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Published: November 17th 2019
The past few months have been ‘busy’. We did quite a lot of travelling, trying but often failing to travel slowly and most of it not in any way efficiently. Since our last blog post we have travelled from Alor to West-Timor (the Indonesian part of the island Timor) and then to Timor Leste (an independent country). From there with a lot of boats, busses and some planes via Nusa Penida, Bali, Singapore, Berlin and Brussels to The Netherlands. Here we have spent four weeks with our family and friends, trying to catch up with their lives and just spending quality time with the people we miss during our travelling. We then flew back to Indonesia, via KL and Jakarta to Ambon, from where we travelled across part of Maluku, visiting the Banda Islands and Kei Islands. Back to Ambon and onwards to Sorong in West-Papua and Raja Ampat, a beautiful archipelago of paradise islands where we have spent almost three weeks on the islands Kri, Arborek, Gam and Waigeo.
Timor Leste is one the newest countries of the world and also one of the poorest of the region. After being ruled, exploited and neglected by Portugal and then invaded,
ruled and exploited by Indonesia the country finally became formally independent only in 2002. We learned about the cruelties and hardship of the past and present in the local (national) museum in the capital Dili. Most of our time in Timor Leste is spent in Dili and on the island Atauro, where we end up in a very basic bamboo hut right at the beach, overlooking a healthy reef where we snorkel every day. On the ferry to Atauro and on the island itself we meet some Dutch and Portuguese expats who live in Dili whom we visit after we return to the capital. It turns out to be a memorable evening with (Portuguese) wine and cheese, bread and chorizo and great company. We also pick up some bugs on Atauro, Judith in her stomach and Merijn in his skin at the ankle. Judith visits a super friendly Cuban doctor in Dili and because Merijns’ skin gets infected and lymph glands get swollen we spend a few hours in Kupang at a good modern hospital.
We fly from Kupang to Bali, where we only spend one night before leaving with a fast boat to Nusa Penida. The contrast between
the undeveloped quiet islands we visited the past few weeks and the super crowded and touristy Bali is enormous. But Nusa Penida is a pleasant surprise and although very developed and touristy it was not too busy and we easily enjoyed the perks like bars, restaurants, great food, Bintang beers and convenient, quite ‘luxurious’ accommodation. We ride around the island on a scooter, visiting some nice beaches and we meet with Agathe & Dusty, Dutch/Aussie friends, with whom we have a great and memorable night out.
A quick boat ride, three longs flights and around 30 hours later we embrace Wendy, Judith’s sister, in Brussels, an emotional start of four weeks filled with family, friends, fun, surprise visits, wonderful dinners, special birthdays, good talks, some tears and a lot of laughter. This one month back home is precious and important, we miss everybody so much during our travelling. Saying goodbye really does not come easy and it takes a while the next weeks before we lose our depressed feelings of leaving it all behind, again.
But we are back on the road. Our first destination is Maluku, where on the day before departure, in Ambon, is a very
strong earthquake. We try to find out if we can go but don’t find any updates and decide to ask again when in Jakarta. The local people we contact in Ambon are confident in telling us to please come so we proceed and end up in Ambon city where every night we feel some aftershocks but other than the earth itself nobody seems really shaken and nothing is really damaged. We find a fast ferry to bring us to the Banda islands after a few days trying to get into the rhythm and trying to get rid of the jetlag in Ambon. Sitting on the upper-deck of the not very fast boat, because of some mid ocean engine breakdowns, we see a couple of big whales breaching close to us and a large pod of dolphins accompany us for a while. We already feel a bit better now.
The Banda islands are remote, literally in the middle of the ocean of nowhere, and beautiful and interesting. We spend a few days on the main island in Banda Neira, where there are remains of old Dutch colonial buildings and a fort. We then take a public ‘ferry’ to Rhun island,
where we stay at a homestay of mr. Buhran who we have met during a welcome ceremony for some ships coming in to the harbour. He shows us around the island and we walk through the gardens where they grow nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves. The islands are known in history for their spices and everywhere in the small village we smell and see the drying nutmeg and cloves. From Rhun we take another public ‘ferry’ and ask them to drop us at Ai island where our ferry is met in the open sea by a small boat in which we throw our luggage and jump in to be brought to Ai. At Ai we stay in a nice house with a huge veranda overlooking the ocean and because we are the only guests it feels like our private villa. We walk around the island and go snorkelling at the beautiful reefs. From Ai with another public ferry we go back to Bandaneira and then we continue to Hatta where we find a wooden bungalow at the beach, again right at the best snorkelling spot, where we share our meals with two Aussies and between meals we explore the reefs. The
absolute highlight is when at the end of one snorkelling session we hear the high pitch tones of dolphins under water and when we look back we see a large pod of more than 100 swimming a bit far out in the blue. There is hardly any current so we don’t hesitate and go for it, swimming towards the group of dolphins, which we now think are actually pilot whales, jumping and diving around. We spend around half an hour with them and we are quite exhausted so we wave goodbye and swim back to the shore, completely thrilled because of this beautiful encounter.
Getting ourselves from the Bandas to the Kei islands, we either have to go back to Ambon and then fly or we go directly with the famous with travellers Pelni ferry: large, uncomfy, dirty and slow but for the locals it’s often the only way to get across to their destination island. With a 10 hour delay we leave the port at Bandaneira and head to Tual, the 12 hour boat ride being mainly during the night. With the ticket we actually have a reserved mattress and we listen to music and try to sleep
a bit. The smell of the toilet next to our beds and the cockroaches roaming around our beds are a bit distracting but we do get a few hours of sleep and the next day we do arrive at Tual where a friendly local is waiting for us, bringing us to his guesthouse of two rooms, close to the extremely white powdery sandy beach. The Kei islands are not very good for diving or snorkelling but there are the most beautiful, wide, white sand beaches you can imagine. We spend around ten days at two different locations on Kei Kecil island, lazing around, reading our books, walking the huge low tide beach and being fed beautiful meals by the most friendly Moluccans.
Via Ambon we fly from Kei to Sorong in West Papua, the departure point for Raja Ampat, a dream destination consisting of beautiful islands surrounded by clear waters and famous for the underwater life. We were inspired to put Raja Ampat on our itinerary because nowadays there is a good number of homestays on many of the islands of Raja Ampat, making it possible for us to visit this region without having to spend thousands of euros
for a live-aboard or a dive-resort. The date approaching that we want to visit Raja Ampat we hear that foreigners are not allowed to enter the whole West Papua region because of safety issues. The Papuans have since very long wanted to become independent and they are sick and tired of the racism, suppression and discrimination amongst others. There are protests turning into fighting. The Indonesia government has sent extra police and military and there have been casualties reported amongst the protesters. The safety of foreigners and non-Papuan Indonesians cannot be guaranteed according to the government. To us it looks more like the government does not want any spectators at their activities. It does not feel good but because Raja Ampat is accessible and safe and 1000 kilometers away from the hotspots in West Papua we decide to continue.
Raja Ampat pleasantly surprises us with its beauty and with the way it has not changed too much to cater for tourists. The main entry points Sorong and Wasai are just coastal towns like any other in Indonesia. We take a public fast ferry from Sorong and are received by some locals working for the tourism association where we pay
a (hefty) conservation fee and where we meet the boat driver who brings us with a small open boat to our first homestay on Kri island in about an hour. We spend almost three weeks island hopping, snorkelling and diving and sleeping and being fed by friendly locals in their homestays. The homestays are mostly very basic, constructed from bamboo, wood and palm-leaves, with outside toilets, mattresses on the ground, no shower but cold water mandi (bucket shower) but comfy enough for us and a great way for the Papuans to directly benefit from tourism in this otherwise very poor region. We love this type of accommodation, very picturesque wooden bungalows at the beach or above the water, especially at this type of locations with a beach and a reef just outside our bungalow or below our veranda. Raja Ampat is very Judith-and-Merijn-land.
On Kri island we stay in a homestay with the Brar family. We hang out on our veranda in a hammock, we go snorkelling right in front of our bungalow, we walk a bit along the coast and drop in the water to let us drift with the current back to our homestay and we walk
across the island to be able to go snorkelling in a bay and then swim around the Northern tip of the island to again let us drift along the reef back to our place. Between our main activities like snorkelling and reading our books we are very well taken care of by the local family who make a decent living out of this while providing us with a great opportunity to stay on this beautiful remote island. The snorkelling is great, the shallow reefs are healthy and colourful, there is a lot of fish and a great variety of species. We don’t feel like diving because the snorkelling is so good and while snorkelling and free diving we see sharks, turtles and heaps of fish. We spot a pod of dolphins passing by but they are too far away for us to reach them and we see baby sharks in the shallow waters.
After four nights we move to Arborek island, even smaller but inhabited so we can walk through the small village and there are even a few hole-in-the-wall shops. Our bungalow at Kayafyof homestay is built on stilts over the water, again it’s very basic but so
beautiful and picturesque. Below and in front of our bungalow there is a constant activity of fish hunting other fish. From our private jetty we can step into the clear water and find some great snorkelling around the island. We share a bamboo dining room and the meals with the four other bungalows and we chat with travellers from all over the world. We go scuba diving to a place where there is a good chance to see manta rays but besides it being one of the most unorganised dives ever, we don’t see any manta, we do see a wobogong shark though and further there is not a lot of stuff to see at this dive site.
After four nights at Arborek we move to the South part of Gam island, where we stay at Tapor Aikos homestay, another beautiful, somewhat bigger, bungalow over the water, with a hammock for us to chill and read our books. We enjoy the quietness and again the spectacular ever-changing view of the water, some dolphins passing at the horizon and the continuously active aquatic life surrounding us. We join two other tourists on day trips to other islands where we do
a lot of good snorkelling along a coral wall and visit the surrounding bays, a few caves with bats and a small beach on an even smaller island.
Again after four nights we transfer to another part of Gam island and we are dropped at Yenanas Paradise Homestay. Karel and his family have quite a good stretch of beach and garden in which they have built six bungalows. We overlook a small bay where is not a lot of current so easy snorkelling and a very good reef with a spectacular number of good size blacktop reef sharks. It’s amazing snorkelling and freediving with the sharks. Some of them are a bit shy (which is normal) but some are more curious (maybe because they are hungry…) and come very close, sometimes a bit too close. It’s really exciting and fun and the sharks are so beautiful and perfect. In the afternoons from our veranda we spot baby sharks and at night in the shallow water we can see pretty walking sharks and in the trees some nights there is a Cuscus (a very local lemur like animal). Because of some kind of flu or virus and sinus problems (Merijn)
and ear infections (Judith) we get to spend a few extra nights at Yenanas so that we can relax a bit more, lie on the beach, read our books and Judith can get better and also do some snorkelling with the sharks.
Raja Ampat really is something special, the homestay system works very well and although it’s all still very basic so not for every body for us this is a piece of paradise.
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