Expert Review: Indonesia's Jewels of Raja Ampat

Indonesia’s Raja Ampat archipelago, meaning “four kings” in the language of Bahasa Indonesia, is a vast seascape comprised of more than 1,500 islands covering an area of 40,000 km² of land and sea. Well known to divers for years, this area is just now being discovered by travelers that like to stick a little closer to the surface. The pinisi motorsailer Ombak Putih—meaning “white wave” in Bahasa Indonesia—was to be my home for exploring Raja Ampat, and I cannot think of a more appropriate ship for the adventure of traveling from idyllic island to idyllic island, as the people of Indonesia have for centuries.

Boarding Ombak Putih is a revelation; she is a gaff-rigged ketch just oozing with Indonesian charm and an Old World sense of simple luxury. These sturdy and efficient ironwood ships, built in the same way for hundreds of years on the islands surrounding Suluwesi, still serve as a main means of transport in Indonesia into the 21st century. Though we were only 12 for this journey, Ombak Putih can accommodate 24 guests in complete comfort and superb style. Her 12 cabins are a study in the efficient use of space aboard a ship—all boasting modern conveniences such as USB charging ports, air conditioning, stylish fixtures and ensuite bathrooms. The beach sarongs and towels, reusable water bottles and small daypack that await you on your berth make it clear that you won’t be spending much time inside peering through the brass porthole but rather out enjoying all that Raja Ampat has to offer.

One of the striking aspects of the pinisi ship-building style is the abundance of deck space. All passenger cabins are on the lower Cabin Deck. The Main and Top Decks are entirely devoted to crew quarters and public spaces. In these ships’ capacity as commercial vessels, the large open deck allows for the high stacking of light goods. In Ombak Putih’s capacity as a luxury passenger vessel, it allows for a spacious enclosed salon with room to relax and read, an expansive and modern galley, a charming outdoor dining area where all meals are served (completely covered in canvas to protect from sun and rain) and plenty of room for viewing wildlife and wild seascapes from the rail. On the Top Deck, covered viewing areas fore and aft of the wheelhouse provide an ample supply of benches, loungers, couches and even bean bag chairs for reading, napping, journaling, socializing with shipmates or simply watching the jaw-dropping landscapes of Raja Ampat slide by.

Anda dari mana?

One of the great joys of travel is, of course, meeting people from cultures other than our own—celebrating our differences, our similarities and our shared experiences in the world. One of the things AdventureSmith Explorations pays very, very close attention to is the crew composition of our voyages. As a company of former guides, we recognize the supreme importance of cultural exchange, not just on scheduled excursions but at all times during your visit.

One of the great advantages of our type of travel aboard small ships is that you often have, as your shipmates, denizens of the very region you are visiting. Our trips encourage all travelers to befriend every member of the crew, and all crews are given the space to befriend our travelers. Almost all of our adventures include explorations ashore that focus on cultural exchange. It is important to not lose sight of the fact that this same exchange happens every day aboard a ship. Your naturalist could be from Sulawesi, where she spent summers hiking in the highlands. Your snorkeling guide could be from Alor, where he learned to hold his breath for minutes on end while spear fishing as a child. Your chef could be from Bali, where he picked up a unique fusion of culinary traditions at a cultural crossroads. The deckhand that pilots your Zodiac with such an expert hand could have learned his trade growing up in the Kai Islands on the edge of the Banda Sea.

The people of the modern Republic of Indonesia represent myriad different traditions, and hail from 13,000 different islands in this vast archipelago. Our style of exploration gives the traveler an opportunity to connect to a place in a million different little ways, every day. This is one of the things that makes small ship travel such a rich way to experience the world. That steward you see every day at breakfast and exchange shy smiles? Next time ask him where he’s from: Anda dari mana?

Species Factory

Immediately after embarking Ombak Putih, the question on everyone’s lips was “when…do…we…get…in…this…water??” A measured “sooner than you think” was the reply. Within 30 minutes of weighing anchor, we were rejoicing as a pod of bottlenose dolphins frolicked in our bow wake. Within two hours we were snorkeling in 80-degree water above a pristine coral garden in a quiet cove, overhung with luxuriant jungle foliage.

As an avid scuba diver, I have experienced quite a few of the great undersea destinations of the world: the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the Red Sea, the South China Sea, the Sea of Cortez and the icy depths off Kodiak Island in Alaska. None of it, none of it compares to the coral diversity and the sheer abundance of life I saw in Raja Ampat. I woke up every day and took a leisurely snorkel (or two or three) through magical coral gardens unlike any I had ever seen. Never once did I feel as if I was “missing out” by not donning dive gear. The magic begins at four feet below the surface on these reefs; all that is required is curiosity, a swimsuit and a sense of wonder for the myriad forms of life that compose the coral reef community.

A Strange & Wondrous Landscape

The islands of Raja Ampat are quite unlike many of the islands you find elsewhere in the world. They are comprised of ancient eroded limestone—karst formations, in the vernacular of geologists. This amazing topography is created by the dissolution of limestone formations when exposed to environmental forces such as wind and water, and is characterized by numerous caves and sinkholes.

We awoke one morning at anchor in Tomolol Bay, in giddy anticipation of being able to explore this landscape in a very unique way. We exited the Zodiacs at a massive sea cave entrance, snorkel gear in hand, for a truly memorable caving experience. Swimming through this eerily lit cavern from end to end took us 15 minutes, as most of my shipmates and I opted for a leisurely backstroke in order to marvel at the massive stalactite formations dripping from the cavern roof, 40 feet overhead. Our guide led the more adventurous of the group through the numerous pass-through “squeezes” that led from the main chamber and back, but many preferred to remain in the open and airy central cave chamber.

Strange and wondrous things can also happen to the creatures that inhabit the karst islets of Raja Ampat. Often these islets have an interior lake, much like the central lagoon in coral atolls. As these central lakes are separated from the surrounding sea water over millions of years, they sometimes come to support a large population of jellyfish that are able to survive in the now brackish waters. As none of their natural predators are able to inhabit such an environment, the resident jellyfish have no more need of their defensive stinging cells and have evolved over generations without them.

After a short skiff ride to a small islet and a steep ascent into the interior lake, my companions and I were treated to an amazing experience: snorkeling among these strange creatures. After some initial trepidation (we had experienced some of their stinging brethren the day before), the group was soon marveling at the surreal feeling of swimming slowly (and painlessly) through clouds of millions of spotted jellyfish.

Better Luck Tomorrow, Wilson

One of the highlights of any trip to Raja Ampat is an opportunity to observe what Alfred Russel Wallace came to this region for: birds-of-paradise in the wild. The 39 species of bird-of-paradise are some of the most striking examples of evolutionary adaptation in the world. The island biogeography of these birds helped Wallace to formulate his theories of speciation, much like the finches of the Galapagos did for Charles Darwin.

The Wilson’s bird-of-paradise and the red bird-of-paradise are endemic to Raja Ampat—specifically to Waigeo and Batanta Islands. When our guide gathered us around the table one evening and informed us that we would have to choose which to visit the following morning, my shipmates and I were a bit perplexed. How do you choose between two of the most beautiful and rare birds on earth? What if you choose poorly? How are we to know which will be present in the forest on the appointed day, and which will not? Don’t worry she said. “You choose and we will find the birds.”

After much referencing of the onboard bird guides and boisterous Bintang-fueled debate, we arrived at a consensus: We would seek out the Wilson’s bird-of-paradise. The little bird just seemed too unreal. Can those vibrant colors really exist in nature, occupying the same six-inch space?

We rose in the calm dark of 3am next morning. After a quick breakfast and a gear check (closed-toed shoes, functioning flashlights, bug dope), we embarked the skiffs for the short ride to a small sandy beach backed with what looked to be impenetrable jungle. We all stood quietly for a while, just soaking up the stillness of the morning. Out of the darkness to seaward came an outrigger canoe and the two local gentlemen that were about to make this all possible.

The gentlemen were fishermen from a nearby village that maintain a rough trail into the forested hills and had constructed a simple blind from which to view the Wilson’s bird-of-paradise. The local community now has a vested interest in keeping this inland ecosystem intact; these little birds and the awestruck visitors they bring are now far more valuable to them than all the timber in the forest. We hiked in silence for an hour and arrived at the little blind just as the dark turned to grey dawn and the jungle truly came alive with sound. We waited breathlessly for the sounds that would indicate that the bird-of-paradise was about to begin his daily routine.

The male Wilson’s bird-of-paradise is an industrious little fellow, only about six inches tall. He creates and assiduously maintains a “display court” to attract the females of his species. The court is simply a patch of dirt on the forest floor, cleared daily of all detritus. Not a leaf or a twig remains after his morning cleaning routine. He then trills his call to attract females in the area who come to inspect his court, deciding if he has adequately displayed his fitness as a mate. If he succeeds—mating ensues. If not, well, there’s always tomorrow.

The timing of our guides was impeccable. Within 10 minutes of our arrival, the Wilson’s song could be heard in the canopy overhead. Within 20, the most magical little bird I have ever seen lit up the forest floor not 15 feet from our blind and began his morning house cleaning unconcerned by our presence. Flitting from twig to twig, he heaved each out into the forest with a practiced flick of the head—trilling between lobs. As we held our collective breath and snapped photos in the low light, he heedlessly made ready for the day’s courting.

Sure enough, first one, and then two females appeared high in the periphery to survey his work. The female Wilson’s, as females in many species, don’t engage in garish color displays, instead opting for muted tones better suited to camouflage from predators. The two females were slightly larger and dun colored, but both had an iridescent blue cap similar to the male. Quite stunning in their own, rather more utilitarian, right.

We watched the display for perhaps 20 minutes, pulling for our little hero all the while. Both females at times would come down for closer inspection, sending him into a renewed flurry of cleaning up even the smallest imperfection in his court. Alas, first one, and then the other female departed, disappearing into the dense canopy. When it was clear they weren’t coming back, he too moved on. Almost as one, those of us still in the blind muttered in sad chorus: “Better luck tomorrow, Wilson.”

The People of Raja Ampat

On our last afternoon, Ombak Putih anchored off idyllic Arborek Island—unique in that it is a palm-fringed sandy caye, and not limestone karst. The tiny island is home to Arborek Village and fewer than 200 souls. The subsistence fishing community here has created local regulations for the conservation of the surrounding reef in conjunction with international conservation groups. The success of their program is evident in the healthy and vibrant coral gardens we discovered, thriving even under and adjacent to the village pier.

As the sinking equatorial sun began to lengthen our shadows, we reluctantly left the water. Back aboard we washed of the salt and donned our best shorts and cleanest shirts for our evening “in town” with the people of Arborek.

Arriving again at the pier, we were met by what seemed like all the children that could possibly live in a village with a population of 200. Dressed in the mix of traditional and modern that is a hallmark of remote indigenous communities the world over, the group wore handmade grass skirts over threadbare board shorts and faded Real Madrid football jerseys adorned with beautiful seashell necklaces. The children had painted their legs, arms and faces with the white geometric designs favored by their ancestors that had braved the unknown to colonize these islands.

My companions and I were treated to the most wonderful traditional music and dancing right there at the end of the pier, the whole tableau painted with golden light from the fading sun. In this world where commoditization of native traditions should be a concern for all travelers, the West Papuan community at Arborek felt real and vibrant, still connected to their revered past yet busily forging their own bright future.

This post is an abridged version of a review originally published on the AdventureSmith Explorations travel blog. To read the post in full and see more photos and Justin’s recommended reading, visit Expert Review: Sailing Indonesia: Jewels of Raja Ampat. 


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