After almost 400 miles of weaving between towering thunderstorms that are punching into the upper atmosphere above us, we finally break out of the backside of the weather and into clear air. We’ve been picking our way through these storm cells for over an hour—some visible in the haze and some hidden by the scattered layers of clouds we pushed through—and my eyes are tired from constantly staring into the glaring white murk ahead. Aided somewhat by our eyeballs, but mostly by the weather radar in the nose of the plane, we’ve avoided the worst of it, and I’m very happy to be out of the almost constant light turbulence that was rocking the wings.
The equator, the invisible line that encircles the widest part of our blue marble, lies 20 miles off our right wingtip and cuts without pause over the pale blue Pacific waters and scattered islands. Watching the ocean below us I crack open a water bottle and take a long sip—the liquid doing little to moisten my altitude-dried lips. This is my first time operating an airplane south of the equator. Although our eventual destination is actually back on the north side of the line, due to the peculiarities of long-range overwater flying and preferred routings almost 1000 miles of our route lies in the southern half of the world.
I thumb the electric seat control lever to raise my seat slightly and unclip the yellow-tinted sunshades that have been doing their best to keep the glare out. We are flying over the Gulf of Tomini, on the eastern end of Indonesia. To our south, mostly hidden below another line of weather, the surprisingly mountainous terrain of the island of Sulawesi stretches off into the distance. The north side of the gulf, visible out my side windows, is made up of a long peninsula that stretches up from the main part of Sulawesi like a large letter “C.” Directly below us, in the middle of the gulf and looking like something out of a Pixar movie, is a small, triangular tropical island, complete with a miniature cinder cone and a single cloud hovering over it.
We pass over the top of the small island (which I later look up and discover has the wonderful name of Unauna Island) and continue westward, eventually passing over the city of Palu, which sits at the bottom (or is it top, I wonder—we are on the other side of the world now) of a long, narrow bay full of the white slashes marking wakes of ships and boats before heading out over the Makassar Strait that separates Sulawesi from the island of Borneo. The strait is mostly hidden underneath a layer of low-lying popcorn clouds, its trackless blue broken only by a few boats’ wakes visible between the clouds.
My eyes stay glued to the glass of the windshield, watching the unfamiliar world slide by as the miles to go number slowly clicks downward. The sea and islands I’m watching are places that I’ve read about in history books and in the biographies of sailors and adventurers but have never seen until today … and then realize that because this passage is a one-off ferry flight I may never see them again.