A house reef, in diver parlance, is a coral reef that you can swim out to. It is also implied that there is accommodation close by on the shore, hence it is the reef of the “house”. Here at Kebe and Fast, we are dedicated to the quest for Asia’s best house reef.
Not only that, but it has to be economical. We are on a budget, and can’t afford the Pulau and Bunaken kind of Conde Naste fantasies. We are so tight, in fact, that we don’t even dive: we snorkel. Grab your mask from a simple bungalow on a white sand beach, wade into the turquoise water, swim out and explore the aquarium colours on the live coral drop-off all day, and then have a coconut curry and a beer, cooled by an on-shore breeze tickling the palm trees in the evening – now that is something to aspire to.
For several years we have been content with the east coast of Koh Tao, in Thailand (see blog Thailand: The Way of Koh Tao). Hin Wong Bay is a relatively secluded spot of large granite boulders and palm trees on an otherwise-overcrowded island. Being only 8 hours away from Bangkok can be a curse. It seemed, however, that as our expectations rose the quality of the site diminished, until last year, with one impinging development too many, we left early, glad to be gone.
The Andaman Islands (blog: Where the Giant Dum Dum Trees Grow), a remote archipelago belonging to India, has cache among divers. Radha Nagar Beach on Havelock Island is probably the most beautiful beach we have ever seen. The one resort that was allowed to build on it is out of our range, but with an idiosyncratic commute on the local school bus, it felt like a “house reef”. Tagging along with a large school of gigantic bump-head Napoleons remains a peak snorkelling experience, and the Elephant Bay reef, reached by a hike through old growth jungle and a mangrove swamp was also wonderful.
Two years ago we went to the Philippines, and ended up at Blue Cove resort (blog: Manila: Palawan: Blue Cove), on a tiny island off of Port Barton. Again, a very beautiful spot, but the reef, which is now protected, has been dynamite-fished, and
is only starting to recover.
Last year we fell in love with Sulawesi (blog: Sulawesi: 10), and the marvelous Togian Is. archipelago. The house reefs on a number of the islands we that we stayed on were abused and disappointing, with Waleakodi, the furthest island, being the exception.
Unfortunately it has been a rough couple of decades for coral reefs around the world, with population pressure and climate change causing massive destruction. Here in Indonesia the situation is critical, but it is an enormous
country with perhaps the most diverse tropical marine environment on the planet. Right now, Rajah Empat, in the far east of the archipelago near New Guinea, is the coveted destination for divers. However, access there is difficult, there is no accommodation, and anyone who wants to experience the coral has to get there on a live-aboard boat.
Not so far from there in the South Molucca group of islands are the Bandas. This was our original destination, but connections from Bali proved to be too expensive and unreliable to suit our schedule this year. As it turns out, 2 of the 3 boats which sporadically call in to Bandaneira are currently out of service. Delays are being measured in weeks.
We ended up going to western Flores, to a tiny island off of the town of Labuanbajo, called Kanawa. There are frequent cheap flight connections from Bali to Bajo – we flew with Sky Aviation for about $60 each (note: delays and cancellations without notice are common, so be prepared to improvise). It’s only a one-hour flight, but if the sky is clear it takes you over some incredible scenery. First there is Bali’s own Mother Volcano, Gunung Agung, followed shortly by the 3 jewel-like Gili Islands off the coast of Lombok. Then we skirt the rice-terraced flanks of 3726 m
volcano Gunung Rinjani. Off the east coast of Lombok we could see another pair of intriguing-looking islands, which turned out to be Gili Sulat and Gili Pentangen, at this point totally undeveloped. Then the flight crosses the large island of Sumbawa, and treats us to a view inside the caldera of 2850m Gunung Tambora, formed in a massive explosion 200 years ago. After Sumbawa the seatbelt sign goes on as we prepare for the approach to Labuanbajo.
We are now over Komodo National Park, eponymous home of the famous “dragons”, the world’s largest lizards. All the softness of Bali has been left behind, and Komodo’s spiky, barren ridges look menacing and forsaken, a fitting place for a prowling reptile that kills by letting the septic pathogens from its bite infect and slowly putrefy its prey, which the dragon follows until it succumbs and dies. Don’t crash on Komodo. The surrounding archipelago of islands and atolls, however, look like medallions of jade set in pearl set in emerald, scattered on the sea. This is where we are going.
There is a sleek new steel and glass airport terminal in Labuanbajo. But it’s not finished. We taxi instead to a crumbling Dutch relic. They lock us inside an airless room with one ceiling fan to wait for our baggage, and immediately everyone lights up a cigarette. I find that by standing directly under the fan the smoke is more or less dissipated, and it is less stifling and unbearable. Two unfortunate employees are in the cargo hold on the blistering mid-day tarmac, tossing bags into a trolley. Then they have to pull it by hand to the waiting room entrance, where everybody shouts and points until their luggage is delivered. On the other side of the waiting room is a glass wall against which every taxi driver in town is pressed, trying to get the attention of potential fares. As soon as the departure door is opened they try their luck inside.
The hotel I have somewhat randomly chosen is only a few minutes away (everything in Bajo is), but the shortest route is the wrong way up a one way street from the airport. Our driver simply backs up against the flow of traffic until we are there, good value, in my books, for the $5 fare.
There are two “resort” islands off of Labuanbajo: Kanawa and Serayu. Serayu, we learn, is closed until May for renovations. The booking office for Kanawa is on Bajo’s sleepy main drag, and we are a little concerned that our accommodation there – at $40/night at the very top end of our scale – doesn’t even have a fan. How will we survive? The heat and humidity here in Bajo levels you like a jackboot. When it starts to rain late that night it is like a pressure valve releasing. And then it rains harder. And then it really rains. And then it pours with such vengeance that we get out of bed and open the door to witness the cracking thunder and purging deluge, pounding down at 100 decibels.
As it turns out, there is no reason to be concerned about Kanawa. The on-shore breezes flow about our bungalow better than any fan could. For ten days we have an idyllic beach-front location, the mask and snorkel waiting on the balcony railing the only incentive to do anything. You have to like a place where you are greeted at the pier by lion fish and sharks in the clear water. Two species, now that I think about it, that are potentially lethal… But no need to fear. The lion fish hang out under the pier, all multi-coloured jutting fins like a carnival costume – you would have to make an effort to touch them and be paralyzed by the toxin in their spines. And the sharks are not only harmless black-VID_00000683tipped “reefies”, but they are only 30cm long juveniles sheltering in the shallow water from the more dangerous predators out there. Of which there are no shortage. Over the days of diving here we see tuna and barracuda and huge rock cod, all, I’m sure, who
would make a meal of what we call the “puppies”. We also have frequent encounters with their full-grown shark “parents”, who patrol the deeper water in a more sinister-looking fashion. Every trip into the water, in fact, yields a new catalogue of sightings including large blue-spotted rays, sea snakes, stone fish, bump-head napoleons, turtles every day, as well as the usual but beautiful big and abundant bat fish, Moorish idols, trigger fish, many species of Nemos, and so much more. But it is the coral which is the real treat. From 30m off of our cabin the colour begins, a fantasy-land of canyons and stag-horn forests, stretching out to the deep blue of the drop-off, live and flourishing, unlike most of the reefs we have seen.
It is an amazing place, but there is a price for being here. In the literal sense, it is expensive: the cost of meals, beer and accommodation is several times what we would pay in most other places. And physically, there are a lot of biting and stinging things out here. After the first couple of days of assault by bed bugs, jelly fish stings, and ant, spider and mosquito bites, Katheryn is taking antihistamines, and looks like a new species of spotted marine dweller herself.
Over all, though, top marks on the house reef scale. There is more research to do before a definitive answer can be given, but that is the task we have unsparingly set ourselves.
Your foreign devil correspondents in Indonesia.