A ferry of fortune. A Pelni of pain

Heave. Bags launched once more onto our shoulders. Clip. Clip. Chest and waist straps take some of the strain. We were heading to the harbour. But were we heading to Sulawesi?


The boat – Pelni Wilis – straddled the small Labuanbajo harbour. It’s bulk hiding the setting sun and casting long shadows into the harbour. If only, at this point, we had known the shadow it would cast in our hearts. How much it would wear us down and break our spirits…
When did it leave. We weren’t sure.

How long to Sulawesi. We didn’t know.

And so we – Joyce and I along with our new friends, Juliette and Sivan – strode up the gangplank and onto the ferry. At this point we were happy. We were heading to Sulawesi.

The main entrance to the ship was bustling but not busy. Locals weighed down with too many belongings filed into the ship. Men carried oversized rice shacks; they clambered past and disappeared into the bowels of the boat.

Our first task. Find a place to sleep. Our options:

1. Inside in economy: Hot, sticky, confined. Bugs – cockroaches et al crawling everywhere. Air conditioner conditioning more hot air onto sweaty faces. Mattresses – sticky with unknown viscous liquid. Locals staring at us… Constantly. Next.
2. Get a cabin: Private space for the 4 of us with our own bathroom. Bit cooler. Very small. Downside: sheets of bed stained (very badly) from bed bug bites. And for a premium of another $80 all in. No thanks. Next.
3. Open air: Constant breeze – cool, less bugs crawling around. Dirty but best of a bad bunch so far. We would be lying on the deck of the ship. The walkway everyone uses to get around. Stares would be constant, but that’s okay. It’s just curiosity. We all felt we could cope.

Honestly. Against the alternative options of 1 and 2; option 3 screamed at us. Again. We had little choice.
So we made ourselves busy securing our space. Getting mattresses. Locking down our bags. Hellos and nods to our fellow passengers. And then before we knew it, the sun was down and Wilis was blowing its air horn. We were setting sail. Well, motoring off and pouring big plumes of black diesel smoke into the air… Don’t want to paint too pretty a picture here… Trust me.
We reckoned the journey was about 24 hours. We just had to survive one night. Everything would look better in the morning.

Right. Trip to the toilet. Honestly. I have never seen a worse toilet. Battered doors kept these abominations sealed from the ship – it didn’t matter which toilet you choose they were all the same. First. The heat. It was like walking into a sauna – my glasses steamed up every time – but rather than water on hot stones, it was urine. Lots and lots of urine. It reeked. ‘Water’ sloshed about over sandals and feet indiscriminately. ‘Floaters’ stared up at you from each stall… Most of the time only one was working. Others looked like this:
It was hell. Every part of this journey was hell. In fact, I think we visited many of the levels of hell. And maybe a few we didn’t know existed.

The toilet. The bugs. The dirt. The rubbish.

I think this is what sapped our spirit more than anything else. The rubbish. The ship, every nock and cranny, and even the open spaces were filthy. Rubbish rumbled across the decks with each rock of the wave. The wind whipped up trash into whirlwinds that would land on our prone bodies as we slept. Locals would add to the collection willingly. Instead of finding a bin (there were quite a few) they would simply toss their discarded container onto the floor beside them, or worse overboard and into the sea…

… Joyce even told a kid off for doing this. Only to turn round the next second and see his one of his parents doing the same. Plop. There goes a bottle into the sea. It was sickening and heart-rending.

The people. They came in three varieties. The first would stare at us as they past. This was fleeting and most would respond well to our smiles, nods and gestures of hello. The second – and by far the best – were the ones who smiled at us and chatted briefly about who we were and where we were going. We would of course respond in kind. We were even a bit of an attraction. I had my guitar and kids would come from round the ship to play it. This was nice.
The third kind was the most disconcerting. It usually consisted of a group of men – between 3 and let’s say 10 of them. They would come slowly, almost creep up on us – whilst we were reading or talking or otherwise distracted. They would take up places on the railings. Leaning on walls. Sitting on steps. And they would stare. No smiles. No warmth. Just sit and stare. And stare. And stare. Whilst I’m sure they meant no harm, and occasionally we could break through the blank stares, it was incredibly discomforting… Especially when you were sleeping and awoke to this (which we did). Tough crowd!

…And let us not forget the spitting. The deck was not so much for walking on. No, of course not, how silly of me. It was in fact a giant spittoon. To be used at any time of the day. And don’t worry how close the next person is to you… Just ‘hack it up and have it out’. Clear. Yellow. Green. Thick. Runny. Slimy. All are welcome on board the Wilis…

… Sorry. Got a bit carried away.


At least it was only 1 night. 24 hours. Right?
Wrong! We finally docked in Makassar at 4am on the 16th July. It had taken us 34 hours and practically 2 nights on the worse place I have ever laid my head.

Land had never looked so good. But at 4 in the morning in the heart of a spit-and-sawdust harbour; it was not the grandest of welcomes. Getting off the boat was a ‘kick-bollock-scramble’ to say the least. Head injuries abounded as rice shacks and every other paraphernalia were swung around, ‘knocking us for 6’ every few minutes. People pushing. People grabbing our bags. Shouting. Screaming. Mud. Dirt. Sewage stench. In fact… Maybe the ship was better?
No, I jest. I never want to see (or hear about) that ship again. I will now bring this part of our journey to a quick end…

It was early, we were tired. We managed to find a taxi and a hotel.

We slept. We awoke. Maybe it was all just a terrible nightmare?

A nightmare shared by four friends. Four intrepid travellers.

6 responses to “A ferry of fortune. A Pelni of pain

    • Haha. You know me anything for a bit of drama. Keep the fans on the edge of their seats! 😉

    • … We survived to tell the tale but I won’t be rushing back. Now we venture into Sulawesi. I’m excited!

  1. This seems fair to me. Makes up for all those posts that I have envied you swanning around temples or networking with the fishes. Glad to hear you survived it intact tho bro.

    • Haha. Touché. But just to clarify… Made it out physically. Not so sure about mentally! 😉

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