The sky broke open before dawn.

The rain teeming down from the heavens was splattered horizontal by fierce winds. I could hear the surf pounding as if to destroy our inn’s beach walls – terrifying.

This is Belitung, where the rain never comes gently. “I’ve never seen it rain harder than it does in Belitung,” says Andrea Hirata in his novel Laskar Pelangi. The sailors in these parts refer to these powerful wind and rain storms as “squalls” – a natural phenomenon that they fear.

But in the morning, the sky was clear. My friends and I walked down to the harbor to head over to Lengkuas Island. We walked along the beach of Tanjung Kelayang toward a row of fishing boats. An island shaped like the head of a garuda stood boldly across the strait.

Suddenly the weather changed, and a chill wind blew; another squall was on the way. The fishing boats tied to the pier were tossed about by the waves and smashed into one another. One of the fishermen came over. “Are you sure you want to sail over to Pulau Lengkuas?” he asked our friend. We could see the doubt and reluctance reflected in his face. We had rented a boat to sail to Pulau Lengkuas this morning, and he was the skipper.

I remembered that the day before, in Tanjung Bira, another fisherman told us that fishermen in Belitung never set out to sea in December; it’s just too unsafe. If you want to go to Belitung, go between April and August; then the sea is as clear as glass, he said. My friend replied confidently, “We’ll give it a try.” After all, Lengkuas is not far from Belitung, just a few dozen minutes.

ocean-floorShortly after we set out, it started to rain and the sea became choppy. Belitung was far behind us, and small islands appeared on either side of the boat. The waves grew bigger, higher even than the roof of the boat. If the skipper made just one false move in navigating through these waves, we’d all be dumped out into the sea.

I regretted the phrase carpe diem (Latin for “seize the day!”) from the Dead Poets Society that had inspired me to agree to join this trip to Pulau Lengkuas.

It took far longer than expected to reach Pulau Lengkuas, because the boat had to follow the waves. I prayed as I watched each huge wave rolling toward us. But my prayers were answered; like the squall before dawn, this storm vanished as quickly as it had come.

The surface of the sea surrounding the island was like glass, and the water was so shallow the boat could not dock close to shore. There was no other choice but to plunge in and wade to shore through waist-high water. Pak Komarudin, the lighthouse keeper, welcomed us with a big smile. He and his family live here at the lighthouse. A government ship comes to bring their food and drink rations once every three months. Pak Komarudin relies on rain water for his fresh water needs. A great vat is set out to collect rain water, and it flows from there into a big square tank with “Conserve Water!” written on the upper wall. If the water supply runs out, Komarudin has to contact Jakarta to ask them to deliver some water from Belitung.

Belitung and the hundreds of islands surrounding it are actually seabed that has been lifted to the surface by powerful forces of nature. The granite rock of Belitung originated through solidification of acidic magma. Because the magma cooled slowly, deep below the earth’s surface, the atoms and elements had a chance to bond strongly. This produced phaneritic minerals with large, coarse grains containing silica (the material glass is made from). Because these structures work this way, they produced joints with large spaces, so when the granite was later exposed and degraded by weather and other natural forces over millions of years, the result was giant boulders with astonishing shapes.

In the distance, several other smaller islands lay scattered in the open sea. The grains of the rocks in all the islands of Belitung run parallel, as if a giant ruler connected them all to each other. Amazing! This seems to prove the process of geological lifting followed by erosion. The raising of the ocean floor to become the islands of Belitung has occurred quite quickly in geological terms – only a few hundred million years.

ocean-floorThe main function of Pulau Lengkuas in the maritime traffic of Belitung is its lighthouse. The Lengkuas lighthouse was built in 1882, and its strong light still serves as a navigational aid in the Gaspar Strait between the islands of Bangka and Belitung. The interior of the lighthouse is a prison-like space with a sad aura. The lighthouse walls are made of sturdy iron plates. The windows on each floor are in different locations, so you get a different view from each window. The top floor, the 14th, is where the light itself is located. The lantern is half the size of a grown human. The walls of this top story are made of thick rounds of glass; it seems as if nothing separates us from the clouds that seem so close.

When we returned to the boat, the pilot asked, “Wanna buy an island?” Huh? “Sure, when people come here from Jakarta it’s usually to buy an island. That one over there belongs to Mr. X (an important official in Jakarta). It’s for sale, if you’re interested. And that one belongs to Mr. Y (another Jakarta official), and it’s for sale too. Lots of people from Jakarta come here to buy islands”.

If these islands are sold, the owners will have the right to play God, level some of Belitung’s gigantic granite structures, and turn them into a bunch of boring resorts. The children of Belitung will no longer run free or visit these islands, once they’re fenced in. It’s probably better if Belitung and the neighboring islands remain a secret – a monument of beautiful jewels raised from the ocean floor.