Where turtles outnumber tourists…

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July 31st 2012
Published: October 10th 2012
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Off the beaten path in Borneo

Our journey to Derawan was interesting and frustrating in the same time. We must admit that it was very exciting to be faced with all the struggles on the way that you don’t encounter often in South East Asia i.e. huge language barriers, lack of local transport, lack of budget accommodation etc. We left Sandakan knowing that it would take us many days to reach our final destination but we were absolutely fine with it. The bus to the border town of Tawau took long 9h instead of 4 because we had engine problem, then breaks problem and then tire problem. In the end we had to be transferred to another bus to be able to complete the journey. It was already after sunset when we arrived and we had to find something to eat and a cheap place to stay in darkness, which we never like. It was all very easy and we were able to stay in a hostel for only 20RMB per night (the cheapest in Malaysia).

Next day after breakfast we marched to the port to catch a ferry and say goodbye to the Malaysian side of Borneo – finally. When sitting in a waiting room we could see boats arriving from Indonesia and … people being smuggled into the country!!! We did not expect to see this- that is for sure. Little boats parked just next to the ferry and people were jumping into them and laying flat at the bottom so that nobody could see them. All that happened just in front of the eyes of immigration officers – how is that even possible? Another shocking thing we saw was how all the rubbish from the ferry was thrown into the ocean from the bins that they had on board. What is the point of asking people to use bins if they do that afterwards???

Was it worth it to spend 3.5 days on the road to reach Derawan?

We reached Tarakan in 5-6h and we rushed to another boat pier to catch an onward boat to Tanjung Selor. We were really disappointed that the boat was already full but actually it worked very well for us as we did not realize many things at this point. First of all we had very little Indonesian money on us and only Tarakan in this area has an international ATM to get more money out. We also found out that Tarakan no longer had any local boat/ferry connections and everything is privately owned. You have to check different companies and prices and book as early as possible as locals are traveling by those small boats so they are often fully booked.

We also could not find any budget accommodation, everything was fully booked so for the first time in SE Asia we paid more than 20$ for a room in (Grand Tafiq Hotel, 220,000R per night with breakfast). It was quite luxurious so good value for money but not the usual thing for us to choose. The next day we took a boat to TG Selor and took kijang (private 4x4 car, 70,000R/7$) to Berau where we had to wait 5h for another transport to TG Batu by the coast (kijiang, 50,000/5$). We had to overnight there in a cute losman (100,000/10$ per night) and finally the next day we were able to take a boat to Derawan – hurray (shared boat 50,000R each/5$)!!! To be honest we never
Tomek and green turtleTomek and green turtleTomek and green turtle

mind the size of the turtle....bigger that T.
traveled that way before. Using private cars that are really comfortable for the price of a bus was a nice thing. Everybody on the way was helpful despite the fact that they could not speak much English and we had to try hard to communicate. We also noticed that they were not trying to rip us off with prices because we seemed well informed. So come prepared and they won’t argue hahaha

Surprisingly we were not able to find accommodation easily as all the backpackers’ favorites were fully booked. Derawan is a tiny island (you can walk around it in 10-15min) and most losmans have only a few rooms. We finally got a room in a house next door to the famous Danakan Losman for 150,000R/15$ with breakfast. It was not over the water but we did not mind as we only used for sleeping. It was also the beginning of Ramadan so food options were scarce during a day. We had done some shopping before arriving so we had jam and instant noodles for this kind of emergencies hahaha At night though we were able to enjoy some curry, seafood and my favorite – cap chai – mixed fried vegetables. We read that food is not great in Derawan but we cannot complain actually. Derawan village is a wonder on its own. Beautifully designed with cute cottages dotted along the main path, nice gardens with blossoming trees and most importantly it is very very clean. All the villagers clean and swipe every day to make it so pleasant for others.

We went for a walk to the pier and the first thing we saw in the water were 8 huge turtles just grazing at the ocean bottom. We were astonished as we have never ever seen that many turtles at once in one place. The water was fabulously clear of multilevel turquoise color exposing beautiful coral reef beneath. Maybe the beach is not the most beautiful in Derawan but the place is a marine paradise, for sure. In the evening we could chill out to the soothing sound of the prayers coming from a the mosque and watch beautiful sunsets. The village is very quiet and empty and when you see it you understand why it is not a young backpacker’s favorite. Quiet with no load music, bars and alcohol the place attracts certain type of people. We found our group immediately and we suddenly enjoyed our time in a company of 8 other travelers sharing fabulous stories from the road and dwelling upon the beauty of Derawan. We all shared huge love for nature, marine life and turtles of course and all could not believe that we could go swimming with them at any time of a day. Once we were just snorkeling, admiring colorful fish and one huge green turtle just swan between us, totally oblivious to us being there. Crazy ha?

The reef around Derawan is fabulous and we dare to say even better than in Perhentians which we loved so much. We spotted so many new species of fish and colorful coral and at majority of our time we were alone in the water. No day in Derawan was similar to another. Each day we enjoyed turtles in different spots and different time of a day. In the morning and afternoon when tide was high they came really close to the shore to eat sea wheat and we were just standing with masked face under water and watching them eat just next to our feet – how fabulous!!!

Finally after days
children dancingchildren dancingchildren dancing

no TV and Playstation hmmm
of wondering is we should or should not do it, we book a trip to the nearby atoll to see the nature phenomenon of stingless jellyfish. Once a beautiful bay was enclosed due to the tectonic movement of the ocean’s bottom and trapped few species of fish and jellyfish in the atoll. Within millions of years water started to become sweet and due to the lack of predators around, jellyfish lost their stinging power. There were no turtles around so they did not need protection. We could swim in a beautiful lake with thousands of jelly fish that bumped into us every second. We could touch them, push them, watch them eat and digest through their transparent bodies – very Discovery Channel Experience!!! Even though the trip is not cheap as for Asia (900,000R/ 100$ per boat for 5 people) it was totally worth the money!!! Besides this atoll there is a wonderful underwater cliff with the best snorkel possibility we ever had. The amount of fish and corals was enormous as this place is not inhabited and they are simply left alone to exist. Unfortunately the weather got really horrible and we were not able to see Mata rays that live in this area – we went to check but they did not appear!!!

In the evening we could watch park rangers to collect new turtle eggs and letting little turtles out into the sea. They really look after them and make sure that nobody disturbs the turtles to lay eggs (park rangers are taking watch on each side of the beach). One day Chinese/Korean tour arrived on the island and we were appalled with their behavior – as always (how did they find out about this place?). Suddenly a banana boat appeared by the shore, snorkeling groups occupied the best spots and people shouted on their mobiles all the time. We felt it was time to go hahaha. Before we went though I had to tell the tour leader off as their clients were standing at the corals with the fins all the time. She was surprised by my comment and said: ’Why? Is this bad?’. Are you serious? We heard that there was an airport being built at the nearby island so then it will be really easy to get to this secluded paradise. What a shame as then turtles will simply go away (boats really disturb them) and coral will be destroyed … Natalie, French traveler we met in Derawan said that 10 years ago El Nido in Philippines was just like Derawan – with loads of turtles and amazing coral – not much left of that now!!!! The more we travel the more we observe how mass tourism is destroying natural beauty of planet earth. It is mainly because governments are very shortsighted and never think ahead – so sad!!!

How much time do we actually spend traveling when traveling?

From Derawan we planned to go to Bontang to visit beautiful Kutai National Park. We wanted to take a bus from Berau but sadly we found out there aren’t any. We know from other blogs that back in 2009 it was still possible to travel by bus but now the only option you have in east Kalimantan is kijiang. We found a guy who was going to Samarinda that afternoon and for 200,000/20$ each we were offered a ride to Bontang. It was supposed to be 12h and ended up….24! We read somewhere that this road is a scary one but only when we did it we know why. There is basically no paved road just stones and sand and all the kijiangs drive along it at 80m/h, no kidding. I cannot even tell how often I hit my head on the roof and my arm was all bruised from hitting the door. You can imagine we did not have much sleep during this journey. We had a flat tire (of course) on the way, many stops during the night as our Muslim co-travelers had to eat before sunrise. Not to mention they all chain-smoked all night to make it before dawn. Our driver was falling asleep all the time to make it even worse … wonderful ha?. The good thing was that there were around 10 cars on the road and if one broke all other cars stopped to help as there were no villages or repair shops on the way.

When we finally got to Bontang we could not find any hotel as people either hid behind the counter being scared of speaking English or they just simply told us they were booked. We only managed to find a room in a rather expensive Surya Hotel (250,000R/27$) but we did not care at this point. We wanted to sleep and watch TV and just rest. Bontang is not a pretty town and very typically for Indonesia it is spread for kilometers. We only came there to see the equator point and to arrange the park permit for Kutai National Park. Sadly we were able to find neither of them as nobody understood what we wanted. We called the Park Ranger and he quoted us insanely high price for visiting the park of 1m rupees/110$ per day!!! We read that it costs around half of that for two people to stay in the park with trekking and food included so we got really angry. Maybe we should have gone there on our own but we were so fed up at this point that we took the next bus to Samarinda and then Balikpapan to take a flight to Sulawesi. We also thought that maybe when in Balikpapan we get some info about discovering Dayak villages in the centre of Kalimantan but the only thing we discovered was again insane prices for tourist cruises. Once again all the public ferries were cancelled and all you can do is charter. It seemed that favorite saying in Kalimantan was ‘Please Charter’!!!

Balikpapan was very pleasant and easy to navigate. We managed to buy very cheap flights to Makassar so we were happy (40$). If someone is stuck there and miss food there is great option of international products like French wine and cheese and rye bread. You can get anywhere by Angots (local minibus 3000-5000R per ride, even to the airport only 12,000/1.3$ for both of us). We wasted a week in Kalimantan (after leaving Derawan) and saw nothing except for hotel rooms and town centers. We felt like we spent majority of time traveling on buses or by cars. You never think of how much time you spend traveling during your journey because you finally get where you want to go and it is far more interesting that the travel time. In this case we did not get where we wanted so we felt the exhaustion caused by moving around way too much. Shame that Borneo happened very disappointing for us – thanks to nature in Sabah and Derawan it was worth to visit it at all!!! Maybe we should have taken a ferry or a flight to Sulawesi from Berau or Tarakan instead of dragging ourselves around quite an ugly Kalimantan (forests are destroyed and loads of coal mines occupy the view). At least we can say that we have tried….

Additional photos below
Photos: 26, Displayed: 26


first Bakso we ever hadfirst Bakso we ever had
first Bakso we ever had

how many to come we don't even want to think hahah

11th October 2012

Rewards of completing a long and tiring journey
I've never heard of Derawan, but am certainly interested in visiting after reading your blog, though I'm going to research if there are any quicker ways to reach there. Your photos are fabulous (as always) and I really enjoyed your tales of smugglers, turtles and jellyfish.
11th October 2012

Thanks Shane
actually there is a quicker way as you can charter a private boat from Terakan and as far as we know it costs around 2m Rupees so 200USD but if you find people to share it is much cheaper of course. It may take up to 7h as they break apparently but still much faster way to get there;-) it is def worth going now before the airport opens as then it will never be the same;-( Tomek appreciates your comment about photos - as always!!! cheers, Beata
16th October 2012

Lovely reading about your time in Derawan. It was hands down our favourite place on our travels, we really didn't want to leave but had to as our visa was about to run out! We have contemplated going back again but were worried it would have changed beyond recognition but it looks like it's reatained all its charm and wildlife too which is great to see. Our journey there and away will always be remembered as some of the most uncomfortable and strange we had on our entire trip!
29th October 2012

Lovely Derawan
Reading your blogs brings back such amazing memories of such a special little island...if you didn't have to go through hell to get there it definitely wouldn't be the way it is! So glad you enjoyed it as much as we did and we hope too many people don't read our blogs and all decide to go there ;)
29th October 2012

yeah sometimes I think we should not blog about them...luckily if it is hard to get it is also less traveled...they are building an airport nearby;-( Derawan's marine life will be gone within few years...so sad...
8th March 2013

Love, love, love the turtles
Your shark photo is great also. Hope you are planning to write a book on your return. We will have to add this to our travel plan.

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