Indonesia – The Sunda Straits
The Sunda Straits are almost unknown as a cruising destination in Indonesia, but the fascination with this sleepy passage began with a bang, when the volcanic island of Krakatau blew itself apart in 1883. What has been left behind is now a treasure trove of discovery for the more adventurous yachtsman
The Sunda Straits once rivaled the Straits of Malacca for their strategic importance, when Indonesia was a colony of the Dutch and Jakarta (then known to colonialists as Batavia) was the main entrepot for the Dutch East India Company. In 1883, the island of Krakatau, which lies in the middle of the straits, blew itself apart in one of the most ferocious volcanic events ever recorded. The remains of that eruption, in which the entire side of the island collapsed, pouring seawater over magma, was the object of my visit back in 2010.
Setting out from Anyer, a fishing village on the west coast of Java, we rented a small, handmade fiberglass boat that belonged to some fishermen to make the 25-nautical mile journey. The Sunda Straits separate Java from Sumatra, and are very tectonically active. They are also exposed to the Southern Ocean, which means it can get a little wavy, and our journey was indeed a bit rough for something that amounted to a beat-up tender.
The weather was also humid and hazy that day – we could not see our destination as we set off. But after reading so much about Krakatau and the eruption, I knew it was there and was eager to get on with the trip.
When the island of Krakatau erupted in 1883, it destroyed the original island, leaving only a fragment on the southern side, named Rakata, and two smaller islands to the north. Together, they formed the outer limits of an ancient, underwater caldera. By the 1920s, fishermen had returned to the area, drawn by the rich fisheries. And then, there was smoke and flame on the water; Krakatau had come back to life. The new island that was emerging broke the surface inside the caldera in 1930, and it was christened Anak Krakatau, or Child of Krakatau. In just over 70 years, the island has grown from just breaking the surface to over 350 metres high today – probably the fastest rate of geological change one can witness.
As we passed through the haze, Krakatau’s surrounding islands came into view. Rakata, the largest remnant, was the first we saw, then the others. Passing through a channel, we entered the caldera, and there was Anak Krakatau, steam vents on her flanks hissing noxious gases into the sky.
As we passed to the south of this baby volcano, we caught sight of the steep sides of the north face of Rakata. The cliffs had eroded, but I could not stop thinking about that final blast in 1883 that had lifted so much rock and ash over eighty kilometres into the sky. What looked like huge gouges in the rock could have been formed by the force of the blast, or could also have been the effects rockslides. Whatever they were, it was impressive as we slowly glided along near the base of the cliffs.
Turning north, we moved closer to the shores of Anak Krakatau. Along the western side of the island, the volcanic cone towered above ominously. The shore itself is extremely rough, with jagged black rocks that abut into the sea.
We continued around Anak Krakatau, until finally coming to a small anchorage on the southeast corner. Here, the waves had produced a beach of very fine, black volcanic sand. A primaeval forest has already sprung up on this sheltered piece of the island; this is a point of great interest to biologists keen to see how vegetation spreads into new terrain. The beach itself was amazing to walk on – the black sand felt like talcum powder underfoot. There is a beautiful sweep to Anak Krakatau’s new beach, as it forms a c-shape around the island’s southeastern point.
When the volcano is not erupting (it grows at a rate of seven metres per year), visitors can take the short hike up to a ridge that shoulders onto the main volcanic cone. It is from this vantage point that you can see the scale of the colossal eruption of 1883 – an estimated 21 cubic kilometres of rock and ash were blown into the sky. Looking from the ridge to Rakata, you know that everything in between was launched sky high in one blast.
As we alighted our little boat for the trip back to the West Java coast, we bade farewell to this bizarre place. I was expecting the same churning seas that we had encountered on the way out that morning. Instead, the sea state had become like glass – so quiet that it was almost disturbing, as though something was about to happen.
At the time, I thought that this would be a tremendous charter destination. Who wouldn’t want to explore such a place, but with the ability to overnight in comfort? Paul Dean, a charter captain in Indonesia for years, is putting together a charter service out of Bali, but he describes Krakatau, and the Sunda Straits, as a charter destination waiting to happen. Dean also happens to be putting together his own charter fleet, and hopes to offer charters into Sunda at some point soon.
The ebullient Australian notes that almost no one, apart from surfers, visits the area. Yet, there are some truly remarkable places that could form the basis of a fascinating week-long cruising itinerary. Out of Old Jakarta (Batavia), one could first stop at the Thousand Islands, a series of coral atolls that are now a playground for Indonesia’s growing wealthy elite. From there, the Sunda Straits are but a short hop.
The islands and bays of South Sumatra are “interesting cruising”, Dean says. There are places of karst rock formations, small fishing villages and white sand beaches. “There’s a lot to explore in there.”
Heading south from the Sumatran coastline, one finds the islands of Sebuku and Sebesi. Sebesi, the larger of the two islands, is inhabited; Sebuku is not, and it contains several beautiful anchorages. From here, it is a short, seven nautical mile hop to the islands of Rakata and Anak Krakatau. These are a delight for the budding naturalist or volcanologist, or anyone interested in exploration.
Heading south from Anak Krakatau, the next step is a 40-nautical mile jaunt down to the very southwestern tip of Java, and one of the world’s natural jewels, the Ujung Kulon National Park. This park is a triangle shaped island that is joined to the West Java coast by a small isthmus, just one kilometer wide in places. Just to the northwest of the park are two islands, Panatian and Peuchang Islands. For the visitor to these places, 1883 is a blessing in disguise.
The effects of the Krakatau eruption were devastating throughout the Sunda Strait. Over 35,000 people were estimated to have been killed in the blast, which caused a tsunami, some 40-metres high in places, wiping away human settlements. In the land that is now the Ujung Kulon National Park, there were plenty of settlements. Now, the peninsula and the islands are deserted.
One of the first creatures to move back onto the peninsula after the eruption was the Javan Rhinoceros, one of the world’s most endangered species. This rhino, which once roamed throughout Southeast Asia, has been hunted to near-extinction. The Ujung Kulon is the last refuge for the Javan Rhino, of which there are only hundreds left. Such is the state of preservation that one finds in this park and the surrounding shorelines.
Leopards, wild dogs (dhole), fishing cats, Javan mongeese and several types of primates are to be found roaming this jungle, much of which has grown back to its original state. Green turtles are also found nesting within the park.
The peninsula is dominated in the southwest by a massif, while to the northeast corner, there are the low rolling hills of the Telanca Plateau. The north coast is home to corals. Just offshore lie coral reefs.
According to Dean, the best anchorage is at Tanjung Lesung Beach, a spot just north along the west Java coastline from the park. Here, guests can wade ashore and enjoy the very-laid back hospitality of Indonesia. Much of the area has become a hot spot for the surfing community, many from Australia. From here, guests can arrange for transport to the park for onshore excursions.
For yachts wanting to anchor nearer the park’s shoreline, Dean recommends a spot between Peuchang Island and the Peninsula. Here, there is a channel with a sandy bottom that’s big enough for yachts up to 300 feet to anchor. Nearby, rivers offer guests the chance to venture inland by tender in waters that harbor crocodiles, and that also offer the chance to spot a rare rhino.
Panaitan Island, a few nautical miles northwest from the park, is a surfer’s paradise, with several liveaboards offering trips to the U-shaped beaches that face the Southern Ocean. To the north of the island, one finds safer anchorages. The island is populated with monitor lizards and other and reportedly shelters Hindu relics from an empire that existed over 1500 years ago. An effort by an Australian explorer to reach the summit of Mount Raksa on Panaitan was shot down owing to the thick vegetation, so the mystery remains.
Indonesia is a nation beholden to its geology, in particular its tectonic plates. There are so many volcanoes in this country that they dominate skylines and the lives of the people. The eruption of Krakatau in 1883 laid waste the coastlines of the Sunda Straits. But what visitors can find there today is incomparable and fascinating.