Exploring remote areas of the planet was a childhood dream for me and one that I was determined to realise. There are hundreds of places that fit that criteria but few that can boast the outstanding beauty of Raja Ampat, located just off the shores of Papua in Indonesia. I had read stories of explorers such as Alfred Russel Wallace who played a major role in the discovery of numerous animal species when he made this very same journey over 150 years ago and published his expedition in “The Malay Archipelago”. Then, there were the Blair brothers who, much like I did, wanted to retrace Wallace’s steps in the 1960’s and recounted their journey in the excellent “Ring of Fire: An Indonesian Odyssey”. Both these accounts recall a land of beauty full of secrets just waiting to be discovered. Things today may be slightly different to the way things were back then, but it is still possible to feel that sense of discovery and exploration if you go to the right place.
My journey starts in Sorong, a small coastal town on the West side of Papua. Upon my arrival at the airport I am greeted by “Bagus”, a friendly Balinese chap, who kindly escorts me to the car that would bring me to the harbour. This is just a short 10 minutes drive at the end of which “Teddy”, the speedboat driver, takes my bags to the speedboat that would bring me to the Alila Purnama.
Sorong’s harbour is an interesting one, the dock itself is relatively small but the bay is populated with numerous ships of all kinds from small fishing boats to commercial ships delivering goods from all over Indonesia to the island. The actual town winds around the hills directly parallel to the shoreline causing it to extend lengthwise instead of inland. This creates a beautiful backdrop of verdant hills to the comparatively bustling coastal town. On the opposite side of the bay, there is a small island that is equally developed but using the area’s famous “floating homes”. These buildings, named “Kelong”, are constructed upon stilts and perched on the sea instead of on land and mainly house fishing communities.
As I approach the Alila Purnama, I am already overwhelmed by all these foreign experiences and exotic sites, yet my journey hasn’t even truly began. At this point my excitement is barely containable; I am finally here! I am about to embark on my very own expedition to the East!
Approaching the Alila Purnama on the speedboat led by Teddy, I am greeted with the entire crew’s friendly waves and welcoming smiles. As I board the ship, Gede hands me a fresh fruit juice and a cool towel, while Mario the cruise director, welcomes me aboard and guides me towards the living room where I find a comfortable couch to sit on. Having sipped at my fruit juice a few times and adjusted to my new surroundings, the first thing that strikes me is how majestic the ship truly is, both inside and out. The living room is beautifully furnished with comfy sofas and is panelled with the most beautiful teak wood varnished to a dark brown. In fact, this teak wood is found throughout the ship from its deck, its hull and even its interiors, creating a real sense of quality and solidity.
The living room has a couple of settees in the two port side corners of the room with a selection of interesting books to read. On the starboard side, one can find a beautiful communal dinning table and the bar from which Bagus and Gede are eager to serve their delicious drinks and cocktails. In the centre, a staircase descends to a hallway from which the four suites; Bali, Cirebon, Jawa and Mataram are accessed.
Mario clearly noticed my curiosity and offers to give me a guided tour of the ship. We start with the upper deck, which is accessed from a staircase within the living room. Upstairs I am immediately greeted with three doors, one leading outside, one to the library and one to the master suite “The Sriwijaya”. The master suite is stunning and surprisingly spacious with a large bay window overlooking a private balcony located at the stern of the ship and the ocean beyond that. The upper deck is also home to the captain’s bridge and keeping to the ships overall design, the room is decked with the same dark teak and adorned with the traditional three-foot wooden helm. The way the ship is constructed using traditional building techniques and the use of exotic yet luxurious furnishings reminds me of the adventure I seek and cherish so deeply. This is not just another ship in the sea; this ship was constructed and is maintained out of love and respect for times gone by. One could truly envision stepping back in time and seeing the infamous “Bugis”* hard at work during their expeditions through Indonesian waters on these very same decks.
Having explored the upper deck, we descend back to the living room and Mario shows me to my room where I allow myself some time to rest from the journey here. During this time, the ship sets sail for Waigeo, the largest of the four islands located north of Sorong. The journey there takes approximately six hours and by the time I awoke, we only had another hour until arrival. I decide to have a cup of tea on the deck at the bow of the ship on one of the very comfortable sun loungers. The sunset is truly inspiring, set across the horizon with a few small islands sprinkled in the distance. As I grasp my camera to immortalise this exquisite scene, I wonder what else this place has to offer. What other stunning scenery will I experience and what knowledge will I gain from visiting this paradise? What will I learn about the local culture and what will I learn about myself? As I lay there, content with my cup of tea and afternoon nibbles I notice three crewmen moving toward the very front of the ship’s bow. They proceed to lower the very large and distinctly heavy anchor and after a few minutes of labour we are officially anchored. Here we are, just off the shores of Raja Ampat’s largest island and I can sense it is eager to be explored. As the sun has now well and truly set, it is best to leave the adventuring for tomorrow morning. I can’t wait to see what sights the new day holds for me.
* The Bugis are a community of seafarers originated from central Indonesia on the island of Sulawesi (where the Phinisi ship originates from). They sailed these seas long before any European set foot in the area and are famous for their skills at sea and craftsmanship when building the Phinisi ships.