Anthony Wright

     They dropped me off at the Tailem Bend turnoff, I thanked them for the ride and watched them drive away, heading for a chimerical mirage that I used to call home, now bonded by pale ghosts. I chose to hitch the windswept highway to the coast.

     It was my choice. I am free to choose.

     The road stretched and dipped toward the horizon line, framed by deserted farmlands. No cars, no trucks – only a cow grazing here, there. No sight of the sea.

     I was after a ride to Kingston by lunchtime, Mount Gambier late afternoon; then straight onto Portland to hook up with my pal and a round or six of Guinness by evening.

     That was the plan.

     An hour. Possibly an hour had passed – traipsing the broken asphalt lines. No traffic passed in either direction. Apart from the occasional strains of some flying insect, there was an almost chilling vacuity of life, that incited perplexing raptures within me.

     I perceived the low-fi ambience of nature, as vivid cinema memories recalled my recent adventure aboard a fishing boat, wrestling the big February seas of Sunda Strait….

     Monsoonal clouds had banked to plunder the sun as our vessel rolled in deep troughs. The crack of bow against wave, whip of spray against face: no mortal fret could penetrate that enchantment. It was a moment which basked in infinity.

     One century earlier, a vampiric intestinal tract drew in the sea we had compassed, and the sky over our heads had been hooded by the burning ash of a sinking island, vomiting blue lightning and geysers of lava.

     The waves reared like giant green scorpions, toppled in disintegrating shards on the surrounding coastlines of Java and Sumatra, and obliterated everything and everyone that stood or ran before them.

     I was making ends meet singing Frank Sinatra songs in a Karaoke bar in Jakarta. There were some pretty miserable Japanese businessmen in that place, regulars, who peeled off bills for Bintang beer refills if I'd perform "My Way", "Strangers in the Night", etc.

     One evening when a few of us from the hostel were sufficiently in our cups, I advanced my plan to a couple of older Brits and a New Zealander, to bus to southwest Java and find some fishermen who would take us to Krakatoa.

     Where I wanted to go. In fact, where I'd wanted to go since I was a boy... .

     Krakatoa was the westernized appellation for Krakatau, formerly Pralape, the legendary ex-island situated slapbang in the Selat Sunda, which blew itself to bits back in 1883. The volcanic eruption that tore the island asunder produced the loudest explosion ever recorded: at its maximum, heard simultaneously in Alice Springs and on Rodriguez, an island in the Indian Ocean, thousands of miles southeast and southwest of the cataclysm, respectively.

     The resulting tsunamis heaved up by the Krakatoa blast killed 36,000 people. A seismic wave encircled the globe. The dust and rock thrown into the atmosphere produced resplendent, weird sunsets all over the world for a year.

     The fellows I explained the bloodcurdling history lesson to listened with rapt interest. They'd never heard of the place, but were sufficiently impressed by notions of adventure to go there. It was a fortuitous decision, since we all got involved in a brawl later that night, and were kicked out of the hostel the following morning.

     Rather than go slogging around the capital looking for more cheap lodgings, I suggested we get cracking and immediately haul butt to Kalideres bus station. I was on a tight budget, and I didn't want anyone getting sober on me.

     We bought tickets for Labuan on the coast. From there, we'd head directly to the Krakatau Beach Hotel at Carita, on the bay from which one sailed to the Krakataus island group.

     The bus trip down there was predictably crazy. One trait all Indonesian bus drivers shared was an obsessive urge to play "chicken." Only against their opposite numbers, heavy trucks, and the odd train. Passengers fared less well in enduring this psychotic activity when the road was relatively intact, and chicken could be played under optimum speed conditions. Thus we gave thanks to our respective gods when, after a couple hours' breakneck jousting, the road degenerated into a monsoon-rutted track.

     The landscape finally slowed down, although it was a jarring ride for the next four hours on the highway wending southwest, as our driver plundered his bucking bull on its frustrated rampage across the muddy plains.

     We reached Labuan after sunset, and secured the services of four rickshaw riders to take us to Carita. The ride was through dark jungle that skirted the coast, lit by fireflies beating about in the still, humid air. Wingspun drops of oxidized luciferin dazzled us as the insects flew into our outspread hands. The rickshaw drivers raced each other along the sandy track. We laughed like intoxicated children, enveloped in the tropic night – and I was with a pretty tough crew.

     There was

     Goddard: British, mid-twenties, skinny, blond with a wispy auburn moustache, faraway look in the eyes; he was a Geordie musician who'd once attended the Newcastle School of Music, said he'd roomed with the drummer from Flock of Seagulls....

     Ambrose: New Zealander, mid-twenties, strongly built, blond, gay model build and affectation; he was an Auckland scam artist, sensitive and paranoid, nursing his secrets….

     & Snapper: British, mid-twenties, stocky, ugly, dirty mop of dun-colored, scraggly hair; a tough cracker from Leeds, low pressure cooker type, liked to splice the main brace past the midnight hour.

     – Goddard and I had hooked up in Pangandaran, enjoyed a few dark nights of the soul and become friends. He was actually a bit of a bastard to everyone else, but we got on well together. The other two dudes were OK in their way – Ambrose ended up tagging along with Goddard and I all the way to Koh Somet. Snapper, on the other hand, never transcended his soccer lout sensibility, and when the expedition was over, left for Jakarta and a plane to Darwin, where his cousin ran a profitable landscaping business. Snapper had his moments, but I'll say, very few of them – and I wish I could add a few more words about these guys, but I cannot. What's the point? They're already ghosts. Ghosts of the road. Ghosts in old photographs. Close to forgotten.

     We found ourselves the only guests of the Krakatau Beach Hotel. The only thing to do was get drunk in the lounge bar. It rained all night. We spent the next morning staggering along the beach, accosting locals, explaining our proposal in halting Bahasa. A tattered banner tied from the balcony of our hotel to an adjacent palm tree, proclaimed the recent 100th anniversary of the historic convulsion. I wondered how the folks here had celebrated it.

     The beach rimmed the infamous Bay of Stories, where they say 10,000 corpses washed up on shore in the days following the apocalypse, and the echoing testimonies of the lives that had housed each of those bloated, sun-blackened bodies reverberated through many a haunted night. Those voices, drenched in sobs, occupied my tossing dreams, sifting sea breezes and the sad scent of frangipani.

     Goddard and I encountered a small, wiry fisherman who appeared to be in his early 40s, and who came to understand our needs after we pointed long enough in the direction of Krakatau. He considered us sharply, and was probably none-too-impressed, but with a wave of his hand beckoned that we follow him. He led us I inland to his village: a dozen basic, palm-thatched huts. A sedate, mud-colored river oozed in from the bush; several dilapidated fishing boats lay to its banks.

     Around a hundred villagers stopped their activities and observed our entrance. The fisherman led our party, grinning broadly, as a gaggle of children screamed with delight and rushed over, grabbed our arms and dragged us to the center of the collection of huts.

     We established that the fisherman, Budi, wanted 15 dollars for gas for his outboard motor, and 10 bucks for himself and a friend who would come along for the ride – ostensibly to bail water. The deal included a passage skirting the surf-dashed sides of Krakatau's verdant southern extremity, now christened Rakata, then onto Anak, the "Child of Krakatau" – the active volcano that had clawed its way out of the sea in a series of eruptions in 1928.

     It was here at Anak where we would berth, and climb the outer cinder cone of the caldera. We would then spend the night camping on Anak's vibrating beach of warm, crushed black pumice; and return to the mainland the following day.

     I was poised to ride a wave that began in the oceanic deep of the past, when as a boy I sat in front of the TV a league or so past my bedtime, and gaped in awe at the model ships and lighthouses disappearing beneath the massive waves of a Hollywood backlot water tank: Krakatoa, East of Java – a cheesy '60s movie, its title geography ass-backwards.

     I will go there.

     Eighteen years later, as our group shook hands in a tiny hut in the jungle on the coast of west Java, I knew I was going. It was a strange feeling, making reality out of a daydream….

     We walked to the village early next morning.

     Budi and his pal, Mochtar – a stick-thin, silent man around the same age as Budi – had prepared the boat. A number of the village's population assembled along the muddy banks of the river to see us off. The sun rose quickly in the sky, and steam rose from the mud of another night's deluge.

     We slowly puttered away from the waving crowd. Naked children jumped into the river and swam alongside the boat. Others, bathing in the water or playing near the banks, raised their arms in the air, shouting. Tangled brush, overhanging palm trees and Conradian shadows infested the river's edge.

     We presently emerged from the claustrophobic humidity of the forest, and perceived the horizon line of the sea beyond the beach ahead. The river widened and changed color. An expanse of shallows rippled across the beach in steady, froth-filled effervescence. The brine was strong in our nostrils.

     Mochtar jumped off the boat, sinking chest-deep in the water, and beckoning us with a taciturn shout, started to rather ineffectually push the boat. The rest of us hopped over the side and helped give a push, while Budi switched off the outboard and held steady on the rudder.

     Light swells rolled over us. Goddard and Snapper suddenly disappeared under deep water – to surface just as quickly. Budi signaled for everybody to haul back aboard – this booster was presumably a daily ritual over a shallow spot of the tidal river's mouth. We broached nondescript, low tide surf with ease, chugged into the Bay of Stories, and entered the Selat Sunda.

     Strong head winds quickly kicked in, the waves rose high, and our so-called jaunt quickly became a battle. We were all conscripted to take turns working the buckets, although a permanent pool of bilge water at the bottom of the tub conspired to keep her sluggish. Budi tacked stubbornly forward, trying to get some trim out of the old lady.

     Monsoon season meant a heavy tropical storm could theoretically spring up at any time – and by late morning the sky was blotted out by swirling cumulus formations, flecked with black, invested in a shimmering, twilight halo. The sea churned into a fury, became an aquatic rollercoaster that we rode and rode.

     Snapper was not enjoying it – he looked ill. Ambrose the Kiwi separated himself from the group to sit out the watery gallop at the bow, as the little craft careened into the glaucous bed of each trough. Goddard and I gripped the sides and grinned like fools. Eventually the winds performed an about-turn and swept the clouds away to another part of the universe. The sea settled down. We now found ourselves briskly skirting the cobalt with a smart tailwind slapping our backs. Budi assumed a fixed, flustered expression.

     Either it was a planned surprise, or simple providence, but we encountered another fishing boat, a few nautical miles from the ever-looming crag of Krakatau. Budi steered straight at it, we hit the boat with a violent smack. The fishermen laughed aloud, cracking jokes in colorful Sundanese. Perhaps they were all from the same village. After this lighthearted banter, the group threw us a half-dozen medium-sized fish from the day's catch into our boat.

     At last Krakatau loomed in solid view: the broken chunks of islands, and the young volcano nearby, smoking in their midst. We met Rakata's sharp, amputated peaks. The jagged remains were thick with hanging gardens of vegetation. The sea metamorphosed into an eerie lake as we cruised the deep marine caldera.

     Awareness, yes, the elasticity of a psychic corridor, and, in a vibrating crescendo the recognition of this moment: its tangible latitudinal and longitudinal position; Reality toasting Dream in a Karaoke bar, I'm right beside you, so here's to us.

     Hot reality beat on. We rounded a devastated cape and rejoined the current of the Selat Sunda, to face Anak rising from the pale waters, raw and embryonic.

     A light plume of smoke wafted from the caldera. The vision wrapped itself in piercing light, as our afternoon sun gave descent in its rendezvous with the sea.

     We put ashore on the volcano's black sand beach with little ceremony, and after wobbling about on the beach for a few minutes, after seven hours of "sea legs," we decided to scale the volcano. There was nothing complicated about it – just walk straight up.

     Budi indicated that he and Mochtar were going to prepare the fish, get a campfire going, and cook dinner. We would eat when we got back. Great news. We were very hungry.

     The dusty way to the crater was a basic hike, although it was burning hot, and the loose ground, scattered with lumps of pumice, grumbled with light seismic activity. The pungent smell of sulfur assaulted us. We arrived at the rim of a large crater framing the burning caldera. Steaming vapors trundled down its sides, and a lazy trail of sulfuric fumes drifted into the white sky. We took in the surrounding view of islands, remote beads of serenity: Sertung, Polish Hat, Perbunan, Lang.

     For some time, none of us spoke.

     "Lee, this beats Jakarta," Goddard eventually broke the silence.

     We delicately traversed the rest of the cone's rim as it widened and rose on the close side of the caldera. The pumice was dangerously loose. From the top we could see across the Selat Sunda to the mainland of Sumatra, a brown slick stretching along the far edge of the Strait.

     Huge monsoonal clouds gathered over its coast. I perceived the low-fi ambience of nature incite perplexing raptures within me. The doors of a vivid cinema opened.

     Hunger presently intervened.

     "If I don't eat, I'm going to kill myself," Ambrose shouted at the sky.

     Goddard led the charge back down the volcano. A few of us tumbled and in the same motion kept it going and threw ourselves onto the dusty pumice and rolled freely. Then, racing to the beach, threw ourselves into the sea. Budi already had the fish sliced into neat fillets and crackling over a fire. Mochtar was preparing boiled rice in a large pot.

     We took our places at the banquet and broke out a canister of water… .

     Dusk, licking the bones of roasted fish, Budi began motioning us back on the boat.

     "What's our old boy upto?" Goddard asked.

     "I think he wants us to get back on the boat," I said.

     "I don't like the idea of sailing back in the dark," Ambrose protested.

     "I'd go back to the hotel for a few ales," Snapper said. "A few drinks, lark."

     "No, Snapper, a simple daytrip is not the go," I said. "We paid for the night."

     I approached Budi and told him we wished to camp overnight on the volcano - and we had agreed to that. He said something and began to shiver. I didn't understand the word. He said it again, then God threw a blanket over His creation. The sun launched itself beneath the waves in a blaze of incandescence. It was night. Budi fired up his hurricane lamp.

     "We go?"

     "No. We sleep Anak."

     He gave up his protests. The man had made a deal with us, and he knew we weren't going to let him renege on it.

     The two fishermen huddled together for a discussion. It ended. Mochtar silently splashed through the waves lapping onto the beach, over to the boat, and jumped aboard. He stayed there all night. Budi, meanwhile, crouched on the beach with his hurricane lamp turned up full. He threw a blanket around himself and stared out to sea, occasionally darting looks around him.


     I couldn't sleep. The night sky was ablaze with stars, streaking meteorites, and heat lightning flashed over the Sumatran mainland. I became transfixed by Budi's solitary, crouching figure, glowing by the light of the lamp. He was surrounded by an immense darkness – a darkness that in his mind was populated by the wraiths of lost souls, his ancestors.

     Mochtar huddled on the wet deck of the boat; it rocked gently in the water.

     We sailed at dawn. A short time later on the open sea, Budi got some gizzards collected during the preparation of the previous night's dinner, wrapped them around a large hook, tied the hook to a fishing line and tossed it into the water. The bait plopped and sank. Budi fed the ball of line into the water, which gradually floated off, settling lightly on, then beneath the waves. He wrapped the remainder of the balled line half a dozen times around the mast, then relieved Mochtar on the outboard and resumed sailing. The rest of us bailed sea water.

     Not ten minutes had passed when the boat abruptly shuddered. To our confoundment, the vessel violently shook, then began moving backwards.

     We had unexpectedly hooked a large swordfish.

     For a brief instant we all saw the creature arc high in the air out of the morning sea. It vanished beneath the waves.

     The fish actually managed to tug the boat backwards for at least half a minute, gave that up, and proceeded to drag our vessel in sweeping, concentric circles, for the better part of two hours. After its first potent breaching we saw no more of it – except for a fin occasionally breaking the surface – as the swordfish carried out the contest beneath the sea.

     Awed by its great size, Mochtar's calm reserve broke; he hailed the impossible fortune with leaps and shouts. After his own exclamations of disbelief, Budi calmed down, turned off the outboard to conserve fuel, and proudly pounded the mast with his fist.

     The fisherman was going to wait for his opponent to exhaust itself.

     As the drama reached its climax, the great fish breached the sea in excited, desperate convulsions. The elements themselves seemed inspired, as the wind rose and the waves churned in steely tumult; even a dozen flying fish appeared, spurting from the wake. Everything came alive in the struggle waged by death.

     The fish was magnificent to look at – a strong, sleek creature of the deep, and we were hypnotized by the sight of it; as we made time on the line, bringing it in a little closer, relaxing for a minute, heaving on the line again ... Quite unexpectedly, we began drawing the big fish in with ease. It seemed to have thrown in its hand.

     The combined strength of us all was required to haul the swordfish aboard. It was a fierce beast, still quite alive, although trailing a slick of blood from its mouth. It snapped menacingly and thrashed about in the boat. There was not a lot of room. Neither Budi nor Mochtar were keen to take a knife to its throat or belly just yet.

     After five minutes, the fish lay relatively still. Its lustrous blue body lost its sheen, its mouth slowly froze, half-open, exposing razor-sharp rows of tiny teeth, and it died.

     It seemed to me that with this catch, Krakatau's ghosts had thanked the two fishermen for their company last night, and while I don't know how my companions precisely felt, I know that each of us shone off the other as we sailed back home, to that indiscriminate strip of a future memory where we would disembark, collect our gear, and say goodbye....

     I smiled at the memory, smiled as I walked.

     Suddenly a truck roared past, shattering the memory's lovely sphere, and hunger gnawed in the hollow of my stomach. I watched the rig as it rumbled out of sight, and now realized I'd marched like a somnambulist into the narrow heart of the national park, where nary a vehicle was inclined to stop for a fleeting, backpacked Icarus.

     I tried to chuckle. It rose from the depths of a renewed indifference. How those horizons of an exalted vision murmured within, yet all they amounted to at the end of the day was just that: a murmur – breathless, lingering on the wind.

     The power of a magnificent moment, its inexplicably simple joy, that revelation we're convinced can be imparted, will subside and die, must – as surf withdraws from a beach. It cannot be imparted.

     It was only with this realization that I found the instant to truly laugh!

     Who gave a crap for the memories that traced the worlds behind my eyes, or any other's?

     They are ghosts.