Up a Tree, in a Westsuit, in West Papau
Story and photos by Michael Buckley



Kayaking the islands of West Papua in Indonesia—a magical place where karst meets coral, coral meets mangroves, and sky meets ocean.


Papau travel

My kind of paradise: a place where the ecosystem is intact and thriving. Drop into the waters of Raja Ampat, in West Papua, Indonesia, and that's what you'll see, like an IMAX movie coming to life. The coral gardens are stunning and it's raining fish, with big schools of trevally and sweetlips, clouds of snappers, and a more menacing school of barracuda lurking.

islander

In Asia, where 75 percent of reefs are under attack from malevolent forces such as coral bleaching, Raja Ampat is a marine treasure. This archipelago qualifies as the biodiversity hotspot of Asia, hosting over 540 hard coral species (representing 70 percent of the world's total), more than 50 percent of the known soft coral species, and a record 1,320 species of tropical fish. A handful of the fish species are endemic, and that applies to birdlife too: at home in the forests of Waigeo and Batanta islands are the spectacular Wilson's bird of paradise, and the gorgeous red bird of paradise.

I have come here for the phenomenal diving, but am keen to explore topside as well. Raja Ampat comprises over 600 karst islands, large and small, carpeted in lush rainforest and mostly uninhabited. Because of huge changes in tide and shallow reef areas, there's really only one way to explore the coastal regions: by kayak. And finding a kayak is difficult because of import duties in the order of 80 percent surcharge. Enterprising Tertius Kammayer, at Sorido Resort on Kri Island, has found a way around this—by building his own fiberglass kayaks at an on-site workshop. He has set up kayak routes with strategically placed B&Bs, allowing the islanders to make income from non-fishing sources. He hands me a laminated map showing the B&B locations.


Six Days on an Imperfect Kayak
I have not come prepared for kayaking, so I have to improvise, picking up plastic jerry-cans to hold fresh water, and jars of peanut butter as back-up food source. Some squares of dense foam, taken from a jigsaw puzzle kit at a kids' shop, provide cushioning on the seat, and a pair of bicycle gloves serves to prevent blisters. I set off with a local guide, Haja, for a six-day sortie. For a jump-start, we throw the kayaks onto an open boat, and take a long ride to the launch point on Gam Island. Where I discover that Tertius has forgotten to supply pumps and spray-skirts for the kayaks. No first-aid kit, either. And the life-jacket is X-Small. We hit the water—and I immediately break the plastic rudder of my kayak, banging into some coral in the shallows, where I would never expect to find it.

kayak route

Further along, reaching a mangrove area, we put on masks and snorkels to explore below. This presents a surreal scene: there are soft corals in abundance, illuminated by shafts of sunlight filtering through thick mangrove roots. Haja points out a small species that resembles a flower, sitting on the coral. When touched, it retracts into its own tube at lightning speed. Delighted by this discovery, I find more specimens to close. The species, I later find out, is a tubeworm. Purple-lipped clams snap shut at my approach. Tiny fish play hide-and-seek in the mangrove roots.

By sunset we arrive at a long stretch of beach with a few huts on it—our first B&B on this route, it turns out. The pace of life is slow here: our host, his wife and five kids are lounging in hammocks made from fishing nets, strung between coconut palms. A pet parrot squawks. This is a kayaker's nirvana: crystal-clear waters, a perfect white-sand beach, and a family-run B&B. To take care of communication problems, the Rings of Saturn. That's the brandname of a Frisbee ring I've brought along—which delights the kids. Next morning, our B&B host shows us around several large caves at one end of their glorious beach.


Tracking an elusive flower
You develop an enormous appetite from paddling, and local food offerings have been slim. Kayaking further along the coast, we stop to raid a village shop. It is mostly stocked with packets of noodles and potato chips, but I victoriously cart off salty crackers and small cartons of orange juice. Down by the dock is a large tree where villagers gather in the shade, to weave bags from pandanus leaves, and to escape the afternoon heat and socialize. I recognize that tree from kayaking in Palau. The tree has box-like seed-pods, the size of coconuts. This has been dubbed the "fish poison tree" by Palauans, who grate the toxic seeds and sprinkle them in shallow water to stun fish. The tree has evolved to make seed-pods that repel fish and turtles as they bob along in search of new islands to colonize. I inquire if the locals know about this, but it appears the tree is just shade to them. High in the tree I can see the flower buds. I know this plant is a nocturnal bloomer, but we are not staying overnight at this village to witness this. I pick up a seed-pod and store it in my kayak.

mangroves




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