We met Asteria, and the traditionally built Indonesian phinisi Silolona, off Sorong, the jump point for any exploration of Raja Ampat. It had been a long journey out from London, via Hong Kong to Bali, then a hop via Makassar on a regional airline across the vast expanse of the Ring of Fire. Three days of travel could certainly be mitigated by flying via private jet to Sorong.
The archipelago comprises four main islands Misool to the south, Salawati and Batanta in the middle, and Waigeo to the north surrounded by more than 1,500 smaller islands and islets. The whole region is almost entirely untouched. There are only a couple of eco-dive resorts on the main islands, and the waters are blissfully traffic-free. In fact, in all the time we were there, we only saw a handful of phinisi-style dive charter boats.
Chartering a yacht here is reserved for a handful of Indonesian vessels Silolona and her new sister Si datu bua being two fine examples of high-end luxury charter with a distinctly and soulfully Indonesian twist. The area offers intrepid voyagers a chance to get away from it all in almost paradisiacal isolation. Thousands of pristine beaches beckon at every turn, and the scenery is simply spectacular.
For those who enjoy snorkelling or diving, the underwater world of Raja Ampat offers genuine magic. The area has been listed as having the highest biodiversity on the planet, with more than 1,300 species of fish and nearly 550 types of coral. The waters are teeming with life, and with everything from simple snorkels off the beach to staggering coral plateaus, there really is something for everyone to enjoy. With such alluring names as Melissas Garden, Nudi Rock, and Blue Magic there are countless dives here that offer something for every level of diver.
Cruising in company with Silolona proved an inspirational experience not only for the guests, but also for Captain Feil, who was able to draw on the local knowledge of Silolona's owner, Patti Seery. Patti has been in Indonesia for 30 years and absorbed the culture and spirituality of the region with a fervour. It is demonstrated not only in her knowledge of the area and its people and customs, but also in the extraordinary soul and passion that was behind the creation of Silolona, built using traditional methods.
Moreover, her son Tresno accompanied Asteria as local guide and proved invaluable to the enjoyment of those of us lucky enough to stay on board.
Navigating in these waters can be a challenge. Anchorages take some care due to the extreme shelving of the seabed in many bays, which can see depths drop from a few feet to 60 metres in the length of a tender. Feil explained, We frequently ran a tender in front measuring depth as we entered the more enclosed anchorages.
But get it all together, and this really is a once in a lifetime experience. We awoke on the second day anchored to the east of Misool, and after breakfast headed for Tomolo, where a network of cathedral-like caves gave us a chance to explore in kayaks. Here, Pattis local knowledge and experience came to the fore as she negotiated with a local chief, who was upset that his ancestral burial ground was being disturbed in spite of the fact that we had clearance to be there.
The following morning we cruised to Wagmab, where the experienced divers headed out for a plunge through underwater caves, while the beginner divers explored a nearby bommie. The maze of limestone islets provide a home for the pygmy seahorse. The crew of Asteria led us through the passages to a small rocky plinth, where the crew of Silolona had set up furniture and a small bar, and decked the rock face behind with dozens of candles.
Day three took us to our first big beach, a giant yawn of sand at Gelu surrounded by turquoise waters the like of which I have never seen before. And then to Kalig, another deserted island and another deserted beach, where the crew of Silolona set up a beach party (complete with daybeds, seats and awnings) and cooked a beach barbecue in a fire pit.
Our subsequent days followed a similar pattern: a stop in the morning for a dive, then a new destination like the beautiful sheltered inlet of Penemu, or the staggering scenery of Wayag; ever attentive crew ensuring that we always had what we needed, and could get to where we wanted.
After a final afternoon spent snorkeling off the island of Wofoh, followed by a traditional rijsttafel (rice table) farewell feast aboard Silolona under the brilliantly star-filled sky, it was with sadness that we prepared for our departure following an overnight passage back to Sorong.