Raja Ampat

If you’re wondering how to get to paradise, you should know that getting there is not quite as easy as being there. For us, the process was as follows:

  1. Schedule a doctor’s appointment to get malaria medication and begin taking it several days prior to the trip
  2. If you’re leaving in winter, are far away from an airport and trying to take as little as possible with you to the tropical destination (as we were), stave off frost bite as you spend an entire day commuting to the airport in freezing temperatures wearing nothing but jeans and a light sweater
  3. Board a plane for Indonesia
  4. Spend a week or two traveling around the country (optional, but recommended)
  5. Take a red eye flight to Sorong after spending the night on an airport bench under the glow of a television screen airing coverage of the CrossFit Games
  6. Arrive in Sorong and haggle with a taxi driver to take you to the ferry dock
  7. Buy ferry tickets and board the cramped, liberally air-conditioned cabin for Waisai
  8. Shiver to stay warm for the hour-long ride all the while listening to and watching the offensively bad Indonesian pop music videos on the cabin’s TV
  9. Arrive in Waisai and wait in line for an hour to pay $70 for a permit to enter said paradise
  10. Take an hour-long motorboat ride across choppy waters with no shaded protection from the sun overhead
  11. Arrive in paradise

Are there more convenient routes to take there? Probably, but this was the one available to us and, as we would quickly find, the hassle of getting to paradise is a worthwhile price to pay.

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The view of our bungalow and island from the ocean

While the collective idea of paradise, uninhabited beaches on remote islands void of responsibility and stress, has many representatives around the world, ours was located in Batanta, one of the four islands the make up Raja Ampat, or four kings, a Papuan archipelago lying at the easternmost edge of Indonesia. 

For many visitors to Raja Ampat, accommodation comes in the form of a homestay, which usually consists of one to several bungalows lying on the beach or overtop the ocean itself, most of which are owned and operated by locals. Choosing to go the traditional route, we stayed at Yenaduak Homestay, which was run by a man named Sam and consisted of four bungalows that lied within ten yards of the ocean. Having seen pictures of similar scenes on postcards and in magazines for most of our life and assuming them to be unattainable, we were surprised at times to find ourselves actually staying in such a place.

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Our bungalow and the ocean which lied just steps away

The thatched bungalow consisted of a bed, one small table and a bathroom with a seatless toilet that also functioned as a sink. To flush, we would have to use a ladle to wash the toilet’s contents through its pipes. The ladle also served as our shower and, since the color of the ground water that filled it looked murkier than the contents of the toilet bowl at most times, we made the easy decision to forego showers for our week’s stay. 

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The inside of our bungalow with our bed covered by a mosquito net
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Our bathroom facilities. We used the red spigot to fill the bin with groundwater, which we would then ladle out to flush the toilet.
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One of our biggest fears before going to Raja Ampat was about what critters and insects would be sharing the bungalow with us. Luckily, this spider, which barely moved an inch during our stay, was the worst we would see. As for the worst we wouldn’t see, one night we woke up to a large thud near the window of our bungalow followed by the scampering of heavy feet and scraping of claws across the floor and walls. As the island is home to large tree lizards (most notably the Varanus indicus–monitor tree lizard), we assumed that that was what it was. To our relief, it was gone by morning.

While far removed from anyone’s idea of luxury, we found the bungalow to be perfect, an idea furthered by its other feature, a front porch equipped with a hammock and two chairs that would bear the brunt of our lethargy during the lazy mornings and afternoons that are an inevitable byproduct of being on a remote island with no internet connection or phone signal.

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The view from our porch

The paradisiacal setting wasn’t the only reason people, us included, travel to the islands of Raja Ampat though for, as serene as the above water setting might be, what lies under it can’t be seen anywhere else on Earth. Home to 75% of the world’s coral species and over 1,500 different species of fish, the underwater world of Raja Ampat is one of the richest biodiverse ecosystems anywhere on Earth. Being lovers of snorkeling and aware that finding beautiful and intact coral reefs will be increasingly more difficult in the future we were eager to visit what many snorkelers and divers call the best place in the world for both.

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A sampling of the coral lying just off the shore of the homestay
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Schools of fish were a common sight…
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…as were clown fish.
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We even got to see more unique creatures like sharks, giant parrotfish, and this cuttlefish which was about the size of our torso.

So, with plenty to keep us busy below the ocean and plenty of lazy pursuits lying above it, our time on the island, while limited, was always well spent. A typical day went as follows:

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At dawn we would wake up to the sound of tropical birds cawing from the jungle behind us and waves gently lapping from the ocean in front…
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…and walk out to the beach to catch the sunrise.
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Then we would get some coffee and sip it on our porch…
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…before heading out for a morning snorkeling session.
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Once the tide got too low and the sun too hot to continue snorkeling, we headed back to our bungalow where we awaited the appearance of the green basket that signaled that lunch was ready (the basket covered the food to keep bugs out)
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Enjoying lunch, which sometimes happened alone and other times was in the company of our fellow guests at the homestay
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Afternoons were lazy and usually spent reading books…
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…sipping coffee and eating snacks…
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…and playing mancala on a homemade board comprised of seashells and rocks we found on the beach.
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The coral reef sat so close to the surface of the water that, when the tide was low in the afternoon, it was very difficult to swim overtop of it. So, to know when it was okay to go snorkeling again, we would sit on our porch and wait until the fields of sea grass that sat in front of the coral were no longer visible above the water.
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After snorkeling, we would watch the sunset and eat dinner with the homestay’s other guests before going to bed.

Occasionally we would break from routine to explore the reaches of the shore:

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On one part of the beach there were dozens of these clinging to the burnt remains of a tree. When we got close to them they would skip across the water, using their tail to propel them.
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In one tide pool we saw this starfish that we thought was an octopus at first because it was writhing around in the water and then quickly tucked itself under a rock once it sensed our presence.
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Every now and then we had to remind ourselves to look up as the trees were often full of surprises as well.

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With no proper waste disposal system, guests in Raja Ampat are encouraged to take all of their garbage with them upon leaving the islands. Only being there a week, this was very easy for us to do. However, there was nothing we could do to stop the collection of plastic on the island’s beaches. Even after collecting all of it one morning, by the afternoon a fresh supply had washed ashore.

Apart from exploring the immediate surroundings of our homestay, we would also go on a few of the excellent tours that Sam offered guests. The first was to see Wilson’s bird-of-paradise. Never having gone bird watching before, we had a naive pie-in-the-sky picture in our minds of what it would be: the now laughable image of casually strolling through the jungle while birds of all colors and sizes swooped overhead and perched themselves on nearby branches for our enjoyment. Our first indication that it would not be so easy was when Sam told us that we would be leaving for the tour at 3:30 the next morning so that we could get to the lookout in the cover of dark without the birds seeing us. 

After waking up at 3:00, having considerable debate about which clothes to wear, and boarding the boat which nearly tipped over a couple of times as everyone got situated, we were on our way. It was slow goings at first as we had to maneuver around the coral reef that boxed the bungalows in to the island. One thing we really liked about Sam and his family was that they always took precautionary measures to make sure that the boat and motor weren’t running over the reef and damaging it. In the pre-dawn darkness, this meant pulling up the motor, using a flashlight to see where the coral was, and then using a long stick placed where the coral wasn’t to push the boat out to sea. Once the reef dropped off, Sam put down the motor and sped away.

With nothing much to look at other than the faint outlines of islands standing against the nighttime sky, our attention turned to the water below, whose unwavering blackness was interrupted by the fluorescent glow of tiny jellyfish which speckled the water. There are many times when the ocean emulates the sky above it, but this was the first time we had experienced it doing so at night, the hundreds of jellyfish illuminating the black water much in the same way the stars do the sky.

As the world brightened, the glow of the jellyfish faded and our attention shifted to the scenery above water. Surrounding us were a handful of islands which sat sleepily behind clouds of mist that were much more vigorous in their early morning pursuits as they hurriedly pushed past the islands in route to blending into the overcast sky above. On the shores of one of these islands our boat would finally slow to a creeping pace as we floated inland, past groves of trees that marked the fringes of the island’s reach into the ocean. The trees, whose exposed and gnarled roots clawed menacingly out of sight into the water below, created an eerie setting when paired with the gloominess of pre-dawn. 

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Our boat floating through the mangroves after bird watching (it was too dark to capture the trees before it)

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As our boat approached a mound of gloppy mud that marked the inner-island’s shore, we emphatically disembarked and began a mad march through the jungle in a race against the sunrise. As we traipsed through swampy patches of earth and pushed through fields of reeds that stretched up to our waists, we were thankful that our wardrobe choice earlier in the morning included hiking boots and long sleeves, both of which we deemed essential to  traverse the dark and wet jungle. Our adventurous spirits were put to shame though as we looked ahead to Sam who was walking barefoot over the broken twigs and jagged rocks scattered about the ground and wearing nothing more than a pair of shorts and a T-shirt, which he would later remove. In the Darwinian image of survival, Sam was most definitely the fittest.

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The end of our trek was marked by a climb up a steep and muddy hill where we used trees and vines to pull ourselves up to the lookout – a collection of tattered boards lying behind an equally tattered screen meant to keep us hidden from the elusive bird of paradise. As we climbed onto the wet and muddy boards, a couple of which snapped in two while walking across them, Sam gave us some leaves to sit on while we waited for the bird, which was far from a guarantee. Luckily for us, Sam was quite experienced at eliciting the presence of the bird which he did by the almost comically simplistic task of tossing a couple of wet, brown leaves onto the wet, brown earth in front of the screen. Wondering if a trick had been played on us at first, we were quickly applauding the technique as the cartoonishly colorful bird swooped down and began clearing the leaves away. The male birds, as it turns out, are known for setting up their own display courts on the jungle floor where they perform dances for potential suitors. As a dirty court could spell doom for a bird’s chances at securing a mate, they work tirelessly to keep them clear of debris which explained the irritation and immediate rebuttal of Sam’s having made a mess in this particular bird’s court.

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Our lookout
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Waiting for the bird to arrive, which took around two hours
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Our view through the screen
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While waiting for the bird to appear, we became entranced by a millipede on the ground that we confused for a snake at first due to its size.

Despite our close proximity to the court, the bird still managed to prove elusive as our line of vision was often hindered or blocked entirely by the screen in front of us. Still though, we luckily managed to get a couple of photos of the brilliant bird which we were surprised to find out later only existed on this and one other island in Raja Ampat and was quite rare to see in the wild.

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Even high in the trees above the bird was captivating
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Hiking back through the jungle
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Getting back on the boat

Before going back to our homestay, Sam stopped off at another point on the island to show us a waterfall.

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The path leading up to the waterfall

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Ancient-looking trees were a common sight in the jungle around the waterfall

Apart from seeing Wilson’s bird-of-paradise and the waterfall, Sam would also take us to swim with manta rays and go on another, less fruitful, hornbill watching tour. Through our sporadic conversations with him over the course of the week, we learned that he originally worked in a mine with his brother. After the mine collapsed one day, killing his brother, Sam’s dad convinced him to take a safer job working at a resort. While sweeping leaves and picking up plastic that had washed ashore day after day, Sam would hang English words from trees and memorize them as he went back and forth clearing debris off the beach. Eventually, once he had an adequate level of English, he decided to open his own homestay which had expanded from one bungalow to four at the time of our staying there. As more people become aware of one of the last paradises on Earth, we hope that it can remain a paradise, where visitors support locals and everyone recognizes and respects the incredible wildlife that exists there. 

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Sam (in the red hat) with our bungalow in the background as we left Batanta

Read on for a poem by Kate:

Musings from an Amateur Ornithologist II

Hidden between trees
in the shadowy dawn
rustles a millipede,
gliding over dry leaves,
serpentine, but for his baleen legs
swinging in tandem.

In the canopy,
a regal song rings out,
piercing the morning air
with its vibrato.
The bird,
holding court in paradise,
flutters from branch to branch
dancing for us onlookers,
aware, yet determined to remain aloof.
A flash of red,
a glint of blue,
swooping to the ground,
then flying off to the latticework above,
leaving us awestruck,
reflecting on the privilege
of being granted an audience.

Meanwhile,
the thousand-legged jester
continues his crawl
across the forest floor.

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