Colorful fish swim around coral reef in the Mansuar water.: JP/J. Adiguna
The clear blue water seemed flawless as I sat on the deck of the ferry.
As we saw shadows of green hills amid the abundant fresh blue water covering the horizon, mama Albertina Thesia and her company of singers began to sing a traditional Papua song — a song of joy to see the big island, Waigeo.
“We are glad to be home”, she said, glowing sparks showed in her eyes. Stephen Hindom, her partner, tapped a tranquilizing rhythm of Tifa, a traditional Papuan percussion.
Together with a group of family and singers, they are about to join their relative in Wasai, the capital of Raja Ampat regency, celebrating the seventh anniversary of Raja Ampat as an autonomous regency. “We’ll be performing at the opening ceremony tomorrow,” she said proudly.
While the fascination remained, suddenly groups of small boats, decorated with palm leaves, popped out from a near cove, moving closer to our ferry. They were welcoming us.
A woman from Salawati Island takes the starch from a sago palm for a celebration.: JP/J. Adiguna
Young brown-skinned and curly haired people with happy faces waved their hands cheerfully. They shouted the local greeting. Their eyes gazed at the ferry, looking for familiar faces.
Another cheerful rhythm of Tifa and Tambur, big traditional Papuan drums, echoed through the small islands in front of us. At the end of a wooden pier on the beach, stood a big brown bearded old man, wearing a traditional costume. He danced, stamped leaves in his hand while his legs moved to the the music. He was accompanied by groups of women young and old, wearing traditional cloth.
Welcome to Raja Ampat, heart of the Golden Triangle of the world!
Legend has it that the area was founded by four kings who were grown from eggs laid by a megapode bird. Later, the four kings settled in four large islands, which make up Raja Ampat regency: Waigeo, Salawati, Batanta and Misool.
Raja Ampat means four kings in Indonesian and its legend spreads beyond the indigenous people. The international community acknowledge Raja Ampat as the greatest repository of tropical marine life on earth. With its richness in marine life diversity, it’s known as the world’s “capital of coral and fish”.
More than 600 small islands with various shapes located in the north, west and south of Papua’s bird’s head peninsula gives Raja Ampat a geographical shelter from ocean waves.
Countless species of wildlife, including birds, fish and coral are found in this area which scientists are still studying its geographical advantage on nearby coral reefs including the Philippines, eastern Indonesia and the territory eastward to the Solomon Island.
In 1993, the Indonesian government declared Raja Ampat as a marine protected area (MPA) in the effort to protect this rich area that covers more than 60,000 square kilometers. A decade later, Raja Ampat became an autonomous regency under the province of West Papua. It makes it easier for the government and other organizations to implement the conservation and rehabilitation programs.
With more than 40,000 people living separately on 35 islands (mainly on the four big islands), reaching Raja Ampat is a challenge. A remote island surrounded by fresh blue water with a few harbors make a small boat and kayak ideal transportation for its people. Wasai, the capital of Raja Ampat, can be reached with a ferry from Sorong, the capital of West Papua province.
The area nearby Kabui offers breathtaking scenery.: JP/J.Adiguna
Entering Wasai from the harbor, you will find clear evidence of how the government has tried to improve and provide proper infrastructure in this remote place. There are small shacks and houses, but at least they have roads, a small health clinic, a government center, communication facilities and a market.
Cozy accommodation is easy to find as there are a few cottages which offer varied services from Rp 100,000 (US$10) to Rp 400.000 per night. Mostly, these are located near Wasai Beach. As an alternative, many houses are modified into homestays where you can experience the warmth and kindness of the people.
Local authorities have developed training for the people to prepare their home as homestays for. As long as you don’t mind bathing outside and sharing your private space with others, there is no problem. If anything, it provided more value and memories to our adventurous journey.
As for the food, you need not worry as long as you can eat seafood. The unique Papuan cooking style has an unforgettable delicious taste. If you have a chance, you should try “sagu bia”. It is made from sago cooked with a local clam called bia.
It is mixed with local herbs and salt and pepper, and is placed in a banana leaf and left roasted on hot stone. The spicy and gummy taste from the sago, mixed with the strong taste of the clam is worth a try. Locals say it can increase the libido.
For diving enthusiasts, there are some resorts to visit and dozens of cruises that offer services. The price varies between ¤5,000 (US$6,200) per person for a 10-day dive package to Rp 25,000,000 ($2,700) for five people for a three-day dive package.
You’ll be promised wonderful sights and marine life such as the spotted wobbegong, fimbriated moray, goliath grouper, manta ray and the sperm whale, reported to have been seen swimming around the water of Ayau Island, north of Waigeo.
Tourists enjoy the calm water in the Kabui Bay.: JP/J.Adiguna
Don’t miss the opportunity to visit small islands nearby with kayaks or small boats, especially in Kabui Bay or the small cove surrounding Gam area. You can learn moer about the legend of how King Waikew of Waigeo Island found seven eggs laid by a megapode bird. Four hatched and turned into four handsome princes who later ruled the four big islands. Another egg hatched and became a woman who was washed away and stranded in Biak, Papua. Another hatched and became a ghost
that protected the sea and the last one didn’t hatch and turned into a big stone
in Mayalibit bay.
As we float through the narrow strait between the mangrove jungle in a hidden bay, we feel the water become warmer. Sometimes we spot big brown-headed eagles fly above us.
We can also see red coral or big sea anemones, which grow only 2 meters below the clear water which is filled with orange ocellaris clownfish. Just beware of crocodiles when you do it. They are known to inhabit the mangroves.
Most people in Raja Ampat live as fishermen. They developed the tradition, which follows the harmony of nature. Indigenous people called themselves the Maya tribe. Years of influence from nearby islands mean the people of Raja Ampat have mixed ancestry with Maya and Biak as the majority.
There are many Melanisas as well as a few people life in southern Raja Ampat around Misool, descended from inter-island traders from Maluku and Sulawesi.
Uniquely they together adopt the same fishing technique called bacigi bwhich is fishing using string with no bait at the hook. Another technique ia called molo which is free diving, armed with a traditional spear gun called kalawai. The fishermen usually dive for 10-15 minutes in the water.
The declaration of Raja Ampat as a protected area recognizes the tradition of Raja Ampat people who had been preserving the marine biodiversity.
The help from natural conservation organizations such as Conservation International, The Natural Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and many others, together with the Indonesian and local government, are needed to preserve the environment.
There are many challenges to overcome. Great reserves of nickel and ore located in Waigeo, illegal fishing, the increasing po-pulation and the construction of modern infrastructure threaten the environment.
— Photos by J. Adiguna