Raja Ampat is no ‘Fantasy,’ it’s real!
The Raja Ampat Islands are located in a far off land, and if you want to visit, it requires one arduous journey. Not many are willing to make such a pilgrimage, which is probably one of the reasons this unspoiled area is still so stunning. When I say “stunning,” that might be an understatement. Raja Ampat reminds me of the late 70s television show, Fantasy Island, a place so unreal that it cannot be but a fantasy in ones imagination. Thankfully, for those with the time, money and gumption, Raja Ampat is a fantasy destination within reach (if but a very long one).
Raja Ampat is located off the northwest tip of Bird’s Head Peninsula in West Papua (The Indonesian part of New Guinea). The area is composed of hundreds of jungle-covered islands and is known for its beaches and coral reefs rich with marine life. Visitors to this remote part of the world will see ancient rock paintings and caves on Misool Island, while the crimson bird of paradise lives on Waigeo Island.
My journey (and that of my fellow travel bloggers on the same trip) started with a flight from Yogyakarta (where we were at the time) to Jakarta. We had a 6-7 hour layover in Jakarta while we waited for the only daily flight to Sorong, which was just after midnight. We arrived in Sorong in the wee hours of the morning, about 6:30am (there was/is a 2 hour time difference between Jakarta and Sorong). From the airport we headed to a nearby hotel to catch a few winks of shuteye and get freshened up for the next portion of our journey. En route to the hotel we quickly found our bus surrounded with thousands of people who were apparently walking through town for some local celebration. As we inched our way forward we finally broke loose from the crowd and were able to make it to our hotel for a few hours of rest and relaxation.
After having an authentic Indonesian meal at a local restaurant, we once again boarded our bus en route to Sorong Harbor, which had some pretty sketchy docks and some un-seaworthy looking boats on display. There were throngs of people milling around, loading vessels, boarding boats, etc. Just beyond the chaos was a large red vessel (this one looked quite seaworthy) that we boarded. There are several classes available on the ferry, thankfully we had tickets to the air conditioned VIP lounge, which was quite comfortable. Moments later the vessel left the harbor, and within minutes, the bustling area of Sorong faded into the horizon. Two hours later we arrived at the main island of Raja Ampat. From there, we boarded two smaller speed boats while our luggage was piled into a third boat. These crafts were operated by our hotelier, the Raja Ampat Dive Lodge, located on its own private island about an hour boat ride away.
The entire group of travel bloggers was spent. It had been well over 20 hours of travel, and it had taken its toll. Our exhaustion however, turned to exuberance as soon as we approached the Raja Ampat Dive Lodge dock. It was as if we had landed on Fantasy Island. The sight before us was that of a large mountainous island with nothing more than white sandy beaches, swaying palm trees, an intimate resort with charming bungalows and a dense rain forest as a backdrop. We were surrounded by awe-inspiring natural beauty beyond our expectations. As highly experienced travel bloggers, I can say indubitably, that our expectations are rarely exceeded—when they are, there is jubilation in the air!
After getting settled, the first thing I did was put on my swim trunks and jump into the clear blue water. I felt like I was swimming in a giant aquarium, the water visibility was unlike anything I’ve ever seen…it was so crystal clear. Just beyond the white sand was the most brilliant coral reef shelf, and just beyond that, the bottom dropped off into deep blue sea water. The temperature of the water was absolutely perfect…certainly not too cold, and not to warm either. The salinity of the water seemed pretty high as well, as I could float with barely having to tread water. After such a long journey, swimming in paradise was certainly rejuvenating.
That evening we had a surprisingly wonderful meal (I say “surprisingly” given how remote we were), then most of us retired early considering the extensive travels and lack of sleep the day before.
The next day we split into groups and boarded a couple of boats from the Dive Lodge. One group headed out to do some diving, while the other group headed to Di Kampung Wisata Arborek, a small island about 30 minutes away where we would have lunch with local villagers and do some snorkeling. After having some lunch and sucking the last drops of juice from a fresh coconut, I heard some music being played off in the distance. As I went to investigate, I discovered about a dozen kids singing, while an older gentleman played a small guitar-like instrument. [I had wonderful photos and video footage of this, but unfortunately it seems I did not successfully copy to my external hard drive.]
After being thoroughly entertained by the kids, I donned some snorkeling gear and hit the water to the left of the shore-protruding dock. Again I was struck by the clarity of the water, it was so clear that it was almost as if I was not underwater. The coral and color/quantity of fish were even more brilliant than at the Dive Lodge. After just a few moments I looked up and noticed that I had drifted quite a distance from the dock. I looked back down in the water and saw that I was being moved at a rapid rate by the current. Clearly the tide was going out. Someone signaled for me to get back to the dock so I could get some fins on. The swim back to the dock was probably only 100 yards, but it took quite a lot of exertion to get there. While sitting on the edge of the dock huffing and puffing, I put some booties and fins on and jumped back in the water. While the current was still strong, I could now stay in place/nearby. I did however discover that as I made my way to the right side of the dock that the island curved a bit and the current did not affect me in the least. I also discovered a school of fish hovering near the dock, 1000s upon 1000s in a massive plume. I took a big gulp of air and dove down to swim through them. Undisturbed, they merely moved out of my way and then went back in place, as if in some sort of formation.
It was maybe an hour later that I found myself floating back to the other side of the dock when I noticed the tide was no longer ebbing, so I didn’t have to worry about the current. The shear variety and quantity of fish I was seeing was simply amazing. During the trip I was reading a magazine article that said someone had once documented over 250 fish varieties on a single dive in Raja Ampat. From what I was seeing, it didn’t surprise me. Just snorkeling I’ll bet I saw 50 varieties of fish and sea-life.
After our wonderful day on the island of Di Kampung Wisata Arborek, we headed back to the Dive Lodge where we had a few hours to ourselves before dinner. Several people laid on the beach, while others snorkeled, and yet others (myself included) took kayaks out and paddled down the coast. I was in a double kayak with a fellow travel blogger, both of us were completely enthralled with the peaceful paddle a mere hundred yards from shore as we floated over brilliant coral just a couple feet below us. The island of Mansuar is quite large and quite tall, so there was no way to make it around the entire island, but we did manage to get to one end and back. Along the way, we stopped several times to check out things. Our first stop was at a white sandy beach with a palm tree that jetted out 60 feet or so horizontally, then returned 90 degrees. It was a scene straight from a postcard. A bit farther down, we stopped again to explore what looked like a cave from a distance, but as we go closer and around some mangroves, we could see it was just a shallow overhang, however it appeared to have some retaining walls that had been built. We had no idea of its age or purpose, but someone at some point had built something in the area. While it was nothing extraordinary, the sense of discovering was thrilling for us both.
We had been told that Mansuar Island was a private island, and just the Raja Ampat Dive Lodge was there, however toward the end of the island we noticed a small village with some villagers building a new bungalow. We circled the area in our kayak taking a few photos and then headed back to the dive lodge. About half way back, my travel blogger friend said that she wanted to get out of the kayak and swim. She carefully inched her way out and was floating around. As I mentioned before, the salinity of the water seems to be quite high and easy to float with little effort treading water. With the extra room in the kayak and with no wind or current to contend with, I leaned back and relaxed as the horizontally low sun cast its beams upon me. While I was lying down I could not see the water, so I would occasionally say something to my friend to make sure she was still nearby and that I had not floated too far from her. With a bit of cooling affect from the water, the temperature was so nice that I think I dozed off…if for only a moment or two. When I awoke I called out my friend’s name, but didn’t receive a reply back. I called out again, still, no reply. Panic set it and I quickly sat up and looked around. I could not see her! I looked all around and noticed that I had floated quite a long way from where she got out of the boat, and from where I last saw her. My previous calls were my nearby voice, now I was nearly yelling. Finally, I received a reply and could see her way off in the distance. Worried about my friend, I paddled like an Olympian to get near her. When I got close I said, “Why didn’t you say something as I floated away.” She simply replied, “I was just enjoying myself and wasn’t worried.”
We made our way back to the Dive Lodge and freshened up for dinner. Once again it was a fantastic meal, but this time there was a surprise. We had been eating a lot of Indonesian food, so when they put out a big tray of French Fries, they were devoured. We all got quite a laugh out of our enthusiasm for fries.
The next day would be our last full day in Raja Ampat, so we boarded some boats that took us to the most iconic part of the island chain—the part that defines Raja Ampat when you Google it, Wayag Island(s). This is an area with clusters of tiny islands with a single tall island that you can climb to get stunning photos.
When our boats got close to the womb of Wayag Islands, it was as if we were entering through some secret passage into a mysterious place so remarkable that silence subdued us all. The previous few days we’d seen remarkable beauty, but there was something different about this place. I will use the Fantasy Island reference again because it felt unreal, like a giant set from an epic movie. From the quantity of islands closely clustered together, to the clear turquoise water that changes colors the closer to shore it reaches, to the dense and lush foliage…this is why people travel enormous distances to see Raja Ampat.
Our boats landed at a tiny dock where a few local villagers hung out collecting fees and selling coconuts. One-by-one we disembarked our boats and made our way up several flights of stairs, perhaps 300 or more in all until finally the view that we had traveled so far to see finally revealed itself. Once you reach the top, you can’t help but say, “Wow!” I will say this though, between the exertion of climbing the stairs, to leaving the cooling affect from being on the boats, it was damn hot at the top of this overlook, but it was indeed worth it.
It was a long boat ride from the Dive Lodge on Mansuar Island, perhaps 1.5-2 hours, so we stopped along the way at another island village to feed the fish and walk around the village. By the time we got back to the Dive Lodge it was getting close to dinner. As we walked past the dining area we noticed a lot of activity going on near the beach, including a massive grill with fire ablaze. For our last evening, the crew at the Dive Lodge had something special prepared for us, a massive barbecue dinner. There were U-2/3 sized prawns, chicken skewers, pork, beef and lots of side dishes. It was a feast to behold.
After an amazing evening of eating, drinking and general revelry, we retired for the evening one last time. After getting packed up the next morning, we boarded our boats back to the ferry dock to take us back to Sorong, where we would board a flight to Lombok, or next stop on this #TripofWonders in #WonderfulIndonesia
If you’ve ever been to Raja Ampat, please leave a comment below and share your experience. Click here to see more of my photos from Raja Ampat.