Earlier this year I went on a kayak and dive adventure in Raja Ampat, Indonesia. Here is the story that ran in the SCMP, and a photo essay on the Canoe & Kayak website.
There’s the muffled rattle of floorboards as someone walks across the platform you’re living on. Parrots, hornbills and a score of other exotic birds chirp and trill overhead. There’s the hiss of waves hitting the shore and maybe the splash of fish. But other than that … silence.
Raja Ampat, an archipelago in the Indonesian state of West Papua, is less densely populated than the Western Sahara, but this undeveloped, remote corner of Asia is home to the greatest diversity of marine life and coral reef ecosystems on Earth.
Scuba divers have been exploring this marine paradise for a few years and live-aboard dive boats are a common sight, but for land-based tourists, the region’s back-to-basics homestays are the best way to immerse oneself in Papuan life.
A 35-hour string of flights, ferry rides and car journeys from Hong Kong deposits us at Mando’s, a homestay built typically of bamboo and palm fronds on stilts over the sea. Home life in Papua takes place on wooden platforms, each having several rooms or huts on it, for cooking, eating and sleeping. As at most homestays, meals at Mando’s are served family style.
The dive industry here is largely operated by Indonesians from other parts of the country, but homestays are owned and operated by Papuan families. They form a bridge between the life on the sea that is so central to Papuan culture and the wild, forested islands that provide wood, food and fresh water.
Mando’s is on the main island of Waigeo and within driving distance of Waisai, the grimy little capital of Raja Ampat and the only place on the island where you can buy supplies. The views from the dining room – a table under a grass roof – make for disjointed conversations.
“So after that we caught a flight to … Oh look!” a traveller exclaims. Everyone around the table cranes their neck. “A school of dolphins.”
Or a jumping manta ray, a fish leaping from the water, a surfacing turtle, an exotic bird soaring across the sky. After a few days, dolphins are no longer newsworthy, and the challenge becomes catching sight of a leaping manta ray. All I ever see is the splash.
Waigeo is home to the rare Wilson’s bird-of-paradise, a red and blue beauty that can be spotted on a morning hike in the jungle. At night, glow worms ( Odontosyllis enopla) flicker bright green in the sea as they pump out bioluminescence to attract a mate.
Many homestays are in remote locations and neighbours may be 20km down the coastline or across the open sea. Island hopping takes planning, patience and time. There is practically no scheduled inter-island transport and few of the islands have roads, making privately hired longboats the most convenient mode of travel.
Longboats also allow you to see the karst topography, and explore small islets so undercut by waves they look like mushrooms. We weave through the islands, staring down into the crystal-clear water at endless coral reefs, schools of colourful fish and small sharks.
Raja Ampat’s coral reefs have shown greater resilience to the bleaching caused by rising sea temperatures than others around the world, and conservation efforts have greatly increased fish populations in the protected areas, but the flourishing marine life attracts poachers.
The Indonesian government has taken a strong stand against commercial fishing and created large protected areas, but this region is also rich in other natural resources. The largest gold mine and the third-largest copper mine in the world are nearby, and the Papua region is Indonesia’s largest source of tax revenue. That has attracted a large military presence, and many activists have disappeared, been killed or been jailed.
The Raja Ampat Research and Conservation Centre is one of the best established community development groups in the archipelago, and a key local partner of many international conservation organisations. The centre trains Papuans to build boats and then guide tourists on kayaking tours in those boats – the same development plan used for the homestays – provides research facilities and operates educational programmes.
“Our goal is to support those living in this beautiful and fragile ecosystem to have better, healthier lives and make them stewards in protecting this natural environment,” says Tertius Kammeyer, who heads the centre’s kayaking operations.
Tourism is growing rapidly and new homestays are popping up on every island, but outside of peak seasons, when domestic travellers come to Raja Ampat, there’s a good chance you’ll have one to yourself.
Time loses its meaning when you’re living in a grass hut. There are no clocks or timetables; meals are served when they are ready.
Circumnavigating the island of Gam makes for a pleasant three- or four-day trip by motorboat from Waisai. It is not one of the “regal” islands – Raja Ampat means “four kings” – but Gam is near the centre of the archipelago, and has plenty of small bays along its coast. On a clockwise trip around the island, a first night might be spent in Arborek Village, on a sandy spit of an island just off Gam.
In Arborek, there is a daily reminder of passing time; the village bell – an empty fuel canister – is rung at dawn, gently awakening the village from its slumber. After breakfast on the beach, we paddle to nearby Manta Sandy, a sandbar where mantas come to feed on plankton and allow fish to clean them of parasites. We slip on snorkel gear and drop into the water, and within moments mantas with wing spans of several metres appear out of the blue. Watching them glide effortlessly through the water makes our boat travel seem a lot less elegant.
Yet there is no other way to get to Warikef, an isolated homestay in a quiet bay near the Kaboei Passage, a narrow, winding stretch of water that separates Gam from Waigeo. Strong tidal currents in the passage offer divers and snorkellers an exhilarating underwater ride among the fish and coral fans.
Warikef backs onto a steep, forested cliff, just below a cave that supplies a steady stream of fresh water. The sea beneath the platform teems with life, and just because we’re not in the water, doesn’t mean we’re not considered part of a food chain. I feel a splash of water on my foot as an archerfish mistakes me for an insect and shoots a carefully aimed stream of water between the planks. A book left on the floor gets soaked as the fish make repeated attempts to capture it for lunch.
As the sun sets, the jungle surrounding Warikef falls silent and the glassy sea reflects the last light of the day. I can hear the muted voices of the host family chatting as they cook our dinner. There is the hiss of a gas stove and rattle of pots, the entire platform swaying gently as they move about.
The generator is broken, and the only light comes from a flickering oil lamp. I lay on the decking and watch the stars come out, forgetting for a moment that a less-tranquil world exists.