3 September 2014

Derawan and the Sangalaki archipelago

On the more quiet side of Derawan
Derawan itself is a beautiful tropical island. But as it's quite easily accessible from the mainland (East Kalimantan) and one of the few islands in the archipelago with a freshwater source, it's also rather densely populated. There is quite some tourism infrastructure and as in similar parts of Indonesia, every second house doubles as homestay or guesthouse. On the downside, the many speedboats and overfishing damage the local reef and leave it severely degraded. Though it is still possible to see corals and turtles when snorkeling.


The other islands of the archipelago are more remote and pristine and feature more attractions. But as an individual traveller, you most certainly spend time here on Derawan to get organized and find company for getting to the outer islands. Prices for boats and cars (on Maratua only) are invariably for the whole vessel. So unless your travel budget is huge, you will want to share.

Snorkeling with jellyfish on Kakaban
I was quite lucky. The day I arrived, I met a Chinese guy who runs a travel agency in Tarakan. He was there with an extended family of 14 people from Semarang (Central Java). They readily agreed that I join them for a day of island hopping and snorkeling. The trip was simply spectacular. We first went from Derawan to Kakaban. Lacking freshwater, Kakaban doesn't have any human settlements. The only infrastructure there is a jetty for boats and a wooden passage to the interior of the island. The beach is beautiful with yellow sand and impressive coconut trees. The reef at the end of the jetty is full of colourful corals and fishes. But the most curious attraction of Kakaban lies deep in the jungle. A saltwater lake full of non-stinging jellyfish. Yes, they don't sting at all. And yes, you can swim and snorkel with them. In the beginning you're quite naturally afraid to touch them. But after a while you start playing with them as you realize they really can't hurt you and they don't mind you bumping into them.

Pulau Sangalaki
After Kakaban, we went snorkeling in the afternoon offshore of Sangalaki, the island that gives the archipelago its name. The reef is stunning. We didn't see anything big, but schools of smaller fishes, corals, anemones, etc. Tired from the water, the sun and the activities, we made just a quick stop on the way back to Derawan at Samana, where you can see beautiful mangroves and hear all the birds singing and competing for the attention of their females. As I joined a big group, I didn't spend a lot of money on this day trip. They only asked me for a contribution of 200'000 IDR (13 EUR).

Dried fish on Pulau Derawan
During the next few days, I tried to go diving around Derawan or anywhere in the archipelago. But this wasn't possible. There are three or four dive operators on Derawan. But either they are block-booked by large groups of divers, or you would have to go alone, which would make the diving trip quite costly. They charge 400'000 IDR (26 EUR) per dive, same as I paid more or less anywhere else too, but as you would have to pay extra for the boat, the costs of a diving day would easily climb to over 1.5 million IDR (100 EUR). I continued snorkeling every afternoon and enjoying the island life, while hoping that a new opportunity would come up. And as always, the patience was worth it. One evening I was talking to some Italians who already had a full boat for the next day. But they directed me to a young British couple, who wanted to go to Maratua and was looking for people to share boats with. As it turned out they already found two Dutch girls, but the speedboat they planned to rent had one more seat. So we shared the 1.5 million IDR (100 EUR) between the five of us.

Baby turtle at the turtle sanctuary on Sangalaki
So a day later, we left Derawan. We stopped at Sangalaki to see the freshly hatched baby turtles at the Sangalaki turtle sanctuary. Driving in and out during low tide, we saw numerous stingrays hurrying away from our boat. A couple of 100 metres from Sangalaki, the boat stopped, and soon we saw why: several huge manta rays where floating in the current. We jumped in with our goggles and snorkels and enjoyed this unique experience. Incredible how graciously those creatures of up to five metres span width can swim. Next we went to Kakaban (again) to snorkel the great reef and the lake with the non-stinging jellyfish. In the afternoon, our captain took us finally to Maratua, a huge coral atoll. As we heard that there are only two villages on Maratua, we opted to go to Bohe Silian as we heard it's nicer and cleaner than Bohe Kut, where we arrived.

Pulau Maratua
Well, Bohe Silian wasn't overwhelming. It's nice and the sunset was great, but it lacks a decent beach and the sea is quite dirty around the village. The locals put us all up in two different homestays just across the street from each other and served us delicious fish for dinner. But apparently, our information about Maratua was wrong. The locals sent us to another village close to Bohe Kut called Bayung-bayung. We all stayed at the only homestay there is and enjoyed the rest of our days. The beach wasn't that clean, but it was at least white sand and the snorkeling from the jetty was spectacular. The jetty ended in a big “pool” fringed with corals and during high tide the turtles came directly next to the jetty so you could observe them from above or go snorkeling with them effortlessly. Diving wasn’t possible as the only resort on Maratua offers scuba diving only to their customers. A policy I'll probably never understand...


Turtle next to the jetty on Pulau Maratua
Staying on Derawan and Maratua wasn't expensive. Homestays and guesthouses charge between 80'000 (5 EUR) and 300'000 (20 EUR) for a room, food is simple and local but tasty. Sharing boats I paid a total of 500'000 IDR (33 EUR) for getting from Derawan via Sangalaki and Kakaban to Maratua and back to the mainland (Tanjung Batu). A fair price considering fuel isn't cheap in this remote part of Indonesia and mass tourism hasn't arrived (yet). And that's as well what I enjoyed most about the Sangalaki archipelago and especially about Maratua: its remoteness and distance to modern civilization and mass tourism. So if you're looking for tropical islands off the beaten track, I think you just found your perfect destination.

More pictures from Derawan and the Sangalaki archipelago

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