Raja Ampat Islands, West Papua, Indonesia; December 17-26, 2010

Making one's way to Raja Ampat, Papua, Indonesia is not for the faint-hearted -- it took 46½ hours from the time we left home until we stepped ashore at tiny Kri Island, with only minor travel glitches and delays along the way. It went like this:
  • 14½-hour Cathay Pacific flight to Hong Kong
  • 2½-hour interlude in the Hong Kong airport
  • 4½-hour continuation to Jakarta, Indonesia
  • 8-hour layover in the Jakarta airport, where we spoiled ourselves with an hourly hotel room
  • Overnight flight from Jakarta to Sorong -- backtracking due east, after traveling due west -- on domestic Batavia Air (slogan: "trust us to fly"); this leg included a 3:00 AM stopover in Makassar, Sulawesi where, due to "operational issues," we were transfered from an ancient castoff plane bought or leased from China Southern Airlines, to an only slightly newer castoff from United (the upholstery was a giveaway)
  • Long wait by the neighborhood dock in Sorong for the Kri Island boat to arrive, delayed by "engine issues"
  • 2-hour boat ride to Kri Island
We arrived in surprisingly good spirits and good shape. Within two hours we were in the water on our first scuba dive.

Raja Ampat, "Four Kings," is a group of small islands off the west coast of New Guinea, the second largest island in the world. The eastern part is the country of Papua New Guinea; the western part is the Papua provinces of Indonesia (formerly known as Irian Jaya). There's great diving all over Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, but Raja Ampat is fabled as one of the best locations; furthermore, unlike much of Indonesia, our winter is its dry season.

In addition to Raja Ampat's reputation and weather, we were attracted by the affordable Kri Eco resort. (In general, diving in these remote parts can be astonishingly expensive.) On its new website, Kri Eco bills itself as "close to nature,"
which is accurate. It's located on an otherwise uninhabited island, and nearby islands have only a few tiny villages. Our all-local-materials, native-style, over-water bungalow, while a far cry from its five-star counterparts in Tahiti, was comfortable and clean. Nice flush toilets were onshore, but the closest we got to a shower was ladling brackish water over our heads. The food was excellent, and the dozen or so other guests -- all adventurous scuba divers -- covered a spectrum of nationalities and ages. Wildlife abounded, from the endemic bamboo "walking" sharks -- one of Planet Earth's top ten new species of the decade -- in the water under the huts, to parrots in the jungle ashore. Photos 1-4 (all but the first are Tim's) show Kri Eco topside.

Of course the main purpose of that grueling 46½-hour trip was for the diving, and it certainly didn't disappoint. We dove four times most days. The reef was beautiful (photos 5-6), and the underwater creatures ran the gamut from numerous pygmy seahorses (photo 7), to the elusive blue-ringed octopus (photo 8), to the truly bizarre-looking wobbegong shark (photo 9). All dives had dense schools of fish and your occasional reef shark cruising by. The highlight was two magical dives with up to six 15-foot manta rays swooping around us nonstop (photo 11). All of the underwater photos in this travelog except the wobbegong are Tim's; stay tuned for the full collection.

The resort has a strict policy of no boat diving on Saturdays to give the staff a rest; rumor says it's due to the owner being a Seventh-Day Adventist. Instead, for those hardy (or foolish) enough to appear on the dock at 4:30 AM -- in this case just our family and one other guest -- there's a trip to a nearby island to see the rare red bird of paradise. One makes one's way in the dark up a 40-minute steep, muddy jungle trail to a specific spot, and the bird appears on cue -- at least it did for us. The bird was indeed stunning, but difficult to photograph; photo 12 was Tim's best shot.

Next: Our second main destination of the trip is the island of Ambon, in the Spice Islands. Although Ambon is only an hour away by plane, it's still a minor ordeal to get there: The Kri boat returns to Sorong on Sundays, but the next flight to Ambon isn't until Tuesday morning, so we'll spend two nights in Sorong. It's not a tourist destination, which has its plusses and minusses; we're looking forward to getting a better feel for Indonesia after the relative isolation of Kri Eco. Then on to Maluku Divers in Ambon for significantly more comfort (private bathroom! fresh water! real showers!), and a different type of diving altogether.

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