Antics in Akaroa

Dec 2022/Jan 2023

 After a half day turnaround at home to drop off my side kick and repack with clean clothes, I was back on the road again – this time just over the hill to Akaroa – around a 1.5 hr drive. 

It was a lovely day and it was not surprising that the small town was bustling.  Akaroa only has a permanent population of just under 1,000 but that probably triples over the holiday season.  After a quick stop in town for lunch and a short stroll, I quickly left the ‘madness’ of town behind and headed out on a narrow winding road (I sense a theme here – at least it was sealed) to my accommodation.

On the way, I stopped to admire a small Māori settlement of Ōnuku, consisting of a few houses, a beautiful small church and beautifully carved Whare Tīpuna (ancestral house).   These are reminders of what was once a thriving Māori community.  The church was built in 1878 and was a plain timber building and one of the first non-denominational church in the country.  It was refurbished and extended with the traditional carved porch in the 1940s as part of the Akaroa centenary and as a memorial to the early Māori of the area.  This was also one of the sites of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi.

There was no sign for my Air BnB accommodation, but it was the right number so I headed down the track and found somewhere to park, before wandering along a narrow path until I finally found a sign that said “cabins”.  My host appeared and showed me to my room.  It was all very rustic with a kitchen and bathroom shared with another cabin, but it was peaceful, surrounded by bird song and it had lovely view from my balcony – it was perfect for me.

I spent the rest of the day reading and relaxing.  There was a beautiful sunset and amazing night sky to admire – annoyingly I had left my tripod in my other bag so no good night photos despite the beautiful clear night but I did my best!  (Did I mention that this was New Years Eve – I didn’t even make it to midnight lol.)

I had a great night’s sleep before taking the 10 minute drive down to town around 8.30am – it was so quiet and calm.  It’s lovely to be here before all the day-trippers turn up.  I took advantage of the peace and enjoyed a walk around the waterfront and joined a long line for coffee 🥴

My original nature cruise booking was cancelled at 9.15pm the night before as they did not have enough people booked on it, but thankfully I could book on another one – this time with Akaroa Dolphins.  They are a small family-owned business who donate part of their profits to conservation and research efforts in the area, in particular for the Hector’s dolphins.

Not only that, they have the cutest “dolphin spotting” dog – Albie.  Don’t ask me how he is supposed to ‘spot’ or ‘sense’ dolphins, and to be fair he spent most of the trip asleep on someone’s lap – but he was very cute ❤️😂.

As we left the town, we were given some really interesting history of the area – geological and human.  I won’t bore you with it (for a change lol) but I highly recommend the trip if you are interested.

Out of the shelter of the bay it was much cooler and definitely rougher than I thought it would be – thankful I was prepared for both, with my puffer jacket and pre-consumed seasickness tablets lol.   I was grateful for both as people started throwing up.  (I should note they did have warm jackets on board for people if they had not brought their own, sadly they only had sickbags for the seasickness and no miracle cure.

The star of the show is of course the Hector dolphins and we were fortunate to see a number of small groups (or maybe it was the same small group moving around the bay … who knows).

Hector dolphins are the smallest dolphin in the world and the population of approximately 15,000 are only found around the coast of New Zealand’s South Island (though a few do sometimes make their way north for short periods of time).  Not to be confused with their lookalike North Island cousins the Māui dolphin of which there are only around 50!

The dolphin ‘cousins’ are unique in the dolphin world with their distinct black facial markings, stocky bodies and mickey mouse ear shaped dorsal fin. Unlike other dolphins, they also only tend to be in small social groups rather than large pods, and we were so lucky to see so many but it was so hard to take photos with us moving, them moving and the swell🥴lol

In between running around the boat spotting dolphins we saw cormorants (or shags as we call them here in New Zealand), white flippered penguins (which I visited in October 2020), giant petrels feeding on a dead seal (🥲) and seals hanging out on the rocks around the peninsula.

We passed a couple of “farms”, one for the award winning Akaroa Salmon – a family run business one of the pioneers of commercial salmon farming in New Zealand.  The second was a Paua (Abalone to others in the world) pearl farm – the source of New Zealand’s famous blue “pearls” (though colour can vary as much as the shell of the paua vary).  If you are keen to know more, they have their gallery on the wharf where the boats moor.

We were lucky enough to have 7 or 8 sightings of dolphins and as we sailed back towards the wharf the seas thankfully got calmer and we spotted yet another mother and calf – one final opportunity to get another crap photo 😂 Next time I think I will focus on taking videos as at least that way I can take decent screen shots from it.

It was a great morning and I would highly recommend a harbour tour with Akaroa Dolphins.

Back on land, I strolled around the town a little more – I love the old heritage cottages and gardens, many of which dating back to the mid-late 1800’s and many of which have been lovingly cared for.   (If you recall, Akaroa is Canterbury’s oldest European town, founded in 1840 by French settlers.)

I have been to Akaroa many times, but I had never visited one of the “must dos” – The Giant’s House.  It was a bit of a walk up the hill, in what was now a hot day, to this very unique attraction.  The Giant’s House itself was built around 1880, but the main attraction is the garden, apparently a “garden of international significance” and its original sculptures and mosaics that fill the garden and its multitude of terraces.  Often described as a wonderland, it is the colourful and quirky creation of local artist Josie Martin. 

It reminded me of the Gaudi designed Park Güell in Barcelona and it was a lovely place to explore and enjoy afternoon tea from the café.  That said, the entry was a bit steep (and so was the driveway to get there 😂) at $25 per person, and it was not until you got to the top of the steep driveway that it showed what the price was.

Back down in town, I had lunch with some friends who were also in town for a couple of nights, and a spot of shopping before heading back out to my quiet oasis for a quiet afternoon and to enjoy the beautiful sunset.

I love the idea of sleeping in when I am on holiday, but I never can.  I wake early and always feel like I should be doing something so on my last morning was up and out by 7.30!  Of course, this gives me plenty of time to stop and see sights on my drive.  First up was the new Takapūneke Reserve.  After many years of advocacy, the area has only recently been named a protected reserve due to its culturally and historical significance for the local Ngai Tahu Māori and the history of New Zealand.

In 1830, the bay was the site of numerous horrific battles.  Te Rauparaha, a chief from Ngai Toa had revenge in mind when he convinced a British captain to take him and his warriors to the bay, concealed below deck.  The local chief was welcomed onboard and taken prisoner by Te Rauparaha, whilst is warriors attacked the village, destroying it and killing many of its inhabitants.

The British captain escaped being brought to justice for his part in the attack, but the battle was the catalyst for the appointment of a British Resident in New Zealand and the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi 10 years later.

The first stage of the reserve is just a small area with the first of four beautifully carved Pou (carved wooden post) which will tell the story of the 200 year history.  This was only unveiled in June 2022.

Further down the road from the sacred reserve, and I came across the old Akaroa lighthouse.  In 1880, the lighthouse sat out on the Akaroa Heads and it was moved to its current location in the town after being decommissioned in 1980 by the Akaroa Lighthouse Preservation Society.

Back over the hills towards Christchurch I took a detour to the small settlement of Birdlings Flats, on the Kaitorete Spit.  Another important site for the local Ngāi Tahu for food gathering. The spit itself was created around 6,000 years ago by gravel being brought down by the Rakaia River and then swept north by ocean currents before being deposited on the spit.  It is very stony and pretty wild.  Apparently, it is possible to find gems on the beach but I was not so lucky this time.  Instead I just slogged through the stones, passed fisherman and small flocks of red bills gulls and terns hanging out together.

I decided I would try and drive down to the far end of the spit, where it tapers to 100m wide (from over 3km wide at it’s eastern end).  After 20 odd kilometres, the sealed road turned to gravel and then dirt.  I considered turning around a number of times as it appeared to be a gravel road to nowhere but I kept thinking I have gone too far to give up!

Finally, not far from the end (I think), I admitted defeat as the road became sand and it was hard going.  There was also no cell reception so if I got stuck I could not call anyone for help to get out!  It did give me an opportunity to use my All Wheel drive for the first time was kind of exciting and of course it is all in a day of adventuring …

Kaikoura cruising

December 2022

This year’s Aunty/Nephew Christmas trip turned in to the inaugural Aunty/Niece trip, as Isabel, my 12 year old niece stepped in to replace my nephew who is clearly now too cool for these kind of things lol. 

We decided to spend a few days in Kaikōura, a small coastal town around 2.30 hours north of Christchurch and well known for its water activities and wildlife encounters and of course all good road trip start with a detour – today, this was to visit the aptly named Cathedral Gully and the perfectly formed Gore Bay.

Once off the main highway, on to the Gore Bay Tourist Drive, a narrow windy country road until we came upon the view point for the gully.  It is just on the side of the road so no excuse not to stop and admire the “Badlands” topography.  Some of the rocks that we see here are about 2 million years old!!!  That blows my mine!!

After a quick stop in Gore Bay to see the beach, we were back on the road for the final scenic stretch to Kaikōura. 

Kaikōura has a permanent population of just over 2,000 but not surprisingly this number swells in the summer months as people flock there to enjoy the incredibly rich water and wildlife.  Famous not only for it’s whale and dolphin encounters but also for its abundance of seafood, in particular crayfish.  Kaikōura actually translates to ‘kai’ = food and ‘kōura’ = crayfish.

There is evidence of Māori occupation in the area back to the 1600s and the early European settlers arrived in the mid 1800’s to set up whaling stations.  As you can see, whales have been bringing people to the area for over 150 years.

As you may recall, in November 2016, Kaikōura was heavily damaged in a 7.8 magnitude earthquake.  The town was completely cut off as both road and rail links were badly damaged.  The bay and surrounding areas were lifted up by as much as 2 metres!!  It took almost a month to repair the road into the town, but today you would barely know it had happened.

We may a quick stop at a view point over the town and peninsula, before checking in to our small cabin in the Top 10 campground and walking the short distance to town to wait for a pickup for our unique afternoon activity with Kaikoura Llama trekking.

We were picked up by our Llama guide and his llamas and drove down to the end of the town where we disembarked the van and met our llamas for the walk.   The experience started with the ‘funny 15 mintues’.  This is the time where the llamas get used to area and suss out any possible dangers (including us) and where we get used to our llamas and their personalities.  They were very skittish about everything near by – people walking, cars, wind … on one hand it is not surprising, but on the other hand, they do this frequently so I did think they would be more accustomed to the route.

Once we were both settled in, we could all begin to enjoy the experience.  We were somewhat of celebrities (or should I say the llamas were lol).  Everyone we passed were surprised to see them and were keen to stop and take photos of us with our llamas.  In fact, we were walking with an actual ‘celebrity’ – the other people with us were a mother and her 8 year old daughter who had just flown in from America for a holiday.  Turns out, the girl was an actor, who had been in a very popular US programme – I am not sure anyone recognised her though (I certainly didn’t).

While walking, the cloud cleared from the mountains and it was stunning – a perfect Kaikoura afternoon, followed by a chilled evening at the campground.  (Top 10 campgrounds in New Zealand are great – always great facilities and awesome playgrounds.  I grew up having camping holidays and have very fond memories of the freedom of running around, making new friends. Isabel seemed to enjoy that as well.)

The following morning was beautiful and still – perfect of our morning adventure – kayaking with Kaikoura Kayaks.   It seemed like a popular activity and there was a large group of people checking in and getting set up in the office in town but it was all very efficient and we were soon on our way around to South Bay where we were kitted up and given a briefing about the kayaks and how to use them.

Once divided in to smaller groups, it didn’t actually seem like there were a lot of people and we set off out of the sheltered bay and out in to the great Pacific ocean.  We saw NZ fur seals on land and playing in the sea, giant petrels feeding, terns diving, the cutest baby black backed gull and some very cool jelly fish.  All in all it was a great morning paddle.

After lunch back at the campground we headed back out for what turned out to be a very long walk!!  We took a similar route to our llama walk the day before and not surprisingly, bumped into the llamas out for another walk – we were sure they remembered us 😂

Dinner this evening was a Kaikoura classic – fish and chips on the beach.  The beach in Kaikoura is a stony but beautiful, with wild big waves crashing on it.  With the sun setting behind the mountains that flow down into the ocean it was the perfect ending to a great day.

Our last morning was windy and overcast and we were even more grateful for the perfect kayaking day the day before. But not to miss an opportunity for adventure, we took a detour on the way home to explore.  A friend of Isabel’s had told her about a walk that took you through a stream in an area called “Stag and Spey”.  She did not know a lot of detail and I could hardly find anything about it online but we decided to go for it anyway, starting with a 20-30km drive along a gravel road, aptly called Stag and Spey Road.

It was drizzling slightly when we reached the end of the road and there was no signs (well, none that helped) and no obvious track.  Thankfully, I had found some vague instructions in a random post that said ‘walk in the river downstream” and then “go left at the fork”!

It was around 10 minutes downstream – mostly in the river and following a few footprints we could see on the narrow bank area.  We turned left at the fork and continued to walk upstream for a further 15 minutes.  There was supposed to be a waterfall somewhere but as we had no idea where it was, we decided to turn around at this point.  It would be a great place to go on a hot day as we passed lots of great swimming holes. 

We stopped in silence a couple of times and just listened to the sounds of nature around us – the slow running river, bird song, and light rain.  It was a great adventure and we both loved it. Back at the car we enjoyed some left over sausages and discussed the dirty state of my car!  I told her how I loved having a dirty car, as it made me feel like I live an exciting, adventurous life – Isabel replied ‘but you do’. I love that ❤️ 

All good things come to an end

Western Papua, Indonesia/Papua New Guinea

October 2022

The distances we travel on this trip are immense, far more than what they look on the map (no kidding right), and to get to our next destination we sailed all afternoon, all night and well into the morning the following day.

Despite having a leisurely morning, I was up early and in time to see not only beautiful rainbow, but another pod of dolphins (again no photos of the dolphins but I did get a half decent one of the rainbow).  I must admit I am so glad I get up early as this time of day is always so calm, and more often than not, stunning. 

It also means I get to join “breakfast with Rod the naturalist” and this morning we got double Rod, as straight after our morning chat, Rod gave us another lecture on Island Diversity which was really interesting until it came to an abrupt stop when the call for dolphins went out.  This time it was not just a handful of spinner dolphins that were too fast, but hundreds of them that spent ages jumping around the boat – lots of babies and mothers riding the surge of the bow.  This time I did have my camera, but, in typical fashion, the battery died!  I got a few videos but sadly no great photos.   Not for the first time on this trip, I must remind myself to enjoy the moment and not fixate on getting the perfect photos.

It was a lovely morning “steaming” down the coast of Papua, watching the wildlife, passing the rugged coastline as the waves crashed against the cliffs.  As we had a later start today, we also had a wonderful brunch, rather than breakfast.  One thing I can definitely not complain about is the food.  It has been plentiful, varied and delicious!

Our destination for the morning was Jayapura, the capital and largest city of the Indonesia province of Papua.  In fact, it is actually the largest city on the entire island of Papua, even bigger than Port Moresby (the capital of neighbouring Papua New Guinea that shares the island).  Once known as Hollandia, it is also the fastest growing city in Indonesia and in the 2020 census it was reported to have a population of our 400,000.

Compared to the islands and towns we have visited in the last couple of days, Jayapura appeared huge!  So big and busy in fact, once we travelled by zodiac to the huge port and boarded the buses that waited for us, we headed through town with … wait for it …a police escort!!  Cleary the standard hazard lights and horn honking is not sufficient here – so official lights and sirens it is as we drove through the town completely ignoring traffic lights and give ways. 

We passed through the bustling town and out through a small beach area, past families enjoy the beach front park and then out passed the new bridge that heads over to the land border between Indonesia and Papua New Guinea (which apparently has only recently reopened after the pandemic).

Our destination for today was Lake Sentani, in the Cyclops Mountains Nature Reserve.  The lake is a tropical, shallow lake with a surface area of just over 100 k2, and is home to 22 islands.  On board our small local boats we zipped around the lake and around the small islands looking at the wooden stilt houses of the island inhabitants.

We arrived at Assey Village (population 500 (give or take)) on one of the islands to the sound of the Kundu drum and the singing from our welcoming party of elaborately dressed villagers.  Once we were all ashore, they put on a spectacular performance of a traditional dance about their ancestral snake who brought them to live on the lake.

It was amazing to see villagers of all ages partaking in the performances, but what struck me as odd was that as we watched the dances, we were seated in the village cemetery at the edge of the main square.  On top of that, the cemetery was scattered with WWII relics – including an old machine gun which is being used to display handcrafts for sale!

Speaking of handcrafts for sale, there were lots (as in most of our stops), beautiful bark paintings featuring traditional designs, weaved bags, polished stones axes (used locally as for bride prices) and local headdresses – including one with a Bird of Paradise!  Yes, a real, whole Bird of Paradise – sadly still being killed for such ceremonial pieces.

After saying our goodbyes, we travelled back across the lake to pick up buses and police escort again and on our way back into town had a quick stop at the Loka Budaya Museum.  We had about 20 minutes to have a quick look around the fascinating collection of local artefacts from the region.

Back at the wharf we say goodbye to our police escort and goodbye to Indonesia.  Whilst we were ashore, all our exit immigration stuff was done and as soon as we were back on board we started travelling south towards Vanimo, 36 nautical miles to the south and the first port in Papua New Guinea (country number 100 for me – finally!)

New country, new time zone and 6pm became 7pm as the PNG immigration came on board to do all the customs and immigration formalities with the crew as we had dinner before we continued steaming down the jungle clad coastline – this time of Papua New Guinea.

And so, we went I to our final full day on board. After another beautiful early morning (each one different, each one beautiful), the morning continued with packing and a lecture on one of the traditions of the Sepik River area – “Making men into crocodiles”.   A scarification initiation where young men’s skin is made to look like that of the revered crocodile. Apparently, there is a resurgence of young men wanting to go through this lengthy and painful process (similar to the resurgence of other Pasifika young people getting their traditional tattoos) and only initiated men can take leadership roles within the villages.

Back on deck after the lecture, there was a moody sky and the sea was changing from blue to muddy brown as we neared the mouth of the Sepik river.  On the horizon we could see a couple of active volcanic islands.  Using I could see that the islands were called Kadovar and Bam (I am sure they are hoping it does not go ‘bam’ lol).   I should also note that there appears to be island volcano further out in the Bismarck Sea called Blup Blup 😂.  Now that is one I want to see! 

Now, back to the mighty Sepik river  – the Amazon of the region and one of the world’s great river systems.  It is 1,146 kms long and up 1.6 kilometres wide and acts like a highway for the villages along the river and its smaller tributaries.

Our main destination for the day was Kopar Village, one of the villages near the mouth of the river.  We were told that many performers and artists/crafts people had travelled for days to be part of our visit and of course for our final stop we were greeted by singing and drumming before being treated to a performance of the national anthem and raising of the flag and then they busted out the village’s traditional Dragon Dance amongst other colourful rhythmic dances including a fair amount of twerking which everyone gathered, locals and visitors alike, loved lol.

They also performed a small skit and although we didn’t really know what was going on, the large gathering of locals (who outnumbered us greatly) found it hysterically funny and I loved that they were enjoying the performances as much as we were.

Following the performances, the ‘shopping mall’ was open.  So many handicrafts, brought to the village to sell from all over the region.  The area is renowned for its beautiful handicrafts, including totems, masks, bilum bags etc.  There was definitely some pressure to purchase, not from the local sales people, but just from knowing that they have just had two 2+ years of no tourism and therefore no sales, and that they had travelled so far to be here for us.  I bought a small wooden sculpture to join my global collection and thankfully everyone really had their shopping head on!

As we were not in PNG for long, and had had no opportunity to change money, the ship had organised for a couple of the expedition crew to act as a bank.  If we found something we wanted and agreed a price, we would then go and get the money from one of the ‘bankers’ and the cost would be added to our cabin bill in US$.  It was a really convenient way to do it and, between everyone we broke the bank lol, spending all the Kina (the local currency) that they had.

Once I had finished shopping, it was nice just to wander around the village, watching the children play – some with balloons some of the ship’s guests had brought with them, others just entertaining themselves, splashing around at the water’s edge.

Sadly, it was time to say goodbye to Kopar village and we boarded our zodiacs and headed further down the river to explore a little.  Unfortunately, our zodiac driver decided that we could not fit down the narrow tributaries, but it was great fun speeding along and spotting birds along the shoreline.  A few of those identified were sea eagles, whistling kite and a great billed heron amongst many others. 

Back on board, my quiz team reunited to enjoy the wine that we won.  Sitting on the back deck we could enjoy the small eruptions of the Manam volcano as we sailed passed before heading down for our farewell dinner.  A perfect end to a perfect day.  I must admit, this final day was my favourite – the kind of action packed days I expected to have most days.  It’s a shame it took to the last day for it to all come together.

And so the final morning rolled around and it was a beautiful morning as we pulled into Madang Harbour.  Some people were staying on board to continue on for another couple of weeks through PNG, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu and although I would have liked to be continuing, for the first time I was also glad to be disembarking due to all the issues!  That said, it was definitely sad to say goodbye to my new friends.

Once our goodbyes were said to those staying on board, we were transferred to the small airport where we were to catch our charter flight to Port Moresby.  I guess it was really no surprise that the small airport was pretty disorganised.  No one really knew what we should do or where we should go (I had to laugh as it was really just on par with some of the other excursions on the trip lol).  Finally, we were directed to a large hangar where everyone’s bags were inspected before being tagged for the flight.  And then we waited. 

On the short transfer through town, it was clear that there was far more poverty on this side of the border.  The infrastructure was much more limited, there were lots of men just hanging around on street corners, shutters and barb wire on shops and buildings and the roads were terrible.  Such a contrast to the thriving city of Jayapura just over the border.

The waiting in the airport hangar continued and for a small airport it seemed relatively busy.  Finally, our plane arrived (with the new passengers joining the ship for the next 2 weeks) and we were on our way to Port Moresby to make our connections home.

How do I summarise this trip?  Firstly, this part of the world is AMAZING!  I saw some incredible places and wildlife and met some lovely people.  Unfortunately, this trip was just not active enough for me and there was too much time spent travelling and not enough time spent doing!  I guess that is always going to be an issue when trying to travel such long distances.  And of course, we had the ship issues causing a 5-day delay in boarding and missing full days of activities which really put a dampener on things. 

Ultimately, I have to say the beauty of the natural world has to win over.

Battles and Beaches

Biak Island & Rusbasbedas Island, Indonesia

October 2022

Our last few days in Indonesia where to be more about the culture – albeit of Western Papua (which is distinctly different to what most visitors to Indonesia see in Bali).  So, on a moody morning and now apparently being covid free (🥴🤔). We headed out with the group at 6.30am to visit Biak.  

We were welcomed to the island of Biak in the manner to which we have become accustomed, with a colourful dance as we landed.  This time, the local Yospan dance, from a group that had been practicing for 3 days and they put on a performance for every zodiac arrival!   This dance is a traditional dance from this northern coastal region of Papua which they performance for welcomes and cultural events.  I have read that overtime; the dance has been developed with variations in movement and customs whilst still maintaining its authenticity.   The group even waited around and gave another performance as we departed.  

Biak City is the main town on the island of Biak off the coast of Papua.  As of the 2020 census, the island itself had a population of around 122,000 people, most of whom live in Biak City. The people of this area are mostly native Papuan (Melanesians) or a mix of Chinese/Papuan (locally called Cina-Biak) and although Indonesian is the official language, many speak the local language of Biak – and, like most of the other islands we have visited, the use of English is pretty limited.   

One thing we noticed here again (after seeing it in Manokwari for the first time), was the massive queues at petrol stations.  It seems to be a problem unique to this part of the country and we were determined to find out what the issue was and why it was unique to Papua.  We did ask a few people and many were of the view that fuel rationing was a way the government were keeping them under control!!  I also tried googling the issue but only found a few fleeting references to ‘false news’ and no issues with fuel supplies so not sure we will ever know the truth.  

It started raining just as we bordered our buses, but it was not enough to stop our exploration.    Sitting on the edge of Cenderawaish Bay, the area of Biak Island is known not only for its nature beauty and marine life, but also for the tragedy that affected thousands during the Battle of Biak and the role that it played in the War in the Pacific, particularly between May and August 1944.    This area of the Pacific, islands that are now form part of Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu saw many brutal battles as the War in the Pacific raged. 

Considered part of the New Guinea campaign (Western Papua did not become part of Indonesia until 1969) the Battle of Biak was fought between the USA and Japanese armies in an attempt for the Americans to clear the area for a drive to liberate the Philippines and remove the Japanese army from the area.   The island was held by up to 11,000 Japanese and it was one of the first battles where they employed the tactic of allowing the enemy troops to land unchallenged, only to create an inland kill zone that they were not prepared for.  The Japanese utilised the honeycomb of caves as ambush points to attack the advancing US troops.  

After months of heavy battle on land (with the Americans landed 12,000 troops and 500 vehicles on the island), control of Biak almost became a critical battle in the war and on June 22 the Americans finally broke through Japanese defenses leaving around 3-4,000 Japan soldiers to make a final stand.

We were here to visit the Binsari Caves (also known as Japanese Cave).  For the local Biak people, the caves are a place to get in touch with their ancestors, but during the Battle of Biak it became a battleground and was used as a hideout, by the Japanese army, housing up to 5,000 soldiers at one time. On June 7, 1944 the Allied Forces dropped bombs and fuel drums on the caves, killing at least 3,000 Japanese soldiers who had taken refuge in the caves rather than surrender.  Those who were not killed outright were buried alive.

Today, the site is a monument to WWII, attracting tourists from around the world, including many from Japan who come to pray for relatives who died on the island.  It covers a large area including a collection of old mortars, bullets and weapons and you can walk down in to the remaining open areas of the caves.  Today it is hard to imagine the horror that happened here as we walked through the caves, along the boardwalks looking up at the tangled tree roots that reach down from the surface.

Back on the surface we visited the small museum which houses further weapons, clothing and other bits and pieces recovered from the caves including a collection of bones and skulls from some of the victims.  It was a sobering moment reflecting on the human tragedy of war.

Back in the ‘city’ we stopped at a local market – it was clean and tidy and all the products (mainly fruit, vegetables and fresh fish) were beautifully arranged in geometrical patterns.  Surprisingly, even the fish part of the market did not smell bad – I guess the fish were just that fresh.  It was nothing like the market we visited back on Flores which was completely chaotic!  We had time to wander around the stalls and chat to a few of the vendors who were all happy to entertain our photo requests. 

I noticed here, that so many products come in little sachets, similar to what I have seen in places like Ghana – soap powders, shampoo, coffee, drink powder and here, also milkshake mix powder in some interesting flavours, including Choco Cheese, Cream Cheese and durian.

Back on the waterfront, waiting for our zodiac pick up, our welcome dancers continued to entertain us and our naturalist friend Rod explored the small park area to see what bugs he could find (which turned out to be an Janovpholus wevill bug).  With him around, waiting time can always be occupied.

Back on the ship we sailed a short distance to our next destination, Rusbasbedas Island (I actually can’t even find it on a map) being joined by a small pod of dolphins as we travelled (they were far too quick for photos on this occasion).  The seldom visited Rusbasbedas Island was spectacular – a small island with pristine soft, white sand beaches and a shear drop off, just offshore which means the ship can get very close to the island. Yet another perfect paradise island with warm waters perfect for snorkeling in the turquoise shallows and out over the edge of the drop off to explore the reef edge and its inhabitants.

After an action-packed morning, we were back on the ship for lunch and another afternoon at sea – there were a couple of lectures, but I decided just to chill, read and watch the world go by. It was disappointing to hear (via rumours amongst the passengers rather than being told by the expedition crew) that we were going to miss another whole day of the itinerary as we were still playing catch up for our delayed start.    I am definitely seeing some amazing places and meeting some lovely people but the lack of information and missing big chunks of the trip is very disappointing. 

I sat at the back of the of ship watching another beautiful sunset before heading inside for the briefing, dinner and quiz night.  We had a great team with people from German, Russia, Australia and New Zealand (so the teams name was GRANZ) and we came 3rd which was pretty good.  We won 2 bottles of red wine which we planned to enjoy tomorrow night.

A whale of a sharky time

Cenderawasih Bay, Indonesia

October 2022

Today I woke thinking “today is going to be a good day”.  There was a beautiful sunrise, and it was the first day we actually had a number of different activities planned which meant more than just 2-3 hours off the ship! 

Our first outing was to be the most exciting, swimming with Whale Sharks in Cenderawasih Bay.  Whale Sharks are slow moving filter feeds and are the largest fish species, growing up to 18m in length!  They are incredibly mobile and can be found throughout the world in warm tropical waters. 

Cenderawasih Bay is in north-eastern Indonesia and around half of the bay is in the Cenderawasih Bay National Marine Park.  Locals in the area have reported seeing Whale Sharks in the area since the 1940s and today they are attracted by the Bagan’s, or local lift-net fishing platforms which have been used since the early 2000s.  Fisherman use the platforms to cast their nets and, in the area where we were visiting, they were in water around 60-70m deep, but they can be in water 1000’s of metres deep – apparently still tethered to the ocean floor.  The fisherman have a love/hate relationship with the whale sharks as they do sometimes make holes in the fishing nets and suck all the fish out! 

The fact that whale sharks often hang around the bagans, has meant that this area has become popular with tourists as you have a near-certain chance of encountering whale sharks (mostly juvenile males) and having a lengthy encounter with them.  They are also here all year round which is unique to this area as in most other places popular for whale shark encounters e.g. Ningaloo in Western Australia) they are highly seasonal.

Sometimes they do get caught in the net and they are normally released without harm, but this has presented opportunities for the sharks to be tagged with fin-mounted tags so their journeys can be tracked.  Some of these have long life batteries which should last up to two years, transmitting data around every 3-4 days (when they sharks are on the surface). The sharks from this area tend to not travel far (hence why there are always whale sharks to see in the area), but some have been tracked travelling down the coast of Western Papua and into Papua New Guinean waters near the Sepik River (exactly the same route we are travelling).  The tracker also tracked horizontal movements which has shown some of the sharks diving to a depth of more than 1000m!!  It is thought this behaviour is food related and the hunt for deeper plankton.

In his talk on a previous day, our local guide Abraham, had talked to us about some of these conservation efforts he was involved in with the Whale Sharks in Indonesia and it was great to hear his first hand experiences.

The day really started off well as for the first day ever, they had enough zodiacs in the water so everyone could be out on the water at once.   On a negative note, it meant everyone was out at once lol – the fisherman on the bagan were basically feeding the whale (by dropping fish into the water) and around 20-25 people were in the water at one time crowding around it as it hung, vertically in the water feeding.  It was all a bit too much of a circus show for me. 

Thankfully, on our second turn in the water the shark was moving around a bit so I managed to get so better views of it’s natural behaviour … and then a second one turned up, smaller than the first but it was amazing to see. They are truly such beautiful animals, who appeared to be unbothered by our presence in the water with them, either hanging out eating the fish been dropped in the water, or swimming around under our feet. By the time of our last swim, the water was pretty murky with all the fish bits that had been dropped in (now that sounds gross! lol).

Abraham used photos taken to check the whale shark database and identify the individual sharks we were swimming with. 

All in all, we had 3 turns in the water with the sharks, in between which we sat on the zodiacs watching dozens of Greater and Lesser Frigatebirds fly around us, diving in to catch the fish missed by the whale sharks.  It was a wonderful morning.

Back on the ship and it all turned to custard. I had had a little bit of a cough overnight and as I had rigorously told someone off the day before that they were being responsible by having Covid symptoms and not getting tested … you know where this is going … I decided to take a test just so I could say I had … and guess what, it was positive 🤦🏻‍♀️🤦🏻‍♀️ 

Firstly, I was really annoyed as I clearly got it on the ship, and it is so irresponsible of them not to tell people it is on the ship!!! I probably caught it from the irresponsible person I had berated the day before lol!!  Secondly, what the f*** do I do now🤔🤔

After no interest from the expedition crew, my roommate finally tracked down the ship’s doctor who came and took another test – oddly, but thankfully, this was negative (though it was the least invasive test I have had) and I decided to relax for the day and avoid people before resuming activities the following day.  I was also grateful that my roommate had had covid just a few weeks before we came away, so she was negative all along thank goodness.

And so, instead of all the activities, the rest of the day was spent on the deck reading while everyone else was off the ship and in the room when people were back!!  Oh what fun lol!

Arfak exploring

Manokwari/Arfak Mountains, Western Papua, Indonesia

October 2022

We had another very early wake up this morning, but our departure was delayed as we had not yet reached our destination of Manokwari – our first landing on the mainland of Western Papua, on the north side of Birds Head peninsula.  So instead of departing at 4.30am for land, we did not depart till 5.30am! 

Manokwari is the capital of the Indonesian province of Western Papua and is also the administrative centre for the Manokwari Regency.  Despites it’s grand titles, it only has a population of around 110,000 people.  It is also worth noting, we have now moved from the predominately Hindu Bali, through some of the Muslim dominated central island groups, and now, in Western Papua, the majority of the population are Christian.  The people here are also predominately Melanesian and those living in the area are made up of over 20 different tribal groups, each having their own culture and language.

Despite being late, the sun was just coming up as we disembarked and finally on land, we jumped into our 4WD transport, driving through the town and then climbing into the Arfak mountains.  These mountains rise steeply from the sea to a height of almost 3,000m at their highest point and are a mecca for birders who come to see various species of birds of paradise and the infamous Vogelkop Bowerbird. 

The positive side of the delay was that we were travelling through the town in daylight rather than darkness (like the morning before) and it was nice to see the locals going about their early morning routines.  It reminded me of rural Fiji.  The negative side of the delay was that we would miss peak bird viewing time – that time being dawn.

After around 1.5 hour drive and 1500m up in the mountains it was much cooler (pleasantly so), and the views were amazing.  It was if we had gone back in time as we passed a guy with a bow and arrow!   Unfortunately, when we arrived at the village, it was disorganised mayhem yet again.  No one knew what was going on.  We finally managed to glean that between this village and the next one, there were various sites with hides in the jungle with opportunities to see Birds of Paradise or the bowerbirds, but as I mentioned we had already missed prime viewing time!

People started walking off in groups with local guides before we even knew what was going on, and to avoid any more wasted time we just asked our guide if we could just keep going to an area further down the road, to which he agreed.  The road between the villages was terrible (in contrast to the road up to the first village which was great), but it was fun as we were allowed to stand in the back of the truck, terrible in regard to health & safety but so much fun lol. 

Still not really knowing where we were going or what we were going to see, we spotted a small fantail like bird flittering along the roadside and then a nightjar (a nocturnal owl-like bird), before starting a trek up in to the bush for around 15 minutes’ walk – I was almost sweating as much as yesterday despite the cooler temperature).  We arrived at a small, corrugated iron hide where we were to sit and wait in the hope a bird would appear.  Our local guide closed the corrugated iron door and propped it closed with a piece of wood – he said, “bye, see you later”.  (FYI he never came back, though we did seem him later back in the village and had a laugh with him about it 😂).

I think our local guide was paying us a compliment when he said Indonesian women were not strong to do these hikes, but he sees western women are much stronger 🥴🤔😂

They had put out some pandan fruit (which I had never seen before) out in front of the hide but despite that, it was already 8.15am so after about 30 minutes waiting, we were ready to give up – thankfully I was in good company, so we had some fun sitting in this random little shed in the bush lol. Oh, and we did see a bird high up in the canopy, but as we did not have our local guide with us, I am not sure we know what it was.

As we walked back down to the road it started to rain but it was a nice break from the heat and humidity we experienced most days.  Unfortunately, there were already groups at the bowerbird hides which meant there was to be more waiting around, this time in the rain lol.   With no real idea of how long we were going to have to wait, we managed to convince a driver to take us back down to the wharf where a large group of locals were waiting for us.

It was a shame not to see the Vogelkop bowerbirds as they are incredibly unique and endemic to this area.  They are not spectacular to look at, but they are renown for the incredible ‘bowers’ that the males build – large cone shaped structures, decorated with colourful items.  Some natural like leaves and flowers, others unnatural such as bottle tops etc.  Each is completely unique, and they are meticulous with their placement and spend much of their time in the pursuit of perfection. 

Not many of the groups had luck in spotting any birds (paradise or bower), but the one group that saw the bowerbird, only had a brief glimpse as he flew in to replace a bright blue bottle top that the group’s guide had moved in an attempt to lure him out lol!

Back on the wharf we had time to look at all the souvenirs that the locals from the surrounding area had brought to sell until some of the other groups arrived back and, as we were about to leave, we received the formal welcome lol!   The head of tourism for the region was there, as well as a group of Biak dancers, lot of children, the ladies with souvenirs, and of course after the dancing and speeches, everyone wanted selfies. (Although I think the English word ‘selfie’ has really just now become their word for ‘photo’!) 

There was a group of students from the local university who were studying tourism who came along to help with translating between us (as most of the local people did not speak English) and it was lovely to be able to chat with them.  They were equally happy to have the opportunity to practice their English and chat about our lives. 

It was nice to see the harbour in the daylight and by then we were back on the ship in time for lunch, in time for another afternoon at sea.

Paradise found – places and birds

Oct 2022

At Sea/Wayag Island, Raja Ampat/ Waisai, Waigeo Island, Indonesia

Today started slowly as the morning was to be spent sailing, and I started the day as I finished the day before, watching brown boobies fly around the trying to catch the flying fish which was pretty amusing.

I also enjoyed another morning coffee with my favourite naturalist Rod, before a couple of interesting lectures.  The first from our local guide Abraham, who gave us an introduction to the “Birds Head Seascape”.  This is located in the West Papua/Papua province which is where we are heading over the next few days and it is one of the most underdeveloped regions in Indonesia, despite it’s mineral, oil and gas wealth. 

This part of Indonesia has over 2,500 islands in a 225,000kmarea which is home to 600 species of hard coral, 1850+ species of fish and around 20 species of marine mammals – it is truly a pretty special place.

Although it was not mentioned in our talk, it is important to note that this region is still part of a territorial dispute stemming from it’s incorporation into Indonesia in the 1960’s.  Many Western Papuan’s believe that the area should not be part of Indonesia but an independent country as it’s neighbour to the south, Papua New Guinea is. 

Next up was a talk about Birds of Paradise which we will hopefully see in a couple of days’ time.  Neil Nightgale gave this talk and let me just remind you that he is the man responsible for many of David Attenborough’s natural history programmes, a few of which are about these incredible birds.   It was great to learn more about these birds, who have evolved due to the lack of mammals (e.g. monkeys, squirrels) in their ecosystem that might share the same food source.

Today was the day we were to cross the equator.  Did you know there is a seafaring tradition that must be followed when you cross the equator by sea for the first time?  King Neptune emerged from the pool to grant permission to cross for those who have never crossed before – our event included being slapped with a fish and then jumping into the small pool on the top deck.  I had crossed before (in the Galapagos Islands), so was grateful not to have to be slapped by the fish but did enjoy the celebratory spicy rum shot as the captain did a countdown and sounded the ship’s horn as we crossed from the southern to northern hemisphere.

After lunch we finally arrived at our destination, Wayag, in the Raja Ampat Regency of West Papua.  Words can barely describe the tropical paradise that awaited us when we disembarked and headed into the lagoons, surrounded by jungle clam limestone pinnacles.  In all my travels, this has to be one of the most beautiful tropical locations I have been to (and that is saying something)!

I decided not to scale one of the limestone pinnacles so just enjoying the snorkeling from the beautiful white sand beach, but I have included one of the photos from a friend who braved the climb as it really shows just how stunning the place was. 

After some beach and snorkeling time, we set off on a zodiac cruise around nooks and crannies around the incredible landscape.  I had unfortunately found my way on to the ‘birders’ zodiac.  Now, I like birds and used to consider myself a bit of a bird spotter, but I am nothing compared to some of these people … I had to remind our zodiac driver (also the ‘bird guide’) that we were supposed to be ‘cruising’, not stopped in one spot for an hour lol. (I must note, as great as the photos look, I honestly don’t think they do this place justice – it was paradise!)

I had a terrible night’s sleep, partly because the room was so hot, but I also think partly in anticipation for the early rise the next day – 3:45am to be exact, which gave us time for some food before jumping in the zodiacs and heading to shores of Waigeo Island under the stars.  

When we arrived on the shore in the town of Waisai,  capital of the Raja Ampat Regency and home to just over 8,000 people and were greeted by a line up of 15+ SUVs which we jumped in and drove through the town as the early morning call to pray echoed around.  It seemed like we must have had at least half of the decent cars in the town lol. We quickly left the town and headed into the hills to start our walk through the jungle in search of the elusive bird of paradise.  Again we were greeted by a large welcome banner than had clearly been set up and prepared well ahead of our arrival.

Today I had had to make a really difficult decision – whether to head to search for the Wilson’s Bird of Paradise or the Red Bird of Paradise, both endemic to two islands in Indonesia.  Although both were in a similar area, with the time we had, and the fact that dawn was the peak display time for both species, it was only going to be possible to see one of the two.   I had decided in the end to look for the Red. 

The walk to both birds started along the same track and although it was not particularly challenging as far as tracks go, it was made more challenging by walking it in the dark and many people did not have torches and our local guide quickly disappeared into the darkness so I had to keep stopping to ensure people behind me without torches could see the way.  We final got to the hide around 5.45am and despite the early hour it was so hot and humid – I am not sure I have ever sweated so much in my life 🥵🥵.

The male red birds of paradise can be up to 72cm long, including their ornamental red plumes and black corkscrew shaped tail wires – those wonderful plumes that distinguish them from other birds. 

The 3 story hide gave us a great view of the birds display area, or lek, and fortunately for us (and the people who built the hide lol), they display at the same place most days and it was not long before we started to hear their calls, and see the birds appear, three males in total.  Two of the three put on a short but impressive display, shaking their colourful plumage and jumping around – just want we had come to see.  Unfortunately for them, no females appeared but it was such a special thing to see. 

Annoyingly, I had my camera on the wrong setting (somehow it had flicked from automatic focus to manual) so I got no decent photos of the event, just a poor quality video on my phone, but I was thrilled to see it.  (The terrible photo is mine, next to someone else’s good one so you can actually see what it we were looking at.)

The walk back down in the light seemed much shorter than the walk up and it was a nice surprise to be greeted by tea and freshly fried banana fritters brought by a number of local families.  Sometimes the simplest of foods in the most amazing locations are the best!

We were back on the ship by 9.30am and although we had hoped for another activity, the day was to be spent sailing across the Pacific Ocean, along the northern coast of the Birds Head Peninsula on Western Papua.    The rest of the day was spent relaxing, reading, napping and a lecture on Indonesian Conservation by one of our local experts. 

Across the Banda Sea to Palau Buru

Buru Island, Indonesia

Oct 2022

Having crossed the Banda Sea over night, I had another self-inflicted early morning, but this time even earlier due to the time change 🤔.   It was a beautiful morning as we travelled towards Buru Island as the sun rose from behind it. Buru Island lies between the Banda Sea and the Pacific Ocean and is the third largest island Maluku Island group.  It is not a big island, at 130km long and 90km wide, but it soars from the sea to 2,700m at its highest point. Around 210,000 people live here.

As well as being between two seas, Buru is located right on the boundary between the biogeographic zones and its flora and fauna is quite unique – there are 4 endemic mammal species, 14 endemic birds and a number of endemic butterflies (not sure if we will actually see any of these lol).

To look at the island today, you can never imagine the tragic past that Buru has had.   Between 1969 and 1979, Buru was the site of Indonesia’s most infamous prison camp, where approximately 12,000 political prisoners (mostly academics, artists, teachers, journalists) were held without formal charge or trial.  They were forced to do hard labour without adequate food or clothing and hundreds died.

We were the first expedition ship to visit Pasir Putih, and I believe even Buru Island and as such it appeared to be a pretty big occasion.  The ship was greeted by officials in their small ‘official’ boat with a flag and a video camera recording the event – maybe we made the local news lol.  There were also a number of locals coming out in their small boats to look at the odd foreigners.  I was pleasantly surprised to see them all taking photos of themselves with the ship behind (I did try to photo bomb a few of them lol).

Despite the momentous occasion, the plan for the day all seemed a bit disorganised. There would be nature walks, there might be snorkeling, they did not know till our local guide went over for a reccie – had they not done this before they put the island on the itinerary?? 🤔 Because of this disorganisation, those of us who chose to go on the nature walks, missed the grand welcome which apparently consisted of 1000 villagers from 6 villages, including the Chief of the Regency who had apparently travelled for 6 hours to greet us.  There was local food and dancing and it sounded like a wonderful occasion.  It was the kind of event that everyone should have had the opportunity to experience especially given everything we are missing due to the delays!  To say I was disappointed is a bit of an understatement. 

My disappointment at the disorganisation could not take away the beauty of the island, it was stunning, beautiful turquoise water lapping upon small palm covered beaches, leading up to lush rolling hills and spectacular jungle covered mountains behind.   We were dropped off on land and after a short scramble up a bush covered incline, we made it to an old logging road where we proceeded to wander, stopping to spot the local wildlife.   

We spotted Red cheeked parrots, black eagles, sunbirds, red lorikeets along with some very cool spiders and insects (describing them as cool is a matter of opinion I guess lol).  It was an easy walk but so very hot (it had already been 31C at 8am!).

Unfortunately, we then had to wait over an hour on a small gravel beach area to be picked up by the zodiacs!    Thankfully the area turned out to be a washing area for the locals – washing the bottom of their boats as well as their clothes so it was interesting to watch their techniques. It was not long before other locals turned up to take selfies with us – now pretty much everyone has smart phones, I love that they want to take our photos, and more importantly selfies with us.

When we finally got picked up, we got a chance for a short snorkel from the beach where the grand welcome was held.  It was a nice snorkel, but it was low tide again, and there was still a rather large crowd of locals on the beach and in boats so was a little embarrassing having to wade out in front of all the spectators lol.    They were definitely as fascinated with us as we were with them. They did not know much English, but they knew ‘selfie’ 😂

The afternoon was spent at sea, with a great lecture from guest lecturer, Neil Nightingale and another from our resident historian.  His lecture was cut a little short as the call went out that there were sperm whales in the distance.  There was great excitement around the ship, and we made a short detour to get closer to the pod of sperm whales that had been spotted. 

Of course, I was out on deck trying to get the perfect photos (another failure lol) and from whales I moved on to trying to photograph the birds – today there were more boobies as well as a large flock of red-necked phalaropes (over 700 of them apparently).

It was a lovely end to the day

On board and bound for Wakatobi

At Sea/Hoga Island, Wakatobi, Indonesia

Oct 2022

Finally, the day had come when we were to board our expedition ship, Heritage Adventurer on her somewhat reduced maiden voyage for Heritage Expeditions.  The ship had just finished being refurbished and rebranded for the company, but the 1A Super Ice class ship started life in a shipyard in Finland in 1991.  Since then, she has an impressive history of polar exploration, so this trip through the tropics is a little change of scenery for her.

Though she was designed for over 180 passengers, the current configuration accommodates 140 guests, and we only have around 100 on board on this trip.  She is 124 metres long, with a beam of 18 metres and she is certainly far more luxurious than I had expected.

From the hotel, we drove back down to town and on to the main wharf where officials checked our passports and vaccine certificates, took temperatures and took photos of us on their phones (all rather odd things to do at this point as we were just about to leave lol) 🤔🤔🤦🏻‍♀️ Then, finally, we could board a zodiac and head out to the ship and get settled into our cabins.  I was glad to see I was still sharing with Harriet and even better, my booking for a triple cabin on the 5th deck, ended up being a twin cabin on the 6th deck.  Same cabin really but much more spacious with only 2 of us in it (and believe me, we quickly spread out to occupy all the space).

We asked our Zodiac driver (one of the senior ship crew who had been with the ship since it’s refurbishment in Turkey) about the net that delayed out departure.  He seemed surprised by the question and said there was no net, they were in dry dock in Singapore to clean the hull (a requirement for entry into New Zealand in November)!!!! 🤔🤔 I am not sure if we will ever know the truth but was now pretty dubious about what we were being told!

This day was always going to be a day at sea as we had a distance of over 500 kms to travel which would take almost 24 hours despite travelling 16 knots (accordingly to the info about the ship, the top speed is 15 knots and cruising speed 12 knots) lol.  For much of the day there was not much to see (or sea lol) – just the odd container ship in the distance and a few small local fishing boats and of course the beautiful wide blue ocean and sky.

It was really just a day to get set up on the ship, starting with a rather disorganised lifeboat drill (not sure we would we have survived a real evacuation) and getting set up with our snorkelling gear for the trip. We took some time to explore the ship, which in my opinion is pretty flash, much more so than the old Russian ship I explored Fiordland on a couple of years.  (They can no longer use that ship as it was leased from the Russian government.)

We had a huge ‘welcome’ morning tea just about an hour or so before lunch 🤦🏻‍♀️, which was also huge.  Every day lunch was to include a massive salad bar with cold meats, a cold soup (often fruity and more like a smoothy really but always delicious) and also an a la carte menu option.  This day like most I just had the salad and soup, but I can see I am definitely not going to go hungry.

I spent ages trying to take photos of little flying fish that were ‘flying’ around the ship in the beautiful deep blue ocean (I managed to get an ok one – if you look closely lol) and I found a nice little spot at the back of the ship where I could sit in the shade to read (I was already sure this would be a favourite spot).   There are a few hard core ‘birders’ on board and it was useful to the names of the birds we saw and throughout the day we saw Red-necked Phalaropes, Bulwer’s Petrel, Red-footed Boobies and Brown Boobies (although my decent photos come later in the trip).

Our first presentation on the ship was about our activities for the next day (I was so excited for the trip to truly start) before welcome drinks and introduction to the captain and the ship’s crew.   We were all closed up inside in this briefing and almost missed a stunning sunset, but I made sure I ran outside for it lol.

Dinner was (and will be every night) a 4 course meal if you want it – entrée, soup, main and dessert, and a course of 2 or 3 options for each course!  So much food and always really good.

I did not have a great first night’s sleep – the cabin was very hot and woke up a number of times, so ended up getting up at 5 am.  Not to watch sunrise but to watch an amazing electrical storm in the distance before sailing through a heavy downpour of rain – I love tropical rain! 

The previous afternoon we had had a lecture about Wakatobi archipelago, the location of Hoga Island where we were to visit.  Apparently it has been described by Jacques Cousteau as a marine nirvana 🎉🎉🎉.  The name Wakatobi is a combination of the main island names – Wa (Wangi Wangi) ka (Kaledupa) to (Tomia) bi (Binonko) and one of our guest lectures is part of a team working for with the World Bank on an integrated tourism master plan for the region and therefore had a lot of really interesting information about the area.  (It may be worth noting he is another one of these over achievers and as well as being an expert in this region, he has a PHD in Antarctic tourism!)

Situated in Southeast Sulawesi, with approximately 150 islands and a population of 115,000, Wakatobi National Park was listed as a UNESCO biosphere reserve 10 years ago – it is also the largest barrier reef in Indonesia (apparently second only to the Great Barrier Reef).  Unfortunately, a few years ago, the Indonesian government excluded all inhabited islands from the national park so now, only when you are at sea are in the national park. 🤔🤔

Early this year, flights to Wakatobi were stopped (with no explanation), so the Wakatobi Dive Resort have their own airstrip to fly their guests in.  They also pay the locals not in fish in front of resort to ensure their guests have a great marine experience. It can take up to 30 hours to travel from Jakarta!  (As you can imagine, our lecturer who is working on a tourism plan for the region had lots of thoughts about all of this.) 

The people of Wakatobi are all Muslim and many are considered ‘sea gypsies’.  In areas such as Bajo Mola, their stilt houses (bajo sampela) once were in the sea, but the Government have reclaimed land so now, during low tide, they are actually on land.   Though some do still live/work in fishing structures/houses, some far out to sea.

After sailing all the previous day and night, we finally arrived near Hoga island around 9am and our first real landing was a wet landing which means wading from the zodiac to shore – in this instance, about 50m through warm water ranging from a few cms deep to 30-40 cm deep, often without warning 🥴.

When everyone was finally on land, we headed off in different directions for various walks.  The short walk that I went on took us in to the forest just off the beach and pass the rundown remains of old resorts – as we had our wonderful naturalist Rod with us, we managed to spot a few birds and insects.

Back on the beach, it was time for some snorkelling. Unfortunately, it was low tide, so it was a fair walk through the sea grass meadow before actually being able to swim … it was worth the effort though.  We snorkelled through the continuing sea grass meadows, before heading out into an area of hard and soft coral clusters.  There were so many fish – hundreds and thousands of small brightly coloured fish, and I can’t forget the starfish and giant clams.

We waded back out to the zodiacs before zipping around to see the Bajo houses on stilts.  Unfortunately, as it was low tide, it meant we could not get close, but it was fun zipping around in the zodiacs getting wet again 😂

Back on the ship, dripping wet, just in time to hear the call for lunch so ran to the room to put on dry clothes before heading to the restaurant for lunch. It only took us a day to turn our cabin in to a laundry with wet clothes hanging all around it lol.  I guess it was only a matter of time!

I had bought a local sim card when I arrived in Bali in the hope that I would be able to keep in touch with home as we went in and out of coverage.  Surprisingly, we had pretty good reception here on Hoga Island, but apparently, it was only good because the Government knew we were there and did something to improve.  Normally it is terrible!!

The rest of the day was spent on the ship, setting sail across the Banda Sea for our next destination.  We had a couple of interesting lectures, firstly from my favourite naturalist Rod, on Wallacea and the Wallace line, between Sunda (Asia) and Sahul (Australia), followed by one on the Spice trade in the region (did you know the islands used to be known as the Spice Islands) where clove, nutmeg, pepper and cinnamon are all indigenous to a handful of the islands in the Banda Sea – where we were now travelling.

Apparently, nutmeg was thought to have fought off the plague and was so valuable, that the British traded a small island in the Banda islands (Run Island) for the island that now houses New York in the 1600’s!

As we travelled east, we had the first of a number of time zone changes overnight, losing an hour’s sleep 🤦🏻‍♀️.

Dragons and coral …

Flores/Komodo, Indonesia

Oct 2022

Did you know the Indonesian archipelago is made up of over 17,000 islands extending over 5,000 kilometres west to east and crossing from the Indian to the Pacific Oceans.  When I finally board the ship, I will be travelling from Flores right across to the eastern most islands in the archipelago, but in the last couple of days, I have only travelled as far as Flores and Komodo.

The island of Komodo is part of the Lesser Sunda chain and is, not surprisingly, part of the Komodo National Park – and, more importantly, home to the Komodo Dragons, the largest lizards in the world and my main reason for visiting. This island group sits near the Wallace line – a faunal boundary that is a transitional zone between Asia and Australia.  In simple terms, this means it is an area where you can find fauna from Asia and Australia living together which makes it really rather unique.

Endemic to 5 islands in Komodo National Park, Komodo dragons are part of the monitor lizard family (with ancestors from Australia) and can grow up to 3 metres in length.  There are approximately 6,000 dragons left and around 1,700 of those call Komodo Island home.  Our guest naturalist and film makers had some wonderful stories of filming these amazing creatures and the lengths that film makers went to create some of the amazing programmes there are about them. 

There are pretty amazing and can eat up to 80% of their body weight (around 70kg) in one sitting and they can be incredibly patient.  They can attack prey as large as water buffalo and then follow it and wait for it to die from infection that starts around the wound!

And with that preamble, I find myself getting up at 5am (again) for a quick breakfast before being taken by bus 4 minutes down the road (yes, literally 4 minutes) to another hotel with a large wharf where we board 3 large launches, apparently the “best available transport”.  I must say, they were pretty impressive, each with 3 or 4 250 HP outboard motors on the back of them. 

I would like to call the boarding “orgainsed chaos” but really there was not a lot of organisation as we clambered from one boat to the other (as the wharf was only big enough for one boat to moor against it) and then back again when it was decided there was too many people on one of the boats. 

Finally, all divided up between the boats, the safety briefing tells us the capacity is 24 … we had closer to 30 🥴, despite that, we covered the 35km between the islands in around an hour, arriving on Komodo just after another large group despite the early hour.  Komodo is 390 Sq km in size and the dragons who live there have no particular territories.  Also probably worth noting, around 2,000 people share the island with the dragons. 

I had decided to go on the ‘medium’ walk but our first dragon encounter was right in the compound area, not far from the wharf.  In fact, there were two dragons, one of which was a big male which was amazing to see.    As we continued the walk we saw no more dragons but quite a few beautiful birds including a Green Imperial-Pigeon, Yellow-crested Cockatoo, a small raptor (not sure what), Barred Doves, Wallacean Drongos, Black-naped Oriole and a very cool little flying lizard with little yellow throat pouch.

Returning to the compound near the wharf we came across a couple more dragons – this time babies, just 2-3 years old.  Probably about the size of their normal monitor lizard cousins. 

Although seeing the dragons was great, it was sadly not the experience I remembered. In reality, it was never going to be the same with so much development and so many people now coming.  As all the dragons I saw were around the compound, I wonder if they get food from there as there was rubbish everywhere and always large groups of people surrounding them which was not ideal.  There were also a number of shops set up with pretty aggressive sales people who were not happy to take no for an answer which always detracts from any situation, more so when it is supposed to be a remote wildlife experience. Despite all of that, if you are interested in wildlife, I would highly recommend going to see the dragons as they truly are incredible.

From the dragons, we got back on the boat and moved around the island to the Pink Beach –  named for its beautiful pinkish sand … and don’t forget its beautiful turquoise water.  It really was beautiful.  The beach gets its unique colour from Forminifera, microscopic organisms that produce red pigments on coral reefs.  Here on Pink Beach, small pieces of coral mix with the white sand creating the soft pink hue that you see.

It was beautiful, particularly so when the other large group left, leaving just my group to enjoy the beach and waters.  The snorkeling wasn’t amazing but the water was a perfect temperature, and it was great to get a chance to cool down before heading back to Labuan Bajo.

The only scheduled activity for the rest of the afternoon, was the first of a number of talks by Conrad, an expedition staff member who was an history expert, not just of Indonesia but also of the war in the Pacific.  He had such an incredible knowledge and great way of sharing what could be somewhat boring lol.  He was even more impressive as this was only a side gig for him – his day job is Oncology surgeon!!

To end the day, we had been invited to dinner at the rooftop restaurant of a new government built hotel (as we were the first large group to visit the island since covid).  Dining at the Meruorah was like being in Singapore with a beautiful rooftop restaurant and pool overlooking the harbour.  The evening was topped off by us seeing our ship finally arrive in the harbour.    We could still see it from the beach at our hotel – it was so close we all just wanted to get on it now and get moving but no, it was to be another night before we can do that.