The underwater world of the four kings – diving West Papua’s Raja Ampat

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‘Where are you going?’ the young, bright-eyed woman enquired as we stood staring across the tarmac, watching as two men meandered back from the aircraft dragging a trolley laden with bags. That was how the teacher from Sumatra adopted me or, rather, I adopted her. Placed in a rural village in West Papua, Indonesia, Julia was spending her holidays exploring the province, flying from one regional center to the next and grabbing the opportunities that unfolded on arrival. She had arrived in Sorong with no knowledge of the Raja Ampat Islands to the north-west, dubbed the ‘Amazon of the underwater world’. The archipelago had recorded the highest diversity of marine life anywhere on Earth by Conservation International, and I was off to dive them.

While West Papua was part of Indonesia, its people were descended from Melanesia with darker skin and larger features, and a strong pro-independence movement had resulted in ongoing conflicts in the region, and animosity throughout the country. An Indonesian fishmonger had warned me: ‘Those black skinned people…’ and mimed a slitting of the throat action. While no media or journalists were allowed in the region, stories filtered out of brutal treatment by the Indonesian Government, and retaliatory acts by the Operasi Papua Merdeka or Free West Papua Movement. This was mostly confined to the highland regions and tourists, I was told, were never implicated.

Julia’s presence unintentionally relinquished me of organizational duties. While she dealt with middlemen touting accommodation and activity recommendations in the islands under the presumption she was my guide, I sat at the ferry port, playing guitar with jovial porters and ojek drivers as they waited for the explosion of business that pre-empted the afternoon sail.

From Sorong the ferry took us to Waisai, the island’s main city – a muddy conglomerate of residential and administrative buildings where enormous dolphin statues and elevated sidewalks were in mid-construction as part of a tourism make-over. An impressively short airstrip lay to one side of the harbor, assuredly unsuitable for the direct Singapore flights that were in the pipeline.

While diving was my ambition in the islands I had skirted the expensive all-inclusive dive resort option and found a Papuan-owned homestay with a small dive operation attached. Weighed down with vegetable supplies from the Waisai market we sped through the archipelago in a fiberglass boat towardds the island of Gam. As the boat’s engine subsided and the thatch bungalows of the homestay came into view we were both speechless at the remote beauty of the island. Heavily forested slopes backed a perfect curve of white sand with two offshore islets sprouting like mushrooms in translucent blue water. The driver navigated the reef that peeked just below the waters’ surface and pulled in next to two Papuan children splashing zealously in the shallows. This was my idea of paradise. Not the constructed, heavily maintained kind found in luxury resorts, but raw, local and supremely stunning.

For $30 a day we slept in bamboo bungalows with beachfront balconies, protected under the simple opulence of hole-free mosquito nets; ate three meals a day of locally caught (and spiced) fish, tempeh and greens; and swam and snorkeled offshore reefs amongst giant clams and playful clownfish. When I donned a tank and descended into the fierce blue of the Halmahera Sea it was difficult to know where to look – the colors of soft and hard corals so lucid, the density of growth mind-boggling, and the abundance of fish species striking. On return to the surface I turned to my dive master, trying to control my elation: ‘I could die tomorrow you know.’

The following morning conditions were supreme – calm waters, a slowly drifting current, and clear visibility as we cruised alongside turtles, observed sharks from a reassuring distance, and peered up-close at the tiniest of nudibranches. Despite his lack of certified qualifications, my dive master had a deadly eye for spotting elusive creatures and a natural awareness having grown up in these waters.

Returning to the homestay we stopped at a sand island, barren of vegetation but etched with graceful tidal patterns, and sat taking in the 360 degree views of densely forested islands and cerulean water. Raja Ampat means ‘Four Kings’, with local mythology telling of a woman who finds 7 eggs, 4 of which hatch to become kings on the four main islands in the archipelago while the others become a ghost, a woman, and a stone. My divemaster waved over a passing fisherman, a childhood friend, who deposited a large barracuda into our boat. ‘He says it’s for your dinner,’ and with a wave was gone.

In the evening Julia debated with the homestay owner in Indonesian. ‘I am telling her she needs to advertise more so that people know about Raja Ampat and how beautiful it is,’ she translated.
‘People do know about it,’ the owner responded. ‘Just maybe not Indonesians.’
‘Yes, but then you need to advertise more in Indonesia,’ Julia argued.
Later, when Julia had left, the owner explained she didn’t want to encourage more Indonesians to visit. ‘Divers – they understand the reef and how to respect it, but the Indonesians – I am worried they will destroy it if they come in large numbers or start developing here.’ Teaching Julia to snorkel the previous day, struggling to keep her feet off the coral, the local Papuan boys explained that the chunks she wanted to keep as souvenirs needed to remain where they were. ‘We need more education here,’ the owner lamented. Raja Ampat’s beauty had been protected because of the sustainability of tourist development in the area, as well as an environmentally sensitive diving clientele. One look at the southern islands of Indonesia, such as Bali, and the rampant tourist infrastructure that was developing, often with little concern given to environmental sustainability, confirmed the potential harm that could be caused if large numbers of both local and international visitors flocked to this paradise.

Departing from West Papua I hailed an ojek taxi at 5 o’clock and, loaded up with my backpack and guitar, sped through the dark Sorong streets on the back of the motorbike. Men huddled in tight groups around tiny TV screens, their faces pressed up against the window of an up-market hotel where a big screen was broadcasting the opening match between Brazil and Croatia in the football World Cup. With the airport doors still closed (despite my flight leaving in an hour) I found a coffee shop where a TV flickered the images coming live from Sao Paolo. ‘Neymar is my brother,’ one man told me with a wide, betel-stained grin.

Papuans were football mad. Jayapura’s Persipura club currently sat at 2nd place in the eastern division league – a thorn in the side of more wealthy Indonesian clubs. I had heard home games were lively to say the least and a rare occasion for Papuans to heckle Indonesian officers without consequence. While West Papua was adorned in the flags of the worlds top footballing countries in the days leading up to the opening of the World Cup – Brazil, Spain, Germany and the Netherlands – and their hearts determinedly aligned to teams competing in this international spectacle, what did the rest of the world know about West Papua – its struggles, its people, even its existence? It felt like a long way from anywhere, and somewhat forgotten. But perhaps that was what made it so special.

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