After dreaming about it for years, in May 2019 I finally had the privilege to travel to the remote Indonesian archipelago of Raja Ampat, which exceeded all my expectations!
But let's start from the beginning. Indonesia had been on my bucket list since I came back from Zambia in 2013. That was the last time I'd been on a extra-continental trip, although back then I promised myself I would go somewhere new every year. Easier said than done. Things got in the way: university, first jobs, new house, there was never enough money to save up for a trip! I couldn't manage to make it happen until now.
When I finally knew that 2019 was the year, the real struggle was deciding where to go in the vast archipelago that is Indonesia. In my mind the ideal trip to Indonesia required at least a few months to travel between islands and get a real taste of the country but unfortunately my job only allowed me to take two weeks off at a time.
Then we heard of Raja Ampat: the archipelago comprising of hundreds of jungle-covered islands, incredible beaches and rich coral reefs reputed to be the most biodiverse marine habitat on Earth. Me and my boyfriend Matt both love the sea, nature and tropical destinations and Raja Ampat seemed to embody everything we could have ever wished for, so I was determined to make it work.
Getting to Raja Ampat is not easy. If you travel there from outside Indonesia like us, it's going to take a lot of time and patience. From the UK it took 3 flights and two boat rides to reach our accommodation and by the time we got there we were completely exhausted. This is something you need to plan carefully ahead of your trip.
Sorong, also nicknamed "so wrong" due to its lack of appeal, is the largest city of the Indonesian province of West Papua and your point of entry to Raja Ampat. The vast majority of travellers reach Sorong with an internal flight from Jakarta, Makassar or other Indonesian city and take the public ferry to Waisai where they will be picked up and taken to their chosen resort or homestay with a smaller boat.
With only 10 days available (excluding the time spent getting there), we picked what we thought was our best option: Gam island. Raja Ampat (Four Kings in Indonesian) comprises of four main islands, Batanta, Salawati, Misool and Waigeo. Gam is almost attached to the latter and it offers amazing beaches, tropical forest, land animals such as the Waigeo Cuscus and the Red Bird of Paradise and incredible marine life.
Whilst reading the Lonely Planet's guide to Indonesia, I found Biodiversity Eco Resort. This diving resort strives to be as eco friendly as possible and it's located between the jungle and a stretch of beautiful white sand beach with its own incredible coral reef. Just by looking at the pictures online we were completely overtaken by its beauty and we knew this was the place to be!
Dive resorts like this can be quite expensive especially due to the remoteness of their location but Biodiversity is definitely more affordable than others in the area whilst still offering high standards of accommodation. A much cheaper alternative, if you're not afraid of living in very basic conditions, are homestays. This is accommodation provided by local families who will charge you far less than any resort and will give you an insight into local life whilst supporting the local community and enjoying the same amazing locations and experiences.
The only drawback is that there are usually no western facilities and everything is a bit more basic: you sleep on a mattress on the floor, you shower mandi style (bucket) and you might not have new and well equipped diving facilities. There is an amazing website where you can find loads of information about Raja Ampat and the available homestays with guests ratings and helpful advice: stayrajaampat.com - I highly recommend you start your research from here.
Another aspect to consider before your trip is local weather. The high season in Raja Ampat is not the same as other more popular Indonesian destinations like Bali. It's hot and humid all year round but it tends to rain more in December and January and then from June to October. June, July and August also see the winds rise and this could make the seas more rough and difficult to travel with small local boats.
September to April is also the Manta ray season meaning you are far more likely to see these majestic creatures during this period because the sea is rich in nutrients they feed on. That said, the weather is quite unpredictable and it's definitely never extreme. We went to Raja Ampat between the end of May and the beginning of June and we had loads of sunshine and only one windy day that wasn't actually that windy (at least compared to conditions I've seen in Europe!).
It rained during the day a couple of times but not all day and we carried out our snorkelling and diving activities as per usual: underwater visibility and variety of fish are certainly not affected! We also had torrential showers on two nights but apart from it being quite relaxing, by the time we woke up in morning all clouds had been swept away and the sun was shining again. Take a look at the photos and see for yourself!
As mentioned earlier, the journey to Raja Ampat is tough. We flew with Emirates from Manchester to Jakarta via Dubai and then spent some time at a hotel near the airport. Late at night we caught our flight to Sorong and arrived there early in the morning. That's around 18 hours spent on planes plus waiting time at the airport; add that Raja Ampat is also 9 hours ahead of the UK... it's understandable why you end up seriously jet lagged!
Once we arrived at our destination though, all tiredness suddenly vanished. As our boat approached the jetty, we saw a group of bottlenose dolphins hunting in the bay: little did we know that was going to be a daily sight throughout our stay there. We were greeted by the friendly staff and after filling in some forms and sipping on a refreshing welcome drink, we were taken to our beach front cottages: what a dream!
The cottages at Biodiversity Resort are built with local materials and blend perfectly with the surrounding environment. If you choose a Superior or Deluxe cottage you get a large room with veranda and en-suite bathroom. I loved the Papuan artwork and textiles, the large mosquito net around the bed, the bathroom furniture and amazing views on the jungle and beach. You fall asleep to the sound of the waves and wake up to the sound of tropical birds singing... true paradise.
Me and Matt arrived as snorkelers and left as Scuba Divers. Although we had tried a Discover Scuba Diving experience in the Canary Islands in 2018, our intention was never to dive but only snorkel. But after a few snorkeling trips together with other diving guests at the resort, Matt started suggesting we got our qualification as well.
Don't get me wrong, Raja Ampat is a paradise for snorkelers just as it is for divers. There was very little difference between what we saw snorkeling and what we saw diving: the whole multitude of tropical sea life can be seen from the surface, including sea turtles and reef sharks and the corals look just as beautiful. But of course scuba diving allows you to get up close and personal and we did miss out on some smaller creatures like shrimps and sea horses.
Having snorkeled halfway through our holiday, Matt managed to convince me to sign up for the course but we left it a bit late so we could only complete half of the Open Water course - which allow us to dive up to 12m in depth - and we are planning to finish it in the UK. Our diving instructors Rey (who also co-owns the resort) and Steve were amazing, professional and patient teachers. Needless to say, learning to dive in Raja Ampat was absolutely mind-blowing!
One of my favourite activities during our stay at the resort was the trip to Fam Islands. You are probably familiar with the postcard image of the scattered islands covered in lush green jungle and surrounded by turquoise waters. This can be seen from the famous Piaynemo viewpoint and having been there in person, I assure you no matter how many times you have stared at the pictures online, this is an absolutely breathtaking experience and an absolute must-do.
The trip to Fam includes stopping at one of the best diving sites around, Melissa's Garden and Fam slope. It's hard to make any comparisons but this is probably where we have seen the highest concentration of marine life during our trip. The fish are simply too many to count and the colours, shapes and size of the corals left us speechless.
Before the ascent to the Pyainemo view point, we made a stop near a local homestay in a bay surrounded by brackish water and mangroves. Different types of fish can be seen here, including baby black-tip reef sharks. If you look carefully among the trees you may also be able to spot a mangrove monitor lizard: we were lucky enough to see two.
The Biodiversity Eco Resort is close to many of the most popular dive sites in Raja Ampat: Cape Kri, Blue Magic, Mike's Point, Friwen Wall just to name a few. Batu Lima, the five rocks, is right in front of the resort and Friwen wall is 10 minutes away: this is where we did our first two dives. Barracudas, devil ray, nudibranch, octopus, lion fish, hawksbill sea turtle, humphead parrotfish, clown fish, bat fish and black-tip reef sharks are only a few of the many creatures we saw there!
The only hiccup we had during our stay in Raja Ampat was the Red Birds of Paradise excursion, but in the end we managed to make up for it. As mentioned earlier, on Gam (but also Waigeo and Batanta) it's possible to see this amazing bird and its display. Biodiversity doesn't organise the hikes but is in partnership with local guides who have built and take care of paths in the jungle that lead to the birds.
Also when it comes to payment, all the money goes to the local guide and the resort doesn't take anything, this way the local economy benefits. There are two types of excursions, one is jungle trekking only and the other one includes a boat ride; these can be done early in the morning or in the afternoon. I wish at the time someone told us that the morning one is by far the most rewarding.
The first time we attempted to observe the birds we picked the afternoon jungle trek because it just fitted within our schedule. But oh dear, was that the wrong choice... When we where shown our guides I couldn't believe my eyes because it was two kids not older that 13! Although they were obviously local experts having grown up there, it turned out it was quite hard to keep up with them.
The jungle path was steep. Like very very steep. And it was insanely hot and humid. After the first 5 minutes me and Matt were panting and completely covered in sweat. Ok, maybe we were a bit out of shape, but it's definitely not an easy hike. We had to make many stops along the way and we felt like our young guides were getting bored waiting for us. After give or take 45 minutes, we arrived at the observation point but there was no sign of the birds.
The kids did their best impression of the bird's call and although we could see some movement through the canopy and they were pointing at the trees, we couldn't see anything. And I mean, after years of wildlife photography, I can say I have decent spotting skills but literally all I saw was shadows. Eventually, with nightfall approaching, we decided to go back to the resort, empty-handed and disappointed.
Convincing Matt to try again was hard, especially because we'd been advised to go in the morning and that meant waking up at 4am. When we got to the jetty, it was pitch-dark and we only had our head torches to illuminate the surroundings. Our new guides, this time an old man and a younger friend or relative, were waiting for us in a longboat. Now, this was our first time in a local boat and although it felt very unstable at first, it turned out to be quite pleasant.
Sailing through the silent bay, the sky was illuminated by the milky way and thousands of incredibly bright stars, the water was completely flat and lighting up with bioluminescent particles as the boat stirred up the water at our passage; we even saw clumps of fireflies hanging on the trees around us. It all felt very surreal and magical.
The boat led us to the start of our jungle path and this time it wasn't as steep as the other one although, having rained the night before, it was quite slippery and I managed to fall and scratch my leg. The real highlight of this excursion though was that not only we finally saw the Red Bird of Paradise, but we saw many and very close to us! We observed in awe their full mating display and "dancing" moves and we got so lucky as to see a male win over a female and mate with her - all this interrupted by a beautiful sulfur-crested cockatoo who paid a visit.
As if all this wasn't enough, we were escorted by the bottlenose dolphin pod on our way back to the resort and they were so close to the boat we could observe their hunting techniques and the different markings in their dorsal fins. You can imagine how glad we were that we gave it another shot!
Doing nothing in Raja Ampat was just as rewarding as taking part in all the trips and activities. Chilling in the hammock on our veranda and looking at the sea whilst listening to the tropical birds made me completely forget about the hustle and bustle of the city life.
At Biodiversity meals are served in a sheltered dining area sitting together with other guests. We loved this because it's a way to interact with other people at the resort and this way we got to make new friends and share amazing travelling and diving stories. The food is amazing, we are actually still wondering how do they manage to prepare such a great variety of mouth-watering food in such a remote place.
Fresh water, coffee, tea and a selection of snacks and tropical fruit were available throughout the day. It was during our stay at Biodiversity that I tried dragon fruit for the first time and I think it's now my favourite fruit! Near the dining area there is also a small bar that serves beers, cocktails and other drinks which is quite nice especially if you sit down at the beach front tables and enjoy the sunset.
Bonus: you can get a professional massage too, in a beach front hut whilst listening to the waves. Enough said!
All in all, this was an out-of-this-world trip and we were so sad when we had to leave. We are pretty sure we want to return also because the Marine Park tag you have to purchase before entering Raja Ampat has a validity of one year so it could be a good excuse to go back soon!
If you are interested in visiting this incredible corner on Earth, start saving up and if you need any advice feel free to send me a message and I'd be happy to help.
My Raja Ampat travel tips are:
- Book accommodation and flights as early as you can especially if you intend to go during the high season.
- I obviously highly recommend Biodiversity Eco Resort for their amazing value but if you feel more adventurous definitely go for a homestay (or more than one!)
- In Sorong, if you need a hotel, we stayed one night at the Swiss-Belhotel. Considering the standards in this area of the world, this is quite a good hotel with a beautiful hall and restaurant. The rooms are not so great (could do with some renovation) but for a day or two it's absolutely fine.
- Depending where you're flying from, I would recommend Garuda Indonesia for internal flights. This is the country's flagship company and although it's more expensive that other ones, it has very good customer service and it's safe: I would recommend this especially if it's your first time in Indonesia. Other companies that fly to Sorong from Jakarta and Makassar are Batik Air, Sriwijaya Air and Lion Air.
- If you need to spend a night or some hours at Jakarta airport on your way to Raja Ampat, I can recommend FM7 Resort Hotel: this is a very nice hotel just a 5-10 min drive away from the airport and offers free pick-up and drop-off shuttle, has very reasonable prices, nice rooms, spa, swimming pool and restaurants. When we were there the journey was quick and smooth but I've read of other travellers getting stuck in traffic on the way to catch their flights: just make sure to make proper drop-off arrangements to avoid all risks.
- Remember to bring with you: sunscreen that is safe for coral reefs, a hat, snorkel mask and fins (you can rent equipment but sometimes it doesn't fit so well and you end up with sores and blisters, better pick your own), head torch, mosquito repellent, first aid kit, painkillers, ear drops (to prevent infections), power bank, hiking shoes, adapter, reusable water bottle.
- We got some vaccinations done before going to Raja Ampat and we were advised to take malaria pills. Visit your GP or equivalent and see what they recommend.
- Biodiversity resort accepts card payments (with a 4% charge) but for all other costs it's better to withdraw local currency, for example at Jakarta airport.
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