Paradise Lost? I Think I just Found It! The Wonders Of Raja Ampat.
I am standing on an extremely crowded dock on the foreshore of the nondescript and, dare I say it, forgettable town of Sorong, located on the northwest tip of Bird’s Head’s Peninsula on the island of New Guinea in West Papua.
Porters bustle hither and thither in the mid-morning tropical heat loading designer luggage onto fleets of waiting tenders that will transport the goods to a fleet of ‘liveaboards’ anchored some distance offshore.
I seem to be surrounded by a mélange of well-heeled travellers from around the globe who are here for the same reason I am; to experience the magic of Raja Ampat.
Soon it is my turn to hop aboard the tender that will transport me to my ‘home’ for the next eleven days, the grand lady of the seas, the altogether elegant Penisi, Katharina.
She sits like a majestic princess in the water, her high prow towering over us as we draw alongside where the cheery Indonesian crew welcome us aboard with cold towels and tall glasses of ice cold mango juice. A quick tour of the boat and the cabins follows and, without ceremony the anchor is drawn up, we turn and begin our journey north to the equator.
The Penisi is a traditional Indonesian two-masted sailing ship and is largely used by the Bugis from Makassar in South Sulawesi. The hull of the ship looks similar to that of a dhow while the fore-and-aft rigging reminds one of western schooners, although it might be more correctly termed to resemble a ketch, as the front mast is the larger. These were (and still are ) traditional cargo vessels plying their trade across the Banda Sea powered solely by the wind.
Today, many of these crafts have been converted into passenger vessels, or ‘liveaboards’ to cater for the ever-growing market of adventurous divers or snorkelers wanting to explore the more remote islands of this archipelago.
It doesn’t take long to settle into life on board and to meet the ten other guests who will share this trip with me.The weather is picture perfect, the sea is like glass and there isn’t a breath of wind life I decide is pretty perfect! I spend my first afternoon quizzing the skipper, Iwan about the boat and he turns out to be a hive of information.
She was built in 1998, her hull crafted from a single Ulin hardwood tree from the forests of Kalimantan ( Borneo) and then towed to Bali where she was outfitted as a cruiser complete with her powerful 350 h.p. Mitsubishi engines.
Built to carry just twelve passengers and twelve crew I feel quite at home lying on deck watching the aqua blue water glide by with a flock of kites following in our wake. Unlike a number of other ‘liveaboards’, this is a trip more tailored to exploring the islands and what lies beneath the ocean with just a mask, snorkel and flippers.
This area of Indonesia is known as the coral triangle and is home to over 1,600 islands, most of them uninhabited. According to Conservation International, marine surveys suggest that the marine life diversity in the Raja Ampat area is the highest recorded on Earth. It is the heart of the world's coral reef biodiversity, making Raja Ampat quite possibly the richest coral reef ecosystems in the world.
These massive coral colonies, along with relatively high sea surface temperatures suggest that its reefs may be relatively resistant to threats like coral bleaching and coral disease, which now jeopardize the survival of other coral ecosystems around the globe. Perhaps this is due to the fact that The Raja Ampat islands are remote and relatively undisturbed by humans for we tend to be destructive types!
Over 1,508 fish species and 537 coral species are likely to occur in these islands, in other words, 75% of all species that exist in the world. There are more fish in these waters than all of the marine life in all of the rivers, lakes and waters surrounding Europe!
I have never been entirely comfortable under the water (or above it for that matter) but these azure aquamarine waters call like the legendary siren of the sea enticing even the most fearful to discover its majestic treasures that lie beneath.
Each day the boat transports us to yet another breathtakingly beautiful anchorage where tiny islands, replete with snow-white beaches beckon. Three snorkelling trips a day are made with the tenders taking us to where the coral and fish species are plentiful.
Lying flat, atop the calm waters, a baroque world below presents itself in all its pristine glory. The floors of the shallows are ribbed with impossibly white sand from which from which rise surreal multi-coloured castles of coral, replete with elaborate turrets, some at least 20ft high. Every colour imaginable seems to permeate these Daliesque or Gaudi like structures which contract and expand like flowers opening up to the early morning sun. Many of these giant corals have become wreathed in plants that wave gently with the underwater currents and so resemble strange and bizarre creatures from the deep.
As you pass by, millions of brightly coloured fish swarm like busy commuters crossing a crowded thoroughfare each wearing their finery as if showing off to other species not so blessed in the colour department.
Lying motionless and staring down, sometimes hundreds of small colourful sardines will pass, all turning and twirling in unison as if choreographed by some flamboyant underwater creative director. As they turn and tumble they resemble leaves falling gently from the trees of a forest in autumn.
These were how the days passed; each one bringing even more impossibly beautiful experiences both above and below the surface, gliding on a sea so calm it resembled a can of fresh blue paint just opened.
It's wonderful to think that there are corners of this planet of ours that remain relatively unspoiled and far from the madding crowd and, as always, I am once again reminded, that the world is simply an amazing place.
Paul v Walters travelled on board the Katherina as a guest of Seatrek. www.seatrekbali.com
Paul v Walters is a best selling novelist and travel writer. When he is not cocooned in sloth and procrastination in his house in Bali he scribbles for several international travel and vox pop journals.