(CNN) – Even after more than two decades of extensive travel around Indonesia, I sometimes struggle to grasp the true scale and diversity of the planet’s largest island nation.
This is the fourth most populous nation in the world (home to about 10% of the world’s languages) and yet many people would struggle to find Indonesia on a map.
Kopi dulu means “coffee first” in Bahasa Indonesia; which serves as a unifying second language for the majority of Indonesians. For me, the phrase came to sum up the attitude of unhurried hospitality that is everywhere amid the unimaginable cultural diversity in this part of the Ring of Fire of volcanic countries on the Pacific Rim.
Whether Muslim, Hindu, Christian or animist, sometimes it seems that little happens without a preliminary “cup of Java”. It was good for me because I learned very early in my travels in Indonesia that there was no need to rush; jam karet (rubber time) is another national phrase that is the ideal antidote to the routine of our hyper-scheduled western lifestyle.
Where myth is inseparable from reality
I first visited Indonesia in 1995, leading an expedition through central Borneo, and have since been on missions to all the main islands. I got to explore almost 100 or more undocumented islands and a few of the 12,000 that are still officially listed as uninhabited today.
Skeptics will tell you that there is no such thing as an unexplored region, but Indonesia offers a level of adventure that few countries can match. Naturally, my travels around the country have taken in most of the iconic tourist spots (including Borobdur Temple, the Batak Mountains, and Komodo) and quite a few places that have almost become popular even though they see few international travelers (Krakatoa, the Maluku side). “Spice Islands”, Borneo).
Palasari’s Church of the Heart of Jesus rises in an unexpectedly elegant facade against the steamy jungle backdrop.
I surfed the legendary reefs of G-Land, Nias and Occy’s Left, and pioneered a previously unsurfed wave in the remote Alor archipelago.
I looked for orangutans and looked for tigers in Sumatra, and talked to people in communities all over the island about the many mythical creatures, spirits and hantu (ghosts) that seem to occupy every corner of this fascinating archipelago.
Indonesia phinisi cruises
Island hopping across this vast chain of 13,466 islands, of course, often required boat travel.
The southeast coast of Sulawesi remains the traditional homeland of the Bugis, an ethnic group once famous for fearsome pirates who, according to legend, brought the word “boogeyman” to a million childhood nightmares.
Today the Bugis (and the closely related Konjo) continue to build the elegant Sulawesi schooners known as phinisi.
These ships are often the only viable way for travelers to visit Indonesia’s most remote islands and are able to bring the benefits of tourism to isolated and underrepresented communities without leaving lasting impacts.
There’s also an element of impossible romance about exploring a paradisiacal island chain under full sail, bare feet on a warm teak deck.
The Teluk Palu Festival in Sulawesi is an intoxicating explosion of noise and color.
I explored parts of the Ring of Fire on a 65m luxury phinisi called the Lamima (the largest traditional Sulawesi schooner ever built), but often traveled in less than ideal conditions.
Among them was a traditional fishing boat, which I hired to explore the Komodo Islands, and I tied my hammock in the hold of a cargo ship for a six-day trip up the Kapuas River (Indonesia’s longest at 1,143 kilometers).
I’ve taken that riverboat trip three times in the last two decades into the true heart of Borneo and I think of Kapua as the Indonesian Amazon.
Away from the road
Despite large-scale logging and destruction of oil palms, the rainforests beyond the jungle village of Putussibau represent one of the world’s great jungle adventures. With guides from the local Da’an Dayak tribe — said by neighbors to be mystics and sorcerers — I paddled canoes into uncharted valleys near the center of Borneo in search of Kalimantan’s last rhinos.
Indonesia is among the second most biodiverse countries on the planet (after Brazil) and has more species of mammals than any other country in the world.
From wildlife markets in North Sulawesi, to Sumatran tiger reserves to Wakatobi marine reserves, I was constantly reminded that nearly a quarter of Indonesia’s 667 mammals are listed as “threatened”.
By the time I reached the far eastern reaches of the Far East — in this case at the end of a trek to the Papua New Guinea border — I’d made the equivalent of a trip from Seattle to Tierra del Fuego or Sugo. From Paris to Bangkok.
Thanks to the warm welcome that greeted me in all the communities I was road weary, however.
In fact, I wish he had taken the “rubber time” and turned himself around… then I would have happily set off to start the journey again.