A day at sea after Bali and an overcast one, it is the rainy season in this region and our day, as we transited the Java Sea, was interspersed with heavy showers and thunderstorms. We were heading for Ujang Pedang, on the island of Sulawesi, the port in question being Makassar. Thirty miles away from the coast, there are numerous islets and sandbanks and we basically have 1 route that we can take; the other channels are too narrow and too shallow for the Amsterdam. Added to this is the comforting notation that the recognised channel for us is ‘swept’ and when one consults the charts, the disconcerting notation of ‘former minefield’ covers the remainder of the area; ‘swept’ inferring that they are cleared from our intended path. This, presumably, refers to those days of the 1940’s when the Japanese occupied the area.
Makassar is a ‘working’ port, cargo ships lie at anchor in the roads and we have to wait for a small car-carrier to depart before we can enter. We berth on what is presumably the ferry terminal on a stifling hot and muggy day. There is a cargo ship astern of us, unloading fishmeal and if any of you have had experience of such a product, you will know when I refer to it a ‘pungent.’ Fortunately, the prevailing wind blows most of the smell away from us, however the occasional ‘whiff’ comes our way and is sucked into the Amsterdam’s air-conditioning, reminding us that we are not far away.
If I were asked to describe Makassar, I would say it was “different”. The city is obviously not on the tourist path, no-one speaks English and the streets are littered with rubbish and potholes. Guests seemed to either go on a tour, or jump in a taxi and find one of the shopping areas. Departure for me (and I think the majority on board) cannot come fast enough and having let go our lines, we make a quick exit and retrace our courses through the swept channel to the open sea.
The 5th and 6th are days at sea, on our way towards Puerto Princessa, on the island of Palawan. We cross the equator on the 5th and thus have the opportunity to initiate those young souls into the rites of King Neptune’s domain. When I did so, in the mid-70’s, it was on a cargo ship with 12 fellow cadets and an officer cadre which deemed it suitable to shave ones head, cover us with putrid and foul-smelling substances, the origin of which one dared not enquire. It took several days and innumerable baths and showers to remove whatever ‘it’ was. The Amsterdam’s ceremony pales into insignificance when compared with that one, however great fun was had by all and that, as they say, is the crux of the matter. It took place around the lido pool; King Neptune himself, his wife and the Judge, (who read the ‘crimes’ that the initiates had carried out), surgeons and nurses were there to carry out the sentence, after the initiates had “kissed the fish”. The ship’s staff were present, they having to decide whether the initiates, once they had been on the surgeon’s table, could clean it all off by a plunge in the pool, or worse, stay out of the pool until the ‘sentencing’ was complete.
I am now writing from Puerto Princesa, in the Philippines and what a delightful surprise it is too. Coming into a sheltered bay, the ‘pilot’ boarded by a canoe with out-riggers, the maximum speed of which was 3 knots…….As we approached the berth, the pier was crowded with market stalls, dancers, singers and a whole host of others. A massive ‘boom box’ was issuing forth music and flags were being waved everywhere. Once the gangway was in, each disembarking guest was presented with a necklace of welcome.
Most of our guests have gone on a spectacular tour, The Puerto Princesa Subterranean National Park, a UNESCO world heritage site. Our guests are privileged, as some of the caves which are not normally open to the public, have been opened for them. They will glide through the caves in canoes for 2 miles on the underground river; I am envious, however unable to go as it is over 2-hours drive away. Hopefully I will have some photos to show you at a later time.
Soon I have the mayor and dignitaries arriving, to present me the keys of the city, as this is our first call here. Later, we leave for Manila, where we have 1,700 family members coming to join their family on board for the day, we have lots of happy, smiling faces already.
Jonathan Mercer is Amsterdam’s captain.