Nali Tasih II
Undaunted and even heartened by the fact that the grossly unfavourable El Nino weather conditions weren’t predicted for a second round at the end of the year, we started in on the development of Nale Tasih II. We had learned valuable lessons during the brief life of Nale Tasih I which we would incorporate in the raft’s replacement for a second attempt to cross the Timor Sea.
Such endeavours don’t come cheaply. The crew were self-funded but there the ‘free ride’ stopped. The first attempt was funded entirely from a timely inheritance by Bob Hobman’s Dutch partner Silvia Schliekelman, but attempt #2 would be a strictly bare-bones affair. The raft building would be on the Timorese mainland where materials were cheaper and easier to secure and transport than on Pulau Rote. The raft would also be smaller. We still had the sails and rigging, bamboo and mangrove stump water containers, fishing spears and other painstakingly produced equipment. We had lost our European maritime architects so hopes were up that a more successful design would emerge from consultations with the Rotinese seafarers we were now intimately connected with; our popularity with the local community of Oeseli memorialised by the naming three babies after us – that is a Silvia and two Bobs.
It might seem that a raft in these regions is nothing but some lengths of bamboo tied together with string, a protuberance at the stern to steer it and a structure on top to protect its crew from rain or sun. But this is not so. The message that we seize every opportunity to get across when justifying our efforts to repeat these historic nautical events, is that no matter how long ago it was when they happened, and no matter how archaic were the protagonists, they weren’t land people any more. No. They were experienced sailors and fishermen and boat builders. And even if their boats were technically rafts, they were constructed with as much sophistication and trial and error as their modern equivalent would apply to a modern ship.
We were not listening to European ideas any more, not when we were surrounded by a community of men and women who empathised with and made a living from the sea much as they had done since the islands of Wallacea were populated some 70,000 years ago. Not long before we built our thatch hut to live amongst them on Rote, there were still no motors for their self-made dugout canoes and bamboo raft fishing platforms.
No matter where they are, sea people tend to stay within traditional parameters of fishing techniques and sound, tried and true boat designs. It is after all the weather and sea conditions that determine the practicability and seaworthiness of a vessel in which humans will constantly risk their lives. So we sat with them, and it was easier to build ‘Nale Tasih II’ because they now knew what its purpose would be and were prepared to reach back into ancestral memory banks for direction. It was at that time we learned that until World War II, not even two generations back, Rotinese and Timorese traders would exchange their goods on passenger-carrying bamboo rafts across the most narrow part of the separating channel which must be seven or eight kilometres across and usually with a considerable cross current running one way or the other.
The ‘advisers’ also came up with the ancient technique of building a raft suspended between forked crutches dug into the sand. This way it was possible to crawl under the bamboos during the lashing process, and when it was finished and the tide came in, the whole thing could be lowered and pushed into deep water without the bark fibre lashings rubbing against the sand or shingle. Simple stuff, and practical. Of course one had only 14 days from high tide to high tide to have the work finished, and they did it with time to spare.
So on a deserted, gently sloping beach 14 kilometres from Kupang, the noisy, dusty capital of the eastern islands, we had our new model ‘Nale Tasih II.’ It looked and felt a lot more sea kindly than the great pontoon disaster of eight months earlier, now fuelling the cooking fires of Oeseli kitchens on the south coast of Pulau Rote. We had some help to move it to Kupang’s harbour for the finishing touches, and after having it double blessed by a Hindu-Bali ‘Pemangku’ and a Christian Pastor, we were ready to tackle the Timor Sea. And not a Ben Hur-sized crew this time. Bob Hobman was captain, Zakawerus Jacobus (Om Mberu) from Siladen Island near Manado, Sulawesi and Emmanual Filipus (Om Ife) from Rote were the crew. Peter Rogers, a cameraman for the Australian documentary production company allegedly making a film of the voyage, also had crew duties. And there was our scientific adviser passenger, Robert Bednarik, a diligent researcher into Pleistocene seafaring and prodigious contributor to scientific journals on the subject.
We set off with the prevailing northwest monsoon wind behind us to steer a fairly straight course towards the northern Australian capital of Darwin some 650 kilometres away a few degrees south of east. Five days and 90 kilometres later we would reach the edge of Australia’s shallow continental shelf which until about 6,000 years ago was still exposed. This would have been the unseen landfall for the seafarers heading for Sahul Land some 65,000 years ago.
By reaching the ancient Sahul Land which once included Papua New Guinea and Tasmania, our mission to repeat mankind’s first significant ocean voyage had succeeded. But we weren’t entirely convinced that the original seafarers all that time ago – as capable and familiar with the sea as they surely were – would have had the advantage of our somewhat advanced sail rig. And there were some other aspects of the project that we felt lacked authenticity.
The sail cloth material was from the shredded spine of the nipa palm, but woven by Rotinese women on a ‘back strap’ loom which is a Neolithic innovation. The sail was hung from a fixed tripod bamboo mast and controlled by rattan and palm fibre ropes, in a combination we later declared far too sophisticated for the period of the first human occupation of Australia. It was widely broadcast via our scientific adviser’s contributions to academic papers, that stone tools were in daily use throughout the project and especially during the voyage, but this is not true. Although we did live primarily on speared fish and boiled foxtail millet, the cooking fire was lit by wooden matches and the Indonesian crew’s gas cigarette lighters.
Some 13 days of largely unspectacular sailing, save the severe line squalls, broken booms and heavy seas threatening to break the raft in two about midships, we were 150 kilometres from Darwin when a storm of some considerable force pushed us toward the crocodile infested southern shore of Melville Island. Concerned for the ultimate safety of the crew and the fact that scientist Bednarik had never learned to swim, Hobman called for assistance and the crew were taken off the raft by a passing oil rig tender and delivered to Darwin.
The raft – rather embarrassingly as it turned out – carried on by itself and ended up stranded on a lonely Melville Island beach where we rescued it some days later and towed it into Darwin Harbour where it spent an ignominious and expensive three days inside a vermin eradication tent. But things would get worse. Its destiny as a permanent display at a private museum was then thwarted by the Australian Government whose Department of Fisheries accused the vessel of importing the invasive ‘Zebra Mussel’ into the city’s upmarket marina and the complicit local government ordered its destruction by a Viking-like burning at sea. The tiny but prolific crustacean which was the cause of ‘Nale Tasih’s II’s’ demise, was a later discovered to be a native of California and unknown to Asia. It had been carried to Darwin, Australia, clinging to the hull of a small yacht with an American flag.
It was an inglorious end to a gallant craft – stable, seaworthy and a credit to Om Ife, the Rotinese who supervised its construction and his eight-strong team of Lusiana Beach fishermen.