Going off grid on Indonesia's forgotten islands

Suzanne O’Sullivan

I am sitting in a small, weather-beaten motorboat, an inch of salt water lapping at my feet. My suitcase is wrapped in an old tarpaulin. My only companion is Frendy, the boatman. He doesn’t speak English.

We met an hour ago at a ferry port. After 30 hours of travelling, three planes and a boat, I was relieved when he approached me on the dock and said my name. Somebody was expecting me. Frendy’s boat is the last leg of my journey. He knows the route well and weaves his way between coral beds. When I look into the clear blue I see shoals of glittering fish and – aaah! – a single sleek silver manta ray pass beneath me. It makes me hopeful that this place will be all I want it to be.

I am in Raja Ampat, the least developed and easternmost islands of Indonesia. They lie in the province of Papua, the western half of New Guinea, and are made up of 9.8 million acres of sparsely populated land and sea. Fifteen hundred tiny islands, woven with thick jungle and bathed in pellucid water. Paradise.

My ultimate destination is Pulau Gam. ‘The last wild place’, the advertising says. As the boat nears the island, I can see a stretch of white sand lined with palm trees and behind it, thick forest. The beach is not manicured. It is littered with driftwood and fallen coconuts, like a castaway’s island. There are no sun loungers or umbrellas. A discreet scattering of traditional thatched buildings hide among the trees. A woman is waiting on the beach to receive me – Lenny, my host.

Wild places like this do not come with five-star accommodation. Or four-star for that matter. The region has a small handful of resorts. Each on a different island – each eye-wateringly expensive for what they offer (no air conditioning, sometimes no en suite). I have opted for the shoestring alternative: a homestay, a property maintained by a local family. I chose Batu Lima Homestay from a website set up to help the people of Raja Ampat profit from tourism in the area. Twenty per cent of the population live below the poverty line. Fishing is the main source of income. So far, foreigners have reaped most of the rewards from the insidious arrival of tourists. The development of homestays is helping to change that. But since the local people have never seen a Western-style hotel or bathroom and are unfamiliar with a Western diet, I can expect my holiday to be very interesting. The website advised that if I like showers, air conditioning, insect-free rooms, Wi-Fi and electricity, a homestay may not be for me. As it happens, I like those things very much.   

Raja Ampat is said to contain the most biodiverse marine habitat on the planet Credit: GETTY

The sea has always appealed to me. I began scuba diving when I was in my 20s. I have jumped into the ocean after breaching humpback whales to try to catch an underwater glimpse. 

I have swum with hammerhead sharks in Mexico and manta rays in Mozambique. The strangest creatures live underwater. No animal has a defence mechanism as bizarre as the blowfish, which, when threatened, inflates to three times its normal size. Or is as vividly coloured and fierce as a mantis shrimp. Raja Ampat is said to contain the most biodiverse marine habitat on the planet.

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The boat bumps to a stop in the shallow water. When Lenny greets me, I realise she too doesn’t speak English. She leads me to my room, a Papuan-style hut on stilts, made of wood and palm fronds. Its only contents are a mattress on the floor and a mosquito net. The door is also made of woven palm fronds. It isn’t hinged, but stands loose and has to be lifted into place. There is a small veranda with a wooden bench and desk that overlook the sea. I can imagine myself being happy reading and writing here.

Accommodation, a Papuan-style hut on stilts, is simple Credit: GETTY

The bathroom, shared with three other rooms, is in a separate hut set back from the beach. It has a pink toilet and a dip mandi – a barrel of water and a ladle for washing. Plus a bonus feature – a showerhead and a tap! I had been told not to expect running water, so my holiday is already turning out to be more luxurious than expected. 

Lenny points me towards a platform over the beach – the dining room for guests. It has a single long table for family-style meals. A fridge in the corner bears a note, saying ‘beer and soft drinks’. I open it. It’s empty, apart from some wilting green vegetables. Inside, the fridge is warm. There’s no electricity. 

Lunch is waiting. Rice, boiled eggs coated in chilli and aubergine curry. It has none of the aesthetics of food I am used to. The aubergines look a little grey and the eggs are simply puzzling. I tentatively try some. They’re delicious. I eat every bite. Lenny is a genius. Thank goodness for that – I am reliant on her for almost all my meals for the next three weeks. 

I have come to Raja Ampat for rest, solitude, reading and writing. With no Wi-Fi, no mobile signal, no television, no shops, I am hopeful I will get each in spades. I regularly holiday alone. It gives me space to think. This beach is isolated from the rest of the island. Contained by a dense jungle, the only way out is by boat. 

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Raja Ampat has much to offer the intrepid traveller. It is very different to the rest of Indonesia. Originally, it was joined to the land mass of Australia. The people are Melanesian, having more in common with Fijians than with Indonesians. The islands contain wildlife not seen elsewhere in the country. Small bug-eyed marsupials live in the trees. It is a twitcher’s paradise. More than 500 species of bird have been recorded on the islands. But my first interest isn’t the jungle, it’s the reef. That is where I will start my explorations. 

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I have been dreaming about the sea since I booked this trip (recommended to me by the owner of my local dive shop – Mike’s in Chiswick) and I cannot wait to see what life is waiting for me there. The water is clear and tepid. There are no waves, but a small current pulls at me. A few feet off the beach in front of Batu Lima Homestay, the sand gives way to coral. Every stroke brings me to denser coral. Within minutes I am at a drop-off, where the shallow water is succeeded by the deep blue. This is where the throng of life is congregating. Angelfish bask in the current. I spot a turtle almost camouflaged in a coral bed and, when I look out into the deeper water, two black-tip reef sharks float by. 

A rainbow lorikeet Credit: getty

Lenny sees me emerge from the sea. She calls my name and indicates the dining platform. There are two other tourists there, a British couple. I like them immediately. They advise me of the best snorkelling spots and the most pleasant lounging areas on the beach (where I am least likely to be killed by one of the abundant falling coconuts). They tell me what Lenny couldn’t – about mealtimes and my three-hour window of electricity, from 6pm to 9pm each day. Lenny brings us a dome of doughnuts that would rival the ambassador’s Ferrero Rocher. They are warm and filled with melted chocolate. Oh no. This holiday will not be the health-fest I had expected. 

As a rule, when I go on holiday I am not a planner. This approach to travel has seen me miss out on major attractions, but has also led to unique experiences – I once had a baby named after me in Myanmar. On this occasion, with uncharacteristic foresight, I have done some research. I chose this stretch of beach for a reason. Hidden tastefully, a short walk from my homestay, is a small eco-hotel and dive resort – Biodiversity Eco Resort. Unlike other hotels in the area, they allow non-guests to dive with them. They are my gateway to the rest of this paradise. But before I can join them, I must spend my first night in a room with no proper door.

Sleeping in a hut on the edge of a jungle is noisy. Geckos that live in the thatch chirp and click. Every now and then, one of them drops to the floor with a soft plop. A cacophony of birds and crickets fills the trees outside. The smell of woodsmoke from Lenny’s fire lulls me to sleep, but I am woken several times by the crash of waves underneath my room as the tide moves in. Once, out of curiosity, I shine my torch around the room. A big black beetle stops in its tracks towards me. I am sleeping on the floor, but have a mosquito net tucked tightly beneath my mattress. I feel secure enough to forget the crawling critters and fall straight back to sleep. 

When I awake fully, it’s still dark. I get up to watch the sunrise. Crabs scatter as I walk to the bathroom. There’s a crab trapped in the washing bucket and I free him with the ladle. Nobody else is awake, so I get to spend a beautiful hour sitting on my veranda staring at the horizon. I see dolphins in the distance and, every now and then, there is a ripple of life across the water’s surface with no clue to what caused it. When it’s fully light, I swim from one end of the beach to the other, until I hear Lenny calling me for breakfast. Chocolate pancakes and coffee. Afterwards, I slather myself in sun lotion and head for my diving adventure. 

The islands from the sky Credit: GETTY

Resorts in Raja Ampat are minimalist. There is one reason to travel to Papua – for the environment – and each hotel understands the importance of the preservation of its natural resource. Biodiversity Eco Resort is solar-powered, and used local materials in its construction. It has only eight rooms – but with extravagances such as furniture, en-suite bathrooms and electricity. They kindly welcome me into their fold for diving. 

Scuba diving is the number-one draw to the area. Seventy five per cent of the world’s coral species are found here. But what makes the sea burst with life is the current, driving in from the Pacific and up the Dampier Strait. The water is strong-willed and not always suitable for the inexperienced diver. I am trepidatious as I sit on a speedboat fully kitted out for my first dive in six months. My companion divers are residents of the resort. The boat stops and, on my mark, I drop backwards into the sea and sink. 

I am descending towards a coral pinnacle. Fifteen metres down, the current makes itself known. I drop another few metres to loosen its hold and then follow the dive plan to drift in a semicircular shape around the pinnacle. I immediately see giant gorgonians – fan-shaped soft coral. My buddy is a divemaster and he points to something tiny nestling in the fronds. Not used to the current yet, I float away from him gracelessly and have to fight my way back into position to see what he has spotted. A Pygmy seahorse. A tiny creature, the length of my fingernail, and the exact same white and pink colour as the gorgonian it’s hiding in. Some divers love big fish – manta, rare sharks. Others prefer the small finds, hiding in sand and crevices. I am of the latter persuasion. My dive guide is looking after me well, making sure my uninitiated eye doesn’t miss anything. Meanwhile, all around are schools of blue and yellow fusiliers. Barracudas pass overhead. Deadly stonefish blend with underwater rocks. 

Angelfish and spectacular coral Credit: GETTY

When the dive is over, we all excitedly discuss our finds. The boat has dropped each pair of us in a different spot so that we don’t overcrowd the dive site. Dive holidays are never lonely. It’s not a sport you can do on your own. Between dives, the boat takes us to a beach to drink tea and dry off, and an hour later we go to a new site. This time, we start under the dock of a local village. The current is strong again, but the fish are getting bigger and more colourful. At the end of the day, I have seen giant clams, frogfish, a sea snake, cuttlefish and much more.

One of the wonders of a holiday like this is the remoteness from real life. I allow my body to dictate what I do every day – but with the temptations of wine and cheese and Netflix removed. 

A traditional canoe Credit: GETTY

I sleep when I want to sleep. I am usually in bed by 9pm. I wake early and read on the beach. Lenny brings breakfast at seven –chocolate pancakes, doughnuts or banana fritters. Twice a day I swim the length of the beach – with nowhere to walk, it is the only exercise available. I dive most days, and snorkel and kayak on the days off. Lunch is at 1pm and dinner at 7pm: grilled whole fish, spicy chicken, vegetable curry, eggs, tempeh (fermented soybeans). Lenny and I communicate through sign language. When one day I find the dining area scattered with bananas I do a monkey impression and she replies by imitating a bird. 

Birds are the other highlight of Raja Ampat. A path directly behind my hut leads uphill into the jungle to a place known for the red bird-of-paradise. I take a sweaty guided walk to see them. They are astonishingly beautiful. The male has dramatically coloured plumage and is famous for the flamboyant courtship dance with which he woos the less decorative female. It is easy to see why local people have used bird-of-paradise feathers to decorate traditional costumes. But since it takes years for a male to develop its plumage, it is also a relief to hear that the practice is now banned. 

There are other treats hiding in the trees. The cuscus is a small marsupial, with tiny ears and big eyes. It is a member of the possum family. It is wonderful to see a creature you have never even imagined existed before. That is where a trip to Raja Ampat excels. Both land and sea provide safe habitats for life to flourish. One day, I take a day trip to Fam – a collection of tiny islands with a dive site known as Melissa’s Garden, which has a coral bed that looks like an endless tulip field of green and turquoise and pink.

There are many diving highlights. I am stunned by my first sighting of a wobbegong shark. At first glance they look like vegetation, moss covered and flat, until you see their protruding eyes and downturned mouth. Then there are the epaulette sharks that walk along the sand. A dive site called Cape Kri is famous for having the greatest number of fish species ever spotted in a single dive: 374. There I lie for 15 minutes, doing nothing but watching a huge shoal of bumphead parrotfish. 

A wobbegong shark Credit: GETTY

But my trip is not all spent underwater and roughing it. Raja Ampat does offer luxury for those who want it. At the end of each week, in respect for my advancing years, I arrange a little indulgence for myself. The first week, a speedboat picks me up and takes me to Kri Eco Resort for two nights. (I can’t find the sign language to explain my absence to Lenny. I can only hope she doesn’t panic and report me missing). 

On a search for downed Second World War planes, Max Ammer, the founder of Papua Diving, fell in love with the islands and decided to stay. He set up two resorts, Kri and Sorido, with a careful eye on responsible tourism and support of the local economy. He employs Papuan people. He trains them in skills such as furniture-making. Most impressively, he founded Kayak4Conservation, an enterprise that provides employment and bridges the gap between tourists and the indigenous people.

At Kri Eco Resort, I stay in a deluxe overwater bungalow. My huge bed has crisp linen and a luscious white mosquito net that makes the whole room feel very romantic. I luxuriate in my private bathroom for an indecent amount of time. There is an expansive, furnished veranda, from which I can watch both the sunrise and sunset. Nothing could be quite so wonderful as sleeping with the veranda doors open on to the sea. In the morning I see 15 baby black-tip reef sharks swimming under my bungalow and decide to take advantage of the resort’s high-quality dive facilities. Cape Kri lies within site of my bungalow.   

The family-style meals are very similar to those at Lenny’s, but with more nods to a Western palate – particularly appreciated in the morning since Lenny’s chocolate breakfasts are beginning to take their toll.  

In my second week, I have a two-night sojourn in Biodiversity Eco Resort. Its wonderful rooms are set among the trees. Again, they are Papuan style, with particularly beautiful bathrooms and hot showers. There are lounging areas that I fall in love with, so I take a day off diving and lounge in every available place. 

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It’s hard to leave the luxury resorts, but at the same time I miss Lenny and am happy to be back. Being deprived of all modern facilities gives you a sense of what you can live without. I miss the internet, but realise I don’t need it every day. I can live happily in a basic room. But there are aspects of Gam that make me restless: confinement to a single beach; the lack of choices, food-wise. But the biggest problem is one that is more personal to me. I am not getting the solitude I hoped for. Living on a remote beach with only three or four other guests creates an obligation to be friendly. I meet lots of interesting people. We share meals and dive boats. It’s too damn sociable. I have read and written a fraction of what is normal for me. Remote as they are, these islands are not suitable for the dedicated recluse. If you want to feel alone, go to New York.

Raja Ampat has been a secret of divers for two decades. It is a sprawl of perfect islands and idyllic seascapes. But it is not like the Seychelles. It doesn’t offer cocktails or sun umbrellas or ice cream or carefully raked sand. But that’s the beauty of it. For divers, kayakers, snorkellers, bird watchers, beach loungers, it is world class. And that’s to say nothing of the chocolate doughnuts.

Take me there

For how to get to Raja Ampat, visit stayrajaampat.com/ultimate-raja-ampat-guide/information/how-to-get-to-raja-ampat

Kri Eco Resort offers seven nights full board from £780 (papua-diving.com/kri-eco-resort-2).

Biodiversity Eco Resort offers seven nights full board from £700 (rajaampatbiodiversity.com/en)