Papua: Island Paradise

With only six weeks at our disposal this travel season, we decided to visit a place new to us but in a country very familiar: Papua, New Guinea (Indonesia). A visit to Papua would allow us to see and do many of the things we love most while traveling: dive in pristine underwater environs, search for rare wildlife, and visit unique and endangered cultures. I refer to this half of the World's second largest island as Papua, New Guinea, rather than Papua, Indonesia, or the name it is referred to as locally in Indonesia, Irian Jaya. I do this for a few reasons. First, the comma distinguishes it from it's independent neighbour to the east, and second half of the island, Papua New Guinea. Next, as an Indonesian acquisition, Papua doesn't have the feel nor composition of any other province of Indonesia. Native Papuans are Melanesian and ethnically distinct from all other Indonesians. Lastly, it's the way the Papuan people would want it to be. The people of Papua have been fighting for their independence ever since the Dutch signed it over to Indonesia back in 1962 and many thousands have lost their lives in the process. I don't intend to get all political here, and Indonesia will always hold a special place in our hearts as one of our most beloved places to travel in, but I just want to show our respect to the people who made our one month journey through Papua one we will never forget. Right! Back to the blog then!

The beach and house reef at RABD

Papua has intrigued us for quite a long time. While in Sulawesi a few years back, we heard of the diving Mecca and stunning archipelago of Raja Ampat which has since remained on our travel “to do” list. The chance to see rare wildlife endemic to the island of New Guinea, such as the beautiful Birds of Paradise, was yet another great reason to want to explore Papua. But it was the opportunity to visit the endangered cultures and tribal life in Papua's remote interior and to trek though its lush Baliem Valley region that was the deciding factor in visiting this most eastern holding of Indonesia now rather than later. We broke our trip up through Papua into three stages. First we would head to Raja Ampat to enjoy some stellar diving and snorkeling and tour some of the most gorgeous islands and islets imaginable. Next we would fly to Manokwari and then venture into the jungle-clad Arfak Mountains in search of birdlife. The last portion of our Papuan experience would be the Baliem Valley where we would mingle with the Dani peoples and trek through the ever changing landscapes of this remote area. Our posts from Papua will follow these three stages in the order we travelled them.

Raja Ampat was our first stop in Papua mainly for logistical reasons as we had booked a 5N/4D dive package with Raja Ampat Biodersity (hereafter RABD) while still in Canada and we wanted to make sure that we wouldn't miss our booking (flights in Papua are notorious for delays and cancellations so by flying from Bali to Sorong in West Papua first we knew we would make our dive reservation). We stayed one night in Sorong (at the Belagri Hotel which is a very choice for a night or two in Sorong) and then took the 2 p.m. ferry to Waisai (the capital of the Raja Ampat Regency) the next day where we were met by staff from the dive resort who then shuttled us to Pulau Gam, the home of RABD. RABD is a quaint budget-oriented dive operation of an excellent standard run by a friendly Spanish, English, and Bahasa-speaking duo whom I formerly dove with in Bunaken, Sulawesi, Rey and Patricia. The “resort” itself is situated on a beautiful strip of sand in southern Gam with a gorgeous house reef and jungle walking trails to keep you occupied when not diving. You could often see dolphins right off the beach and pier and on a couple of occasions we spotted resident cuscuses in the trees around the huts.

Over the next few days we dove 8 locations, each offering something new to discover. The coral reefs in Raja Ampat are the healthiest I've ever seen (and I've seen some of the world's best) which attracts a staggering amount of marine life. One of my favorite dive sites in the region was “The Passage” which offered plenty of interesting macro life below the surface (as well as some larger creatures too) and beautiful karst scenery above the surface.

After diving we still wanted to explore more of the Raja Ampat archipelago so we decided that we would try one of the many homestays in the area set-up to accommodate tourists. This is where I have to deliver my one and only warning about travel in Papua- the Internet and telecommunications in general are horrible in RA (outside of Sorong and Waisai) and many of the people who operate these homestays either don't have Internet or phones or simple live in a place where the telcom infrastructure wouldn't support such modern amenities anyways. Even finding resources on the internet about these places or any reliable travel advice for that matter is scarce. If you are fortunate enough to make contact with a local homestay (click on this link for a complete list of homestay options in Raja Ampat complete with contact info) then communication becomes the next challenge. Try to have someone fluent in Bahasa Indonesia with you when attempting a booking. We tried to contact our homestay for many days while on Gam but to no avail. We ended up having to go back to Waisai to organize our homestay with a family member of the owner, who, through a network of other family members and friends, was able to put the word out to the owner that he was about to receive guests. So one night in Waisai organizing our next leg of our trip (paying for our homestay, buying provisions for our stay, and meeting with a member of the government tourism bureau who acted as a liaison between us and the homestay and made sure we were holding our proper Raja Ampat park tags) and we were off to our dreamy homestay in one of the most beautiful places in RA- Pulau Piaynemo, in the southwestern Fam group of islands. I guess I lied when I said I had only one warning! It would only be fair to warn others about the costs associated with a trip to Papua. Papua is not a budget destination by Indonesian or Southeast Asian standards. It is a remote place and the cost of fuel is high. When everything has to be shipped-in from larger centres and then shipped or flown to their final destination, the cost of living becomes drastically inflated. 500,000 rupiahs ($50 USD) is a realistic budget for a room per night in very basic accommodation. If you travel any substantial distance in Papua you will inevitably need to take to skies or the water and that alone can destroy a backpacker's budget. But I promise I will offer any cost saving tips I can for the most frugal friendly journey through Papua possible. We paid 500,000 rupiahs PER PERSON per night at Piaynemo Homestay which is very basic (you sleep on mats on the floor and you poop in a hole in the ground yet all meals are included and a boat is at your disposal for sightseeing and self-exploration) but to us it was absolute paradise. It is owned and operated by a very friendly Indonesian named Eli who speaks very good English.

The stunning karst landscape around Piaynemo

We only intended to spend three nights on Piaynemo, we ended up staying for five. Piaynemo is postcard material, but it is very remote (3 hours by boat from Waisai) and blissfully secluded. Some day trippers make the journey from Waisai on the weekends but other than that we had the whole bay, beach and homestay to ourselves for 95% of the time. The Homestay is situated on an island isthmus with an open view of Piaynemo bay and its karst landscapes on one side and a very nice (albeit a little dirty) beach on the other side. We spent our days lazing around the homestay reading, drinking tea, taking our tiny catamaran through the local islets, and climbing up the karsts for the most stunning panoramic views possible. We ate fresh fish (and I mean fresh) and coconut crab and shared our stilted hut only some mosquitoes and geckos, a monitor lizard, lots of fish and our resident juvenile black tip sharks that incessantly patrolled the water below us. In the bay we spotted sea turtles, monitor lizards, and lots of colourful birdlife and insects.

The back beach on Piaynemo

We could have easily stayed many more days but we had to take advantage of the window of good weather to exit the island safely. But the thing with weather is that it can change very quickly and we spent the next three hours white-knuckling the sides of our longtail boat hoping that we'd make it back to Waisai alive. This post is proof that we did! We made it back to the Waisai harbour in time to catch the 2 o'clock ferry back to Sorong where we overnighted and caught our onward flight to Manokwari the next day. The beauty of Raja Ampat can only fully be understood and appreciated in person. It is slowly becoming a more popular tourist destination mainly because it remains one of the most accessible destinations in Papua and because of its amazing diving opportunities. With every pristine place off the beaten tourist path we encounter, we can only hope that a healthy balance between tourism and the natural environment can be negotiated. It would be a great loss to us all if this, one of the World's last final frontiers, falls prey to the powers of capitalism.