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Diving and sightseeing in Indonesia

By on April 25, 2021 in Travel with 0 Comments
Clownfish and anemone hideout, Bali.
Green Sea Turtle,  Komodo National Park.

Story and photographs 

by Jeff W. Radford

As our flight makes its final approach into the Denpasar airport, I can make out the oval-shaped Bukit Peninsula on Bali’s southernmost tip. 

Including the drive to SeaTac and a five-hour layover in Taipei, my friend Eric and I have been traveling for nearly 28 hours to get to this Indonesian island, and we’re experiencing that giddy feeling that comes with sleep deprivation and the excitement of a new adventure.

I took up scuba diving in 2015 — and by the time of this trip, in 2019 — I still considered myself a novice, and Indonesia would be my first big diving challenge. 

Lying in the Coral Triangle, Indonesia is infamous for its strong currents, and equally famous for having one of the healthiest and most diverse marine ecosystems on the planet. 

We muddle through an endless customs line and make our way to an outdoor rendezvous with our hosts, who manage a small homestay in Padang Bai on the east coast of Bali. 

The very first things that assault your senses are the heat, humidity and traffic; the latter of which we came to fondly refer to as controlled chaos. Any thoughts of renting a car or scooter, especially in the urban areas, were quickly extinguished. 

Explorer Jeff W. Radford

We’ve chosen to avoid the crowds and tourist frenzy of the Bukit Peninsula, and have set our sights on eastern and northern Bali and the island’s central highlands. Eric (a wildlife biologist) and I (an RN) prefer to travel off the beaten path rather than lingering in areas overrun by fast food franchises, designer shops and other impositions of modern culture.

On our way to Padang Bai, Eric and I hit an ATM machine to get some cash. With a fluctuating conversion rate of roughly 14,700 Rupiah to 1 US dollar, we each exchange $200 and are instant millionaires!

Padang Bai quickly became our base for the next 12 days. The town is a unique mix of small-scale fishing village and fledgling tourist center. 

From Padang Bai we made several dives, the most memorable of which was on the USAT Liberty wreck in Tulamben. 

After being hit by a Japanese torpedo in January of 1942, the Liberty was towed and beached at Tulamben. In February of 1963, a massive eruption of the nearby Gunung Agung volcano and its ensuing tremors nudged the ship into its shallow, watery grave where it lies today. 

The Liberty is arguably the most popular and well-known dive site on Bali, offering a unique mixture of human history and a remarkable variety of coral, anemones and myriad fish species. We were fortunate to dive this wreck both during the day and at night.

During our time in Padang Bai, we also visited Ubud in south-central Bali. The town and its surrounding area is largely regarded as Bali’s cultural, religious and artistic center. Ubud’s high concentration of museums, temples, art shops and galleries, along with a vibrant “foodie” culture, scenic vistas and yoga retreats make this area one of Bali’s most popular destinations. 

The controlled chaos on the streets, largely dominated by the ubiquitous 100-150cc “step-through” scooter was perhaps more apparent here than any other place we visited on Bali, making Ubud an ideal walking town. 

A large portion of our time here was spent at the Ubud Monkey Forest, a learning center and 27-acre sanctuary for the Balinese long-tailed macaque. The forest, with its labyrinthine trails, boasts 115 species of plants and trees, several small temples and a population of roughly 1,000 monkeys. If you like monkeys, this is the place to go. 

After 12 days of diving and exploring eastern and south-central Bali, it was time to move on. 

Hiring a car and driver, we made our way north up through the central highlands en route to Pemuteran on Bali’s northwest coast. The highlands are truly mesmerizing; offering cooler temperatures, photogenic terraced rice paddies, scenic waterfalls, volcanic landscapes and a vibe that is different from that of the coast. 

Taman Ujung Water Palace. Bali.

While exploring this area, we stumbled on a small farm producing the unique, expensive and controversial Kopi Luwak coffee. 

The coffee cherries are eaten and partially digested by the Asian palm civet, a wild cat-like mammal common to southeastern Asia. As the coffee cherries pass through the civet’s digestive system, the bean is fermented, and is then collected from the civets’ poop. The remaining pulp around the bean is removed and the bean is dried and roasted, producing a uniquely flavored coffee. 

The civets are usually captured and caged for this purpose, making this type of coffee an ethical and controversial issue among environmental and animal rights advocates. Global demand for “civet coffee” continues to rise, and in the US, one pound of civet coffee can sell for $300 or more.

Pemuteran on the northwest coast of Bali was a welcome change from the hustle and bustle of southern and eastern Bali. 

In the shallow waters off of Pemuteran is the Biorock Coral Reef Restoration Project. 

For decades now, Indonesia has suffered from bombing and cyanide poisoning of its reefs. This practice, largely for human subsistence and the global aquarium industry, has impacted Indonesian reefs in many areas. 

The Biorock Project has attempted to mitigate this destruction with the building of dozens of whimsical metal structures. In addition to offering fish habitats, these structures also employ a technology called Electrical Mineral Accretion, which uses low-voltage electrical current through the structures to promote coral growth. 

Diving these structures of bicycles, Hindu deities, domes and fanciful sea creatures with their brilliant coral mantles was truly captivating. 

While in Pemuteran, we also visited Menjangan Island, diving its south-shore walls and coming across the flamboyant and aptly named electric flame scallop or disco clam. 

We swam with the (usually) docile yet highly venomous Banded Sea Krait, and on land we came nose to nose with the Muntjac “Barking” Deer, one of the oldest deer species in the world. 

From our first day in Indonesia, Eric and I we’re continually impressed by the kindness and friendliness of the Balinese people. Not once did we feel threatened or unsafe. 

In fact, our experience was just the opposite. Other than the occasional language barrier, we consistently found the people of south-central Indonesia happy and eager to please. 

En route to Denpasar in Bali, we made an extended stop at the expansive Jatiluwih rice terraces, a picturesque UNESCO World Heritage Cultural Site. 

Much of Bali’s arable land is covered in rice fields and terraces, some of them strikingly beautiful. These terraced rice fields, along with Bali’s temples, statues, landscapes and people were a feast for the senses and a photographer’s dream.

After 10 dives and a little over two weeks on Bali, Eric and I were ready for a change. 

Hopping a twin-prop commuter plane, we flew 320 miles east to Labuan Bajo on the west coast of Flores Island. Labuan Bajo is the gateway to Komodo National Park (KNP), another UNESCO World Heritage Site and home of the world’s largest lizard, the Komodo Dragon. 

In KNP, Eric and I kicked our diving into high gear, spending a week on a diving liveaboard and doing little more than eating, sleeping and diving in this amazing underwater realm. 

As the name implies, divers live aboard a boat designed for scuba diving. These boats, many of them traditional Pinisi sailing vessels, vary greatly in size and luxury. Trip lengths generally range from three days to two weeks and usually include brief excursions onto dry land. 

For decades, the islands that make up KNP suffered the same fate as other marine areas around the world. Over fishing, pollution and the bombing and cyanide poisoning of the reefs are still common practice in many places. 

KNP has gradually recovered from this onslaught through its national park status and UNESCO stewardship, and now offers one of the healthiest and most diverse coral ecosystems in the world. 

We dove with schools of huge and graceful manta rays, some of them with wingspans of 15 feet or more. Green and Hawksbill turtles, moray eels and other fish with such whimsical names as sweetlips and clown fish nestled in their anemone hideouts kept us constantly entertained. 

The variety of hard and soft coral, and smaller critters like the pygmy seahorse and colorful slug-like nudibranch’s was staggering as well. 

On our last day there, we visited Rinca Island and strolled with the dragons. Watching these remarkable reptiles, some measuring eight feet or more and weighing as much as 200 pounds was like catching a glimpse into a prehistoric age. 

Trying to wring-out the most from our last three days in Indonesia, Eric and I headed to the small island of Gili Meno.

Part of a triad of tiny islands, Gili Meno provided a rustic, laid-back counterpart to Bali. 

Transportation on Gili Meno is accomplished by ornate horse-drawn carriages, fat tire bicycles and by foot. 

The island can be circumnavigated on a pleasant sandy trail in less than an hour; or substantially longer if you stop to beach-comb or enjoy the several enticing watering and dining holes along the way. 

Gili Meno turned out to be a relaxing place to wind-down after a remarkable month-long journey in this enchanting archipelago.

Jeff Radford is a registered nurse who was born and raised in Mexico, now living in Leavenworth.  He enjoys international travel, photography, skiing, hiking, sea kayaking, scuba diving and good food.

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