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.

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

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.