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Paddling Among Sea Turtles in the
Pulau Banyak Archipelago, Indonesia
by Georg Jackstadt (Abdul Halim 1963-2013) - all photos by author
Special thanks to artist Hans Drake, who accompanied Georg, for the use of his beautiful map.

Larger Map-Pulau Banyak paddle route by Hans DrakeApproaching Pulau MatahariWe spent one week in Pulau Banyak in Indonesia. It took almost two days to get from Medan to Pulau Bangkaru, the most western island of the archipelago. Pulau Banyak literally means "many islands" - supposed to be 99 - but some of them disappeared after Aceh was hit by the 2004 tsunami and a heavy earthquake a few months later.

Pulau Bangkaru is an amazing place: the entire island is National Park and one of the most important nesting grounds for sea turtles in Southeast Asia.

Bangkaru is the second largest island of the Banyak archipelago, uninhabited and entirely covered by undisturbed rain forest.

Pulau Bangkaru BayThe coast of Pulau Bangkaru is wild with big waves crashing into the rocky shore - difficult to land safely with a boat. This isolation was one reason that made it such an undisturbed unique nesting ground - until Homo non Sapiens put turtle eggs and meat on the menu list.

Mahmud Bangkaru from Sweden 'discovered' Pulau Banyak in the 90's and managed to achieve some protection for Pulau Bangkaru. The governor of Aceh supported the idea to give Bangkaru the status as a National Park and CALTEX donated some funds for the protection of the sea turtles and the environment - until ACEH became a politically trouble spot for Indonesia (the province wanted to gain Independence) and Indo- army was sent to Aceh. At that time (mid nineties) Pulau Banyak's few backpacker tourists were scared away and turtle egg poaching began in big style... - until quite recently.

Now there is a NGO formed with the goal to protect Pulau Banyak and it's environment. Sea turtles have a special importance in the agenda. It is also hoped that Eco Tourism can create some jobs for local people.

We went to Pulau Bangkaru to bring some outboard engines and train locals on the job of the 'turtle patrol.' They will control the beach every night, look for turtle tracks, measure and tag the turtles while they are laying their eggs and take DNA samples, so the scientists have something to do...

Sea Turtle of Pulau BanyakTagging-Turtle patrol of Pulau BanyakMeasuringTurtle laying eggs-Pulau Banyak

These were the first sea turtles on Sumatra which were tagged and studied. The turtles lay their eggs only at night - after they are done they straddle back to the water. When the small turtles hatch and make it to the sea - many get eaten by Monitor lizards and sharks - those who grow up may swim with sea currents more than 20.000 km to America - and once grown up they will go back to exactly the same beach where they were born !!! Pretty amazing...

Turtle Patrol CampBesides sea turtles we saw lizards, snakes, Manta rays and a croc just about 100 m from our campsite - I wonder what it eats, there were no monkeys - it's probably on a strict turtle- diet... ?

After 3 days on Bangkaru the Indo-Dutch Marine Biologist left with the Swedish photographer and Mahmud Bangkaru - while I had the pleasure to do island hopping in the Banyak archipelago.

View from a kayak-Pulau BanyakThose small islands are different in character: less wild than Bangkaru and more the typical tropical-coconut-palm-tree-and-white-beach-islands from Bounty / Bacardi - ads (No Bacardi though - "es gibt kein Bier auf Hawaii " is nonsense for Hawaii but on Pulau Banyak brutal reality -the Province of Aceh is Sharia country (Islamic law) and therefore dry.

Rago Rago-PulauBanyakI used an inflatable catamaran for the tour - easy to transport - I had no clue what kind of car we were using from Medan to the west coast - so I chose the inflatable which worked actually fine at Bangkaru to watch and photograph turtles in the water or to bash through the waves in the surf - On the other hand it is not a rocket for long distances but most of the small islands are close to each other, so that is no problem as long the weather is fine.

View from a kayak-Pulau TailanaIt wasn't on the last day of of paddling when I had the wind blowing into my face so strong I had no idea if I was actually making any progress forward even I pulled on the paddle like mad - in the end I was faster than I thought. - A faster, less wind-sensitive kayak is certainly better for longer distances. OK, maybe another time, - this was my first paddle trip ever in the Indian ocean - I am certainly keen on going again !!!

I am now working at a proposal for the NGO to develop kayaking / island-hopping as an Eco-friendly activity to provide jobs for local people - if we want to stop egg poaching we have to provide alternative jobs!

View from a kayak-Tailana BeachSit-on-Tops will be the proposed type of boat for this: easy and fast to enter if you want to bash through the braking waves in the surf, and great for snorkeling / swimming while on a tour in-between the islands... It's tropical climate here where an Eskimo-style sit-inside kayak does not have many advantages.

More information about North Sumatra and Aceh can be found on www.sumatraecotourism.com - This is a nonprofit web site providing info, contacts, addresses etc. for people who want to visit this part of Indonesia which has been hit by the tsunami and is now struggling to recover.

About Contributing Writer Georg Jackstadt: Georg sent TopKayaker this story in 2008. We learned with sadness that he passed away in March of 2013 having contracted malaria on one of his many fascinating sojourns by kayak through Southeast Asia. The following tribute is written by his friend Huey of Kayak Asia.

 

Georg

One of the last photos of Halim taken on 16 March, 2013 on the Wampu River, Sumatra. He was testing his "gumotex experimental". A modified Innova Sunny. "We did some mistakes, though, the manhole is so small - I can't wear a PFD in it...and no foot brace. Also takes about 20 minutes to tie the skirt on the kayak. So we leave it in inflated condition. I guess it needs some more experience in modifications till you can use it on Laos river. Two kayak air bags in front and back maybe wiser....but then you can't take much gear."

Georg

Halim (right) near the summit of Gunung Sibayak. As a geographer, he also loved his volcanoes.

The Pioneer Kayaker of Sumatra

Abdul Halim (1963 - 2013)

Halim (Georg Jackstadt), was a german geographer living for 19 years in Sumatra, Indonesia. A self-taught kayaker, he got a team of Indonesians together to do whitewater rafting - "we thought there was business" - later whitewater kayaking - "when we realized it wasn't business - so we could still get to the rivers but had no customers to fill rafts."

He started in 1995 at Asahan river - probably the wildest whitewater in S.E Asia. In the following years he built up a whitewater center, did first descents of many Sumatran rivers and competed at national and international events. One highlight was year 2000 when he went to France and was one of the 'wild boys' who became the first Indonesian ever at the Whitewater Racing World Championship in K1.

Disaster hit in 2003 when a flash flood wiped out the village of Bukit lawang and his W.W. Center. 150 people died. Tourism collapsed after that. The tsunami in 2004 made things worse. As if that wasn't enough, there are now plans for a hydropower scheme that would destroy most of the whitewater at Asahan river.

He never gave up pursuing paddling - and started exploring Lake Toba, the world's biggest crater lake. Coming from whitewater, he had no idea that touring kayaking could be so much fun. Nobody had ever done paddling trips on Lake Toba and he had absolutely no idea how many kilometers a touring kayak can cover per day or whatever, when he pushed his brand new kayak into the water. Since then, he had seen more shores on the lake than anyone else, and visited some villages not yet connected by roads. "You just feel like you're inside Lord of the Rings when you paddle in that scenery".

He later explored and paddled more of Sumatra's amazing landscape, including Pulau Banyak, Mentawais, Padang's coast, etc. He loved the waters and never tired of championing the rivers and waters of Sumatra. He was the founder and main mover of "Save the Asahan River". All international paddlers who wanted to paddle Sumatra seek him out. And Halim was always generous to share his knowledge and willing to help with logistics.

Halim was a friend, a colleague, a fellow kayaker, a fellow guide....we shared our love of Pink Floyd as much as the waters. We had an evil scheme going that anyone we took to paddle in Lake Toba must watch the Pink Floyd concert. In his youth, he looked a lot like David Gilmour, and while David went on earning his millions playing guitar, Halim touched the hearts of whoever paddled with him. He was a genuine person who loved life and kayaking. A true and kind soul who always had a pat and rub for animals and little creatures that wandered into his path. His gentle enunciated accent, funny anecdotes, and wacky jokes brought much silly laughter. He was never angry, never harsh.

Halim, no amount of tears shed today will bring you back even for a moment just to say goodbye. You had led ahead this time. I wish you good winds and good currents for the paddle ahead.

See you on the other side of the waters again.

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