Highlights of a caffeine-filled journey through Indonesia
(CNN) – Even after traveling extensively through Indonesia for more than two decades, I sometimes find it difficult to understand the true size and diversity of the largest island nation on the planet.
This is the world’s fourth most populous country (home to an estimated 10% of the world’s languages) yet many people will struggle to find Indonesia on the map.
Kopi dulu means “coffee first” in Bahasa Indonesia – which is used as the standard second language for the majority of Indonesians. For me, the phrase came to sum up the attitude of unhurried hospitality omnipresent among the unimaginable diversity of cultures that lie along this part of the Ring of Fire of the volcanic countries around the rim of the Pacific Ocean.
Whether Muslim, Hindu, Christian, or pagan, it sometimes seems that little happens without an initial “cup of java”. This worked well for me because I learned very early in my Indonesian travels not to rush; jam karet (rubber time) is another patriotic mantra that is a perfect antidote to the routine of our highly-scheduled Western lifestyle.
Where myth is indistinguishable from reality
I first visited Indonesia in 1995, led an expedition through central Borneo, and have since traveled on missions to all the major islands. I must have explored almost 100 or more undocumented islands and quite a few of the 12,000 that are officially classified as uninhabited even today.
Skeptics will tell you that there are no unexplored regions, but Indonesia offers a level of adventure that few countries can match. My cross-country travels have naturally taken over most of the popular tourist spots (including Borobudur Temple, Batak Highlands and Komodo) and a few sites that have become almost household names despite the fact that they see relatively few international travelers (Krakatua, Maluku’ Spice Islands, Borneo).
In Palasari, the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in a royal facade rises unexpectedly against the backdrop of a rolling forest.
You’ve surfed the fabled reefs of G-Land, Nias and Occy’s Left, and pioneered a wave like never before in the remote Alor archipelago.
I’ve researched orangutans and tigers tracked on Sumatra and talked to people in communities across the islands about the plethora of mythical creatures, spirits, and ghosts that seem to occupy every corner of this wonderful archipelago.
Indonesia Venetian cruisers
While island hopping through this sprawling chain of 13,466 islands, a lot of boat travel was of course essential.
The southeast coast of Sulawesi is still the traditional home of the Bugis, an ethnic group once famous for their terrifying pirates who, according to legend, brought the word “Boogie Man” to a million childhood nightmares.
Today, Bugis (and the Konjo people closely related to them) continue to build the majestic Sulawesi sailing chariots known as Phinisi.
Often these ships represent the only viable way for travelers to visit remote islands in Indonesia, and they are able to bring the benefits of tourism to isolated and underrepresented communities without leaving a lasting impact.
Moreover, there is an element of irresistible romance to be gained from exploring a chain of paradise islands under full sail with your bare feet on a warm teak deck.
Teluk Palu Festival in Sulawesi is an enchanting explosion of noise and colour.
I have explored parts of the Ring of Fire in a luxurious 65m Venetian called Lamima (the largest traditional Sulawesian sailboat ever built) but I have also often sailed in infinitely less healthy conditions.
Among these was a traditional fishing boat, which I rented to explore the Komodo Islands and tied a trapeze into the hold of a cargo boat on a six-day trip up the Kapuas River (the longest river in Indonesia, at 1,143 kilometers).
I’ve taken the riverboat trip to the real heart of Borneo three times over the past two decades and have come to think of Kapuas as the Indonesian Amazon.
Out of the way weary
Despite extensive logging and the destruction of oil palms, the rainforest outside the jungle town of Putosibao represents one of the world’s greatest jungle adventures. With guides from the local Dayan Dayak tribe – whose neighbors are notorious as mystics and witches – they have dried up canoes hidden in uncharted valleys near central Borneo in search of Kalimantan’s last rhinoceros.
Indonesia ranks second in terms of biodiversity on the planet (after Brazil) and boasts more mammal species than any other country in the world.
From wildlife markets in North Sulawesi, to tiger reserves in Sumatra to marine reserves in Wakatobi, I have been constantly reminded of the fact that nearly a quarter of Indonesia’s 667 mammals are listed as “threatened.”
By the time I got to the far eastern frontier in the Far East—in this case at the end of a trip to the Papua New Guinea border—I had traveled the equivalent of a road trip from Seattle to Tierra del Fuego or from Paris to Bangkok.
Thanks to the warm welcome I received in every community I was away from the weary road.
In fact, I wish I could take a “rubber time” and twist it around…then luckily I’d start the journey all over again.