Birth of paradise
Raja Ampat, West Papua, Indonesia
Up before dawn and onto a small boat; speeding across the dark water as night holds on to those last moments; landing on a pier; walking down to the start of the jungle; turning my phone into a torch; and crashing into the trees and up the hill.
The sun is starting to come out by the time I finish the walk to the top through the jungle. In those early morning minutes when blue becomes yellow in front of your eyes, I stand silent and still in a small clearing. I’m staring intently up at the branches of a tree, listening closely as well.
I hear them before I see them, a sound like a blending of a squawk and a crow. “Ark, ark, ark, ooh-ooh-oo-oo-oo-ahh.”
I spot one, then another, and another. Three of them – red birds of paradise – here in the only place on the planet they are found in the wild: Raja Ampat in the West Papua region of Indonesia.
The birds are named appropriately. They really do come from a place that could be paradise. Raja Ampat, an archipelago of about 1500 islands, has the richest marine biodiversity on earth. That, in turn, has created prime conditions for the evolution of animals and humans on the land above the water.
The red birds of paradise jumping between branches above me are symbolic of Raja Ampat in other ways too. They are rare, unknown to many people, require some effort to find, but are worth the journey for the undisturbed beauty.
Getting to Raja Ampat
To get to Raja Ampat, you’ll fly into the airport at Sorong (probably with an inconvenient transfer at Makassar if you’re coming from Jakarta or Denpasar). From here, it is still a couple of hours by boat to the islands.
The flights are not direct and they’re not cheap. The accommodation options are limited and they’re not particularly cheap either (US$50 for a basic homestay room, for example). You generally need to plan in advance so your accommodation can help with transport (many of the dive lodges will pick you up from the airport, for instance). This is not the standard backpacker experience you would find in many other parts of Southeast Asia.
But this is what is helping to keep Raja Ampat beneath the radar and free from the crowds of tourists you get at diving spots in Thailand, the Philippines, or across the country at the Gili Islands. And it’s what is helping to keep the feeling of paradise.
Diving and snorkelling
Going underwater for the first time, I open my eyes and see fish everywhere. Different colours and shapes, they float by themselves or dart around in schools. Bright, dull, big, small. They all have their place here in the water and I watch them peacefully navigate it.
It’s estimated there are about 1500 species of fish and 550 species of coral in the seas around the islands of Raja Ampat. That makes it the most biodiverse underwater part of the world. There’s a story of a fish scientist called Gerald Allen who went on a single dive to count how many fish he would see and got up to 284 different species!
I’m not much of a diver but I love being underwater, so I spend a long time in Raja Ampat with a snorkel and goggles, seeing what there is. What you notice immediately is how clear the water is. It’s not just because visitor numbers are limited around here, it’s also because the locals generally take proactive measures to conserve the environment. Why wouldn’t you?!
I took these shots on my GoPro with some simple snorkelling. I’m sure more experienced divers would have some pretty cool tales of what else you can find!
Things to see
Although diving is one of the highlights of the region and one of the main reasons many people come, there is plenty here for those who, like me, aren’t too interested in strapping a tank to their back.
One morning I head out on a boat to a place called Pianemo. It’s a small cluster of islands that creates one of the best views you’ll find in the area. If you’ve ever seen a postcard shot of Raja Ampat, it’s likely it was taken from here.
There are a few places where you can jump off the boat and climb up to a viewpoint. But there is just one main one that now has a wooden staircase to the top. It’s a steep walk up but the platform at the top has plenty of space to rest and enjoy the scenery.
Across the hundreds of islands of Raja Ampat, there are lots of places to explore. However, you are somewhat limited because you need a boat to access most of it.
One afternoon, on the way back to my accommodation, the boat stops in the middle of the water. Well, that’s how it seems, at least. What we’ve actually done is run onto a sandbank that has been exposed by the low tide.
It’s intentional because from here you can easily walk along the bottom of the sea, towards a small uninhabited island. Surrounded by clear water water, bracketed by clear blue sky, it glows like an emerald on the horizon.
You don’t need specific ‘sights’ here. Everything is an attraction and it’s easy to fill your time discovering them.
Raja Ampat is not simply nature, though. The fish and the birds easily outnumber the humans here – the population of all the islands combined is only about 50,000 – but the local communities are such an important part of the region.
Many people live in small villages based around a single beach and jetty. Fishing is obviously an important part of their economies but tourism is becoming more important. It’s a relatively simple life but when I chat with some of the villagers, they tell me about how they enjoy their quality of life.
I visit a few different communities in Raja Ampat during my stay and I’m going to write a little bit more about that soon. I want to make sure I can share all the experiences and photos with you properly.
Leaving Raja Ampat
Waiting at Sorong airport to head off after my time in Raja Ampat, I bump into two friends from London. I’ve got to tell you, it’s a bit of a shock to see people you know at a tiny airport in a rather obscure part of Indonesia.
They tell me they’ve just spent the past week on the islands here, mainly using their time for diving. It hasn’t been their first time here either. They came the year before and loved it so much they had come back. They are already talking about doing it again next year.
It doesn’t surprise me. There is something special about the paradise here. You never feel like you’ve done it all, that there is nothing new here to discover. And I have a feeling that Raja Ampat is going to get more popular in the years to come. Even more reason to make the most of it now.
Time Travel Turtle was supported by the Indonesian Ministry of Tourism but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.