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.”
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.”
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