Ara: the evocative village where boats are born

Boat building in Ara in Indonesia

A row of ancient houses lines the road. Their rickety stilted legs seem to be on the point of buckling under their weight. Their paintwork has faded after years under the tropical sun and their roofs are tipped rakishly like lopsided hats. Crooked flights of steps lead down to the road like twisted elbows, giving the impression that the houses are a row of friendly old drunks leaning together at a bar.

With its friendly atmosphere and colourful streets, Ara is surely one of the most enchanting villages in all Indonesia. Strolling down the sleepy main street is like walking into a cosy pub, where old men are misty-eyed with banter and pipe-smoke.

And, if legends are correct, Ara has captivated visitors since the beginning of time. An ancient king known as La Galigo was so impressed by the workmanship of the carpenters of Ara that he commissioned the chief carpenter to build him the best ship that had ever seen.

According to legend, that was how one of the world’s greatest ship-building traditions was launched. Just half a century ago this area was still home to the largest sailing fleet in the world and the phinisi fleet was still setting sail on voyages that would carry them before the monsoon winds as far as Papua and Sumatra.

The people of Ara – where Dunia Baru’s hull was built – are from the Konjo tribe. Frequently confused with the Bugis people – pirates who were so fearsome that they brought the term “boogie man” to the English language – the Konjo claim to be related more closely with the Makassarese people with whom they share 80% of their language. The Konjo are an ethnic community in their own right, however, and to this day their lifestyle revolves around the production of some of the finest timber sailing vessels in the world.

Several hundred men in Ara still work building timber phinisi using methods that have barely changed over the centuries. Many years after the demise of La Galigo, they are still building the best timber boats the world has ever seen.

It was into the great tradition of Ara boat-building that Dunia Baru was born. A vessel that, it was said, would drive the ghost of La Galigo insane with jealousy.

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