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West Papua Diving Holidays

Raja Ampat Tourist Information

West Papua Province and Papua Province are Indonesia's western portion of the huge island of New Guinea, north of Australia, and is home to Raja Ampat, the world's most biodiverse marine region with more recorded fish, coral and mollusc species than anywhere else on Earth. But the renamed West Papua Province (formerly Irian Jaya) is so much more than just this.

Wayag Island, West Papua Province - photo courtesy of Pindito

New Guinea offers unparalleled opportunity to witness peoples only recently emerging from the Stone Age with traditions of cannibalism, which some suspect may even still be practised in the remotest areas today. Besides the obvious attraction of being eaten alive, Indonesian Papua has plenty of interesting things to do and see for those that manage to survive the headhunters' cooking pots.

Wildlife enthusiasts will marvel at West Papua's magnificent natural diversity. There are some 1,500 bird species including the flightless and intimidating cassowary, and David Attenborough's original source of fascination, the beautiful birds of paradise. There are mangrove swamps and alpine heaths, and jungles and wooded highlands harbouring orchids, ferns and carnivorous pitcher plants.

The island of New Guinea is the world's second largest, and the West Papua and Papua provinces makes up a staggering 22% of Indonesia's total land area. Nowhere else on Earth are so many radically different ecological zones packed into such a delimited space (except South Africa of course, but then I'm biased) - mossy montane and submontane forests give way to alpine grasslands, impenetrable foothill jungles give rise to towering, jagged peaks capped with glaciers and snow fields, eucalyptus savannah, peat swamps and brackish mangroves compete for dominance of the lowlands.

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How to Get There

The Indonesian provinces of West Papua and Papua are the western portion of the island of New Guinea, to the east of the Moluccas and Halmahera, and to the north of Australia. If you are diving in Raja Ampat then Sorong is the main gateway to the rest of Indonesia and the world, but Jayapura is the provincial capital. Cenderawasih Bay trips often use the more easterly ports of Manokwari and Nabire.

Visit our tourist information sections for details on how to get to Manado and how to get to Bali.

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Mean lowland temperature is around 27°C all year round. As a general rule expect hot and muggy climates on the coasts and cool to cold weather in the mountain highlands.

In the Sorong and Raja Ampat/Cenderawasih region the most rain falls from May to September, but this is unpredictable and seldom falls for more than a few days at a time in any case.

During the northwest monsoon from November to April, heavy rains fall on the north coast, with the highlands experiencing downpours from December to March. The southwest monsoon from May to October dumps rain on the mountains and leaves the coast relatively dry.

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Sightseeing and Adventure

Possessing such a wide range of ecological zones, it comes as no surprise that Indonesian Papua has such strange and diverse flora and fauna, and this is one of its main attractions. The largest animal here is the saltwater crocodile, thought to be equally likely as the cannibal headhunters to have been the killers of Michael Rockefeller in 1961. The largest land animal is not a mammal but a bird - the ostrich-like cassowary. Most of the indigenous mammals are marsupials (having pouches for rearing young), with the curious hedgehog-like echidna that actually lays eggs! The province also has 1 of the 3 richest concentrations of plant life on Earth.

Jayapura, Papua Province

If all that were not enough then add in the main attraction here of the relatively unspoiled Raja Ampat National Park - the most diverse underwater region in the world. Raja Ampat, or the Four Kings are the main islands of Waigeo in the north, Salawati just to west of Sorong, Batanta just to north of Salawati, and Misool in the south. Dotted around these main islands are hundreds of beautiful smaller islands and islets, with untouched beaches and limestone cliffs, very reminiscent of Krabi Province in Thailand. Not only do these visually stunning islands harbour the greatest number of fish and coral species in the world, but they are reportedly the best place to see the outrageously beautiful birds of paradise in their natural habitat.

The northern and western coasts of West Papua Province are the easiest parts of the province to visit with well developed infrastructure. The oil town of Sorong at the western tip of West Papua is the main airport for the Raja Ampat Islands to the west. Biak Island also has its own airport and has a number of attractions including war relics, coral-filled waters, and fine sand beaches. Jayapura is the provincial capital, and nearby is Yotefa Bay with its spectacle of half sunken WWII ships, beached tanks and landing craft.

Coursing down the centre of Papua Province's cordillera of sharp mountain peaks is the Baliem Valley, home to the Dani, the gentle warrior tribes of the highlands. To discover this beautiful area and its tribal life, there are some good treks around Wamena, the administrational hub of the region, and a 4 day hike from Karubaga.

If on a Cenderawasih Bay trip you are likely to depart or return to either the port of Manokwari or Nabire. Manokwari, on the west coast of the bay, is known as Fruit City thanks to the cultivation of many delicious tropical fruits in the surrounding area. The environs consist of several gorges and mountain slopes, most notably that of Gunung Meja. There are also beaches, lakes and a natural reserve to visit in the area. Manokwari is quite a bustling place, being a major port, financial center, and tourist centre making it a vital part of West Papua.

Nabire is one of the administrative towns in the area of Cendearwasih, located on the coast near the most southerly point of the bay. It is not the most exciting part of Indonesia and is trying to wake up to its potential in terms of tourism as well as natural resources, such as gold. It remains a more local town than tourism destination so going local in terms of food and entertainment are the only options.

The southern coastal region is home to the Asmat tribe is one of the least accessible areas of Papua Province.

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Dining Out, Shopping & Nightlife

Papua is not a "shop-'til-you-drop" kind of place, with big shopping malls crammed full of dining options. Most of the larger conurbations such as Sorong, Biak, Jayapura and Manokwari do have a decent selection of restaurants dotted around the town at very reasonable prices. Shopping options are quite minimal and restricted to souvenir penis gourds, bows and arrows and stone axes, though you may have difficulty getting these through in your hand luggage. Nightlife is similarly restrictive unless you enjoy the company of 'hostesses' from Manado.

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History of Indonesian Papua

Prior to the 16th century and the arrival of the Portuguese, very little was known in the west about this region, but trade with the Moluccan Islands, Timor and perhaps Java existed long before this.

Within a few years of the conquest of Malacca in 1511 by Portugal, New Guinea began to appear in western literature. In 1526, the first Portuguese governor of the Moluccas landed on Waigeo Island in Raja Ampat, and duly baptised the island 'Ilhas Dos Papuas', or Islands of the Frizzy Haired.

After a few years of unsuccessful attempts to discover this fabled island of gold, Ynigo Ortiz de Retes finally landed in 1545, naming New Guinea and claiming it for the King of Spain. Several failed gold explorations followed, but it was only in 1714 that Spain was forced to relinquish 'control' to Holland and England.

The Dutch and English had long been interested in the Papua Province's trade commodities of nutmeg, massio bark, trepang (dried sea cucumbers), tortoise shells, pearls, birds of paradise skins and slaves. The British finally proclaimed a Protectorate at Port Moresby in eastern New Guinea in 1884, the same year as Germany raised its flag on the northeast coast, with the Dutch establishing 2 permanent posts in the west at Fakfak and Manokwari in 1899. The boundaries were settled in 1895 and 1910.

If Papua Province, or Netherlands New Guinea, as it was known then, was ignored by the Dutch, it wasn't by others. Sir Alfred Russel Wallace spent 8 years in the archipelago between 1854-1862. He postulated the bio-geographical boundary dividing Asian and Australasian species, now called the Wallace Line, and was responsible with developing a theory of evolution at the same time as Charles Darwin.

Serious exploration of New Guinea's interior was only begun at the start of the 20th century, when contact with many of the island's tribes was first made. However, it was World War II that finally put New Guinea on the map in western history, when it became a fierce battleground between the Japanese and Allied forces. The final push came at the Bird's Head Peninsula, and this area is now home to some fantastic WWII wreck diving opportunities.

With the end of Word War II came the Dutch hand over of territories to Indonesia. However, conspicuously absent from this list was Dutch New Guinea, which was only ceded in 1969 and renamed Irian Jaya in March 1973. Since then the OPM, or 'Free Papua Movement' has campaigned for independence, and the Indonesian government is still reluctant to open some Papuan areas to tourism.

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The Local People

Papuan tribal village man, Indonesia

Black-skinned, hirsute and frizzy-haired, the Papuan people are very distinct from the other Indonesian peoples. Just when these 'Papuans' (relatives of Australia's aboriginals) arrived here is a matter of conjecture. Also unknown is where they came from. One theory has it that they migrated from Africa, and others believe they evolved in situ.

The most widely accepted dates for earliest man in New Guinea is around 35-40,000 years ago, and they have remained isolated from their Australian cousins for at least 10,000 years.

Even within New Guinea itself, various Papuan groups evolved in relative isolation from one another. This was due to the mountainous terrain but also the states of perpetual warfare that many groups had with neighbours, resulting in New Guinea occupying only 0.01% of the world land area, but contributing 15% of its languages! In Indonesian Papua alone there are 80 different languages spoken by its 1,000,000 people.

Austronesians (Malayo-Polynesians) first appeared in the Indonesian islands around 5,000 years ago, and gradually displaced the Papuan populations over the next 2 millennia. However, they never penetrated into central region, but intermixed with Papuans along the coasts and islands, imposing their languages.

The Papua Province's malarial lowland swamps have sago and an abundance of fish, inhabited by swamp dwelling tribes. The best known of these are the Marind-Anim and the Asmat, infamous for their former headhunting and ritual cannibalism.

In the inland foothills and valleys various tribes practice gardening, pig husbandry, hunting and gathering. In some of the jungle areas, cannibalism is still frequently reported and some groups reject Western influence.

The highlands are home to the various and famous Dani tribes. These are the penis-sheath wearers that farm pigs, and sweet potatoes.

In the isolated Silimo Valley live the Jale tribe. Once again, penis gourds and eating visitors play an important role in their culture, and cowrie shells were an accepted form of daily wage as late as the 1960s (oh, for those days at Dive The World).

Further to the west are regions occupied by pygmy tribes and the Ekari - Papua Province's very own polygamist and capitalist pig-farmers.

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Local Transport

Most places in Papua Province do not have road access so the only option are the regular internal flight services. In the towns there are minibus taxis, which you can join or hire as a private charter.

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If you're keen to explore the world's most diverse waters in the Raja Ampat Islands, then click below to check your options now for:

Be sure to book in plenty of time to avoid limited choice! The best scuba diving vacations are booked by repeat customers who book well in advance to ensure their reservation!

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