Thursday, August 11, 2016

Ghost Town at Ayu Atoll

We had very limited information about Ayu Atoll. Our friends on Brick House had stopped there are few years ago, but had not said much about their experience. They were uncharacteristically unenthusiastic however. They stayed 2 nights and we had waypoints for their anchor spots.

Ayu is a long daysail from the N coast of Waigeo. The strong winds of a few days before had died down, and we anticipated light southerly winds, and maybe a little following current. So we got going early, just after daybreak, so we would arrive at Ayu in good light. Conditions as we left the anchorage were not promising. The squally conditions we had experienced for the previous week had dissipated somewhat, but it was still 100% overcast.

As we approached the southern end of Ayu's reef around noon, we hooked a good-sized mahi mahi. (woo-hoo, fresh fish tonight!!) Also, a boat was approaching us from the other island just SE of Ayu. This boat looked like the typical "excursion" boat from Raja Ampat. At first we thought they must be divers, but on closer inspection, they were all neatly dressed men, locals. They came by and we waved, but we didn't stop. We were in the open ocean and Dave didn't even want to attempt to have anyone come alongside. They waved back, but didn't speak or make any motions to us. As always, it's tough to communicate at all with no Indonesian on our side and no English on their side. They trailed us for about 5 minutes as we fought the mahi, and then eventually peeled off and headed for Waisai. We are guessing that they were some kind of official delegation (they looked like tourism officials).

Once we got close enough to Ayu's reef to see that we could see, we decided to proceed into the reef. We did have a pretty good Google Earth chart of the atoll, and the overcast was thinning. The conditions were light, and we could see well enough to confirm that what we were seeing on Google Earth. We even felt confident enough that we took a shortcut channel down to the island that Brick House had first anchored at.

We were surprised on entering the main channel, to see another low sandy island ahead to the east that looked chock-a-block with small houses. Brick House had never mentioned other inhabited islands. The island they had anchored behind was much higher than the rest. As we sailed by on the outside of the reef, we could see a few houses, but not so many as this one low island. It was too late in the day to spend time exploring, so we proceeded as originally planned to the "main" island in the middle of the atoll.

Coming in the alternate channel from the obvious main channel (it cuts off toward the main island earlier), we had least depths of about 4 meters, avoiding the obvious shallow coral heads, but it was usually around 10 meters. The main channel was even deeper. There are anchorable spots if you arrived at the atoll late in the day and didn't want to proceed further in poor light.

We found the village the Brick House anchored off of, with a very big concrete pier, a church, and many small houses. But it was curious that only one person came out on the pier as we nosed around. Normally we would expect 10-15 kids jumping up and down on the pier waving and yelling "Hello Meester! Hello Meester!" We anchored a little ways from the village in about 10 meters mixed sand and coral. We were relieved not to see any boats launching from the village to come say hello. We had saved our mahi carcass, and when an old guy in a fishing canoe came by on his way back from the reef, we gave it to him. He smiled and waved and thanked us, but again, the language barrier.

We could see a big house up on the ridge--it looked sort of like a resort from afar. But on closer examination--maybe not. So in the morning, we took the dinghy in to say hello and look around.

Again, no one greeted us on the pier, and the village with 20-30 houses looked completely deserted. It was eerie. We finally found a man on the other side of the village, getting ready to launch his big panga. We said hello, but again the language problem. I fortunately remembered the Indonesian word for "walking around" (jalan jalan), and we got a big smile and a wave at the path leading inland.

We had the weirdest walk. We found a concrete road leading inland, and it looked like someone had platted out the land adjacent to the road. There were lot numbers spray painted on the concrete. Piles of rubble and some flat places indicated they had been preparing to build more houses. But every house was locked up and deserted. The large building up on the ridge turned out to be a school, locked, decaying, with one room packed with student desks. We found further on, an administration building, locked and decaying (obviously unused for at least a couple of years). Alongside the road someone had planted (and someone was still tending) various food-bearing plants...coconuts, bananas, melons, taro and several other kinds of root vegetables. We found a full-up Telkomsel (the local phone company) remote installation, with a tower, satellite dish, solar panels, etc. It was dated 2012, but looked abandoned. We had previously checked for Telkomsel signal on our cell phones and got nothing.

There was a second very small village (group of houses) on the other side of the island from where we anchored. There we found a 3-room schoolhouse, unlocked, and it looked like it had been used recently (a date on the chalkboard was May 2016). But we didn't see anyone as we poked a bit around the group of houses.

As we went back through the village where our dinghy was, two pre-teen kids had a few coconuts on road, obviously harvested for us (but no machete in their hands to open the coconuts for us). I hadn't thought to gab any gifts other than a small sack of candy, so I gave that to the boys. We could see 3 other adults sitting in the shade by one of the houses, and they waved and thanked them. Again as we walked through the village, which looked like 50-100 people should live there, we only saw a handful. There was a really nice solar array by the church--20 or so good-sized solar panels and 2 big metal boxes, one marked "batteries" and the other marked "inverter". It didn't look like the inverter was functioning.

There were 3 men on the pier working on making fish cages (4-6 poles upright in the water, surrounded by netting... sort of the local version of a refrigerator for their catch).

I am not sure what was going on on that island--a huge migration to jobs in Waigeo? A foreign church-building project that had petered out and the foreigners gone home? A government aid project that fizzled out? Some kind of plague that wiped out the village? Or people temporarily visiting another island for seasonal fishing reasons?? Maybe a huge wedding or funeral on another nearby island? I would love to have had a chat with someone who spoke english about what was going on. I'm definitely going to Google a little about Ayu when we get internet. Apparently the island or village is named Abidon, as that was on several signs, on the church and the school.
At 8/09/2016 10:34 PM (utc) our position was 00°30.20'N 131°07.89'E

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