We were about to embark on a big backpacking adventure, so I knew very well that my life was about to do a complete 180. I had no problem with any other destination on our itinerary, but there was something about Raja Ampat which made me nervous. I went with an uncertain heart, wondering whether the long journey to Raja Ampat was going to be worth it?
Being naturally risk-adverse I have a habit of leaning towards safety wherever possible. Nick on the contrary, wants to push things that bit further. Our entire trip meant I had to step out of my comfort zone. I’d already agreed to that by taking a leap of faith and quitting my job to go travelling.
Raja Ampat sounded amazing, that was undeniable. It was obvious why Nick wanted to go and I knew that I should want to go… it just seemed so wild, and so very far away.
A very long journey to Raja Ampat
From London, the journey to Raja Ampat would take three days. It is located in West Papua, the other half of New Guinea. Thankfully we’d already be in Indonesia and would be flying in from Manado in North Sulawesi, which isn’t really that far, but it would still cost us an entire day of travel.
Landing in the city of Sorong, we’d take a 2.5 hour ferry to the port of Waisai, a tiny dot of a town. Then we would be transported by long boat out to our homestay on Gam island. All in all it would be quite the adventure!
I couldn’t believe we were actually going!
After booking our flights and selecting our homestays back in London, reality set in. Scrolling through pictures on the train into work every day, desperately watching YouTube and reading Stay Raja Ampat I attempted to seek peace in first hand experience.
It is easy enough admiring pictures of rustic beach bungalows and pristine waters from the comfort of your phone. But reality is something else entirely, and one day in the not so distant future, I would be living in one of those bungalows, for at least a month. It was a very surreal thought.
So, why didn’t I want to go to Raja Ampat?
Firstly it would be the furthest I’d ever been from home. Not that I’m scared of travelling to distant places, it’s just that Raja Ampat is so far removed from any form of civilisation. This left me concerned for our safety, as Raja Ampat is known to be wild and potentially dangerous: There is a genuine risk of Malaria, being eaten by a saltwater crocodile (yes this is a fact!) sharks, venemous snakes, spiders, jellyfish, skin conditions, water contamination, a general lack of hygiene…
Our simple accommodation would consist of nothing more than a palm leaf bungalow, a mattress on the floor and a mosquito net. The bathroom situation being equally as basic. And I’d never even been camping before…
Nick had a map of all the best snorkel spots. As the budget master, I knew he would expect us to reach these spots by physically snorkelling or hiking to save money instead of taking boat trips. Aside from all the crocs and sharks, I’d read about the currents in Raja Ampat and knew they could be fierce. I was worried about our distance from other human life (and potential help if we needed it) while out on snorkelling expeditions.
Raja Ampat is mostly off grid
This would mean very little, or no phone signal or internet. I didn’t mind having a digital detox for a few days but what if there was an emergency, how would we contact anyone? God forbid if we needed a hospital, it would probably take so long to get there I feared we’d die en-route!
We were going to be on a remote island in Raja Ampat for at least a month. I couldn’t bare the thought of not being able to contact my family for that long. I needed to let them know we were safe, and this caused me a great deal of stress.
It seemed to me that only the most intrepid travellers, adventurers and experienced divers would go as far as a Raja Ampat. And there we were, just a couple of Londoners (read amateur backpackers) about to go off grid and get all Bear Grylls.
I’d always dreamt of being stranded on a desert island, but was this just a bit too extreme for me? Was the journey to Raja Ampat really going to be worth all its effort? I had to step out in faith and trust that Nick had chosen this place for a reason.
My mini breakdown in Manado
We were 3 weeks into our backpacking trip and currently in Manado, stocking up on supplies ahead of our next stop, my nemesis: Raja Ampat.
Our journey had already taken us to some pretty remote places such as Labuan Bajo and Bunaken National Park. However I was still sick with worry about our impending location so buying a local SIM card was a top priority for me. If I had some form of contact with the outside world, it would help me deal with the prospect of being so far from civilisation.
It was roasting hot and stressful running around the city trying to get everything sorted. My anxieties came to a head as I mentally struggled with all my overwhelming concerns. In the heat of the moment I blurted out ‘I don’t even want to go to Raja Ampat’ and I meant it.
Arriving in Sorong
Our flight to Sorong was delayed by a few hours. I used this time to call my Mum. It was hard having a conversation over the announcements in the airport, but it felt good to chat as I had no idea when we’d next get the chance to speak. Other than the locals, it was just us and a couple of Canadian divers on our tiny plane.
Sorong airport was a bit of a shock. The people of West Papua are Melanesian, and share more in common with New Guinea than they do Indonesia. Many of them rarely see Westerners, so all eyes were on us.
Wheeling our trolley outside, numerous taxi drivers swarmed in on us, they tried to grab our backpacks hoping for business. We were in a distinctly poor part of the world and with stacks of cash (38,000,000 IDR to be exact) hidden in various sections of our bags, I felt quite vulnerable.
Meeting Mr John
Stepping out of our taxi at Sorong harbour, we were approached by a gentleman. ‘Mr Nick, Miss Claire?’ I was so shocked to hear our names! Who was this and how did someone in Sorong know who we were?
With the warmest smile, he introduced himself as ‘Mr John’ – a local guide who was a friend of our homestay host. It was the most unexpected welcome, but it was lovely.
All signs were pointing in the right direction
Guarding the bags while Nick went to the ticket office in Sorong harbour, I sat deep in thought and was worrying about the next leg of the journey. On the wall in front of me was an old poster. As my mind registered, I realised what I had been staring at.
It was an advert for Beser Bay homestay. It was where we were staying!! For months I had been agonising over this place and now it was staring me right in the face. I smiled. It felt like the stars were aligning. First meeting Mr John, and now this. We had to be on the right path. The journey to Raja Ampat just got a bit more exciting…
Goodbye Sorong and civilisation
As we waited for the ferry to leave Sorong for Waisai, we watched it being loaded with less people, and more and more cargo. I spotted just a handful of tourists on board. Noting camouflage gear, walking boots and cameras with some serious lenses, these people looked like a film crew or something from a BBC nature documentary. I felt significantly underdressed in my bright white Birkenstocks.
Arriving at Waisai, the tiny capital of Raja Ampat
Much like Sorong, we fought our way through a crowd of curious faces at Waisai harbour. Some were holding bits of old cardboard with names written on. I scanned the boards and my heart skipped when I couldn’t see ours. We had to locate our homestay host Anthony, who would be taking us to Beser Bay by the only mode of transport, boat.
Making our way to a small information desk, we paid for our park permits. These permits are required to enter the national park – more information can be found on our Raja Ampat Travel Guide. Anthony appeared wearing a smart batik print shirt with a name badge. So professional… so not what I was expecting! As there are no ATMs on the islands we decided to get even more cash out just to be on the safe side. Waisai is the last place we would have any access to a cash machine, so Anthony and Nick took off into town to find one .
I was left with Boy, Anthony’s assistant, who helped take our backpacks to our simple mode of transport: a weather-worn longtail boat, which wobbled as I stepped on board.
Boy took my hand, his firm barefoot grip kept me steady. I settled myself on a makeshift seat, a small plank of wood, no more than a foot above the water. He covered our backpacks with an old sheet of tarp, while I prayed for good weather! Boy spoke little English, but we still managed to have a chat. He had such an endearing nature. I got the feeling that we were going to enjoy staying with these people very much indeed.
Finally on our way to Beser Bay Homestay
Navigating our way out of the port, I sent a quick message to my family, and watched as my phone signal dropped off. Like a well oiled machine, the captain Patrick took charge of steering while Boy sat up front directing, tapping the side of the boat every time there was driftwood up ahead.
Hugging the coastline of the island of Gam, we passed its steep uninhabited landscape, amass of thick jungle and mangrove forests. Now and then spotting a cluster of rustic bungalows or a tiny village community on the waters edge. There was nothing around except deep emerald water and crazy wild landscape. It was stunning.
Somewhere over the rainbow
We came to a group of small karst islands and in the distance I could see a rainbow. Yet another one of those special little signs for us. Beser Bay must be on the horizon.
As we slowed into the bay, Patrick cut off the engine. For the past hour our ears had been pounded by wind and the sound of the boat motor. I’d not really noticed until a deafening silence fell upon us, and a ‘picture perfect paradise’ was unveiled. A bright white beach littered with fallen coconuts, framed by tall swaying palms. This was the epitome of a desert island, of Robinson Crusoe. It was beyond tropical. I was completely speechless, I cried.
Checking-in to paradise
Passing half a dozen wooden bungalows, we drifted towards a larger one joined to the land by a jetty. Boy threw our bags onto its big open deck, gesturing to make our way inside. Assuming this was ‘reception’ we clambered on, expecting Boy and Patrick to follow behind. Instead, they reversed the boat and we were left standing there scratching our heads!
Inside the bungalow there was a small table with a plate of doughnuts on it, a mattress on the floor and a hammock hanging above it. Everything was spotlessly clean. It finally sunk in, this wasn’t the reception at all, this was our home.
We may never want to leave!
Our new home had quite the view. Looking out over the open ocean, the sunset on our first night was without a doubt one of the most impressive skies we had ever laid eyes on. The sea was perfectly still and we watched in amazement as a pod of dolphins swam by on the house reef.
How was it that just a few weeks prior I’d been trotting around Mayfair for meetings at Selfridges and flying off to Jewellery trade shows. Worrying about things like my hair and nails? Vanity would not matter out here. All of a sudden I felt so free!
At 7pm a little bell rang. It was dinner time. Boys wife Tina had prepared us a feast of fresh fish. Each plate was carefully laid out and decorated with leaves and flowers. Everything tasted exotic and delicious.
That night we were a bit concerned sleeping in our simple bungalow. The closest I could compare it to was on our private liveaboard in Komodo. Making sure the mosquito net was well tucked in, I shut my eyes and ran the days intrepid journey to Raja Ampat over in my head. I’d dreaded so much about coming here, but could already feel myself falling in love with this place.
Waking in the wilderness
At sunrise we woke to the craziest jungle melody, the tropical birds in the forest burst into song. Somehow Boy noticed we were up and approached our bungalow with a fresh flask of hot water and cakes. Tina is a wonderful baker. These graceful people were so sweet and kind! Their service was far superior to any 5 star resort we had ever stayed in.
Time to get our snorkel on!
Drinking coffee while dangling our legs over the deck, the lagoon beneath us was alive and glistened in the morning light. Colourful box fish, sting rays and baby reef sharks circled in the crystal clear waters beneath our feet.
We had already snorkelled some pretty spectacular reefs in Komodo and Bunaken. However Raja Ampat is the most marine diverse place on the planet and we had some pretty high expectations. Already blown away by what we’d seen above the water, we were so excited to finally see if the underwater world lived up to its hype.
Thankfully the hype was real… jumping into the warm turquoise sea, we swam out to the drop off to find a pristine reef with an impressive expanse of colourful soft corals and many species of fish which we had never seen before.
Little did we know, this was just the beginning of our love affair with Raja Ampat and our initial 34 day stay would become significantly longer…
Was Raja Ampat worth the journey?
I’ve always been obsessed with tropical places, so in a way, Raja Ampat was like a dream come true. But there were many strings attached to that dream.
The physical journey to Raja Ampat isn’t the easiest but the hardest part for me was the mental journey. In my head I built up such a stigma about the journey itself, and spent so long labouring over these points that I completely forgot about how lucky we were to be travelling there. So when we finally arrived (alive and well!) I felt an overwhelming sense of relief, a release of pent up emotions which I’d been holding onto for so long.
Raja Ampat is a pure overload for the senses. My anxieties naturally disappeared as I took in the simplicity and beauty of our surroundings. How could anyone not wish to be here? I have never felt so close to nature, and so alive.
Aside from quitting my job to go travelling and learning how to dive, I consider venturing to Raja Ampat as one of my biggest life achievements and can honestly say that it is SO worth the journey!
I never would have experienced this incredible place if it weren’t for Nicks persuasiveness, or if he had agreed with my list of concerns and taken Raja Ampat off our itinerary. I fell head over heels in love with Raja Ampat, so much so that we have been back 3 times already, and would go again in a heartbeat.
Thinking of planning a trip to Raja Ampat?
In total we have spent over three months in Raja Ampat, and understand how daunting it can be planning a trip here, especially with such limited information online. That’s why we have created some handy guides to help our fellow travellers get the most out of their adventure!
For more information on travel logistics, accommodation, snorkel and dive advice, plus budget tips and tricks please check out our Raja Ampat Travel Guide. Our homestay recommendations and detailed reviews for both divers and snorkellers can be found here.
Not sure whether Raja Ampat homestay facilities are for you? We give an honest account of what its really like staying in a traditional Papuan bungalow.
If you have any more questions, please feel free to ask us in the comments below, and don’t forget to subscribe for future posts about Raja Ampat 😀