Saturday, March 17, 2012

North from Phuket - into the Quiet…and learning dive lessons

The mostly-busy, usually-touristy world of Phuket was left behind us to head north and find quiet and peaceful anchorages whilst exploring Thai islands on the way to Burma.

There is a way to travel into new terrain to try to catch its feeling and grasp how local people experience it. That way is to do it slowly. So doing, we sailed up the coast and along quiet waterways between small islands and the mainland, seeing urban environments recede and nature take over: a green, green strip separating water and sky.
There was time to enjoy the colour of the water changing with the time of day, with the wind, with the sky; and seeingthe panorama of the sky presenting the sun, moon and stars to us with no interference from ambient light and only filtered by screens of patterned cloud. We anchored just off the mangroves, lime-green and regular, with the tall trunks and dark green mass of the prolific jungle trees swathed over every inch of the low islands’ slopes behind the mangroves.

Across the waterway was the Thai mainland, many distant hills and mountains interwoven in blue shades and partially screened by mists and cloud.
This space we shared quietly with fishermen. They hunker down and drift, lines trailing, then stand and putter along in their longtail boats, to repeat the process further down. At night their lights blink and flash unobtrusively white, green or red; our flashing anchor light at deck height says we are here too. The background sound of birds at dusk, then again at dawn is punctuated by the odd jumping fish… there seem to be few of these caught by the fishermen, however, including us,and tonight for us it is ribs on the braai.
Moving on, we must find an appropriate beach to set up a hair-dressing salon: Rolf is getting annoyed with his curlylocks! The perfect spot: off a tiny beach on one island in a circle of several. The binoculars indicate a dinghy landing will end in tears as the beach is protected by a barricade of rocks, but Ketoro is within swimming distance and there seems to be a gap in the rocks so in we swim, tools of the stylist’s trade pushed ahead in a dry-bag.
Our entry to the beach proves interesting: the waves have even more force than we assessed, first pushing us forward over the rocks (fingernails digging into a small gap in the rock to retain some control) then receding and pulling us forcefully out (still holding tightly - now to the other side of the rock!). With damage only to our dignity, we land on the beach: it is awesome! Tiny beach area, soft white sand, shaded... a great salon site: the deed is done, all the while planning our exit by assessing the waves, counting the sets, finding the pattern. With this knowledge, we identify the last (we hope!) of the strong waves of the set and fling ourselves into the sea, swimming out furiously. Success! Back at the boat, we enjoy sunset while watching an eagle on a branch nearby, devouring a snake (or eel?).

Ko Phayam

We head for Ko Phayam, an island about which we had heard a little: peace and quiet and expect no cars. It takes a while to get the feel of a place, in our casethree days in which we anchored off and explored two of the beaches, and rented a scooter to explore the island.
Long beach: just as its name implies, but at low tide it should be re-named Wide Beach… particularly noticeable when you park your dinghy on the beach at high tide and return to it at low. A very exhausting task it is to pull our heavy dinghy 100 metres back to the water…
Ko Phayam boasts any number of Bob Marley bars, rustic eateries and café-restaurants selling home-made yoghurt, chocolate brownies, Burmese curries, Thai and German dishes.
It is fun to explore on a bike, and the 10km x 5km island may be covered in a flash… if you resist the urge to stop off and eat, have a coffee or fruit shake, investigate thelow-key beach-side resorts or have a massage.
This tiny island has 5 main mesh-reinforced concrete “roads” criss-crossing it: each wide enough only to allow two bikes to pass each other (and very few guys are manly enough to be happy with a pink scooter… the hire lady was most surprised at Rolf’s lack of concern!). The only four-wheel vehicle around is a tiny tractor and trailer that supplies everyone (residents, shop, café- or guest-house owners) with their 20litre containers of fresh water. To get to all the little rustic hut or cottage resorts dotted along the beaches, take one of these roads (which are more like sidewalks) then bump down the rough track that serves the resort.While a large number of the residents are Burmese, as well as local Thai, there is considerable German influence: many of the resorts and cafes are German-owned, and (hence?) many of the tourists are German.

Ko Chang

A mere 2-hour sail north (careful not to stray toward the pretty islands on your port side: this is Burma / Myanmar territory), gets you to Ko Chang. An island smaller, even less developed and more pretty than Ko Phayam, to explore it you must walk as there are no bikes for hire. However, 2 hours got us across the island: Irene remembered the jetty (pier) area of Ko Phayam to be an interesting place to watch life go by, and assumed the same of the main new pier at Ko Chang; what’s more, she was determined to eat a Burmese curry before leaving the area.
The pretty island is wooded and very, very steamy; however, streaming rivulets down backs did not detract from island exploration: rubber tapping and cashew nuts appear to be main crops (getting those cashews to the state you would like to see them takes these people a long time!), while breadfruit, banana and mango trees supply smaller needs and pineapples grow wild.
Blisters between toes from the hard, cracked, cheap plastic shoes (always kept in the baking sun in the dinghy) became very noticeable after some time and particularly painful when Ko Chang’s new pier was finally reached and turned out to offer nothing but…. Well… a pier!
We retraced our steps and were thrilled when the rain came down on us, then more thrilled to find a small eatery: beer, 2 squid meals, 2 coffees for just over SA R50!

Surin Islands

It was time to leave the “developed” island world and get to the marine world of the Surin Islands. A 10hour sail SW from Ko Chang, we reached the Surins at 5pm, not a good time for entering an area where coral bommies shoot up suddenly from depth to the surface: you need to be there with the sun overhead and good visibility. Several mooring buoys are provided, however, and we tied on with only minor mishap (just a gentle keel-scraping when heading from one buoy to another. Still an unpleasant incident).
The Surins (two main islands and a few smaller) are magnificent. The islands rise up steeply from about 30m below sea level to a height of about 300m; steep sides above water are clothed in a dense jumble of greens allowing no space for beachesand below water they provide steep drops or walls with good coral and fish-life, great for snorkelling and diving.
The sea is clear, clean and shows wonderful hues of blue, home to a variety of healthy, colourful corals and fish, different colours from that seen in many places. We had some good sightings. A massive moray eel, huge mouth agape as he was cleaned by a tiny blue-flash wrasse, watched us watch him from 2m away. Then he disappeared and we went round to see the hole he had gone into… when he re-appeared on the side we had originally been: that would have been a shock! We played peek-a-boo with a large porcupine fish under a big table coral, and basically steered clear of the titan trigger fish that were all indeed titans! While the big fish at the Surins were huge, there were millions of tiny living creatures that were fascinating, and huge nurseries of juveniles.

We got our quiet: at most anchorages, we were alone with the birds and jumping fish while underwater we heard only the knocking of the coral-eaters with their hard beak-like mouths and fused teeth. It was calm, peaceful, and a feast for the eyes…
… and a great backdrop for the daily chores!

However, the last night at the Surins was the one in which fewest stars were to be seen: due to excessive ambient light! Turns out the fish life of the Surins attracts the fishing boats, and this night there were more than two dozen in our view, fishing lights blazing (notwithstanding that it is a marine reserve). We left the Surins bound for a last dive at famed (amongst divers in the area) Richelieu Rock. The surface of the sea for miles is unbroken, as shown in this chart, with land 40m below, when suddenly five rock pinnacles shoot up steeply, to just break the surface over a small area.
We knew of a mooring buoy that we could tie the dinghy onto, and dive down the line, slowly savouring the beautiful under-water environment. Well, the underwater environment was magnificent, an amazing sight… particularly incredible soft corals, millions of fish, and a circling shoal of parading barracuda, some of which looked as though they had been eating well here for many years; and so ended our two-week foray into the quiet, far north of Phuket.
But the Richelieu Rock dive itself was a horrible experience.

And so the add-on section below is a bleeeecccchhh-get-it-out-there splurge about diving from your own boat, and our experience at Richelieu Rock. Read it if you dare / care / have interest / have time available / think it is all fun-in-the-sun-drinks-on-deck. We just wanted to have a rant….!

Diving from your own boat

Let us summarise what it takes to dive off the dinghy; this is so you can picture the process, and also to show that we have worked a little bit hard to pay to enjoy the beautiful underwater scenes…

1. Kit up

First, aboard Ketoro, put together 2 sets of everything (dive boots, fins, masks/snorkels, weight-belts, dive tanks kitted with the BCDs and system of hoses and regulators that will help us breathe underwater!). Somehow transfer all of this to the dinghy, EITHER with it bobbing or jumping behind the boat on the water (depending on sea state at the time) OR with it still secured to the boat davits, but then things must be lifted UP into it. Either way, we work like demons: much of this is bloody heavy (also we are getting old and weaker!), especially Rolf’s weight-belt (in SA, the DMs used to laugh and ask if he actually wanted to come up again!) and our tanks which are good old-fashioned steel things. When it is all in the dinghy (and we are sweating profusely - dressed up in dive gear doesn’t help) we then need to somehow get ourselves across and into that square centimetre which is our space in the dinghy.

2. Get to the dive spot

Next step is to take ourselves to wherever we think may be a good spot to drop down, and tie the dinghy to something (the very best is a mooring buoy intended for this purpose; sometimes it is a water bottle tied to a rope that we are supposed to know is IT! Sometimes we see where commercial boats were and copy-cat). Now comes the hard part. In a small dinghy, two people wrestle their way into their BC jackets, tanks and fins, and don weight belts and masks. It is a relief to fall backwards into the water…. And dive!

Oh, but before we do that we need to have a plan about how we are to approach the dive. Two considerations: a) get back up with a safe quantity of air still in your tank; b) get back up near the dinghy again. Both of the above are difficult because we do not have any prior knowledge of the dive site and also one becomes disoriented under water; it is almost impossible to figure out where you are relative to your drop-down point. So we generally agree on the direction to swim after dropping down, and to turn around and retrace our steps when our air is half used.

The strategy has always served us well… sort of. Of course, when we get to the surface we are always some distance from the dinghy (once, we could not even see it! But a wave lifted us high enough to survey our area…) and then begins the swim. Hence the need for left-over air and/or snorkel.Also for remaining energy and enthusiasm.

3. Finish it off

We swim to the dinghy all loaded with our kit (it feels light when you are underwater; for the rest, it is a real burden) and then we need to get our kit and our bodies into our little bobbing / bouncing dinghy, return to Ketoro and get our kit and our bodies from the bobbing / bouncing dinghy onto the boat. Everything gets heavier as the day goes by!

Oh gosh, and then it all gets sorted and cleaned and dried and put away…. And did Irene mention that then Rolf has to lift the 90kg compressor out of the locker, onto the deck, re-fill the scuba tanks, carry them to their stands at the back of the boat and put the compressor back? Do I sound tired just writing this all down!?

It really is an exceptional privilege to dive from our boat. We have dived some absolutely awesome places and take nothing for granted. We just love every minute of it. But it is bloody hard work! (For old ballies!) Bring on the crew! Bring on the help! Someone get our stuff together, someone just drop us off there and fetch us afterwards and tell us about the dive site! Next time you dive with a dive operator and DM and have such service… appreciate the privilege that is giving you, too.

4. It can go pear-shaped

So we do love it all, but we also do worry every time, aware of things that can go wrong. And then there was…

Richelieu Rock

Chatting to the National Parks man at the Surins in charge of diving, we were told the shape of the rock face, where the buoys were for Ketoro to tie onto (the surrounding area is too deep to anchor practically) and where the buoy was for the dinghy; it would be easy to tie the dinghy and drop down the buoy line onto the dive site.

We set off at 6am to get there early, and tied Ketoro onto a buoy; the only small yacht amidst three big dive operators.But there was a big live-aboard dive boat on the “dinghy” buoy, and the currents appeared strong (we saw a dive group from a big dive boat being collected by their crew about 300 metres from the site – pinnacle sites are not supposed to be drift dives!);nonetheless we went through preparations (as described above) andapproached the diving boat on our dinghy.

The friendly, hospitable dive master on board invited us to tie on to his boat and come on board where he showed us a sketch of the dive terrain, warning us of areas of strong current. We returned to the dinghy and put on the gear, then fell into the sea and swam to the buoy in order to drop down the line. The sea was a bit rough, so every process had been exhausting, (with the complication of the dinghy being right alongside the big boat and in its wash and lurch and engine discharge water) so we had to wait to get our breath first; we then dropped into a spectacular world of awesome soft and hard corals, gold, purple, russets in the main; fans, waving tendrils, tabletop corals; all manner of corals were the backdrop for shoals of an excellent variety of fish.

But this was a different experience from those we have encountered so far.

The dive site is itself not difficult or dangerous – but the currents on that day were horrendous and unpredictable. Calm behind some of the underwater structures and accelerated phenomenally around others. At one stage Rolf was caught in a current and being swept up the face of the rock at speed and completely out of control – and in danger of being popped to the surface from 15 metres in a couple of seconds (exceptionally dangerous), followed by being swept away on the surface in the middle of the Andaman Sea (which would definitely have finished him off). Fortunately he was wearing gloves and with apologies to nature lovers simply grabbed onto coral to try to slow down – then held tight at the top of that pinnacle and eventually dragged himself back downwards to a safe depth… and Irene, who had lost her “buddy”. However in the process the prolific growth of soft and hard corals, while providing life-saving handholds (and a colourful, scenic backdrop to the action), did each impart their little dose of toxins to unprotected arms and legs.

The next 24 hours were bad – Rolf could not hold down even water; painful cramping of chest and abdomen; restricted breathing; fever and congested, swollen face and lymph glands – a real joy! And of course not knowing whether this was the extent of it or simply the start of something worse. We made our way about 30nm to the mainland and anchored the night at Kao Lak, coincidentally near a Thai naval depot that wouldat least be within reasonable distance of help. Irene did a superb job as resident physician dispensing antispasmodics, corticosteroids,antihistamines and of course repeats of these as quickly as they were brought up;bronchodilators, and TLC. Amazingly we actually had internet coverage from the proximity of Kao Lak and the naval base which enabled some internet based research to supplement the on-board knowledge, and our medical kit had what was necessary. The following day, after initially suggesting a day to stay still and recover, the Admiral decided it would be better to get us to Nai Yang, an area that we knew and would find it easier to get help should it be needed. We set off and got into Nai Yang at dusk supported by a massive storm… lightning, huge winds, torrential rain, little visibility; but it was safe and felt like home.

However Rolf likens himself to a pet mongrel dog we had which was not a picture of robust health and regularly went off colour – but was always able to recover within a day or two with little more than fresh water and a pat on the head! Rolf is now fine and (almost) back to drinking beer.

The lesson learnt? Probably that in view of the effort in setting up for a dive, there is a great danger that the decision to abort a dive, when circumstances indicate, is not easily taken.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Visas, Visit to Penang and Visitors

Oh, ok ok…. We know we have been very tardy in updating the blog, but PHEW have we been busy, and has it been great! Please jump in and share the stories…
The “trouble” with this cruising life is the frequent need to get another visa for wherever our abode is at the time. The requirement therefore is that we leave that country and re-enter it, kicking off another visa period; this has brought about many enjoyable sails down to Langkawi, Malaysia… but this time, we had no anchor (sent to Bangkok with 60m chain for re-galvanising: drat that rust!) so we were “forced” to fly to Malaysia…. and made it Penang since we love being in Georgetown and could organise a 2-month visa from there.

Love Georgetown? How can you not!? Fascinating history, interesting streets: grand Colonial buildings as a historical backdrop to Malay, Chinese, and Indian areas; it is a city of contrasts in architectural and decorative style that reflect the different cultures....
… there is no end to the variety and opportunity for astonishment… it just keeps you walking and gawking!

This time we hit the jackpot: on-going Chinese New Year festivities with Dragon dances and Lion dances (a South African take: those guys are skilled dancers and gymnasts, but those lions are awfully cutesy, fluttery-eyed and tail-wagging; makes one want to go on safari and pat a lion….!)
Then it was also the time of the Hindu Thaipusam Festival (full moon of the Tamil month of Thai: January / February). Wow! What an incredible spectacle. Early morning saw us in the midst of the throngs…
the ladies in their wonderful colourful saries and bedecked with jewels and flowers, most men were in traditional clothing while the devotees, in garments ready for the pilgrimage, carried their burdens (kavadi) whose beauty (from the peacock feathers and colourful fabrics) however, would not have detracted from their weight after two days of walking with them.
The silver chariot was pulled by bedecked bulls, platters of fruit were passed over heads for blessing and candle-lighting; piles of coconuts were smashed ceremonially and exuberantly in thanks-giving; all contributed to the melee which was joyous and abundant!

It was great to be a small part of it all, but the unfortunate timing of our flight out meant we did not see the body-piercing (mortification of the flesh) rituals at the end of the pilgrimage the following afternoon.

So it was back to the boat in Phuket, and hello to Mark and Livi for a two week stay with us. PhangNga Bay never fails to inspire with its beauty
and offers beaches, hongs, and exceptionally beautiful nights with black skies to display the stars and awesome amounts of bioluminescence in the water. We were grateful for rain:
Of course for drinking and showering (the motor of the water maker pump died) but also for its beauty... when night rain falls, every drop on the sea surface produces a diamond-sparkle from the bioluminescence. Wonderful.

The other side of the bay offers as much, but different, beauty: Krabi is a renowned climbing area and the vertical cliffs are stunning backdrops to an overnight anchorage.
Some islands are so tiny that they appear to offer little...

But they are the base for a wonderful opportunity for a snorkel and meal off the boat:

This was particularly necessary as fishing attempts from Ketoro resulted in only this...!

The time with our family passed all too quickly, as usual, and we are now about 120nm north of Phuket, near the Burmese border (topic for the next blog: that WILL be soon!) having quiet time.... and doing an enormous amount of planning and preparing for a trip to China and Laos then back to Thailand followed by the UK: all of which need visas.

Following that, we need to make some very big decisions about where to sail next (plans for ultimately getting to South America), and how... but in the last blog we stated “On reflection we wonder at our habit of making major life decisions based on little more than intuition…”, so perhaps we should go slowly on the planning!?