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Published: October 26th 2009
This blog is about a beautiful island towards the top of Kalimantan where the sand is pure white, the sea is crystal clear, turtles play around in the surf every single day, the coral is pristine and if this isn't enough you can venture out to visit jellyfish lagoons and manta rays gangs in neighbouring islands.. and best of all you have it all to yourself as there are no other tourists there to take away your pleasure.. pure bliss!
From our scariest bus ride in our previous blog we will now announce our new top worst bus ride leader.. even beating the Worlds 2nd Most Dangerous Road bus ride in Bolivia...
The bus ride from Sangatta to Berau is a killer and definitely one that would have put a stop to all other bus rides had we had to experience it earlier on in our journey. As we said this should have been a 12 hour journey but instead it was 16 hours of bring on a squashed bus (not even a big bus but a small bus) in the middle of the night going over what were really areas to drive on rather than roads and bumping
e so cute!
up and down the whole way. For Dale the journey was infinitely worse because he was fully concious for the whole time while Sophie lay in a state of what can only be described as her own kind of sedated hell.
A friend who we met on our way told us that there is a great natural drug which has relaxation effects and so Sophie decided to try this out for this journey thinking it might help. Don't worry family back at home we weren't taking some kind of new hard illegal drug, this one is totally legal, so much so that you all probably have it in the kitchen cuboards of your houses. Nutmeg! So Sophie decided to go all out and munched on a whole one which she came to regret a few hours later on. The effects were so strong she ended up on a nightmare trip far far away from the bus ride but equally as distressing. For the full 16 hours Dale had to try to reassure her that we really didn't need to get off the bus in the middle of jungle because the bus wasn't about to take a sudden wrong turn
and crash into oblivion even though she was confident that she had a sudden insight into the future. In the end she managed to fall asleep with us botht hoping the effects would have worn off by the time she woke up. At 6am we were still on the bus quite a way from Berau and Dale informed her that this was because we'd stopped for around 3 hours at a check point so the driver could get some sleep.. she had no idea!
At 9am we got to Berau and the effects had nearly all worn off except for a slightly stoned look on her face, from here we needed to catch another ride to get us to Tanjung Selor the port for boats to Derawan. It was a shared taxi for this part and we had to wait for 4 hours before they'd go so Dale led the still partially dazed Sophie around to get some food and stock up on cash for the island until it was time to go. Getting a speedboat to the island was easier and less costly than we'd thought and in no time we were on a boat going across the
turquoise waters to the tropical island that we'd looked forward to visiting as our last Indonesian stop for a few weeks now...
The image we'd had in our heads of Derawan wasn't quite what greeted us when we arrived and initially we were a little disappointed to find that it wasn't quite the paradise deserted island we'd anticipated. Around half the island is the the working fisherman's village which extends far out to the sea on stilted houses, there is a large Chinese owned resort to one end of the island and the rest is white beaches. Our initial dismay at the island changed pretty much as soon as we'd checked into our losmen (guesthouse) because the people here are so nice that you are made to feel that this is your home too for your stay here and we soon settled down to our fish & rice dinner wondering what our time here would bring.
We will tell you now that our week here on Derawan was not only a major highlight for our time in Indonesia but our whole trip to date and our last week in Indonesia could not have been spent anywhere more beautiful
or better. Sure it's no paradise island with cocktails on the beach while you laze in your sunchair.. in fact there is no alcohol here at all and the only chairs belong to the hugely overpriced Chinese resort but this really was heaven on earth for us and we can't speak highly enough of the place. To be honest we were torn on whether to name where we spent our last week on the blog because the best thing about here is that we were the only tourists here for our entire stay which made it even more charming. Derawan is about a million miles away from the shiny tourist islands elsewhere around Asia. With the exception of the resort, accommodation is basic, food is fresh fish & rice, the high street is sand, there is one restaurant serving local food only, there are no souvenir shops and definitely no bars!
We thought that LP was doing their usual over exaggeration when they described the losmen we were staying in as "having turtles swimming underneath your room and dolphins dancing on the horizon" but they really weren't! On our first morning Dale had gone out snorkelling around our room
(the rooms extended out to sea so you could swim underneath what was a kind of pier area) and Sophie spotted huge turtle head bob up on the other side. She shouted at Dale to quickly swim round and have a look before the turtle swam off only then to discover that there wasn't just one huge turtle.. but loads of them! We'd always been so excited to be able to spot just one turtle when were in the Barrier Reef, then our second sighting on the Perhenthian's and more recently a few more on the Gili's so could never have dreamed that we'd be staying in a place where you could literally wake up, step out of your room, don your snorkel on and swim with countless turtles. We not only got to swim with them but you could get so close to them while they were munching on sea grass that was in the bay and be literally eye to eye with them. Some of them were very playful and would show of their swimming skills while you would try to catch up then stop to say hi again when you were side by side. It was so
incredible we cannot even begin to recount how this felt.. we were quite emotional about it all it was so amazing. There were endangered green turtles and also loggerheads here and they were huge, but harmless as they are we were both a little intimidated at getting so close to them when they were easily as big if not bigger than Dale and must have been decades old.
Not only were there turtles here every single day but the coral around the island was also some of the best we've seen on our travels to date. Most of it is intact and it was the most beautiful array of types and colours we'd seen anywhere with millions of rainbow coloured fish to match. It really took our breath away when we saw it and we couldn't believe our luck that we'd stumbled on this island. We spent our time snorkelling out to the drop off area with beautiful coral gardens in the mornings following the current to the top of the island, then walking back along the white sand to our losmen to have lunch. The afternoons would be spent swimming with the turtles and exploring the underneath of
our room which was home to the hugest Moray eel we'd ever seen, masses of lion and scorpion fish and all kinds of weird & wonderful fish we'd never seen before and probably will never see again! It really was out of this world.
One evening we had a funny trip out with a local WWF worker, John. He asked us if we wanted to go to a wedding with him so we jumped at the chance imagining an evening of drinking, dancing and general merriment. The wedding was in their local village hall but was a million miles away from what we are used to back in the western world. We've only been to funerals so far on our travels and the ones we've been to have been colourful party atmosphere events that are the total polar opposite of what we have in the UK.. well the same was true for this wedding! We really don't want to knock these traditional events so apologies in advance if we do offend anyone but this wedding was in no way joyful or fun. It was a muslim wedding and our first muslim ceremony so we're not sure if they are
all like this but the sole purpose of the bride & groom seemed to be to sit on a fancy glittery stage in beautiful outfits and look like dummys in a shop window. If they did laugh or crack a smile we think the event would have been classed as a funeral so they stayed as stoney faced as possible so as not to confuse the whole affair.
As we went in we were given a box & some water, Sophie got quite excited at the box thinking it would be like back home and there would be a slice of yummy iced cake in there.. but no it was full of rice & chicken and she struggled to hide her disappointment and made do with sipping the water. As we got into the hall the guests were all sat in an audience formation facing the stage where there was also a band playing alongside the bridge & groom in their little glittery stage house. Of course John wouldn't let us sit at the back so he marched us all the way to the front where everyone could stare at us for the whole time we were there without
craning their necks.... great! We asked John when the dancing would start as there was a band but he said "no dancing we just sit here". We'd like to say the band were amazing and we all sang along to our favourite tunes but of course that was not the case. The band weren't so bad but the 3 girl singers had the skills of karaoke entertainers that only Asians have ears for and we were very glad that they seemed to have some technical difficulty with their mics as this stopped the local cats and dogs from joining in. It was one of those situations when you have to think of really bad things to stop yourself from laughing hysterically which is what we both were desperate to do.. Sophie couldn't even look at Dale for the 3 hours because he would start pulling faces and she'd just laugh out loud and she had to pretend that she found the small girl next to her who was trying to practice her english incredibly funny to cover it up. We both felt awful because this was their special day but when the bride & groom really looked like they were
having the worst day of their lives we had to wonder why they bothered to have such a big event.. it didn't look like anyone was having a particularly great time and the guests were just chatting amongst themselves rather than listening to the band. The whole thing was supposed to go on until 11pm but by 10pm we couldn't stand it anymore and complained of needing fresh air so we could escape!
Mr Aris was the lovely man who owned our losmen. He spoke pretty much no English but we managed to have basic conversations with him about life on the island and he really was the nicest man you could wish to meet. After a few hours of discussion we found out he owned a fishing boat and that he would be willing to take us out on it for a 2 day 1 night boat trip to the local Sangalaki Island that we wanted to visit. Aside from this we'd only been offered a speedboat trip but really wanted to have a relaxing trip and this was perfect so we booked him! He told us he'd make a lovely trip for us and would also take
us to Kakaban Island which is home to a mysterious jellyfish lagoon.
It took us 2 hours to cruise across the calm waters to our first stop of Kakaban Island. On the way we managed to spot the pod of dolphins on the horizon yet again thinking that LP really hadn't exaggerated and it was a lovely journey perched on the front of his boat. When we got to Kakaban we were a bit worried to see that the pier to the island didn't extend out very far and this meant that we'd have to walk over the beautiful coral to get to the land. We never normally condone doing this and even go so far as to shout at anyone we see doing it but there really was no other way to get there as the tide was too far out to be able to swim.
We'd only just started to walk across when Sophie decided that she'd risk swimming back to go get the camera (which was in a dry bag) in order to take some snaps of the jellyfish lake. Why Dale didn't do this we'll never know because it was bound to end in
Coconut crab and his house!
He made a really funny noise when he went along. For once it was nice to see sea litter go to a good use.
disaster.. Sophie isn't the best of swimmers. So on her return to the land Dale, Mr Aris and his helper could only look on as Sophie entered the water trying to hold the camera bag as clear of the water as possible, this started well until her flip flops started to flip off in the water and then she started desperatley trying to retrieve them. Not Good. At this point she started to drag the camera down until it was underwater, then tried to hold it back up again which only resulted in her nearly drowning because she was also so scared of the huge drop off underneath her and had to keep an eye out for anything big swimming up from the deep whilst doing all this. From Dale's point of view she looked like a sinking statue of liberty in a disaster movie and he struggled to hide his smile. She emerged spluttering and choking still dragging the camera underwater and trying to reach the coral where she could stand up. She did make it in the end but Dale had walked ahead leaving her to struggle over the mine field of sharp coral while still trying to
hold the camera clear of the water and trying not to lose any more flipflops (why she bothered trying to keep it dry when it had already been submerged she doesn't know!) of course by this point she started to throw a strop and Dale had to come and rescue her to help her across the sharp coral!
After all that they made it to the pier then walked the 50 or so metres on the boardwalk to the strange saltwater lagoon that is found in the middle of this island. We'd expected a small turquoise lagoon but it was a huge dark omnious looking lake! What makes this lake unique is that it's home to millions upon millions of jellyfish who've been there for so long that they've all lost their stings and are completely harmless. Sophie doesn't like jellyfish (surprise surprise!) so announced herself photographer while Dale jumped in to swim with them. We think it was jellyfish sleeping time because at first we thought they were all dead as they were all laying upside down on the bottom but when we saw them flapping we realised they were ok. There are lots of different types in
here but most of them are a brown colour and not the beautiful iridescent ones you see lit up in the aquariums.. they were quite impressive though purely for the fact that there were so many of them. We even spotted tiny tiny baby ones no bigger than a little fingernail which were quite cute.. well as cute as a jellyfish can be! Dale had a great time swimming up to them all but didn't venture too far into the lake because it got a bit too dark to see the bottom and we were a little unsure of what else may live there! After having our jellyfish fun for the day we had a walk along the deserted beach before having to make our way back across the coral again to the boat which was waiting with our dinner (cooked by Mr Aris's wife) and to take us to Sangalaki Island, the highlight of our trip.
The reason we'd (well Dale) had been desperate to visit this island is because it's home to a huge group of Manta Rays and it has always been his dream to swim with them. It will come as no surprise to learn
that Sophie has a huge fear of these so while she was happy to go along for the ride she had no dreams of doing this too! We'd nearly got to Sangalaki when Mr Aris shouted to us that he'd spotted a group right in front of the boat.. it took a while to spot them ourselves but when we did it was incredible. We counted about 20 of them all flapping around just under the surface, every now and again one would sail past the boat and we'd all be open mouthed at the immense size of them.. they really were every bit as huge as we'd thought they would be.. and more!
Mr Aris stopped the boat and Dale donned his mask & snorkel and dived in to get a better underwater look. The current was quite strong so while the Mantas all sailed around with infinite ease he struggled to keep up with them so had to keep getting in the boat, we'd move on a bit then he'd get back in. It really was quite awesome and even Sophie was so excited she had to get a look so put on a mask and held
on securely to the ladder of the boat so there was no risk of her getting caught up with one! To see them with all their grace swimming around in the water is something neither of us will ever forget and is right up there with our top experiences of our trip. We felt even luckier when Mr Aris said that it's rare to see so many together and some people even come here not to get to see them at all.. after all our bad animal spotting experiences in the past we'd fully prepared ourselves for this so it was even better when this happened. Dale swam with them for an hour or so, feeling quite scared at times as they came head on towards him with their mouths open only to turn quickly when they were nearly upon him and go round.
We docked the boat at the island and while Mr Aris chatted to his ranger friends we went for a walk along the beach. Sangalaki is another special island, not only for the Mantas who make this their home but also because it's a prime turtle nesting site with around 40 turtles visiting the island every night
to lay their eggs. There used to be a German dive resort on the island until February of this year but for some reason (the government + money) this is now closed and therefore again we were the only people there aside from the local turtle researchers so we felt quite privileged. We really hadn't expected much from our visit but when Mr Aris took us up to the Research Lodge to sign us in and tell us that we could go out to watch the turtles laying their eggs later we were so excited, not only this but the ranger showed us a bucketful of tiny baby turtles and said he would be releasing them later and we could help! Amazing! What was already a memorable trip of a lifetime was just getting better and better with every second.
The ranger was nice enough to invite us in to his makeshift office and show us around. Dale found this very interesting and asked the ranger many questions about the turtles breeding patterns and life in general on the island. Obviously he didn't answer any of these questions because he didn't speak a word of English but
the pictures on the wall were very interesting anyway. When he showed us the baby turtles we found it strange to see them so small as the ones we had seen the previous day were gigantic in comparison. The ranger asked us both if we would like to hold one of them so of course we jumped at the chance! They really are so very vulnerable at this young age and you can see why not many of them survive into adulthood. Sophie decided to go ahead and hold the turtle up to her face to get a closer look of their small features and as she did this Dale had an idea that this would make a fantastic photo opportunity and told her to hold that pose. Instead of keeping her eye on the small turtle she decided to look at the camera and to Dale's horror as he was looking through the lens all he could see was the turtle moving slowly towards the edge of Sophie's hand, in a flashback moment of slow motion the turtle started making a nose dive towards the wooden floor.
OH SOPHIE NO!!! Dale screamed and before we knew it the
turtle had hit the deck. Embarrassed with her clumsiness Sophie quickly picked the turtle back up, very worried that she'd killed it and checked it over. A few minutes later a bit a little dazed and confused the turtle seemed to spring back into life which we were both really pleased as we'd been a little worried about explaining to the ranger that we had just killed one of his baby turtles! After a few glances back and forth at each other we put the turtle back in the bucket and decided not to handle any more of these endangered creatures!
We weren't going out until 10pm to see the mummy turtles lay their eggs so the ranger said we could walk around the island until sundown, after this time the turtles come up to lay their eggs and they cannot be disturbed so we had to be back by then. We walked around the whole island during this time as it really is tiny and also took the 100m walk to the end of the far too long pier just to kill some time. This was worthwhile though as we saw a big eagle ray glide past as
Sophies hermit crab collection
She collected them all up to have a race
we sat there watching the sun go down. We also nosed around the deserted resort which had an eerie feel to it like people had just upped and left in a real hurry.. they hadn't of course but it seemed strange to have a posh resort like this totally deserted. On the way back we spotted our own little baby turtle making a break for freedom down the beach just by their hatchery. He was all on his own so must have been a bit delayed with his hatching out and we waved goodbye as he went out into the far too big ocean to try and be one of the 1,000 to reach adulthood.
Our tummies were rumbling as we walked round and we were looking forward to our fish & rice dinner but when we got back to the research centre we were a little distressed to find that Mr Aris and his boat had gone! No one at the centre spoke English and had no idea where he'd gone so we had no option but to sit and wait for him to return. While we waited we got to release the baby turtles which was so
Good luck guys!
fun, they all got tipped out their bucket and we laughed watching them flap down to the sea and in a matter of minutes they'd gone out to the big wide world! About 5 minutes later Sophie found one that had got caught in a footprint indent and turned upside down so saved him and sent him on his way too! It's incredible to think that these little things know where to go literally as soon as they've hatched out and the only thing that will stop them are humans and their bright lights that lead them the wrong way.
After about 2 hours Mr Aris returned and told us he'd been fishing for our dinner but as it was now dark we could only have a fried noodle dinner and he'd leave the fish until breakfast which was fine for us. We think he might have actually told us to be back at a set time but it must have got lost in translation! After dinner we had a quick cat nap and were woken up to go turtle spotting with the rangers. During the day we'd seen loads of tracks all around the island where the turtles
had pulled themselves up onto the beach and the land beyond to lay their eggs and sure enough it didn't take long before we found one who'd just finished and was piling the sand back over where she'd laid her eggs. By this point an English speaking ranger had also joined us and he explained that they patrol the island 3 times a day on foot and all day on the boat in order to prevent poachers from taking the eggs. They get around 10,000 Rupiah per egg ($US1) and an average turtle lays 100 eggs so it's quite a lucrative business to steal the eggs which then go into Chinese meals.. yuck! He told us that he first started working on the island they used to get up to 80
turtles laying eggs a day but this number has now reduced by half to the average of 40 we mentioned earlier. This still seems a lot when we think back to Bundaberg and how we could have waited all night just for one turtle to turn up and were quite amazed. As we walked round the island we saw another 3 turtles who'd just finished laying their eggs along
Sophie on the boat
trying to enjoy a fish & rice breakfast
with many more new tracks on the beach from those who had been and gone. Unfortunately we didn't see any actually laying their eggs but we were so happy just to get this experience we hadn't expected at all it was no bother to us at all.
It was quite late by then so we settled down to try and get some sleep on the boat's benches. It wasn't particularly comfortable on the boat but we got a few hours sleep and were woken up at dawn by the researchers going out again on a turtle spotting mission. The turtles don't come up during daylight so this is more to log the locations of any nests that might have been made since their last rounds and yes there were quite a few more around the island.
We had to leave the island fairly early to avoid low tide so set off at about 8am thanking the researchers for such a memorable time and headed out to the coral garden around the island for some more snorkelling. Again there is lovely coral here and we spent a few hours swimming around in the shallow garden. As we made our
Coral on Kakaban
YOu can see here how far we had to walk to get to the pier
way back to the boat Mr Aris had again spotted the Mantas a short way away and we all got in the boat to go and swim with them again. This morning was probably more perfect than the day before because the current wasn't so strong meaning that Dale didn't constantly have to keep swimming hard to catch up with them and they just glided around him time after time. Sophie clung onto the ladder again and just as Dale came back to the boat we spotted a huge shark just underneath us. It shocked us both because it was quite a bit larger than the black tipped reef sharks we'd seen prior to this day. Despite everyone telling us that the sharks in this area are harmless we are both still a little wary of them, especially because this one was quite big and after we'd had a good look at him we both made our way up the ladder quickly to the safety of the boat. We think it was a grey shark but couldn't be sure as our shark knowledge isn't that good! At about lunchtime we were all swam out so waved goodbye to the beautiful
island of Sangalaki and made our way back to Derawan to say hi to the turtles who'd missed us!
We really could have stayed here on Derawan for a lot lot longer as we felt so at home but our visa was running out and we were a bit unsure of how smoothly our crossing to Malaysia would go so allowed ourselves an extra 2 days for the terrible transport we'd become accustomed to in Indonesia. We'd had a fabulous 6 days here and had some real experiences of a lifetime so left with beaming faces and fond memories and nearly cried having to say goodbye to the lovely Mr Aris and his family... ok Sophie nearly cried!
Typically our transfer to Tarakan, the final town in Indonesia where you can get a ferry to Sabah was achieved in one day because we caught a taxi with 2 other locals who were doing the same journey. We kicked ourselves that we hadn't been able to spend 2 more days in Derawan but if we had stayed it would have taken us days to do it so you can never win sometimes! We had our final and worst 2
Dale and a jellyfish
Sophie was happy to be designated photographer!
hour speedboat ride over to Tarakan, the people who own them here seem to want to race everything and they scared the life out of us all when he went at full pelt over a huge wave and we all felt for sure it was going to go over. After that Dale told him to slow down and the final hour in it was a little more bearable.
We'd had a fantastic 2 months in Indonesia but it was an exhausting one and we both agreed it was a bad way to travel as we'd fitted in too many things in too little time which is a common mistake made by many travellers. There is just so much to see in this huge and varied country and we wanted to see so much of it that we had little choice but to do it this way when we also had commitments to meet people a few months down the line.
We've had some of our major highlights (and lowlights) of our trip here with Bromo, the Komodo Dragons and Derawan coming the top (and Bali the bottom) for us, but travelling around has been difficult and
frustrating and often we wished that it was as easy as it is in Thailand or Vietnam! We like a challenge and we also don't mind long arduous journeys but when you have a constant feeling of getting ripped off (which you normally are), and the people who are associated with the transport are generally the lowest of the low and are rude to you at best and violent at worst with it, it makes the going very tough and not at all enjoyable.
To illustrate how hard and fast we travelled we made a note of how many hours we spent on transport whether it be bus, train, plane or the dreaded bemos.. a bit geeky we know but it helps for people who might be considering a similar route themselves...
Total hours travelling - 246 or 10.25 days
Total number of nights not spent in a bed (spent on buses, boats, street or similar) - 12 nights
Travelling like this is hard going and whilst we really enjoyed every experience we had here we were always saying "we wished we could stay another few days" or "we wish we had time to go to this place
or that place", and you have no time to reflect on what you've done because you're already onto the next thing. To date we've avoided travelling like this and just spent time in one or two places and now we know why!
One other point for people coming this way is that you really should try your best to pick up some Bahasa Indonesian because it will pay dividends! It's really easy to learn and by the end of the 2 months Dale in partficular had such a good grasp of it he could have basic conversations with people about things other than how much money it was and what he wanted to eat! Praise must go to him for being so determined to learn the language in all the countries we've been to and he does an amazing job too! In places like Bali, Lombok & Java most people speak reasonable English but outside these areas you will really struggle if you don't know any of the local lingo so get that phrase book out now!
So we left Indonesia thankfully on a high note far away from the negative experiences we had encountered elsewhere in the
country but we have to say we were looking forward to getting to Sabah in Malaysia where we shouldn't have to barter for every Ringgit and prices might be a little more aligned!
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