What solo travel looks like – West Papua journals

Day 0, Saturday

Loving the dive vibes on the journey to West Papua from Jakarta. You see dive bags and fellow divers everywhere. On my final flight, I sit next to Paul and Sake, both seasoned freedivers. We geek out on free diving talk before falling into a deep sleep during the red eye. Small world, my freedive instructor, Azua was Paul’s instructor 3 years ago.

Day 1, Sunday

The Sorong airport is packed and there are no taxis, a big difference from 6 months ago when I was surrounded by taxi drivers. It’s peak season. Glad I had Arif’s number saved from my last trip here. Got in touch with him and helped Paul and his crew get a ride to the ferry harbour. It’s always a nice feeling passing on tips and helping other travelers. Paul’s crew was fun, we chatted and joked at various points along the way to Wasai. At one point on the insanely crowded ferry ride which seemed to carry every Papuan’s household goods, I burst out laughing when Paul goes “we’re surprised to not see livestock on this ferry!”.

We arrive at Wasai all sweaty and drained. It was great to see David who came to greet and receive me. I had met him on my last trip here. The acclimatization to Papuan culture started immediately as we waited 2 hours to take our last boat ride to Yenkoranu on Kri Island while the boys went to the market to get supplies. Met an interesting Catalonian and a funky Floridian, Lou. One of the guys who waited with us got impatient and started swearing. Lou and I didn’t care, we were already in island mode.

Finally arrived at Yenkoranu homestay around 3pm and to this beautiful scene.

I meet Helga (Austrian), Roberto (Italian), John (English). John had these AMAZING manta videos he had shot in the last few weeks. I hear from David that John has this routine where he spends the morning filming, edits them in the afternoon and has an audience oohing and aahing over them in the evening.

A few hours later I meet the Americans, Ben, Amanda, Leah and Nadr. Ben and Amanda moved to Kuala Lumpur 4 months ago to teach at the Mont Kiara international school. Leah and Nadr reside in Michigan. We geek out on conversation about Kuala Lumpur.

I greet Ais enthusiastically, a local diver and guide whom I met back in June. He’s probably my favourite local. The sweetest kindest person, always so positive and helpful. We bonded back then talking in Bahasa. He remembers me.

I’m so excited for the next few days.

Day 2 – Monday morning

First dive. Oh my fucking God. I did not dare tell any of my friends and family how terrified I was and saw my life in question during the dive at Cape Kri. SHIT. IT WAS INTENSE. The currents were strong, shifted at various points and they varied depending on your depth. At one point, the currents intensified as I was hooked onto a rock. My reef hook broke from the rock and I flew with the current and lost control. I remember screaming, screams that really don’t do anything in the water. I remember seeing my dive buddies ahead looking in the opposite direction. I remember thinking is this it? Thankfully Alberto noticed me after a few seconds, at which point I was 50 meters away, motioned to David who came flying for me. THANK YOU.

I surfaced after 45 minutes. The first sentence out of my mouth was WTF. In the following days, I spoke with the other divers on that dive, some of whom had hundreds of dives, were divemasters and rescue masters, and it was not just me who felt like they had a moment of panic and anxiety, not knowing what to do with ththe currents. The scary part was not knowing which way the current led to. Being caught in a down current would’ve been bad.

My second sentence was “wow that was really good practice”. And it really was as I brought my reef hook and pointer (to bang on my tank during emergencies) to all the following dives.

Alberto and David were professionals and amazingly sweet throughout and after, making sure I wasn’t traumatized. And I really was ok after a few minutes on the surface. I think what helped were two things

  • all the dives and aowd lessons in the months leading up to this
  • buddying up with David. I knew I could trust and rely on him with all his experience.

Second dive was a breeze. Haha. We went to Chicken reef. I needed that.

Day 2 – Monday afternoon

A week ago, I noticed that a childhood friend, Anand, was in West Papua. We texted back and forth and it didn’t seem likely we’d be able to meet up in this vast area. Due to luck and weather, his liveaboard docked close to Kri, the island I was on. I made the short 30 minute trek to the jetty, a short trek which involved hiking up and down a hilly forest, got hilariously lost along the way and decided to bumble my way down through thick forests in my flip flops. I found my way to the jetty where Anand picked me up with their inflatable boat and we rode to his liveaboard.

Met a fascinating group of Malaysians, half of whom live in the SF Bay Area. Had great conversation over lunch and spent some time catching up with Anand. Finished the day with a snorkel at Cape Kri and said our goodbyes.

That was really awesome, meeting a childhood friend in the middle of West Papua, an area that spans 15,000 sq meters and consists of 612 islands.

Back at Yenkoranu, I chat with Helga further, an elderly woman who is midway into being here for 2 months.

I go for a solo snorkel and return to the jetty just in time for a shark viewing. A dozen blacktip sharks.

In the evening back at Yenkoranu, I join Nadr, Leah, Amanda and Ben for dinner. Amanda starts rounding up people for a Manta dive the next day. It costs more to make the longer journey. Loving Amanda’s energy.

Day 3 – Tuesday morning

I find out that Alberto is a professional freediver…. and he was thinking about going freediving in the morning. I decide to skip the manta dive to go freediving with him. I did a freediving course a few days ago, and was keen on practising what I learnt with a pro and riding that momentum.

Prior to this, I had only managed a 10 feet dive in a pool during my lessons with Azua. I had challenges equalising head down and couldn’t go deeper. During my open water free dive with Alberto, I managed to go down 25 feet and was able to equalise better. YESSSSS. Baby steps…

Freediving in the open waters was freaking awesome. We took turns going down and Alberto offered some guidance along the way. Alberto did 90 feet dives. As a free dive buddy, you’re supposed to keep your eyes on the other person and snorkel alongside on the top. With Alberto, he’d disappear into the blackness of the deep ocean and I’d only find him after a few minutes on the surface typically 100 feet away from me. Haha.

Day 3 – Tuesday afternoon

The manta divers returned super ecstatic as they saw almost a dozen beautiful mantas. So cool! Part of me wished I had gone.

Started to get to know Christian and his dad, Gerard. Really cool guys from Austria.

We go for a drift dive in the afternoon.

Day 3 – Tuesday evening

It’s Christmas Day!

I start observing and chatting with Helga more and more. She’s this amazing motherly figure to all of us visiting Yenkoranu. Whenever I see her, she’s always talking to someone and welcoming to others.

Nadr and Leah are in a pickle. Their booked flights were somehow cancelled and they were unable to purchase new flights with their cards. I help them out and after a few attempts and a call to verify with Chase, the purchase goes through. They were super relieved and thankful that they could return home tomorrow.

It was also Leah’s birthday, so it was nice to help them out and relieve them of that stress. The Yenkoranu cooks, Ua and Glen baked her a cake, and all of us guests sang and wished her happy birthday.

Christian shares his beer with David and I. I point this out because getting a beer here involves hunting for it at whichever homestay happens to have it in stock.

I’m loving the community here, the locals, the visitors, the views, the dives. I have 5 more days here and I’m already dreading the withdrawal symptoms when this is all over.

I fell in love with this place 6 months ago. I’m falling in love all over again. It’s a beautiful feeling.

I walk smack right into a gigantic spider web at night on the way back to my room from the dining area. It envelops my whole face. That was fun.

Day 4 Wednesday morning

A group of us go for 2 dives in the morning at Blue Magic and Friwen wall. Blue Magic had decent currents and a ton of divers from 5 liveaboards parked around the area. It’s a popular dive site. The strong currents bring in an abundance of life. I loved diving Friwen Wall. We drift for the most part and I was mesmerised by the walls of soft corals.

I get to know Joe and and Joan, Singaporean residents, a bit more during our coffee break in between dives. They are pro divers having been on numerous liveaboards. I’ve been observing their skills on previous dives: always ready before others, calm in the water with their pro cameras, amazing buoyancy as they focused their cameras in on micro life. Yenkoranu was the first time for them using a homestay as a base. Joan recommends liveaboards. 🙂 loved talking to Joan, she’s really sweet, funny and cute.

Day 4 Wednesday afternoon

Christian comes over, and we chat for a long time. He tells me about his experience during my first dive at Cape Kri. His was even scarier. He hung onto rocks for life at 50 bars (when you’re supposed to start your safety stop and ascend) and watched his air gauge drop rapidly as he waited for his dive buddies to notice him. Christian is the guy who has more than a hundred dives, rescue water certified and worked as a dive master previously. We talk more sharing stories. I loved hearing his stories diving all over the region. He was funny as hell too, in a dry Austrian way. God, one of the stories he told was a diver having mask squeeze, that diver noticing it too late to the point where the entire area around her eyes were purple. How it took her two minutes to understand that he was giving her the signal to exhale through her nose to relieve the mask squeeze. And how that entire area remained swollen and bulging throughout the day.

I go for a solo snorkel and return to the jetty just in time for sunset. It’s only me, so I take the opportunity to sing out loud like there’s no tomorrow to Matt Dimona’s The Universe We Dreamt, my favorite summer tune for the last two years.

I start getting to know Paul, a Papuan local guide who seems to be the expert on all things nature. I really like him. We speak in bahasa. I try to convince him to organise a manta dive on Friday. He’s game….

Day 4 Wednesday evening

Had dinner with Christian and his dad, Gerard. Gerard is a fascinating guy. He literally looks like Santa Claus, with his majestic white hair and beard, is 72 years old, dives frequently and has travelled all over the world. Gerard’s first time at Yenkoranu was in 2012, when the homestay could only manage 10 people at a time (now about 40) and when the setting was great and had a more intimate community setting.

I’m noticing that I’m meeting a lot of people who have returned here every year or every few years. I love that. There are even groups who have coincidentally bumped into each other every year.

Got to know Bilge and Kaan, two guys from Istanbul. They visited Misool, one of the four major areas in Raja Ampat, last year. Christian, Alberto and I milk them for information on Misool. Misool is one of the least visited areas with very little information available online. It is also one of the most beautiful and an area that I’ve read about on Nat Geo and covered by notable conservationists. They give us some tips and advise that you have to be really self-sufficient there. Noted. I have a strong desire to come back and visit Misool early next year.

Have I mentioned how much I love this place?

Some fellow Malaysians arrived today!

Day 5, Thursday morning

OMG, how is it the days just keep getting better. We dive sauwandarek and cape Mansuar today.

Sauwandarek was thriving with turtles, wobbegong sharks and all sorts of life. Paul, the sweetest and insanely knowledgeable local guide buddied up with me. I loved diving with him. He has an insane eye for spotting micro life, nudibranchs, Pygmy seahorses and robust ghost pipefish and helped me notice them. I start to get really comfortable managing buoyancy while hovering close to these tiny creatures. So so fun.

Hung out with Kaan, Bilge and Joan during our coffee break.

I’m starting to realize how insanely well traveled the people who come to West Papua are. They’ve been everywhere, to all 55 countries I’ve visited and more.

Christian and Gerard were on our boat too. On our second dive, Christian went snorkeling and I jump in post dive and snorkel for a bit with him. I ask him what he saw during his dive. He names a couple of fish and finishes with

“…and I saw three humans peeing in the ocean.” I die laughing.

We said goodbye to Alberto, Amanda and Ben earlier today. I kinda miss them already. Alberto had this calming, reassuring presence and Amanda and Ben were just pure fun.

Day 5, Thursday afternoon

The yenkoranu staff brought back 4 cases of beer!

I hear that a turtle laid her eggs in front of one of the bungalows last night and had quite the audience. I’m bummed to have missed it. They’ve put sticks around the area to mark it. So cool. I pay a visit to the nest and wish the baby turtles a higher survival rate than the typical single digit survival rate.

After lunch, Joan, bilge, kaan, Christian and myself geek out on photography and photography gear. I milk Joan for all her knowledge. Her pics are awesome and she has a travel friendly camera housing. Traveling light is important to me. I’m even more intrigued and impressed by all of them. They are travel junkies like me, but on another level. Swoon.

We watch Johns video montage from the day. I’m jealous of his skills. It’s motivating me…

We have a few new visitors, Swedes and germans. I’ve yet to go talk to them. I’m loving the informal group that started forming yesterday.

David fell seriously ill yesterday. Helga and Jennifer have been checking in on him every hour. This morning his fever finally broke and he made his way to sorong for his permit. Helga and Jennifer are constantly on me for updates. I don’t mind. Sometimes you need motherly figures in one’s life to take certain things seriously.

Oh god, I have two more full days for diving. How did time fly so fast?

Gotta carpe every single second of that diem.

Day 6, Friday morning

OMG. Today was magical. At 7:30am we leave our homestay and head towards Arborek and Manta Slope with the intention of finding manta rays. I tried my darnedest to keep my expectations low with all of this being up to Mother Nature with the chance we may not see them.

We go diving at arborek and within minutes I spot my very first manta ray. Two more mantas were seen.

I hear that the arborek area is like a path way for these mantas as they move around and from a cleaning station (where mantas go to get their skin, grills and teeth cleaned) to another.

We have break in between dives at arborek. Having been there before, I gather a group to purchase some coconuts.

As we walk back to the jetty, Christian says in the driest most factual tone “your butt looks really good in the wetsuit”. I die laughing.

We proceed to manta slope for our next dive. Manta slope is a cleaning station, where the mantas congregate to get cleaned by butterfly fish and cleaner wrasse.

As soon as we descend and make our way to the slope, I see a few mantas flying gracefully in both directions. Oh my god.

We arrive at the slope, hook up our hook reefs. Paul, oh Paul, ensures I have a great spot to watch the magical scene before me. I find out later that I had the best spot and am featured in everyone’s videos.

I was mesmerized. So fucking mesmerized. I had thoughts like, if this were my last day, I will have no regrets ending my day like this. The mantas would fly around me, over me, all over me, soooo close to me. When they hovered it was almost like a black cloud shifted above me. And when they hovered, they were only a meter above me and I could see the beautiful dots on their bellies, the space between their gills. I looked into their eyes. I watched them swim gracefully. It’s like going to the ballet.

They are known as highly curious and intelligent creatures. I got to witness that.

I’m so in love. As soon as I descend I tell Ais “saya nak kahwin manta”. I want to marry the mantas and live with them forever.

I’m loving our informal group of divers that have bonded. Joe, Joan, Christian, kaan and Bilge.

Day 6, Friday afternoon

I go for another dive. This time it’s just Paul and I on the boat and in cape Kri. I make a stupid rookie mistake forgetting to bring my mask, and we have to go back to get it. I feel really bad, knowing how expensive gas is in this area.

I had a scary experience during my first dive which was at cape Kri, so was slightly apprehensive. But I was buddied up with Paul, an insanely experienced diver so I felt ok going down.

Cape Kri is known for its strong currents. Strong currents also mean an abundance of life.

I was much more relaxed this time. We hook our reef hooks and watch the show unfold in front of us. Barracudas, sharks, schools of fish. Paul made this sound by rubbing his pointer back and forth on his inflator tube and it attracted sharks.

Back at Yenkoranu, I lead the rounding up of people to pay the extra costs to go see mantas again (sites which are further away). My “informal group” are all game and say yes immediately.

Paul tells me to keep our trip on the low down to keep the group small.

Day 6, Friday evening

David motions me to the end of the restaurant pier. We see illuminated plankton and fish spinning around. I lie down at the edge and watch things unfold.

I hear from Paul, the freediver. They are headed back to sorong today.

One more full day… fuck. This sucks. I don’t want this trip to end.

Day 7, Saturday morning

Final full day of diving. Our attempts to keep our trip on the down low fails. Everyone wants to come. Haha. The boat has 12 people: 4 guides, Joan, joe, kaan, bilge, Christian, Gerard, Nebill and myself.

We head out to arborek again, see a few mantas swimming back and forth and lots of beautiful colorful fish. I spot a swimming wobbegong! They are typically under a rock sleeping during the day. Paul shows me two Pygmy seahorses. They are insanely cute.

We ascend from our dives and have a coffee break at arborek jetty. This time our break lasts for almost 2 hours as we wait for the tide to rise so that the currents increase in intensity. This will bring more mantas. I snorkel while we wait and see an amazing abundance of fish.

We head back out to Manta slope. As we close in on the site, we see dozens of mantas on the surface. My relief turns into an adrenaline rush. I’m so happy as this is my last full day.

We descend, there are no divers around yet. Amazing. We hook our reef hooks and watch the show unfold. Dozens of mantas come flying in, taking turns to be “cleaned”. It’s such a beautiful sight. While I wish everyone could witness this, I also don’t want these beautiful creatures to be impacted by mass tourism.

What helps is that these are challenging dive sites in a remote area.

Our ascent was more challenging this time. The currents become stronger towards the end. It’s a scene that looks like this: I’m kicking really hard to move 10 meters and ascend slightly to a depth suitable for a safety stop. I hookup to a reef, catch my breath, and do it again until I’m at 8 meters from the surface. I hookup again, and wait 3 minutes during our safety stop. It’s tiring, and you want to ensure you have enough bars as you’re using a crap load of air.

Day 7, Saturday afternoon

Christian and I go out for a snorkel in the late afternoon around 5:20pm. He has his TG5 camera, I have my GoPro.

I see two beautiful turtles and swim alongside them for awhile. I spot two box fish mating. I’m honestly not sure if they were mating but I figured thats what it was as they were rubbing their bodies together. Christian spots two ghost pipefish. Amazing. They look just like sea leaves and are difficult to spot.

Our snorkel trip finishes just in time to watch the sunset. Bilge is at the jetty so we join him.

After dinner I open my bottle of wine I’d been saving all week and share it with Christian and David. Our informal group hangs out, we watch our videos of the day.

Today is the last day for Joe, Joan and myself. We exchange contact information and some epic pictures.

At one point Christian goes “I think I will miss you all next week”. Oh god, I will miss all of you and this place so much.

Day 8, Sunday morning

Sunday is an off day for all the staff. This means there are no guided dives or planned trips.

David and I grab some tanks and scuba gear and go for my last dive of 2018.

I’m so content. 2019, here I come.

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