By Sarah Dougherty
For many travellers and nature lovers, Raja Ampat in West Papua, is a bucket list destination. Reaching it is a challenge in itself and can be costly, definitely a factor in its alluring isolation.
Our journey began with an invitation from an old friend, Rod, aka Captain Conspiracy, who designed a jaunty Big Kanu that hosts intrepid travellers in this pristine and far away place.
Initially it was to be 4 friends joining two guests. By the time we were to leave, the numbers had swelled to 12 guests and four crew, on a trip that usually takes 8-9 max. When our original flight was cancelled, we seriously considered aborting. We were to review this decision more than once in the forthcoming days.
Instead we took up Sriwijaya’s offer to reroute us through Surabaya. While the airline was efficient and service was good, the journey was gruelling, involving 3 flights, endless waiting time in between and a virtually sleepless night. The flight to Sorong, the point in Papua where the ferries pick you up, from the town of Makkasar in Sulawesi, leaves at 3.30 am. By the time we arrived at 6.30 am, we had been travelling for more than 12 hours and had another 2 hour ferry ride before meeting our boat. This was the first time since leaving BALI that we could stretch out and grab a full hour of sleep, were it not for the blaring dangdut music which accompanies most Indonesian ferry trips.
Sleep deprived and cranky we arrive in Waisai. It’s hot but we’re used to that. The process of buying our passes to the government controlled Raja Ampat park was relatively easy, compared to buying our ferry tickets in the fly-blown, sticky ticket office in Sorong. I was travelling with two close friends, Katrina and Richard, nearer to 60 than 50, each of us is single and used to an abundance of personal space. We had discussed this, but the reality of living in a confined space with a gaggle of fellow travellers was daunting at first. While Katrina and I struggled to find our own piece of paradise, Richard took it in his stride (he’s done this trip before), but the occasional, ‘I told you so’ glance, told another story.
Captain Rod’s vision of building this boat and setting off for largely uncharted adventures, has culminated in a kind of floating hostel, referred to affectionately as ‘Waterworld’. He calls it Big Kanu. It’s perfect for adventurers on a budget. Sailing around Raja Ampat normally runs into thousands of dollars, Big Kanu keeps its rate to just over a thousand dollars for a week including full board. Fine for the young adventurers, popular with Intrepid travellers, its a little challenging for us older, admittedly pampered, BALI expats who enjoy good food, wine, regular showers and privacy.
Our group consisted of a young couple from Bulgaria, another couple from Malta, a travel rep from France, an old friend of Rod’s from Sydney, James, and two very entertaining Dutch women, fresh off a dive trip. Their gruesome, yet amusing, tales of three nights spent on an island they dubbed “rat island” will stay with me forever. It seems the adventure tour on Big Kanu was a step up as it offered a cooked breakfast, coffee and fresh vegetarian meals. And so far, no vermin!
Day one passed in a haze of napping and jostling for a spot to sit and enjoy the scenery without being lured into conversations with random strangers, something I usually enjoy, but I was struggling to engage here.
It was Mother’s Day and as the staff set up a table on a picturesque island jetty in the late afternoon, I popped the bottle of champagne I had carried from Bali for this occasion. It was the first time I breathed out all day. I wished I had brought a case. And cheese. Half a Valium each put us out for the night.
We brought supplies with us, including wine, vodka, sourdough bread, crackers, chocolate and life enhancing Vegemite. This is pretty standard for us but no one else had thought of it. This was both good and bad. Big Kanu was on its fourth trip out and many supplies were depleted, including wine. Local vodka and Bintang were the only options for the travellers so we felt a little guilty coveting our NZ Pinot Noir, French champagne and imported vodka. A block of dark chocolate, zipped into my suitcase, became my best kept secret.
Day two sees us travelling deeper into the national park. We swim, snorkel and complain about the lack of ice. Katrina and I read and nap. I continue to struggle with the lack of personal space, Katrina as well. We quite seriously consider jumping ship but find, to our great disappointment, that there is no Four Seasons in Raja Ampat. Shit! We’d settle for Ibis at this point!
Thankfully my cabin, at the front of the boat, is relatively private and has four windows that offer a breeze when we’re moving in the right direction. An overhead fan, a whisper away from my head, offers reprieve from the relentless heat. Katrina’s bunk behind mine doesn’t catch much of a breeze and has to be navigated on my way to the two tiny bathrooms that thankfully have flushing toilets. Small things take on great significance here.
We stop at an island to snorkel but find the coral a little underwhelming and Katrina and I, together with our new Dutch friends, Ellen and Nol, turn back before the point it becomes more colourful, or so we are told. The water is as pretty as the postcards promise and the practiced backpackers let loose their drones and waterproof cameras, cut some yoga poses on the stand up paddle boards and talk enthusiastically of their travels. Katrina and I have a drink and hide in our books. Richard says fuck a lot.
We detour to a local village in the afternoon, full of laughing, happy children jumping off the docks and leathery old faces sparing barely a glance at the privileged tourists. We negotiate to buy fresh lobsters from a wizened fisherman; some way too small to be taken, but we take them anyway. We stock up on cigarettes and envisage a dinner slightly more gourmet than our simple, but plentiful, Indonesian meals to this point.
Getting into this kitchen is a challenge. Larger than many boat kitchens, the hard working chef Yann, welcomes our help ( or humours us, perhaps?) but the kitchen is hot and chaotic by our standards. Both Katrina and I love to cook, but the pantry offers little inspiration and its all a little chaotic. And fishy. Nevertheless we prepare the lobster, flambee it with a little flavoured gin and garlic butter. Twice cooked chips were way too ambitious in hindsight, but we manage and they are much appreciated.
We’re all getting to know each other better and I am thankful for my tiny cabin as space on deck is limited. Katrina and I sink another bottle of Pinot Noir and we all settle in for a game of Cards of Humanity, a perfectly inappropriate game that makes us laugh.
Damn, is it only day three? Days melt into one another out here.
I’m getting the hang of this slowly, I wake up to the coffee we brought with us, a slightly higher grade from the gritty Bali coffee that most of the guests enjoy a lot. Breakfast is the best meal of the day, especially for Katrina who doesn’t eat fish, tantamount to going to Texas and not eating barbecue, according to captain Rod. Chef Yann bakes fresh bread daily and there’s a smorgasboard of fruit, cereal, eggs and pancakes. A friend for almost 40 years, Rod is kept busy controlling the boat with the fabulously friendly Captain Andy, and managing the myriad things that can go wrong while engaging with the expanded guest list.
Our original trip was planned as a group of old friends and we planned to hang out, catch up and talk of many things, as the wise walrus foretold. Unfortunately with this many people on board, a full house, there is little chance of that. Instead we jostle for space, slowly get to know each other and each find our own way to make the most of this trip.
We cross the equator, see a vivid rainbow and sail through a rainstorm. My cabin is still my favourite place on the boat.
We pull into a deserted island called Wayag. Richard is helping the crew tie up the boat and laughs at the tricky gang plank we are required to walk to access the island. This close to shore, swimming is a better, and safer, option I’m thinking. Until I spot the Sharks. There are lots of them swimming close to the beach. Although they are supposedly harmless, some are big, and the black tip fins rising to the surface, terrify me.
Nevertheless more than one of our group is happy to see them and a boat arrives with some Brazilians and Americans who waste no time posing for Instagram pics as their guide throws fish and bread to excite the shark population.
Apparently the squid are plentiful here but catching them is forbidden and a local ranger enforces this. I suggest our new found Dutch friend, Ellen, a very sexy 50 something-year-old, might be enlisted to distract him while we gather dinner. She’s keen to play but the squid aren’t running.
Following lunch on the beach we motor to the other side of the island and moor at a pristine beach in a beautiful lagoon surrounded by tiny islands sprouting palm trees. We swim, build a bonfire and the cook makes prawn spaghetti and garlic bread.
We wake up in Wagwan, still moored in the beautiful bay. The plan is to climb a steep hill after breakfast. This is where many of the famous drone shots of Raja Ampat are taken. Katrina and I decline the climb as it is steep and slippery and we have a gaggle of photographers on board, including 3 drones, so we’d rather enjoy some peace and see it through their photos.
Captain Andy returns with the small boat and takes us on tour of the beautiful bays that surround us. The water is astonishing, clear and a glassy blue that turns green in deeper parts. Rocks rise out of the water in some sort of prehistoric pattern, they are covered by trees. This looks like the Raja Ampat of postcards. The drone footage coming back with our fellow travellers shows the colours and shapes in amazing detail.
Katrina and I relish the time without distractions or chatter. The white sand Beach where we’re moored is pristine, not a wave in sight. I take to the paddle board, Katrina disappears into her book. Bliss. All on board are really lovely people, the crew are also funny and helpful. Being moored means we all have room to stretch but the irony of coming to a place hardly touched by humans, with 16 people living in close quarters, is not lost on us.
The younger travellers take two hikes and a snorkel trip down a fast flowing gorge. I take a nap, read, hang with Katrina, swim and we again brave the hot kitchen to attempt a cheesecake for dessert.
The tables are set on the beach all day and tonight’s menu is roast chicken, all but the vegans and vegetarians are looking forward to it. The cheesecake is a huge success despite its imperfections but as its the first dessert we’ve had, it’s a welcome relief for sweet eaters. I feel guilty about the vegan couple but plan to make it up to them. Perhaps. After battling sand flies the previous night, yet another half a Valium puts a warm spin on things. Sleeping pills should be on every travellers list as no one is getting much rest.
It had to happen eventually. A pattern of acceptance, getting into the rhythm of things and even a philosophical note creeps in as we leave deepest Raja Ampat for a six hour motor back towards civilisation. A much needed evacuation ( it’s hard to stay regular on a crowded boat we’ve found), and the promise of wifi adds a note of optimism to day 5. We’re on rations now. Katrina is down to her last bottle of wine, we’ve just enough sourdough left if we don’t share it, our coffee stash looks likely to get us home and we’ve figured out a way to make ice. Finally. So vodka looks likely to get us through.
While some chat on the deck, others find a space to enjoy the passing islands and the crew take a breather in between breakfast and lunch. Our French travel rep, a self contained 27 year old, Laura, retreats to a space on the outer hull. She too struggles with the crowd, especially in the morning when the boat is a hive of activity as the crew prepares breakfast. Everyone is up early and while some wake up bright and chatty, others like to ease into the day. That’s me!
Katrina has claimed a space on the top deck and while it is the best seat in the house, she has claimed rights and few would argue. At night, Rod and Richard make their beds up here, by day it’s a prime spot to catch a breeze in the shade and watch the islands go by. Seniors rule and this is Richard and Katrina’s spot, intrepid visitors are welcome-ish.
The day passes peacefully and we stop for the night in another calm bay surrounded by mangroves.
Nights are for sharing stories and we all agree we are lucky that despite the bugs and the cramped quarters, shared bathrooms, sleepless nights and a diet consisting mainly of fish and rice, potatoes and vegetables, everyone gets along. We share life histories and bowel movements.
Casting director, Ellen, updates us regularly on the situation in her “house”, one of the tiniest cabins on the boat which she shares with the freezer, which permeates the cramped space with the smell of fish. She and her friend, Nol, both vegetarians, are squeezed into the back of the boat, as they were late additions to the trip. Nol lives beside the toilet and is incredibly good-natured about the nightlife.
I’ve grown accustomed to the banging from the kitchen each morning and wake up to Richard meditating on the front deck and a view of the misty mangroves. Everyone is up early as usual and the two couples on board, the Bulgarians, Ana and Anton, and the Maltese vloggers Yasmine and Neil, are keen to get active. Equipped with underwater cameras, the latest drones and a bundle of enthusiasm, they are very sweet. Yasmine spends the sailing time editing the videos and interviews she has collected during the day.
James, Rod’s Sydney friend, has been battling a terrible cough since early in the trip, he’s been sleeping through most days, getting up for meals.
The trip is coming to an end, and there is a sense of relief mingled with some regret. Strange that after mere days we have gone from jostling for space, thrown together among Rod’s swollen guest list, to genuinely enjoying each other’s company. Rod shrugs off any suggestion that he may have overloaded the boat, he knows it’s cramped but he also finds it hard to say no, especially if they are paying guests. Big Kanu sells soft adventures and having just celebrated his 64th birthday, he has little sympathy for anyone who expects their adventures to come with full service. He’s been a “salty” for a long time and living aboard a boat comes easily for him. Richard and I know this about Rod, we’ve been friends for decades and we accepted his eccentricities long ago.
We have a very pleasant snorkel after breakfast. Overall we’ve found the coral a bit disappointing, I suspect you have to go a little deeper to reveal the true magic. Some beautiful fish of the aquarium variety and the occasional shark sighting livens things up a bit. Mostly it is the scenery that captivates and we’ve now arrived in another beautiful bay with luminous green water washing a pretty beach, and thankfully a wonderful breeze. Grilled chicken is on the menu for lunch.
We get close to the island where Ellen and Nol were invaded by rats, a story we have embellished on endlessly. They decide to swim to shore to check the vermin situation and the rest of us nap, read and write on the deck. It’s very peaceful. No rats are sighted but some beautiful birds soar overhead and flying fish entertain us.
A few on board have a wifi signal and can message friends, we’ve been without it for most of the trip. Far from anywhere, signs of civilisation include a better signal. Katrina and I have an extra night which we planned to spend on the boat after the trip officially ends, but air conditioning, a hot shower and a wine list are very tempting and we may abandon ship for a night in Sorong before heading home to Bali. She’s beginning to insist, I have mixed feelings about it but I can see her point.
We’ve arrived in Frewin, an island I have heard a lot about, along with it’s village elder, Martin. Wooden huts line the beach, decorated with strings of coral, families have set up little drink stalls and a few tourist boats rock up while we’re here. There is a Telkomsel tower but I can’t even be bothered to connect, trusting that all is well at home and that I’ll be there soon.
Rod and I have a chance to hang out, we drink beer on the beach and have a chat while the crew prepare tonight’s beach barbecue which is being prepared with the help of some of the local ladies. He’s disappointed with some of the guest comments but he agrees that not everyone finds it easy. He’s happy on the other hand that so far all his groups have bonded, including ours. Friendships made, memories shared and general good humour keeps us afloat.
Day six, the final leg.
You can hear a note of melancholy creeping into the conversation this morning. Rod performs his morning ritual; jumping off the boat to shave, brush his teeth and enjoy his morning ablutions, it rarely varies.
The crew prepare breakfast, the smell of freshly baked bread stirs the communal appetite, as we motor over to the other side of the bay. Most are busy planning their next leg, sharing their latest footage. Before heading to bed we heard that former Australian prime minister, Bob Hawke died, at the age of 90. Australia went to the polls to elect a new government today, so the timing is especially poignant, he is a much loved part of our history. Meanwhile the Dutch are excited about their entry in the Eurovision Song Contest. The world is calling us back and I know I’m not the only one who is counting the things I will miss as well as the things I am thrilled to revisit; like the comforts of home.
This is the human condition I suppose, the things you found uncomfortable fade and the moments that made you happy take on a bolder colour.
We wave good bye to the Bulgarians who are staying on to dive. Ellen’s house is packed up and she laughs when I ask if she’ll miss it. ” I have a lot of funny stories to tell,” she jokes.
Those who enjoyed a final snorkel say it was the best of the trip, full of colourful coral and giant fish. We’ve done our group shot, paid our bar bills, tipped the staff and had a final meal.
Aboard the ferry to Sorong, most of our group make plans for dinner. Nol wants pizza, Katrina wants wine, we’re all getting messages from home.
While our trip was not what we originally planned, a group of friends enjoying some down time on the boat, it instead became a full charter trip with paying guests and friends. Should we have cancelled? Probably. Leaving more space for the others. Would I change it? Probably not. Would I do it again? Also probably no, but never say never.
Raja Ampat is an incredibly remote and beautiful part of the world and we saw the best of it. The personal challenges were overcome. I met some great people and I read a lot of books. I also got to enjoy time with my friends, and surprisingly no one lost their shit. The destination may need a few more attractions before I head back but I feel blessed to have seen it this way, as nature intended. And yes, the stories we created will be told over and over again, and those memories are priceless. Thank you Big Kanu, I’ll wave the next time I pass by, hopefully on my luxury yacht. I’ll always remember our time together.
The Lowdown: Soft adventurers will love this trip well suited to budget travellers. The food is plentiful and Chef Yann is one of the hardest workers on the boat. From baking bread in the morning to catering for the vegetarians and vegans on board. Captain Andy is a gregarious presence on the trip and happy to joke with passengers while putting in long days, you feel like you’re in capable hands.
Accommodation: The bunk-style accommodation is comfortable but fairly basic and pretty tight. Each has windows, a light and a personal fan. Bathrooms are basic but offer hot and cold running water in hand-held showers and flushing toilets. Most passengers end up jumping into the calm, clear sea and then rinsing on deck.
Top tips: If you like a drink, bring your duty free. Good news is that on domestic flights your liquids aren’t restricted, we brought 10 bottles of wine. Big Kanu does have wine but space restrictions mean that when it runs out, that’s it. There’s nowhere to stock up on anything but the most basic supplies. Snacks are of the supermarket variety but there are plenty of them.
Entertainment: As you are almost completely cut off from wifi, you want to be prepared. I had a kindle, there are some board games, cards etc. If you like to watch movies etc you need to load them before you come. Essentials include: sun block, hair conditioner, after sun and anti-histamines ( those sandflies are very active in the late afternoon). You’ll also need decent shoes for climbing and definitely a hat.
Where: Located off the northwest tip of Bird’s Head Peninsula on the island of New Guinea, in Indonesia‘s West Papua province, Raja Ampat, or the Four Kings, is an archipelago comprising over 1,500 small islands, cays, and shoals surrounding the four main islands of Misool, Salawati, Batanta, and Waigeo, and the smaller island of Kofiau. The Raja Ampat archipelago straddles the Equator and forms part of Coral Triangle which contains the richest marine biodiversity on earth.
Administratively, the archipelago is part of the province of West Papua (formerly known as Irian Jaya). Most of the islands constitute the Raja Ampat Regency, which was separated out from Sorong Regency in 2004. The regency encompasses around 70,000 square kilometres (27,000 sq mi) of land and sea, and has a population of about 50,000. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raja_Ampat_Islands
Getting there: There are no direct flights to Raja Ampat. We flew with Sriwijaya, a domestic airline operated by Garuda. Flights from Jakarta or Denpasar go via Makassar on the island of Sulawesi. Flights to Sorong leave at 3.30am, so prepare for a sleepless night. Our return flights cost Rp5.5 million, around US$450. From there a 2.5 hour ferry trip ( complete with loud dangdut music and beetlenut chewing passengers) takes you to Wasai, where you buy your national Park entrance tickets ( Rp1.2 million/ US$90) and board your boat.
We spent seven days on Big Kanu, a large Tri-maran that sleeps up to 10. Prices start from Rp16 million/ AUD$1,650/ US$1,195 including full board, snorkelling equipment and bunk-style cabins. There are other boats, priced from US$5,000, with more upmarket cabins as well as local homestays and a couple of mid-range resorts. Check out a sample itinerary here.
Diving: Diving in Raja Ampat is one of the biggest attractions. Dive trips can be arranged from local homestays and resorts or at an additional charge on the larger boats.
By Sarah Dougherty.