Seeking lifelong memories – and abundant childcare – Stewart Campbell sets sail with his brood on board 51-metre Dunia Baru in Raja Ampat
The shark cruised lazily into view, coasting just above the soft corals with a disarming lack of interest in the startled divers hovering nearby. We had been told an encounter with a blacktip was likely in the fauna-rich waters of Raja Ampat in Indonesia but still, it’s a shark. We’ve all seen Jaws. And this was only our second ever dive. Beside me, my 10-year-old daughter flashes the “OK” sign and we watch as the predator continues on its serene passage into the murky distance and out of sight. Years of culturally absorbed shark-fear disappear with it and we all start spinning around, desperate for another opportunity to swim within a few kicks of a toothy native.
Under the calm instruction of our PADI-certified cruise director, Clive White, we continue exploring the mind-boggling diversity of life at this dive site in the Wayag Archipelago. Commercial fishing is banned in the Raja Ampat Marine Park, with the result that life abounds: schools of fish of impossible colours; vast coral structures hide – to the delight of my children – Nemos, Dorys and the occasional spiny lobster; stealthy barracuda hug the ocean floor; and, if you’re lucky, the shadow of a manta ray looms from the depths like some science-fiction behemoth. “I’ve dived the Barrier Reef and all over the Pacific, and for tropical diving Raja Ampat is the pinnacle,” says White. “It’s where the Indian and Pacific Oceans meet, so you get lots of current and nutrients in the water, which is very healthy for the coral. It just doesn’t come much better than this.”
It’s reassuring to know we’ve started our scuba careers at the very top – and, fittingly, on one of the finest phinisi yachts available to charter in Indonesia. We had joined 51-metre Dunia Baru in Sorong four days previously. This city is the gateway to the entire Raja Ampat cruising area, so it’s hardly surprising to find the owners of the Southern Wind sloop Ammonite on the same flight in from Bali.
For the Campbells, it had been a sapping journey, from London via Bali, with four kids in tow – aged 10, seven and four-year-old twins. But we knew, having experienced an Indonesian charter before, that a boatload of babysitters awaited us; Indonesian crew will quickly adopt your children. They become family.
There’s a who’s who of charter phinisis waiting for their next customers at anchor in Sorong, but Dunia Baru stands out from them all. She’s fresh from a four-week maintenance period and her heavily varnished ironwood hull gleams as we approach in the chase boat. After settling in, White lays out the week’s programme as we slip out of the anchorage. Our route will take us on a “best of ” tour of the region, over seven nights and covering 370 nautical miles. From Sorong, we’ll head south to Misool, before turning north to Wayag and looping back around to Sorong. The big passages – at most 10 hours – are done overnight so each morning brings a new postcard backdrop for breakfast. But first – a swim, to wash off the flight. Shortly after leaving Sorong, we stop at a tiny rainforest island trailing a wake of pearly beach.
The kids all slip into superyacht life with worrying ease. This, I’m keen to remind them at every opportunity, is not the new normal and fortunately there are opportunities to keep their feet on the ground. We stop at the tiny barefoot village of Sauwandarek on the island of Mansuar, site of the future Dunia Baru Learning Centre, a project initiated by the yacht’s owner, Mark Robba. The centre will become a place of learning and teaching for villagers and passing yachts, with a focus on preserving Raja Ampat’s unique habitats and developing local skills. The whole village turns out for our visit, with a chorus line of schoolchildren marking our landfall with song.
We visit the school and hand out supplies and soon our four are lost in the tangle of kids playing on the beach. It was an encounter like this that inspired Robba to build the learning centre here: “My six-year-old son had such a great time [in Sauwandarek], snorkelling and playing with the children – it was special, and such a beautiful place. To have an ongoing connection to this village has my family and me very excited.” He now hopes to roll out the project to other nearby islands.
The logistical challenge of this will be immense, since there are thousands of them. Topographically, too, this is an extreme location. Our previous Indonesian experience was in Komodo, which is much more arid and far less vertical.
In Raja Ampat, some islands jag up from the perfect sea like giant stalagmites while others look as if they’ve been flicked randomly across the seascape like paint from a brush. All are covered in deep emerald jungle. This is certainly the case in Misool, one of the four main islands in Raja Ampat, which we reach after an overnight passage from Sorong. Cruising down the narrow channel between the islands of Papua and Salawati the evening before, we had spied natural gas towers flaring over the rainforest canopy in the dimming light, but it is an entirely different industry – pearl farming – that seems to dominate in Misool . Ramshackle villages on stilts sit in the shallow waters, housing hundreds of workers who spend months at a time tending nearby oyster beds.
We stop at one of these villages briefly to pick up some guides for our first adventure – swimming through a vast cave structure called Tomolol. The cave mouth yawns open before us and the children are initially a little fearful about swimming into it, but clever Clive arms them with waterproof torches and soon they’re paddling forward. Around the first bend, the light vanishes completely and the ceiling is so far above us that the torch beams fail to reach the thousands of bats we can hear shuffling in the darkness. It’s like being in a giant sensory deprivation tank.
We dive for the first ever time on our third day. Anyone over 10 is able to do a Discover Scuba Diving course with a PADI instructor, of which there are two on board. After a 30-minute briefing on the mothership, we’re speeding in a RIB to a gently shelving reef in the Boo Islands. I had always assumed learning to dive required hours in some featureless local swimming pool and too many Saturdays given up to theory – so I was very happy to discover I could be breathing underwater for the first time in coral heaven within an hour of someone saying “Would you like to dive today?” The course doesn’t contribute to a PADI qualification, but it gives you a solid grasp of the basics. Emma, our 10-year-old, is hooked immediately.
The highlight of our week underwater comes in Penemu, home to Melissa’s Garden, one of the world’s best dive sites. The current around the outcrops that mark the site can run a little strong, so Emma misses out, but my wife and I are keen to explore. Ten metres down the coral reef explodes into life – sea snakes, rabbitfish, lionfish, barracuda and sharks all proliferate. It’s the only place we dive where we’re running into other dive groups, but the coral area is so vast it’s easy to drift off into your own world. We’ve got an hour of air; it’s not enough.
At each location we see other boats but they’re never within shouting distance. In Wayag, where the water is so clear the RIB bobbing a few metres o the beach looks like it’s floating in thin air, we exist in perfect isolation. There are so many corners to hide a boat among the scattered islands in this little archipelago that no one needs a neighbour. Here, at the ranger station, we’re back among the sharks as baby blacktips circle our feet in a metre of water. When we get back on board, the crew, as ever, are lined up and waiting with towels and freshly made juice.
Flavour turns out to be a big part of our charter – these are, after all, the spice islands. Chef Nyoman, who worked in the kitchens of Bali’s best hotels before joining the crew of Dunia Baru, uses them to perfect a true fusion menu – one night it’s local rendang curry, the next it’s a more traditional British beef dish. Each is superb, with presentation to match anything I’ve seen in the Med. There’s so much variety at breakfast each morning that you leave the table feeling a little guilty at the dishes you’ve left behind.
If an hour underwater isn’t suffcient in each of the dive sites we visit, a week isn’t enough to experience all the cruising Raja Ampat has to offer. On our last afternoon we hoist the considerable rig and sail right into a nasty squall, which requires the crew to almost immediately drop sail in the pouring rain. It was the only ruffle – and a mild one at that – in what had been a dreamy week. Actually, there was one other – the fact we couldn’t return home with any of the crew who had taken such superb care of the kids.
Dunia Baru is available to charter in Raja Ampat and Komodo with 37south yachts, from $13,500 per night.