The 10 days in between the two Indonesia trips has passed in a flash and suddenly we are boarding a plane to Bali where we spend two nights. The hotel, the Puri Santrian, is rather tired, décor definitely more 90s than noughties, but the people are friendly. But we hit lucky with the taxi they book to take us to the ancient temple of Uluwatu. Widi speaks good English, but even better Japanese. He tells us he spent four years in Japan working in a factory. When he returned he had enough money to build a house, buy two taxis and start a business, plus educate his four children. Now he wants to go back so he can put them through university. His wife gets up at 3.30 am to go to the market – every day! He is a good guide, and even helps some silly tourists who have their prescription glasses stolen by the notorious temple macaques. We are forewarned and he is forearmed with a big stick!
It is a festival day to honour education, and all the school children are streaming in, dressed in Sunday best, bearing offerings to the gods. A fine sight. We have lunch in a hilltop bar, the Single Fin, with a great view of one of Bali’s foremost surfing beaches. Education is key here – the night-watchman at the hotel tells us proudly that his two children are doctor and psychologist, respectively. But it is expensive, even primary education is not free, although Indonesia has a nascent national health service, recently introduced, which covers 80% of the cost.
In the evening we catch up with Louise’s friends, Charley and Kyle, who have now bought a designer house, arranged round a lovely pool. We make a merry party at the Merah Putra, as an old friend of theirs’, Monique, has just arrived from England. This is Seminyak’s finest and the Balinese fusion food is quite superlative. We manage to get away reasonably early, despite having had one too many cocktails, for our 4.30 am start for our journey to Sorong.
All appears to be going well in Bali’s spanking new domestic terminal, plane is poised to take off early, when we find ourselves returning to the terminal…technical fault! With a tight 1 hr15 turnaround at Macassar, we resign ourselves to missing the start of the dive trip with heavy heart…then good news, it’s only a minor fault and we should be on our way in 10 minutes. Well, it takes 10 minutes to fix the fault and a good 35-40 to sort out the paper work. We arrive in Macassar with 15 minutes in hand, and are transferred on the tarmac from one plane to the other – but will our baggage arrive?
Dear reader, it does and soon we are speeding out way out of Sorong (a real frontier town and a bit of a dump) in a smart little tender to our beautiful vessel the Dewi Nusantara which is anchored in Sorong harbour. We are the last to arrive and, as soon as we are on board, we set sail for our first stop, the Dampier Straits.
Raja Ampat – it means Four Kings – is an area surrounding the Bird’s Head peninsula on the west of the island of New Guinea, now divided into Papua New Guinea, where my father lived for seven years and was Resident Representative for the UNDP, and West Papua, formerly known as Irian Jaya. The west part of the island was rather disgracefully handed over by the Dutch and the UN to the Indonesians in 1961, against the people’s will, and my father’s tenure at the UN included looking after a stream of refuges from the Papuan freedom fighters, who waged sporadic and rather traditional warfare against their new masters. He was rewarded with many accolades and gifts for his efforts. As a student of anthropology I was in seventh heaven growing up there and made good use of the educational opportunity this afforded me for my degree!
Back to Raja Ampat – it is a huge area of 183,000 sq kms, about the size of Austria. It is renowned for its biodiversity and magnificent corals, probably caused by its unique position atop a tectonic conversion zone. It has several endemic species of rare fish, particularly the wobbeggon and epaulette or walking sharks. Muck divers get excited about the ‘critters’, so small I can hardly see them; however, even I get a thrill out of seeing a pygmy seahorse that is smaller than the white tip of your fingernail and almost invisible with my (blind) eyes.
Our boat is a three-masted schooner, with 8 huge cabins containing large double beds and sumptuous bathrooms. A palace on the sea, with haute cuisine, luxurious and fabulous sundecks, giving magnificent views of the islands, which are like little emeralds that thrust upwards out of the water, spiky limestone outcrops, covered in greenery. Here and there you see a fishing village, occasionally a boat, now and again another live-aboard but, for the most part, we are alone on the ocean.
The crew, led by cruise director Andrea, are all smiling and charming, and nothing is too much trouble, including the 2 minute massage after every dive. The full massage is a teat too. It’s a high point when they launch the sails one night, and we take to the tenders to admire the Dewi Nusantara in full fig. Another time we go on a lagoon tour and clamber up to a look-out point and see the islands scattered beneath us, like jewels in the deep blue sea.
We are privileged to witness the recent lunar eclipse from the deck; the next morning we go ashore at 4.30 am to trek up a steep hill (vertical let me tell you, with handrails, and squelchy underfoot) to greet the dawn chorus of the red bird of paradise which is unique to these islands. We are rewarded with the sight of several males displaying their curly-wurly tail-feathers and doing somersaults – a flash of carmine as they up-end – to impress their drab females. But the best view we get is in fact on our guide’s tee shirt…
From there we visit the village, where life has hardly changed I suspect: children playing in the street, the older ones wending their way to school, women doing domestic things, the men hanging out, chewing betel nut. It is stormy so I guess they are not out fishing…from time to time we come across fishermen in their dugouts, and we buy fish from them – huge tuna in exchange for a little petrol or some dried egg noodles, which they are addicted to. It seems a poor deal to me!
As for our fellow travellers – it is always a risk on a trip such as this, as you have no idea who you will be cooped up with for 11 days! We are truly multicultural: Team China comprises a group of friends and family. Two work in the film and radio industry, and the rest in oil services; all have western names, Tony and Kelly, Bob and Jen, Frank, Eva and Jade, which makes it easier for us as their Chinese names are difficult. Like us they bring their special tea for the trip. They are enormously good-humoured – their tinkly laughter echoes round the boat, and their equipment is both colourful and haute couture. It’s the new China alright. And they are dead keen, out on every single night dive while the rest of us Caucasians – Canadian, German, and American – are gently sipping sun-downers when the night boat goes out (Ross of course is the exception to the rule!). I particularly enjoy chatting to Casey, a young American-Asian, brought up in Singapore and educated in California. He reminds me of the Big Lebowski, with a touch of Jesse Pitman – everything is ‘cool, all good’ – and he has a refreshing zest for life which some of us seem to lose as we get older.
There’s always one on every trip: he’s been diving for 40 years and knows it all; he sinks like a stone on entry and bobs like a cork throughout the dives. His equipment surrounds him like the tentacles of an octopus; he appears above and below you when you least expect it. In the end he is allocated his own private dive master who follows him carrying his go-pro and filming on his behalf, occasionally keeping him on lead to prevent him from an abrupt ascent!
As for the diving – well, wow, it is amazing. My photos are only above the water, so here is a link to Ross’s website http://rosscattell.net/diving/Raja_Ampat/raja_ampat_1.php for the underwater world of Raja Ampat. Among my most magical moments: the two of us, plus Andri, the dive master, lying flat on out tummies in 20 m of water, while two 3m manta rays glide around us, like the starship enterprise, getting their cleaning service from the ramoras and numerous appended suckerfish. It felt as surreal as an out of this world experience should be.
The other extraordinary underwater experience has been the millions of silversides – tiny anchovy-type fish – forming huge bait balls, which flash and gash silver like a kaleidoscope, all swirling fishes, so dense you cannot see the adjacent divers, in dark clouds above and below you, not unlike the queleas you get in Zimbabwe. Just hanging in the shallows, waiting to decompress, I twizzle and turn and try to conduct them with my reef pointer, to make them form new patterns. I have never seen anything like it. Ross has video of this on his website, do check it out.
This is what the fishing boats are after – we come across four or five in a sheltered bay, although they are not really meant to be there. At night they illuminate their nets to attract the fish. The catch is collected the next day by a beaten-up old mother ship, which has refrigeration. Although it is illegal, it must be possible for man and fish to co-exist, so long as man does not dynamite or use industrial nets. Without fishing these Papuans will no longer survive, and they are much less of a threat than the deforestation and mining unleashed by the Indonesian government.
Underneath the waves, all is calm and peaceful; it’s a great time to do my leg exercises (lots of finning!), meditate and ponder on life. Memories of Louise swim around my head down here: how she didn’t really like diving and was saved from it by having plastic surgery on her ear-drum; the family holidays where we dived and swam and, again, the great sadness re-surfaces, of a life not lived, the denial of the enjoyment of such peace and beauty. I capture the spectacle in silent tribute and give thanks for my own life – rich yet fragile like the coral reefs.