With a new international terminal at Kalimantan’s Berau airport in Indonesian Borneo opening in April 2012, newly proposed routes from Kuala Lumpur and Singapore may soon make the Sangalaki Archipelago – a group of desert islands off the east coast of Borneo – easier to access.
Located in the Sulawesi Sea on the coastal shelf of East
Kalimantan, these islands have powder-fine beaches, lush interiors and
mysterious lagoons with stingless jellyfish. Explore this hidden paradise before
the inevitable rush of tourists.
Derawan is a fishing island about three hours by speedboat from Berau that has
developed as a dive resort. Stilted guesthouses suspended over turquoise water,
manta rays with seven-metre wingspans and friendly locals are all part of its
charm: this is an island that time forgot.
The pace of life here is bucolic and unhurried, and four
days can easily turn into a week. Wander the tear-shaped island’s sandy streets
and mix with the genuinely welcoming and curious locals over some ikan bakar (grilled fish), before
stepping over a six-foot monitor lizard to watch the sky ignite with a
Take a room at any of the basic, wooden guesthouses, and head
straight to the sea. The reef has been decimated in parts by dynamite fishing, but
you will still find a huge amount of underwater life, with a smorgasbord of cuttlefish,
octopus, pygmy seahorse, scorpion fish, clownfish and giant green turtles.
Savvy divers head here from all corners of the world,
lured by the extraordinarily rich marine life. Derawan Dive School offers diving around
the island, as well as diving and snorkelling forays to the nearby islands of Maratua,
Sangalaki and Kakaban. The budget traveller should try guesthouse and dive
outfit Losmen Danakan (west coast of Derawan Island; 086-8121-6143) who run
cheaper, local dives. Not to worry if you are not diving with a tank; free
diving down a reef wall beside giant green turtles and manta rays is just as
Multi-coloured Pelangi Guesthouse (west coast Derawan
Island; 081-347-807-078) has basic rooms with balconies jutting out into the Sulawesi
Sea for around 183,000 rupiah a night, and can organize diving boats or lend
you snorkels and fins. If you are looking for something more upmarket, Derawan
Dive School has several high luxe cabanas with polished wood floors and air
conditioning for around 300,000 rupiah.
Up until 2002, the vast majority of turtle eggs laid on the island were
collected by locals to sell, representing a major source of income outside of
fishing. But thanks to the World Wildlife
Federation partnering with the islanders, the beaches where hawksbill and
green turtles lay their eggs are now fully protected.
Over the last 10 years, turtles have been tagged, and the
volume of eggs they lay has been carefully monitored. If you want to get
involved during your stay, head to Losmen Danakan, where the Turtle
Conservation Group is based.
You will be able to accompany the wardens and other volunteers
on their evening vigil for poachers – and if it is full moon, you will be able
to watch mother turtles lumbering from the shallows and up the beach. This new
eco initiative is already paying dividends, with turtle populations stabilizing
and providing a steady income for islanders through low-impact tourism.
minutes away by boat is the uninhabited and stunningly beautiful Sangalaki Island,
where manta rays flock in numbers for the plankton-rich waters. As they flap
and soar through the sea, these giants of the deep are as mysterious as they
are alien, often staying for a week before vanishing. Alleged cyanide fishing has depleted their numbers, but reports of
seeing them are regular.
If manta rays do not pique your interest, a 10-minute
boat ride away from Sangalaki Island is Kakaban Island, where a brief walk from
the jetty to its interior brings you out by a lagoon where you can swim with
non-poisonous jellyfish. With no direct predators, over thousands of years
these creatures have lost their sting.
Maratua, another island in the Sangalaki Archipelago, has
even greater numbers of non-poisonous jellyfish in its lagoon, as well as a
very strange coral reef. Spectral fluorescent spires and swaying technicolour
starfish loom out at you as thousands of jellyfish brush up against you in the
chalk-green waters. Maratua and Derawan are the only habited islands in the archipelago,
and an airport is planned on Maratua for 2013. This would make access even
easier, although it is being contested by environmentalists looking to protect
the resident hawksbill turtles.
A 10-minute boat ride across the turquoise waters from Maratua
brings you to Nabucco Island
Resort, a boutique hotel set on its own island amid sand spits and trippy
rock formations. Most of the guests to its flower-filled grounds spend little
time in their luxury cabanas or the excellent restaurant; they are too busy
heading out with the hotel dive school to nearby Barracuda Point, searching for
hammerhead sharks, tuna and barracuda.
you come to these islands as a traveller on a budget or a dedicated diver, the
feeling is the same; exhilaration matched with a sense of discovery, for
paradise never lasts forever.
The article 'Derawan Island and the Sangalaki Archipelago' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.