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.

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.