Two years ago when I went diving at Komodo in Indonesia (which has fantastic diving), I was told that I really should try and make it up to Raja Empat, because the diving is supposed to spectacular. Raja Empat is a cluster of islands located off the coast of West Papua, which is a large area that shares the same island as Papua New Guineau. To get there from Bali you first fly to the island of Sulawesi, and then to port city of Sorong in Papua. From there you take a ferry to main island of Waigeo, and then from there you take a small boat to the island you want to go to! Easy!
The more I read about Raja Empat, the more interested I became. The area is still extremely undeveloped and the vast majority of accommodations are family run homestays. The homestays consist of thatched bungalows with a mattress and mosquito net. Toilets are communal. A generator normally runs for a few hours at night to provide electricity. No wifi anywhere. Three meals a day are provided, included in the cost of the bungalow, which is normally like $25 a night. It seems a bit pricey by Indonesian standards for the extremely spartan living set up, but apparently the prices have been going down in the last few years as the competition has increased.
All the bungalows are right on the beach, and some are even built out over the water. There are also a handful of dive resorts, but comparatively, they're much more expensive. You also have the option of a diving live-aboard, which is certainly the best way to get to all of the dive sites, as they can be spread far apart. I enjoy diving, but I prefer to do something like 2 dives in the morning and have the rest of the afternoon to lay around or explore the island or snorkel, so I decided to go with the homestays. Plus live-aboards are $2,000 a week minimum :p
After 2 rain filled days in Bali I was off. Despite the fact that I bought a ticket involving 1 layover, it inexplicably turned into two. So after stops in Surabaya and Manado I arrived in Sorong in the late afternoon. The ferry wouldn’t leave until the next morning, so I would be spending the night. There’s not really much to see in the city. It does have a nice string of seafood restaurants on the waterfront, which made for a nice meal. I paid about $5 for a massive fish and rice. I hadn’t really done as much research as I should have, but I had read you should really book your first homestay so that they can pick you up from the ferry terminal, but the hotel wifi was down, so I would be flying blind. Oh and I didn’t get to email my parents that I would be out of touch for the next 2 weeks or more, oops!
I loaded up on cash with about 15 consecutive atm withdrawals because Indonesia has stupidly low max withdrawal amounts (good thing my bank account has no atm fees!) and caught the 2pm ferry. It got in at 4, I bought my marine park permit for about 70 USD, and then figured out where I wanted to go. Solo boat travel is very expensive in Raja, so I found some fellow North Americans to tag along with to a place called the Nudibranch homestay. All of them had made reservations ahead of time and were expecting the owner to come pick them up. Before long everyone else on the ferry had gone off to their various homestays and we were the only ones left. We tried calling, but no answer. Two hours later he finally showed up (which was the level of service we would come to expect from this guy) and we piled into the boat, towards the island of Gam.
We were able to watch a beautiful sunset on the boat, and by the time we arrived at the homestay it was dark. We were shown to our various bungalows, equipped with a mattress and mosquito net. Soon a simple meal of rice, veggies, and potatoes was prepared for us. Our group was two Indian Canadian girls, one of which was Suk, who was taking a break from her job, and the other, Harjeet, was working as a teacher in Hong Kong. And there was never a dull moment with Harjeet around! There was also a couple that was an American/Canadian couple, Dylan and Stephanie, who were bat biologists on the East Coast. Their jobs sounded quite fascinating and they only worked 4 months out of the year! They were supposed to be meeting friends, but had a miscommunication and now they had to locate them in Raja Empat, a formidable task! After dinner everyone was pretty exhausted from the travel day, so it was an early night.
The next day was a Sunday, which is the day of rest for the Papuans, so you’re not really supposed to plan any activities. So we had the day to explore our little section of the island. It consisted of some mangrove forests, sections of beach, maybe four or five homestays, and little village. We ended up spending most of the afternoon at the pier, jumping off and swimming with all the local kids. They have their own little wooden boats that they paddle around in. They were all very cute and we had a really nice time!
Later that night we went back to the pier when it got dark and the setting was truly spectacular! Once they turned off the generators it was pitch black and the stars were amazingly bright, with the milky way being easily visible. There were also fish that had a blue bioluminescent light swimming through the dark waters. The tide was low so when we shined our lights into the coral filled water below up we were able to see all sorts of marine life. We spotted eels, snake-eels, squid, cuttlefish, two types of sharks (wobbegongs and walking sharks) and lots of other fish. It was really an awesome spot.
Besides laying around the beach we did a lagoon tour, did a hike to see the red birds of paradise, as well as snorkelling the house reef and the mangrove forest. We learned later on that a 5 meter crocodile had been caught somewhere near there a month ago, which was a bit disconcerting, but we were blissfully ignorant at the time! But I really enjoyed it there, it was a nice combination of relaxation, great scenery and light activity. Oh and we got daily visits from our weird marsupial friend, the cuscus, which is quite scary looking! But we fed him so he was nice. But I could have stayed another day or two, but Dylan and Steph finally found their other biologist friends (after many frustrating days of trying) and we decided to all go together to meet up with, as it made sense to save on the boat costs. So it was off to the Yangyakenes homestay on Waigeo!