My first thought as we settled into our homestay on day one of our trip in Raja Ampat was that I never wanted the trip to end. Our neat and tidy homestay was elevated above the turquoise water by stilts, with thatched roof above and a beautiful view that allowed us to watch the world go by and leave all the cares of our modern world behind.
Our world, for the next 7 days, was turquoise waters, white sand beaches, thousands of species of tropical fish and coral, traditional West Papuan villages, and kayaks. We would explore this beautiful area from our kayaks, one of the most intimate ways to be immersed in the natural world. We soaked it all in that first night by snorkelling with hundreds of multi coloured fish and watching the setting sun light the distant thunderclouds in many hues of oranges and reds.
The local family who ran the homestay brought us fresh fish, rice, chicken and delicious greens for our evening meal. Orgenis told us tales of the Red Birds of Paradise and Wilson’s birds of Paradise. These incredibly beautiful birds all gather at a “Lek” or mating site every dawn, and perform intricate mating dances. We all vowed at the end of the trip to go and find these birds in the jungle behind the homestay. But for that night, we all fell asleep on our mattresses in the homestay rooms, with excitement for the days to come.
The next day dawned bright and early at 6am, as it does every day this close to the equator. We had a lovely breakfast provided by our homestay hosts, packed up our expedition kayaks, and launched our kayaks into the mirror calm waters. There was excited chatter as we started kayaking that first day.
We began our kayak along the shores of Waigeo Island. Most of Raja Ampat is made up of mushroom shaped, Limestone islands with dense jungle coverage. The views were so brand new to us that we paddled around all day with our mouths hanging open! The limestone shoreline is white as can be, with perfect white sand beaches lined with dark green jungles and the water crystal clear blue. Our lunch stop for the day was at the end of a long pier that had been built in the middle of nowhere. There was a sheltered roof on the end of the pier where we made lunch in the shade. From the end of the dock, we could jump into the water at a perfect drop off and experience our second snorkel of the trip. We encountered all sorts of species of tropical fish, and with 42 endemic reef fish to this area, our snorkel fanatics spent hours identifying the species we had seen. We snorkelled over massive plate coral that dwarfed us, we saw a plethora of brilliant tunicates, nudibranchs and soft corals.
Once we were able to tear ourselves away from the incredible snorkelling, we headed to our perfect paradise beach for our first night of camping. It felt as if we pulled up to paradise as the green waters gave way to a perfect beach and towering palm trees above. We experienced another incredible snorkelling session, seeing our first black tipped reef shark, two members of the group snorkelled with a green turtle, and we all swam with an overwhelming number of fish.
That evening as we sat around candles lighting our supper, we eagerly chatted about all we had seen and done that day. As we finished supper, we watched the sun set to the west, as the stars slowly came out to play.
This was a fairly unique trip due to the fact that every second day of the trip we stayed at a local homestay. This was an incredible opportunity to get to know the local people, experience a bit of luxury with fresh water showers, comfortable mattresses and local cooking. It offered us more time to snorkel, as we didn’t have to set up camp every night. Each homestay was situated at some sort of unique spot. The second homestay we stayed at had three unique features! One was a short hike to a lookout point that offered 360-degree views of the sinusoidal limestone islands. Secondly, it was located at the entrance of a beautiful passageway that separated the Islands of Gam and Waigeo. Lastly, the homestay was at the entrance to a massive cave which we had the opportunity to don headlamps and explore the expansive cave. The cave had everything from small passages we had to squeeze through, massive cathedral like openings, and bats and cave dwelling birds.
Our third homestay was located in an incredible area called Besier Bay. There were two incredible snorkelling sites with nudibranchs, walking sharks, and the elusive dugong! From this homestay, we also partook in an early morning paddle to see a cave with thousands of bats hanging upside down, sleeping the day away.
Our departure that morning saw us paddling through a maze of mangroves, with sea eagles and Bronson’s kites above us, searching the shallow waters for small fish. The theme for that day was Mangrove forests. We found another secret entrance into a series of eel grass lakes, where dugongs were said to feed. Being an incredibly shy animal, we did not see any dugongs, but kept our voices down the duration of the lakes, to try and improve our chances of seeing one. As we were so quiet we saw a myriad of exotic birds. From sea eagles, to sulphur crested cockatoos, from Western Crowned Pigeons to yellow Billed Kingfishers-we were in a birders paradise.
On our second last day, we paddled to a small island and landed on a small white sand beach. We donned our mask and snorkel and explored a beautiful wall that dropped off steeply into the depths. We saw schools of massive Bump head Parrot fish. These fish bump their square foreheads into the coral, breaking pieces off and eating the goods. We saw many colourful anemones with orange, white and purple clown fish finding protection in their poisonous fingers. The number of fish we saw was staggering. For two hours we explored this coral reef, scaring up blue and yellow stingrays and turtles. We got back to the beach, and spent some time reminiscing about the trip. Of all we had seen, heard and experienced in this tropical wonderland.
We arrived back at the homestay we had first stepped foot on 7 days ago. It was just as beautiful as the first time we hadarrived. The local family greeted us warmly, and laid out mangos and fried bananas as our afternoon snack. We spent the afternoon organizing and sorting our gear for the ferry ride back to civilization the following day.
But we had one more adventure to partake in before we left Waigeo Island.
The next morning we awoke at 0430 to go on a bird watching tour with the homestay owner. After an hour hike in the pre-morning dawn, we came to the site of the “Lek” where the male Birds of Paradise gathered to dance. We waited for 5 min, and soon heard the beating of many wings in the canopy above. We craned our necks, and watched as four male Birds of Paradise landed in very close proximity, and started their dance. Jumping up and down on the branch, they changed their foot placement each time. Then holding their wings out to their sides, they fluttered their wings back and forth and did an elaborate head move between fluttering’s. The stunning colors of their red tail, their orange back feathers, bright yellow collar and iridescent green just below their eyes and beak created an incredible show for us below. After 30 min of watching their mating ritual, we slowly retreated back down the trial, leaving the males and females to choose one another and continue their dancing. We were awed by the beauty and grace of these birds in the high jungle canopy above.
As we boarded the ferry for our journey home, we slept, we reminisced and wondered when it would be that we would visit a place as stunningly beautiful above and below the water as Raja Ampat.