Raja Ampat

With sublime scenery, spectacular marine life  and tranquil waters, Indonesia’s Raja Ampat Islands are the perfect place to try liveaboard kayaking. Fluttering in the breeze, an Indonesian flag reminds those standing on the viewpoint above Pulau Wayag that they are still, in fact, on Earth.

Under a slowly warming sky, its soft eiderdown of cloud streaked with golden hues, a necklace of forested karst islets rise up from the turquoise sea like the tail of some mythical beast. Dawn’s sweaty, slippery ascent has been rewarded with a panorama of otherworldly beauty.

Pulau Wayag (Wayag Island) is the poster child of the Raja Ampat archipelago, an equator-hugging cluster of over 1,500 small islands, cays and shoals fringing the northwest tip of the Indonesian province of West Papua (the westernmost part of the island of New Guinea). The quartet of main islands

–  Misool, Salawati, Batanta and Waigeo

–  give rise to the name Raja Ampat, which means ‘Four Kings’ in Bahasa Indonesia.

Accessed via the bustling port city of Sorong, Raja Ampat is not the easiest place in Indonesia to get to. Yet its sublime scenery of jungle-clad islands, sugar-fine sand beaches, labyrinthine networks of lagoons and caves and shimmering, translucent waters make this a contender for the most enchanting island chain in the whole of Southeast Asia.

The attractions of this aquatic idyll  are not lost on accomplished kayaker, explorer and self-styled ‘expedition engineer’ Matt Edwards. The Canadian-Australian was organising camping trips in southern Raja Ampat when he learned about a more northerly island called Wayag, which sounded like a paddler’s paradise. He promptly rented a local fishing boat to take him there, together with four adventurous mates.

“When we first arrived in Wayag we were all simply blown away by its jaw-dropping beauty,” says Edwards. “I’ve travelled all over the world and seen some picture-postcard locations, but here was a place  on another level. It reminded me of being  a small boy, yearning to go where  nobody had gone before and then discovering Shangri-La.”

Blissful boating

When their exploration of Wayag was concluded, Matt Edwards and his friends spent the next two weeks kayaking back  to southern Raja Ampat. “That return journey was both amazing and arduous, with some long sea crossings,” says Edwards. “It was then that I began to see the possibilities of using a boat as a mother ship,  sailing between the islands of Raja Ampat and  then exploring each of them via kayak.”

Thus the whole liveaboard kayak concept was born. Through his company Expedition Engineering, which designs unique adventure holidays all over the globe, Edwards offers intrepid travellers the opportunity to island-hop through Raja Ampat on a wooden phinisi (traditional Indonesian two-masted sailing ship), complete with air-conditioned cabins, hot showers, sun loungers and all-inclusive dining. Wherever  the vessel anchors, the kayaks are deployed.

“If there’s a better way to explore Raja Ampat than kayaking then I haven’t seen it,” says our guide, Toby Story. “Navigating silently through these spectacular islands, without the noise and smell  of an outboard engine, is to experience nature  at its wildest and most beautiful. And you get  to improve your fitness at the same time.”

Equatorial exploration

Viewed from the swaying, sun-baked deck  of the Euphoria, Equator Island is a long line  of towering limestone sugarloafs. Their bases washed by the cyan waters of the Pacific Ocean, a series of cliffs rise up sheer and high, marked with striations and caves and decorated with garlands of verdant jungle.

As the ship nears the shoreline a series of secluded bays swings into view, sea and rock divided by crescents of brilliant-yellow sand. With wave erosion undercutting exposed cliff faces, each sugarloaf resembles a levitating chunk of rainforest-topped rock. Soaring  high above this Robinson Crusoe-esque fantasy, frigatebirds perform lazy circles in the sky  as they scrutinise this new intruder in their previously deserted landscape.

Aided by the fun-loving Indonesian crew, kayaks are soon launched and bobbing gently on the balmy water. The ship’s passengers – encompassing  a diverse range of ages and kayaking abilities –  are soon paddling towards the shore under the watchful eyes of Matt and Toby. With the help  of a waterproof GPS unit, the group mark their equatorial crossing with a photo, paddles held  aloft as a multicoloured flotilla of kayaks rises  and falls on the ocean swell.

The limpid bays and inland channels of Raja  Ampat are typically mirror calm, although offshore waters can occasionally be choppy. Some of those exploring Equator Island may be bold enough  to cross through the Pacific rollers piling ashore  on its northern edge.

“That was an adrenaline rush,” says Denis Weily,  a veteran kayaker from Australia. “We got a little wet, but our pride is still intact.” The group finish their afternoon voyage with a paddle through the Blue Water mangroves of Equator Island’s interior. Standing in waters free of silt and sediment – rather than the deep mudflats of most of the world’s mangroves – these flooded forests support an astonishing amount of aquatic life. Raja Ampat is home to a record-breaking 35 species of mangrove, their partially submerged roots serving as nurseries for its coral reefs. As the kayakers peer downward, shoals of juvenile fish shimmer like jewels in ephemeral shafts of sunlight, while archerfish patrol closer to the surface, hunting insects and lizards on the roots above by spitting miniature jets of water.

“Everywhere you look in Raja Ampat there’s life,” says Weily. “When you’re under your own power in a kayak you can just stop and observe the most wonderful things.”

Best of both worlds

Most liveaboard expeditions give passengers the opportunity to explore Raja Ampat’s precious submarine realm, which is arguably even more fantastical than its terrestrial counterpart. Kayakers typically carry their own snorkelling gear, allowing them to slip below the surface at a moment’s notice.

Lying in the heart of the Coral Triangle, an island-studded expanse of ocean bound by the Philippines, Timor and New Guinea, Raja Ampat is thought to host the highest marine biodiversity on the planet, with a huge number of endemic species. It is home to three-quarters of the world’s coral varieties, 10 times the number found in the Caribbean, with strong ocean currents flushing coral larvae across the Indian and Pacific Oceans to revitalise distant reef ecosystems.

Kayakers are treated to daily displays of Raja Ampat’s breathtaking abundance. Crystal-clear waters afford those who choose  to snorkel high-definition views over  a kaleidoscopic array of soft and hard  coral reefs, with sharks, turtles, manta rays, parrotfish, wrasse, damsels, fusiliers and an endless list of other fish patrolling underwater gardens of unrivalled beauty and diversity.

Yet there’s more than just the watery  worlds to explore. Kayak trips – up to three  a day – include visits to local villages and inland treks to experience waterfalls  and wild nature. “Above and below the water Raja Ampat  is truly unique,” says Matt Edwards.

“A liveaboard kayak trip is a great way to tread lightly through one of this planet’s most dazzling and unspoiled environments. It should be on every adventurer’s bucket list.”

Daniel Allen was a guest on the Euphoria, expeditionengineering.com

From Travel Colours September 2018