Increasing numbers of travellers venture east in search of unique Indonesian encounters. Photo / Supplied
Nick Walton explores Eastern Indonesia with NZ small-ship cruise company Heritage Expeditions, delving into a dynamic landscape that’s only just opening to tourism.
It’s funny how everything else seems so much louder when you’re holding your breath in the bush. The birdsong seems to echo, cicadas become deafening, and every step of a giant, ancient lizard – mere metres away – seems to resonate and reverberate. So it is during our first encounter with one of Komodo’s legendary dragons. Our guide, armed with nothing but a slender bamboo cane and the best of intentions, keeps one eye on his camera-wielding wards and the other on the dragon; its ribbon-like tongue flickering as it tests the air and approaches our group.
The Komodo dragon is the largest species of lizard in the world, growing up to 3m in length. Apex predators, they stalk their prey before attacking with a venomous bite. They’re also one of the main drawcards to their namesake national park, here in eastern Indonesia.
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It’s the fourth day of my fascinating 15-day Heritage Expeditions cruise from Bali to Papua New Guinea, a journey that is not without significance; it’s the inaugural foray of the New Zealand-based expedition cruise company’s new vessel, the 140-passenger Heritage Adventurer. The new vessel is more than double the size of the company’s previous ships and arrives as Heritage tries to play catch up after its Russian Arctic season was cancelled.
Eastern Indonesia is a fascinating destination, with towering active volcanos, countless coral-wreathed islands, a vibrant marine environment, and an incredibly diverse cultural tapestry, it’s slated to be one of the hottest destinations in the world in 2023, with many visitors combining excursions to Komodo – as famous for its diving and pink-sand beaches as it is for its insidious lizards – with time spent in Raja Ampat (more on that in a minute).
I’m joined on the ship by passengers from across the globe – mainly due to the unique birding opportunities the region presents – but the majority are from New Zealand and, having learned on previous voyages the importance of good company, I quickly strike up a friendship with a bevy of doctors and their spouses who regularly travel together and for whom eastern Indonesia has long been on the to-do list.
There’s Quentin and Fi Reeves from Freemans Bay and Tom Mulholland (who has worked as ship’s doctor on previous Heritage voyages) and his partner Dee, and Barney and Pauline, an ever-smiling couple from the Coromandel. We are quickly dubbed the “naughty group”, mainly due to our token Aussie, Phil, an emergency department doctor from Queensland with a razor-sharp wit who delights in yelling out faux complaints about early morning wake-up calls during the evening briefings.
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A few days later we arrive in remote Wakatobi. Indonesia’s youngest regency (the name is a portmanteau of the four main Tukangbesi islands: Wangi-wangi, Kaledupa, Tomia, and Binongko), Wakatobi is another destination whispered by awe-stricken divers and intrepid adventures, and one that, at the time of writing, was only accessible from the sea. The third largest marine park in Indonesia’s expansive 17,000-island strong archipelago, Wakatobi is a World Heritage Site and one Jacques Cousteau described as an “underwater nirvana” thanks to its 750 coral species (compared to 50 in the Caribbean) and 942 fish species.
Heritage Adventurer anchors off the tiny island of Hoga, where the avid birdwatchers among the group delve into the forest in search of island monarchs, grey-streaked flycatchers, black-naped fruit doves and olive-backed sunbirds, while the rest of us don rash shirts and snorkels and wade through dancing seagrass to a mesmerising reef punctuated with chocolate-chip starfish, giant clams, and even a shy banded sea krait.
This is a region that rarely sees foreigners, as is evidenced the next day as our Zodiacs skim through turquoise water bound for Buru Island, where our arrival represents the first international expedition ship ever to visit. On the beach of Pulau Tomah, a tiny islet off Buru’s west coast, it’s standing room only as more than 1000 locals greet us with dancing and singing. Whole families have gathered and more arrive on slender fishing skiffs, their bows slicing through some of the clearest water I’ve ever seen.
Buru is the third largest island in the remote Maluku chain and is home to indigenous Buru, as well as ethnic Lisela, Ambelau and Kayeli people who have migrated over generations to its steep jungle-clad peaks from points across the Banda Sea. It’s a breathtakingly beautiful destination but not one without its darker chapters: Buru was once the site of a vast prison complex that held political prisoners, including writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer, who, refusing writing materials, dictated his acclaimed novel Buru Quartet to fellow prisoners who would write his words down and smuggle them out.
Our journey is packed with truly unforgettable experiences both on and off the ship. When we cross the equator, one of the expedition staff, standing in for King Neptune, slaps a cold fish across the face of the uninitiated. In Raja Ampat’s highly coveted Wayag Island, we cruise Zodiacs through an other-worldly landscape of limestone karst islands that jut abruptly from azure seas, and on nearby Waigo Island, intrepid birders rise well before the sun to venture into the bush in search of red and Wilson’s birds of paradise.
In Manokwari, our first port on the island of Papua, our entire complement ventures by 4WD high into the Arfak Mountains where we follow guides into the primordial rainforest in search of birds of paradise, black-eared catbirds, and the famed vogelkop bowerbird, which builds intricate structures more than a metre high to attract mates.
In serene Cenderawasih Bay there’s the unforgettable opportunity to snorkel with whale sharks attracted to the lights and bait fish of a bagan, a traditional floating fishing platform, and it’s impossible not to be humbled by the size and grace of these gigantic yet peaceful fish, who are now increasingly protected by the fishermen that once threatened their numbers. As the sun grows heavy, we’re warmly welcomed by the tiny community of Kwatisore, where school children perform traditional dances inspired by Papua’s rarest tropical birds. We are among the first foreigners many have seen and the visit hints at the positive influence tourism could have in this remote corner of the Pacific.
Our last stop is in Indonesia and involves a visit to Biak’s brooding Binsari Cave, a haunting chapter in the region’s World War II history where thousands of Japanese soldiers held out against American forces before the extensive cave complex was bombed, leading to thousands of deaths. After West Papua’s remote provincial capital, Jayapura, we visit the communities of Lake Sentani, set against the undulating peaks of the Cyclops Mountains. The lake has 22 small islands, and on one, in the village of Assey, cultural groups perform a series of mesmerising welcome dances to a serenade of kundu drums.
It’s a magical moment and one I hope they will have cause to perform again as increasing numbers of travellers venture east in search of unique Indonesian encounters.
Know before you go: Indonesia
Expedition Length: 18 days (including two days in Bali before departure)
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Best time to go: October-December when the days are cooler. Heritage Expeditions will next offer this itinerary in October 2023
Prices: From NZ$17,695 per person
Weather: September-March is officially the rainy season but the east tends to be hotter and drier so expect tropical weather with afternoon rains and plenty of humidity. Journeys into the mountains require a light jacket
Getting there: Fly from Auckland to Denpasar, Bali via Australia with Qantas or via Singapore with Singapore Airlines. The itinerary includes a charter flight from Madang to Port Moresby where you can connect with Jetstar back to Australia and home to New Zealand. Tariffs include pre-cruise transfers and one night’s accommodation in Port Moresby.
See more at heritage-expeditions.com