I doubt there is a more relaxed tropical island in the world than Arborek, a tiny pancake-flat beauty fringed with palms and surrounded by stunning azure blue waters. Metaphorically and physically speaking, this is as far away from Bali as you can get in Indonesia. No cars, no motorbikes, no tacky drunk Australians, no five star resorts, and no erupting volcanoes. My family in the UK were slightly panicked since Gunung Agung on Bali erupted while we were in Indonesia. We were more than 1000 miles away and blissfully unaware of flying lava and freaking out family!
Arborek is less visited than the Raja Ampat islands closer to Waisai. Many tourists give it a miss because of the relative expense of the boat ride from Gam, Waigeo, or Kri. At most they take a day trip. We think most tourists are making a big mistake! This island is an absolute must-see.
It cost us about 800,000 IDR (about $60) for the hour-long boat ride from Kri to Arborek. Bermon, the English-speaking host of Wahranus Homestay on Kri, took us on his family boat. We stayed at the spectacularly located Worisun Homestay on the west side of the island. Worisun means ‘sunset’ and is aptly named since on clear days the sunsets are truly mind-blowing.
The island is home to 200 people divided up into 12 family units. It is less than 1 square kilometer in size and a morning jaunt round the island perimeter will put 1.37km on your Fitbit counter! There are no restaurants, no bars, and the only commercial activities are the homestays, the dive shop, and a couple of small shops selling fresh coconut, coffee, and pot noodles.
A foreign-owned conservation organization, Barefoot Conservation, has a small homestay and dive shop for their army of volunteers on the island. Their compound of earnest laid-back hammock hugging Western youth might hint at the beginnings of a tacky backpacker haunt. However, the ‘inmates’ were serious about their volunteer work and we regularly saw 20-something foreigners down on the reef counting fish and checking out coral health.
The Worisun Homestay cost 350,000 IDR per person per night. This included the by now familiar rustic hut made from local materials, a mattress on the floor, a mosquito net, and 3 hearty meals a day. Issy, the son of the owner, spoke a little English, which made organizing trips out to Fam and transfers back to Waigeo easier.
Arborek is a good base for trips to Manta Sandy and the Fam Islands. It also has a well-run dive shop, the appropriately named Arborek Dive Shop, which is run by the sisters Geeta and Satya. The sisters both speak excellent English and are a good source of local information. The dive shop was busy and from the smiles of returning divers, we could tell they ran a tight ship and knew their dive sites well.
The island is sponsored by BNI, the Indonesian National Bank, and many of the cute picket fences in the village are painted in the bank’s colors. They also sponsor the island’s conservation efforts and have paid for garbage cans, recycling, and eco-aware public notices. Despite the branding, the island has no bank branch or ATM, so plan ahead!
Arborek is being set up as one of the key stops for local tourists in the area and it is a popular destination for dive boats. So, at certain times of the day, the town jetty can get a little hectic. At times the hordes of day trippers, many of whom seem to have little or no experience of swimming, kicked up quite a racket in the water. It is probably best to schedule your own water sports outside of the day tripper window (11am-3pm).
The island is so new to tourism of any kind that most of the signs and new tourist-oriented structures still had licks of fresh wet paint on them! The ranger had me pose for a photo with the new sign painted “The ocean is not a garbage can.” The locals seemed very conservation aware and this was one of the cleaner Indonesian islands we have experienced. Be a good tourist and pack out all any disposables you bring to the island.
So, what is there to do?
We spent most of our time snorkeling around the island and took a trip out to Fam to snorkel at Fam Wall and Melissa’s Garden. We had dived there a few days earlier but it is so spectacular, a return visit was a no-brainer. However, we opted out of a return to nearby Manta Sandy since there was no way a return visit was going to be better than our earlier visit when we saw ten mantas.
Snorkelling at Arborek Jetty
This really is a fabulous spot to snorkel. For the most part, there is very little current. However, on one occasion there was a strong current pulling us west along the shore. Nothing to get too worried about but it caused a few ripples of nervousness for this open water diver who still thinks he can’t swim.
The waters just off the beach are very shallow so be careful when swimming over coral since at times it is definitely within kicking range. There are fish galore but the prize sighting is the large shoal of bumphead parrotfish that patrol the reef early in the morning at the edge of the drop off. Anyone who has read about our previous fishy adventures will know that bumpheads are Laura’s favorite fish. She will chase them around for hours on end marveling at their curious features, languorous swimming style, and large sandy poops.
Yes, sandy poops. Don’t be grossed out by the idea of sandy fish poop. The soft white sand of your tropical island dreams resulted from millions of these anal evacuations! The many species of parrotfish nibble on hard coral, extract the nutrients, grind up the indigestible calcified part, and, well, you know what happens next!
We saw the bumpheads on several occasions and they seemed quite happy to let us hang around. The biggest group we saw numbered more than sixty fish, some of them at least 4 feet long. They didn’t seem to expend much energy early in the morning and barely looked like they were moving. There were sudden bursts of activity when one of the larger fish peeled away from the group, pooped, and joined the rear of the shoal.
All the typical reef fish were all present and correct, we saw a few reef sharks, and on one occasion we saw a manta ray gliding out in the blue. This was the first time I had seen a manta in open water away from a cleaning station. I was very excited!
The coral wasn’t the most spectacular in Raja Ampat but it was certainly beautiful and the most staggering feature was a 30 foot tall coral pinnacle just off the edge of the jetty. This is one of the core areas for diving off Arborek, so there was always a fair amount of activity there in the middle of the day. One of the reasons we would advocate staying on the island is that there were always way more fish and hardly any people off the jetty in the morning just after sunrise. Most mornings we were the only people in the water.
In addition to the fish life and corals, there were also numerous giant clams near the jetty. These odd looking beasts can be 3 feet long and maybe hundreds of years old. Hover over them while snorkelling and peer into their innards. If you are lucky you will see amazing iridescent colors and patterns on the shell lining.
Fam Islands – the return
We had such a fabulous time on our earlier trip to Fam that it seemed a shame not to go again. Issy, one of the guys at the homestay, joined us at breakfast one morning and told us the weather was perfect for a boat ride out there. There were a few ominous looking clouds on the horizon but they seemed to be heading away from Fam. Or, so we thought!
We grabbed our fins, masks, snorkels, and, a life jacket for me and jumped into Issy’s sturdy looking boat. Issy threw in snacks and fresh coffee. One of the boat’s engines wouldn’t start so we settled in for a slower cruise across the waters to Fam. Well, in fact the beginning of the cruise was super slow since the water was so shallow Issy had to lift the engines out and push the boat. This took quite some time but there always some underwater life to keep us occupied. A flat fish here, a blue spotted stingray there.
It tooks us about an hour to get to get to our first stop, Melissa’s Garden. The Garden is just offshore from one of the bigger Fam islands and is centered on three imposing rock pinnacles jutting out of the water. We dropped in right behind the center pinnacle and it was pretty mellow. No currents and the scenes below the surface were utterly sublime. The coral gardens were gobsmacking and there were gazillions of fish of all shapes and sizes. Lots of red anthias, groupers, reef sharks, turtles, napoleon wrasse, and well, you know, FISH!
Swimming between the pinnacles was an altogether different experience. There was quite a bit of current in the channels. My poor little legs were flapping away at a rapid rate of knots. Pity poor Buxton was moving at about a knot a day! I was f&#*ing knackered after 20 minutes and went to hide behind one of the pinnacles. The coral climbing up the rock face was beautiful and all manner of beasties were tucked away in its many folds. Once in a while I swam out into the current- the bigger fish love current and that is the place to be if you want to see big ass fish. After an hour, we signalled to Issy we wanted out, he extinguished his smoke (naturally…he is an Indonesian man after all!), and he floated over and hauled my weary ass out of the briny.
We pitched up at a gorgeous white sand palm-fringed beach and guzzled down a few cups of sludgy Indonesian coffee and nasi goreng (fried banana).
Issy’s prognosis of good weather was beginning to look a little less certain and he suggested we leap back in the boat for the next leg of the trip. Black clouds were heading for us but they seemed far enough away to risk jumping in at Fam Wall. It is a spectacular spot very close in to a cascading wall of karst and palms with a fantastic drop off just offshore. The coral and fish life were again tremendous. However, the black clouds had caught up with us and the wind was whipping up some choppy waves. I mustered as much stiff upper lip as I could with a snorkel jammed between my lips but this was beginning to feel ridiculous. I could barely see the boat for the rain and the current was pulling us a little too close to the jagged karst walls.
Of course, Issy was completely nonplussed by this. He sat in his boat bobbing about in the water nonchalantly puffing on his cigarette! After a few more desperate yelps and waves, he pulled the boat up close and dragged our bedraggled asses in.
The rain continued to pound down all the way back to Arborek. It was slow going with one of the engine was down. But still, better a wet December day in Raja Ampat than a wet day in Seattle!
Of course, this being the tropics, we went from shivering in a downpour to roasting hot in a matter of minutes once we got back to the island. After a quick lunch, we were back in the ocean floating along with a huge posse of bumpheads. Bliss!
Once more, we seemed to luck out on an amazing Indonesian paradise at the right stage in its tourist development. Local life seemed to pass by in time-honored fashion. There was just enough transportation infrastructure to make getting there a breeze. There was sufficient well-kept accommodation and amazing food, which thankfully hadn’t been watered down to so-called Western tastes. We had the homestay to ourselves. It was quiet and extremely laid back. Every patch of land is locally owned. The businesses are all locally run. There is zero chance a big foreign operator will come in and build an ugly-ass five star resort catering to the ugly well-to-do types. There were no cynical shysters trying to fleece tourists for a few rupiah. Let’s hope it stays that way. This is one tiny patch of Indonesian beauty that could do without becoming the next Gili T. And, given its remoteness it surely will not!