It’s the Earth, but not like I’ve ever seen it before. My paddling is erratic with no discernible rhythm, probably because I’m distracted ogling the dazzling shades of blue. Tropical waters stretch away from me in every direction, my line of sight broken only by an occasional limestone island topped with tangled jungle. From water level, the sky and ocean both seem absurdly big, peacefully joining at the horizon everywhere I look.
The silence is almost complete, save for the light slap of water against my kayak and the chatter of seabirds as they pass close over my head. Beneath the surface of the water, corals are clearly visible and I can pick out certain fish species – the turquoise of a moon wrasse, iridescent flashes of fusiliers in the sun. Exploring by kayak is prompting an unfamiliar sensation. Rather than observing nature as an outsider, I feel as though I might actually be part of it.
Guide Nathan Wilbur leads my group to a picture-perfect sandbank, just high enough to protrude from the sea at low tide. After gliding in safely over the reef, kayaks are hauled onto the golden sand and I imagine we’ve discovered our own island.
I’m in an archipelago in Indonesia’s far eastern province of West Papua. Raja Ampat is considered one of the last frontiers for diving and with good reason. The island chain is the richest marine environment in the world, boasting 75 per cent of the world’s coral species, 1700 species of fish, five types of sea turtles, 13 dolphin and whale species and even two types of manta ray.
Situated at a meeting point of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, this part of the ocean is subject to roaring tidal currents. They are laden with the planktonic larvae that are the basis of Raja Ampat’s underwater riches. Diverse habitats – coral reefs, mangroves, seagrass beds, limestone caves and 1500 islands – occur here. According to scientist Mark Erdmann of Conservation International, these factors combine to make Raja Ampat a “species factory”, and new scientific discoveries transpire regularly. Just last year, a fisherman reeled in (from a depth of 300 metres) a metre-long coelacanth, a species considered a living fossil.
Although the island of Papua is Australia’s nearest major land mass, expect a journey to Raja Ampat to take two or three days. I reach the gateway town of Sorong on a direct four-hour flight from Jakarta, but other visitors come from Bali with a middle-of-the-night stop in Makassar on Sulawesi. After overnighting in Sorong, I board a two-hour boat transfer to my small dive resort. Those staying at homestays take a ferry to Raja Ampat’s biggest town, Waisai, then transfer to smaller boats.
Isolation has largely protected Raja Ampat, which is a latecomer to the tourism party. In the past few years, however, tourism has boomed. Just 2000 visitors arrived in 2008. In 2017, according to Indonesian government statistics, that number had grown to an estimated 30,000 visitors, prompting concern from many that the area’s fragile environment may be threatened by the transitory population boom.
Most travellers arrive on liveaboard dive boats, owned by foreigners and staffed by Indonesians from distant provinces. So far, little tourism benefit has flowed to the Papuans, the islands’ original inhabitants. Many are poor, scratching a living from fishing, with an estimated 20 per cent of the locals living in poverty.
This is where not-for-profit Kayak4Conservation, which links tourists directly to local Papuan guides for multi-day adventures, comes in. Dutchman Max Ammer is behind the organisation and is also the founder of two low-key diving resorts on Kri Island – the rustic Kri Eco Resort and the relatively upmarket Sorido Bay Resort, where I am staying.
He explains his concerns about the methods used to conserve the Raja Ampat Marine Protected Area. Tourists pay a park entrance fee the equivalent of AU$94. Some of this money compensates locals so they care for nearshore reefs and keep their villages spick and span. But it doesn’t create employment prospects. “The government is handing out a lot of money, and to me this is destroying the people,” Max explains. “We do it the other way around – if they want to work, we give them a chance.”
Kayak4Conservation was established in 2012. Local Papuans were trained in fibreglassing skills and, using a donated South African kayak mould, built a fleet of 11 single and four double kayaks. Local men were trained to guide tourists through the labyrinth of spectacular islands, stopping at world-class snorkelling and jungle sights along the way.
Max scoped possible waypoints for overnight stays, and landowners were offered microloans to build traditional guesthouses or homestays. Hosts supply tourists with simple Papuan-style huts and home-cooked meals, but they also protect the immediate environment.
The organisation now employs seven local guides and nine homestays are involved in the project. The funds are helping families generate a sustainable income, moving away from pursuits such as shark-finning, bird poaching and logging. “Before, maybe these guides could earn $150 a month,” Max explains. “Now, sometimes, it’s possible to make that in a day.” He says the direct connection to the project is key: “If it’s your homestay, you take care of it because guests are coming and you want it to look good.”
I’m desperate to get out in a kayak, and Max directs me to Nathan, manager of Kayak4Conservation. I find him near the organisation’s guesthouse, putting the final touches on a new hut set in the trees by the beach. Kayakers typically spend a night here before and after their trip, with some also adding on a diving package at a nearby resort.
Nathan and I chat about why guests would travel for two or three days to come here to kayak, rather than go somewhere easier to reach. He points out Raja Ampat’s unique offerings – things that just don’t exist elsewhere. For some people, being off the grid in the wilderness is exactly what they crave. It makes sense to me. During my stay, I’m doing short, single-day excursions and taking a boat to explore some of the other highlights on the various kayak itineraries.
The kayak embarkation point is Kri Island, which boasts some of the best dive and snorkel sites in the world. In fact, dive site Cape Kri holds the world record for the most fish species counted in one dive, with 374 species recorded by scientist Dr Gerry Allen.
As well as underwater marvels, kayakers can find strange mammals in the rainforests. On Kri, a resident wild cuscus occasionally shows up at Sorido Bay Resort’s open-air restaurant. He dangles from the rafters by his tail with an outstretched paw, begging for a banana or two. Closer to the Kayak4Conservation guesthouse, a tree kangaroo that lives in the vicinity is often sighted.
The islands are replete with birds. Striking black-and-white radjah shelducks amble along beaches, imperial spice pigeons coo in treetops and bright red eclectus parrots squawk as they flit from tree to tree.
The red bird-of-paradise and Wilson’s bird-of-paradise are both endemic here. Kayak4Conservation trips can include a guided hike to a special tree to observe one of nature’s most flamboyant courtship displays, although on my visit it was sadly not date night for the birds-of-paradise.
One of the first stops on a kayak trip is a famous sandbank, Manta Sandy. Manta rays reliably congregate here, waiting for obliging cleaner fish to remove any parasites. Snorkelling on the top of the water, I squeal with delight as one majestic manta then another materialises from the plankton soup, banking and wheeling beneath me like underwater eagles.
At a homestay at nearby Arborek Village, I meet a group of three Papuan girls. Seemingly shy at first, a few smiles soon become giggles. “What’s your name?” one of them then asks. I snorkel under Arborek Jetty, mentally congratulating the community for protecting this reef. Bumphead parrotfish pass by, grazing on corals like a herd of wildebeest. A giant cuttlefish flashes colour signals at me that I think I’m supposed to understand.
On the island of Gam, Hidden Bay is kayak heaven. A narrow opening in the coastline becomes a kilometres-long ocean inlet offering a maze of limestone cliffs and islands. The flow of water and crashing of waves has undercut many limestone outcrops, creating mushroom-shaped islands with dainty orchids clinging to vertical walls. Mangrove trees line the water’s edge, their stilt-like roots intertwined with bright soft corals.
Kayakers, snorkellers and divers all visit the Passage, a narrow channel separating the sheer walls of Gam and Waigeo Islands. It’s only 20 metres wide in parts, and ripping tidal currents make it more like a surging jungle river than ocean. Secret caves and massive giant fan corals in improbable colours abound.
Nearby, I visit Kayak4Conservation’s Warikaf Homestay for lunch. This tiny overwater guesthouse sits below a mountain in a secluded bay, hidden from the world by a well-placed island. I’m offered a shower from a hose fed by a gushing mountain stream. On the peak of a hill sits a wooden viewing platform that promises postcard vistas.
With these compelling reasons to explore here, I’m not surprised to meet an overjoyed Kayak4Conservation customer. A tall German man, Thorsten Schmidt, face glowing from days of sunshine, beaches his kayak and hurries up to Nathan. “I’ve been trying to reach you but there is no phone signal,” he gushes. He gestures to his guide, Yesaya Demas. “Can I borrow this guy for a few extra days? I’m due to finish today but I really want to keep paddling.” Unfortunately, Yesaya is in demand and Thorsten has to stick with his original booking.
Yesaya is a quietly spoken man from Arborek Island. He explains to me he can make more money as a kayak guide than as a deckhand or fisherman, and this helps his family live better. He shyly says he is proud to be showing tourists his beautiful island home.
Thorsten describes the serenity of independent ocean travel. “Being in the kayaks with just Yesaya was completely magic,” he says. “You’re out of civilisation. It’s quiet – just you and the nature. We saw everything – coral reefs, Napoleon wrasse, and manta rays even swam beneath us.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Max. “Sometimes people kayak with whales,” he says. “It’s common to see things here that you would normally never see.” But he’s preaching to the converted, and before I start the long journey home, I assure him I’ll be back for a longer kayak trip to experience this place at its magical best.
The most cost-effective way to fly from Australia to Jakarta is with AirAsia via Kuala Lumpur. Batik Air and Garuda both have direct flights from Jakarta to Sorong, the gateway to Raja Ampat. Indonesian domestic flights can be booked through the online travel agent Traveloka. From Sorong, you will need to take either a resort transfer boat or public ferry to the town of Waisai on Waigeo Island.
Those wanting to extend their stay in Raja Ampat or explore the underwater world should contact Papua Diving Resorts, which books both Kri Eco Lodge and Sorido Bay Resort and leads half- and full-day snorkelling and diving trips to nearby sites.