Many sea kayakers dream of paddling in the tropics. Pristine white sand beaches, turquoise green waters and snorkelling amongst vibrant coloured fish are images that capture people’s hearts. While I admit these images have also drawn me in, I am a cold-water paddler at heart. I love the icebergs, the rain and the wind. I love the challenge of keeping a group of paddlers warm, well fed and happy in cold weather environments. Besides, I don’t do well in the heat.
When the opportunity came for me to guide a trip in Raja Ampat, I couldn’t say no. Raja Ampat is an Island Archipelago in West Papua. These Islands were formed from the cataclysmic forces of shifting tectonic plates and “hot spots” where volcanoes were born. This place is a visual wonderland as white limestone islands are eroded by the ocean and rain, creating incredible karst, or mushroom shaped landscapes. One of my guests, so astounded by the vistas stated; “Walt Disney couldn’t have imagined something better”. The ocean life also bears witness to a dynamic history, with many endemic reef, fish and shark found nowhere else on earth. The “walking shark” crawls along the ocean floor like a salamander, and can actually walk from tidal pool to tidal pool in search of food, able to thrive where no other shark can venture. The coral reefs, having adapted to warm water, are flourishing like no other reefs on the planet. Plate coral grows so large here, that snorkelers feel dwarfed by their size. So this is why I said yes, despite the fact that the equator runs right through the heart of Raja Ampat, making it one of the hottest and most humid places I have paddled.
The trip consisted of fourteen days of self-supported kayak camping, covering 160 km of tropical waters. The trip started in the Northern most reaches of Raja Ampat in which the closest village was 60 kilometers away. The journey took us in a south-easterly direction to our final destination, Wasai, a fairly populated island, by West Papuan Standards. Raja Ampat comprises 72,000 square kilometers of jungle and ocean and is inhabited by only 50, 000 people. Most west Papuans live a subsistence lifestyle and rely on the ocean for sustenance. As a traveller and a guide with a love for adventure, I knew this would be the adventure of a lifetime.
The challenges as a guide that I faced throughout this trip encouraged me to think outside the box, to come up with creative solutions to problems, and “let go” when things were beyond my control. This is why people hire guides for remote, beautiful, challenging trips. The guide takes care of most of the challenges. Yet most adventurous souls know that where the challenges lie, is also where the greatest sense of accomplishment can be found.
The heat and humidity:
For the duration of my trip in Raja Ampat, I was in a constant state of feeling oppressed by the humidity that hung heavy in the air. The moisture clung to me at all times like an aggravating companion I couldn’t get rid of. If I let myself focus too much on the heavy humidity-I am sure it would have led me to insanity.
The highlight of this oppressive companion was that we spent so much time playing and recreating in the water. The only way to get relief was to be in the ocean. Every break we had, we would go for a swim or a snorkel. Some of the more adventurous would body surf the small waves, while many would go on adventure snorkels to find rare fish and huge plate corals. The cool ocean waters rejuvenated our souls, sent energy coursing through our bodies, and brought laughter and relief to the oppressing humidity and heat.
Fringing Reefs: When standing on any look out point in Raja Ampat, the perfect white sand beaches are in stark contrast to the blues of the ocean and the greens of the jungle. As a kayaker, it looks like there are a hundred places to land at any give moment. But many of these beautiful beaches are inaccessible due to the coral reefs that line these beaches. Coral reefs are sharp, and any skin or fibreglass hull that comes into contact with them will be severely damaged. Add any sort of swell to this situation and reefs become a major hazard for kayak landings and launches. Finding beaches that were suitable to land became a lesson in finding deep-water passages through the reef, or paddling on to the next beach hoping for some sort of access.
These reefs created the most incredible snorkelling experiences. The variety of soft and hard coral and the rich array of colors was like being in an underwater version of the movie Avatar. We would often scare up Green Turtles and watched as they effortlessly and rapidly swam away from under our kayaks. One day we followed closely behind a reef shark as he ominously cruised the shallow waters looking for a meal. We Snorkelled with six Manta Rays as they were feedings in nutrient rich waters, which was unlike any experience I had ever had. They are gentle giants of the ocean, soaring on wings seven metres in breadth, through the ocean currents, exuding peace and tranquility. We would spend hours lazily snorkelling with thousands of fish amongst the coral, it was like being in our own personal kaleidoscope of every color and shape imaginable.
The crossings: Raja Ampat is an Island Archipelago and so there are many crossings on this trip. Our longest crossing was 15 km, with many crossings falling just short of that. Crossings create both a mental and a physical challenge. The mental game was always the harder of the two. Sitting for hours on end in the same position, the far away horizon slowly inching closer with each paddle stroke. On some crossings, the current was against us slowling our progress and making the mental game even harder. The heat combined with the static position of our bodies and the monotonous strokes drained our energy quickly. Periodic rolls and short swims relieved us of the heat. Snacks and food breaks found us all rafted up like a group of sea otters, legs dangling in the heat and laughter floating on the air.
Raja Ampat is fairly new to outsiders and there were so many places that we paddled and beaches we walked that few to no outsiders have ever been. We often felt as if we had travelled back in time as we paddled past massive caves in the limestone cliffs that could easily house a prehistoric dinosaur. We saw giant stalactites on overhanging limestone, formations that had been growing for tens of thousands of years. We paddled through dense mangrove forests, the complex system of roots creating an adventurous maze for us to paddle through.
The Karst Limestone Landscape: The majority of the Islands we paddled through are comprised of Limestone. These were fringing coral reefs that grew up and around volcanoes, as the volcanoes died and eroded away, what was left was a limestone landscape. Because limestone has a weak acidic compound in it, the ocean swell erodes the base away, creating mushroom shaped base, while the rain erodes the tops away creating perfect sinusoid islands across the landscape. The tops of these mushroom islands are covered in dense jungle, whose greenery lies in stark contrast to the white of the limestone. Add to this image white sand beaches and perfect turquoise waters, and your eyes never tire of the view.
The people: West Papuans are incredibly friendly and giving people. They are a people who live off the ocean, who understand what it means to truly help a neighbour in need. The children are incredibly curious and have a tenacity and vivacity for life. Upon arriving at a village for a visit, it felt like everyone came out to meet and greet us. The kids shy at first, soon opened up and entertained us with all sorts of shenanigans. Swinging from trees and landing in the ocean, or piling 10 of them on top of our sea kayaks and trying to tip them, there were shrieks and laughter and huge smiles all around. The villages were neat and tidy, the pathways swept and clean. Upon paddling up to a village, we would stroll the tidy streets and nod our heads to the locals. Numerous strolls ended with the elders of the villages, unable to communicate, but walking in peaceful companionship.
Upon completion of the trip, I was exhausted from both the mental and physical exertion of the trip. This was the hardest trip I have every guided, but one of the trips that will always stand out in my memory as the most rewarding. Often it is in the most challenging of situations where we learn the most, and I now have more tools than every in my guiding tool kit. Raja Ampat is a place I will return to each year and every corner still holds new adventure and surprises.
Of Special note:
For those looking for a camping experience but less challenging, rustic home stays and showers take away many of the challenges described here. For those who find that too rustic, Liveaboard trips on a luxury boat with air conditioning, private bathrooms and day excursions provide the creature comforts of home while still exploring the nooks and crannies of this beautiful area. Check out www.expeditionengineering.com for trip details.