Raja Ampat is an archipelago consisting of around 1’800 islands off West Papua in Indonesia. Getting there usually requires taking two to three flights and a ferry, plus further land or boat transfers to wherever you actually stay. So even if you come from Singapore or the Philippines, you are still looking at a trip of between 20 to 30 hours. That, together with the fact that it is comparatively expensive with the rest of Southeast Asia means that it’s far less touristic and makes this place a real Paradise. Raja Ampat is best known for its fantastic diving and the thrilling extreme sport that is, hold your breath, birdwatching.
My journey from Singapore to my Homestay took me a little over 20 hours and involved two flights, three taxi rides and a two hour ferry from Sorong to Waisai. When registering for the Raja Ampat Marine Park permit (USD 75!) I got to talk to a funky guy called Mike from California that set out to travel for several months. He didn’t know where to stay yet, so I told him about the place I was heading to and he came along.
Our host Timon, a Belgian who came to Papua about fifteen years ago, was very passionate about preserving the local culture and promoting the native experience. Many of the conversations with him revolve around how the region has changed during the last couple of years and his nightmares of arriving resorts and profit-oriented businessmen. It’s a serious issue, and one can only appreciate that people like him do their best to try and protect the islands from becoming just another tourist hotspot. Nevertheless, some of his anecdotes and stories smelt a lot like conspiracy theories that can only be the product of a man stranded on an island and with no real social life. Or they are true, I really can’t tell. In any case, his heart is in the right place, that’s for sure.
The main reason that I went to Papua for was the scuba diving. I left the birding to the three ridiculously well-equipped characters on a month-long birdwatching adventure that arrived a day later together with their professional guide. Therefore, soon after settling-down, Mike and I visited the closest dive center. After haggling for about half an hour we came to an agreement and organized ten dives over the next four days for us and a French couple.
The next few days were full of mind blowing experiences below and beautiful sights above sea level. The dive master would take us to different sites around the archipelago, some of which featured strong currents, walls and jetties. But they all had one thing in common: the abundance and variety of species was ridiculous! We saw everything from black- and whitetip reef sharks, turtles, stingrays and sponge crabs to hunting tunas, schools of yellow barracudas and pygmy seahorses. We also went for a nightdive and spotted bioluminescent plankton, walking sharks and whatnot.
As I got used to locking my bag by travelling, I kept doing the same thing here, although there was hardly anybody around to nick my stuff anyway. It was therefore even more of a pain in the neck when my lock, a quality piece I acquired in Ecuador for a little less than one dollar, went berserk on me and wouldn’t open anymore. Timon got a few tools from the shed and we hammered away for a while. A friend of his that was around got quite interested in the matter and made clear that he wanted a go at it. The thing resisted the blasts for a surprisingly long time, but victory was inevitable.
Blessed with almost perfect weather and diving conditions during the days before, I wasn’t at all sad to wake up to a cloudy and rainy day in the morning of my departure.
Timon offered me a ride to the airstrip. He booked the ticket for me the day before via telephone. It’s a new route from Waisai to Sorong, time will tell if it survives. I was quite happy about it though because at almost the same price as the ferry, this meant that I wouldn’t risk to lose my connecting flight to Bali in case the ferry was late.
And so, off I was to Bali, leaving this faraway Paradise behind me in exchange for waves and slightly busier beaches.