Dreamy Days on Derawan

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October 4th 2010
Published: November 16th 2010
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1: Jellyfish! 154 secs
Everything about Pulau Derawan is a dream. The palm fringed island glows with tropical colour. Stilted homes hover over the crystalline waters below that literally teem with marine life. Turtles peruse the islands' seabed whilst sharks and manta rays patrol it's outer reefs. Locals gleam with the luck of their island life and tourists are few and far between. The only nightmare is trying to get there.

We had travelled from Malaysian Borneo the day before and it was once again a case of 'what a difference a border makes'. The Indonesian side of Borneo had less infrastructure, the roads were pot holed, it was rougher around the edges and people spoke no English. All this when just a ferry ride away in Malaysia, English is the second language. However it just so happens we liked this change. Things were back to a challenging level that keeps travelling new and adventurous. No longer could we ask for help in English or follow a well worn tourist trail. This was more like it!

Had the far away shores of Pulau Derawan been in Malaysia, with it's good transport links, it would have been difficult to get to, but here in Indonesia it was a whole new challenge. The island that sits in the Celebes sea, just off the coast of Kalimantan, is a tough nut to crack. It took nearly twelve hours to reach the island idyll and various forms of transport, each with differing experiences both mental and physical.

The ferry from Tarakan to Tanjung Selor was a sweaty, yet speedy affair; then we had to wait two hours for a Kijang (4WD) to fill, once we had seven people we could go. Indonesians seem to have less of a sense of time than me. One women who had filled the car with everything from rice to toy cars stopped the driver just after we had left to pop in to a house for what seemed like an indefinite amount of time. Just a cup of tea perhaps to say goodbye as we all sat and waited until the driver beeped his horn. The crammed Kijang then acquired another passenger and, feeling cunning, we invited the little girl in the seat in front of us to sit between us, thus giving more space. This plan backfired when, thirty minutes down a windy road, her mum handed Han a bunch of plastic bags and the poor girl was promptly sick. This continued for the next two hours; relieved to be in Berau we had to get another Kijang, this time private hire (as too late for bus), to Tanjung Batu. Feeling very tired as the night set in we were happy to be on our way and on our own. However the driver then proceeded to stop at almost every shop on the street, delivering parcels. Would we ever get there! Travel in Indonesia is not relaxing at the best of times but as we began to nod off the driver turned on the stereo and blared out some Gabba Hardcore. For those of you unaware of this melodic mayhem, think of a woodpecker at your head with obsolete phrases such as 'sex for money' accompanying the heavy bass all the way to Tanjung Batu; Relieved to be on the speedboat, having bartered a good price, we breathed in the fresh air as the faint lights of Derawan gradually got brighter. We finally began to relax until the realisation of travelling under the cover of darkness, in a small boat at thirty knots, with the young captain using only his phone torch for light, hit us just before a large log nearly did.

Getting off the boat in Derawan we longed, almost needed to, tell our story to someone, anyone. Words dribbled out of our mouths "did you see...we've..." but our windswept hair said it all for us. Yet nobody batted an eyelid as two disheveled westerners ambled off a boat at 10pm. They had seen it, even done it all before. The normality of the island life instantly relaxed us. We had made it. It was all worth it!

We dropped our turtle shells (backpacks) at Sari Cottages and were greeted by the owner who cruised the stilted, rickety boards on a moped. We joked that too many Bintang's and you could end up in the sea. His calm facade was catching and despite our language differences we agreed a price for our stay.

Life seemed so different here. Children played wondrously in the quiet street with only the odd moped to pass by. We found a small shack for dinner where, when asked, a man who spoke a little English told us that no beer is sold on the island. The story goes, as some other travellers later told us, that a local went crazy after having too many and ran around the island with a machete. Nobody was hurt but since then the small community have halted the sale of alcohol. Although slightly depressing I was impressed at the decision. As always though I was sure someone had beer somewhere.

The morning brought cloudy skies and a few flecks of rain. Was this possible on such a paradise? According to the locals, seasons are changing and what is supposed to be dry season is now becoming wetter. Despite the light shower we walked around the island and marvelled at the dusty one street road lined by basic but pretty houses. It was like a scene from a Western.

It all became very Asian when we reached the beach and spotted our first turtle. Walking out along the pier the translucent water magnified this most graceful of creatures. The huge green turtle was then followed by another and our dreams were coming true. The rest of our afternoon, like many after it, was spent sitting on the pier drinking coffee and watching the huge amount of turtles swim under us.

It was not long before the urge to swim with these dinosaur-like creatures became too much. We found the pair of broken goggles in my bag and made a makeshift tie around it so it would stay on my head. As the rain came down I jumped into the clear blue, watched by a gang of local children, and within minutes spotted my first turtle, then another and another. It was crazy how many there were here, just off the pier from our cottage.

The dark skies and rain that continued into the second day only helped our turtle watching experiences. The rain brings them in to shallow water and so we swam out to greet them. Some would dash off when we got close but others, usually the older ones, did not mind our presence as they munched the sea grass below our gazing eyes. The day then slowed to 'Derawan pace'; reading, watching and learning Indonesian with Iskander who worked at Sari Cottages.

It was not long before the few tourists on Derawan found each other. We quickly acquainted ourselves with those who had made the arduous journey and began planning a day trip to the neighbouring islands together. We all enjoyed dinner at 'April's Restaurant' where the lovely April served the most delicious deep fried turtle....only joking, it was fish.

Over dinner the affable German couple Erik & Remona told us of the turtle nesting that occurs each evening. Having been put off by the price of witnessing such a feat in Malaysia we jumped at the chance to see the mother turtles amble up the beach to lay their eggs. However, when we got there with torches in hand there were no turtles nesting. We waited for an hour or so, scouring the beach, but nothing. Apparently that evening the WWF girls, not the butch wrestling type but from the World Wildlife Fund, had gone back to the mainland. They are employed to protect the valuable eggs from preying hands and without them meant no more turtle nesting.

At 8am the next day we joined the others for the day trip to Kakaban Island and the Sangalaki Archipalago. The skies were blue and rain seemed a long way off on the horizon as the boat passed dolphins playing in the bay. An hour later we were at Kakaban and after a few wriggles the other guys were suited ready to scuba dive, leaving Hannah and I to jump in effortlessly with our snorkels. We were immediately hit by a strong current that carried us around the corner of the island and onto a sheltered length of the most amazing coral reef. The drop off reef made you feel you were flying as we peered over the edge and into the deep blue. The bright colours of coral and fish were breathtaking. As we cruised down the reef in ecstasy a black tipped reef shark passed closely under us, shortly followed by a lonesome turtle that we watched glide deeper into the blue. This was a marine experience on a David Attenborough scale as we continued to see fish we had never seen before along a reef straight out of the documentaries.

The hour we were in the water passed as quickly as the tide before us. Soon we were back on dry land but that didn't last long. Back as a group again and carrying our snorkels, we walked through the slightly mangroved Kakaban jungle interior until we found the lake. Aniel, our Candian comrade who was always full of facts, told us that this lake is one, of only two of it's kind in the world. The murky waters are home to a large amount of jellyfish that, through years of evolution, have lost their sting. Although we knew this fact to be true it still took a lot of work to persuade Han to get in the water. Once she had touched them and knew they had no sting it still took a lot of work to get Han back in the water. The spongey creatures indeed emitted no sting and this enabled us to look at these alien-like things without fear (well me at least). Swimming deeper into the lake the numbers of jellies increased until there was almost no swimming space. Erik had a waterproof camera and was able to catch all this as proof of the freak of evolution.

After taking lunch and all that had happened in, we boarded the boat and headed for the Sangalaki Archipelago. Here we jumped into choppy seas where the elusive manta rays are said to roam. Unfortunately we saw no mantas but I did spot two sting rays and countless fish of all sizes. What a place!

That evening we cheerily chatted of our aquatic experiences as April served us another meal to savour. The quiet streets of Derawan came alive with children playing football and without hesitation Erik and I joined in. The shade of the evening still drew sweat from our brows as we took on ten or more children at the beautiful game. This island was better than any resort could offer. It was real!

As we said goodbye to Erik, Remona and Aneil who were leaving a day before us we pondered what to do. In that split second it was decided. Hire two pairs of snorkels and go swimming with turtles all day. In that day I saw around thirty different turtles, each providing their own unique experience, the highlight of which was swimming for ten minutes or so with a baby turtle. It was too young to see me as a threat and allowed me to swim side by side for what seemed like forever. It was reassuring to witness a baby surviving out on its own and what better place to be than Derawan.

The future of the island and it's inhabitants both above and below the sea is changing. Derawan, for now is perfectly imperfect. We only had electricity in the evening, three days of which we didn't due to a storm, and there were the resident cockroaches that came out at night in our room. This felt reassuring to me as it still is what it is, but development and change is afoot. There is already a "kind of" resort further down the beach and soon the island will have twenty four hour power. If, and possibly when, tourism really kicks off the dynamic of the island life may change. Not yet granted the protection of National Park status you hope that the turtles, Derawan's ace in it's pack, are cared for in the face of expectant tourist hordes.

For now the atmosphere of the small island village is unique. It feels safe, friendly and genuine. Fishermen smile at you as they proudly bring in their catch. Children say a natural "hello" instead of the sometimes inane "hello mr". And as long as it remains so hard to get to, Derawan will continue to be Asia's little secret.

Additional photos below
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28th November 2010

Great memories
There seems something magical about this little place, something real and you leave with a smile that lasts forever. We are back in the uk these days and when im having bad day i just drift of and think of Derewan and the smile appears. Thank you for reminding us how beautiful this hidden little gem is. Great blog guys
15th October 2011
Ferries at Tarakan port

hai there....
Im from Tarakan :D...thanks for visiting and coming back :D

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