x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

A private voyage through Raja Ampat, Indonesia's sweetest spot

Kipat Wilson sails the seas around these marine-rich islands, home to such a diverse ecosystem that they are known as a "species factory".

The Tiger Blue on a voyage around Raja Ampat. Photo by Kipat Wilson for The National
The Tiger Blue on a voyage around Raja Ampat. Photo by Kipat Wilson for The National

Did you know that the underwater world has a sweet spot? A place so rich with fish and coral that scientists have dubbed it a "species factory"? It lies hidden in the vast oceans of the Coral Triangle that spreads across the Pacific from the Philippines to Bali and the Solomon Islands. This is the richest marine environment in the world, and its bullseye, a remote corner of eastern Indonesia, is known as Raja Ampat. That sounds pretty far-flung, but today our world is so super-connected you can fire yourself off even here with ridiculous ease. And let's face it, leaving the message "Sorry, I'm in the Spice Islands" on your voicemail does bring a delicious sense that, for a brief moment at least, one might actually be getting life's priorities right.

That's why I'm now flying over the Ceram Sea to Sorong, having already boinged down to Jakarta, then on to Makassar. It sits on the western tip of New Guinea, the second-largest island in the world, and looks so wild and thickly forested from the air there seems every chance it is still home to unknown tribes who have never heard of X Factor. Papua New Guinea fills the island's eastern half while the west, formerly known as Irian Jaya and now called Papua, is considered to be Indonesia's final frontier.

This is a place caught between Asia and Australia, where slim Javanese mingle with stocky Papuans and the wildlife is completely different from the rest of the country. The airport is baking hot but, thankfully, I'm heading straight out to sea where there are cooling breezes and no mosquitoes. You do need to slap on the sunblock, though, for the Equator runs right through Indonesia like a kebab stick.

I'm surprised to find Sorong's ramshackle harbour dotted with some 20 liveaboard boats, all offering holidays on the turquoise waters of Raja Ampat. It is clearly becoming a hot spot, and there are even a few resorts now where you can fly in to dive and turn your back on the world for a few days.

It's much better to sail around, though, taking a go-where-you-please voyage aboard a glamorous wooden schooner such as Tiger Blue, a 34-metre traditional phinisi with billowing red sails and robust teak fittings. Custom-built on a beach in south Sulawesi, its solid and luxurious design feels reassuringly safe, for these trading vessels were originally made for transporting cargo rather than achieving great speeds. Down below there are comfortable en suite cabins that take up to 10 passengers, although most of us prefer to sleep on deck, enjoying the balmy breezes as we cruise beneath a night sky peppered with stars.

Wouter, our skipper and divemaster, is Dutch, while the eight-strong male Indonesian crew are cheery. While individuals and couples can sail with Tiger Blue on selected voyages, most passengers are families or groups of friends who charter the entire vessel for a private holiday. This sort of expeditionary cruise is proving popular with parents wanting some quality time with their children. Youngsters love jumping off the bowsprit and the sense of pirate adventure, and the party is brought together to enjoy shared pleasures like snorkelling, diving and excursions ashore - in marked contrast to renting a villa, when teenagers tend to disappear off to shops and clubs.

Our talented chef, Lucas, is from Belgium and will cook anything guests want but we request to have only Asian dishes, including Indonesian favourites such as otak-otak (fish cakes) and gado gado (vegetables with peanut sauce). The menu is supplemented by a cavalcade of splendid fish caught off the back of the boat as we sail along. Silvery tuna, mighty wahoo - sometimes it's a fight to land them, but once you taste that energising buzz of ultra-fresh sashimi you feel a step closer to heaven.

"So where are we heading, cap'n?" I ask. Wouter pulls out a maritime chart dotted with islands with minimalist names such as Phi, Fi, Fo and Fum. We are crossing the Dampier Strait, named after an English explorer who passed by in 1699 back then, sailing here was the equivalent of going to the moon. To the west, across the Halmahera Sea, lie the sultanates of Ternate and Tidore, where cloves come from. To the south, the Banda Islands, which can be visited on another Tiger Blue voyage, is where the world fell in love with nutmeg.

One thing is certain we're unlikely to see another vessel for the whole week. Another is that we will be totally adrift from the world. No phone signal, no Twitter, no oppressively mounting inbox. Nature will provide our rolling news, for these nutrient-rich waters are bursting with life. Raja Ampat ishome to 1,200 species of fish and nearly 600 of coral - three-quarters of the world's total. A few years ago scientists even found a shark that had evolved to walk along the seabed on its fins.

Many of the first naturalists came here in search of the Red Bird of Paradise, a flamboyant fashionista of the trees. The males have gorgeous red tail feathers from which two long wispy curls descend, which became prized adornments on the hats of Victorian ladies. One of the most ardent collectors was Alfred Russel Wallace, who sailed through this region in 1860. The explorer co-developed the theory of evolution with Charles Darwin, and you can expect to hear a lot about him next year when exhibitions and events are staged worldwide to mark the centenary of his death.

Birds of paradise are famous for their elaborate, early-morning mating rituals performed on specially chosen display trees, and we stop off at Sawinggrai to see this, climbing up into the wooded hills with a local guide sporting the traditional Papuan dress of football shirt and flip-flops.

As celebrity PRs put it, these avian superstars are "expected to attend". We sit amid the trees staring up hopefully. A leaf drops. A stomach whirrs – why does the best sightseeing always happen before breakfast? In fact, it's a no-show, but that's how it goes in the wild; if you want nature on a plate, go to a zoo. The money from our visit will help this isolated community of 60 families, and it is interesting to see village life, with its little church, wandering geese and overwater thatched huts.

Back on board Tiger Blue, a fortifying breakfast awaits as we up the anchor and sail towards Manta Point, an extraordinary underwater cleaning station where manta rays queue up for spa treatments. Yes, really. These massive black stealth bombers, which have a huge Mick Jagger-like cartoon mouth and a wingspan of up to five metres, love to have an exfoliating nibble by teams of attendant wrasse. And whether you snorkel or dive (all equipment is provided at no extra cost), you can easily see all this action in the clear, warm water.

The greatest joy of sailing at night is that every morning we wake up somewhere new - so if it's Thursday it must be the Pai Islands, which are so small few maps show them. The geography here is deceptive - now we are as far east as the Australian city of Darwin, almost falling off the edge of the planet. Yet there is life here - including green turtles galore, who pop up by the boat waving their flippers. They nest here on deserted white sand beaches patrolled by the staff of Conservation International.

"Last year we were visited by just three ships," a ranger tells me. This is the great freedom to explore that comes when you holiday on a privately chartered boat.

In the same vein, when we arrive at the Wayag Islands, the most photogenic part of Raja Ampat, we are the only visitors. Here, the limestone peaks have been eroded into mushroom-like islands, creating a monumental, ornamental water garden fringed with white sands where tiny hermit crabs scurry around in their shell-suits. The turquoise sea looks as lustrous as an enamel brooch, and when we go snorkelling the seabed is as brightly coloured as a children's nursery, with neon-blue starfish, banana-like sea squirts and great hedgerows of coral. The names of the fish seem to have been dreamt up by a stand-up comedian. Now is that a striped fangblenny? Or an Erdmann's tilefish? Or maybe a Jamal's dotty back? In the evening our indefatigable crew ship beanbag seats onto the beach, rustle up drinks and canapés, and light a blazing bonfire of bamboo that cracks and bangs as the sun sets like a lurid bruise.

Wayag feels so special we elect to visit it twice, and climb up to the precarious summit of the 134-metre Mount Pindito for a view over the entire archipelago. The rocks are razor sharp so it is like scaling a mountain of oystershells, but it's worth it to see the islands' weird peaks spread out before us like a huge, emerald egg-box. This is Raja Ampat, where the back of beyond has never looked so beautiful.

 

If you go

The flight Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) flies from Abu Dhabi to Jakarta from US$781 (Dh2,870) return. Lion Air (www.lionair.co.id) flies from Jakarta to Sorong, from $792 (Dh2,911) return. Prices are for travel in November, including taxes.

The trip Tiger Blue (www.tigerblue.info) offers all-inclusive voyages around Raja Ampat from November to March, then visits Ambon, Banda and Komodo for the rest of the year. A week's private charter for up to 10 guests costs from $27,650 (Dh101,570), including meals, excursions and diving. Individuals and couples can also join four set departures a year, from $2,080 (Dh7,640) per person.