Friday, November 21, 2014

On To Raja Ampat - Things Really Get Interesting...

Nikko ferried us to the docks of Sorong early monday morning. Our plan was the catch the first ferry to Waisai Island that morning and return on the last ferry back to Sorong. From Waisai, we assumed that we would somehow find access to the marine preserve and fabled tiny islands of Raja Ampat.

Boarding the large ferry, we had plenty of company. Inside the boat where plush red velvet seats similar to what you would find on a nice bus or airplane. Loud karaoke seemed to be the morning's entertainment for the 2 hour passage to Waisai. The day before, we had made friends with one of the girls who worked on the ferry. She allowed us to pass through the wheelhouse and on to the open air front deck. There was no seating here save for some wooden slats. The front deck, however was open and gave us easy access for making photos along the way. The three of us, Mr. T, myself & Widi were the only passengers on deck... except for a man dressed all in black, wearing a black ball cap with a gold medallion and carrying a black leather "man-purse" emblazoned with the same gold medallion. He kept to himself, chain-smoking kreteks as we found our places and readied for departure.

Mr. T, immediately upon spotting the stranger in our midst, nudged me and whispered "keep an eye on that guy... he's somebody". We all assumed he was some government official. Later, we would find that our assumption was correct.

As the boat prepared to cast off it's mooring lines and leave the harbor... straggling passengers continued board via a rickety gangplank. Even as the ferry began pulling away from the docks, a couple of last minute passengers made the last minute leap, clinging desperately to handrails along the side of the boat until they found steady footing.

As we finally left the docks and made our way out of the harbor, we were granted front row views to the waterfront of Sorong. Unfortunately the morning was grey and hazy. We hoped for better conditions once we were out to sea and on our way to Waiego Island. The ferry crossing would take just a little under 2 hours.

About halfway through the trip, the mysterious man in black, still puffing on kretek after kretek, began to strike up conversation with us. He proved to be friendly and talkative and we quickly learned that his name was "M" and that he was the head of Indonesian National Intelligence... the head "spook" for all of Indonesia. Learning that I was an American, he seemed to take great interest and began telling me how he had just been with our Secretary of State, John Kerry. Kerry had been in the country for the inauguration of Indonesia's new President Jokowi. As we talked further, we learned that M was meeting another top Intel friend and the Chief of Police in Waisai, Waiego Island's capitol. They were there on official business but M was also in the process of developing a small eco-dive resort on the island. He then offered to give us a ride from the docks once we arrived on Waiego.

The ride on the ferry was smooth, fast and uneventful. Our new friend was very talkative and once we arrived in Waisai, as promised, M and his friends picked us up at the ferry terminal and drove us into town.

Sadly, the skies were no clearer in Wasai than when we had left Sorong. We piled into the car, M's companions stuffed themselves in the far back, Mr. T and Widi occupied the back seat and I was given the front passenger seat next the M. 

Waisai looked like a frontier town just on the front edge of a boom. There were the usual rustic storefronts and food stalls found everywhere through asia but there was a more organized feel of development about to happen. M took us to a large, new hotel where he planned to stay during his time in Waisai. The place had a big minimart and modern looking restaurant and was situated a block from the town's waterfront. M suggested we stay the night in Waisai rather than return to Sorong that afternoon as were our plans. We considered his suggestion and took a look at the rooms... barren, sterile and cold. From what we could see from the drive into town, this was not what we had come looking for and, at that point, decided we would stick with our original plan of returning by afternoon ferry.

M looked disappointed but decided that he would become our guide for the remainder of the day. First, he guided us across the road to a large, newly developed and very modern, recently built public park... now in disrepair and a state of decline. The park, we learned, had only recently been completed. There were large water features left dry and with giant dolphin sculptures. A giant electronic jumbotron rose on a scaffold between the coco palms, the large, wide walkways were paved in mosaic stone & lined with wooden lighting towers that no longer worked.

M informed us that $8 million US had been spent creating the park. It had been nice & functional for about a week. Former Indonesian President SBY had flown in to make a speech here and dedicate the park. Once the former president returned to Jakarta, the park had been abandoned. The place was surreal... an idea far ahead of its time. We saw no signs of life there other than a couple of young people lying the the shade of one of the pavilions scattered around the property.

Heading back to the car, the three of us were left scratching our heads over the waste and immediate decline of what could be a magnificent waterfront for what appeared to be a very small town.

Driving around with M, we could see that Waisai was, indeed, on the cusp of a boom... a holiday resort for scuba divers at the gateway to Raja Ampat. Everywhere we drove, land was being cleared for small hotels, an airport, shopping centers. M took us to his property, just on the other side of the ferry terminal. The land was still being cleared and M described to us his plans for small wooden huts on stilts that would extend out over the crystal waters and coral gardens. We were also told that all available land along the coast had been scooped up and about to undergo similar development. 

It turns our M had a plan. His plan did not involve us returning to Sorong that afternoon. Shortly after leaving his property, we followed the road along the coast, eventually ending up at a beachfront dive retreat called Waiwo Dive Resort. The word "resort" might be stretching things a bit but the place had a certain charm as we wandered down a shady path of coral-lined sand, among a cluster of small wooden bungalows, eventually emerging from the forest at a magnificent beach, complete with long wooden pier, water as clear as glass and colorful fish everywhere you looked. Small islands drifted offshore but still, this didn't look like the Raja Ampat I had found on the internet. Making inquiries with M, I learned that to see these islands, we would need to charter a motorized long boat for the day at a cost of roughly $600US. None of us had brought that much money with us as we had only planned to be there for half a day.

Then M grinned widely and told us he had already chartered a boat for early morning the next day. If we would change our plans and spend the night, we would be his guests. The idea sounded promising but we had already booked flights to fly back to Bali from Sorong on the following afternoon. When we informed M of this plan, he smiled, shook his head and said "no problem". After all, this was head of National Intelligence for of all of Indonesia. He "knew" people. He took out his cellphone, made a call and hung up. Then he informed us that our flight had already been changed and our tickets would be waiting for us at the airport... no additional fee. OK... this seemed like an offer we could not refuse. I would be a returning to Bali a day later than planned but still had four days to conclude my business there and check on production. We looked around the property some more, then decided to stay at this retreat for the night. 

M shook our hands at the wisdom of this decision and we checked in. As we had not brought clothes, toiletries, etc. M then suggested we carry on with our tour by car and on the way back to the beach, he would take us back to the other hotel where we could grab toothbrushes, etc. We grabbed our cameras and wandered back up the path to the road and waiting car.

First stop... M decided to treat us to lunch at a Maskan Padang style warung in town. These places cook a days worth of food early in the morning then stack plates of the daily offerings in the front window of the warung. You simply grab a plate and help yourself, cafeteria style. The food was excellent and we were happy to eat something besides fish for a change. After lunch, M and his friends continued on as our tour guides and showed us all around the island, then took us to the mini-mart to secure necessary items to spend the night and then back to our lodgings late in the afternoon. M and his friends stayed with us and we all headed out to the pier for some swimming and snorkeling. The water surrounding the pier was like an aquarium... fish everywhere and water clear as can be... other asian tourists staying at the dive lodge were also out enjoying the scenery, warm afternoon air & water.

Once the sun had set, M and his companions suggested that they drive us back into town & treat us the a grilled chicken dinner at one of his favorite warungs on the island. M assured us he would return us to the hotel after the meal and that we were to meet him and the chartered long boat on the pier the next morning at 7am. Dinner was exceptionally good and we talked and laughed with our new best friends for a couple of hours before, as promised, M dropped us back at our hotel on the beach.

Mr. T and I shared a bungalow that night and slept like logs, excited for what we might see and do the following day.

Thursday, November 20, 2014


As promised, we began the approach to Sorong around 10 o'clock on Sunday morning. We had been sailing for 9 days and this would be the Manta Mae's final port of call for this trip. Here the boat would anchor for more than a week as it waited for it's owner to arrive from Europe. The crew, in shifts, would fly home for a few days each, leaving someone always on board to keep an eye on things.

The entrance to the harbor was dominated by a rock island with a lighthouse.

Beyond the lighthouse lay a large and congested harbor. Freighters, tankers, cargo and fishing boats, quite a few dive boats much like the one we had been living, on were anchored in the harbor or tied up to the piers fronting what appeared to be a bustling port city.

The air was thick with haze as we entered the harbor and dropped anchor squarely between the busy waterfront of Sorong and a smaller island on the opposite side of the harbor. I later learned that the name of this island was "Doom". We would visit Doom later in the day.

We also learned that this was as far as we were going. I think we all had been under the impression that we would be sailing into the exotic marine preserve of Raja Ampat... another 2 hour ride away by "fast boat". Hmmmm...  A short time after anchoring, we were boarded by some friends of the crew members, in port and working on other boats anchored in the harbor. One of these friends told us we could take a small, fast boat from the docks of Sorong to Waiego Island, the largest land mass in Raja Ampat. These ferries ran twice daily from Sorong to Waisai, the capitol of Waiego.

We quickly made plans to catch the ferry to Waisai for a day excursion the following morning. Later, we talked Nikko into taking us to shore on Doom Island to do a bit of exploring. From the boat, Doom looked more primitive & rough than Sorong... a couple of large old buildings, a large mosque and some small homes lining the shore. 

We disembarked from the zodiac and entered the marketplace for Doom. There was little activity and only a few shopkeepers there to ply their goods. We later found that even though there was a big mosque on the shore, the island was mostly christian, no doubt due to early Portuguese or Dutch influence, and most businesses took the day off on Sunday.

The occupants of the village seemed to be out for a lazy Sunday stroll or were pedaled around on brightly colored pedicabs know as becaks. The sun and heat were brutal at midday so we wandered into the cool shade of the market for some relief and to have a look around.

 Later we wandered away from the market and down a small lane dotted with brightly painted houses running along the waterfront.

At the far end of this lane, the homes became decidedly rougher in appearance, wooden structures up on stilts jutting out over the water's edge.

Children played in the shade along the lane or at the water's edge. After an hour or so of walking, being given a tour of the local cemetery and chatting with a few of the locals, we decided to turn around and walk back to the docks fronting the market and catch the dinghy back to the boat and then check out the other side of the harbor... the town of Sorong.

Sorong appeared to be much like any other bustling asian seaport town, a cluster of buildings along the waterfront, the ubiquitous mosque or three and whatever else a town depended on ship and cargo traffic thru it's port might need. We did learn that there was a supermarket nearby the docks... a KFC too! So Nikko dropped us off at the docks and we walked almost a kilometer to the supermarket alongside a relatively modern highway along in a relatively modern city. We learned that there were several hotels, the best being a Le Meridian. There was an incredibly efficient and cheap system of public transportation by bemo... small minivans painted bright yellow and constantly moving back and forth, up and down the highway, picking up passengers and depositing others, virtually anywhere they were seen or needed to stop... all for the equivalent of far less than a dollar. There were hundreds of them and they were everywhere.

At the supermarket, we were very happy to find fresh baked goods. We had eaten no bread or pastries for over a week now and we loaded up on almond flavored treats, more fruit and bananas and other snacks. Another giant KFC was attached to the building but we decided against it even though we were tiring of fish.

Comparing our purchases, we opted to return to the docks by bemo and were met by Nikko and the zodiac and quickly ferried back to the Manta Mae.

That evening, we agreed to rise early and catch the 9am ferry to Waisai and have our first look at Raja Ampat.

On To Raja Ampat... or Not...

Our final night at Bwano Island, the three of us stayed on deck late into the evening. Mr. T & I talked while Widi and the crew fished with handlines off of the ship's rear. Sunset was again spectacular! We were all tired from a full day of activity but equally excited about the final days of the journey.

Finally, exhausted and ready for sleep, we climbed below deck to our respective cabins and were rocked gently to sleep by the calm waters of The Spice Islands. 

Up at dawn the next morning, the crew hoisted anchor just as the sun was rising and we made our way out of the bay and aimed the boat towards Sorong in West Papua New Guinea. All along the way that morning, we passed many small, low-lying islands. Most looked uninhabited except for a lighthouse and caretakers home. There were little signs of life on shore. In one cluster of islands, early that afternoon, Captain guided the ship into a narrow straight and past even more, tinier islands until we pulled around and into a narrow passage, more a river than open ocean. Here, we again dropped anchor. I was excited to have the chance to swim again in beautiful, calm water. The excitement quickly faded when I was warned to beware of crocodiles and that a large croc had taken a diver's arm here just a few weeks before. Looking around, I could see that the shores surrounding the narrow channel were lined with thick mangroves... perfect croc habitat.

Opting out of the swimming option for the day, Nikko volunteered to again give us a tour of these island and narrow waterways by zodiac. From the boat, we could easily see a couple of small, wooden dugout canoes in the mangroves but no sign of human life otherwise. We knew someone was in forest there, probably watching us. We were curious about what we might find so into the zodiac and off we went. These waterways were like narrow rivers. Occasionally we would spot an abandoned stilt house out over the edge of the water. We saw amazing coral gardens along the shores. 

Eventually we ended up on a tiny island, no more than 100 meters across and flat with a ring of white sand beach around one side, and mangrove around the other. In the center of the island was a thick stand of coco palms and other low brush. On the beach, there was what appeared to be a fishing camp. A shelter made of blue plastic tarps, some plastic crates and water jugs and a couple of coral rock-ringed firepits. On closer inspection, there were also wooden platforms made of driftwood and on them, some type of meat was drying. As we walked toward the empty camp, we began seeing the large, empty shells of sea turtles... quickly realizing that the meat drying on those wooded racks was turtle meat.

We were now entering Papua... the people we had encountered passing on small fishing boats on the way to here no longer looked Indonesian/Asian but more Papuan, Melanesian... dark skin, wiry hair and broad noses. West Papua, however, is a part of Indonesia via some weird, unexplainable treaty or land grab that happened a long time ago. Turtle hunting is still prohibited in Indonesia and we were now in the midst of an "illicit" turtle meat camp. By illicit, I mean that it would be illegal by law to hunt turtle here. That said, this area was remote, quite off the beaten track of any fish & wildlife officers. This area is also inhabited by people who have probably eaten turtle for generations and weren't about to stop due to some arbitrary international boundary.

We walked around the island some more, investigated the lagoon that sheltered it, until we heard the sound of a motor in the distance. Nikko thought it wise that we take our leave immediately lest we, or at least me & Mr. T, become "the other white meat" or at least have some problems with the returning turtle hunters who might think we were poaching their goods.

Into the zodiak we went and as we were motoring through the pristine coral gardens that surrounded the island, the two dugouts we had seen earlier were coming straight at us. Once within range, we waved sheepishly at the two boats. They were filled with families... husband, wife and kids. Danger averted as they waved back and seemed to pay us no mind otherwise.

Returning to the boat, we stayed at anchor for the rest of the day, fished with handlines for wide-mouthed gobies... Widi was excited by the catch and hoped the chef might fry them up as "crunchy fish". Just befor sunrise, the crew again pulled up anchor and we made our way between islands and back into the open sea. The Captain informed us we would be in Sorong by mid-morning tomorrow.

Bwano Is Good To Us

By mid-day the tide was getting perilously low and it was time to say goodbye to the village and our hosts on Bwano (Buano?) Island and return to the boat. Nikko waited with the zodiak at the edge of the lagoon as we waded out thru the reef to meet him and be ferried back to the Manta Mae.

Once we had climbed into the dinghy and stashed our cameras, Nikko decides we should take a tour around some of the other small islands close by. So close were these islands to Bwano that the sea between them resembled more a river than ocean... narrow channels sheltered from wind between them and water smooth as glass. 

As we ventured up one of these island channels, we came upon another small & primitive looking fishing village with houses built out over the water but little sign of human activity. Further exploration revealed picture postcard perfect beaches of pure white sand, a few liveaboards occupied by families and crystal clear turquoise water, reefs & coral colored like a brilliant rainbow.

As we came around the backside of one of these adjacent islands, we could see our ship at anchor in the distance and hear the sound of a jet ski. We quickly surmised that the Captain & crew left behind had decided to take the day off & play. 

Our Captain was tooling around the harbor at top speed, weaving around the small rock islands. As we reboarded the ship, we discovered that the 4 men from the village were still aboard and when Captain returned with the thrill craft, Nikko offered to take one of the men for a ride. The man smiled wide and agreed and off they went. And a ride this guy got! Nikko weaved around the ship at top speed and then turned hard, doing a 360 with the jet ski. The man on the back hung of for dear life as Nikko put the ski though it's paces, finally dumping them both in an especially hard turn. Nikko reclaimed the ski as the man swam back to the boat and climbed back aboard. Widdi was up next and then I took a spin! 

During the process of scaring the hell out of our village guest, Nikki also lost his sunglasses. Once back on board the boat, he pulled out some dive gear & a speargun and plunged back overboard to search for his glasses and some fresh fish for the evening dinner.

Nikko's bubble trail appeared again beside the boat about 45 minutes later. While he had no luck finding his glasses, he did manage to bring back several nice fish and a good sized octopus for the evening meal.

For the rest of the afternoon, everyone made good use of the time, magnificent weather and pristine water to swim, dive from upper decks and make more photographs of our incredible surroundings. The men from the village eventually returned to their boat and motored back to shore leaving us to enyoy their home waters and pristine bay for a couple of more hours.

It was later decided that we should make full use of what was left of the afternoon by staying here at anchor and spending the night. It was also decided that, as a gift for our generous host - the boat's owner, we would convince the crew to raise the sails and photograph the Manta Mae of it's full glory in this wonderful setting and while at anchor in the early evening, do our best to capture photos below deck of the lounge and cabin interiors. The brochures being used to market the chartering of this vessel filled with terrible photography and we all felt that the least we could do was try to make something decent that he could use for his advertising. The crew agreed and later in the afternoon, the anchor was hoisted, the sails raised and Nikki, Widi & I took off in one of the zodiacs, directing the boat as to where to position itself under sail for the best photographs via walkie-talkies.

Once the full boat exteriors had been accomplished, the crew again dropped anchor next to a rock island & lowered the sails. Nikko, Widi & I returned to the ship swam some more, relaxed and waited for sunset.

Later that evening, Chef prepared the fish caught earlier in the day and we dined on two different broiled whole fish... one a nice grouper and the other something I didn't recognize. Deep-fried octopus, nasi putih and a delicious, fresh sambal Chef said was commonly used in Manado, Sulawesi were also on the menu. Fresh cucumber slices and tomatoes rounded out the meal as we talked and laughed and reminisced about the spectacular day. For me at least, this was the best day on the ship yet. It took us a week to get here but it was worth the wait. This island and it's surrounding waters were what I had come in search of and hoped to find.

Believe it or not, from this point, the adventure only got better and more interesting. The following morning we would be entering the Pacific Ocean and sail towards Sorong, West Papua New Guinea... the gateway to Raja Ampat!