Beads of sweat were oozing from my back as though someone was slowly twisting and squeezing my spine like a sponge. Inside my tent, I lay naked on my mat with no sleeping bag or sheet, sand sticking to my moist skin like glue, a pool of perspiration forming under my sticky legs. The night air offered little relief from the 30 plus degree humidity and I longed for the faintest cooling breeze.
I’m a cold climate lover, used to layering up for long paddling journeys in Alaska, Patagonia and Antarctica. My skin is prone to allergies and heals slowly. Consequently, I arrived in tropical Indonesia with a deep fear of heat rashes and infected cuts. Unsurprisingly, I had soon slashed my skin on coral while mosquito bites had peppered my legs. A mild case of athlete’s foot between two toes took on a life of its own in the constantly wet and humid environment that was my kayak cockpit.
I was lucky, however, to be joining Sandy Robson, a long-distance paddler who has just finished a five-year journey from Germany to her native Australia. She’d spent the last eight months island hopping across Indonesia so was used to managing the heat, surf and culture. The 1,000km section I was paddling was in the far eastern reaches of Indonesia, characterised by steep hills covered in dense forest and fringed by mangrove swamps. Traditional tribes live all along the coast, surviving on fishing and farming. Papua is not on the tourist map and we both had to acquire special police permits just to be able to travel through the region.
Being a relative novice to paddling in such intense heat, I had made a few mistakes with kit. I wrongly decided that a baseball hat would be defence enough against the equatorial sun, but ended up grateful for a borrowed wide brim straw hat. My trusty Hilleberg tent that’s used to rebutting strong winds had too little venting and it was like sleeping in a sauna. Luckily, I was able to borrow a tarp tent that was mostly mesh so any puff of wind was welcome.
I brought a few options for clothing. I favoured my loose-fitting, long-sleeved shirt over my tighter vest with a pair of light board shorts. As long as I tucked my shirt under my spraydeck and prevented my skin contacting the seat or deck, I could avoid rashes. I brought wetsuit boots but it was too hot for neoprene so I went barefoot, donning shoes only on a tricky landing. My buoyancy aid was a lightweight variant with a mesh back. Specialist covers protected the back of my hands but the exposed tips of my fingers still got burned. Anti-malarial treatment, doxycycline, increases sensitivity to the sun and I was on a double dose to try to tame my athlete’s foot, but my digits throbbed so much that the pressure under my nails kept me from sleeping at night.
I learnt to decorate my many cuts with iodine, smearing myself with brown dots and stripes like war paint. The last 20 minutes before bed each night was spent cleaning scrapes and applying anti-itch, antibiotic, antiseptic and athletes foot cream to various body parts. I felt like I was in a constant battleground and could never let my guard down, but I learnt to cope with the challenges of the heat.
Most nights we landed in a village, in part because they occupy every sheltered bay. Small collections of modest wooden houses with fibre or tin roofs sit behind sandy beaches, fronted by rows of dug out canoes with flimsy looking outriggers. As we landed, people appeared from all directions, swarming around us like we were Queen bees. Grandmothers, fathers and children watched our every move, fascinated by the white women in red kayaks. Their stares weren’t intimidating; rather a healthy curiosity that worked both ways. Only the very small babies got scared, mistaking us for hantu (or ‘ghosts’). One small girl cried when her mother wanted to take a photo with us.
Usually someone offered to put us up in a house but we mostly chose to camp as the rooms had no protection against mosquitoes, and people’s curiosity was greater than their desire to give us privacy. We were always offered a mandi – a shower in which you pour a pot of water over yourself to wash – and we were often cooked for. Fried breadfruit, fried bananas in coconut oil or rice with fried fish. You could see the theme developing. Water was collected from local wells, then boiled to kill bugs, and we could buy a few basics foods like rice, warm Coke and cheap biscuits.
In one larger village, two chairs were set up in the shade and 40 people sat around us on the ground while we were brought coconuts and a local fruit called lansak. Villagers took it in turns to have their photo taken with us on their phones. While I loved the immersion in local culture, it was nonetheless exhausting to never be left alone.
Some 200km of my journey was along an exposed surf coast. A one-and-a-half metre swell from the northeast pounded a sandy shore, with not many nooks and crannies offering shelter. We had identified spots on Google Earth that could offer a ‘dry hair’ landing, but several times we had no choice but to paddle for 11 hours straight along a wave-battered coast, eating lunch and snacks while on the water.
One fateful evening, a week into the trip, it was clear that due to the water conditions, we weren’t going to make it to our intended destination of the village of Mega before dark, despite seeing its telephone tower and the brown cut of a dirt road scarring the hill less than ten kilometres ahead. Sandy said if she was by herself she wouldn’t land but would carry on eastwards in the dark until she found somewhere without surf, paddling through the night if she had to. However, I favoured running the gauntlet over risking colliding with waves in the dark and offered to go first and close in on the shore.
Each wave swelled and puffed up its chest as it approached the shallower water before breaking with a heart-stopping thump. The safety of solid ground was less than 100 metres away, but was guarded by an intimidating boat-and-body busting dumper. I sat just behind the break waiting for a good moment to sprint for land, hoping to jump out of my kayak before the receding water sucked me back out to sea. It went well, but as the sea started to rush back to the ocean, I realised I had landed on a reef and my kayak was being scraped over rock by the surging water. Looking back out to sea, Sandy looked tiny behind a foaming wall. I felt guilty, arrogant and a bit foolish. I knew she was wishing we’d carried on.
Eventually, my time in Indonesia would come to an end. My last evening was spent camping outside a small local house, crunching on fresh fried fish that was plucked from the sea and plunged straight into the frying pan. A single tree pulsated silently with fireflies, its bushy outline illuminated by hundreds of tiny flashing lights. The gentle chatter of insects soothed my ears while the sea lapping on the shore was barely discernible. My body had almost learnt to cope with the heat and my pink scars showed that my sores were healing up. It was warm, of course, but a comfortable warmth, not sticky and stifling like on some evenings. I could almost believe that I would be able to master this tropical paradise.
TEN OF THE BEST
Managing the heat is as crucial as navigating the choppy waves when mastering the waters of Indonesia. For Justine Curgenven that meant sun-resistant and waterproof clothing, a custom-built kayak designed for long-distance outings, adequate protection for the trip’s gear, and reliable communication equipment for dealing with the unreliable communication networks in the region…
Kaskazi Skua – £1,900; 22kg
There are few seakayaks in Indonesia so I was very lucky that locals in Raja Ampat manufacture fibreglass sea kayaks. Kayaks4Conservation makes kayaks for guided trips and kindly allowed me to take one for my journey. I called it the TARDIS, because it could swallow up gear. If we were given a huge papaya by locals, there was always room in the TARDIS!
Kokatat Paddling Shirt – £75; 240g
This UPF 30+ rated shirt has extended sleeve cuffs to protect the back of the hand, and a longer back to ensure coverage while seated in a kayak. The shirt has vertical shoulder vents for ventilation and a collar to keep the sun off your neck.
Kokatat Hand Covers – £28; 116g
These pieces of material protect the backs of your hands from the sun. They attach using two thin pieces of elastic over the fingers. Fingers and palms aren’t covered so you can grip the paddle shaft.
4. Waterproof bag
Ortlieb Aqua-Cam – £69; 500g
When you don’t know if a kayak is watertight, it’s important to have a waterproof bag for valuables. I’ve been using this for years and totally trust it to keep my passport and electronics dry.
5. Life jacket
Kokatat SeaO2 Buoyancy Aid – £199
This hybrid inflatable aid has enough inherent buoyancy to help keep me above the surface of the water, but I can triple the buoyancy by releasing the contents of a CO2 cartridge. Its mesh back and lower amount of foam paddling makes it comfortable in hot temperatures.
6. Sleeping mat
Exped Synmat Ultralight 9 LW – £89; 810kg
This compact mat is lightweight and easy to inflate, yet still offers comfort due to its three and a half inches of thickness.
Julbo Wave – £87; 35g
These polarised glasses have a protective skirt for eliminating spray, and they float if they fall off into the water. Tough and light, they protect your eyes fully in the hot Indonesian sun.
Ortlieb X-Tremer XXL – £85; 1.3kg
For this one-way trip, I had to carry everything I brought on the plane with me in the kayak, including my luggage bags. This 150-litre bag worked great for my check-in luggage, and it fit in the bow of my kayak when paddling. My hand luggage fit in the Aquapac 35L Wet & Dry Waterproof Backpack, which I used when walking around villages.
Mitchell Blades – £308
I used this British-made kayak paddle which offers a great mix of being lightweight and durable. They normally come as a two-piece paddle which comes apart in the middle. I had a four-piece paddle specially made for the journey with blades that could also come off for ease of transportation.
Iridium Extreme – £1,167 (plus monthly subscription); 247g
Phone calls and internet browsing are very cheap in Indonesia when you have a signal, but only the bigger villages have phone towers. We were regularly out of range for seven to ten days so it was useful to have a satellite phone to use for daily weather forecasts. This was crucial on a 55km crossing day – there were two stormy days which we waited out, thanks to knowing the forecast.
... Trek Bars and Munchy Seeds from the UK because it’s very hard to buy nutritious muesli bars and snacks in Indonesia. The chocolate-covered Munchy seeds became a solid brick, but still a highlight of the day!
This was published in the January 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.