Monday 12 March 2018

The life aquatic: A new liveaboard sea kayak trip in Raja Ampat

Whenever an assignment comes my way that has an opportunity to swim, there's no decision to be made. I just say yes and pack my togs (Aussie for swimmers).

That's what happened on my most recent trip to remotest Indonesia: a new sea kayaking trip run by Southern Sea Ventures amid the karst limestone islands of Raja Ampat.

That's us paddling northern Raja Ampat,
drone pic by our guide Matt Edwards
If you've never heard of Raja Ampat, it's no wonder. Only divers ventured there until recently (it's said to have the highest marine biodiversity on the planet).

It was a 10-day trip that seemed to last a month, in a good way.

When we weren't paddling, we were stand-up paddleboarding or snorkelling over pristine coral reefs or doing long ocean swims or drip-drying on deck or hiking through dense rainforest to swim under secret waterfalls or climbing the ship's rigging for a frigate bird's-eye-view of this incredible place.

Here's an excerpt and the link to my story about it, published in yesterday's Traveller in The Sun-Herald:

The life aquatic

From a distance, Equator Island is a chunk of shark-grey limestone with a stubble of rainforest, ringed by water as blue as a bottle of Bombay gin.

Our beautiful boat, off Equator Island
(Yours truly paddleboarding at left)
As we launch the kayaks from our boat and paddle closer, details come into view: kaleidoscopic coral gardens, fanning whitewater where sea meets reef, frigate birds tracing circles in the sky and a white-sand beach surrounded by high rock walls, secluded as a pirate’s hideout.

What’s most remarkable about Equator Island, however, is that it’s just one of about 1500 karst limestone islands that make up Raja Ampat, an archipelago off the remote north-western tip of West Papua, the western half of the New Guinea island (formerly called Irian Jaya).

Approaching Quoy Island
like buccaneers
Don’t let its location put you off.

Although the Australian Government’s Smartraveller website advises “reconsidering your need to travel” to West Papua, that’s because of regular clashes between Papuan pro-independence activists and Indonesian authorities on the eastern side of this vast province, hundreds of kilometres from the serenity of Raja Ampat.

If you’re a diver, you’ve probably heard of this group of islands whose name means “four kings” (referring to its four largest islands).

Snorkelling in whaleshark-print
leggings I bought from Waterlust
It’s often ranked as one of the world’s best dive destinations, for good reason: it’s an oceanic Amazon with the highest recorded marine biodiversity on the planet including more than 1700 fish species (among them whale sharks and manta rays) and three-quarters of the world’s corals (about 600 species).

Flying in to Sorong from Jakarta, via Sulawesi, I’d seen dozens of liveaboard dive boats anchored offshore.

I’m on a liveaboard boat too, not to dive but to test-paddle a new way to experience Raja Ampat: by sea kayak.

Matt with Rio,
the ship's cockatoo
Our Australian guide on this 10-day trip, Matt Edwards, pioneered liveaboard kayaking trips in Raja (as it’s often called) in 2015. 

He’d been running camping-based trips in southern Raja for four years when he heard about a northern island called Wayag, which sounded perfect for paddling. So he hired a local fishing boat to take him there, with four intrepid friends.

“I remember pulling into Wayag and just thinking, ‘Wow, this is the most amazing place I’ve ever been’,” he tells us on our first day. Read on...


Big thanks to Southern Sea Ventures, the best sea kayaking operator one could hope to travel with. I've been doing their trips in some of the world's most beautiful places since 2003 - in Fiji, Panama, the Philippines, Croatia, Indonesia - and I'd do another in a heartbeat.