Mount Agung may be bubbling away, but cruising is a safe way to see Bali and her neighbouring Indonesian islands, says Chris Wiltshire.
Christopher Columbus would have cheerfully sent me down the gangplank had he seen my first feeble attempt at seamanship. I’m a little over halfway up to reaching the first of two crow’s nests on the majestic Star Clipper sailing ship, some 40ft from the gleaming deck, when vertigo takes hold.
I cling on to the ladder as sweat seeps from my forehead into my eyes, and my legs start to tremble while the ship gently sways from side to side off the Bali coastline.
What made me want to attempt such a challenge on my first voyage on the Clipper, a larger version of the ship that Columbus sailed on to discover far-off lands, is beyond me.
Perhaps it’s because I am caught up in the spirit of the week-long adventure, which has drawn passengers from all corners of the earth to visit these Indonesian islands.
I gingerly make my way down the ladder and am greeted with a comforting smile from my wife, Carole. But the wind is swiftly taken out of my sails when a sprightly 84-year-old slips into the harness and makes her way fully up to the crow’s nest, from where she waves to her party of fellow Americans and is royally cheered.
Marilyn Franey seems to encapsulate the friendly, can-do attitude that is prevalent among the 102 guests and 75-strong crew. Many are regular cruisers who love the intimacy of the three-strong tall ship Clipper fleet, the relaxed attitude to dressing up at meal times and the chance to visit small, uncrowded islands – on this occasion the palm-fringed Gili islands, plus neighbouring East Madura, Java and Lombok.
It’s a relatively harmless way to sample the delights of volcanic hotspot Bali, whose tourism numbers have been severely depleted since Mount Agung first erupted last November. Two months on, volcanic ash continues to spew from its crater, but it’s anyone’s guess if a major eruption will occur and a 6.5-mile safety exclusion zone remains in place.
At dinner, excited chatter swiftly turns to the evening sailaway. All the guests on our table of eight have already experienced it on either sister ships the Royal Clipper or the Star Flyer, and all confess to shedding an emotional tear.
With cool beer in hand, I make my way up to the top deck via the mahogany and polished brass staircase where I am greeted by a warm breeze and star-filled sky. Smartly turned-out deckhands busy themselves around the four towering masts and wait for commands from Polish skipper Mariusz Szalek.
Then the drama begins. “Main sail, release!” comes the command. “Released, captain,” replies the deckhand. Rope holding some of the 36,000 square feet of sails is loosened and slowly the main sail rises. As it does, the haunting sounds of Vangelis’s Conquest of Paradise – music written to commemorate Columbus’s voyage to the New World in 1492 – breaks out from speakers dotted along the deck.
Other sails swiftly follow up into the night sky and I’m hit by a wave of warm sea air as the huge ship suddenly takes off. It’s a breathtaking scene.
Admittedly, sleeping on a proper sailing ship takes a little getting used to – even on the calm waters of the South Pacific – and Carole is spooked when a small wave hits our porthole as she opens the curtains one morning. But after a few days, I relax – and even start hoping for bigger waves to see how the ship really performs.
My confidence stems from the calm, easy-going manner and charm of our skipper, who tells guests at the introduction meeting how he had safely navigated the Clipper in 60-knot winds and found the vessel easily up the task.
After a full day’s sailing we stop off at Giligenteng Island for a spot of snorkelling over the coral reefs and some water-skiing. More culture-driven types head for East Madura (excursion, £51) to visit the Kraton Sumenep Palace and an ancient mosque.
The highlight of the week is an excursion to Mount Bromo on Java (£146), home of the Gunung Bromo volcano – named after Brahma, the Hindu creator, and part of the Tengger Semeru National Park.
After a two-hour journey by motor coach, Jeep and then pony, we wind our way up the 250 concrete steps to the edge of the crater and are overwhelmed by the nauseous, pungent smell from the sulphurous smoke and unnerving loud noise from the volcano’s lava.
We feel like we’re in the eye of the Pacific Ring of Fire, named after the volcanic belt covering 25,000 miles of seismic activity.
It’s a relief to be able to return to the safety of the ship’s tropical bar for a deserved sundowner and to share our experiences with new-found friends.
That evening, my wish for a bigger sea is granted and I am quickly rocked to sleep.
Being on board is perhaps the safest place to be after all.