be about posture but was really a hard sell for goodfeet.com. Their insoles felt good but they needed to be at 199 Australian dollars a pair. Otherwise I read a lot on my new Kindle – there was no library on the ship.

We went in one of the jacuzzis early evening on most days – this was also a good place to meet people and it was warm enough after dark.

Disembarkation at some of the ports was by tender for which they were using the ship’s lifeboats. I wondered what would happen if there was an emergency when the ship was anchored as plenty of people stayed on board at the ports.

One of the ship's lifeboats as a tender

One of the ship’s lifeboats as a tender

Lombok

The first port of call was supposed to be Bali but the captain announced 2 days before that we would not anchor at Bali because of the swell. The sea was calm. We had already read on the cruisecritic forum that this ship never makes its scheduled stop at Bali, it seems because of a dispute between P&O and the Bali port authorities. This did not bother us because we saw a lot of Bali in 1980, but some people were annoyed.

Instead, some the tours to the next island Lombok were arranged. We actually went to Lombok for 2 days in 1980 but we had no record with us of where we went then. A quick look at the Lonely Planet guidebook and the map told us that we were not going to arrive at a big town where there might be plenty of taxis and so we decided to take the ship’s tour which had the most sightseeing.

Disembarkation at Lombok was by tender. When we got ashore we were glad we had decided to take the ship’s tour as there was almost nothing there except a small musical reception committee. Then we were on the bus with an excellent guide who told us a lot about the lifestyle in Lombok as well as drawing attention to places that we passed. His English was very good except that almost every sentence was punctuated with ‘ladies and gentlemen’ which he pronounced ‘gentlement’.

We went first through the main town Mataram which was very crowded. There were a lot of motorbikes and some horses and carts which the guide called ‘one horse power’.

Street scene on Lombok

Street scene on Lombok

Our first stop was at Lingsar Temple, a large complex built in 1714. It looked very much like a Hindu temple but it is multi-faith and also used by Muslims, although there was no sign of it being a mosque. We all had to put a yellow ribbon round our waists. A different guide took us round the complex but he didn’t wait for everybody to reach him before he started talking and so I didn’t find out why we had the yellow ribbons. We were told that 60% of the people in Lombok are Muslims but there has been a recent influx from Hindu Bali.

A gateway at the Lingsar Temple, Lombok

A gateway at the Lingsar Temple, Lombok

The next stop was an open air market called Sayang-Sayang. There we were entertained by some rather feeble music and some men fighting with sticks and holding rectangular shields. There was also a kind of referee with a whistle who was dancing about.

Entertainment at the market in Lombok

Entertainment at the market in Lombok

The market contained some nice things but another passenger told us that you cannot import wood or shells into Australia and so they weren’t making many sales.

The bus then drove on to a posh pearl shop which was nicely airconditioned, although I spent most of the time there outside trying to photograph passing horses and carts.

'One horse power' transport on Lombok

‘One horse power’ transport on Lombok

Our final stop was at a museum which was very good. The visit started with more gamelan music, which was much better than the previous groups, and we were also given a drink and some nice little cakes.

Musical reception committee at the museum on Lombok

Musical reception committee at the museum on Lombok

I noted that the tentacles of Starbucks have reached Lombok as they appeared to be one of the sponsors of the museum. We saw exhibits on geology, religion, things for their way of life, a good collection of gold daggers and some life-size models wearing various styles of wedding dress. There were some comic-like painted murals around the entrance to the museum.

We passed many mosques in Lombok, some of which were fairly large. It seemed quite densely populated. The scenery we passed through was mostly fairly flat and agricultural, but with some mountains in the distance.

Makassar (Ujung Pandang)

Makassar, our second port, is also known as Ujung Pandang. It is a big city with a population of over 1,000,000, in the south-west of Sulawesi. The ship docked right by the centre of town where a very helpful policeman pointed us to an ATM as we needed some cash in order to explore on our own. We took a taxi to the old port to see the old sailing ships. On the way there we passed through crowded streets with a lot of shops where the goods where spilling on to the street.

The taxi driver didn’t really know the way into the port and we had to be moved on
by a policeman. Neither did the taxi driver know any English and there was some altercation over the fare when he wanted 3 times what was on the meter. It was so cheap that we paid him what he wanted anyway.

At the port we saw very many colourful sailing ships which didn’t look like they had changed much for a long time. We also saw some men loading cement bags on to one ship by hand, and hand carts including one with fresh fish. There were plenty of piles of rubbish. The locals ignored us and didn’t seem to mind having their photos taken.

Sailing ships at the old port, Makassar

Sailing ships at the old port, Makassar

The taxi driver left and the only transport we could find when we left the port was a bicycle rickshaw. This was a scary ride among a lot of traffic (and some bad fumes). The rickshawman just headed for where he wanted to go, weaving in and out of cars while we hoped that the traffic would go round us. We were glad to get to Fort Rotterdam safe and sound after 20 frightening minutes.

Rickshaw in Makassar. Both of us squeezed in it

Rickshaw in Makassar. Both of us squeezed in it

Fort Rotterdam is the main sight in Makassar. It was built by the Dutch in the 17th century and consists of several rather tall and rather nice buildings with cream walls and red paint on windows etc. There were a lot of tour groups from the ship but it seemed like an oasis of calm after the chaotic traffic.

Two of the buildings are museums with history and ethnology exhibits. I was most interested in a book where I was unable to tell whether the signs on it were writing or music. We got into conversation with one of the museum guides who told us that it was a very long epic poem called “La Galigo”. I didn’t catch the name of the script, but the guide said an Englishman called Ian Caldwell had written about it. Wikipedia came to the rescue later. The poem is a creation myth written in a language called Bugis and in a script called Lontara. I thought it looked very elegant.

La Galigo, poem in the Bugis language in lontara script

La Galigo, poem in the Bugis language in lontara script

Thank goodness it was easy to find a taxi back to the port. We tried without much success to do some e-mail in the (unfinished) new terminal. A local female security guard nipped behind us to take a selfie. Were we such a novelty? I suppose they don’t have too many cruise ships in Makassar.

Komodo Island

Today was a our big day. As soon as we booked this cruise, we forked out for an expensive, but not to be missed, tour of Komodo Island in the hope of seeing the dragon. We had to tender off the ship here again and arrived at a nice beach. There were some deer lounging on the beach (were they dragon food?)

We were in groups of about 20 people. Our group had 4 guides, all carrying forked sticks. We set off on a 2km walk around a bit of the island. It was very dry and the vegetation was mostly small trees. We went uphill for a short time to a viewpoint, then I sensed we were turning back towards the jetty. All we had seen of the dragon so far was what the guide described as a nest which looked like a very large alligator nest.

By now I was of course at the back of the group and in conversation with Harry the rear guide. He assured me that we would see a dragon and sure enough we came to a rather dry waterhole and four of them were lounging around.

Two Komodo dragons

Two Komodo dragons

They are about 3 metres long including their tails and have a nasty forked tongue which flicks around all the time. Opinions seem to vary about whether they can poison you. The guides threw things at the dragons to make them get up for the obligatory photos and Harry took some photos for me.

Visiting the dragons on Komodo Island

Visiting the dragons on Komodo Island

It seems that only about half the passengers on the ship did the tour, but in groups of 20 or so we were only able to watch the dragons for about 10-15 minutes.

Back near the beach there was a local market selling T-shirts etc. We were hassled a lot but then learned that there would not be another cruise ship until November – we were there in early September. We weren’t sure where all the T-shirts were stored. Martin thought perhaps there was a mastermind for all of it and the vendors just paid him for what they had sold.

We were soon back to the jetty and the lovely beach nearby where there were a few kids wanting to have their photos taken. We walked on the beach for a while. Plenty of small boats were moored close by. Martin walked a bit further towards the village and saw 2 more dragons right by some houses. I chatted to some of the guides. They were going back to the neighbouring island Flores, a journey of 4 hours in a local boat.

Is this the smallest boat ever? Komodo Island

Is this the smallest boat ever? Komodo Island

Later that day and the next day we sailed past Flores which has some wonderful volcanic scenery.

Dili, East Timor

This was our last port of call. Getting off the ship was another tender, and we arrived at what seemed like a small container terminal by the centre of the town. We decided to do our own thing in spite of P&O not recommending local taxis. The ship’s tour was very expensive and another passenger had told us that he knew somebody who went to Dili on business and that it was safe.

Not many cruise ships in Dili

Not many cruise ships in Dili

The only sight is Cristo Rei, a statue of Christ on top of a peninsula about 7 km from the town. We shared a taxi there with an Australian couple. Martin walked all the way to the top and one of our companions went most of the way up. Apparently there are well over 500 steps. I kept seeing the tour buses arriving at the base of the walk but they just turned round and went back. The taxi driver got rather agitated when we were there so long but he did wait to take us back.

Cristo Rei as we left Dili

Cristo Rei as we left Dili

The Australians decided to go back to the ship but we walked round for a bit. It was a Sunday and most things were closed. Plenty of people were sitting and/or playing in a park by the dock. They didn’t seem very interested in us. Most shops were closed and nobody tried to sell us anything.

Dili was something of a contrast from the towns we had seen in Indonesia. There were a lot of concrete buildings and fairly wide streets. It is a long thin place backed by mountains. More locals emerged by lunch time and we saw some small but brightly coloured buses, some with conductors hanging out looking for passengers.

After spending about 4 hours ashore I decided that this country falls into the ‘been there, tick it off the list’ category. At least they use US dollars and so we didn’t have to find an ATM.

Getting back on to the ship via the tender was a bit dodgy here as the sea wasn’t calm and we had to get on to the tender from a floating pontoon. The tender missed the small pontoon on the side of the ship the first time it tried to dock but the second attempt was fine. People had to be helped off.

Arriving in Australia

We had been on the ship almost a week before we discovered through our conversation with the Food and Beverage Director that 30 people were leaving the cruise at Darwin. Had we started this trend or were P&O just being difficult with Brits?

We had been wondering what would happen with Australian immigration but then found out that 3 Australian immigration officers were on a free trip to Dili and were doing immigration on the ship as it sailed to Darwin. There was no queue.

However, we were more than a little annoyed to be told that we must vacate our cabin by 7am and leave the ship by 8.30, when the ship was going to be docked at Darwin until early evening and we couldn’t check into our hotel until after lunch.

When we did get off, our baggage wasn’t where we were expecting it to be. When we did find it, we had to go through customs and quarantine. Fortunately the officer didn’t fancy spending too much time looking through a lot of dirty laundry.

Finally we had arrived in Australia. It was two weeks after we had left home and we had been on the ship for 10 nights (9 full days).


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