Indonesia: Berastagi, Banda Aceh, Pulua Weh, Bali, Papua Paradise

There was no way we were spending a night in Parapat so we found ourselves a taxi and made it all the way to the volcanic town of Berastagi. Berastagi is a town of 600,000 people living in the shadow of the two active volcanoes Sibayak and Sinabung. Both mountains could be seen smoking and sending broils of sulphuric fumes into the sky. During our stay it was a rare sight to see an Indonesian without a cigarette in his hand but I guess that was in keeping with general volcanic theme of Berastagi, even the ground smoked…

Our hike up Sibayak began as a narrow concrete road through the woods which we followed until we hit a section destroyed by a landslide. Patrick, Erin, Cecil and I then picked our way over and continued on until we found the trailhead. The concrete road extended all the way to the trailhead however, the landslide barred any traffic from there onward so we had a nice kilometer or so of exhaust-free trekking. The trailhead itself was hidden amongst the rocks and piles of garbage and after 15 minutes of searching we were on our way up the winding trail through the bush.

As we walked, the smell of the volcanic sulphur became stronger and stronger until finally we reached the top of a ridge and heard the tell-tale hiss of the active vents. At first, it almost sounded like machinery at work but when we were finally afforded a view, the culprit behind the noise was actually several small holes in the ground spewing a cloudy haze into the air. The sulphur was unmistakeable as the surrounding rocks were coated in a layer of yellow and as we walked up the trickle of water flowing down from the crater, more and more of these vents became apparent.

The view from the crater’s edge was a wide open funnel of rock and vents terminating in a small shallow pool at the bottom. The bottom of the pool was decorated in the names of previous hikers spelt out in rocks just below the water’s surface. As we traversed the crater we began to see trails leading up to a higher set of ridges and potential views of the spectacular variety. After a quick lunch, Patrick, Cecil and I decided to scale the ridges to see what we could see while Erin explored the bottom the crater. We emerged at the center of the ridge and found ourselves face to face with several small piles of garbage and some of the most spectacular view I had seen yet. A look back into the crater yielded a beautiful view of the pool and the rocky mountain peak directly adjacent while a look over the ridge showed the surrounding mountainous countryside. While we were up there, the clouds were in constant movement swirling around the ends of the ridge which added a really cool effect to the hike. After exploring one end of the ridge, Cecil decided to head down while Patrick and I opted to explore the opposite end of the ridge. After a bit of exposed scrambling, we reached the top and looked down along the ridge at where we had come from. The route we chose had the potential for disaster but we took our time and were rewarded with some amazing views of the surrounding scenery and ever-changing cloud formations.

On the way down, we decided to take another route and visit the geothermal hotsprings. After quite the walk through the Berastagi farmlands we finally made it to our destination. Unfortunately, any chance of relaxation in the hot waters was drowned by the loudspeaker blaring some of the sappiest love songs I had ever heard. After about an hour dabbling in the nice warm water, the abuse to my hearing was enough and we decided to catch a van back to the hotel. This was the first major day of exercise I had received in a long time and it felt great afterward!

Most of my entries regarding Indonesia try to illustrate that amongst the chaos and resulting assault on the senses, Indonesia is actually a beautiful country and you just have to ignore the other things. Unfortunately, some things cannot be ignored. That night, our hotel became home to about 40 Medan residents who had come out for the weekend to spend time in Berastagi and cram themselves into what seemed like 4 rooms. Earlier that evening one of the ladies at the hotel told us that the large speakers being set up in the grounds were for the purpose of Karaoke. Seeing the look of terror on our faces at the prospect of enduring another night of karaoke, she proceeded to tell us that the speakers would be shut off at 12 and after that, all would be quiet. This however was not the case. The karaoke was shut down around 12:30, no problem, but the people coming in from the grounds had decided that they didn’t like where the furniture was in their rooms and that the best place to hang out was the walkway right out in front of our doors. They proceeded to drag beds across the floor, stomp and scream until about 8 in the morning when we had decided to get up and get the hell out of there. The terrible night’s sleep had everyone in a bad mood and the hotel worker telling us this was our problem didn’t make matters any better. Deciding not to pay for last night’s excuse for a hotel room, we hired a car a made our way back to Medan to catch a flight.

The short plane trip took us to the town of Banda Aceh on the northernmost point of Sumatra, a town devastated by the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami. When we landed, we were greeted by a super nice tourist information worker (taxi pimp) who found us a ride and accompanied us to the ferry terminal. He was a resident of Banda Aceh when the Tsunami hit and told us all about the damage and loss of life, including his family, that took place during the disaster. As we drove he explained to us that almost everything, buildings, roads and bridges were all brand new and that several monuments had been erected to commemorate the disaster. Although almost entirely cleaned up, several reminders were left behind to illustrate the power of such a wave. One of these, which we didn’t get to see, was a generator ship that had been thrown 3 km inland when the wave struck the coast. By the time we reached the ferry terminal, I was almost sad to say goodbye to this upbeat and enthusiastic individual so we arranged transport for our return journey from the Island of Pulua Weh in a few days.

We decided to take the slow ferry from Banda Aceh to Pulua Weh and after 3 hours of blistering sun and blaring music we arrived. After making a quick stop to grab some supplies, we jumped in a minibus and headed for the beach village of Gapang. Here we found a nice little bungalow and enjoyed some peace and quiet for the first time in a while. We spent the next few days relaxing, and planning flights for the next leg of our journey and even managed to get some diving in!

Patrick, Cecil and I signed ourselves up for a 2 dive excursion with Lumba Lumba dive resort just up the road from our bungalows. I’m glad we did because after that 3 day liveaboard I was starting to get SCUBA withdrawls. After a quick breakfast, we made our way to Lumba Lumba, got our gear sorted out for the day and after a few minutes we were in the diveboat and off on our adventure. Both dives were great and full of life. On the first dive, we found ourselves fighting the current for a bit which eventually calmed down and we saw several eels, one hiding in a massive sea sponge, a Napoleon wrasse and several barracuda. I of course filmed this dive and will be including it in an Indo edit when I have access to my computer at home. Between dives we decided to go for a walk up the island road to the small town of Sabang. Here we ate lunch and after walked out to the pier to be picked up by the guys from Lumba Lumba. Our second dive of the day was at a site called Sulahko’s drift where we floated with the current past several massive morrays both giant and honeycomb and through a series of boulders where on one occasion, I found a blue spotted stingray! Near the end, we reached a small coral garden near the surface and it, being bathed in light, made a great end to the dive day.

The time we spent on Pulua Weh was great but it was time for us to move on. We opted for the fast ferry this time and when we made it to Banda Aceh, it was a straight shot to the airport to buy our tickets. Unfortunately, there was a miscommunication and the tickets we purchased for our flights back to Medan precluded any chance of making the flights Lion Air had booked for us. Even more unfortunate was the fact that this realization only became apparent when we made it back to our hotel room. This added another taxi ride and subsequent hour an half of frustrating hand gestures to get the point across that Lion Air f’d up. When that was sorted, it was time for dinner and the four of us broke down and headed for Pizza Hut… Shameful I know but at this point, I had had enough of stumbling my way through asking for something and the notion of simply pointing at a menu and having something brought to you was too much to pass up!

Banda Aceh is almost entirely Muslim and as a matter of fact, firmly under Sharia Law. Although this did not cause us any form of grief, it had in the past to several travellers and even foreign aid workers unfortunate enough to find themselves on the wrong side of these morality police.

The next day was a travel day and three flights later (Banda Aceh-Medan-Jakarta-Denpasar), we arrived in Bali. This was our first taste of how Indonesian society adapts to the influence of Western vacation seekers. We stayed at Jayakarta Bali resort right on Kuta beach, the main tourist beach of Southern Bali. This place had it all: pools, swim up bars, English speaking staff and even a giant chess board! Unfortunately for Patrick, he got sick and was reduced to a miserable existence of lying in bed and surfing the porcelain bowl while the rest of us enjoyed the sunshine within the walls of the resort.

Bali is a prime tourist destination for people from Australia and towns such as Kuta cater to the tastes of their tourists. Every block was the same: hotel, sports bar, currency exchange and Circle K (7/11 analog). Cecil and I went for a walk one evening and made it down to the Memorial commemorating the bombing that killed 202 people and injured 240 outside of a night club in 2002.

Unfortunately, we didn’t see much of Bali, I’d like to go back as I believe my experience was not indicative of Bali’s potential. We didn’t make it out surfing and we didn’t explore the adjacent island of Lombok nor did we make it out to the Gili Islands! This will all have to be made up for next time! Patrick and I spent most of our time fighting with the internet trying desperately to secure onward flights for our long anticipated dive trip. This took several tedious hours of comparing airlines, flight routes and departure times until finally we found what we were looking for. We decided on a series of evening flights that would put us in Sorong a day before our ferry to Papua Paradise Resort.

We landed in Sorong, West Papua early in the morning and were, all of us, horribly jet lagged from a night of flying and associated time differences. Lucky for us we had made previous plans with Papua Paradise to send a liaison and cab to pick us up from the airport. Romy was his name and he took us on a brief tour of the town and after getting us all squared up with Papua Paradise, we were dropped off at our hotel to await the next morning’s ferry.

Raja Ampat is among the most diverse sites in the world for sea life. It is home to 75% of the world’s discovered scleractina (stony coral) species and is composed of 4 large islands among which, over 1500 small islands are scattered. Papua Paradise is located on Birie Island just north of Batanta and was a 2 hour boat ride from Sorong Harbour. When we arrived, I couldn’t help but stand in awe at the place we were going to call home for the next 7 days. The resort was situated on the Northwest side of the island and consisted of one long line of bungalows extending over the water on wooden piles. We were met at the jetty by a number of resort staff, some of whom would be guiding us on our upcoming dives.

After getting acquainted with some of the dive masters/instructors we were taken to our rooms. Some staff led us and our bags down the sandy walkway under the trees until we reached number 16. Unlike many of the resorts/hotels we had stayed in elsewhere in Indonesia, these bungalows were constructed entirely of a wooden frame covered in thatching to keep the weather out. Ours consisted of one large living room with a small desk in one corner and large dresser at the far end. On the right starting from the door was the bathroom with warm fresh water shower and western style toilet; then there was the master bedroom with queensize bed; and finally a twinshare room with 2 extremely comfortable single beds. Both bedrooms were complete with fans and bug nets. Our rooms also came with free laundry, insect repellent and eco-friendly soap. Also included in the deal was twice-daily housekeeping where, during the morning, the resort staff would make your beds and tidy the living spaces and then again at night, they would prepare lower the bug nets and light mosquito coils.

Seeing as this was our first day on the island and there were no dives scheduled for the day, Pat and I were anxious to get out and do some snorkelling. During the walk in from the jetty, you could look over the side and see juvenile black tip reef sharks swimming/hunting in the turtle grass. These were typically no larger than 2 feet aside from the occasional spotting of the mother who was just over a meter long. You can imagine how stoked I was to get in the water having never seen a shark in the wild! After grabbing a set of flippers we climbed down on to the platform just above the surface of the water and jumped in. What we saw down there only heightened the sense of excitement for what was to come in the next few days. In terms of coral, there were all kinds, soft, table, staghorn and even some fan coral. Several times I spotted the mother black tip swimming on the periphery of my vision and only once did she come close enough for a photo. We saw tons of parrot fish, several types of puffer fish and even a few juvenile batfish living under the jetty. Our brief aquatic excursion was ended with a call to dinner but the 45 minutes we spent poking around in the house reef made it abundantly clear that we were in for the dive experience of a life time.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner were served next to the jetty in the large cookhouse over the water. Here we enjoyed many European and southeast Asian dishes prepared by the resort staff. The food was phenomenal, the best I had had in all of Indonesia and there was so much of it! Enough of the food, let’s get on to diving!

A typical day at Papua Paradise began around 7 am with a rushed, but delicious, breakfast. From the cookhouse we walked to the end of the jetty and boarded the dive boat where the instructors and crew were finishing up the final preparations. This was the way to go diving, no hauling tanks, weights or BCDs, all of this was ready and waiting for us in the boat! We simply jumped on and we were off to a new spot every morning. Typically, we would complete our morning dive and land at a small island or homestay to enjoy a snack and some hot chocolate while recalling what we had seen beneath the waves. When the surface intervals were over, it was back into the boat and out to the next site. We would head back to Birie for lunch and a rest up, allowing Patrick and I to charge our cameras for the next dive. The afternoon would then be concluded with a dive at one of several locations close to Birie followed by another surface interval back at the resort. We would then be given the choice of either a sunset dive or a night dive and upon our return to the resort, an always delicious dinner would be ready.

Patrick and I opted for the unlimited diving option allowing us up to 4 dives per day. This packaged allowed us access to any of the sites within a 10km radius of the resort as well as a trip to the manta ray cleaning station, Manta Sandy. Also available to Paradise guests was the option of day trips to the Fam Islands which we had to pay a little extra for. This area of Raja Ampat was actually a fair distance from our resort on Birie but when we got there, the coral was absolutely outstanding! Out at Fam we dove 2 sites: Melissa’s Garden and Anita’s Garden and, in my opinion, these 2 sites were the best in terms of coral abundance, health and diversity. Although they were not my personal favourites, they absolutely blew me away. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get my hands on a red light filter so the footage of these coral utopias simply doesn’t do them justice. To the naked eye however, it was a veritable rainbow of life ranging from one end of the visible spectrum to the other. Add a few sea turtles, black tip sharks, an octopus, some massive schools of fuseli and barracuda to the mix and you have yourself one awesome day of diving.

My favourite day in Raja Ampat was actually the last one. Although we only had 2 dives that day, they were, in my opinion the most exciting. Dive 1 was out at a place called Paradise Reef and what made this site so amazing for me was its diversity in sharks. Several of the dives we had gone on previously had black tip reef sharks however at this site we were lucky enough to see these along with white tip reef sharks, a nurse shark and even a wobbegong swimming which was apparently very rare. The nurse shark was definitely a juvenile at around 2 feet long and it was sharing a rock with a massive painted spiny lobster! The site was also home to several schools of needlefish, barracuda and a few Napoleon wrasse.

The next site, Wai Manta was just ridiculous… After a brief surface interval we got back into the boat and took a short trip out into the open water where we had previously seen manta surfacing. When we arrived I was astonished by the numbers of manta we could see from the surface. My attempt to count brought me to about 30 of these aquatic giants and at about 15 feet across, these were definitely something not to be missed. I rushed to get suited up and we were off into the somewhat murky waters of Wai Manta. The descent took us to a somewhat sandy bottom and series of large coral boomies. After a brief tour of the bottom and a few glimpses of the 2m black tip we caught sight of the first of many mantas of both white and black varieties… At first it appeared that the murky waters were going to limit our viewing of these cartilaginous fish however these mantas were not shy in any way. Several times while capturing a shot of one near the surface, I would look over my shoulder and see 5 or 6 coming straight at us. They would veer sharply unfurling their cephalic fins on either side of their mouths and drift off into the blue. This happened a number of times, especially near the end of our dive when we were performing the 3 minute safety stop at 5m. I also noticed something I had never seen before in the way the black tip sharks curiosity of us was peaked as we neared the surface. Previously, I hadn’t seen any of these guys come very far off the bottom however this one did so and, as we surfaced, came within about 10 feet of our flippers before returning to the depths. What a cool dive and perfect way to end such and awesome Indonesian experience.

It’s not a good idea to fly within 24 hours of a dive so our last 2 were in the morning and we just relaxed for the rest of the day, snorkelling around the house reefs and caught a boat back to Sorong the next day for our flight to Makassar. Seeing as Indonesia is probably the worst place in the world to organize flights, I was forced to buy my tickets to Bali in the airport which luckily didn’t cause any problems as there were still seats left. The four of us spent our last night together in rainy Makassar before we parted ways in the airport the next morning. It was sad to say goodbye to my friends and fellow Terracites but I’m sure with the way time flies while travelling, it will seem like no time at all before we are all chillin at the lake again. From Bali it it’s onward to Melbourne and from there to the city of sails, Auckland, New Zealand

Thanks and sorry for the ridiculously long read! Until next time.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s