Timing is everything and if the trip from Ambon on the plane to Sorong, a small port on the coast of Papua, and then to Waisai in the Raja Ampat Islands by ferry was to be achieved then I would have thirty minutes to collect my bag from the carousel and ride a taxi to the port. At Ambon airport I tried the old trick of asking for a Fragile sticker on my bag, well it would either be first, or last. As it turned out it was first even though the sticker had fallen off and then it was a dive into the first taxi and rush, rush, rush to the jetty. I need not have worried, it was inevitably delayed, my bags were portered aboard for about a dollar, I found a seat and exhaled. We sped across the Dampier Strait, a thrill in itself, and arrived successfully at Waisai where my carefully laid planning collapsed somewhat. I find it hard to remember where I am supposed to be going and I make a list, so this one was quite easy, Ambon to Sorong, except of course it wasn’t Sorong it was Pelabuhan, the name of Sorong’s port, and then Waisai. I called my homestay from the ferry to tell them I had made the scheduled departure successfully and expected the usual ‘Mr Tim’ sign on my arrival, but no sign and I hadn’t written down the name of the homestay. There was the usual posse of agents, touts and hustlers vying for my business all of whom I thank you’d away except for one guy who seemed particularly insistent. It turned out he was the Waisai agent for the homestay, Yankoranu, and had been dispatched to meet the ferry and point the only westerner aboard in the right direction. He lowered my bags into an open boat filled with large bottles of drinking water and we went off to purchase the required license for Raja Ampat National Park. Mission accomplished, at a not inconsiderable fee, we returned to the boat and due to the cargo perched on the edge, the gunwale, and with the twin outboards roaring raced away to Yankoranu on Pulau Kri.
The tide was in, disembarking was achieved with ease, I found my hut some ten feet from the high tide mark, dithered around in the usual arriving fashion and headed for the communal dining, rec’ area. Oh dear, six guys, each sitting at different tables all showing a distinct lack of camaraderie for each other and more especially for me, the newb’ on the block. I made a few attempts at conversation that fell on deaf ears so I had my solitary beer and went to bed wondering if I should move on the next day. Happily though as dawn broke the six solitary ones loaded themselves into a boat and thankfully went on their way. I had the place to myself. Bliss. I was ushered to the end of the jetty with the children from the local village and witnessed the morning shark feeding. Only reef sharks, harmless (perhaps!), but still quite large, maybe five feet or longer and all looking distinctly shark like, there were maybe thirty of them, maybe more, I took pictures from above which actually came out surprisingly well. People arrived on the jetty throughout the day and all seemed to want to chat before heading off down the beach to other homestays. I was intrigued, what were they doing here, how had they even heard of Raja Ampat. There was a couple from Chile who had come non stop, as it were, from Santiago it took them four days, a couple from Sao Paulo who were similarly well traveled. Why here I asked, I mean I had only first heard of the place two days ago and these guys had been planning their trip for months. It seems that the Raja Ampat Islands are at the center of the coral triangle, there are over one thousand eight hundred varieties of fish and over eighty percent of the world’s different corals are found here. Plus the microclimate makes for extremely clear water and so the divers come, from all over the World. The wealthier ones take to what are known as liveaboards, large yachts fitted out for diving, luxury accommodations, gourmet food, wine, gin, brandy, the usual stuff while the rest of us stay at homestays and experience the islands for a fraction of the price. These then were, I suppose, my kind of people, even though I don’t dive, heck, I can barely swim! The day meandered along and by day’s end my homestay was full. I could tell things were improving because everyone, upon arriving, rushed around introducing themselves. Ok, then, this is better. Beer time came and we all gathered, at the same table, and told stories, where we were from, what we did, had done, a joke or two, nice people, not at all pretentious. Eventually there were four Brits, one living in Ottawa, one Melbourne, one Frankfurt, by way of Edinburgh, and me, SF. Two French guys from Versailles, a great Indonesian guy who worked for Toyota who had the best gadgets I ever did see (!). A really good guy I christened ‘nice Mike’ to myself who turned out to be a Doctor from Colorado. Then there was the couple from Slovakia. “Where is that?” I said, my brain fixated on Slovenia, I just couldn’t place Slovakia. My brain had stopped but I eventually got it and publicly apologized for my temporary ignorance. One of the French guys piped up “that’s ok, now we know you are from America”, it was that sort of crowd, very good natured and humorous.
Janixko Hlixka, aka Jan, and Tatiana Hlxnkova from Bratislava were quite the stars of the show, Jan being the tall guy, totally fearless and Tatiana, his wife of twelve years, the not so expert in the water person, just like me. As always their English was superb but I have this minor ‘thing’, and at the risk of offending the entire planet I have to confess. Whenever I hear ladies with that particular Slavic accent I go into this “I want to be a classic Russian novelist” dream. Its not going to happen for many reasons, the prime one of course, I can’t speak Russian. (Away with the fairies, Tim.) It happened on a tour bus in Istanbul with Ms Vxka Zolxt, despite her being from New York, again in Uzbekistan with Katya Andrxshxna, although Katya did do four years at Stanford, and here was Tatiana sounding like someone out of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. There, I got that out of the way. We really did have some interesting conversations though and I don’t think she will mind if I mention that her Father fought with the Russian Partisans during WW2, that’s some gene pool. There was the infamous occasion when I misheard her pronunciation of ‘fruit’, hearing it as ‘Freud”, as in Sigmund, her face after a few sentences from me was, well, startling! Startled?
(An aside here, I am on a train heading north in Malaysia, it is sunset and the crew have just all come to the back of my carriage for evening prayers. How excellent)
I snorkeled, lots more than I have ever snorkeled before, I had too really with all the divers around. I have become quite familiar with dive speak, I even know what a nudibranch is! It’s a tiny multi colored snail that lives on the bottom, with horns. I jumped, well slid, off the side of the boat a couple of times and swam about seeing things I had never seen before but it was when Jan and Tatiana gently persuaded me to go with them out onto the reef that I really got enthused. It was as if I was observing another civilization, something from Science Fiction, so many fish, of every color, thousands and thousands of them, swimming about among the absolutely remarkable coral, each species having its own role. I just wish that I owned an underwater camera so I could share, but you will just have to believe me. It was absolutely stunning.
Yankoranu and its staff were above and beyond what one would expect from an isolated homestay. The food was basic, mostly fish and rice but plentiful, the huts were, again, basic, and interestingly perhaps, to some, featured proper loos, but they didn’t flush. I don’t think I have met that before. Every evening there was a communal pow pow when the staff laid out the options for the following day and after a debate some signed up to go off and, for instance, dive with the mantas or chain themselves to the reef at the turn of the tide to observe the big fish. I did join an early morning expedition (4.30am) to go observe the courting dance of the bird of paradise. Apart from becoming lost in the jungle for a while this was quite special except I had this concept that the dance took place on the ground rather like peacocks. Oh no, it takes place high up at the top of the canopy, maybe one hundred feet up. This of course makes for a difficult photo opportunity and I ended up with many photos of branches and leaves, and a stiff neck.
Raja Ampat then. Quite a special place.