Asian Motorcycle Adventures

While on a motorcycle trip through Indonesia, I heard about a tiny island where the locals hunt whales from primative boats. Sounded interesting, I thought. So I loaded my bike on a local prahu and headed to Lambeta Island where this story took place. I actually went whale hunting with the Lamalerans, and, probably lucky for me, we came back empty-handed the entire week I took to the seas. My payment to the crew for taking me out was a carton of Marlboros. This story was published in Weekend Magazine in Hong Kong in 1995.


Walking proud and tall, square-shouldered, bare foot and saronged, he’s impossible to miss as he strolls the black sand beach in front of the boat sheds. His left shirt sleeve flutters in the spice island breeze because his arm is gone, lost in combat with a sperm whale. Sebastianus Garoda Batafor was once a harpooner, one of the best, but now he must spend the rest of his days on shore trying to be useful while the rest of the island’s fishermen wrest bounty from an unforgiving sea without him. The fishing has not been good. It has been fifty-one days since the last whale was captured and the drying racks besides the houses are nearly empty of meat. Sebastianus hopes that today God will be kind and answer one of Lamalera’s prayers.

On the quiet side of the Indonesian Archipelago under the short arm of the Southern Cross, Lamalera lies east of Flores and north of Timor on the south coast of tiny Lembata Island. The name rolls off the tongue like a song – La, Ma, Le, Ra, and fits this gentle sea village perfectly, gentle in every way except for how they earn their living: they are hunters of whales, sperm whales in particular, the same species that sent Ahab, the Pequod, and its crew to the bottom of the sea.

For once you have to root against the whales and for the fishermen. No one will argue that whales have a right to live but so do these islanders. Simply put, no whales means hunger for Lamalera and the forty other small villages on Lembata Island. At least it’s a fair fight between man and beast because the Lamalerans hunt the whales in an ancient way: with hand-hurled harpoons from ponderous, sail-powered wooden boats. One swipe from a whale’s tail can easily destroy boat and crew.

Their unwritten legends tell that about 200 years ago, two boatloads of their ancestors were driven from their original home on Solor Island, losers in some long forgotten territorial dispute. The then rulers of Lembata Island gave the refugees a valley to live in exchange for a portion of all the meat from the sea they captured, and this compact is still in effect today.

Lamalera has grown to around 3,000 souls still living in the original valley. In the subsequent two centuries the life-style of the people has remained, for the most part, unchanged. They still rise when the roosters in the pre-dawn proclaim their own magnificence and retire soon after dark, which falls early and like a shot near the equator.

Electricity has never made it to Lamalera except for the very few families that have a generator and can afford the fuel to power it. No doctors deliver babies, heal the sick, or fix the injured, and precious few medicines are available. In this peaceful hamlet no police keep order and none are needed, although two eggs and a plank of wood went missing a few months ago. The only year-round access to Lamalera is by sea. And the one solitary, paved, village street does away with the need for motor vehicles. Most other taken-for-granted features of modern society such as stores, telephones, and newspapers have given Lamalera a wide berth.

A few guest houses can put up perhaps a dozen visitors at a time. All meals are included because there are no restaurants on Lamalera and no place to buy food. This handful of wandering tourists brings the only currency into this basically cashless society.

The only real change in the Lamaleran way of life was their embracing of Christianity. The European missionaries have had a permanent presence here since the 1880’s and their flock is devout. Everyone goes to Church and everyone is Catholic. All the boats stay in their sheds on the Lord’s Day and holidays.

For the women the first chore of daylight is to go to the well because water does not flow into their homes. Soft “Salamat pagi’s” “good morning’s” are melodiously exchanged. The men gather on the beach by their boathouses; each of the 19 clans has their own boathouse and boat; and by half past six the back-breaking job of pushing the huge boats over arm-thick tree branchs down the beach and into the surf begins.

The primitive whaling vessels, called peledangs, are around ten meters long by one-and-a-half wide and are constructed using the “tied-bolt” method developed during the Bronze Age. The vessels are made entirely of materials growing naturally on Lembata. The ropes are made from the bark of the warung tree, the sails are squares of woven geband palm leaves, and the inch thick hull planks comes from hardwood trees growing in the interior. Not one iron nail or bolt is used. The only metal found on the boat, in fact, the only component not obtainable locally are the harpoon tips and the long duri knives. These are forged from old automobile leaf springs. Their three dollar cost is the only cash outlay on the entire boat. A short bamboo fishing pulpit projects from the prow and here the harpooner rides the waves.

The deep and placid waters off Lamalera are a breeding and nursery ground for sperm whales and these animals are their most important quarry. They can be caught year round. Blue, pilot, and killer whales are also hunted but they are usually too big or too fast for the cumbersome peledangs to capture. Custom prohibits them from hunting baleen whales: only toothed whales are allowed, so many catchable and juicy cetaceans swim by with impunity. The next most important food source is the giant manta ray. Other ocean species that are pursued are the biggest fish in the oceans; the whale shark, various local sharks, bobbing giant ocean sunfish, sailfish, porpoises, and dolphins.

There are two fishing seasons in Lamalera, called Baleo and Lefa. During Baleo, which lasts from May into September, several boats go out each morning because this is the time when the deep-diving giant manta rays rise to the surface to bask. Each ray can yield up to a ton and a half of good tasting meat and are highly prized by the islanders.

During Lefa no boats set sail and the fishermen turn to land chores such as house repairs and planting. But one eye stays fixed on the ocean and when the shout of “Baleo!?” the Indonesian equivalent of “Thar she blows!?” shatters the day’s calm, everything is dropped and the crews run down to the beach, drag their boats into the surf, and the hunt begins.

Once in the water the sun darkened crew of nine paddle out furiously to a rhythmic chanting: “Hilly Bat, Hilly Bat, Hilly Bat! Huh, Huh, Huh!”. When they can catch an offshore wind, a heavy, two-timbered mast is hoisted up, pullyless, by ropes, and then the woven sail is raised. The hunters bow their heads and say the Lord’s Prayer and Hail Mary before plying the waters seeking giant sea creatures.

The peledangs that go out each day stay within sight of each other. They range as far as seventeen miles offshore and up to five miles to either side of Lamalera. They call it a day when the winds shift onshore during the afternoon and return empty of game nearly seventy-percent of the time.

The boat has no real captain and sailing decisions are made by the most experienced crew members. Other jobs are specific. Two men bail out the water that slowly seeps through the cotton and pitch caulking. One man steers with a long paddle jutting out the stern. Two men on each side control the rectangular golden sail. Everyone rows when necessary.

The most important man is the harpooner. He must have enough strength to hurl his harpoon through the inches-thick skin of a whale and the accuracy to place it where it will disable the whale quickly. But most of all he must possess incredible balance and this comes naturally to only very few islanders. With feet half as wide as long, as solidly in place as if they were nailed into the bamboo logs of the fishing pulpit, the harpooner stands on the roiling and pitching prow as comfortably as a Westerner waits for a bus.

Most of the day is spent in a listless stupor under the broiling equatorial sun, tacking slowly back and forth across the horizon, until one of the lookouts spots the slightest fish-made murmur in the water’s kaleidoscopic surface pattern. They can tell immediately what species made it and how large was the maker. The best sight of all is the tell-tale spout far off on the horizon. Once prey is spotted the boat erupts into a frenzy of activity.

The harpooner takes command and directs the attack. The crew throws their bodies into their paddles, slowly closing the gap between peledang and quarry. One sailor hammers the appropriate harpoon tip into the end of a bamboo lance. One end of a rope is attached to the harpoon tip and the other end is tied to the main cross beam of the boat. A second and third harpoon are readied.

Another man called the “harpooner’s friend” and standing directly behind the harpooner tends to the coils of ropes making sure it doesn’t wrap around an arm or a leg. This is the most dangerous part of the hunt and mistakes are inevitable. Many a man has been lost when he was caught in a coil and dragged overboard.

This was how Sebastianus lost his arm, caught in the rope that was skewered into a whale. He was under water for over an hour and swears he was conscious the entire time. When he surfaced he was rushed back to shore but holy water from the Church failed to save his arm. The next day he was taken to a hospital on Flores where it was amputated. The Lamalerans speak of this episode in hushed tones and call it a miracle, reinforcing their faith in their protector, Jesus.

When the peledang maneuvers into striking position, the harpooner, with no regard for his own safety, leaps off the boat using all his body weight to drive the lance deep into the flesh of the animal. If the strike is a good one the harpoon tip stays embedded and the fight is on. The whale sounds and strips off coil after coil of rope. The crew scrambles to lower the mast and sails so they don’t get damaged in the battle because sometimes the whale pulls the boat completely under the water several times before it tires. All the equipment is tightly lashed down and only the crew can be spilled into the ocean.

Meanwhile, the other peledangs in the fleet paddle ferociously into the fray to assist the first boat and to go after any other whales in the pods, especially the stricken cow’s calves who tend to stay with their wounded mother. As soon as the whale re-surfaces more harpoons are flung and the whale weakens. The last thing the whalers want is a drawn out fight and they have learned where to stab the beast to quickly bleed it to death. The sailors will even jump onto the back of the whale and make deep cuts by hand with their duri knives.

In normal circumstances it takes twenty minutes to kill the whale. But there have been several instances where the boats have been dragged for up to a week across half the Savu Sea until, reluctantly, they have to cut the rope and lose their nearly irreplaceable harpoons. Once a whale is harpooned only twenty-five percent manage to escape.

On the 10th of March this year a furious fight took place, Lamalera’s worst in history. A large pod of sperm whales was attacked by the peledangs. Two boats were towed far out to sea by a single whale pierced by a dozen harpoons. The infuriated leviathan destroyed both boats. The crew was missing for over a week and given up for dead. A passing passenger ship found them clinging to debris and took them to Kupang on Timor Island, two-hundred kilometers to the South. It was a fortnight before Lamalera received word that the fishermen were alive and rescued. Doubly unfortunate was that both of the demolished boats were the namesakes of the original ones that brought their forefathers to Lamalera. This was a tremendously bad omen for the community and many believe it is the reason for this season’s poor hunting. Two clans are now out of the hunt. It takes three years to build a new boat and construction will start this fall.

Once the whale expires, they tow it back to shore for butchering. The three-and-a-half tons of meat on the average-sized whale is divided according to a very specific set of rules long ago established to eliminate any quarrels or bickering. Each persons’ share is known and spelled out, from the one who first sighted the animal to the men who only help drag the peledangs into and out of the water each day. The builder of the boat, the ironsmith, and the sailmaker gets a share from all the boats; catches but they also are expected to keep up the maintenance on all the vessels.

Each peledang is run like a corporation with individual shareholders. The catch is divided among the members of the corporation, even those who never go out to sea. In this fashion the meat trickles down to every family on Lamalera. Fishing is a community effort. Everyone helps out where they can and in this way earn at least a little bit of protein.

Every part of the whale is utilized. The meat, muscle, and blubber is fried or stewed. The excess is sun-dried in strips for later eating and barter. The blubber is dried on the racks and the dripping oil falls into bamboo collectors. When new, the oil is used for cooking. Later it fuels the lamps. The viscera are only eaten fresh and the most highly prized piece is the heart. The bones are boiled for stew. The teeth are fashioned into jewellery and sold.

Fresh whale meat is quite delicious, but after drying on the racks for a couple of months, it takes on the consistency of a radial tire and tastes even worse. But then a filet mignon steak drying on a rack for the same amount of time would probably taste as vile. Dried manta ray is only a slight improvement on dried whale meat and chews like week-old bubblegum. These are definitely acquired tastes.

The type of fishing practised by Lamalera is classified by anthropologists as true aboriginal substenance fishing and does not fall under the commercial quotas set by the International Whaling Commission. This commission along with the World Wildlife Fund have actually established projects to help the Lamalerans hunt whales more successfully because no one else in the world has a greater right to harvest these animals then this village. The Japanese also claim whaling is part of their indigenous culture but a sliver of item number 128 on a sushi menu is not nearly as important to Japan’s prosperity as whale meat is to the Lamaleran’s.

Fifteen average-sized sperm whales are needed to feed the 3000 people in Lamalera for the year. In the best year ever, fifty-six sperm whales were caught: in the worst, only eleven. After paying the tributes to the land owners, the excess meat is used to trade for agricultural products.

Lembata Island is a hardscrabble, mountainous land with hardly any natural game. A long dry season and one extremely wet one make farming especially difficult. Inland, thousands go hungry in the annual three- month period between December and March. In the two-hundred-odd years they have been living here, the Lamalerans have exhausted the volcanic soil’s fertility, and, according to their original agreement, they do not have the right to use any other land. So they must somehow obtain agricultural products to round out their nutritional needs. At the same time the inland villages need protein which is sorely missing in their own diets.

Thus an economy evolved on Lembata Island based on barter. Food for food. Cash is useless when nourishment is scarce because famished people will not sell their food. They will trade it though, for other types of provisions. So no matter how high a price the Lamalerans can sell whale meat for on neighboring islands, they will sell only a small percentage. They must keep the bulk for trading.

Every Saturday Maria Somi Lamakera walks the seven kilometers to the next village, Wulandow, for the weekly trading market. Never an idle moment when there are chores to do, her hands keep busy and spin cotton threads to use in the ikat weavings as she carries a bundle of whale and ray meat on her head. Only the women of Lamalera attend this market and only men go out to sea.

Maria picks up all her supplies for the week. The basic trading unit is six, six bananas, ears of corns, or yams, for one measure of rice or grain. Everyone agrees that one strip of whale meat is equal to two units of produce and the trading transactions go fast. The rest of the time the vendors spend gossiping and chewing betel before returning to Lamalera in time to prepare dinner.

It’s even harder to push the peledangs back into the sheds in the afternoon, especially when the tide is out. The distance can be over 150 yards and thirty men can hardly budge the boat. With sweat pouring down faces and stinging eyes the boats creep up the sand inch by inch sliding over the thick branches.

Sebastianus, with two good legs shoves his one good shoulder into the hull and helps push with his family and neighbors. Even though he can’t go out to sea he is not forgotten. His clan makes sure that his wife and children have enough to eat. They also give him all the whale teeth to sell to the occasional tourist. He wonders if his oldest son will take his place as a harpooner or if he will finish high school on the mainland and never return to work the ocean.

There are not many places left in the world like Lamalera. So clean and pristine that the starlight from the Milky Way is reflected in a shimmering band off the ocean’s surface. So quiet and peaceful that the village dogs have nothing to bark at. A place where everyone welcomes you with a smile and sings you a greeting. An area so remote and isolated that any progress made in the world will arrive here last.

The people are poor and they live a hard life, but they know some things that the outside world has long forgotten: how to be happy and how to live as one with their environment. These are lessons we all must re-learn.

Everyone is so worried about their diminishing food supply that it has been decided that four boats must make a long journey to a seldom used fishing ground far away. The sailors will be gone from their loved ones a lengthy time. The situation is critical and simple: whales must be caught or people will starve. It will be a sea voyage with many hardships, but to stay in Lamalera and keep coming home empty is a far worse fate.

THE END

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