Raja Ampat, an Indonesian archipelago on the Halmahera Sea, had been a destination on my mind for many years as a scuba diver. In late 2019, not long before I left Asia, I finally made the trip there.
The Journey There
I would start with a Friday 7 PM Cathay Pacific flight from Hong Kong to Jakarta, which would move me back one time zone and get me there at 11 PM local time. This was followed by a Batik Air flight at about 5 AM. I was not aware that this flight was going to Makassar on the island of Sulawesi, but knew that I would end up at Sorong in Raja Ampat at about 1 PM. Then hopefully I would be able to get out of the airport quickly enough to catch the 2 PM ferry to Waisai. And then, I should be picked up by boat to Gam Island, where my home stay was. The journey would be 26 hours.
The Hong Kong leg and the Cathay flight to Jakarta were uneventful. The fun inevitably began in Jakarta as a minimum quantity of chaos is a requirement of travelling in Indonesia. I could not immediately check in and had to wait with my bags until 3 AM. Then I queued up for half an hour to check in and drop off the bag. I found some food at an A&W outlet which had comfortable hard-backed seats and no freezing air conditioner and waited it out until the gates opened. Heading through security I found another big queue. In my sleepy state I left a phone in my pocket and wore my belt and had myself scanned thrice and my bag twice. I then went to Gate 3 as indicated on my ticket; there I was directed to Gate 6. I queued up at 6, but it did not look like the right flight for me. An attendant then directed me toward a set of stairs leading to the tarmac, where a plane waited. I ran and boarded a full-looking plane.
The flight landed in Makassar, where I adjusted my watch forward one hour, back to Hong Kong time. I remained on board, while a number of passengers got off and others got on. We then left for Sorong. I had been a bit confused by the flight timing; it was scheduled to land in Sorong at 1 PM after taking off from Makassar at 9.45 AM. The flight looked comparable to the previous flight, but was taking an hour longer. We arrived at Sorong at about 11 AM on my watch, an hour ahead of time. But my phone was one hour ahead of my watch. I looked up timeanddate.com. It said that the time in Sorong was the same as the time in Hong Kong, agreeing with my watch, but disagreeing with my intuition and with the phone time, which is automatically set by the network.
I took a cab to the harbour, got my ferry tickets and had a leisurely lunch of the worst bakso (a soupy Indonesian noodle dish) that I’d ever had. I then set about to ascertain the time. The restaurant had a clock which noted that it was almost 2 PM, time for the ferry to Waisai. I wasn’t sure about the hour but knew that the minute hand was definitely off and didn’t know whether to trust it. I checked with a few people and found that it was indeed almost two. Just in time, I walked to the ferry terminal and located the ferry.
It was a ferry that looked like it could take 200-300 people. It was stacked with goods until there was barely space to move about inside. I sat next to an American woman. She had been friends with a bunch of people who had recently died in a fire on the US dive boat Conception, a major tragedy in scuba diving circles and one that was fresh in our minds at that time. She had initially booked to go on Conception’s last dive trip, but had changed her plans. We were both aware of the fact that the ferry in which we sat was a death trap. There was a front entrance which was mostly kept closed and was a choke point. The passageways were cramped with luggage and extra goods being transported. There were fire extinguishers, but the goods would need to be moved to get to them. For two people who were about to take a 2-hour ferry ride, we spent a lot of time talking about dangers. The boat left with a delay of 45 minutes, which is par for the course in Indonesia.
We arrived in Waisai after two hours. The harbour was chaotic. Random people were asking the travellers including me where they were headed. I named my home stay, Tapor Aikos on Gam Island. A man directed me to someone who directed me to someone, who walked me and a bunch of others to a different jetty. I was introduced there to David, the homestead owner. He was a short, dark man with a grizzled beard. We went to the boat along with his wife and another tourist. The sun was setting. The colours of the sea were a fantastic blue intermingled with red flames for a good half hour. It had set by the time we arrived.
Tapor Aikos was a series of wooden cabins built mostly over the water. The cabins stood on stilts and were connected with wooden walkways. Three cabins were finished and usable; two more were being built, connected to each other by a single plank rather than a finished walkway. It was set in a mangrove swamp. Orchids and other flowering plants were growing in coconut husks or inside the shells of giant clams or other molluscs. The woodwork showed evidence of being hand-cut and polished; wood chips and shavings were visible here and at other parts of the island, where others were also busy building their home stays. My room contained nothing more than a bed with a mosquito net, a clothes wire, an electrical extension cord, a lightbulb and a reed mat. Electricity was provided by a generator which was turned on at around 7 PM and kept on only at night. The outhouse consisted of two rooms, a toilet and another room, each of which had a huge bucket of water with a big-handled mug and a clothes wire.
The Views and the Jellies
The next day, I awoke to a fantastic medley of bird sounds and to a ready breakfast of brilliantly green sweet pancakes. Below me in the water I observed small schools of needlefish, a pipefish and even a couple of pairs of shrimp and goby.
Our first adventure was a visit to the picturesque view point at Piaynemo where we arrived after a 70 minute boat ride. After a brief hike up a bunch of wooden stairs, we arrived at the breathtaking view of karsts from above and took our pictures. There was an additional stop at Telegah Bintang. This was another viewpoint, not as built up as Piaynemo, and therefore more natural.
We then stopped for lunch after which I went out snorkelling. The sights were fantastic. There was a huge variety of creatures in the mangrove roots as well as in the reefs below. I saw groups of cardinal fish at jetty structures and in the mangrove roots. There were a bunch more: trumpetfish, barracuda, cuttlefish, spotted boxfish, red-toothed triggerfish, goby, other triggerfish, etc. The most curious was a tiny creature which I suspected of being a cuttlefish larva but could not verify. We headed back.
About an hour later we headed out again, this time to see the jellies. Just a four-minute ride from Tapor Aikos, we arrived at a mangrove-surrounded lake where we spotted the jellies. We jumped in. There was one species of very translucent jellies and I did a little bit of freediving near them to get some nice snaps and videos. It was nice, but not enough to be called a jelly lake, so I was underwhelmed. David (in his almost non-existent English) then said he would take us to Batman. This puzzled us until we realised that he was just going to take us to see some bats. A couple of minutes later, we stopped in the middle of another lake and David pointed into the water. We’d hit the jackpot; I swam amidst thousands of jellies; their bulbous heads touching my shoulder or even face on occasion without either party damaging the other. This was a joy. Bucket list item checked.
We then went to the bat cave. The boat stopped at an opening on the hillside and one of the boys stood on the boat holding the wall, keeping the boat steady. We climbed into the hole and saw the cave, going perhaps 30-40 metres in. The bats were resting mid way and also deeper in as we walked toward them. The cave was like many limestone caves that I’d come across, with stalagmites and stalactites.
On my first full day in Raja Ampat, I had already seen the brilliant karst hills, swum with the stingless jellies, enjoyed snorkelling and walked into a bat cave. This was a great start.
At night I was woken by loud drumming at 4.30 AM. I got out and observed the stars for a while. The place had minimal light pollution, so the stars were visible like dust particles in the sky. I could see a thousand stars within Orion’s belt, which made this the clearest view of the night sky that I had ever noted.
The drumming happened at least twice during this trip. I have travelled in Indonesia many times, and it is my strong impression that the Indonesians do not enjoy sleeping in comfortable beds in peace and quiet at night. I have an entire story about a trip where my sleep was messed up due to Indonesian idiosyncrasies. Ear plugs are generally good to have while travelling.
One evening’s dinner was an entire 2 or 3Kg fish. It came with rice and eggplant, which I simply ignored. Presumably there was a good catch that day.
The Red Birds of Paradise
‘Cendrawasih’ in Bahasa means ‘paradise’. It can also refer to the uncommon birds of paradise, which are endemic to areas in and around Raja Ampat. One day I walked from Tapor Aikos to the nearby village of Sawinggrai. In Sawinggrai, I saw a sign pointing to ‘Cendrawasih Spot’. I followed the path to which the sign pointed. The trek was mild and short, but it was hot and sweaty. I saw a few birds, but heard many more. After a few minutes, I arrived at a clearing from where we could see the tall trees in a few directions, about a hundred metres away. I walked into one of the areas with tall trees and waited. I became very alert to every kind of noise: the crunching of leaves under my feet, the snapping of twigs, the noises of boats in the distance, etc. I became even more aware of the variety of bird noises: flying, running, taking off, pawing, burying, fighting and trudging over the dry leaves. The vocal sounds were even more varied and delightful and I have to summon my full knowledge of bird expressions to describe them, however inadequately: chirping, cheeping, calling, cawing, squawking, crying, hooting, murmuring, singing, cooing, warbling…
After a while with no good sightings, I continued along the path, doing a brief uphill trek. A signboard proclaimed it the Cendrawasih Spot. A viewing platform was built using wood. It did not look like it had been used recently. I tested some planks and decided that I would not trust my weight on the platform. There was a completely out-of-place statue there of a woman riding a camel – or something. This has been interesting so far, but I figured I needed to do this again in the morning, with a guide. I headed back. I had seen pigeons, some flightless ground birds, parakeets and magpies. Close to the village, I heard a noise and added chickens to the list.
On another day I awoke at 4:45 AM and left with David and his son Marvin to see the birds. We went on the trail and caught up with a group of more than 15 people. David asked us to stick with the group and left to get a guide. Neither he, nor a guide, ended up joining us.
At the Cendrawasih Spot, the group saw a flock of doves of some sort; a toucan showed up here and there and landed and took off with a great flapping sound; there was a cockatoo or parakeet that showed up as well. Eventually the red birds of paradise arrived. I could make out the yellow top feathers, red feathers beneath and what looked like four long curvy tail feathers – two in each direction. These birds made a racket; they cawed non-stop for four minutes at a stretch and could not be ignored. Some of the guides could imitate their call and the birds responded when the guides called to them, setting off a chain reaction leading to responses from other birds. One bird showed off his mating display, rapidly spreading and closing its wings while the other birds inspected it from up close. At least five birds showed up. I had to travel all the way to Raja Ampat, but did not have to hide in the forest for days to see the mating display; it just took an hour. On my way back, I spotted a ground-based bird like a guinea fowl as well.
Scuba diving is what draws most of the visitors to Raja Ampat. I did a few dives and had some enjoyable sightings including a manta ray, a sea moth, my first woebbegongs (certain shark species which are well disguised in the coral reefs), and so on.
On one of my diving days here I had the strange experience of being the youngest and least experienced of the divers despite being in my early thirties and having done over 100 dives as every other guest were in their 50s or so and most had done hundreds of dives in decades of scuba diving.
On my fourth and last day of diving at Raja Ampat, we went diving at a site named Cape Kri. It started off well enough along a sloping undersea wall, but after a while we found ourselves in a strong current. I was without my reef hook and was having a hard time staying in place. I found a coral and clung to it with my hand, kicking now and then with my fins. Living corals can be exceptionally sharp and it is easy to get cut by scraping against a coral. Holding onto a live coral may be likened to grasping a branch that has many tiny half-millimetre-long blades sticking out of it. And that was what I did with my ungloved hand. This is to be avoided as it also harms the corals. A small group of big barracudas (each a metre long) hung around a few metres behind me, remaining in place in the strong current by gently moving their bodies.
We had been underwater for around 40 minutes and we needed to be doing something better than hanging on to coral, such as preparing to surface. I was at 8 metres depth and needed to go up slightly for my safety stop. My dive guide was at around 5 metres. I let go of my coral anchor to try to ascend. The current pulled me away fiercely. I kicked my fins really hard but was being dragged backward; this was no longer fun. I grabbed some rock-shaped corals, but could not hold on and was dragged further back. After a few tries, I grabbed on and held on to another coral. I remembered how I’d gotten painfully stung just by accidentally brushing against a feather-like thing underwater a few days prior and was amazed that my fingertips were not bleeding. My knees and shins had taken some cuts as I’d wrapped my whole body around the thing and clung on for dear life.
The current was so strong that it was pushing at my mask. Then my goggles filled with water and I lost vision. I had no hands free to clear the mask and was at risk of being pulled away by the current if I tried to reach for it. “Is this how I die?”, I started thinking. “Blind and panicked?” Did I have any last wishes or prayers? “No, still an atheist.” I made a conscious effort to calm my breathing and assess the situation. Actually things were not that bad. I was slightly more than three metres below the surface. All the struggle was due to my adherence to the safety rules of diving and attempting to do my “3 minutes at 5 metres” safety stop. I could easily swim up to the surface. I stayed in place until my dive computer made the beeps that indicated my safety stop was complete, then swam up. I could now breathe and see. The current was still strong at the top, but weaker than at 3 metres below the surface. The boat came to pick us up.
Most of the others were already on it. One German diver, Oliver, was not. I was worried. He surfaced about twenty or thirty metres away. Oliver had been dragged down by the current from 8 metres to 14. He had inflated his buoyancy control device to fight the current and headed up. Without experience and quick thinking from nearly three decades of diving, he could have been in trouble.
My last dive was a gentle dive without current. I found plenty of dragonets, and while following one, chanced upon a scorpionfish.
I had shown the other divers my videos of the stingless jellies and excited them. They asked the boat pilot to take them to the jellies. We travelled through a few places, but the pilot was not able to find them, stating that all the spots looked the same to him. Eventually he admitted defeat and found the Indonesian solution: his uncle. We went to a home stay; a man on a boat headed out and we followed him. Sure enough, he easily found a different spot with the jellies and we had a good time.
The Final Sighting
I packed up for my return and sat at Tapor Aikos’ jetty, reading a book. A fin rose out of the water not far from the jetty. A pair of dolphins surfaced to breathe. On my boat ride back to Waisai I again saw dolphins emerging from the water, capping the brilliant creature sightings through the trip.
The return trip to Hong Kong took a day and a half. It had been worth the trouble.