ISLANDS FOR ADVENTUROUS AT HEART
Its tree-covered karsts thrust out of otherworldly turquoise pools, grouped together like an “X marks the spot” for Jacques Cousteau wannabes and bona fide yachties. Divers have been onto the underwater riches of Raja Ampat for years but Miriam Tulevski from Visit Indonesia Tourism Office says the archipelago of about 1000 islands, located in West Papua, is Indonesia’s hidden gem and interest from Australians is on the rise.
“People are going to Raja Ampat because it is stunning, undeveloped and undiscovered,” she says. “Located in the Coral Triangle, Raja Ampat has among the highest marine biodiversity in the world. Travellers enthuse about whale sharks, walls of fish and myriad coloured sea life.”
It also calls out to the adventurous at heart, who don’t mind the journey to reach the islands, and going even further for the money shot. “The most popular Instagram karst – Wayag Island – takes four to eight hours to access by boat,” Tulevski says.
While it may be famous for diving, the wildlife encounters in Raja Ampat go far beyond what you can see while breathing through a regulator. “This is an extraordinary area for whales and dolphins (the largest toothed predator that ever lived on Earth, the sperm whale, is found here) and there are endemic mammals such as Waigeo cuscus and birds like Wilson’s and Red birds of paradise found only on these islands,” Tulevski says.
Home to Indonesia’s largest marine national park, Raja Ampat encompasses more than 40,000sq km of picture-perfect land and sea, and is best explored by boat. “Boutique cruising is a luxurious and cocooned way to explore Raja Ampat. Boutique expedition companies like True North Adventure Cruises and Ponant are including Raja Ampat in their itineraries,” she says.
Alternatively, you can join a diving liveaboard vessel or charter a Bugis Schooner and chart your own course.
“Traditionally made in South Sulawesi, it’s unclear whether the origins of these wooden vessels are Chinese, Dutch or Indonesian. Perhaps a mix of all three. Various standards are available and a luxury option is the Alila Purnama Phinisi.”
WHEN TO VISIT
Sharing such close quarters with the equator, temperatures in Raja Ampat – especially in the water – remain fairly constant throughout the year. However, most people visit between October and May.
“Traditionally, mid-June to September is wet and windy,” Tulevski says. “If your focus is on wildlife and, in particular, birds of paradise, February onwards is best. By late October the birds are moulting and males lose their plumage and stop displaying.
“If you’re diving, it doesn’t matter what time of year you go. There are a diversity of currents and these move around all the time, which means visibility changes constantly. There is always somewhere to go that’s spectacular.”
WHEN TO BOOK
“Raja Ampat can be both a difficult and expensive place to access,” Tulevski says. “Difficult because there are no direct international flights and expensive because of the remoteness.” To get there you need to fly to Sorong, on the west end of the Bird’s Head Peninsula in West Papua. From Bali you’ll go via Makassar or from Jakarta, via Manado, Ambon or Makassar.
“Most of the liveaboard vessels leave for other regions during the windier months,” Tulevski says. “Booking in advance is wise as most of these vessels take fewer than 20 guests. Booking with a travel agent or using a single airline carrier throughout is preferable in the event of local airline schedule changes. Prepare yourself for an overnight trip to get there ... but know that it’s worth it!”
The stunning scenery from Wayag Island’s highest peak, Pindito, on the north of Raja Ampat. RAJA AMPAT