By Sean Woods


History books tell us that Portuguese explorer Bartholomew Diaz was the first seafarer to round the Cape, in 1488. It remains a towering achievement during that golden era of discovery when adventurers from the Iberian Peninsula redrew the map of the known world. But yet... some things just don't fit into the picture.

For instance, how did yams, taro, bananas and Asian rice - originally from Indonesia - end up in West Africa by the first millennium? It was understood from Roman times that cinnamon arrived in Europe via East Africa by the way of epic sea voyages across the Indian Ocean. It is also undisputed that significant human migrations took place from Indonesia to Madagascar. Although there is no evidence that the cinnamon trade was conducted further south than Mozambique, there can be no disputing that Indonesians brought their spices to African shores.

All this was whirling through Philip Beale's mind in 1982 as he stood gazing at reliefs depicting eighth century sailing vessels on the walls of Borobudur, the world's largest Buddhist temple, in Java. Surely these large ocean-going craft were capable of completing the voyage to West Africa?

Two decades later, he got his chance to find out. Teaming up with Nick Burningham, a respected Australian maritime archaeologist, Beale began translating the reliefs into an actual seagoing vessel.

But where to start? There was no blueprint, and these vessels no longer exist. Burningham began by interpreting one of the small reliefs and settled on two methods to determine its scale. Firstly, the rowing galleries provided some hints. By leaving enough space between each oar for the rowers to perform their duties he ended up with a good idea as to the ship's length. Then, by calculating how many people, tons of rice, firewood and spices and so forth would be needed to make a substantial trading voyage an economic proposition he settled on its volume. The end result: a 40-ton vessel measuring 19 metres in length.

The next challenge was to find a builder. After all, how many eighth-century boatbuilders do you know? This is where the good luck that has driven the Borobudur ship expedition began. "This project has been blessed with the right things happening at the right times," says Beale.

Not wanting to have work disrupted by distractions, both he and Burningham began casting their net towards the more remote islands. While on the ferry to the Kangean Islands they met a young man who knew exactly whom they should contact. On his advice they ended up in the village of Pagerungan, East Java, where they encountered 70-year-old shipwright As'ad Abdullah. He was perfect for the job.

The only problem was, he couldn't read plans. He built his craft using instinct and tradition.

Nick's solution was to build a model. As'ad not only built from the model, but interpreted it too. The project began gaining momentum - but the monsoon season was closing in, so a huge shed began taking shape on the beach as small boats began arriving, laden with tons of indigenous woods. Once hauled up the beach, the logs were hewn into planks by hand.

Only ironwoods were used below the waterline, for the masts and tillers. Teak was used above the waterline and the outriggers were constructed of bamboo. Through the use of traditional tools (if you ignore the occasional power drill), the hull was constructed in its entirety before the sturdy ribs, spaced about 25 cm apart and sourced from naturally curved timbers, were installed. This helped create an immensely strong hull. Each plank was dowelled to the next in 15 cm intervals and the ends of each plank were dovetailed together. Not one nail was used and, after much debate, it was also deemed unnecessary to treat any of the wood.

As the project entailed a one-off voyage of six months (Indonesian seafarers would have taken about three years to complete their circuit and stopped along the way to conduct repairs), it was decided for expediency's sake to use modern materials such as nylon rope where required. Two 16 kW outboard engines, for manoeuvring in harbour, have usurped the rowers.

Having left Jakarta in August 2003, by the time the ship entered Cape Town harbour in January 2004 it had travelled a distance of over 11 000 km. It stopped first in the Seychelles, then Madagascar, before heading down the Southern African coastline. Other than an occasional soggy bunk and a bland diet of mainly rice, nothing has rocked the crew's confidence. Ancient mariners, it is clear, could have reached the southern tip of the continent if they had chosen to…

  • As you read this, the team will be heading towards Ghana on the last leg of their adventure. For up-to-date news, visit the expedition web site at www.borobudurshipexpedition.com

  • This article originally appears in the March issue of the South African edition of Popular Mechanics.