Nali Tasih III - 2000
There’s a pre-dawn drizzle falling on Padangbai, the bustling ferry port on the east coast of Bali in Indonesia as I watch two craft prepare to leave the harbour.
One is a rust-streaked ferry that’s been noisily loading trucks and passengers for the past hour, the other is a small raft I built from 24 lengths of bamboo tied to six curved tree branches with the twisted bark of the nipa palm. The contrast between the two craft seems ludicrous, but to me they represent bookends containing between them the story of humanity’s progress and its conquest of the sea.
In the 1950s, Dutch seminarian and amateur archaeologist Theodor Verhoeven found evidence that 800,000 years ago, an early human species and an elephant-like creature called a ‘stegadont’ lived on the nearby island of Flores. The hominins were Homo erectus, the remains of whom had previously only been found in Africa and on Java in the days when it was attached to Bali. Verhoeven thought the mammals had trekked their way to Flores across that land bridge and another one joining Bali its neighbouring island of Lombok when sea levels were much lower than today.
Verhoeven was wrong. In human times the islands were never joined. The elephants had swum across the 32-kilometre wide Lombok Strait en route to Flores. And by crossing this imposing, 1,200 metre deep channel which demarks the famous Wallace Line, biogeographically separating Asia from Oceania – on my humble, 11 x 3 metre bamboo raft, I was hoping our First Mariners team would show that this is how Homo erectus managed the feat as well. Following his lunch? Most likely. Paddling with the early First Mariner crew including Rupert Ridgeway, Mark Levinson, David Stokes and scientific adviser Robert Bednarik, would be seven Balinese fishermen. It is our second attempt at the crossing; the first failed when a southerly storm flew us off course halfway across the strait.
The Lombok ferry muscles its way through the narrow channel and out into open water. Our exit is now clear. It is still raining but the strait is calm. If there’s a breeze we’ll hoist what we believe represents the world’s first sail. . . a bundle of palm fronds loosely woven together and propped up by three lengths of bamboo. There’s no wind but a strong current pushes us north. Although we are optimistically pointed at Lombok – a hazy lump on the horizon – we are soon speeding sideways along the pretty northeast coast of Bali. We chew on chunks of boiled sweet potato for energy and after two hours of steady drifting and paddling a faint following breeze pops up so we raise the palm fronds increasing our speed even more.
Individually we have larger brains than Homo erectus, but not the muscle power, as indicated by 800,000 year old fossils found on Java which showed that they were physically more robust than we Homo sapiens. This realisation becomes more disturbing as the day wears on and our muscles begin to burn with fatigue. One of the Balinese lies exhausted and vomiting at the stern. After eight hours of paddling we’re still heading north, getting closer to some islets that lay off Lombok’s north-western tip. We often run into tidal flurries with short, choppy seas which completely arrest our progress. Ten hours out of Padangbai we begin to make proper headway. Lombok is ahead, it’s 3,700m Mount Rinjani towering above us. Our destination is so enticingly close we can make out individual clumps of trees and grass. But our sideways drift is still faster than our forward movement and we are being forced into the Java Sea.
Our despair is almost complete when a faint puff of wind turns us toward Lombok. The breeze comes on a little stronger and we raise our heavy, waterlogged palm leaf sail which is now in tatters. The wind strengthens and the paddlers begin to dig with a new life. The wind will not last, but an hour is enough; we are already in the shelter, the lee, of Lombok and the raft shoots over the calm sea leaving a curling wake behind us.
Our voyage proved it was possible for humans to reach Lombok across the treacherous Lombok Strait – across the famed Wallace Line – on what is arguably the most primitive of all boats. But a boat it is. And those were aboard were sailors; seafarers. Research, science has taught us that such a thing happened nearly a million years ago, and that this stretch of water was the only sea barrier the nomadic early humans encountered on their trek from Africa.
So it logically follows that these people, probably following their antique elephants and other game which could swim, became our planet’s first seafarers, its first mariners. And that, precisely, was our intention.