Alor: Journey to a Forgotten Land
Eight days of pure bliss. That's how I would describe my trip to Alor, a remote archipelago in East Indonesia. It was almost like a trip to the past, a journey to the uncivilized world. I almost forgot we were only 1.5 hours flight away from the tourist hub that is Bali.
The twelve travelers left Bali on a sunny Saturday afternoon, and arrived in a dusty, scorchingly hot tarmac of Wai Oti airport, Maumere city, East Nusa Tenggara province. Maumere was to be the last "civilization" (note the heavy sarcasm) we will see for the next eight days. Beyond the Maumere harbor, there was only the deep blue sea and the earthquake-shattered Alor islands.
Did I mention the earthquake that shook Alor island a mere two days before our departure? Measuring 6.0 on the Richter scale, the temblors destroyed houses and cracked the asphalt that is Kalabahi airport's landing strip. The epicentre was 32 kilometers East of Kalabahi, Alor's capital. Twenty-eight people perished, and many fled the islands in search for stable ground.
Despite the dire warnings, we trudged on. Well-meaning text messages from family and friends urged me not to go, but I decided that if it's time for me to go, there's nothing I can do to prevent it. (We indeed received reports of aftershocks, but we never actually felt anything during the eight days we spent at sea).
After a mind-numbing, sweaty wait for our luggage at (non-AC) Wai Oti airport, we were driven to Maumere harbor. KLM Putri Papua, our home for the next eight days, was like an oasis in the sweltering 36C heat. We boarded, stowed our luggage, set up our diving rigs, and immediately settled into the life of a lazy sailor. Cold drink in hand, bikini on, sail up, I lounged on the sundeck. Surely, life couldn't get any better? But it did - in the next seven days, life was as close to perfection as it could.
Three hours later, we arrived at South Panga Batang - Flores Island, the northeast tip of Maumere bay, where we were going to do our first dive. The sun was setting when we geared up, and the last of the light faded as we descended into the abyss. My 125th dive, and my first night dive ever! It was slightly unnerving to hover in dark waters, surrounded by the halo of a single underwater torch. It took me a few minutes to get used to my little bubble of light, then I felt myself relaxing when I realized it wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. It was a nice, shallow site, the reef crawling with life. I spotted some big-ass decorator crabs, cute hermit crabs, huge nudibranchs, a burrowing slipper lobster, and millions of tiny creepy wiggly wormy things that followed my dive light everywhere. I surfaced on a high - from the dive and the compressed air.
Back on the boat, a delightful dinner was ready and waiting for us. We gleefully tucked in, and found the food ab fab... the perfect ending to a great day. After dinner, some of the usual suspects started on the booze (which was supposed to "cleanse the palate"). Needless to say we ended the day on a high note.
We woke up to a bright blue sky and azure sea. The previous evening?s excesses had claimed a victim, though ? one of the members missed a dive to nurse the result of one drink too many. And what a dive he missed! We jumped into Iliape Wall, off Iliape Island, with no expectation. We were rewarded with sightings of several blacktip sharks cruising the wall, a cute juvenile lionfish, an orangutan crab, and a yellow leaf scorpionfish.
The wall itself was nothing to shout about; the corals were patchy: healthy in some parts and damaged in others. Overfishing and destructive practices have clearly contributed to the damage. We were swimming along the wall, when suddenly my buddy started banging on her tank excitedly. A nudibranch the size of a piglet quietly snoozed on the wall! A Spanish Dancer! Soon a photo frenzy started, and I managed to get some good shots of the behemoth (the nudi, not my buddy!), even though my model/buddy refused to get closer to the subject!!
After the first dive, we sailed towards Alor. I couldn?t believe how far Alor was from Maumere ? we were sailing overnight and we weren?t even close yet! We reached the first of Alor Islands, Lapan, in the late afternoon. The long interval between dives were put to good use: some of us were playing Uno, some took a chicken nap (tidur-tidur ayam), one turned the sundeck into a chillout lounge, the video/photographers got busy with their gadgets.
As soon as we reached the next site, South Lapan, we were well rested and itching to plunge into the aquamarine waters. Visibility was excellent, the water as warm as bathwater, and we were fed so well we needed to work off the calories. Again, it was a wall dive. The further East we traveled, the healthier the corals were. South Lapan wall was rife with life: leaf scorpionfish, stonefish, some huge trevallies, lots of nudibranchs. The highlight of this dive was the appearance of three giant fantail rays, the size of small UFOs. The awesome creatures only stayed with us for a short while. They soon ?flew? off, their giant wings flapping away. As they swum away, an image of a plate of barbecued sambal stingray came to mind? yum! (fish are food, not friends!).
Due to the long journey to Alor, we only planned three dives this day, the third being a night dive. This particular dive site, South East Lapan Wall, was exposed to the open ocean, and thus not a very ideal site for a night dive because the currents can be tricky. It was one of the most exhausting dives I?ve had in my life ? the current was a raging 1 to 2 knots throughout the dive, so stopping was a challenge. I had to swim against the current several times to avoid being separated from my buddy, who I could barely see in the pitch blackness. To make it even more interesting (not!), there was some down current as well. My buddy and I stuck together as best as we could, and tried to enjoy the dive. We came face to beak with a hawksbill turtle that was sleeping on a ledge on the wall.
Delighted as I was with the dive, I got fed up with having to make so much effort to enjoy it. I signaled to my buddy to ascend. When we were back on the boat, she told me her mask flooded every five minutes so she couldn?t really enjoy the dive, but she didn?t abort the dive because I seemed to enjoy it! Bugger, we could have had a nice hot shower earlier if we both realized we wanted to get out early!
Back on the boat, it was dinner and drinks as usual. It?s becoming a Kapal Selam ritual ? one drink a day makes a nice holiday!
The next morning, I woke up to mirror-calm sea and bright blue sky. I could really get used to this. Diving all day, eating good food between dives, great company, lovely boat - this is the life!
Our first dive of the day was at Clown Valley, off Pura Island. It is perhaps one of the few non-wall dives we had in Alor. I cannot remember the terrain very well, because I was mesmerized by the expanse of anemones and soft corals of all types. I even found a bunch of of soft corals that (I think) looked like penises. Too bizarre. I have pictures to prove it!
Clown Valley was indeed teeming with lost of different types of clownfish, but I soon got a little bored. I love the cute clownies, but I didn't want to spend one hour looking at them! There was nothing else to see in this site but clownfish. I surfaced after a mere 48 minutes, a waste of half a tank of air, but I really couldn't care less. I was ready to fall asleep underwater.
Breakfast was followed by our second dive of the day at Sharks Galore, again off Pura Island. Our divemaster Weka warned us not to expect too much (read: any shark) here. Overfishing (and obviously shark-finning) has depleted the site of its namesake. So we decended into the blue once again, expecting another boring dive. However, we spotted lots of cute nudibranchs, and I was snapping away with my camera in no time. We didn't find any sharks, but I really enjoyed this site. It's a wall covered in colorful hard and soft corals, with lots of HUGE barrel sponges (my diminutive buddy could have fit in one of them nicely). There was no current, viz was an average of 20metres, the water was a nice 26C - I was not complaining at all. A very relaxing 66-min dive.
We surfaced and helped ourselves to a nice lunch - Lukas, our cook, is really a creative man; we were never bored or underfed during the trip.
Our third dive was at a site called School's Out, off Pura. I never got to ask why it was named as such, but I'm guessing it's because once upon a time, the site was full of schooling fishes. It's really sad to dive it and find out that - just like Sharks Galore - there was no longer any schooling fishes there :(. However, it was still a lovely dive - the reef is healthy (evidently because of the non-destructive fishing practices. We only saw traditional fish traps there, never a bombed out reef rubble) and the small fishes aplenty. It was a nice site, but not exactly spectacular. There was a blue-ribbon eel near the end of our dive, and a yellow leaf scorpionfish hidden in crevice. When I tried sticking my head into the crevice to take a pic, a burning sensation on my forehead stopped me short. Suddenly I realised the crevice was surrounded by hydroids !@$x*?%#! Am I a fantastic diver or what?
That evening, we prepared for a night dive at Mini Wall, Alor Island. It was in a calm, protected bay off Alor Island. I had a new buddy for this dive, and I was a bit worried because he has a habit of sucking his tank dry, then continue diving with air from his buddy's tank (or "ngempeng" in Indonesian). On a previous night dive, he even refused to carry a torch, and relied on his poor buddy instead. But on this particular dive with me, he was on his best buddy behaviour. He even ended the dive early (still with some air in his tank!!) - although I found out later it was not out of courtesy, he was just cold hehehe...
Mini Wall proved to be a great night dive site. There were loads of moray eels and sea snakes slithering all over the reef, as well as numerous seriously obese nudibranchs.
Our first four-dives-a-day day proved to be a little too much for us, as we all retired to our cabins early that evening. I was fast asleep by 9.30pm (and so did everybody else). We all needed to recuperate for four more days in paradise.
For some strange reason, I can't remember many of the marine animals I saw during our first dive that day. We were at a site called Slab City, off Pura Island. I had to take another look at my logbook before I found out why I couldn't remember anything: I was too busy trying to keep warm. The water that morning was freezing my t*ts off, pardon my French. I was so used to bath-warm water around Asia that 19C was a rude shock to the system. I remember putting my gloves on underwater, but still my fingers felt numb and useless.
Slab City itself was an interesting site, a wall with deep groove-like crevices and underwater canyons. The vista was good enough to keep me entertained for 48 minutes. Again, the fish life is nothing to shout about, but there were plenty of them.
Our next dive was supposed to be the highlight of Alor. Kal's Dream was named after famous diver/writer/photographer Kal Muller, who was one of the pioneers of diving in Indonesia. When Kal first dived this site, he saw many pelagics he had never dreamed of before. Sadly, his dream has turned into a nightmare. When we arrived at the site, spear fishermen were all over the place, freediving off small wooden boats. They have obviously cottoned on that this is where the big fishes congregate, and started overfishing it.
The site itself was a collection of large submerged boulders in a channel off Kumba Island, famous for its ripping currents. When our liveaboard tried to approach the site earlier in the morning, the current was so strong that our boat could only move at 0.5 knots at full steam! (We left Kal's Dream for Slab City, and came back to see if the current eased up. It did).
We did a negative buoyancy descent to 5 meters, and had to hold on to the rocks to avoid being swept off by the 2-knot current. The current carried the other group of divers to a nearby dive site, so they dived there instead. Our group bravely fought the current, hid behind rocks, held on, and waited. We were rewarded with sightings of a small school of giant trevally, a turtle, and a Napoleon (Maori) wrasse playing in the currents. It was a short, 36-min dive, but rewarding nevertheless.
The third dive was at a site called Nite Delight. I was wondering why we were diving an obviously good-for-night-dive site in full daylight, but the site was pretty enough during the day. We saw some blue-spotted stingrays and some nudibranchs. I wouldn't call it a fantastic dive, but it sure beats my three-blind-mice dives in Singapore waters!
Our night dive on Day Four was indubitably the best night dive of the whole trip. It was at an unnamed site off Alor Island, a stone's throw from a fishing village. During the briefing, I suggested naming the site "Kapal Selam", and Weka the Divemaster said, "Let's see, if it's good we can call it Kapal Selam". Guess what! Now it is called Kapal Selam! It was a shallow site, with a gentle slope down to about 20m where it suddenly dropped into a steep wall. We stayed in the shallows, and found many night creatures.
Five minutes into the dive, Lala spotted a ghost pipefish so small and well-camouflaged I was surprised she saw it at all. Just as everyone was looking at the pipefish, I looked down to the sandy bottom and a quick dart of a funny-shaped thing caught my eye. In seconds, it had buried itself so deep in the sand, I wouldn't have noticed it if bit me in the bum. Only two vague, sand-covered eyes peered out. I fanned the sand a little, and an odd-shaped body of a fish appeared. A Stargazer! It was so ugly only its mother could love it, but I was so thrilled that I finally saw this elusive creature. Just as I was looking at it, another Stargazer swam underneath me and buried itself nearby. What are the odds of seeing TWO of these funny fish at once?
We also saw tiny baby cuttlefish and squid floating around. One baby squid was so close I just had to touch it - it inked and darted off.
A multitude of gargantuan nudibranchs and flatworms kept us amused for a long time. So did the many types of moray eels and sea snakes - although the latter more repulsed than excited me.
We surfaced shouting in joy - it was an experience we won't soon forget. The first (fabulous) dive site named after out club! That night, we actually had a reason to crack open the bottles of booze!
The Edge. U2's guitarist has a dive site named after him? Actually, I have no idea why the site was named as such. It was a steep wall off Ternate Island, where we did our first dive that day. By that time, I ahve given up on hoping to see pelagics and was too lazy to stop drifting to look for smaller creatures. So I drifted, and to my delight, it was one of the best rides I've had so far. The was was very colorful, the coral growth prolific, and the upcurrent, downcurrent, slow, fast vertical current kept it interesting. I enjoyed all of 48 minutes of exhilaration. It was like riding a roller coaster underwater.
For the second dive of the day, we re-visited Kal's Dream. I was not very enthusiastic about this dive, seeing that the previous dive was not that special at all. I went anyway, because I was determined to do ALL the scheduled dives for this trip despite my runny nose and raw throat. I was right not to expect too much. It was a short 43-minute dive spent hanging out in the current and NOT seeing any pelagic. Very sad. I was lucky I had a reef hook with me, so I literally "hung out" in the sweeping 1-2knot currents, looking at the colourful corals nearby. The other divers (who had no reef hook) were struggling to hold on to rocks, and I secretly chuckled to myself... muahahahaha....
The third dive was at a site called Coral Cliff. For the life of me, I can't remember what I saw there, even though it was quite a long dive, slightly over an hour. All I remember is that it took me bloody 30 minutes to get to 18 metres because my ears just refused to equalize. And nobody (not even my "buddy" who was too busy with his video camera) noticed I was 15 metres above everybody else.
Our next dive more than made up for the "average" sites earlier that day. Even now, I'm still in awe of our dusk dive that day, at Kapal Selam Right, off Alor Island - the same site we did our night dive the previous evening. This time, we headed in the opposite direction.
It was still light when we descended, even though it started to dim not long after. I was happily looking into crevices, fiddling with my torch, when suddenly a spastic-looking Rizal flashed his torch at me. I swam over, and he pointed into a small cave. I was expecting a lobster or some cave-dwelling creature, but I was definitely not prepared for the delightful suprise waiting for me within the cave.
At first I couldn't see anything, and I waited with my torch off. After a few minutes, I switched it on and voila! A flash of green specked with rainbow colors caught my eye. A mandarinfish!!!! The elusive creature I so longed to see was there, darting around in its little home. I desperately tried to snap a few shots of it, but the cave is too deep and too dark for my camera to focus.
After a while, the fish just refused to come out again. I frustratedly turned to leave, and saw a bunch of divers surrounding a patch of staghorn coral just nearby. I swam closer, and suddenly I saw a flash of the brilliantly colored fish again! I was overjoyed. There were three photographers trying to take a picture of the same fish at the same time, and this time I managed to get a pretty good shot of the shy fish. Woohoo!
We found about 4 more pairs of mandarinfish, surely a record for one small site! We climbed up the boat's ladder with a loud victory whoop! What a dive, what a site!
After dinner, we geared up for our fifth dive that day, also at Kapal Selam site. We just couldn't get enough of it! This time, my buddy Mia opted out, so I dived with Rizal whose buddy also decided to pass.
We saw a lot of cool critters: nudibranchs big and small, teeny weeny cuttlefish, decorator crabs, a full-grown ugly catfish, a massive mappa pufferfish. It was a nice dive. We surfaced after 51 minutes, to a dark, eerily silent surface. We couldn't see the boat and didn't know which one of the lights was out boat's. Usually it was quite noticeable even in the dark. Rizal and I looked at each other, both perplexed. We flashed our torches everywhere, Rizal blew his whistle, but nothing. Silence. About 10 minutes later, we heard the faint sound of motor. As it got closer, we were elated to see our dinghy speeding closer.
The dinghy man explained that the skipper had turn off the big lights on the main boat, because the locals have complained about the divers being noisy the night before. They also complained that our previous night's dive had scared the fish, resulting in a small catch in their fish traps. Uh-oh.
Thankfully, the evening passed without further incidents. We had a quiet drink & chat that evening, careful not to stir the locals from their sleep. It was our last night in Alor islands, and we would like to leave in peace.
Today, we were to have two last dives in Alor islands, before sailing back towards Flores. By this time, we were resigned to the fact that in Alor, night dives are much better than day dives. But boy, did we underestimate Alor! It turned out that the last two dives were, beyond doubt, the best dives of the trip.
The Arch, a wall site at Ternate Island, was possibly the prettiest wall I have seen so far. It had an interesting topography - plenty of cmall caves and overhangs, completely covered in an abundance of healthy soft corals. Huge tubastrea corals were all over the place, as well as very large gorgonians. If I didn't have a regulator in my mouth, my jaw would be hanging open for a whole hour. It was simply beautiful - definitely a Kodak moment. I spent a lot of the time just peeking into caves, moving to see an overhang closer or moving back to see the big picture. It was an unforgettable site.
The next dive was equally mind-boggling. Cave Point off Buaya Island was just as beautiful, but the difference in topography made it unique. It was a wall riddled with small canyons, making it look slightly darker, more gothic. We found some curious moray eels, a shy octopus inside its hole, and a yellow leaf scorpionfish. It was a lovely conclusion to our series of dives in Alor Islands, Indonesia.
We sailed on then, planning to reach the westernmost part of Alor Islands by sundown. We got there just in time for another day dive, this time at a site called East Lapan, Lapan Island.
It was a reasonably nice site, plenty of wild ride with the current, although it pales in comparison with our earlier dives today. We saw a large Napolean wrasse, and plenty of smaller fishes. At the end of the dive, just before I deployed my safety sausage, I heard our guide Peter's loud whoop of joy. He was excitedly pointing to something on a pile of staghorn coral rubble. I swam closer, and realized it was a brown-and-white clown frogfish, looking supremely pissed off because Peter scared off his dinner. Peter couldn't care less, he finally found what we asked him to find for us! The pretty (weird) looking fish sulkingly turned round and round when I was taking pictures of it, and I decided I had enough.
I surfaced directly next to the dinghy, and saw Hengky and Thea already back on the boat - obviously missing out on the frogfish. David told them we saw a clown frogfish, and jokingly told the couple to head back down. Hengky being Hengky, he dived back in with less than 40 bar in his tank. With the current sweeping, he quickly finished his air, and got to zero just as he got to the frogfish. He insisted on taking a few pictures, breathing from Thea's back up regulator and then Lala's. Lucky for him the pictures turned out great - if they hadn't then all the effort would have been for nothing.
For our night dive, we went to an unnamed site off Besar Island. At first it was an uneventful dive, because the guide didn't know what to look for. I was getting slightly bored with the moray eels and all the usual fare, when suddenly I saw David's torch frantically signaling me. I swam to where he was pointing, and was astounded to find a boulder covered with crawling spiny lobsters! There must have been more than twenty lobsters of all sizes, walkind around out in the open. Which was strange, because lobsters are usually very shy and stay half hidden in their holes. I watched in awe as the lobsters completely ignored the spectators and went about their business.
I was still amazed when I swam off, and only snapped out of it when Mulyadi tapped my shoulder and showed off a lobster in his hand! I was thinking. "Oh yum!", but then I saw a flash of orange underneath its tail. I signed for Mul to turn the lobster upside down, and I saw that it was heavy with eggs! I started to signal to Mul to put it back, and that it was laying eggs, but he simply refused to return the poor thing. The commotion we caused must have attracted the other divers, because I soon saw Lala approacing Mul and signaling frantically, telling Mul to put the lobster back. They started arguing comically, two humans limited to sign language - one hungry and one angry. That was too funny a sight.
That night, we had a sumptuous dinner despite the lack of fresh lobster from the now-named dive site, Lobster City.
Overnight, we sailed nack to Flores, and arrived in an East Flores dive site called Tanjung Bunga. As soon as I descended, I realized that this site was a far cry from our previous day's fantastic sites. There are extensive damage to the reef, evidently from bomb-fishing. Large patches of the reef were destroyed to a mere rubble, a truly disheartening sight. However, the site seems to be some sort of a shark nursery. Rizal counted 9 juvenile back tip sharks patroling in the deep, a truly amazing number considering the state of the reef. We also spotted two hawksbill turtles gliding by.
Our next dive (and last dive for the trip) was at a site called Watu Payung (Umbrella Rock) off East Flores Island. Two of our members decided to skip the last dive, preferring instead to pack up and enjoy the boat and the sun (and their beds). They did not miss much, we only saw damaged reef again, a turtle, and a cute flatworm.
After a flurry of gear-washing activity and hanging them to dry, everyone retired to their cabin to take a snooze before the inevitable farewell party. The boat reached Maumere harbor around 4PM, where we will spend the night.
Some of the early risers decided it was time to crack open the last stash of alcohol. Almost everyone had a secret stash, resulting in some of us being rip-roaringly drunk before dinnertime. We didn't have to dive the next day so it's okay :p
Dinner was eaten in a hazy blur, and the party continued - with the boat crew joining in. I can't remember the details clearly, thanks to Mr Jose Cuervo, but I vaguely recall some pole dancing, salsa, people keeling over, posing for pictures, a couple hooking up, and someone taking endless pictures of the carnage and debauchery. I am beginning to suspect that Kapal Selam is a DATING club disguised as a diving club, judging by the number of recent hook-ups. Mr Photographer took 200+ pictures in his drunken stupor, and managed to capture some of the great moments in a traditional Kapal Selam after-dive party.
It was a party to remember - a fitting end to a fabulous journey.
DAY 8 - RETURN TO REALITY
We all woke up late that day, enjoying the last hours we had on the boat before catching the flight back to Bali. Packing was done in a flash (in my case it was more chucking things into the suitcase - I have no sense of packing). Some huddled in cabins sharing gossips (we had 5 people in our tiny cabin at one point!), one hobbled around with an injured toe - courtesy of the previous night.
Soon it was time for another Kapal Selam tradition - picture-taking with all the participants and crew. I felt a little sad to leave, but I also missed civilization (read: proper bath and massage).
After lunch, we headed to "civilization" that is Wai Oti airport, Maumere. After the breezy harbour, the sweltering heat in the non-airconditioned airport stifled and squeezed the sweat out of us. We managed to stay high-spirited; seven days in paradise had mellowed out even the grumpiest of us.
When we reached Bali's Ngurah Rai airport, a twinge of sadness filled my heart. But I was also happier because in the past eight days, we have become much better friends than we were before. I, for one, will remember this trip for a very long time.