Part 4: Raja Ampat
Define luxury. Most people would probably say that the word “comfortable” should be included in any sensible definition, but also that it must include being surrounded by plush, expensive items and that the more unaffordable those items are, the more luxurious the experience.
I beg to differ. I know where luxury resides and I can tell you that it’s not where you think is it. Don’t search for it in New York, London, Paris or Milan. No, where I’ve found it, there’s a complete lack of emblems, brands or fancy cars…..or cars of any sort, for that matter. There is a bit of native “bling” in this place, mind you, but even that is not of the type we’ve come to expect, being made mostly of colourful exotic bird feathers.
In this modern age, seven billion noisy souls’ lives are increasingly busy; work is dictated by ever-shortening deadlines, and connectivity is everything. Within this context, the value of material items has reduced a lot and new definitions are starting to replace them. Resources like “space”, “time”, and “peace” are becoming less abundant and therefore much more valuable. In our crowded world, they are the new luxury items of the 21st century.
The lush Indonesian province of West Papua (or “Irian Jaya”, to use its traditional name) has been almost completely uncharted territory to anyone who isn’t a local or a working in mining, lumber or fishing. That fact remains unchanged for the vast majority of people on the planet; however, recently there has been a growing awareness of West Papua, and of the Raja Ampat area in particular, amongst a tiny group of people consisting mainly of marine biologists and dive tourists.
The first indications that Raja Ampat might be an exceptional place for divers came to us about twenty years ago, from a most unexpected source: a young motorbike workshop owner called Max Ammer. The Dutchman had been clued-up that he might be able to find bike and jeeps in mint condition, remnants of the waste of WW2, on these remote islands to refurbish in order to make his fortune. In 1990 Max headed to Papua looking for the bikes, but what he discovered there surprised him. It was indeed riches, but not exactly of the kind he been seeking – the riches Max found were of a natural kind and were like nothing he’d ever imagined: forest canopies bursting with parakeets and other exotic birds, in secret bays with crystal-clear pools.
Then Max started to snorkel off Kri Island’s white-sand beach. What he discovered there blew his mind and changed his life forever. He fell in love with the place and the people (literally, as he married an Indonesian lady) and quickly “recalibrated” his mind from that of a mechanic to one of a conservationist and eco-resort owner. To this day, Max remains on Kri Island, where he runs two resorts under the “Papua Diving” brand. During our twelve years of living in Indonesia we were lucky enough to spend a good deal of time at Max’s Kri Eco Resort & Sorido Bay Resort and we are privileged to be able to count Max amongst our friends.
Raja Ampat was first put on scientists’ radar by the 1998 visit of a renowned Australian fish scientist, Dr Gerry Allen. After that short visit, Dr Allen lobbied Conservation International to conduct a fish survey, which he did with other scientists in 2001. Their findings was an astounding 970 species. On a later survey with his colleague Dr. Mark Erdmann, Dr. Allan counted 374 distinct species on just one 90-minute dive.
This means that Raja Ampat, quite simply, is home to the richest reefs on Planet Earth. Just off the “Bird’s Head” of West Papua province of Indonesia, it lies in the heart of the Coral Triangle, an area of the western Pacific Ocean that includes the waters of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Timor Leste and Solomon Islands and recognised as the epi-centre of marine biodiversity on the planet. The name “Raja Ampat” means The Four Kings in Indonesian, referring to the largest four islands of Misool, Salawati, Batanta and Waigeo. A smaller island of Kofiau and another 1500 islands make up the group, spread over a huge area of 40,000 square kilometres. The population of all these islands of Raja Ampat is tiny – just 50,000.
Allow me to offer you another definition of luxury: it’s “an exclusivity that makes one feel special and privileged”. If you ask me, being woken up by an “alarm clock” of fish splashing beneath one’s Papuan stilted hut is an especially luxurious way to start one’s day. Relaxing on the end of a jetty overlooking a calm sea and distant islands, waving to the passing fisherman in his canoe but seeing nobody other than him – that’s exclusive and special. Diving on a coral reef and looking up to a forest of trees just above it – that’s unique and special. Having the world’s richest reef as your nearest dive site – that’s very special.
Resorts in Raja Ampat don’t offer fine dining, they offer fine diving. They don’t offer infinity pools, but there’s an infinite sea. They don’t offer star-studded after-dinner shows, but look up into the black night sky, unpolluted by any city lights and you’ll witness a show of stars that beats anything man can hope to provide. Here is a more natural definition of luxury – it’s provided by Mother Nature herself…..and she’s laid it on in oodles. It’s a luxury defined by a knowledge that so few people ever get to experience this amazing frontier, one of the last pristine wildernesses to be found anywhere on earth. Here the only commuting crowds rushing by have gills, most of the schooling happens to be done underwater and the only call you’ll receive is from a Bird of Paradise flying high overhead.
By immersing oneself in Raja Ampat’s simple yet luxurious nature, something interesting soon becomes clear: that with so many creatures all around us, we’re not missing our creature comforts.
For more information, visit www.diversetravel.co.uk/destinations/Indonesia.