by Scott and Nori Brixen
“We are going to Anambas, Anama-nama-nambas!” the boys sang in the backseat of the taxi. The melody was from Pitbull’s’ “I know you want me.”
The Anambas Islands. All those a’s. It sounded like a fictional destination. But it was real: an isolated chain of 230 Indonesian islands located 200km northeast of Singapore. The Anambas are still a travel secret. We had lived in the Lion City for more than a decade but had never even heard of them. I found limited information about the archipelago online. Google Maps had island outlines only. We were winging it, and it was thrilling.
The islands of the Caribbean and Mediterranean are well mapped and well known. But Indonesia’s thousands and thousands of mostly unknown islands still offer countless adventures for hardy travellers. With a friendly demeanour, a bit of Bahasa and a lot of patience, it’s relatively easy to explore this ‘improbable nation’ – as Elizabeth Pisani dubbed Indonesia in her extraordinary travelogue, “Indonesia etc.”
I’d had a taste of unknown Indonesia a few years earlier, when I’d travelled to Belitung Island with my friend, Rob. Belitung sits halfway between Singapore and Java. The mining giant, BHP Billiton, got half its name from the tin rich island. Nobody I knew had ever been there. Rob and I spent two days swimming between dozens of islets off the northwest coast. We saw no other foreign tourists.
We drank a lot of rum, slept in a barely habitable beach hut, got destroyed by sandflies and flayed our feet climbing up shell-covered rocks. It was awesome.
I hoped that the Anambas would deliver similar discoveries, albeit with less physical damage. The last ten minutes of the flight, we descended over clusters of gorgeous, mostly green islands fringed with beaches. My adventurer’s heart was thumping. The Anambas looked very promising indeed.
We landed at a tiny airport owned by Medco Energi, an Indonesian oil and gas company with exploration rights in the Natuna Sea. But where were our checked bags? Airport staff directed us outside, where our fellow passengers were already jumping into taxis. Everybody looked calm, but the thought of leaving the airport without even seeing our bags distressed me.
“It’s OK, this is normal,” said a friendly Indonesian. He worked for the state electricity company and came to the Anambas frequently. We shared a taxi for the 15 minute ride into the village, where Xpress Air’s office was located. We waited there for another 20 minutes before a van lurched to a stop outside. Thankfully, all of our bags were inside. But now how were we going to get to the Anambas Resort, which was located on another island? We piled back into the same taxi and rode another 15 minutes down a twisting road through lush jungle. At the pier, we jammed into an itty-bitty fibreglass boat that roared south down the channel between Matak and Mubur Islands. Not since our journey up the Tonle Sap to Siem Reap 20 years ago had we been in such a dangerous craft and we didn’t have kids back then. I made sure that everyone in my family had their life vests on, a precaution the Indonesians found either paranoid or hopeless as they giggled at our naivete.
Soon excitement overwhelmed my fears. I poked my head out of the tiny roof hatch and watched the Anambas slip past. I smiled at Nori and she smiled back. We’re cruising in Anambas, Anama-nama-nambas!
Utter, overwhelming happiness. My soul was beaming. Our little boat skimmed over a flat sea studded with verdant, uninhabited islands. As we moved forward, the islands slipped past one another, creating spectacular, shifting panoramas. The captain said that fishing boats rarely ventured this far out. It felt like we had the archipelago to ourselves. After an hour and a half, the boat slowed as we slipped into a narrow, coral-rich channel between two islands.
“Oh my,” Nori said, as the captain killed the engine and the boat coasted into the shallows.
Penjalin Island is the icon of Anambas tourism. Its perfect white arc of sand, lush interior and turquoise waters were on every pamphlet, poster and map. So naturally, we expected to share it with other day trippers. But nobody else was there. Nobody else came, unless you count two feral dogs, who we named Friday and Saturday. While the boys built sandcastles, chased “ghost” crabs and scrambled over the shapely, Seychelles like boulders, Nori and I snorkeled the reef.
We had planned to spend the day islandhopping, but Penjalin was so lovely that we island-flopped instead.
Our first two nights we stayed at the Anambas Resort on Siantan Island. Our huge, overwater
bungalow had three rooms, a large living/dining area and a covered balcony overlooking beautiful coral. The ethnic Chinese owner, Christine, loved to chat with us in an English dialect that was more Singlish than Singlish itself.
I delighted in hearing her speak, and she knew everything about the Anambas: Who owned what where? What was being planned when? She even made us a business proposal. After spending the day on Penjalin, Nori and I could see that the Anambas wouldn’t remain a secret for long. The islands were just too beautiful. While they were doubtless remote, they weren’t that far from Singapore.
The last three nights we shifted to the brand-new Anambas Dive Resort, an octagonal, overwater structure consisting of six small villas, a kitchen and an office – all connected to a central dining area. The Jakartabased owners, Heru and Lita, went all out to make us comfortable: adjusting the menu for the boys, restocking the keropok jar every few hours and taking us to see the seven-stepped Temburun Waterfall. Heru even joined the boys as they leapt off the pier that extended out from the resort!
One morning, we made the long voyage to Pulau Akar, one of the easternmost and most beautiful islands in the archipelago.
Akar’s most striking feature was its doubled-edged dagger of white sand slicing into the channel between it and gorgeous Boboh Island. From the air, Boboh’s tidal sand bars reminded me of Whitehaven Beach in the Whitsunday Islands, Australia – branching and rejoining rivulets of blue over the shallow white seafloor.
I was so absorbed by flying the drone that I didn’t notice that the boys had climbed a very dangerous rock face. Sometimes they are too confident for their own good. The boys were pelting me with fish. One stuck to my forehead; there were several in my hair. Drake howled with laughter after hitting me in the mouth with one. He’s got an amazing arm, but yuck. Submerging to avoid the fishy fusillade, I was startled by a big guitar shark as it glided towards me like a brown star destroyer. There were fish everywhere – a real feeding frenzy! I held onto a rock to stay underwater and marvelled as the lightning-fast trevally arrowed to the surface to snatch the latest arrivals. The other fish had to settle for leftovers!
Heru’s “pool” at the Anambas Dive Resort was an unexpected highlight of our Anambas visit. It didn’t look like much: a football field sized rectangle of shallow water enclosed by a six foot high rock-and-mortar seawall. But the pool was bursting with incredible sea life: rays, guitar sharks, lemon sharks, trevally, sergeant majors, boxfish, filefish, triggerfish and a few rescued green sea turtles. At first, I was skeptical when Heru told me that it was safe to swim there. That “mama” guitar shark was large! But after testing it out first (the joys of fatherhood!), I motioned for the boys to join me. Of course they loved it.
Several times a day, the boys leapt off the seawall into the pool and just snorkeled around. They discovered new creatures each time. But the best time to be at (or in) the pool was morning feeding time, when Heru brought out two big trays full of bait fish for us to toss into the water. All of the larger fish, including the sharks, congregated near the seawall, creating a swirling mass of fins.
One morning, Heru made me an offer I’d never refuse.“You want to help me release the turtle?” Heru asked. “Absolutely! Yes!” I replied, my voice a few pitches higher.
His team had already netted one of the green turtles. Next, Heru scrubbed the algae and other gunk off its shell. The patterns on its glistening scutes were mesmerising. Gripping its carapace like a manhole cover, I deadlifted the turtle out of the chest. It wasn’t as heavy as I had expected, but I had to hold on tightly as the turtle began flapping its flippers.
Not wanting to traumatise the poor turtle further, I bent as low as I could go and released it. The turtle’s plastron hit the water with a slap and then it swam away at an unbelievable speed.
The tourism potential of the Anambas hadn’t gone unnoticed. But development moves slowly and fitfully in Indonesia.
Locals with capital were quietly accumulating beachfront plots on the prettiest islands. A fish farm entrepreneur was constructing six villas above a tongue-like sandbar on Menyali Island. An ice factory owner had cleared land for hillside cabins overlooking the straits between Siantan and Matak Islands. We met a Jakarta based developer who was scouting for hotel locations.
A Malaysian company was breaking ground on a resort on Boboh Island. The luxurious Bawah Island Resort, accessible only by seaplane from Singapore, had already been declared “the most out-of-this-world private-island resort” in a breathless article by Conde Nast Traveler.
Unknown Indonesia had wowed us again: adventure, animals, virgin islands and empty beaches. The Anambas Islands turned out to be one the highlights of our family’s six month “Big Twip.”
When I recently replayed the videos from our visit, Tai said wistfully, “Gosh! That was really paradise.” Drake added, “I really miss the Anambas!” The world is huge, and we have so much left to explore. Yet I have this happy feeling that we’ll return to the Anama-nama-nambas.