For my first week in Indonesia, my friends Nick and Sharmila had organized a scuba trip to Alor, a truly world-class diving destination. The three of us ended up staying at a fantastically rustic little French resort on Kepa, a tiny scrap of land off the coast of Alor, the last in a long chain of small islands running East from Bali.
The trip from Jakarta involved three planes, two cars, and one boat, and took roughly eleven hours door to door, but it was well worth it. Indeed, the remoteness of the location meant that there were very few other tourists around. Although there is a second resort in the area, we never saw another dive boat and basically had the oceans to ourselves. Nick and Sharmila lamentably had to return to Jakarta for work at the end of the week. I ended up staying a few extra days, and later realized that it had been the longest I’d stayed anywhere in the past three months.
Alor itself was actually bigger than I expected, with one well-built road running from the airport to the main town of Kalabahi, and many small villages in the surrounding hills. Kepa, on the other hand was, was the very picture of a tropical island paradise, practically deserted but for the place we were staying, with pristine beaches, crystal clear water, and fantastic coral reefs on all sides. With family-style meals and accommodation in cool traditional huts, it was the perfect place to spend a week diving, snorkeling, and lazing about.
The scuba diving off of Alor was truly out of this world. I ended up doing ten dives while I was there, and all were fantastic. The most spectacular were giant underwater cliffs, dropping several hundred feet straight down, with huge schools of fish that would completely fill one’s field of vision. I unfortunately didn’t have an underwater camera with me this time, but you’ll have to take my word for it that I saw a sunfish, a seahorse, a jackfish the size of a person, and all manner of bizarre marine life.
To me, everything was new and amazing – giant fields of coral of every imaginable colour, underwater plant life that looked to be taken straight out of a science fiction film, huge snake-like sea cucumbers with mouths beset by tentacles pulling food in at one end, and an endless variety of strange fish, some disguised as rocks, others changing colours before one’s eyes, and some looking as if they had grown ancient beards made from the surrounding plant life.
It turned out, however, that almost everyone else at the resort was a very experienced diver, and most of them were primarily interested in the even more rare and bizarre things, such as nudibrachs – underwater sea slugs that have evolved to live without a shell and display a fantastic variety of patterns and colours. About half the dives were so-called “muck dives”, where the plant life and coral weren’t so dramatic, but where the weird stuff was more likely to be found.
The area was also interesting for the people living on the many small islands in the region. Although many of the islands are quite close to each other, extremely strong currents flowing between them mean that they are relatively isolated. Touring around on the dive boat, we saw a cool mix of watercraft and fishing technology, including a pearl farm and the fishing platform pictured below.
On one afternoon we hired a boat to visit a nearby island called Ternate, (the middle island in the photo below). Ternate had just four villages on it, connected only by walking paths (or by sea). People living there subsisted on small-scale agriculture and fishing, and were able to gain some cash income by selling traditional hand-woven fabric known as ikat to intrepid travellers such as ourselves.
Despite being on such a small and isolated island, the village we went to nevertheless seemed to be quite prosperous, with a functioning well, a soccer field, two schools (primary and secondary), and a mosque. A few hundred people lived there, and almost all the traditional buildings had been replaced by newer cinder-block construction. We received a wonderfully warm welcome, and through Nick’s ability to speak Bahasa Indonesian, were able to learn a great deal about life in the village.
Coming from Jakarta, Kepa truly felt like a different world. It would be hard to imagine a more peaceful place, with the gentle waves, lovely sunsets, passing sea-voyagers in outrigger canoes, and occasional calls to prayer from a mosque on the mainland. The following audio gives an idea of the relaxed feel of the place and the mix of sounds that could be heard:[audio http://www.dallascard.ca/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/kepe.ogg]
By the end of my time on Kepa however, the world had moved on, and I found myself the last remaining guest on the island. Eventually mustering the ambition to rise from my hammock, I pulled myself away from paradise to seek out a new adventure elsewhere in Indonesia.