Freediving with the Bajau


After a turbulent boat ride, I found myself climbing on the planks on stilts based on the coral reef. These were the streets of Sampela, the village where the sea nomads have settled. P., my host, smiled and immediately showed me the hut I would live in: two rooms, one mattress and one lamp, and a toilet that had direct connection to the sea. If you step heavily on the thin planks you can also find yourself in the sea. P. runs this business since he is one of the few who can speak English.

“Do you want beers?” He says, “My wife and child are going to the shore to bring water.”I nod yes. I explore my hut.


“How big is your village P.?”
trying to start a conversation. “about 500 people… There are two other Bajau villages nearby” (Bajau population is currently estimated at 800,000, most of which now live permanently in villages).

“All the villages are over the sea?”

“Of course,” he says, “You know, Bajau don’t like mosquitoes.”

“And there are no mosquitoes here?” “For mosquitoes to come there must be plants. You cannot find plants over the sea!”

“Do you live all year in the village?” “My father goes for months at a time on large fishing boats, but I think it’s not worth it.” “Have you travelled to anywhere, for example to Java?” “Yes,” he says, “I’ve been to Germany. A German TV channel made the expenses! A guy came to shoot a documentary in Sampela. And then, he invited us to Munich, me as an expert swimmer and a veteran Bajau as an expert freediver. “” How did you find Germany? ” “Cold,” he tells me. P. does not waste his words.

I started a reconnaissance walk. “Step at the centre of each board, which has support, otherwise it may be rotten and you fall.”


Bajau children were amongst the happiest you’ll meet
Where there’s people, there’s cats


Village is expanding fast


Some Bajau, mostly women, put a rice cream on their faces for sun protection

With a bunch of kids following me, we reach the courtyard of the mosque where small kids kick a ball. Yes, there is even mosque on the reef! P. told me they are all Muslims, but not too passionate, I realised from the context.

P. arrives and shows me around: “Here’s the school.” “Oh, yes, I’ve heard about it. The children of Hoga come here with the boat.” He lowers his head, “Do you see these beers in the school yard? You get the idea… “. We arrive at the football pitch the Dutch lady H. built in the most central point of the village. The court is small and they play footvolley, picking up occasionally the ball from the sea. P. proudly recommends to his teammates the Greek, who however proved to be a poor representative of the football of his country.


Education of the kids is focused more on fishing, using baby spear guns

Next day there was a spear gun waiting outside my door. We were going to catch daya (Bajau word for fish), after a short visit to sign the village’s guestbook. Together with one of P.’s friends, we rode the boat to the coral between Sampela and Hoga. There, I became a witness to the Bajau underwater fishing technique. Majestic seen from above.




The technique is learned by every male Bajau from the first moments of his life since the tradition is to throw babies into the sea until someone dives to save them. Here a Bajau filmed for a BBC documentary:

P.’s friend gives me the spear gun to try my luck. A few minutes later and some unsuccessful attempts, I hear noise from the surface and P.’s friend grabbing my spear gun and hiding it under the coral. We go out, to see a boat next to ours and P. talking to two guys. A chubby one with glasses, not very comfortable being on a boat, and another one with rough features. “You,” says the second, “What are you doing with the speargun here? Don’t you know it’s a national park? “. All eyes on me. “I was snorkeling,” I lied, to save myself, but also not to put P. into trouble. Bajau is a very marginalised society, completely dependent on fish, which have become scarce because of the large fishing boats. P. opened the holds and showed that we have neither spear guns nor fish. “We saw you with the binoculars” said the spectacled one. “And in order to snorkel here, you have to get a ticket for the National Park.” Again, I was surprised. “The ticket…..”. “Get off to the shore” he said angrily.

The closest land was Hoga. The tide had begun to rise, and so we had to leave the boat and walk with P. a 500 meter distance in the water. A shameful walk. We found the two guys chatting with the Dutch lady H. while the bungalow residents were observing with curiosity. After some discussions, H. proposed a compromise: we’ll pay for the ticket, the pricing of which had become a bit creative, so that everyone realises it was a misunderstanding.


Back to the boat, we searched underwater for the spearguns and found them. P., who was both apologetic and angry with the water police, began telling me a story from his student years in Kentari. Some people were bullying him, because he did not smoke (indeed, P. must be the only Indonesian I knew how doesn’t smoke) and two machetes had appeared. “These conflicts never end up well” he concludes, showing me a scar in his leg.

P. had caught a fish. “Do you eat sushi?”, with a knife he cuts the raw fish into bits. He ate one, put another in his hand and offered it to me. “Try it.” It was not bad, with all this walking in the water I was hungry. “You are on the right track to become a Bajau,” he tells me and we laugh.

My time with the Bajau was soon over.



Finding those who live over the sea

Weighting up my alternatives, after the boat cancellation, it was clear I had to retrace part of my journey by air, since there were no direct flights from Komodo to the island of Sulawesi (Celebes). Both options, via Bali or via the city of Surabaya in Java were equally expensive for a last minute fare, and I chose the latter in order to avoid disruption from tourists evacuating Bali after the earthquake. My first flight at 10:35 with Lion Air was canceled and we were moved to the 13:50 flight, along with a meal of consolation. This is when I had that discussion about Euphrates river.


Lion Air’s prayer sheet proves the diversity of Indonesian religions.

Once in Makasar, the capital of Sulawesi, I spent half of the next day admiring the surreal promenade called Pantai Losari and the Dutch colonial remnants of Fort Rotterdam. Speaking a few Indonesian words apparently saved me a few rupiahs, since the officer decided to offer me with the discounted ticket for the locals. On the other hand, a local tour guide managed to take my whatsapp and flood it in with messages about day long trips and pictures of ‘unmissable’ places.

Pantai Losari, looking at a mosque under construction opposite
Fort Rotterdam, the well-preserved centre of Dutch colonial command

My entrance to Wakatobi islands was the airport of Wangi-Wangi. The name Wa-ka-to-bi comes from the first letters of the four islands: Wangi-Wangi, Kaledupa, Tomia and Binongo. Odd! My target was the second island, Kaledupa, and since the speedboats departed only in the morning, I had to stay one night in Wanci, the capital of Wangi-Wangi. This is probably the biggest disadvantage for tourists traveling to this place: you need two extra nights, one in each direction.

Wanci, however has its charms. A busy night market full of fish and figures moving in the dark. The local girls were unusually direct and flirty for this part of the world. The only other Westerner appeared next to me only for a moment, to help me buy some fruit using his Indonesian. On my way to the harbor, the next day, I even spotted a demonstration. “Local authorities are rubbish”, said my moto-taxi driver. This place was definitely different from the touristy places I’ve seen in the first 20 days.

Plenty of fish in Wanci night market
Map of the islands

Once in Kaledupa, I stayed in a Dutch lady G.’s bungalows in a tiny island off the coast called Hoga. On the way I teamed up with Italo-Lebanese-Briton A. and his Moroccan girlfriend I. and a mellow retired music teacher from Queensland J. Initially there was no free bungalow for J. but general manager and excellent cook local lady V. found a solution, but moving around some of the staff. One doesn’t want to sleep in the beach with the small Komodos – in fact small monitor lizards – strolling around. Enchanted by the isolation and tranquility of this place and the hospitality of the Dutch and Indonesian ladies, I decided to spend a few more nights there. I even did a few more dives in the waters that Jacques-Yves Cousteau described as “underwater Nirvana” and the best to dive in the world.

Approaching Hoga
Hoga resort had the essentials you need


Small monitor lizards hiding under the bungalow

The people of the sea, called Bajau, arrived on the second morning for the Dutch lady’s birthday. They barely set a foot in the land, but instead did some boat racing to honour their beloved benefactor. G. had recently made them a football pitch in their village on stilts and was constantly helping them with their troubles. They are literally her children. G. herself when younger had sailed these waters, fell in love with the sea gypsies and the beauty of the place and when she later received a heritage she decided to come back and build this business. Even the local dignitaries were here today. Of course, running a business as a foreigner in Indonesia is not made easy by the Indonesian law, and G. had a few interesting stories to say on her relationship with the authorities.

Gathering for the Bajau boat race
Celebrating with the local dignitaries

In this occasion I met a Bajau looking around 20 years old, though it was hard to be sure. He spoke some English, but remained distant. I asked him what he was doing, he thought for a while, and glancing at his friends, said, “spear fishing”. Then I asked him what music he liked and again after looking at his friends, he said laughing, “Suka Musik Jawa” (not sure if that was a type of music or just said “I like the music of Java”). I noted down his name, S.

The second Bajau I met was D.. About 20, he had just received the diploma of diving instructor. Seemed strange because the Bajau are traditionally free divers, but an excellent job opportunity nevertheless. He was my faithful diving partner. We never exchanged a single word, but his sweet smile and respect made him the ideal companion.

I met some wonderful tourists in Hoga, visited the only village of the tiny island, consisting of a dozen wooden huts and children playing with the mud, discovered the haunted buildings of an abandoned NGO, listened to the strange sounds of the jungle. Then, I decided it was time to break the spell that holds me in this island, and I got G. to arrange for a Bajau to pick me up. Shortly after the morning boat with pupils from the island left for the Bajau village, where there is a school, I also jumped on the boat of my new Bajau hosts

The school boat taking children of Hoga to the Bajau village school


Approaching the village in the middle of the sea

Underwater bliss and overland catastrophe

The diving crew aboard the ship

Let’s meet the gang.

– H., a vivid character, from the deep interior of Flores island, who has completed thousands of dives. He was our teacher.

– V., newly arrived from London, who, like me, has made 0 dives. He was my trustful diving partner.

– An Englishman who learned scuba in Colombia (cheap) and wanted to update his diving skills.

– Many Dutch people, mostly unrelated, but all from Nijmegen. The fact that the lady who owned the diving business was also from Nijmegen must have something to do with it. Among them, a family with three generations of divers: grandfather, dad, daughter. They had some pretty awesome audiovisual recording equipment, which we, inept newbies, put into risk with our careless use of soap in the communal washing bucket.

Pre-dive briefing

We were going to do our dive in the waters of Komodo island. I never dreamt of doing scuba diving. In fact, just a few weeks before this trip I was looking at photos of the so-called Coral Triangle, and in fear of missing out I enrolled in a scuba indoors course in Birmingham. However, the first breath underwater and the feeling of flying, when learning to be buoyant, is something I will never forget.

H., beyond the standard skills, demonstrated some special gestures when we see specific animals, e.g. to raise your hands as if praying when you get encircled by the giant Manta Ray. We took this seriously with V. and applied it obedientlyonly to become a laughing stock when we returned at the boat. We realised we have fallen for H.’s half prank. This is also when we realised that this activity is much more than diving. The spirits are always high and the jokes aplenty. V. and I were satisfied with our achievements. The Englishman was more focused on the spectacle of a lady changing clothes on the windy deck. The Nijmegen people were happy to explain us everything about their city. And H. was the happiest of all, meeting so many cool people from all over the world.



After 4 dives in 2 days I wrote in my logbook:

First dive: Turtle, cuttlefish

– Second dive: Turtle, big manta ray

– Third dive: Huge turtle detaches from rock and surprises me from underneath

– Fourth dive: Many turtles, colourful coral and many fish

The girl next to me had written four pages.

One of the crew was an English marine biologist who was training as a diving instructor. I noticed that coming out of the boat at the port, he gave his equipment to another and started walking inconspicuously away from us. Then I learned that as a foreigner in Indonesia, it’s extremely hard to get a work visa, and those we choose to work are in constant fear of deportation. Unless you are married to a local, that is.

The port of Labuan Bajo, Flores

From Labuan Bajo, the port town of Flores that serves Komodo, I rented a motorbike and started driving to the interior of Flores. So much to see in this big island. The cave where they found the Homo Floresiensis, the Hobbit man. The coloured lakes of Ende at the Kelimutu volcano. The traditional Manggarai villages, a 1000-year-old civilization with mythical roots. But one needs to be aware of the distances.

After a cold 4 hour ride, a punctured wheel, and some wrong turns I was glad to reach at least the famous spider web rice fields. These ‘pieces of pie’ structured fields are distributed between community members, in an original form of collective agriculture. I saw many Christian churches – Flores is an anomaly in a predominately Islamic country. And the people of Flores… one offering me to come for a coffee and meet his mother, another riding with me along the way, kids jumping on the motorbike.




Paradoxically a tire repair shop was 200 meters down the road from the point of puncture.


Spider-web rice field near Ruteg, Flores

When back to Labuan Bajo, I received a text message. A 7 Richter quake had taken place in Lombok. And this time it was complete destruction. 500+ dead, thousands of tourists gathering in the open fields waiting for rescue, many loosing their luggage when roofs had collapsed, landslides in mount Rinjani killing two climbers, tsunamis. Of course we were in a safe distance, but the news from the text message meant that my boat to Sulawesi was canceled, participating in the Lombok rescue operation. Now my plan to find the sea gypsies of Sampela was in danger.


Two days sail for the dragon

Sailing towards Komodo

Entering the small boat was a bit like entering Big Brother’s house. Dutch siblings E. and S. were the first to greet me, expressing their sympathy for the great fire of Athens earlier that summer. 30+ passengers and crew will spend the next two days and three nights in a very confined space, some sleeping on the decks and some in the tiny cabins. I slept, together with a group of Danes and Germans, on the floor of the lower deck. This was the place where the sleepless came to smoke cigarettes, which, together with the smell of the engine, the changes in temperature and the rocking of the waves had an adverse effect on our sleep. The Danish couple next to me had to deal also with the invasion of water that fell frequently onto their heads. It was a relief when dawn broke and we found ourselves on the calm waters next to a small island.

Our meals were tasty – if only there were no waves to upset our stomachs
Our sleeping spots
Waking up next to the round island, Satonda

The crew started preparing the food while we climbed the well trodden path up the small hill. At the top the view was breathtaking: the whole interior of the island is a salt lake, surrounded by wooded hills. Among the trees there was a megapode nest, a small mount one meter tall, which unusual birds like chickens with huge legs build gradually from sticks and leaves to bury their eggs. The new family member grows all its adult functions before hatching from the egg, unless first eaten by a Komodo dragon which considers them a delicacy (sweet aren’t they, Komodos?).

Megapode nest

We spent the evening on a beach of Subawa – the big island between Lombok and Komodo – cooking corn on a campfire while observing the local fishermen. One of them, raggedy and scraggy, approached us, and we took a picture together. His sober expression remained the same, his English non-existing, a reminder of how isolated we were. On the way back to our boat …magic: the sea was sparkling. Bioluminescent plankton or fish, who knows what, put on a farewell party, perhaps to make up for the locals’ lack of interest. On the ship, some of us laid on the upper deck staring at the sky. With a complete absence of light sources around, the stars of the Southern Hemisphere and the planets were a feast: Mars, Saturn, Scorpius, Lyra, Sagittarius, the Southern Cross

Fishermen of Sumbawa
One of the locals posed for us
A pitch dark night

The goal of the next day was to spot the infamous ‘dragons’ of Komodo. They only live in these islands and are the largest surviving lizard on the planet. Their ancestors chased Aborigines in Australia and spanned 7 meters. The contemporary ones reach a maximum of 3 meters and 70 kilos and chase deer and tourists who enter without permission, as instructed by the ranger in charge of protecting us as we climb the first hills of Komodo island.

I am walking with a Canadian, K., former hockey player, talking about another type of hunt, that of on-line dating. Naturally, in these occasions, one is looking for just the right adventure photo to put on his Tinder profile. Luck did not seem to be on our side. Every time the ranger or his assistant left to sneak into the spots frequented by Komodos, he returned disappointed. Then, when we have almost reached end of our path, somebody shouts “here’s a small one” and we all start to run towards him. There we meet a group of tourists, who tell us that they just saw the “mum” in a ditch drinking water. We start running towards the adult. The Komodos are not very fast runners and they don’t bother to chase you. But if you approach them within half a meter, you are screwed. With a quick dash, it buries his jaws on your body, injecting in your blood 47 toxic bacteria that will put YOU in threat of extinction. With fear, but for Tinder’s sake, we follow the Komodo taking pictures, freezing every time it turns and stares towards one of us. Job done!

Komodo dragon

An afternoon in Komodo airport

Komodo Island

He is 19 years old and responsible for the airport massage chairs, one of which I sit on.

– Where are you from?

– Greece, I answer.

– Are you Christian?

– Yeah.

– Me too. Have you traveled to the Euphrates River?

– No, I answer, a little surprised.

He writes something on his mobile in google translate and shows me the translation in English:


Although he seems to know some English, he still writes on the cell phone and also captures in audio and translates my answers (not to be misunderstood).

“Do you like the massage chairs? I hate them!”, blushing and giggling.

– They are good, I say, not very confidently. Previously I had a foot massage, where a hijab wearing girl had shown particular care and in the end I felt like wearing new shoes – so much better than the massage chair. The girl did not say a word, and at the end she just sat on the side and left me wondering if it was over and I had to pay.

“Do you have snow in your country?”, And after showing him some photos that I kept on the mobile phone, since it is very unlikely they have ever seen it, he asks “Can you eat snow?”. “If you want – it does not taste very good”

– What’s your name? I ask him.

– Efrat, Indonesian for Euphrates, he tells me and chuckles as his joke is now complete. Smartass Efrat.

“Why are you traveling?”, he shows me again on the cell phone.

– Hmm …. This is a difficult question. Especially when asked by a person whose most distant journey is probably from his village in the interior of the inland of Flores in Indonesia, to Labuan Bajo airport that serves the famous Komodo island. What is the most basic thing to say? “To see something different” I decide. “Yes, something like snow we discussed before.” He seems to agree. “And what else?” “To build memories. And to send pictures to my mom, “I say. “And that makes your mom happy?” He says and looks at me. “I hope” I say laughing.

“How old do you think I am?”. The truth is he does not seem over 20. “20” I say, “why do you ask?”. “Ah,” he says, “I think we Indonesians look older than we are, while you Europeans seem younger.” I do not agree with that, my impression was that the Indonesians look younger, mainly because of their small build. On the other hand, they behave very maturely for their age (makes sense since they get married and have kids very early). “Do all Indonesians look the same to you?”, he says shyly. “At first they did Efrat, after a few weeks I began to tell the differences”. “All Europeans look the same to me…”.

I thought of this ‘equalization’ of the Europeans for a moment. The truth is that whoever spots me on the street and asks for a photo with me, he or she will then brag for the photo with the ‘white’. Regardless of who is the white, whether handsome or ugly, gentle or rough, poor or rich, Mother Teresa or Donald Trump. Absolute anonymity …

My trip has begun 20 days ago, from Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia. After wandering in Java, I spent a few days in Bali, a few in Lombok, etc. and then arrived in Flores Island, which I was now preparing to leave. That’s because for the last days of the trip I had a specific goal: To stay with the so-called nomads of the sea, the Bajau. People who for centuries have replaced the earth with the water element and their descendants do not want to break this tradition and so they live in stilt villages over the sea.

One of the villages is called Sabela and is located in some tiny islands on the southeastern edge of the island of Sulawesi. The island of Sulawesi is not only one of Indonesia’s largest islands, but also of the world (it’s not that difficult for an Indonesian island), and besides the strange shape and the difficult name, it will also prove difficult to get to it. Because of an earthquake … In the country with more than a hundred active volcanoes … and tsunamis too….

– Hati-hati, Efrat tells me. In Indonesian, meaning ‘take care’.

(Greek version of this text has appeared in http://www.travelstories.gr)

indonesia trip
31 days, 2400 km distance