Just as this year's earthquake and tsunami in Japan was happening, JOHN BANTIN was diving in what had been the epicentre of the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004, Banda Aceh. Here the scars are healing, and diving is back on the agenda
TON AND MARJAN EGBERS looked out to sea with a slight feeling of unease. It was the day after Christmas, and their guests had gone out in the boat for an early-morning dive.
The Dutch couple, originally from Delft, had previously worked as dive guides in Thailand, but had since settled in Pulau Weh, an island that is the westernmost point of Indonesia’s Sumatra. They had set up their own dive centre there in 1998.
They were attracted to Pulau Weh by the clear water, the stupendous underwater topography and, not least, the fact that they could build a dive centre close to the dive sites, sparing them all the logistical difficulties they had experienced in Thailand.
Gapang Beach was not a highly developed resort. A line of shanty-style improvised buildings followed the line of the sandy beach, a few metres inshore. Locals plied a trade in basic necessities for foreign travellers.
The diving business had been difficult at first, but it slowly built up by word of mouth. It was not helped by the area being under martial law, thanks to the activities of the local secessionists, but backpackers came, and demand for diving courses flourished.
Eventually, the couple had been able to move out of their temporary accommodation on the crude veranda of a Gapang Beach cafe. They had amassed enough money to build an impressive two-storey concrete and brick structure to house their business, the Lumba Lumba dive centre – the only proper construction on Gapang Beach.
But this morning Ton and Marjan were anxious. They had spent the night in the classroom of the dive centre, and a few earthquake tremors overnight had awoken them even from their post-Christmas celebrations slumber.
Now, witnessing an abnormally low tide, they worried that their dive-boat might be run aground when it returned loaded with happily fulfilled divers.
TON AND MARJAN WERE STANDING on the road surveying the scene when Ton noticed that the tide was beginning to rise again, this time abnormally quickly. Soon it was spilling up to the edge of the track that separated the beachfront businesses from the sandy beach and then, miraculously, it started to recede again. They had never seen anything like it.
But it didn’t just recede. It was as if something was drawing the sea itself away from the land. Soon the house reef was exposed. Marjan remembers to this day the smell of the coral.
Unease turned to alarm, and they backed away to the area 50m from the road, where big concrete rinse tanks stood under the shade of a large corrugated iron roof. Something very strange was happening.
Soon the sea was back again. There was no tidal wave. The sea level simply rose and rose, unstoppably. The water poured over the roadway and pooled around the concrete piers of the dive-centre. Soon it was a few feet deep.
Marjan climbed on top of the rinse tanks, while Ton climbed a tree nearby.
As Marjan’s feet started to get wet, she vainly tried to climb onto the corrugated iron roof, but was prevented by the overhang. Ton called to her to climb across to the branches of the tree.
Eventually they found themselves floating in water and holding on to the topmost branches. The high roof of the rinse-tank area was by now submerged.
OTHER GUESTS HAD MADE THEIR WAY onto higher ground behind the dive centre as the water level had risen. They called to Ton and Marjan to swim to them. By now the water was almost covering the upstairs windows of the dive centre, and no other building was left visible. The water around the dive centre was more than 7m deep.
A German girl reached down to help drag Marjan out. Just as she gripped her wrists and pulled, the water rushed away with a mighty roar. It was as if someone had pulled the plug.
The water took everything with it in that awful moment – the roughly constructed wooden buildings, the cars, the motorbikes, the contents of the dive centre, including their compressor that smashed its way through a brick partition wall, the corrugated iron roof that had shaded the rinse tanks, and everything else went with it.
The people of Gapang Beach, both locals and visitors, watched in horror as everything they possessed disappeared before their eyes. They were left with nothing more than the clothes they were wearing.
Luckily everyone was safe, but Ton and Marjan had had a narrow escape.
Imagine the feelings of the divers in the boat, returning from a jolly morning dive to find the beach empty.
No clutter of rudely constructed timber shacks that had provided restaurants and their accommodation; just the solitary shell of the concrete and brick building that had been that proud new dive centre remained as witness to what had happened.
Nobody had any idea that this had been anything other than a local event.
One British/Japanese couple from Singapore were due to fly back. They made their way across the mountainous island to the port, only to find that the high-speed ferry service was not operating. Resourcefully, they hired a fishing boat to take them to Banda Aceh. They had no idea that they were heading for the epicentre of the earthquake that had caused the tsunami.
BANDA ACEH IS A BIG TOWN that lies on a flat coastal plain. Here the tsunami had formed a rolling wave, sweeping all before it.
The couple made an arduous and emotional four-mile journey on foot to the airport, where they managed to board a military plane out of that hell-hole. Their hike involved stepping over the bodies of countless men, women and children who had been drowned or crushed in that murderous tidal wave of water, concrete and steel.
They passed whole families drowned inside the remains of their cars. The town had simply been swept away.
The power of this tidal wave beggars belief, but if you consider that an electrical power-generating station, built on a massive barge as big as a cruise-liner, was swept from its moorings and carried many miles inland, crushing anything that stood in its way, you get the idea.
THAT BARGE IS NOW A WOULD-BE tourist-attraction, a reminder of the past horror, and today’s visitor inevitably wonders how many people still lie beneath it.
That was December 2004, and everything has been rebuilt since the disaster happened. Banda Aceh is now a thriving town again, with picturesque fishing boats in its harbour, if also filled with less than picturesque shark-fins drying in the sun. Its modern airport provides a link to the rest of the world.
One house-owner has turned her own disaster into a dramatic memorial. A fishing-boat still sits atop the place where generations of her forebears had lived, and where she herself had brought up a family.
At Gapang Beach, there is little sign of the disaster today. Once more it has its row of rudely constructed timber shacks with corrugated iron roofs that form the ethnic restaurants, cafes and very basic accommodation. Locals still breed their birds for cock-fighting.
Ton and Marjan have rebuilt their business, and it seems to be thriving. There is a new roof over the rinse tanks.
Only a blue line of tape on the upper part of the second-storey windows of the dive centre marks the high-water mark from that fateful day.
Ton is the first to admit that theirs is not a glossy operation. It’s still aiming to attract the European backpacker market.
A newly built row of bungalows, built up the hillside well away from the water, now provide a semblance of western normality, with proper sanitation and comfortable beds (albeit without air-conditioning), but the repaired dive centre still has a floor that gets covered in sand walked in from the beach, and which inevitably finds its way inside your wetsuit.
There are new compressors, but no nitrox, and the locally built boats, even the newest glass-fibre one, might have powerful engines to get you to a site quickly, but are too narrow and cramped to be ideal for diving.
Ton believes in diving freedom, however, so is quite happy for qualified divers to help themselves to a tank and shore dive from the beach.
DESPITE THE FORMER destruction of the coral, there is still a surprising amount to see. On a single shore dive, I watched schooling butterflyfish under the surviving legs of an old pier, two enormous octopuses courting, a red seahorse turning shyly, a giant cuttlefish cruising, and schooling razorfish hanging head-down over the low-lying staghorn coral in the fascinating way they do.
There’s a tonne of subjects for the underwater photographer armed with a macro camera. Anemonefish may look familiar, but the anemones they frequent often come in exotic colours. Elusive frogfish have their latest locations excitedly reported back at the dive centre.
Sarah took me to a cleaning station where zealously keen hinge-beak shrimps got to work in gangs, giving her an impromptu manicure.
Sarah Kemsley and Ben Stokes, an English couple, operate as complete tour guides. Their aim is to make these more off-beat parts of Indonesia available to the less brave. They met us in Kuala Lumpur, where they had arranged overnight accommodation, and escorted our party throughout the trip.
They checked our baggage in to Medan and escorted us on the plane, then saw to it that we all got on a domestic flight that took us to Banda Aceh. They carried our bags onto the ferry and took care of all the road transfers. In fact they took care of everything, including where we stayed, what we ate, where we ate it and when and where we went diving.
A HOLIDAY IN PULAU WEH is for the adventurous at heart. Not only is the diving sometimes challenging, thanks to the confluence of currents from the Indian Ocean, the Andaman Sea and the Straits of Malacca, but every between-dives meal is a delicious spicy adventure but possibly not for the timorous.
The improvised nature of the structure in which you take your meals reflects the difficulty in getting regular building materials in this part of the world. This is Indonesia in the raw.
The locals are exceptionally friendly, and I was quietly surprised that so many of them spoke English. However, Ben’s grip of Bahasa Indonesian proved exceedingly useful at times.
So what of the diving The undersea terrain is as different as the people who live on these islands.
Under water around Pulau Weh, coral clings precariously to giant boulders and craggy cliffs and overhangs.
The rock surfaces are colourful, thanks to sponge growth, and the sometimes fierce currents provide an ideal environment for that hard green coral (dendrophyta) that proves so painful should you get washed against it.
Gorgonia fans grow everywhere. Crinoids pose atop every rock. Leaf scorpionfish are not uncommon. The water may be warm, but a full-length suit is recommended for protection.
Thanks to the oceanic conditions, currents can be unpredictable, even changing direction completely during the course of a single dive.
You soon learn to pick your way, taking advantage of big boulders and other features of the terrain that will protect you from the flow. In this way you can get to see schooling jacks and barracuda, and the ubiquitous blacktip reef shark cruising effortlessly.
You’ll see giant sweetlips, opportunistic jack and hordes of goatfish hunting frantically among the rocks.
Morays of all types gape from their holes, along with colourful ribbon eels. Honeycomb morays are often out hunting during bright daylight hours.
The deep waters and currents around the island sustain an unbelievable amount and variety of marine life, ranging from tiny critters to grand pelagics that might turn up.
The conditions and the varying abilities of individuals to cope with them often split groups of divers apart under water. You need to pick your spot for an easy ascent. Several times I noticed exhaled bubbles rising into a flow of water that unexpectedly took them off the reef and back to the depths.
That indicated that it was not a good place to try to go up, and I moved on.
More than once I came up alone to find surface conditions explosive, and held my marker flag on its extending pole high above the waves so that the boat-driver could locate me.
IT’S NOT JUST ABOUT FISH AND ROCKS, either. One of the most interesting experiences was to dive over the sulphur springs formed by an active seismic disturbance. Bubbles of gas pour from fissures in the rock under the sand. Items of debris collected in the holes so formed are coated in a white sulphurous material. You can smell it, even though you’re breathing through a regulator!
You can feel the warmth of the water that is cooling down from boiling point as it merges with the rest of the water in the sea. Even the marine life that has chosen to frequent the area has taken on its own unique colouration.
If wreck-diving is your passion, Pulau Weh can accommodate you. The wreck of the Sophie Rickmers, a 130m steamship built in Germany in 1920, lies on the 60m seabed outside Sabang.
On 10 June, 1940, the day before the Netherlands was invaded by Germany, the captain received orders to leave port. The message was intercepted by a Dutch radio operator, who alerted the Dutch authorities. They immediately confiscated the vessel, along with five others at anchor outside the port.
While entertaining the Dutch officials with a few beers, the German crew of the Sophie Rickmers scuttled the vessel.
The wreck now lies on an even keel almost exactly as it was, with its deck at 45m. Barracuda and schooling jack have adopted it, and although the wheelhouse has collapsed over time, the rest of the vessel is very much intact.
The Lumba Lumba dive centre equips suitably qualified divers with 15-litre air cylinders for this dive, which features significant decompression stops. Spare tanks are hung under the boat.
But I didn’t feel I would get enough time to concentrate on getting good photos of the wreck with this amount of air on my back, so I passed. Next time I visit Pulau Weh, I’ll come with the facilities to twin-up two tanks.
|GETTING THERE: Fly from London Stansted to Kuala Lumpur and on to Banda Aceh via Medan. A ferry links Pulau Weh with the mainland. Entry and exit visas to Indonesia cost US $25.|
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Lumba Lumba Dive Centre, www.lumbalumba.com
WHEN TO GO: Any time. Wear a 3mm full suit for diving. Air temperatures range from 27-34°C.
HEALTH: Malaria zone – consult your travel clinic.
PRICES: A two-week escorted trip with Ben and Sarah costs less than £2000, including accommodation, meals and diving but not travel. £100 in local currency appeared adequate for additional costs. Visit www.scubatravel.com
FURTHER INFORMATION: www.indonesia-tourism.com