Lockdown on a Desert Island

How to Live at the Edge of the World

Five months ago the world went into lockdown. Nobody will forget their lockdown experience. It has been and continues to be, the most bizarre, challenging and seemingly life-changing event that anyone has been through on a global scale. This is my story. Me and my two very good friends, Kirstie and Josh have spent the past 160 days on a tiny island in Indonesia, completely cut off from the rest of the world. I believe our experience to be extremely unique and worth sharing.

Even before lockdown came into place I had been living in Indonesia for a year working and splitting my time between the two islands of Nikoi and Cempedak. Every two weeks or so I would take my 6 day leave and potter off somewhere like Thailand, Singapore or elsewhere in Indonesia. The longest I ever spent on the island before this was 35 days. Island fever is a thing and it’ll get ya. You start to lose the plot a little, especially someone like me who thrives on new experiences and new scenery.

This floating house is called a Kelong. The Orang Laut or ‘Men of the Sea’ will spend days or weeks living on these tiny structures in order to make their living catching fish.

Fish is a big thing out here.

Some mornings a whole neighbourhood of Kelongs will have arrived offshore – I’m expecting Kevin Costner to show up one day.

When we were kindly offered the choice to spend our lockdown on Nikoi from our boss we knew that there was no end date to this situation and that once we were in Indonesia the option to go home to the UK would dwindle into obscurity as the days went by. We knew that we would be here for a long time. But knowing and living are two very different things. After a few turbulent weeks of settling in, we have now made this place our home. And believe me, it’s a home like no other.

Anyone who’s lived in South East Asia knows that things work differently out here. In fact, that’s the reason people are drawn to to this beautiful part of the world. Aside from the incredible scenery, food, blue seas, white sand and warm weather, it’s the underlying simplicity of life that is a major pull for some and a turn off for others. In this post I will delve into the day to day logistics of living on a tiny desert island in the middle of the South China Sea.

Nikoi Island – Fifteen Hectares of Paradise

Food

We have two fully working kitchens on the island. One for guest meals and one for the staff. There’s a Kampong or staff village which houses around 150 people in dormitories. Food is prepared throughout the day for the skeleton staff who now spend two weeks here at a time, maintaining the island.

During lockdown Kirstie and I have been living in one of the villas and have gathered together various kitchen appliances so that we can supplement the staff meals with our own twist on Indonesian dishes. Rice is a BIG thing out here and if you are Indonesian you grow up with Rice for every meal.

‘If there’s no rice it’s not a meal’.

I like rice. It’s a perfectly decent thing to eat but for every meal? My fragile western stomach could not maintain such a diet.

Being the resourceful individuals that we are, Kirstie and I have managed to requisition quite a broad range of suppliers on the mainland. In fact, you name it, we can get it – (we’re still working on sourcing decent cheese though).

Every week we order a cornucopia of supplies from Bintan and have managed to make some quite spectacular dishes with nothing but a portable hob, a mini oven and a rice cooker. We have introduced some of our friends from Indonesia to the wonders of a roast dinner and the joys of jacket potatoes. Serving a roast to an Indonesian still begs the question as to whether there is any rice or chilli but we’re working on that. I hate to admit it but chilli spiced gravy is a revolution.

The logistical ballet that is required to ensure everything is delivered to the Island Base on the mainland in time for the supply boat that comes every Wednesday has been refined to an art form. Language barriers, bank transfers, timing and stock amounts are now a walk in the park. We’ve even managed to get a bottle of Prosecco, which in a predominantly dry country, was miraculous.

Josh and Galih are expert spearfishermen and when the conditions are right they will spend half the day diving up to 15 metres on one breath for the daily catch. This video, made by Josh, is a great insight into life here. To skip to the spearfishing part jump to 8 minutes.

There is something exceptionally satisfying about eating freshly caught fish on a wood BBQ. No time for cutlery, you use your hands in these matters which also helps you feel for the tiny tiny bones.

It’s a Jungle Out Here

One thing that is fundamentally different about life out here is the constant exposure to the elements. We have no walls, no windows and essentially, no ‘rooms’. We live outside amongst the birds and the bugs. The sound of the ocean is a permanent feature of my life and time is now measured not by the numbers on the clock but the position of the sun, the tides and the moon phases. I mean this in complete sincerity. When it’s a cloudy day I don’t know whether I’m coming or going.

The Living Room.
This is my view right now as I write this blog. A cool breeze and a cup of coffee. Nice.

With all this ‘return to nature’ malarky comes…well…nature. We must remain vigilant about how our food is stored to avoid unwelcome visitors coming to pilfer the bread. Unlike in the UK, mice and rats are rarely a problem, our true invaders are the monitor lizards, bats and sea otters. Don’t even get me started on the bugs. Kirstie has taken it upon herself to rescue lost insect souls. We have become a grasshopper refugee camp.

It never stops being a source of great shock when you walk into your kitchen and find it’s being ravaged by a dinosaur:

When you hear a rattling from the kitchen and it ain’t grandma.

Sunrise and sunset are marked by our friend Nigel, the kingfisher. His familiar chirp marks the start and end of each day and just recently a new birdsong echoes through the canope, that Kirstie quite accurately remarked sounds like the theme tune to Jurassic Park. I’ve named him John although exactly what kind of bird he is remains a mystery.

This exposure to the elements means everyday is a natural drama. We recently shared our home with a family of Sea Otters who would run underneath my villa each night and scare the living daylight out of me. They also leave an ungodly scent to mark their territory which meant we had to file for eviction. No amount of incense in the world covers up the anal secretion of a sea otter.

I’m happy to say they’ve relocated to the other side of the island.

Keeping Busy

Due to travel restrictions the islands have now been closed for close to 6 months to guests. In the beginning, the momentum of the situation kept us very busy with guest relations and damage control. Slowly this began to wane as it became clear we would be here for a while. Across the world people have been cut back, wages reduced and jobs lost. Unlike a lot of the leisure companies in the area, Nikoi and Cempedak Islands have worked extremely hard to take care of their staff and make sure they are still working in some capacity.

My work load has reduced from 8am-8pm on a 14 day shift to checking the inbox for guest queries every other day and so, we are left with a lot of time to fill.

Designing a logo for ‘Green Your Act Up’ is one of the little jobs that has kept me busy.

Water on the island comes from the rainwater tanks and this year we’ve been blessed with heavy rainfall. Clothes are washed by hand and hot water comes only when the sun feeds the solar panels. I often think that we could pretty much survive a global meltdown. There are no televisions and watching the sunset has become a regular form of entertainment. Gin has been our loyal companion.

Each of us has used the time in different ways. Kirstie has been educating herself by taking various online courses to help her with her next phase of life developing a business supplying sustainable products called Green Your Act Up for which I designed the logo (above). Josh found himself to be a songwriting progeny and wrote 20 songs in three weeks. His YouTube channel, Causeway, is worth a visit.

Our best friend Galih has taught himself how to make handmade spearguns and they’re incredibly beautiful and he has caught many a fish with them. He’s managed to secure a buyer and is hoping to make a business out of it eventually. He’s one of the cleverest, most hardworking people I’ve ever met.

Me, I have been working on developing my creative skills. A year ago I started to teach myself how to use Photoshop and since then I’ve been helping friends with logos and design work. You can check some of these out here.

A few months ago I was approached by an old friend to help her to complete one of her modules for her masters course in music. She requisitioned me to write the brief, paint a picture and record the entire process in a timelapse video. The entire process took me three to four months from first draft to final piece. For me, it was a revolution in almost stress-free commission work.

We’re on the final stages of video production for this piece and I will write a separate blog about the creation process.

I’ve also started a whole new journey in songwriting and music production. I can’t tell you how much satisfaction I’m getting from the process and I’ve even written a song about our time here which I will share with you soon. Incidentally, another interesting challenge from living here is trying to avoid recording the sound of the sea, rain and wind.

On our only day away from the Island we took a shopping tour of Bintan and I purchased myself a microphone and sound card. Much joy has come from this.

There’s so much I could share about our time here. I’ve barely scratched the surface but what I can say is that it’s been one of the best experiences of my life and I’m happy to document it for myself and for anybody else who’s interested. The bond we have developed by living in such close proximity will follow us throughout our lives. I am so grateful to the company and our boss for letting us live here. I am grateful for these wonderful people and for the experiences I am living through.

What is to come? Who knows. There is talk of opening the border between Singapore and Indonesia and we have our fingers and toes crossed that it will happen soon and we can start getting back to some kind of normal. Until then, we wait.

1 Comment

  1. Your heart and soul is in Indonesia and thereabouts. England will never be your base. You are so lucky to have this chance in life. It’s good that you are taking advantage of being your very own Robinson Crusoe with a bit of luxary and technology thrown in. Brilliant blog. Waiting for more. Love you lots xx

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