Monday, July 7, 2014

Three weeks of beaches and diving

Sunday, July 6, Lipah Beach, Bali (edited and pictures added in October, 2015)

It’s been a good three weeks since I last posted on my blog, and that has not been due to a lack of travels about which to blog.  Instead, I have barely seen an internet connection worthy of the name, and haven’t had access to a computer until I got back here a few days ago.

When last I wrote, I was in Dili, East Timor.  Some of my faithful readers (take a bow, Hans Westbroek) thought that there was too much existential angst/burnout/mid-life crisis in the last post.  I’m glad to report that three weeks of beaches, diving and relaxation have put me in a much more positive (and, for me, more usual) frame of mind.  I am about as relaxed and happy state of mind as I have been for the past 10 months.
Michael and Pyae Pyae
When I left Dili, on June 13th, I flew to Bali to meet Terri.  I had hours to wait until her flight arrived (she was in New Zealand, visiting her family), so I arranged to meet up with a former colleague from my Yangon days, Michael, who has just finished 4 years of working at the Bali International School.  It was great to see him and his Burmese wife Pyae Pyae again, and to meet his young son Kevin for the first time. He is off to work in Shenzhen, China; international school teaching is so itinerant that I always seem to be meeting former colleagues in new and exotic locales.

The view from Terri's place in Lipah.
When Terri arrived, we took a taxi up to her place here in Lipah Beach, in the Amed area in the northeast corner of Bali.  She bought her house here four years ago, and has visited it numerous times, but this was the first time for me to visit it.  I was a bit skeptical of how much I would like the area (I have not been the biggest fan of Bali in the past), but it has proved to be an amazing location.  This corner of the island is a bit of a backwater, off the main road and not disfigured by huge hotels and masses of foreigners.  It’s a dryer bit of the island, and not suited for rice growing, so it’s not what we think of as typically Balinese (stepped rice terraces glinting green in the sunshine).  The tallest mountain on the island, Mount Agung, towers malevolently over this area (its last eruption, in 1963, killed over a thousand people), although it’s usually shrouded in clouds by mid-morning.  The coastline is a series of tiny horseshoe bays of black volcanic sand with steep hills rising behind.  The beaches are covered in the small outrigger sailboats, jukungs, so typical of Bali, with their colourful sails furled along their bamboo spars.

Terri’s house sits up a hill maybe 25 vertical metres above the ocean, but so close that I can hear the roar of the incoming surf and hear the local boys playing soccer on the beach.  There are a number of smaller hotels scattered along the road, but much of the village consists of Balinese villagers’ houses, many of them in the process of being improved with the proceeds of working in tourism.  Every morning a small armada of fishermen set out in their jukungs to fish with hand-held longlines for tuna, barracuda and mahi-mahi.  It’s tourist season now, and there is a steady increase in the number of white faces on the beach and in the shops and restaurants, but it’s far from being the crazed frenzy of Kuta Beach.  Instead this area seems to cater to a quieter crowd, including a number of long-term Bali residents who have built houses straight out of the pages of Architectural Digest on the headlands between the bays.  The water is warm and good for swimming, and parts of the bay have coral in excellent condition.
Colourful sailboat off Lipah Beach

An added attraction is that about 20 kilometres up the coast is the diving mecca of Tulamben, where one of the most famous shipwreck dive sites in the world, the USAT Liberty, is located.  On our second day here, Terri and I went diving there, exploring parts of the huge WWII transport ship that was torpedoed by the Japanese in 1942.  It’s a very intricate dive area, full of holds and holes and rusted-out floors to explore for both big and small sea life.  It was our first dive in over a year, since our Maldives trip, and so it was a little bit of a readjustment, but great fun.  I would like to go back and do some more exploration someday.

Relaxing over breakfast on the terrace at Lipah
Mostly, though, for the three days we were in Lipah we swam, ran, walked into the hills to visit Terri’s teak trees and the village houses of the family with whom she works here in Lipah, and ate well.  The views from the terrace looking out over the bay, where I am sitting now in the late afternoon light typing this blog, are spectacular and lend themselves to lots of lazing about with a Kindle, or sipping a nocturnal whiskey before bed while watching the stars dance over the ocean.
Terri, teak tree owner

Terri with her housekeeper Luh, Luh's husband and son

On Tuesday the 17th of June we finally tore ourselves away from this paradisiacal existence and headed back along the three-hour drive to the airport.  We caught a flight to Makassar, the main city on the island of Sulawesi, and then another turboprop flight to Luwuk, an island on the eastern peninsula of this starfish-shaped island.  We got in at sunset and decided to make one long day of it and hired a minivan to drive us seven excruciating, bone-crunching hours to Ampana, the ferry terminus for the Togean Islands.  It was a hellacious experience, with our driver living out his Paris-Dakar fantasies as he squealed tires around curves, slalomed between huge potholes and hammered over frequent gravel sections, accompanied by a horrible soundtrack of Indonesian techno music that got louder as time wore on.  We got to Ampana at 1:30 in the morning and fell into bed instantly.

Kadidiri's pier
The horrorshow on the road did save us a full day of travel, though, as we caught a ferry at 10 am the next morning to take us to the Togeans, an almost mythical backpacker favourite that had been on my to-visit list for the past 18 years, since my first visit to Indonesia.  By 2 pm we were disembarking in Wakai, the unappealing main city of the archipelago, and hopping on a speedboat to take us to Kadidiri Island, our home for the next five days.  We checked into the Kadidiri Paradise and settled in for some fun, relaxation and diving.
Terri on the pier at Kadidiri
Paradise has a great location, looking out over the Gulf of Tomini, surrounded by extensive coral reefs and good diving sites, and blessed with spectacular sunsets seen from the long pier.  We did some good diving there over three days, first in the immediate vicinity (lovely coral walls but distressingly little big fish life and no turtles), then around the nearby volcanic island of Una Una (much better, with a big school of barracuda, although still no turtles, sharks or mantas), and then the highlight, the wreck of a B-24 bomber from World War Two that made an emergency landing on the sea back in 1945.  It was a spectacular dive, with the aluminum of the plane not rusting and allowing all the features of the plane to be easily spotted.  The machine guns on the upper turret looked almost ready to fire, while the instrumentation in the cockpit was still intact.  Even the propeller on one of the four huge engines was still in place, as were the huge vertical tabs on the enormous tail.  Lots of fish life, lots of history and atmosphere.  On the way back we stopped and did a muck dive, looking for interesting critters, and saw robust ghost pipefish, a baby frogfish, a mantis shrimp, a snake eel and a plethora of nudibranchs.
Knobbed hornbill
On land, I was happy to see lots of interesting tropical birds, including a pair of knobbed hornbills who put on a great morning display for Terri on her birthday, and lots of colourful lorikeets.  The snorkeling was excellent, and our sunset viewing was second-to-none.
Kadidiri sunset
Although the dive shop was well run by Emmi, an irrepressible Finnish dive instructor, the same could not be said for the hotel, which lacked a manager on-site, was woefully understaffed and ran a bit like Fawlty Towers. The restaurant, in particular, was pretty mediocre.  After we had finished our days of diving, Terri and I decided to head to another island, Fadhila, to have a change of scene.  We chartered a boat and on the way we stopped off to snorkel with stingless jellyfish in a small salt-water lake.  I had done something similar in Palau back in 2007, and really enjoyed the spooky experience of being surrounded by literally thousands of pulsing orange jellyfish.  Terri was less taken, however, and was convinced that her subsequent ear infection was thanks  to the murky, stagnant water of the jellyfish lake.

Heading off from Kadidiri to Fadhila
Fadhila was a breath of fresh air, literally, after the windless, mouldy sweatbox of Kadidiri Paradise.  Set on a breezy peninsula, the rooms were clean, cool and perfect for sleeping, with hammocks for reading in the constant sea breeze.  The snorkeling was great, and there was an outrigger canoe that we could borrow to paddle around the island, flying over the extensive coral gardens that fringed the island.  The food was excellent, and there were interesting fellow guests to talk with at dinner.

Terri swimming at Fadhila
The excellence of the hotel, however, was offset for us by the incredibly painful ear infection that afflicted Terri right from our arrival on the island.  By the end of our four days, she was crying with pain and her ear, along with the entire side of her face, was a swollen, red, angry mass.  She was in such pain that we worried that her eardrum might rupture.  She lived on a steady stream of painkillers and somehow managed to hold on until we could get to the city of Gorontalo on a night ferry and get to a hospital.  The hospital was a positive experience, as it was efficiently run, incredibly inexpensive (about 11 US dollars for a consultation with an ear, nose and throat specialist and three different sets of pills).  The pills took almost immediate effect, and Terri was reassured that as it was an infection of the outer ear, neither flying nor diving should have any adverse effects.

Relieved both physically and psychologically, we flew off the next day, Saturday, June 28th, for our next diving destination, the Derawan Archipelago.  We caught three successive Lion Air flights (back to Makassar, over to Balikpapan and then a turboprop to tiny Berau), although my backpack didn’t make the last flight and we had to wait for its arrival while feasting on an excellent lunch in Berau.  Then came a two-hour drive past a monstrous coal mine (the reason for the existence of the airport), lots of slash-and-burn agriculture and plenty of palm oil plantations, before a boat ride took us out to Derawan Island and the Derawan Dive Lodge, our home for the next four nights.

I had first heard of the diving in this area back in 2005 when I was doing a divemaster course on Bunaken Island, north Sulawesi.  Some of the customers of the dive shop had dived on Sangalaki a few months before and had raved about the turtles and manta rays.  I had kept it in mind over the years, and when Terri and I decided to travel through Indonesia this summer, I looked into diving.  Sangalaki’s one resort closed some years ago, but dive operations on Derawan and on Maratua islands still visit it regularly.

Looking pretty happy with the diving!!
The three days of diving we had while staying at DDL were some of the best of my entire diving career.  Amazingly Terri’s ear was back to normal by the time we got to Derawan We started with a day on Kakaban island, drifting along amazing vertical coral walls in search of pygmy seahorses, of which we saw two, tiny creatures a few millimetres long hidden in huge gorgonian sea fans.  We also managed to see a black-tip shark and a large leopard shark resting on the bottom, along with a couple of turtles.  Between dives we also visited another jellyfish lake (Terri lasted a few minutes, but then retreated to the ocean to snorkel).

The second day the diving only got better at Maratua Island, with tons of turtles, a couple of big eagle rays and an incredible blizzard of barracuda hanging out in the crazy currents of a channel that drained Maratua Lagoon.  It was Terri’s most exhilarating dive ever, flying at the end of a tether attached to a reef hook, surrounded by huge masses of barracuda.
Coming home from our manta encounter
It was all just a prelude to the third day, when we finally dived legendary Sangalaki.  The day started perfectly as I saw no fewer than 13 big turtles from the bow of the boat as we passed over seagrass beds near Derawan.  The day was all about manta rays, and when after two dives we had only seen one, I was a bit downcast.  While we were eating lunch on the boat, though, Terri spotted fins breaking the surface not far away, and we realized that mantas were circling right at the surface of the water.  The dive that followed was absolutely incredible, with us sitting on the sandy bottom and watching as massive manta rays flew past and over us in all directions.  At times it was impossible to know where to look, as there were mantas coming in from three different directions.  At least six individuals (and probably several more) made between 30 and 40 passes, leaving us utterly awestruck.  Even at the end of the dive, as we hung on reefhooks in a channel doing a safety stop, a manta ray appeared beside me, hung motionless in the current for a while and then suddenly vanished as another manta flashed aggressively past him.  We came up grinning from ear to ear, completely blown away by the experience.  Finally, to cap it off, we encountered a big school of dolphins as we motored back to Derawan.

I was utterly impressed by the marine life on display around Derawan.  Even though it’s expensive to get to, expensive to dive and expensive to stay, I think Derawan was worth every penny.  I have never seen so many big, old green turtles in one place as I did just off the beach of the dive lodge.  The mantas and barracuda were incredible, and the general diversity and quantity of big fish was impressive.  I would rate it up there with Sipadan, Palau, the Maldives, Bunaken and Lembeh Strait as one of the premier dive sites in all of Asia (and hence the world).

Sean and I reunited again in Lipah
Then, sadly, it was time to tear ourselves away, backtrack to Bali and spend another four idyllic days here in Lipah, two of them in the company of my friend and fellow nomad Sean.  Indonesia is the sixth country in which we have crossed paths over the years (France, Switzerland, Japan, Egypt and the UK being the others) and as always it was great to bounce ideas off his hyperactive mind.  He arrived here expecting a small shack in a teak forest and was utterly seduced by the beach, the views and the house.

Wandering the rice fields around Ubud
And now it’s time to end this narrative, go find dinner and pack for a couple of days in Ubud before I head east, far east, to the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea.  Life is good, and travel is having its usual therapeutic effects on my until-recently-overstressed mind.

Ubud Jazz Cafe

Peace and Tailwinds


Seminyak Beach and its pounding surf
PS  (October 2015) Terri and I did go to Ubud, where we spent a very relaxing day wandering the rice fields outside town, and a great evening listening to jazz in the Jazz Cafe.  The next day Terri flew back to Switzerland, and I spent a day in the mass-tourism ugliness of Seminyak (redeemed only by its pretty surf-pounded beach) before flying off to the Solomon Islands.  I've added a couple of pictures from Ubud and Seminyak.