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Krakatoa - It’s Actually West of Java!

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    Krakatoa - It’s Actually West of Java!

    This is a diary of a Southeast Asian odyssey straddling the Equator that may be of some interest to those thinking of travelling from the Andaman Sea to Indonesia. After reading it myself though, I doubt it…

    It’s late September and a letter arrives from the travel agency -

    We are very sorry to be writing to you to cancel your upcoming cruise ‘An Insight into Indonesia’, scheduled to sail on 6 December 2016 from Singapore… Our engineers have identified a technical issue… a shipyard in Singapore that has expertise in such work… we wish to pass on our sincere apologies…

    Well this is a fine how-do-you-do, I must say! After excessive dithering bordering on trithering, and assurances that the subsequent sailing, which at least includes one port of call in Indonesia, will still go ahead as scheduled, I opt for that.

    Tuesday 20/12/2016

    Having the middle seat on a full flight from London to Kuala Lumpur is a joyless experience but the time somehow passes even if I don’t manage to sleep. The cold and grey of England is replaced by hot and sunny weather - a most agreeable start to a Xmas cruise. Our guide for the coach transfer to the ship, advises us to ask for the Port Klang Cruise Centre if we get lost, rather than its official name, the Boustead Cruise Centre. It takes 75 minutes to get there, is located in the middle of nowhere, is over 50 kilometres from both the airport and the centre of Kuala Lumpur and 20 kilometres from the nearest railway station at Port Klang, and there’s no public transportation available (only taxis).

    The only other time I sailed with Voyages of Discovery (five years ago, from Egypt to India) the Captain began his speech at the farewell cocktail party with "This has been a challenging cruise…" I wonder what this adventure will bring.

    The first thing it brings, after a quick exploration of the ship, is a very pleasant surprise - the same Filipino cabin steward as last time. Well though I remember Efren, nothing about the ship seems familiar: the library, the promenade deck, the lobby… He explains that’s because this ship is Voyager and my earlier cruise was on Discovery.

    The literature waiting for me in my cabin on deck 4 includes the daily newsletter which contains an insert about the guest speakers (including a marine environmentalist and two historians), activity tutors, the ship’s theatre company, and a welcome note from the ship’s liaison for single travellers.

    Dinner in the Discovery Restaurant astern is delicious and beautifully presented: Norwegian Gravadlax with a Horseradish Cream and Red Onion Rings, Cream of Pumpkin and Potato Soup with Spring Onion, Fried Crispy Spring Roll (on Asian Vegetables with a Mango and Plum sauce), and I can forgive a Warm Apple Crumble with Calvados Sauce which required sharper apple and much more crumble. I chat a little with another solo - she was also originally booked on the cancelled cruise.

    Wednesday 21/12/2016

    Kuala Lumpur is the national capital of Malaysia and financially and culturally is the beating heart of the country. Kuala Lumpur probably means "muddy confluence" and the vibrant city lies on the River Klang, and at the point where the Klang meets the River Gombak, the first settlements grew in the early 19th century. Oral history; however, records a much earlier civilisation of the people of the Klang, reputedly descended from the inhabitants of a moon-like planet who nourished themselves with green soup and blue string pudding, and spoke only in whistles.

    Our guide for the long drive into Kuala Lumpur, like most guides, has interesting information to impart, if perhaps a little too much. Malaya gained its independence in 1957 and became Malaysia after Saba and Sarawak joined the federation in 1963, whilst Singapore left to become an independent city-state in 1965. He talks about the three predominant communities: Indians, Chinese and Malays, how the Muslim state works, and ends with useful tourist information. Our drop-off and pick-up point is at the imaginatively named "Lot 10" in Bukit Bintang, a major shopping district. Thoughtfully, he hands out his card in case we run into any problems.

    I didn’t know KL had a monorail. There’s a stop right above us. The train doesn’t go to the twin towers but, no matter, I’ll go to the stop that’s nearest. Bukit Nanas is a 15-minute walk from the spectacular, glass and steel, tubular Petronas Towers with their famous connecting skybridge. Across the road are lesser twin skyscrapers with foliage trailing from top to bottom, also connected by a skybridge. I take loads of photos from the street side, walk through the central lobby of the Suria KLCC upmarket shopping centre and take lots more photos from the park on the opposite side with its walkways, lake fountain and tropical garden. It’s hot. I need a hat.

    A 15-Ringit taxi ride brings me to the National Monument, designed by American sculptor Felix de Weldon and evoking another of his works, the Iwo Jima memorial. It is sited at one end of the Lake Gardens, now known as the Perdana Botanical Gardens, the green lung of the city. Despite the heat I try walking to the Bird Park, take a wrong turn, flag down a ranger and hitch a ride on his motorbike as he kindly brings me to "The World’s Largest Free-Flight Walk-In Aviary", according to my orange wristband. It’s so hot that salty sweat drips into my eyes making them sting. I really need a hat. It’s an enjoyable experience seeing pelicans and peacocks, emus and hornbills, flamingos and parrots, and the bird show at the amphitheatre, before heading back through the waterfall and the Flamingo Pond.

    The grassy expanse of Merdeka Square is where the Union Flag was lowered, and the Malayan flag raised for the very first time at midnight on 31st August 1957. The square is flanked on one side by the beautiful pink and rose-hued Sultan Abdul Samad Building (named for a former Sultan of Selangor) with its clock tower, copper domes and colonnades that once housed the country’s superior courts. Its Indo-Saracenic design contrasts with the red-roofed, mock-Tudor style of the Royal Selangor Club opposite where unfortunately I can’t pop into the old cricket clubhouse for a drink because there’s a guard at the desk where a sign proclaims, “100% membership check today”.

    Behind the Sultan Abdul Samad Building is the confluence of the rivers where the first settlements were established and nearby is the pedestrianised Kasturi Walk housing a flea market and the adjacent Central Market, where I fail to find a suitable wide-brimmed hat …but succeed in doing so in one of the shops back at the Boondocks Cruise Centre.

    After the muster drill, I relax on the pool deck with a cup of tea as we sail away past mighty cranes and rusty container vessels on our way to Penang, 210 nautical miles distant and about which there’s a port talk imminently. It’s actually a recording as the port lecturer had an accident and cancelled his cruise at the last minute, but the information about Penang, and our second call, Phuket, is informative and interesting. Curiously, some passengers feel compelled to applaud at the conclusion of the recorded talk.

    Whilst enjoying a delicious dinner up in the Veranda Restaurant I’m joined by the dance teachers who are staying on for the next two-week cruise also. There are only four sea-days scheduled for this cruise so they’ll be doing more hosting than teaching. They met at Gatwick on their way to the Caribbean. He was travelling as a dance host and she was a passenger, and when the computerised check-in broke down he hosted an impromptu salsa session. I chat with them about experiences working with other cruise lines, which have all proved to be enjoyable, until they have to leave to host the pre-show social dancing.

    After an average show, a better-than-average day ends with some late night nibbles out on the pool deck where the 24-hour hot drinks station is located, as we drift along warm, balmy waters up the Straits of Malacca.

    Thursday 22/12/2016

    George Town on Penang Island has a fascinating history and the influences of Europe and Asia have endowed the city with a multi-culturalism whose significance places it on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Penang was one of the Straits Settlements, acquired as British territories for their naval and commercial opportunities in the Malay Archipelago, and so named after several longstanding legal disputes between a group of music publishers and Mark Knopfler were finally resolved there.

    There’s a card under my door inviting me to a Single Traveller’s Breakfast at 8:30 tomorrow. The position of the apostrophe implies that they don’t expect anyone else.

    This morning’s port-of-call presentation is about Langkawi - the island and the archipelago. So many things to see and do, and so little time. Afterwards our naturalist gives a lecture about local marine life telling us what we might see on our voyage.

    Right on schedule, at noon, we arrive at Malaysia’s second city, George Town on Penang Island. The KOMTAR Tower dominates the skyline whilst small, covered fishing boats providing a more traditional foreground. There’s a very-reasonably-priced Hop On Hop Off tourist bus but services every 75 minutes are a tad too infrequent for me. I consider the offers of a few not-particularly-persistent taxi drivers before deciding to explore on my own, and try and visit places I didn’t see on my previous visit 15 years ago.

    Just outside the terminal building is the Queen Victoria Memorial Clock Tower topped with a Moorish golden dome cupola, standing at a height of 60 feet to commemorate her Diamond Jubilee. Opposite, with its cannons facing out to sea across the esplanade and promenade, are the walls of Fort Cornwallis. It’s a hot, sunny day, with more than a smattering of thick white clouds under a bright, blue sky.

    One of the locals advises me to take the free municipal bus to the KOMTAR bus terminal from where it’s a 30-minute wait and a 40-minute, 2-Ringit ride on the No. 204 to Bukit Ben'dera and the Penang Hill Railway. A couple of independent travellers from the ship are also on the bus and I join them.

    The only way to avoid the immense queue for the funicular is to pay the 100% premium for the fast lane. Unfortunately, rain and low cloud at the top of the hill means there’s no point in looking around, so it’s straight back down again - once we work out where the fast lane is. With all these tourists I can’t see how locals ever get the chance to use the railway.

    The rain has eased a little as we board a bus for the short ride to the vast complex of the hill-top Kek Lok Si, the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia, which we passed earlier. The walkway through a colourful array of stalls selling trinkets and local products leads up to the Turtle Pond and a garden pavilion beyond, with its centrepiece of the 7-tier pagoda comprising Chinese, Thai and Burmese architecture, and surrounded by a rainbow of lanterns, statues, boulder carvings and prayer halls at the entrance of which are wishing ribbons and joss sticks. An inclined lift brings us to the top of the complex and the God of Mercy bronze statue surrounded by hanging lanterns, gardens, temples and carvings of beasts of the forest.

    We share a taxi back to Georgetown in the pouring rain past the offices of the Moral Uplifting Society, and the WCC - the Women’s Centre for (the?) Change. My travelling companions want to visit the whitewashed St. George’s Church with its portico of Doric columns, whereas my preference is for physical rather than spiritual sustenance, and coffee and cake on the seafront lawn (the longest in the world in its time) at the historic Eastern & Oriental Hotel. A taxi brings me back to the ship although I could have walked it as it wasn’t far and the heat is much less oppressive after the rain.

    Plaques commemorating the ship’s maiden call at ports all round the world are displayed outside the Sunset Lounge and the Veranda Restaurant. From Puerto Limon in Costa Rica comes the wish that the ship, "…sail on smooth seas gently fondled by calm winds". Further favourable fondling is expressed in an extravagantly worded presentation from the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela commemorating the first visit to La Isla de Margarita, "Con motivo de su visita a la Patria Grande de Bolivar, libertador de seis naciones, y en agradecimiento por su constancia y preferencis al momento de elegirnos como puerto turistico…"

    Dinner in the Discovery Restaurant is delicious. Our maritime historian sits across from me. He will give talks on Captain Cook’s Christmases on his three world voyages; a murderous history of the Batavia; and the story of rubber. I’ll look forward to those. I won’t; however, look forward to another encounter with the travel bore on my left holding court describing incidents of deep dullness in places you haven’t visited, and trampling over any attempt at shared experiences of the places you have (such as visiting Freddie Mercury’s house in Zanzibar).

    How long can I keep up with the light breakfasts and skipping lunch before succumbing to the cruise curse - arriving as a passenger and leaving as cargo? Probably until the first sea-day, I imagine. It’s warm, mildly breezy and mildly humid, and the hum of the engine is the only indicator of movement on the gentle Andaman Sea. Clocks go back one hour tonight.

    Friday 23/12/2016

    The island of Phuket is the largest in Thailand whose original prosperity derived from its position on the trade routes between India and China. Nowadays, the Pearl of the Andaman Sea is world famous as a major tourist destination. The island was originally known as Thalong, and the name Phuket gradually gained common currency during the reign of King Chulalongkorn. His summer retreat was on the island and visiting diplomats, when informed that they were expected to greet the revered ruler by his full name of Phra Bat Somdet Phra Poraminthra Maha Chulalongkorn Phra Chunla Chom Klao Chao Yu Hua, were often heard muttering…. an expletive.

    Another noonday arrival means that there are interesting lectures in the morning. Firstly there is a port lecture presentation on multi-cultural Malacca, followed by a lecture on the East India Company and East-West Trade, where we learn that France, Sweden, Russia, Britain, the Netherlands, Portugal and other countries besides all had East India companies.

    One day I might actually explore the island of Phuket, but today, as on my previous visit, I’m taking a boat trip. Last time it was to the legendary Phi-Phi islands (which incidentally is what the toilet on our boat should only be used for), whilst today’s trip is to the equally legendary Phang-Nga Bay. The skies are grey and drizzly, and the water a little choppy, but the weather improves greatly as we approach a myriad karsts after about an hour. It seems as if the limestone stacks have just exploded out of the sea, and perhaps they have. The scenery is tremendous as we make our way to James Bond Island, around which we have a scenic cruise. Twenty minutes later we stop at the island of Koh Panyi with its houses built on stilts. It’s the home of Panyee FC, a remarkable team famous for its floating football pitch built by local children out of planks of wood attached to fish cages. After wandering the island and clambering partway up the karst forest to take in the views, I send a postcard back to Blighty from possibly the remotest post office in Thailand. Our final stop before leaving the national park and heading back to choppier open waters is in the shelter of one of the stacks to allow time for a little swimming.

    As we wait for the bus to take us back to the ship (all of three minutes away), I read the biography of the father of the Thai Navy, Prince Abhakara Kiartiwonges, the twenty-eighth child of King Chulalongkorn the Great, inscribed on a marble plaque below his statue.

    At the pre-show dancing in the Darwin Lounge a senior passenger sports an alarmingly low-cut cocktail dress with her belly protruding significantly further than her mammaries. The subsequent concert given by the classical duo on violin and piano, playing classics such as Massenet’s Meditation from Thais (the inspiration for The Gadfly), helps me to recover.

    Clocks go back, I mean forward, I mean back to what they were yesterday, I mean two days ago because it’s long after midnight when I write these notes in the cabin. I need to get my head in gear because tomorrow is another port of call. Not tomorrow, I mean today - later on this morning. Help!

    Saturday 24/12/2016

    The sun-kissed island of Langkawi off Malaysia’s northwest coast is set in a glorious turquoise sea and offers the visitor jungle-clad mountains, beautiful beaches fringed with swaying coconut trees, and mangrove forest. It is the largest in an archipelago of 99 islands, and this is reflected in the island’s flag featuring an ice-cream cone with a chocolate flake through the middle.

    A few drivers tout for business in a hassle-free way by the Star Cruises jetty. The ship has put on a shuttle service to Pantai Chenang but I hitch a life there from the adjacent Resort World in a beat-up van driven by Chris, an engineer from Switzerland who’s lived on Langkawi Island for four years. It’s very hot and very sunny and the shimmering white-sand beach is beautiful. At least I had the good sense to bring my hat with me.

    Back on the main street where there is light traffic and heavy construction I sit with a group of taxi drivers until another fare comes along to share a ride to the Oriental Village and the SkyCab cable car. Feng is a pilot with Shenzhen Airlines and originally from Chengdu, famous for its panda centre and where I spent an enjoyable Xmas Day three years ago. His international flights are around the Far East and he prefers Airbus to Boeing - its bigger cockpit and advanced avionics makes it easier for the pilot.

    The premium for the express lane for the Skycab more than doubles the regular fare, but it’s worth it to avoid the 1-2 hour queue. Unlike Penang, today is bright and clear and it’s gloriously scenic taking the steepest cable car ride on the planet up to Middle Station and onto Top Station at the summit of Mount Machinchang, 708 metres above sea level. A short but exhilarating walk through the mountain forest brings us out onto the SkyBridge: the world’s longest free-span curved bridge with its tremendous views across the island and down to the sea.

    Considering Feng’s terrible sense of direction as he repeatedly fails to find the exit, it’s probably a comfort to passengers everywhere that he prefers the Airbus. He has a five o’clock boat to catch to Penang from Kuah, the main town on the island, so we part company as I hitch a ride towards the waterfalls in a beat-up car. It’s an exhausting, uphill walk and a relief to relax by the cooling waters where a larcenous macaque commits daylight robbery, but only of food. Local lads show off for visitors and local girls by jumping off giant boulders into the pools.

    It’s an even tougher walk up another 367 steps in sweltering heat despite the shade from the trees up to the Seven Wells where again, it’s a relief to relax by the cooling water. I’m going to be particularly disappointed if I put on weight on this cruise.

    I walk back to the cable car and share a taxi with a young couple who are conveniently staying at the Resort World. He’s an English teacher from Glasgow and she’s a Maths teacher from Stroud, and last week they were in East Malaysia getting up close and personal with orangutans.

    I feel like I’ve earned my afternoon tea out on deck looking across to islands rising steeply from a placid blue sea as our pot-bellied naturalist chats about a white-bellied sea eagle that’s been flying around for the last hour - it’s thought that Langkawi is named for the eagles to be found here.

    I should head back to Pantai Cenang as we don’t need to be back on board for another four hours (the hotel has a free shuttle running every two hours between 1am and 9pm), but I’m too tired, so much so that I can’t be bothered to attend the Captain’s Cocktail Party.

    Sunday 25/12/2016

    Xmas Day in the Tropics, and our first sea day. How wonderful! I ask Efren if today is any different to any other working day. He doubles up with laughter. As I stroll around the decks, treasure hunters prowl the ship in search of fifty hidden Xmas icons - they have until ten o’clock this evening to try and find them. A cursory look around the ship reveals a sum total of none to me, so good luck to them.

    A beautiful fruit platter is on display for breakfast: dragonfruit, guava, chico, longan, mango… A post-prandial promenade brings me to the naturalist and his wife at the front of the ship vainly looking for marine or bird life, then to the well-equipped gym at the back of the ship, looking out to a calm sea dotted with bobbing fishing boats, and mountains to port. I gradually move up the gears on a jogging machine to a dizzying five kilometres per hour, although leaning over to the adjacent machine to retrieve my bottle of water results in a comedic prat fall. 10 minutes burns 25 calories which must at least entitle me to a cup of tea.

    After ceilidh dancing in the Darwin Lounge there are season’s greetings from ze Captain as part of his noonday update from ze Bridge: Beaufort Scale - 1, sea temperature - 27 degrees Centigrade, speed - 10.6 knots, average speed since leaving Langkawi - 10.2 knots, required speed to arrive at Malacca pilot station at 7 o’clock - 9.8 knots.

    The afternoon and evening melts away on a calm sea of relaxation…

    Monday 26/12/2016

    In 2008 UNESCO added the city of Malacca to its World Heritage List, where the coming together of Malays, Indians, Chinese and Europeans has created a fascinating melting pot of culture, religion and architecture. A frequent visitor in the 16th century was St. Francis Xavier, one of the founders of the Society of Jesus. After his death a later Jesuit detached his arm and brought it to Rome as a holy relic to fulfil Francis’ oft-quoted wish that he’d give his right arm to be buried there.

    "Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. It's 8am this morning," announces out tautological Entertainment Manager. The ship has anchored offshore in placid waters and tenders will operate until 4pm this afternoon. The traditional and the modern are showcased as the tender brings us to the jetty at the mouth of the Malacca river with the beautiful, "floating", gold and blue-domed Malacca Straits Mosque on our right and two futuristic wing-in-ground AirFish8 sea-skimmers on our left.

    A short walk from the jetty is the Menara Taming Sari, and at the base of the tower by the waterfront are bright yellow, triplet Goodie bikes for hire, as are gaudily decorated trishaws. Today I think I’ll walk, notwithstanding the heat. I head past the replica of the Portuguese carrack Flor Do Mar that houses the Maritime Museum and buy a riverboat ticket from the adjacent kiosk. There’s a steady stream of returning boats (eventually) and a steady stream of spray for those sitting too close to the front as we slowly motor past colourful buildings along the restored riverfront and under multiple bridges named for illustrious Peranakan (Straits) Chinese, accompanied by informative commentary as we pass each landmark.

    From the reconstructed bastion I head towards the red buildings of the historic centre and to the Stadhuys, the former Dutch Governor’s residence and now an extremely interesting history museum. In an annex upstairs is the Gallery of Admiral Cheng Ho, a great maritime explorer whose voyages took him down to Indonesia and across the Indian Ocean to East Africa, and about whom I was hitherto completely ignorant.

    Nearby, up St. Paul’s Hill in an elegant white building is the Governor’s Museum, and outside is a wonderful old Daimler, originally purchased for His Excellency Tun Hj Abdul Aziz bin Hj Abdul Majid, the third Governor. The former Governor’s mansion is next to the ruins of St. Paul’s Church, built in 1521 and the oldest in Malaysia, and at the entrance stands the statue to St. Francis Xavier (minus his right forearm - broken off in a storm a day after the statue was unveiled, allegedly).

    At the base of the hill is A Famosa, or, more accurately, the Porta de Santiago, as the gatehouse is the only surviving remnant of the old Portuguese fortress. Opposite is the Proclamation of Independence Memorial, a museum dedicated to the struggle for independence, and where the Malayan entourage returning from London in February 1956 announced that the date for this momentous occasion would be 31 August 1957.

    Ah! Something I recognise from my previous visit here - the beautiful, wooden, replica Malacca Sultanate Palace, which is built on stilts. The palace is the home of the Cultural Museum and showcases more than 1300 items of Malacca's past, including photographs, weaponry, drawings, musical instruments and gifts from foreign emissaries.

    It’s still hot and sunny as I head back to the river, past tri-bikes and trishaws, when torrential rain arrives, but armed with a plastic poncho, an umbrella and a waterproof camera I splash through the rain in sodden sandals retracing part of this morning’s boat ride before heading back to the shops, houses and museums around the historic Jonker Walk.

    Afternoon tea is still being served. I take the lift up. A sign reads, "In case of emergency: Please do not panic and stay calm." Surely it's either one or the other. As I tuck into a cucumber sandwich a passenger with a medicine-ball belly wearing a red t-shirt proclaiming "I beat Anorexia" engages our desperate-to-escape photographic expert in conversation, which he only succeeds in doing after explaining that his wife is about to start her lecture on Malaysian Fine Art. She tells us that Malaysian art was originally influenced by British watercolours applied with the pointed Chinese brush and is much sought after, with works by Abdullah Arif and Abdul Latiff Mohiddin selling for six-figure sums.

    "Zis is ze Captain from ze bridge… Calm seas expected… Ve should cross the Equator tomorrow at about 14:00 hours… Sank you."

    By knowing the answers to six of the questions, correctly guessing another six, and being closest to the correct answer of 32 with the tie-breaker asking how old Richard III was when he died, our team of four wins the Singles Quiz up in the Sunset Lounge. Touch-screen pens make for very agreeable prizes.

    The Theatre Company puts on, and just about manages to pull off, a performance of some of Victoria Wood’s best known songs and sketches to round off the day. We’re steaming closer and closer to the Equator, and to Indonesia. It’s exciting…

    Tuesday 27/12/2016

    … and the 9.30 talk about our visits to Kraratoa and Semarang add to the sense of anticipation. The second talk is on the subject of Captain Cook’s Xmases with fascinating and mundane observations recorded by him and others. Examples from his first voyage include:
    1768 - James Cook (somewhere between Rio and Cape Horn):
    "Yesterday being Christmas Day the people were none of the Soberest."
    1769 - Joseph Banks (North Island, New Zealand)
    "Our Goose pye was eat with great approbation and in the Evening all hands were as Drunk as our forefathers usd to be upon the like occasion."
    1770 - James Cook (Batavia, now Jakarta)
    "Departed this life Mr. Sporing, a Gentleman belonging to Mr Banks's retinue. Wind Variable and Calms; course South 30 degrees East…".
    …and so it continues for all his incredible voyages.

    “Zis is ze Captain from ze bridge with noonday update…cross ze Equator in 10 minutes time.”

    As the ship sails into the southern hemisphere upon blue water shimmering in the sunlight, I chat with the naturalist up on deck 8 looking forward, not only literally, but also to his next cruise. When he arrives back at Heathrow there should be a taxi waiting to take him to Bristol from where the Marco Polo is due to sail across the Atlantic and up the Amazon. A former primary school head teacher, he occasionally earns a little money skippering boats out of Whitby - a neat connection with our lecture an hour ago.

    It's two o’clock, blistering hot under a scorching sun, and time for the main event of the day. Our Entertainment Manager is the Master of Ceremonies and looks resplendent in a navy and white Breton t-shirt, white sailor’s hat and trousers, and camper than Campbell McCampbell from Campbeltown singing several choruses of The Camptown Races in a Campervan. The Herald of His Oceanic Majesty having inspected the ship when all were asleep last night, Neptunus Rex himself comes aboard to oversee the trials of those who have never crossed the Equatorial line, to determine if they be permitted to cast away their former Pollywog selves and be admitted to the Ancient Order of the Mysteries of the Deep as true Shellbacks. The royal entourage follows: his Consort, Amphitrite (resembling a drag queen, she should really be called Am-ugly-rite) two mermaids (whose 'beauty' would also only be appreciated by the severely myopic), a doctor, a pirate, a surgeon and a rather fetching cabin boy. The initiates receive their judgement and their screams can be heard beyond the horizon as they are held down on the operating table, covered with bile the colour of mustard, blood the colour of ketchup and entrails resembling spaghetti, before being finally flung into the bottomless depths - of the swimming pool.

    Wednesday 28/12/2016

    As our guide says, a tour of the Bridge nowadays is a privilege, but he stipulates: absolutely no photos, no videos, no touching of machinery, no pressing of any buttons and no distracting officers on duty.
    "Are you able to say anything about the maintenance work done in Singapore that caused the Indonesian cruise to be cancelled?" I ask our Captain, in a gently inquiring tone.
    "I vill say it like zis," he replies in a steely voice, eyes boring into me, "it vas essential maintenance vork!"
    Well, the guide did warn us against pressing any buttons.

    My lunchtime waiter’s badge proclaims himself to be Randy. Too much information, methinks. Afterwards I join the dance class where I’m paired with a very pretty blonde girl from London whose husband is sitting out a leg injury.

    At five o’clock the Captain announces we’re in the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra. It’s a beautiful, balmy evening as I head to the Darwin Lounge for "Batavia: A story of madness, murder and mayhem", a breathless account of the bloodiest mutiny in history, following the wrecking of the eponymous Dutch ship off the western coast of Australia in 1629.

    On the pool deck I chat with the Italian doctor, now resident in Panama with his father. He tells me his contracts are three months on, three months off. He and a nurse look after 400+ passengers and 200+ crew, half of whom were sent home for a short break whilst the ship was in dry dock in Singapore (repairing leaking propeller seals, apparently). He had to remain on board as a ship in dry dock can be a dangerous place.

    There it is! Krakatoa, with her cone shrouded in cloud. Even the Captain has never been here before, and if that wasn’t enough, there’s another remarkable sight that most of us have never seen - a vertical rainbow which our naturalist tells us is called a 'sun dog'. As the sun begins to set, fiery red and orange hues sandwich the rolling clouds atop the caldera. What a sight! To use that appalling overused Americanism - it’s awesome!

    Thursday 29/12/2016

    There are hundreds up on deck to watch a new day dawning over Krakatoa. The sky is cloudy but the views are clear as the sun rises over the Sunda Strait. With commentary from the Bridge from one of our historians, we start to circumnavigate Anak Krakatoa (the child of Krakatoa), which emerged from the caldera formed in 1883 as a result of the earth-shattering explosion, and is currently growing at the rate of five inches per week. We look on in wonder at the smoking volcano as we make our leisurely way around the island before sadly pulling away and retracing our route back through the Sunda Strait, en route to Semarang on Java’s north coast.

    Further Bridge commentary a couple of hours later tells us about the Battle of the Java Sea as we sail past Sangiang Island where some of the sailors from the stricken ships USS Houston and HMAS Perth were carried by the prevailing current, to be later gathered up by the Japanese and slave-worked to their death. The ships lie in about 30 feet of water, but neither are visible.

    The microphone fails at the start of the afternoon history lecture. No, it hasn’t - it’s the Captain on the tannoy announcing that we’ve deviated from our course to evacuate a passenger for medical reasons at Jakarta. Three hours later he broadcasts an update - he was promised an hour ago that a helicopter would arrive in 25 minutes. A few minutes later we watch as a white helicopter arrives, circles the ship twice then leaves! The passenger can’t have been evacuated so quickly. What’s going on?

    Up on deck there’s only one topic of conversation. In the far distance we can just make out the city of Jakarta, and our thoughts are less with the medical emergency and more with speculation about how this will affect our itinerary. The Captain is deep in conversation out on the port Bridge Wing with one of his officers as the sun starts to sink. Is it taking our Indonesian dreams with it?

    At 11 o’clock a boat pulls alongside to evacuate the passenger followed by an announcement, which at this time of night can only be bad news.
    "As we couldn’t arrive until 5.30 pm we’ve made a decision to cancel our call to Semarang and sail straight for Singapore."
    Two cancelled cruises to Indonesia in the space of one month? Surely that qualifies for the Guinness Book of Records? One of the officers on the Reception Desk explains that a request was made for a helicopter with a winch, and a helicopter without a winch came out, and there’s nowhere on the ship for a helicopter to land!

    Friday 30/12/2016

    In a change to the printed schedule there’s a late-morning lecture telling the incredible story of Kazuko Higa, the lone woman of Anatahan, marooned on an island with 31 men from 1942 - 1950, and by the time she was rescued, only 19 were left.

    At noon the Captain announces that we have a berth available in Singapore a day early, and we’re scheduled to dock at 2pm on New Year’s Day. After lunch there’s a Q&A session with him and, unsurprisingly, the first few questions focus on yesterday’s events. He explains that the doctor reported at noon that a medical repatriation was required. Trying to pass customs, port authority and security procedures all meant that the best option was mooring offshore to request a helicopter, but it wasn’t equipped with anything suitable (i.e. a winch) as Jakarta didn’t have a proper search and rescue helicopter available. We therefore had to wait several miles offshore until a boat could come out to us.

    A fellow passenger is a dance host who took up ballroom five years ago, but he’s not hosting on this cruise because VoD only employ dance teachers. He says that sharing a cabin could be the biggest problem, although he got on fine with his fellow dance host on the one and only experience he’s had so far. The uniform requirement could mean a hefty outlay though: white dance shoes (don’t have), patent black dance shoes (mine are black and burgundy), navy blazer (don’t have), white slacks (mine are beige), white evening jacket (don’t have)…

    The main event of the evening is the Filipino Folkloric Show - "Our talented crew present a display of music and dance from their beautiful islands". It’s utterly charming, and lovely to see the performers’ friends watching on from behind the screens at the side of the show lounge with huge smiles on their faces. Particular highlights include a fine ballad from Glen the pastry chef and the boys’ wacky coconut dance. Efren performs in the Paso Doble and then returns for the finale - the tricky Tinikling where dancers weave in and out of clashing bamboo poles. You could do yourself some damage if the timing is even slightly off…

    Saturday 31/12/2016

    …which Efren confirms when I see him hobbling around the corridor this morning!

    "Good afternoon ladies and gentleman. Zis is ze Captain with noon update from ze bridge…"
    We’re 198 nautical miles from the Singapore pilot station and this is our fifth consecutive day at sea. It’ll be nice to get off the boat tomorrow.

    Due to the mid-afternoon downpour the New Year’s Eve party has been moved inside to the Darwin Lounge. There’s music and dance, including a ceilidh, and as the countdown begins towards midnight, the ship’s bell is brought out onto the dance floor. Glasses are raised, the seconds are counted down, the old year is rung out by the oldest passenger on board, and the New Year is rung in by the youngest - the son of the art lecturer. All evening, he has stubbornly resisted pleading by his sister to get up and dance…but at the disco up in the Sunset Lounge, he’s still going strong and even inventing dance moves to the delight of all when it’s time for me to admit that I’m all danced out at 3am. A fellow passenger tells me that the following 2-week cruise has been cancelled, although she doesn’t know why. I’m disappointed for her.

    Sunday 01/01/2017

    At the southern tip of Asia, Singapore continues to re-invent itself as a holiday destination in its own right rather than just being a stopover to somewhere else. The island city state was founded as a trading post of the East India Company at the beginning of the nineteenth century by Sir Stamford Raffles whose family made its fortune selling lottery tickets. The man who was to change the fate of Singapore first stepped ashore in 1819 at Raffles’ Landing Site. What are the odds?

    Despite last year’s Indonesian disappointments, sailing into Singapore is a fine way to start a new year. By eleven o’clock, the city state cityscape is clearly discernible on the horizon, with dozens of container vessels in the foreground. Heavy rolling clouds punctuate a bright blue sky on a warm tropical day as we lazily drift around Sentosa Island and the (arguably, artificial) southernmost point of continental Asia, to be alongside our berth at the Singapore Cruise Centre at the scheduled time of two o’clock.

    The Harbourfront metro station is right at the Cruise Centre, but it takes an annoyingly long time getting through customs. As a cruise ship passenger I’m used to getting off the ship, waving my cruise card and walking straight through, so this inefficiency and delay creates an unfavourable first impression. The only ticket office selling the Singapore Tourist Pass has just closed for a late lunch (or early tea), and judging by the queues at the ticket office and ticket machines it’ll save time as well as money, so there’s nothing for it but to window shop in the Vivo City mall until the office re-opens.

    A Circle Line train, with signs stating No eating or drinking, No smoking, No flammable goods… and No durians, brings me to the Singapore Botanic Gardens. Foliage glistens in the rain and rivulets of water cascade down the pathways through the maze of gardens and down to Symphony Lake where, even if a performance had been scheduled for tonight, it would have been cancelled. After an atmospheric walk through the Rain Forest in the fading light I enter the Orchid Garden although it’s dark by the time I reach the colonial, plantation-style Burkill Hall set on a hill so it’s time to head out…but I can’t. I seem to be going round in circles and keep ending up at padlocked gates. Calls for "Help" eventually brings others visitors to my aid - and a man with a set of keys!

    This calls for a stiff drink - a Singapore Sling in the (relocated) Long Bar at the legendary and beautiful Raffles Hotel. It’s too busy and noisy downstairs so I slip upstairs where the atmosphere is more sedate, rattan armchairs are more plentiful, and couples dance to the relaxing live band. Some of my fellow passengers are also there, on a shore excursion. I chat awhile before picking up my drink and, crunching discarded peanut shells underfoot, return to my table to savour the appallingly over-priced cocktail (a larcenous 36.50 dollars after tax) and complementary nuts in hessian sacks.

    At the cruise terminal I take the lift to an upper floor leading to the ship with one of the shore excursion managers who’s been spending the evening in Chinatown. Suddenly the lights go out, the lift judders to a halt, and for the second time this evening I have to call for help.

    Monday 02/01/2017

    It’s a warm cloudy day, the rain has stopped and this morning it’s a breeze getting through customs. Two MRT trains and a bus bring me to the Changi Museum next to the notorious Changi Jail. The carved eulogy of Pericles in the simple outdoor chapel is set as a memorial to the dead whilst inside the museum, letters, drawings, photographs, personal effects and other exhibits convey unimaginable and unvarnished madness and evil perpetrated by the Japanese, and the fortitude and heroism of their victims.

    With the weather still holding I head back into the city. From City Hall I cross to the War Memorial Park dedicated to the civilians who died under Japanese occupation, onto St. Andrew’s Cathedral which is inexplicably closed, and past the Parliament building dwarfed by skyscrapers in the background, to the Singapore River where bum boats carry tourists on scenic cruises. Along the Jubilee Walk by the river is the historic, iron, Elgin Bridge and beyond that is Raffles’ Landing Site. The nearby Cavanagh Bridge still displays a sign prohibiting its use by cattle and horses - but can they read it? Installed at the adjacent quays by the Fullerton Hotel is the First Generation sculpture, a dynamic bronze of a group of boys jumping into the river, one of a series intended to reflect scenes from old Singapore. A more modern sculpture is on the opposite bank, outside the Asian Civilisations Museum - 24 Hours in Singapore - whose polished stainless steel globes act as an interactive audio installation capturing sounds of the city.

    In the garden below the clock tower that joins the Victoria Theatre to the Victoria Memorial Hall is the statue of the man who changed the destiny of a quiet fishing village, looking out to a skyline he could never have imagined. After pausing awhile to enjoy a free indoor concert between the wings of the City Hall and the National Gallery I cross the Padang to the Cenotaph and reflect at the modest memorial to Lim Bo Seng, the Chinese resistance fighter who set up the SOE’s Force 136 and died in captivity in Malaya in 1944.

    It’s still warm and sunny and at Marina Bay, by the Merlion, the symbol of Singapore, tourists position themselves for a photo, heads tilted back to create the illusion of swallowing water spurting out of the mythical creature’s mouth.

    From the walkway that lines the historic and carefully preserved shophouses of Boat Quay with its profusion of bars and restaurants I decide that, as it’s now late afternoon and the weather is still holding, I want to visit the Kranji War Memorial a few miles out of town (but still accessible via the MRT). By the time I arrive an hour later the rain has started, but it doesn’t detract from the beauty and calmness of the war cemetery that is the final resting place of over four and a half thousand Commonwealth casualties of the Second World War. At its heart is the memorial on which are inscribed the names of 24,000 allied soldiers and airmen whose last resting place is unknown to earthly man.

    By the time I return to town the rain has stopped and conditions are perfect for the nightly, kaleidoscopic sound and light show at the beautiful Gardens By The Bay.

    An excellent if thought-provoking day ends with a little walk through Little India. Narrow pavements, jasmine garlands, Hindu temples, fragrant restaurants, colourful shops, tailors working outside on sewing machines… But it’s called Little India because it’s only a little like India. There’s no incessant honking from a constant stream of pollution-belching traffic, no rubble strewn all over the place, no mounds of filth everywhere…

    Tuesday 03/01/2017

    The ship sails at 12.30 so it’s back to the Bayfront MRT Station (where the little girl sitting next to me on the train is engrossed in a copy of Quidditch Through The Ages) for a daytime exploration of the Gardens By The Bay. It’s warm and sunny - perfect weather for enjoying the lakes, gardens, pavilions and bio-domes, and the 22-metre-high Skyway connecting two of the supertrees where there are prominently posted strictures against smoking, eating and drinking, littering, leaning, jumping….and flying kites! This vantage point was the setting for David Attenborough’s final piece to camera at the conclusion of his Planet Earth II and I reconnect with Planet Earth by eschewing the lift back down and taking the staircase inside the supertree instead.

    There’s time for one final Singapore experience before the ship sails, back across the Dragonfly Bridge to the iconic Marina Bay Sands hotel where its gentle curves afford those on the lower floors a balcony with views to the sky rather than their neighbour’s upstairs. My ears pop as the lift rapidly ascends to the 57th floor and the SkyPark Observation Deck to admire the views across Singapore and have a quick look at the curved, ark-like roof garden that straddles and overhangs the three skyscrapers.

    The queue is too long and time is too short for me to return my travel card and the situation is significantly worse at customs with seemingly half the passengers from Holland America’s Volendam returning to their ship. My only option is to tailgate one of their wheelchair passengers, apologising as I go.

    We slip our moorings and the pilot boat guides us out past ships as far as the eye can see before leaving us to make out own way back to Kuala Lumpur. The sun shines brightly casting a million pinpricks of dazzling light on the water.

    At the final lecture by our maritime historian we learn that Captain Cook’s charts were so good that only satellite navigation could improve on them. His first world voyage was bankrolled by the appropriately-named gentleman botanist Joseph Banks whose entourage included two greyhounds who had their own cabin. The crux of the lecture is that, with the passing of Tupaia, the Polynesian priest who joined them from Tahiti, where the hell-hole that was Batavia was literally the death of him, a great opportunity to learn much about the South Pacific was missed.

    Whilst I pack my suitcase, “Code Blue - Discovery Restaurant” comes over the PA system. That must mean a passenger has turned that colour.

    At the farewell cocktail party the Captain tells us that the woman taken off at Jakarta should be repatriated in two or three days.
    “The cruise was challenging” he says.
    Now where have I heard that before? He has no more information to offer about the next cruise being cancelled apart from the fact that he has to return the ship to dry dock in Singapore as soon as possible which is why everyone will have to be off the ship tomorrow morning. This is backed up by a letter from the Shore Excursion Office -
    We would like to reassure you that your tour is taking place tomorrow. You will first have free time in Kuala Lumpur, followed by a complimentary lunch and then have a tour of Putrajaya including [a] visit to the Botanical Garden. Thereafter the normal description of [the] tour will be followed and you will end at the airport at approximately 19:00.
    You would have returned to the ship after your tour, but as Voyager will depart as soon as all passengers have disembarked, this was not an option…
    There’s also a paragraph about Back-To-Back Passengers -
    Our guests who would have stayed on for the cancelled Voyage, Riches of the Orient, will enjoy the Putrajaya Intelligent Garden City tour, followed by a complimentary lunch and continue to the hotel.

    After one final extremely tasty dinner in the busy Veranda Restaurant, including "Bloody Mary" Tomato Soup with Vodka, I thank Efren for everything and give him the time-honoured token of appreciation before finishing my packing and ensuring the case is outside the cabin door by midnight.

    Wednesday 04/01/2017

    Our guide on our coach into Kuala Lumpur tells us that, remarkably, the twin towers were built in only two years, between 1996 and 1998, so as to be ready for the Commonwealth Games. She will guide us through some of the shops in the KLCC complex, for those that want, but I decide to take the metro to have a look at the Old Kuala Lumpur Railway Station, built in 1892, and the administrative offices opposite. I try and cross the road to get a better photo of the Indo-Saracenic architecture with its pillars, arches and domes, but can’t beat the traffic.

    The tropical botanical garden (Taman Botani) in the administrative capital of Putrajaya is a rather lovely work-in-progress and the Canopy Bridge is an innovative introduction to the diverse flora from around the world, set amongst the gardens, hills and lakeside, across from which is the Prime Minister’s mansion. Heliconia, bird-of-paradise flowers, cannonball trees (my favourite) and many others abound, and there’s a small pond where turtles swim or bask in the shade.

    Exiting the gardens, we semi-circumnavigate the world’s largest roundabout (a ridiculous 3.2 kilometers in total) on our way across to the rose-tinted domes and pink granite of the lakeside Putra Mosque (curiously, travel literature describes the colours the other way round) with its vast courtyard and prayer hall, a five-tiered minaret representing the five pillars of Islam (faith, prayer, charity, fasting and pilgrimage) and where the purple modesty gowns that women are required to wear makes me think I’ve stumbled on a Hogwarts reunion.

    My wonderful holiday straddling the Equator in Southeast Asia is at end … and paradoxically, the only person aboard MV Voyager, passenger or crew, who has ever set foot on Indonesian soil, was the woman taken off to the hospital in Jakarta!

    Other diaries:


    Loved it,lots of facts and great humour especially the last paragraph.


      I've been known to Krakatoa in my time but it's too far now ....Neil


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