Travel Story Heavenly hideaway ‘beyond Bali’

Raja Ampat Travel Story: The view from Piaynemo Island. Pic: MIchael Wilson, The West Australian.
Photo of Andrew Shipp

Made up of four main islands and almost 1500 smaller ones, Raja Ampat is a hidden treasure regarded by divers as one of the world's premier sites.

The boat skims across the glassy surface, threading its way through lush tropical islands and past white beaches, edging slowly towards our destination, a tiny wooden jetty jutting out from the trees.

The Papuan crew get to work, sorting lines and bumpers, as we pull up to the dive resort giving us our first look into the clear waters and a glimpse at what is to come. 

Within 30 minutes of landing and checking into the wooden bungalows we are swimming in the warm waters, amazed at the marine life which has colonised the jetty and surrounding reef.

A mass of baitfish swirls and twists, splitting as we swim through, closing behind us.

The vibrantly coloured coral seems to jump out but compared with what is waiting for us it seems a bit drab. Tropical fish of all colours and sizes flit away as we snorkel close to get a view.

This is Raja Ampat, a hidden treasure nestled off the north-west coast of West Papua — close to Bali but truly “beyond Bali”, too.

Its remoteness has kept it shielded from any real development and ensured its marine life and environment, the real jewel in the Indonesian province’s crown, has remained unspoilt.

It is regarded by divers as one of the world’s premier sites, if not the best. The coral is vibrant and abundant. 

With more fish species in one place than any other location, divers and snorkellers are treated to a marine wonderland when they slip below the surface of the warm waters.

Just two hours from Sorong, the main city of West Papua, the group consists of four main islands and almost 1500 smaller ones, ranging from small pinnacles of rocks covered in dense foliage to isolated outposts with fishing villages. Just 50,000 people inhabit the islands, separated into local tribes or small family communities who trade with each other and sell fish and produce to the dive lodges dotted around the area.

Legend has it that the islands were formed after a woman found seven eggs. Four hatched and became kings who lived on separate islands and the other three became a woman, a ghost and a rock. There is even a prehistoric handprint between the two islands of Waigeo and Gam which locals say is from one king pushing the islands apart.

However the islands came to be, they have remained a virtually untouched wilderness which has spectacular scenery and wildlife.

Cruising through the islands the clouds are mirrored in the flat blue water, hidden bays briefly reveal themselves and the occasional fisherman looks up from his wooden boat to acknowledge our passing.

Waigeo is the biggest of the islands and our home for a few days. Striking out from the dive resort we head towards Piaynemo, entering a surreal landscape of blue-green water and small circular limestone islands topped with vegetation.

Climbing more than 300 steps to the top of the lookout you get a better sense of the area and one of the region’s most- photographed sites. The contrast between the rich green islets and the blue of the water is breathtaking. As in a post- apocalyptic landscape they jut out of the water like the tips of submerged mountains. 

A small bunch of locals has set up wares on the small pier, selling produce including giant robber crabs in their individual bags complete with coconut to keep them company until they become dinner.

Island hopping is the best way to see the majesty of Raja Ampat. It’s not too hard to find small, deserted islands with bleached white sand and a coral reef just metres from the shore.

Yeben Island is one of those. As the boat glides slowly up to the beach, we are already preparing to jump into the clear water, masks, snorkels and fins in hand.

Some head for the beach to lie under the warm sun and stretch out on the sand.

Others wade into the 29C water and head for drop-off where thousands of tropical fish mass and call the reef home. Small clown fish poke their heads from the sea anemone only to dart back again as we get too close.

Small bright blue fish loom out of the depths as you dive down. Angelfish and butterfly fish swim alongside Moorish idol fish. Soft corals in green and orange sway in the current and the blue of the water is vivid as it reaches the depths.

Heading out again from our base to Batu Pensil, we come across more of the region’s spectacular scenery. 

Rising out of the water, the monolith stands surrounded by more of the limestone islands, one resembling the profile of a face, and we lunch at a nearby island, as the local family goes about daily chores and keeps the family dog from being a nuisance. 

Watching two young boys scamper up a makeshift wooden ladder, we follow to the cliff top, which presents us with breathtaking views across Hidden Bay and the landscape synonymous with the region. 

Another of the highlights of this area of Raja Ampat is the Kri floating islands, a sandbank which emerges from the water just off the tip of Kri island. 

Stepping into the water a small black-tip reef shark darts away and we wade knee-deep to the sands, which are so bright they almost hurt the eyes when you take your sunglasses off.

The water slowly slides away from the sands and it looks like a scene from a commercial as a single set of footprints are left behind.

The remoteness of Raja Ampat has also been its saviour, with very little development and very little pollution in the water. Although well known among the dive fraternity, it has remained under the radar with most travellers. 

The region is not easy to get to, but heading from Denpasar or Jakarta there are internal flights to Sorong and then speedboats or ferry to Waisai, the main city on Waigeo where dive lodges will pick you up. 

The region is alcohol free, so don’t expect cocktail lounges and pulsating bars. 

Food is pretty basic with lots of fresh fish and produce from local families. Accommodation is, again, reasonably basic but running hot water, flushing toilets and air-conditioning can be found in some of the bigger dive resorts.

Homestays among the outlying villages are more rustic but for a real taste of life on Raja Ampat nothing would beat sleeping in a wooden hut perched over the clear waters and waking to the waves lapping against the shore.

And the chance to slip into the crystal clear water will always beckon.

Andrew Shipp and Michael Wilson were guests of the Indonesian Consulate.

Divers around the world know these islands as home to an extraordinary underwater environment, but tourists are just starting to wake up to their unspoilt natural appeal. Duration: 05m 36s The West Australian

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