21 December – Darwin and away!
Captain Jacopa Barchetti (known as JB) manoeuvred Coral Adventurer away from the wharf and we were on our way into the open sea. Our initial activity after lunch was a muster drill, where we had a demonstration of the ship’s alarm signal and donned life jackets followed by a roster call. Udo, our purser, then introduced the hospitality crew. Jamie, our Expedition Leader, greeted us and introduced the Expedition Team and gave a brief rundown of the experiences that await us. Later in the afternoon, Ian kicked off with his introduction to the incredible saga of trade and conflict that dominated the last 400 years of European influence in the region; a story of the tiny islands that altered the economic and cultural history of the world. He spoke of early Dutch and Spanish seafarers who explored the coast of Australia and why they were here. A desire for exotic and expensive items from the east – from ‘India’, a term used for the huge area to the east of the Mediterranean that triggered the European Age of Exploration. As a beautiful sunset provided the backdrop as we enjoyed Captain JB’s Welcome Drinks on the Vista Deck and then the first of many delightful dinners. After dinner was documentary Attenborough in Paradise before we retired to our cabins for a peaceful night’s sleep.
22 December – Crossing the Arafura Sea
Following breakfast was a fascinating talk by Captain JB about the history of navigation from Austronesian sailors to the most recent technology of computers and satellites. After morning tea, Tim gave a presentation about coral and reef systems. We learned about the complexity of coral reefs and gained a better understanding of the amazing world we will be snorkelling and diving on during this trip. Tim explained that corals were actually animals – sort of small upside-down jellyfish stuck to solid bases such as rocks or giant clams. The life cycle of corals was explained. He also told us that reefs were the structure, made up of a mix of biological ‘concrete’ and old coral skeletons, and the live corals formed a sort of ‘skin’ on the surface. There is a danger of just seeing this amazing environment as a series of dramatic panoramas. Understanding what lies behind the scenery makes the whole experience much more satisfying and whetted our appetite to know more. To round-off the presentation we all sang the coral spawning song….much to everyone’s amusement.
Following lunch, there was a choice of activities. For those with a culinary curiosity or ability the ship’s chefs gave a cooking demonstration, followed by the chance to eat what the chef’s and guests had created. Today was also the chance to start checking out the hidden parts of the ship. Bridge (wheelhouse) and Engine Room tours were organised for those of us with a desire to know more about these crucial areas. We finished the day with another breathtaking sunset at pre-dinner drinks, and a documentary series entitled The Spice Trade before bed.
23 December – Banda Naira
Today started with a presentation by Ian about the history of the Spice Islands. This concentrated on the European thrust into the East sparked by the enormous fortunes that could be made from the spice trade. If a merchant could get a shipload of spices back to Europe, the profit from their sale was staggering. And the key was nutmeg and cloves that only grew on a few isolated islands. The archipelago had been a conduit of trade for millennia, by merchants and seafarers including Arab, Indian and Chinese, and once Europeans had found a route to it, the enormous profits to be made promoted intense rivalry between the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and British. The ruthlessness displayed in the search for profit resulted in massacres and devastation. The outcome was a total reshaping of world dominance and the rise of European empires.
Following lunch we experienced the first of many very special welcomes. As we entered the Zonnegat Channel – the strait separating Banda Naira from Gunang Api, we were met by large canoes – Kora Kora – paddled by a number of energetic and enthusiastic men. They preceded us into the channel for the arrival at the town of Banda. One Xplorer took a small group of people to the town of Banda, while the other made the short trip across to the snorkel area at the base of the lava flow on Gunang Api. This volcano erupted in 1988 and the lava flow destroyed the adjacent coral reefs. However, in the 30 years since then, the corals have recolonised the sea-bed and the result is a beautiful display of coral, sponges, tunicates and fish; a smorgasbord for snorkelers and divers. Whilst we had been snorkelling, the ship had repositioned by sailing around Gunang Api and anchored at the end of the strait near Banda Besar. Our return to the ship was a lovely trip along the strait and the chance to take in the colours and activities of Banda Naira, our evening destination. Back on-board Coral Adventurer we had a quick shower and then headed to the steps at the Banda waterfront and into town. The temperature and humidity had dropped and we were about to experience something special; pre-dinner drinks on top of Fort Belgica. We arrived as the sun was sinking in the sky and local vendors had set up small areas to sell a variety of souvenirs. The sound of gamelan gongs greeted us, and a dance celebrating nutmeg harvesting was performed. The atmosphere was perfect; a warm balmy evening, a starry sky, stunning views, and the delightful hospitality staff serving drinks. Amazing!
24 December – Banda Naira & Pulau Hatta
On alighting on the forecourt of the Hotel Maulana we split into groups, each with a local guide, and headed into town to visit several sites. One was the small Rumah Budaya museum that housed items from the Dutch occupation. Banda was the scene of some brutal massacres of local people as the Dutch were determined to have a monopoly on the trade in nutmeg, mace and cloves, and anyone who opposed that was killed. A painting in the museum showed a killing of the local orang kaya (literally ‘rich people’ or local ‘chiefs’) by Japanese samurai mercenaries working for the Dutch. The decapitated heads were put on spikes as a deterrent for others. The population of the Banda Islands was approximately 15,000 before the Dutch arrived. By the time the Dutch had finished only about 1,000 of the original inhabitants survived. The present people in Banda are a mix from other parts of Indonesia, including from Java and Sumatra. As a result, the local population is now predominantly Muslim. We also visited the 1611 built Dutch church – the colonial ‘mansion’ at the centre of administration during the Dutch occupation, Fort Nassau – the original fort on Banda Naira, a nutmeg plantation – where we sampled beautiful nutmeg jam, and finally the large dominant fort on the hill, Fort Belgica.
During lunch Coral Adventurer weighed anchor and repositioned at Pulau Hatta, a beautiful fringing reef with a beach overhung with thick green trees and backed by several wooden resort buildings. The first Xplorer with the more experienced snorkelers and divers dropped into the water from the back of the Coral Adventurer with the Xplorer used as the platform for that group’s activities. The second Xplorer headed for the beach to drop the less experienced snorkelers and those guests who wanted to walk on the island or just chill out under the trees with a good book. The water temperature was warm and some of us stayed in the water for well over an hour. We saw lots of creatures, and several of the local children joined us to play!
25 December – Pulau Molana & Pulau Saparua
Christmas Day! Ding-dong Merrily!
Our first stop today was the chance to snorkel off the beach at Pulau Molana (also known as Mamala). This island used to have a resort but it is closed. However, there are still buildings set back in the trees along the beach. The reefs in Indonesia are among the best in the world, so we knew we would see all sorts of astonishing life. And we did; a lovely morning and a great way to start the day. Following a shower we headed for the Bridge Deck Lounge for a fascinating talk by Ian about the VOC domination of the spice trade in this area. Yesterday we had learned and seen the Dutch dominance of nutmeg and mace trade. Today it was all about cloves. The method was slightly less brutal than that used to corner the nutmeg and mace trade. It involved making the Sultan of Ternate a financial offer he couldn’t refuse. Clove trees were then taken from Ternate, up to that time the sole source of cloves, and planted in locations such as Ambon and Saparua, locations that were easier for the Dutch to control.
Now it was time for Christmas Brunch where the King of Saparua and his entourage joined us. The King of Saparua and several of his entourage wore beautiful feather headdresses. The combination of crew in Santa hats or raindeer ears, and entourage traditional headgear was fascinating. The main event of the day was our visit to Palau Saparua. This location has a dramatic history because it was the site of a rebellion against the Dutch in the early 1800s by a famous warrior – Pattimura. A large statue adjacent to a tower at the end of the local football field commemorates the hero’s resistance to the Dutch. We were welcomed once again by a delightful dance by local young women dressed in white. Just as it finished we were confronted by a loud, dynamic dance that celebrated the famous battles fought here. Drums were beaten, shouts pierced the air, wild dancers armed with swords and shields spun and leapt. It was quite an enthralling spectacle. We were led to the steps of the local Dutch fortification – Duurstede Fort and had the chance to wander around the battlements. The fort dominates the foreshore with cannons pointing out to sea. We also noticed that some of the cannons faced inland over the settlement, a reminder of the determination of the Dutch to subdue any resistance. Up on the battlements, we were followed by children of all ages eager to practice their English. They were delightful. ‘May I introduce myself? My name is Tasya, What is your name?’. Between the base of the fort steps and the museum, several dances were performed, one of which included complicated footwork in and out of a grid of poles that was repeatedly opened and shut, like a sort of popular playground game.
Back on board we prepared ourselves for Christmas dinner. Pre-dinner drinks on the Vista Deck were followed by a waistband-stretching meal that included all the Christmas ingredients including Christmas pudding. For those still able to walk (or waddle) a screening of the first instalment of the BBC series Wild Indonesia was shown in the Bridge Deck Lounge.
26 December – Sawai
Oh my Goodness! What a Day! Boxing Day in Paradise.
Following breakfast, Tim gave an entertaining presentation about all about the ocean. Among the things we learned was that more people had been to the moon than to the bottom of the sea, and that the biggest migration of creatures is not by birds or whales – it is a vertical one from the depths of the ocean to the surface and happens every 24 hours.
We had arrived at Sawai Bay at the top of Seram Island in a breathtaking location surrounded by huge cliffs and lush rainforest-covered mountains that seemed to rise straight up from the sea. The tops of the mountains were shrouded in clouds. Several bagans, a fishing platform that is a sort of cross between a boat and a small hut, were moored in the bay. In front of us were three villages. Those on the left and right were Muslim villages, each with a large mosque, whilst the one in the middle, Rumah Olaf village, was a Christian village with a large church. The middle village was where we were going for the afternoon excursion.
We boarded the Xplorers and headed to a delightful jetty backed by a small resort. The setting was gorgeous and we were welcomed ashore by a percussion and pipe band. We entered the Rumah Olaf village via a long boardwalk to a small clearing. Then the dancing commenced, performed by local children dressed in white and celebrated the harvesting of cloves.
We set off into the village where we learned about Durian fruit (‘the taste of heaven with the smell of hell’ as one of our guides described it). One of the most notable features of the village was its amazing vegetation. This is an area where you could put a stick in the ground and it would sprout. We were surrounded by 50 shades of green. Then came the making of Sago. The Sago palm is chopped down, a section has the bark removed and the inside pith is chipped out using an adze (called a nani). The chips are mashed with water and squeezed in a funnel made from a palm frond. The water and residue is caught in a container and the waste removed. After the water is drained, what remains is a thick paste that’s further drained and then wrapped in palm fronds for carrying and storage. Sometimes the sago is baked in a fire until it resembles a loaf of bread before being wrapped up. Special ‘sago mushrooms’ often grow in the waste residue, and we were told they were delicious. We wended our way back to the jetty where refreshments and local delicacies were served. In the meantime, the clouds gradually disappeared and there was an incredible 75% solar eclipse. Surreal.
To round the day off we headed to a small beach fronting the Ora Eco Resort, for a snorkel or swim before we made our way back to Coral Adventurer for pre-dinner drinks and dinner – a calorie overdose that we are becoming quite used to. Those still awake watched the second instalment of Wild Indonesia entitled Islands of Monsters.
27 December – Misool
We had arrived at Raja Ampat! The reefs here are immaculate and the water is warm and crystal clear. In the morning various options were available on tiny Banos Island for diving, snorkelling, beachcombing or taking a kayak for a leisurely paddle. We also took a beautiful Xplorer cruise around the nearby islands to look at the astonishing limestone karst scenery. The reef here varied from the usual plethora of creatures and colours to areas that were rubble with isolated patches of coral. Apparently the corals in Raja Ampat are particularly robust to changes in water temperature. It is now illegal in Raja Ampat to dynamite reefs, fish with cyanide, or kill sharks.
Following lunch we split into two groups with one group headed to a small jetty at Dalpuniol Island for a hike up Celestial Hill. The jetty was in a beautiful setting with azure green waters lapping against a small mangrove area and backed by lush tropical vegetation. The hike was up a walkway that comprised a LOT of steps! But the resulting view from the top of the hill was worth every step. It was magnificent. On returning to the jetty there was the chance to snorkel or swim in the beautiful clear waters. The second group wound its way into the maze of small islands to visit the Sumalelen Rock Art site. The art is between 5,000-10,000 years old and resembles Aboriginal rock art painting. The figures on the rock comprise mostly fish but there are small human figures and hand stencils. The art is still very bright and clear. It was interesting to speculate why the art was there. It is about 2m above the waterline and can only be reached by boat. Not only why it was painted, but how it was painted in such an isolated place is intriguing. The day ended with a beautiful late afternoon cruise around Yapap.
28 December – Kofiau
The overcast morning sky gave the scene a very atmospheric ambience. Along the waterfront lay the village of Kampung Deer. At first sight the village didn’t look very large but it has about 2,000 villagers. Several male dancers and drummers greeted us on a platform built on two long dugout canoes and circled Coral Adventurer with the spectacle of dancers, drumbeats and chanting. The costumes were brightly coloured and the principal men waved swords and carried long shields. A vivid spectacle of movement and rhythm.
We landed on a small beach amongst the wooden shorefront houses and a crowd of curious onlookers, inquisitive children who were grinning, funny, shy, curious, excited, chattering, laughing and energetic. We were accompanied by several guides and walked through the village. Some of the village had wooden houses built on platforms over the water and linked by single plank wooden walkways. A Sago Cooking demonstration showed us how a brick-shaped clay ‘dish’, divided into several compartments, was placed on a fire. Once the dish was hot enough it was removed from the fire and sago was placed in each compartment with a topping of palm sugar. A banana leaf then covered the dish, followed by a small sheet of metal on top of which was placed hot coals. After 15 minutes the sheet and banana leaf were taken off and the cooked sago/palm sugar combination was removed. It tasted like a crunchy sweet toast.
Something we have noticed in many of these isolated villages is the athletic build of these men, the result of a very physical life. There was even a young lad carrying a large outboard motor on his shoulder, something that must have weighed a lot. Following lunch we went across to the beautiful sandy Gaba Kecil beach. This part of Indonesia is famous for its crystal clear waters and amazing reefs and we snorkelled the shallow waters and the beautiful fringing reef. The colours were incredible. Because the sand is white, the waters of the reef appear an almost fluorescent azure blue/green. We are getting used to being spoilt.
29 December – Wayag
This trip’s been a series of ‘it gets better every day’ moments, and today lived up to the challenge. If the islands of Raja Ampat are the jewels, then Wayag is the ‘jewel in the jewels’. One of the most desired photography locations on the planet. We went diving, snorkelling and kayaking. For those energetic and capable, a climb to the top of Mount Pindito.
Considering how thin the soil is and how hard the rock is there was a huge amount of lush vegetation with countless shades of brilliant green standing in contrast to the jagged limestone. Dappled light shone through the canopy, green moss-covered fallen logs, brilliant hued fungi could be seen off the path in a magnificent example of the tenacity of life. The trail was steep, the rocks were jagged and the climb took about half an hour to get to the top. The view in all directions was breathtaking. The colours of the sea and reefs were almost neon in brightness; a whole range of blues, greens and browns. And the clarity of the water was such that you could see individual reefs and large fish. Well worth the effort.
The reefs in this area comprise flat plateaux, steep drop-offs and currents; perfect conditions for an amazing variety of marine creatures. The channels and drop-offs provide perfect depth and scenery for divers. Raja Ampat is part of the Coral Triangle – the epicentre of coral reef biodiversity. And boy, this was brought home to us with a bang. Once again the colours were vibrant and the fish life abundant. The myriad of soft corals provided a background for the creatures that hid, slid, slept, squirmed and wriggled their way round, through, across and between the fronds. Everything was either feeding or trying not to be food for something else.
In the afternoon both Xplorers went on a scenic cruise around the amazing maze of islands that form Wayag. The small steep islands in Raja Ampat are typical karst scenery; steep jagged rock plunging vertically down into the sea, with every inch above sea level, from the summit of the mountains down to the water’s surface covered in rainforest. Rainforests are renowned for the variety of plants but everywhere we looked it seemed impossible to cram any more plants into the landscape. Large ravines resemble gashes in the skin. The cliffs were covered in lush growth of epiphytes and vines, and many of the islands had numerous small coves with an assortment of bright green foliage fronted by small coral beaches. The vertical sides of these islands did not finish at the water’s edge. Many islands had undercut cliffs with fringing reefs that hug the submerged cliffs and only extend out about 30 metres before dropping off again in a vertical wall to the depths. The colour of the sea ranged from dark blue to pale green. The shapes of the islands and mountains were silhouetted against the sky and provided a beautiful backdrop to the sea. It didn’t matter which way you faced it was perfect. It was almost impossible to take a bad photo.
30 December – A Day at Sea
Not long after we’d finished breakfast, Captain JB called all crew and guests to the aft deck behind the dining room to tell us that we were about to cross the Equator. This was just an excuse to get everyone together. The serious look on Captain JB’s face broke into a smile as King Neptune and his Queen slowly ascended on the Xplorer platform. It was time for a ‘Crossing the Line’ ceremony. It is custom that sailors have followed for centuries. Those of the crew who had never crossed the Equator before were lined up on the platform. Each wore a snorkel mask painted with exaggerated eyes that made it impossible to see through them. What followed was humiliating in the best tradition. Captain JB mentioned that crew who had not previously crossed the Equator had to undergo the ceremony to be allowed into King Neptune’s Kingdom. Then kitchen scraps mixed into a slop was poured over their heads, much to the amusement of the onlookers. If that wasn’t enough, the final act was the kissing of the fish.
Ian gave a presentation about Alfred Russel Wallace, the remarkable adventurer and commercial collector of wildlife who was the co-creator, along with Charles Darwin of the ‘Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection’. Tim gave a presentation about sharks, which are incredible, adaptive and very successful oceanic creatures. They have been on the planet for over 400 million years and have changed little during that time.
31 December – Cenderawasih Bay & Pulau Auri
The day kicked off with a chance to go ashore at Maransabad Island lagoon. We alighted on a beautiful beach and then headed inland to a lagoon covered in mangroves, pandanus, ferns, casuarinas and dozens of other species of plants. We saw many species of birds including Beach Stone Curlews, Imperial Pigeons, Frigate Birds, Egrets, and Crows, but could hear many more hidden from view. We waded our way around the mangroves and saw mudskippers flicking across the mud, and crabs scuttling around.
It didn’t take long before we were in the water. There was a lot of seagrass close to the beach and amongst it we found a family of Clownfish on a large anemone. There were at least 20 Clownfish on the anemone, including 2 adults and many young. After lunch we set off once again to a different beach for the chance to snorkel on a great reef.
Tonight’s dinner was a BBQ on the Vista Deck; balmy evening, beautiful surroundings, dynamic lightning on the horizon, great food. The hospitality crew were dressed in bright polo shirts to add to the atmosphere as we tucked into the fabulous fare that had been prepared. To round off the evening, Marysia hosted Quiz Night. At 22:00 New Year’s Eve was celebrated by the ringing of 16 bells. The strange time of 22:00 was to coincide with the time change between us and Sydney; it was 22:00 on the ship and midnight in Sydney. The ringing of 16 bells is a tradition where 8 bells are rung by the oldest person on the ship, and 8 bells are rung by the youngest; a great way to welcome in the next decade.
1 January – Cenderawasih Bay & Kwatisore
We had an early breakfast in anticipation of getting in the water as soon as any whale sharks were sighted. They gather round the bagans, the fishing platforms that are common in the area. The fishermen on the bagans stay on the platforms for about 3 months at a time. The platforms have powerful lamps facing down onto the water that are switched on at night to attract fish. Large nets are hung below the platforms and then raised to catch the fish. Local boats visit the platforms to collect the fish to take ashore. The fishermen are encouraged to feed the whale sharks rather than kill them, as more revenue can be generated through tourism to see them, than through fishing for them.
There was no guarantee that we would actually see any whale sharks but we were in luck. Masks on, then into the water and an experience that will live with us forever. The whale shark swam slowly round us, below us, beside us, behind us. Based on its size it was probably a young one but it was truly awesome. Not only was it long, it was also wide. A magnificent creature. Huge and gentle. I don’t think any of us wanted to leave the water when it was time. It was one of those surreal moments when you realise just how magnificent the world is. We await to see mermaids next. We all had grins on our faces from ear to ear.
We then went ashore to Kwatisore, a small isolated village tucked away on this beautiful rainforest covered coast. Once we were ashore the children performed a dance accompanied by music that sounded like a mix of Polynesian and reggae. Then we were free to wander around the village at our leisure. The village has a mix of old wooden houses and newer concrete ones. After lunch Ian gave a short presentation entitled The Battle of Biak about the struggle between allied forces and Japanese troops for control of this area during WW2. Then we had the opportunity to sit back and view the ‘best of the best’ photos of the trip that the expedition crew had been taking. At 18:00 we made our way to the Bridge Deck Lounge for Captain’s Farewell drinks; a good excuse to relax before tucking into another fantastic dinner.
2 January – Biak
We docked in Biak and departed Coral Adventurer for the last time. We have been to some great places and we will have great memories, fantastic photos and new friends. And it was a lot of fun!