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The Curious Incidents of Pulau Sempu in the Night Time

The photos from our camping trip to Pulau Sempu, three hours away from Malang, brought back a flood of memories. I remember the ankle-deep mud burying my feet with every step I take on the hilly trek and that the effort needed was doubled when the rain fell. I remember punching Twosocks in the shoulder out of frustration, the pride in being able to keep up with my friends and our guide and finish the trek in two hours time, the fierceness of the Indian ocean smashing against the cliffs surrounding the Segara Anakan lagoon, and the sheer glee of dropping our backpacks, shoes, socks, and clothes to the beach, and swimming around the sparkling green lagoon to wash away the mud and tiredness.

The most vivid of the memories, however, are not the ones captured in the photos. Three curious incidents popped up, all occurred after the sun set.

The trip to Pulau Sempu was my first camping trip, but I am pretty sure that building sand forts is not in the standard operating procedure for securing a campsite. When we were swimming in the lagoon without a care in the world, our guide started building our tents at one of the farthest and highest points from the waterfront. Apparently, that was not enough to prevent our tents from being flooded. We were there during high tide and the water slowly inched closer to our tents the higher the moon rose. The four of us, led by our guide and one flashlight, gathered as much sand as possible and propped them around our tent in the hope of building a dam.

The dam worked, to our relief. Once we were confident that we will be flood free for the night, our guide made a fire and we gathered around it, warming our hands and munching on raw instant noodles. Our guide told us some stories of lost travelers in Pulau Sempu, while another group who camped next to us, university students who were on their third night, asked for some fire to grill the barracuda they caught empty handed by going into the rising lagoon in the dark.

Our friend, Bram, couldn’t really enjoy the night, though. He was bothered by the tiny mountains of garbage merely a few steps away from the campsite. He started going back and forth, collecting the plastic bottles and snack packs, and slowly letting each of them melt in our fire. We started helping him. We knew that we wouldn’t be able to make much difference, but we can put our idle hands to some good use while chatting the night away. We melted plastics for hours, partly in gratitude to the island for having us for the night but partly because I think we may be secretly pyromaniacs. It is strangely enjoyable watching plastic shrink and melt in slow motion into nothingness in, bouncing the flickering flames against its surfaces.

The most memorable of all, though, was The Unfortunate Group. We started our trek together with a group of twenty or so high school students, at least judging from their looks. Unlike us, who rented plastic shoes recommended by authorities in the mainlandand hired a guide, they looked happy with their own company and carefree in their sandals. We sped up and left them behind, but we could still hear the leader of the Group calling after his friends and checking up on them a hundred steps away. We arrived in the lagoon within two hours, but The Unfortunate Group only appeared eight hours after.

The moon was high and the fire we had radiated some dim light, but nowhere enough to allow unexperienced climbers to descent safely from the slippery cliff into the beach. We tried our best to help with the one flashlight we have and our mobile phones, but understandably, we heard panicked yelps from the Group, and less understandably, some pretty angry retorts. Their misfortune did not end once The Unfortunate Group landed safely on the beach. Although there were only two camping groups in the usually more crowded beach, there was barely any dry stretch of sand left for all twenty or so of them to lie down and sleep the night off due to the high tide. Some more angry yells were exchanged, along with some harsh splashes in the beach, but after a while, the mutters became indistinct and the voices disappeared under the darkness. We saw them scattered across the beach when we packed our tent after the sun rise the next day; some crouching in fetal position, others sat and leaned back-to-back with a friend.

It is clear that Pulau Sempu is now in many travelers’ radar and that it is no longer a secluded slice of paradise it once was. When I remember The Unfortunate Group, I couldn’t help thinking that the authorities in the mainland could have done something to prevent their misfortunes. If only they had to wear the plastic shoes we rented and went in with a guide, they might be able to halve their trekking time. If only the authorities paid attention to the tide and the number of people camping in the lagoon, they would be able to tell whether there will be enough space for everyone to spend a night. If only visitors were fined for leaving garbage in the lagoon, there might have been more space for them to erect their tents.

If all the ifs were not only ifs, there would not have been any curious incidents of Pulau Sempu in the night-time.

Jakarta, January 2014
Gypsytoes – of a trip in March 2012

PS: the title of this post is borrowed from Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a brilliant book that Twosocks ruined by leaving my copy out in the rain seven years ago. I still hold a grudge until today.

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