The engine purred and belched as our boat skimmed through deep water, which reflected a night sky shining bright with stars. In the distance, a much larger boat could be seen sitting eerily still, a couple of cabin lights reflecting towards us. I looked out to my left, and could barely make out the faint silhouette of the island Malenge.
For three weeks we had been travelling up through Sulawesi, the Spider Isle: one of the largest islands of the Indonesian archipelago, home to sprawling jungles, untamed beaches and enigmatic cultures. The cluster of islands we now moved through, cradled in the gulf between Central and North Sulawesi, is known as the Togian Islands – a paradisiacal cluster of beaches and mangroves, dotted with a handful of villages and the occasional dive school.
Our long sampan boat sliced through the midnight water past the southern edge of Malenge. I ran a hand through the water, and bright blue and green flashed there, caused by bioluminescent plankton. Occasionally, the boat would run through a dense patch of plankton and green sparks would fly up, like a train grinding on tracks.
Our destination was a small beach on the north of the island, home to Spaniards Kike and Eva Pastor. Arriving just after midnight, we jumped from the boat into the warm sea and walked up the beach to the bungalow where our hosts greeted us with grins and a meal of fried fish and noodle soup. We settled in for the night, the jungle chirping behind us.
We awoke to a loud growling and screeching echoing around the beach. Kike’s dogs had strayed too close to a troupe of wild macaques, and the fangs of one animal had scored an 8cm wound to the youngest dog’s back. This unsettling event reminded us that this beautiful location was still very much a wild place.
The journey to the islands was long and tiring. As we pushed further north into the Gulf of Tomini, phone signal dropped to a few precious spots on the highest hilltops. Being cut off worried me – I suffer from Type 1 Diabetes and Addison’s disease. The safety blanket of hospitals and healthcare that I was used to at home in the UK felt very far away. The sea was the Bajau people’s main source of medicine, but I could not expect it to save me if the insulin I had brought with me failed. En route to the islands, I had been racked by bouts of food poisoning and did not feel back to full health yet, but we were so close to the goal of documenting the lives of the people of Bajau that we could not let it stop us