Untapped Indonesia: Lapping up the raw beauty of Raja Ampat

2017-02-25 16:30 - Carla Lewis-Balden
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24 hours, two flights and two boat rides later and at last, I’m dangling my toes into the cerulean blue waters of Raja Ampat in Papua, Indonesia. Getting to this piece of unspoilt tropical paradise is no mean feat, it’s neither easy or cheap.

To reach paradise, you need to brave a bit of danger and discomfort. If people were shelling out cheap package tours to Raja Ampat, it would soon resemble Kuta Beach in Bali.

Limited access and steep permit prices

At the moment tourism in Raja Ampat is tightly controlled, with limited accommodation for travellers and steep permit prices to access this archipelago. In other words, they charge a steep cover price to keep the riffraff out. Keep the crowds at bay, keep the cancer out of the coral, as Alex Garland would say.

As I sit on the jetty in front of the Raja Ampat Dive Lodge, my accommodation for the next few days, calm, azure waters stretch out in front of me. Behind me, the hills are covered with virgin rainforest. Wild sulphur crested cockatoos, the type I’ve only seen in pet shops flit from palm tree to palm tree, their cackling occasionally piercing through the shush-shush of water lapping onto the beach.

(photo: Carla Lewis-Balden)

It’s enough for me to forget the eight hours I’ve spent in transit in a dodgy food court at Jakarta International Airport, while cockroaches the size of kittens scurried around my feet.

When you tell someone that you’re travelling to Raja Ampat, it usually evokes two responses. People look at you with a blank expression on their faces. Those in the know, however, demand whether you’re going diving, their envy barely concealed. (When I reveal that I only snorkel, they look scandalised).

When it comes to diving and snorkelling, few places in the world can compete with the biodiversity of Raja Ampat’s marine life. This is the motherlode for divers, the Serengeti of the seas, part of the so-called Coral Triangle of the Pacific ocean. Here you will find the most diverse marine life on earth.

Just to put it into perspective: In the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, 1 500 species of fish have been recorded.

In Raja Ampat, the tally stands at over 3 000, and researchers are still discovering new species. The night of our arrival there is a flutter of excitement under the more experienced divers in our group. Someone has spotted a walking shark in the shallows, near the jetty.

I’m a bush girl, send me on safari in Africa and I’ll name you every type of antelope, and I’ll be able to identify most bird species. However, when it comes to marine life, my knowledge is limited to Finding Nemo and the Little Mermaid.

However, the idea of a walking with shark is quite exciting. Justin Carmack, one of the more experienced divers from the True Nomads vlog uses his nifty waterproof flashlight to light up the shallows. Then I see it, a catfish-like creature, more barbel than shark, that looks like it’s wearing a leopard print leotard. Jaws it ain't, but it’s still fascinating to watch how it feeds from the bottom of the jetty. It’s also a great appetiser for the visual sealife platter that Raja would be dishing out for the next few days.

We spend our first day in Arborek, a small island in the Raja Ampat archipelago. It’s a popular stop in the archipelago for community tourism and gives visitors a bit more insight into the lifestyle of Papuan people.

Usually, I’m a bit hesitant with these so called “village visits”. It can so quickly feel like exploitation, like you’re poking about in someone else’s backyard and treating them like anthropological oddities.

However, I was pleasantly surprised by our experience at Arborek, which was radically different to so many of the cultural tours I’ve been on, even if we were waited in by children in grass skirts and face paint.

At Arborek you get the feeling that the fascination with each other is mutual. The people that live here are ethnically closer to the Australian aborigines and indigenous people of the South Sea islands. One of my favourite memories of Indonesia was sitting under a coconut tree in Arborek village, listening to a man singing Papuan folk songs, while strumming his old guitar. The kids here are also much more interested in practising their English, rather than peddling tourist trinkets. When you take a selfie with a child and show them the image, they squeal in delight.

Later in Bali and Lombok, where street urchins follow you, touting anything from Made in China masks to plastic bangles, you realise how precious this type of innocence is.

After the community had prepared a lunch of fish, jellyfish and rice, we headed to  the jetty for a bit of snorkelling

I’ve only seen underwater scenes like this in stylised aquariums, or on National Geographic nature doccies. When you jump from the jetty into the clear waters, you are plunged into an underwater wonderland.

Enormous schools of fish swim around you, like a quicksilver tornado in slow motion. Everywhere there is a thing of beauty; you hardly know where to look. Here a clownfish darts from a sea anemone. Fan coral waves languidly to and fro in the tide. I gape at lionfish, as flamboyant as flamenco dancers, but I’m careful to keep my distance. One nick from these venomous fish and your fun in Raja Ampat will come to an end. Expect fever, nausea and some seriously swollen limbs

The next day we head to the Piaynemo islands, a group of karst formations covered in forest which rises like furry green mushrooms across a calm bay.

I felt like reaching for a Dulux colour chart, just to find adjectives to describe the shades of blue and turquoise you encounter here. To get to the lookout point in Piaynemo, it’s quite a steep climb, not made any easier by die pressing humidity. However, when you reach the top, it’s worth every drop of sweat.

Tones of azure and sapphire flow into each other like spilt watercolours, fading from bright turquoise into the hue the same colour as peacock feathers.

When compared to the rest of South East Asia, the crowds here are quite small. Nor will you find any touts, peddling water or Coca Cola. The only two vendors are two old men, the one selling lukewarm coconut juice, the other something that looks like abalone biltong on a stick and smells like a can of tuna left too long in the sun. I politely decline.

One can help but wonder how long this little slice of paradise is going to hold up against mass tourism.

(photo: Carla Lewis-Balden)

Know before you go:

Getting there

To get to Raja Ampat you have to brave a bit of discomfort, but it’s worth every minute. The best way to get to Raja from South Africa is to fly from Johannesburg to Sorong in Papua, via Jakarta. Emirates, Qatar, Etihad, Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific all has flights to Jakarta from Johannesburg.  

There are daily flights from Jakarta to Sorong with Nam Air, Xpress Air and Batik Air with prices starting at R3 300. Visit skyscanner.com to view the best prices.

To get to Raja Ampat to Sorong, you need to take a ferry boat, which will take about two hours. A Return ticket in the VIP section will set you back about R500, but it includes aircon and karaoke entertainment.

If you prefer to slum it with Joe Public, a ticket in economy class costs about R300. The tickets can be purchased at Sorong harbour

All foreign visitors to Raja Ampat must take out a conservation permit that costs 1 million rupiahs (about R995 @R0.21/IR). You can do this at the Sorong  Airport.


We stayed at the Raja Ampat Dive Lodge, located on Mansuar island. Facilities are clean, but basic wooden cabins with en-suite bathrooms and air-con. The location is the big selling point; you’ll need to look far for a more beautiful and remote diving camp, sitting on the edge of a rainforest, looking over the sea.

Even if you’re not a diver like me, you can spend days exploring the coral reefs around the diving camp with a snorkel and some flippers. Hire a kayak and paddle into the sunset, for a prettier, tropical sunset you’ll have to search far and wide.

Accommodation at the Raja Ampat Dive Lodge costs about R22 000 for seven nights accommodation. This includes all your meals, non-alcoholic drinks, and transfers from Sorong (but only if you arrive on a Friday). If you want to include some dives, add R9 000 to the above price, which includes 12 dives.  

Click here to search Raja Ampat Die Lodge availability

Another great option, although a little pricey, is to book a cabin on a Phinisi boat, a luxurious traditional Indonesian wooden vessel. You can sail around the whole Raja Ampat archipelago and sleep in a different bay every night.

A cruise for seven days will set you back about R33 000, depending on the facilities and the luxuries of the boat. Visit raja-ampat-liveaboards.com for more information.

If you’re a bit more adventurous and don’t mind slumming it without aircon, consider a home-stay with a local family.

With a homestay, you stay in a beach hut on the ground of a local family. Facilities are basic, with only a mattress, shared ablutions and no hot water or flush toilets. However, it’s an affordable, authentic way to discover this piece of unspoilt earth. Visit www.stayrajaampat.com for more information.

Handy hints: Booze is tres expensive, expect to pay around R50 to R70 for a can of beer at the resorts. The best is to bring your own, but the Indonesian officials get a bit stroppy when you try to take your spoils from duty-free onto the aeroplane. Do not let this deter you; every visitor is allowed to bring 1 litre of liquor into the country. Just keep it sealed, with your cash receipt from duty-free, and you’ll be allowed to take it through.

*Disclaimer: Carla Lewis-Balden visited Indonesia on invitation of the Indonesian tourism board. 

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