Sunday, September 06, 2015

Derawan - the mystical East Kalimantan island

Derawan is actually just one of the many islands near the East Kalimantan side of Indonesia.  And although it is considered the more developed amongst all islands, it really isn't that much developed as we would imagine.  Sure the guesthouses have air-con, there is a power station, but Internet is still very much non-existent. And there is no night life - unlike Labuan Bajo with its couple of pubs/bars and many great restaurants. 

A chance read of a magazine article drew my attention to Derawan - captivated by "Remote Island location", "island hopping", "stingless jellyfish lake", "great diving", I was sold.  I'm usually quite easily sold on such factors.  The next steps were a little harder.  Googling Derawan didn't throw much results in terms of finding out the transport arrangements, contact information for cheap homestays, dive center information etc.  You get the mega resort information and big dive centers that charge exhorbitant rates independent backpackers (like me) refuses to pay.  But my relentless googling efforts finally paid off.  Scouring through pages and pages, I finally found a blog that mentioned a low-cost dive center and got the contact information off of the blog owner!  That proved to be a real blessing and I managed to get my transport, accomodation and diving arranged through the local dive center.  Ichuk is the man! You can contact him at or +62-822-5441-2551.  Surprisingly he has WeChat too!  He can arrange the regular car and boat to get you on Derawan and book Losmen Danaken for you.

Before I get into the details, here's a summarized video of my fun and adventure in Derawan!

Now aren't you excited now!?!

Getting to Derawan isn't exactly easy.  Labuan Bajo is a lot easier to get to - just a flight and you are there.  Derawan - you have to fly to Berau airport (connecting via Balikpapan), get in a car for 2-3H (regular car is 150k IDR per pax airport to port, or for private is about 450K per car), and regular speedboat for 30mins (100K per pax or 300K per boat for private which leaves anytime you want).  Makes sense to get private transport if you have 2 or more people, and if you arrive late in the afternoon.  Speedboat usually stops when it gets dark.  Best to arrange for regular car with your homestay or ask Ichuk to arrange!  You wouldn't get any shared car/taxi at the airport - it's a small airport and practically impossible to find another traveller to share.  And you usually get quoted a much higher price (like 600K per car).  I got my travel all planned by Ichuk, and yes there was some waiting time between arriving at port and getting on the boat but it's alright.  There are many boats leaving for Derawan at the port if you arrive early afternoon.  To give you an idea, I started my flight from Jakarta at 530am and finally arrived in Derawan at 430pm - almost 10H!
Waterfront houses
I booked myself in Losmen Danaken, where the dive center (Danaken Dive center) is located.  That's where Ichuk works.  However, there are plenty of homestays along the main street of Derawan so you don't have to worry.  It costs me 300K per night (small breakfast, coffee, tea and hot water included) with air-con.  At this point, I have to point out that Derawan is not exactly a cheap place.  Judging by the cost of accomodation - it costs me 1/3 to get a room in Labuan Bajo, and diving costs (more on that later). 

Enter Losmen Danakan
Derawan is a small small island.  There is a village just behind the main street and basically it is a very quiet island as well.  There wasn't many travellers or backpackers.  In fact I did not find any independent travellers while I was there!  There were more couples and families (Indonesia families especially).  Come morning/afternoon, the town is basically a dead town - you'll be hard pressed to find anyone walking down the street.  Street vendors (the handful of them) are sometimes hidden in their houses, and restaurants sometimes appear NOT to be open.  But I can imagine nobody wants to be out under the scorching hot sun.
There isn't much to do on the island, so if you are not out in the ocean, you are just hanging around the beach or snorkelling. 

And so begun the bumpy ride out. Before we even dived, we were drenched
Diving - supposedly to be good in Derawan wasn't as it was made out to be.  I was unlucky.  Weird ocean conditions brought along huge waves which meant that diving wasn't good/couldn't be done in the dive sites.  Visibility was also badly affected.  The best dive spots - Maratua couldn't be done while I was there.  So I may not be the best judge but I was really disappointed in the diving.  Diving is also not cheap.  The cheapest - Danaken Dive Center charges 350K per dive for Derawan dive sites - which aren't the best dive sites.  For trips out to the other islands - Kakaban (great wall dive), Sangalaki (mantas), Maratua (barracuda) - you have to rent boats in addition to cost of diving.  Ichuk charges 1.5M/boat to the furthest (Maratua) on a 4-seater speedboat, but a dive boat would cost you upwards of 4M per boat.  We went out to Kakaban and Sangalaki for dives (1.5M per boat among 3 of us).  The other 2 dive centers charge twice the amount for each dive.  But I figured Tasik Dive Center is worth going with if you plan to dive in Maratua (USD165 for 3 dives, everything included). 

So I actually had a much better time snorkeling and island hopping there!  In Kakaban island, you get to visit the jellyfish lake (25K entry), where you get to swim with stingless jellyfish!  They really are cute! And really, they DO NOT sting.  Sangalaki is famous for the mantas (we saw a few), but the day we went, visibility wasn't that great and mantas were looming on the surface so diving wasn't great for mantas.  And that actually brought me memories of the Manta point in Komodo - BEST MANTA DIVE EVER!
Met an Indonesian couple (Imam and Keni) and went on an island hopping trip with them.  2M for the trip, split among the 3 of us. The usual tour is 3 islands - Maratua (visit the beach of one resort for 30K), Kakaban (jellyfish lake and lagoon) and Sangalaki, but since we've been to Sangalaki, we switched that for a secret cave on Maratua island for the same price.  We went with Pinades a Mr Hasan.  You can find him on the island.  We headed off to Maratua Island first - you can stay on that island but it really is for people who basically do not want to do anything but laze around the island and their resort because there is NOTHING on the island.  I'd be bored to death!  And it is a lot more expensive there.  The cheapest being maratua guesthouse, and twin room for USD40 per night.  But like I said, there is only 1 restaurant, and nothing else.  I'm not saying there is much on Derawan, but at least there are several restaurants and village and pancake man at night (you definitely have to find the pancake man for some mini pancakes.  Not the best thing, but the only form of dessert you can find on Derawan.  And trust me, they taste really great especially on an island where snacks are hard to come by) 

Aji Mangku, before the jump
The guide brought us to a cave Aji Mangku on Maratua Island, where you have to jump into a lagoon and swim through a cave to get up from the other side.  So anyone who knows me knows that I hate jumping from heights (anything >1M) and I refuse to do it.  No fear of heights, just fear of jumping from heights.  The one and only time I jumped from 3M was in Labuan Bajo at the canyon.  A Mr Theodore Niekras can attest to that. And till this day, I still have no idea how the hell I managed to convince myself to do that.  So there I was on Maratua Island, standing at the edge and looking down at the pool of water.  Hey, it's just water right? Not like I'm gonna die.  And I seriously thought I might be able to do it this time.  Really.  Shouldn't be a problem.  But nope.  I tried 3 times, just couldn't get my feet lifted.  They all jumped but me.  I basically found an alternative down into the pool of water.  I climbed my way down.  There you go.  I have Catapedaphobia (but only the high places >1M). So I'm never gonna be skydiving, bungee jumping, cliff jumping.
Anyway back to Aji Mangku.  Once you get into the water, it is actually crystal clear.  The bottom is 18M deep and there is a cave on one end where people go for cave diving.  On the other end is the exit point where you swim through and out from the cave exit.  It is pretty cool actually!  Water is a little cold though.

we made it out of the cave
Then approaching Kakaban, we were strangely brought towards a makeshift ladder in the middle of one side of the island and was told there is where we go for the lagoon.  There are 2 ways in the lagoon - the DRY and WET way.  DRY - up the ladder.  WET - through a cave.  Obviously I went for caving.  Really cool.  Reminded me of Koh Mut where I canoed through a dark cave to get to a secret beach.  Here, you wade through a cave (no need to swim or snorkel) and exit to the lagoon.  The lagoon is really beautiful and we were the only ones there!  No fish per say but a nice place to relax.  Then we were off to Jelly fish (my 2nd time!) Still can't get enough of them cute jellyfish.  Swim far away from the boardwalk towards the middle of the lake and you will see alot more jellyfish.  People usually stay near the boardwalk, especially the locals.  Not me.  I just swam far out and they just kept coming! 
Kakaban Lagoon

Once was not enough, 2nd time! They are sooo cute!
Snorkeling out near the Kakaban wall is pretty great!  And we saw dolphins! All in all a great island hopping trip.  That night we had a massive dinner - me, Indonesian couple, British couple (whom I'll go whalesharking hunting with), Italian couple (my neighbour at Losmen) and 3 Singaporean lads (don't have much to say about them because they kept to themselves mostly)

So, I wasn't expecting Derawan to have whalesharks but there were banners hung around the island advertising them.  I got hooked up with a British couple (Matt and Naomi) and we went hunting for them.  Not in Derawan.  We got a boat about 2H out of Derawan in Talisaya where they recently spotted whalesharks approaching the fishing boats there!  The boat costs us 3.5M in total but it was worth it!  We almost lost hope when after 4 boats we were met with "NO", and at the moment we decided we needed to pee before heading back, we saw it!  2! I was the quickest off the boat, basically threw all my gear on and jumped right in without a moment of hesitation.  According to Naomi, I was meant to be the guinea pig.  It was so great because we were the only boat there! For all of 20mins just 3 of us in the water with 2 whalesharks! Until the dreadful Russian lady came with her partner.  She was dreadful with her high-pitched "Honey" and incessant grabbing of the whaleshark.  But I mean whalesharks!  I think we were in the water for 1H or more.  And seriously I had no idea time passed that quickly.  We were happy.  The 430am set-out didn't matter cos we saw them.  And once back, we dropped straight to bed.  Oh not before I chanced upon the ice cream lady! At 11am in the morning.  Was early for ice cream, but on Derawan island, where there is no ice cream, you grab them when you see them because you will NOT see them again!
There it comes!

Getting a perfect selfie is so difficult.  At least I managed one pretty good one

Now these little jellyfish are beautiful but not cute cos they sting!

That is NOT a can of coke in my hand
Next day, I went out to the ocean again with the Italians (Gabriele and Veronica).  They are great funny people, especially Veronica who's just crazy sometimes.  I did 2 dives in Kakaban (not the greatest conditions.  No current no barracudas no big fish), while they snorkelled.  Then we all went manta chasing at Sangalaki.  And hopped onto the island to visit the Turtle Sanctuary.  My advice - Don't go.  We had no idea it was that EXPENSIVE! 100K per pax to see some baby turtles.  Sure they are cute but 100K?? Nope wouldn't do that again.  On the way back, I took charge of the speedboat and safely sped all of us back to Derawan.

With Veronica

The pure enjoyment on my face

Sangalaki island
And to cap off a good day, someone at the Losmen spotted a cuttlefish and I basically plotted its demise on the spot.  It's not illegal to spear them, so I commandered a quick task force - basically Ichuk, to spear that cuttlefish and we have cumi goreng for dinner.  That thing was huge!  Veronica, Gab, me and Ichuk couldn't finish.  We tried, it was delicious but we just couldn't finish.

Before long, I bade farewell to Derawan and my newly found friends.  As my flight out of Berau is in the morning, I had to leave a day before and stationed myself in Berau for the night.  It was a non-event, staying in a homestay that isn't worth mentioning.  Only good thing is it's 10mins from the airport, but at 250K per night, ain't the cheapest for the condition. 

All in all, still a good trip although the diving disappointed me.  Wished I had gone to Maratua for diving but conditions weren't in my favour then.  Too bad.  Not sure if I'll go back again. I mean if for diving, I'd rather go Komodo - much better diving and easier to get to and cheaper.  It still aint' a bad place to explore.  I was slightly surprised at the lack of tourists and backpackers.  I guess backpackers don't really go for Derawan.  Luckily I met some nice new friends, if not I wouldn't have been able to go about those activities alone - would have been too costly.  I was basically out in the water everyday except the day of arrival and departure, just what I needed and what I like.  I guess I would recommend Derawan or Maratua if you have a group of friends or at least 2 people.  As far as I can tell, it's not really much of a place for individual travellers.  For purpose of cost sharing, go with a group.  And it isn't that cheap to get to and stay in Derawan. Like I mentioned earlier, cost of accomodation is alot more expensive than some other places I've been in Indonesia, and because it's a remote island, alot of groceries and food stuff have to be transported from mainland or even Berau, which makes them even more expensive to purchase on the island! A can of Bintang (330ml) costs 30K and not all shops sell them. So if you have luggage space, suggest you bring your own supply of snacks and drinks, else be prepared to pay premium for them. 

And some random food picture

The one and only ice cream on the island 5,000 IDR. Reminds me of old school ice cream

Loittering along the streets wondering what to eat and I found gado gado! I love gado gado

Grilled shrimp YUM

Remember the cuttlefish we caught? It became this! So tender and fresh