Gilimanuk, a small port on the western side of Bali, was the departure for the ferry to Java. Like most island ports it was a cacophony of people and bustled with various forms of transport. Horse-drawn carts pulled in among buses stacked high with passengers and luggage. Large trucks, loaded to overflowing, slowly made their way up a creaking gangway accompanied by directions shouted from those trying to squeeze more vehicles into the tightest of corners. The ferry gradually filled with buses, trucks and cars until the lower level was chock-a-block. We boarded up a long gangplank that ran up to the middle deck, which was allocated for seating.
Travellers of all types carrying their bundles made their way to a comfortable spot. Most found a place to lay down their load and relax on timber- slatted benches that were spread all over the forward and aft decks. To get a break from the crowds and the cockroaches running all around the floor, we decided to take the stairs and find out what was up on the top deck. To our surprise the open top deck was empty, the sun beat down from a typical mid-winter, crystal-blue Balinese sky. There were no seats up on top, just a simple railing strung with wire running around the captain’s cabin and the edge of the deck. Several silver-metal life rafts were stacked up on either side. Smokey diesel engines cranked up, the ferry pushed off and we headed out into the seemingly calm Bali Strait that divided the two islands.
Earlier in the morning four of us caught the bus from Denpasar, which was the first section of our journey that would end at the batik factories of Yogyakarta. We planned a simple trip, bus from Denpasar to the ferry, then the train from Banyuwangi on the Java side through Surabaya and then on to Yogyakarta. We had a map of where the batik markets were, all was organised, so for the time being we relaxed and enjoyed the view.
The Bali Strait that we were crossing was the link between the Indian Ocean and the Java Sea on the north of the Indonesian island chain and a huge amount of water flowed as the tide changed. We could see giant whirlpools swirling with a centre hole like water going down a drainpipe. One monster reminded me of aerial photos of cyclonic cloud patterns with that telltale black hole in the middle. Unperturbed, the captain continued on his direct line to the other side. He must have done this trip hundreds of times and seen it all before as the water below surged and twisted. Two oceans fought for supremacy in the battleground of the strait, but the ferry seemed oblivious to what was going on underneath.
Grant and I sat and chatted about the waves we had been riding and about France, where he was heading after Bali. In the distance we could see the small shadow of some swells created by the water moving up the strait. They seemed stationary as the tidal surge pushed against them. Our imagination ran wild as we threw ideas at each other what it would be like to catch a wave like that. Three perfect peaks just sitting out in the middle of the channel hardly moving, going for ever. The ferry just kept ploughing on to the other side. We could see the wharf where we would be disembarking and it would only be another 20 minutes or so. The three swells also gradually moved up the strait. “Do you think the swells and our path look like they could cross?” I asked Grant. No, the captain would see them, take a slight deviation of his line and we would get a great close-up of these swells. As they got closer we could see that their size had doubled from what they were when we first spotted them. And still the ferry kept on its line to Banyuwangi. The captain sure was leaving it late to change course around them. They were now within 200 metres and it had become obvious that the captain hadn’t seen the rogue swells. At least we would have quick access to the liferafts if something was to happen. By the time the swells reached the ferry, we were looking level from the top deck to the top of the first swell. I estimated it to be over 30 feet high. Fortunately not breaking as a normal wave would, just a huge clean face sparkling in the sun. It hit us broadside, the ferry tipping up on its side to about a 30 degree angle. We looked to the liferafts and quickly realised they weren’t tied down and had begun sliding across the smooth deck like huge bowling balls towards where we were standing. Three of them from one side were coming our way. The ferry reached the peak of the first swell then tipped over and headed down sideways into the trough and the second swell that was bigger than the first. All I could see was a huge wall of water coming towards us. The liferafts from the other side of the deck also started to slide and I think there must have been five or six large, heavy metal projectiles loose and heading in all directions. They crashed into each other as we hit the trough and again the ferry tipped back the other way. A crushing sound came from below as the second wave rushed into the bottom deck. People were screaming and running in all directions, it was mayhem. Apart from all the water that we had taken on board, cars had been washed under trucks and buses pushed sideways, jamming them even tighter than before. We grabbed what ever we could and hung on. Up to the top of the second swell we rose. It was an freakish sight, yet at the same time terrifying. Just to the side of the swells we could see giant whirlpools and I wondered what chance we would have in the water if we were to go down. I had heard of these overloaded ferries sinking and taking hundreds of lives, but never imagined how it could happen in such a way. Coming up to the top of the second swell we knew we only had to survive the next one and we would be OK. Down we went again and out of the corner of our eyes we watched for the careering liferafts. Fortunately the last swell was the smallest and all the damage had been done. By the time we were over the last swell we looked towards the wharf and realised that the ferry hadn’t moved off its line one inch. The whole episode lasted only half a minute, but had scared half a lifetime from me. We looked at each other in disbelief. Where was the captain? As we tied up at the wharf crew came running from everywhere and everyone was shouting at each other trying to work out how to untangle the mash of cars, trucks and buses. We slipped off unnoticed and headed for the train station. I hope the trip to Yogyakarta and the Batik Markets was going to be a little less eventful than that ferry crossing. I wondered if the smoking volcano in the distance was any kind of omen. Time will tell.