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  • Raja Ampat – Discovering Neverland

    These days it’s far easier to buy a package holiday at a resort, but sometimes it’s worth it to break out of the safe and the norm to really explore your boundaries! We found a way to explore the best of both in Raja Ampat. As avid explorers (or at least we’d like to think we are), we often spend many hours at home on the couch in between trips, surfing the web and watching endless Youtube videos of other people’s holidays to amazing places, and dreaming up our next big adventure. It so happened this day, that we came across the paradise known as Raja Ampat.

    raja ampat-kim-steinberg-1There are around 1500 very sparsely populated Islands just off of Sorong on West Papua. Raja Ampat has steep, jungle-covered islands, powder-white beaches, hidden lagoons, caves, and clear turquoise waters making Raja Ampat, without question, one of the most beautiful island chains in the world.

    Most of the archipelago is in the Southern Hemisphere, with a few small islands northwest of Waigeo such as Sajang Island in the Northern Hemisphere and some of the islands at the northernmost parts of the Australian continent. Raja Ampat’s regency is a new regency which separated from the Sorong Regency in 2004. It encompasses more than 40,000 km² of land and sea, which also contains Cenderawasih Bay, the largest marine national park in Indonesia. It is a part of the newly named West Papua province of Indonesia which was formerly Irian Jaya.

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    So, if you happen to be like us, normal holidays to normal places eventually become somewhat boring. We find it incredibly hard to spend day after day on the same pool loungers, on the same beach, in front of the same hotel and so, we are always searching for new off-the-grid places to explore and then bringing home info and photos of our newfound treasures to you, our readers.
    Raja Ampat’s reefs only started to be explored in around 2008, and so the diving here is quite unbelievable! The reefs are in absolute pristine condition and because this archipelago is a part of the Coral Triangle, it contains some of the richest marine biodiversity on Earth. Due to it being quite a long journey to get to these islands, (well from South Africa at least), there are not a lot of tourists around. The locals have been very well educated on sustainable tourism, picking up litter and not fishing or damaging the reefs in any way. They know that tourism is their only livelihood, and so they are fantastic when it comes to looking after their islands.

    We flew directly from Durban to Dubai, then to Jakarta and on to Sorong which is in West Papua. From there we caught a taxi to the local harbour and hopped onto one of the luxury ferries to cross over to Waigeo which was about a 2 hour ride from the mainland. We visited the islands in March, and the weather was absolutely sublime! We’re used to tropical climate conditions, so for us it was absolute paradise. The days were hot and humid, with the occasional afternoon showers and warm, nights under blankets of stars.

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    When you arrive in Waigeo, there is a mandatory Marine Park entry permit which all visitors have to pay. The permit fee for international visitors is currently 1,000,000 Indonesian Rupiah (about R1000 per person) and lasts for 12 months. The entry permit fees are directed to the operational costs of Raja Ampat’s five Marine Protected Areas (patrols, administration etc.) and to community conservation and development programs.

    Most people there have cell phones with whatsapp and can you can easily contact them and arrange with the staff at your lodge or homestay to collect you from the harbour on your arrival day. From there you will either go with a taxi if you are staying on Waigeo or alternatively take a small, rustic speedboat to another island. We were able to share costs with other guests going to the same place, so just be sure to check the transfer prices before you go. The accommodation in Raja Ampat ranges from very basic, but comfortable homestays with local families, to backpacker looking dive lodges, to really upmarket resorts. Some have shared ablutions and others have en-suite bathrooms, but hot water is not necessarily always available. Mind, you in that kind of heat, a cool shower is always welcome.

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    All of the accommodation places offer three Indonesian style meals a day and tea, coffee and water are always available for guests. We were fortunate enough to receive afternoon tea and fried bananas at the one homestays as well, which was an unexpected treat! There’s nowhere on the islands to buy your own food to self cater, but staying here actually works out being far less than the daily cost of living almost anywhere else.

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    In the afternoons, we set off with our cameras in hand and walked the nearby roads and pathways through the thick jungle-covered islands to birdwatch and explore. This area is lauded as one of the top destinations for seeing birds of paradise and is the same place that Sir David Attenborough filmed his renowned “Birds of Paradise” documentary. We stopped and chatted to the locals along the way (some of who speak English and others who are happy to communicate with sign language) and also bought a few biscuits and cold drinks from their little shop run out of the back of their home. The locals just love taking ‘selfies’ with the tourists and one eventually almost starts feeling like a celebrity in this part of the world. They are colourful, friendly, helpful people, and we really felt at ease roaming the streets by ourselves.

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    Diving in Raja Ampat is quite frankly breathtaking! It isn’t absolutely necessary to be a diver to enjoy a holiday here as the snorkeling is just as amazing. Almost all of the homestays and resorts have their own ‘home reef’ right in front of their establishments, so spending time exploring them is an activity that you can get lost in for hours on end. The homestays that don’t have their own dive centres, are usually able to arrange dives for you with nearby lodges where you can also to rent all your equipment from. The dives are reasonably priced and the various reefs range from absolute beginner right up to advanced level. Some are famous for their manta rays and others for the wobbegong sharks that hide beneath the ledges.
    I would however recommend taking along your own mask, snorkel and fins purely for the ease of being able to take a dip whenever you want and not having to incur any rental costs.

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    Another activity to book, is taking a walk up into the jungles with one of the local bird guides from the Sapokreng Village. Even if you are not much of a ‘birder’, missing out on the opportunity to see not only the various birds of paradise, but also an array of parrots and other colourful birds flying in the wild would be a once-in-a-lifetime missed opportunity. If you don’t feel like looking at the birds, then you can marvel at the towering trees surrounding you and just enjoy the walk. It does require a relative amount of fitness, so make sure you take along good walking shoes, water and a camera. They leave before sunrise to avoid the heat of the day, and you are usually back in time for brunch. Just let your accommodation know that you are going beforehand so that they keep some food aside for you.

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    If you feel like spending a day away from the lodge, you can share transport costs with some other guests and take a trip to the renowned Piaynemo Island. I’m sure you have seen many a ‘selfie’ or Instagram photo taken from this breathtaking viewpoint before and it is well worth the trip. From the top viewing platform, you can look out over the aqua blue bay where you will also see the occasional liveaboard dive boats anchored out at sea, and they all look like big wooden pirate ships. It truly does look like a page out of a Peter Pan book!

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    What’s nice is that you can plan it along with some dives on the nearby reefs along the way, which makes it a great day out! We booked a dive on a well-known reef called ‘Melissa’s Garden’ on the way back from visiting Piaynemo. It truly does look like an underwater garden and is teeming with a plethora of colourful corals, fish and reef sharks. On the way back to Waisai, they took us through what is known as ‘The Passage’. It is like a river flowing between two islands with sheer limestone cliffs making this place excessively beautiful. You can dive The Passage but it is considered a more advanced dive due to the strong currents. It is however known as one of the most beautiful dive sites in the world. However, if you aren’t going to dive it, the trip through the passage by boat is equally as wonderful.

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    Some other interesting things to do include a trip to the famous Sir Alfred Wallace’s hut. He was a British naturalist who was based here between 1854 to 1862 when he was doing research for his book The Malay Archipelago. He also co-wrote The Theory of Evolution with Charles Darwin. The trip to get there is up a blue river known as the Dore Mkun. On the way there you will see wild parrots flying overhead between the towering jungle trees as you float over coral and tropical fish.

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    Some other interesting things to look out for whilst traveling the islands are the Walking sharks which are mostly seen in the mangroves at night. This incredible epaulette shark is not only a perfectly capable swimmer, but it can also “walk” between coral heads at low tide, along the sea floor, and even on land when needed. For that reason, it is often called the “walking shark.”
    Another creature which is often seen at night is the spotted cuscus. It is a large marsupial native to the Northern forests of Australia and the large, tropical island of Papua New Guinea. The cuscus is a subspecies of possum with the cuscus being the largest of the world’s possum species. Spotting one in the wild is a very rewarding sight!

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    Raja Ampat is just one of those places that you really have to add to your bucket list. Here’s how…
    Plan your trip
    Getting there
    It was an 8 hour flight from Durban to Dubai, a further 8 hour flight from Dubai to Jakarta, a 4 hour flight from Jakarta to Sorong and the a 2 hour ferry ride to get across to Waigeo.
    Need to know
    One needs to take malaria precautions when traveling to Raja Ampat. Meals are provided at the accommodation places. If you have any preferences to certain foods just let them know well in advance. No visas are required for South Africans.
    When to go
    As far as weather is concerned, any time of year is a good one to visit Raja Ampat. Climate and underwater conditions are good all year round – there isn’t really an “off-season”. October to April, with best chance of perfect conditions from mid-October to mid-December. Air temperatures are also reliably constant with a daytime average maximum of 31C and a nightly minimum of 25C – although it can often feel hotter than that due to the region’s average relative humidity of 83%!
    Stay here
    On Waigeo, we stayed at Gurara Dive Resort, Scuba Republic Dive Resort and Raja Ampat Dive Resort. On Gam Island we stayed at Yenros Homestay which was fabulous! We were really spoilt and they go out of their way to make your stay as memorable as possible!
    On the Raja Ampat website, you will find all the info you need in order to plan and book your holiday to
    paradise. www.stayrajaampat.com

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    Do this
    Raja Ampat has an array of things to do and experience from jungle trekking, scuba diving, snorkeling, birdwatching, kayaking, liveaboard dive boats, island and village tours, exploring caves, rock art and much more…
    A definite adventure for the whole family!

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