Derawan Islands, East Kalimantan – A Place Less Traveled Is A Place More Remembered
August 12-18, 2009
Heaven is actually here, in Indonesia. It’s called the Derawan islands. I needed not to look further and beyond, it is located east to Kalimantan (you might know it as Borneo). Funny thing is that not too many Indonesians, nor has Kalimantan natives have been to Derawan Islands, or are even aware of its existence! Turns out there’s still space in heaven (sinners, please enlighten yourselves here).
Now it’s your turn to plunge in to the fresh underwater sanctuary and marvel at the alluring sky and beaches of Derawan islands. Traveling around Indonesia is just not complete without peeking here.
UPDATE, September, 2013: I think I shouldn’t have touched the jellyfishes at all.. My bad, for not being in the know
SNORKELING AND DIVING
Sway with the turtles
On my holiday to Ujung Genteng last year, the main attraction was to see turtles laying eggs, and to see the turtles themselves because they’re rarely seen. But here in Derawan Islands, all we had to do was look down from our room’s balcony to the shallow water, and voila, the sight of turtles swimming freely. Better yet, we took a plunge from the jetty and there they were, only 2 meters before our very eyes, and these creatures weren’t difficult to catch up and swim together with.
The trick to swim beside or holding on to a turtle is by calmly come close to it from behind or from the side. Don’t approach it from the front of it because it wouldn’t like it and would swim away from you. So you swim calmly, touch it on the back, hold on to it gently, and it will take you wherever it wants. Just tag along!
UPDATE, September 2013:
Little did we know, touching a turtle is prohibited. We found out about this a while after the trip when a reader pointed it out in the Comment. (Too bad the comments were gone when our website got hacked). So I’ve taken out the pictures of us in physical contact with the turtles so as not to encourage anyone to do the same.
I was awed with the smooth swaying movements when they swim. The way they paddle their front legs are so much alike to the way birds spread and flap their wings to fly. It’s like these turtles are flying, but underwater.
The turtles around the beach of Derawan island are quite unique, in a way that they’re unafraid to be around human. While around Sangalaki, a conservatory island about 1.5 hours by speedboat from Derawan island, turtles are not that easy to be held.
On Sangalaki island, you’d find hatched eggs along the beach, but no turtles neither the tukik (baby turtles), at any time of day. Mommy turtles only come up the shore at night when it’s safe – nobody’s around to invade their privacy – to lay eggs and then soon be gone. Conservatory officers would then patrol around the island three times a day, making sure aren’t harmed and all baby turtles are back in the sea.
Until the day we visited, Sangalaki island was still open for public. Mind you, each visitors has to report themselves to the conservatory headquarter in the middle of the island (your boatmen should take you there). You’d have to fill in a guest book with your basic data, and there you’d see pictures on the wall that’d tell ya about the preserving actions. They’ve apparently arrested some unauthorized ships from China and other countries that illegally caught turtles in large numbers for commercial use.
Divine stingless jellyfish
This was one of the reasons for my eagerness to go to Derawan islands. Where else in the world could you swim WITH a lake full of jellyfish and not get stung by them? Well yes, there’s Republic of Palau in the Pacific Ocean, but why travel so far when Indonesia have Kakaban island, and not to mention it is also closer for the Asian and European countries. And it is less known by the international world – a more rarely visited paradise, I might add.
Kakaban island is an hour away from Derawan island by speedboat, and 2 hours away by the more traditional but bigger boat. Thank God for our space-efficient Asian bodies, a small speedboat could take 6 of us plus the boatman in one go.
It could be quite a bumpy ride, but there’s no seat belt you could fasten, so just hang on tight to the boat and make sure you didn’t just have a big breakfast.
The best time to arrive at Kakaban is before 9 am, when the sea is high tide, so your boat could dock at the jetty. From the jetty, you walk all the way across the hilly jungle to the lake. Don’t worry, a long path of wooden bridge is laid out for visitors. Wearing footgear is recommended so that your feet are protected from the hot wooden pathway.
Arriving at the lakeside, we were awed with how vast the lake was. And to imagine that it’s full of pretty and mysterious creatures as jellyfish are, I didn’t want to waste any time before snorkeling in the water.
At first, it felt really funny when a jellyfish came into contact with my skin. It was a mixture of feeling tickled and fear of getting stung at the same time. I knew that it wouldn’t sting (or some say that it does sting, but you just can’t really feel a thing), but still, the thought of the usual jellyfish sting came to mind, you know?
There are some unwritten rules as not to dive nor paddle a boat in the Kakaban Lake because the heavy and hard apparels might harm the scattered jellyfish. Unfortunately, at our second visit to Kakaban (yup, we went there in the 2nd and 4th day of our stay in Derawan islands), there was a group of Thai tourists who casually plunged their boat into the lake, and had no intention of respecting the local rules even after my friend Novi told them firmly that they’re not supposed to do so. We were told about the rule from the local boatmen.
And there were also two Caucasian tourists who took a plunge with their diving gears into the lake. One thing that should be done by the local government is sort out a way to discipline the rule-breaking visitors.
I would love you to visit Kakaban lake so that you can see the beauty that my country offers, but please do respect the local codes of conduct. If it’s not written, at least have a look around and use simple logic, to the very least ask the locals.
Elusive Barracudas, Dolphins, and Manta Rays
Derawan islands offer lots and lots of unique and beautiful kinds of sea creature. Lion fish (my friends saw them only about 50 meters from our lodge), clown fish, many kinds of butterfly fish, star fish, etc, are only to name a few.
The three ultimate kinds of sea creatures that we were eager to see – other than the jellyfish and turtles – are barracuda, dolphin, and manta. Apparently we didn’t get lucky with manta cos they were nowhere to be seen. But Norman and Ipink saw some baby sting rays when diving around Derawan island – close enough, and a lovely experience as well. Too bad they didn’t get a chance to take pictures of them.
It puzzled the boatmen that there were no mantas seen because there were usually lots of them present. I sure hope the mantas didn’t disappear because of illegal fishing!
As for barracudas and dolphins, we spotted them separately from the boat. The barracudas were making quick leaps in the sea surface near Sangalaki, presumably in the hunt for prey – they feed on fish sometimes as big as themselves, and are actually quite dangerous for humans. The three dolphins that we saw were black, leaping not far from us on our way to Kakaban island. These were both quite hysterical moments for us, we don’t see dolphins often, and not even in just any waters. And because it happened so fast, none of us had a chance to take pictures of them. Shucks!
Island Hopping at Derawan Islands
This is just what one should do in a mini archipelago as astounding as Derawan islands. Our plan was to hop on Kakaban, Sangalaki, and Maratua islands, but we finally eliminated Maratua after some considerations. The divemaster at Losmen Danakan (losmen=lodge) didn’t recommend Maratua to us because non of us was an advanced diver, and only 2 of us were certified divers.
Maratua waters is said to have a strong current, not to mention the boat rent to go that far would be much more expensive (one more hour added to our Kakaban + Sangalaki trip). That made it all not worth the hassle, time, and money only to snorkel at Maratua. Not knowing what the condition really is at Maratua, we took his advice and made the best out of Kakaban and Sangalaki.
There were also two places that we didn’t include in our island-hopping, Panjang island and a gosong (sandbar). Apparently, we didn’t do enough research before leaving Jakarta, so we found out about Panjang island only later when we’ve gone back to Jakarta (duh!). I saw a picture of it at a friend’s photo album, and I’d recommend you guys to go there because it looks damn beautiful with its long white sandy beach, hence the name (panjang=long).
The sandbar that we didn’t go was quite near from Derawan island, sometimes we could see it from Derawan. The reason why we didn’t go was.. hey I forgot why. (another duh!) I guess it was just in our priority list, and when we had time for it, we were too tired and the sun was shining too intensely, that we preferred to just lay back under some shades… Zzz. .
TANNING… OR HIDING UNDER THE SHADES
For those who wanna tone up your skin color, the beaches here are perfect for tanning. The sun shines all day long – when it’s not rainy season – and you’d feel like the beaches are your own private backyard because there aren’t many people in sight.
On Derawan island, about 15 minute walking eastward from Losmen Danakan, there’s a part of the sandy beach that can only be seen when low tide. We spent hours there, just to take pretty pictures of the scenery and enjoy the hot sun.
There, we also saw a blowfish stranded on the shallow water, and shrunk and swam rushingly back into the ocean. It rushed back after Yusdi poked on it with a stick – it was our first time seeing this fish, so we were curious how it got bloated and shrunk again.
And there was an eel that got lost to the sand. I kinda panicked cos reptiles freak me out. Fortunately, some guys – Yusdi, Norman, and a few other guys who happened to be around – gathered around the creature out of curiosity and one of them threw it back into the water. Phew!
We weren’t specifically tanning on the sand, ‘cos with skin tone that’s been darkened on so many beaches previously, we didn’t really need tanning.
But we did enjoy laying down on the bench at the side of the beach under the coconut trees. Warning: This is actually not a very safe thing to do because falling coconuts could actually hit your head and kill you.
We went there again the next day – we just couldn’t get enough of the beauty. But too bad it was “arus mati” as they call it, which translates to ‘dead current’, where the tide was neither high nor low.
On the jetties, we also liked to take a nap… under the shades, that is. It was so relaxing to just lie down in the midst of windy air, or play some cards or whatever while some of us snorkeled around the jetty.
But if you’re in for the tanning, the jetties provide so much space to do just that. And from there, you just need to look down to the water, with no further effort, and behold turtles and so many kinds of fish.
STARGAZING… AND FISHGAZING
Having lived in the terribly polluted city for years, gazing at the stars at night is such a privilege to me and my friends. And since there isn’t much to be done at Derawan island at night, we loved to just relax at a jetty, lay back and look up at the stars, while the sound of waves was simultaneously caught… between the irritating sound of some visitors singing in karaoke so loudly at a hotel next to our jetty.
But hey, everybody deserves a little fun of their own now and then, and the next nights the bad singing contest was gone. So, do enjoy your moment at the jetty at nights.
The highlight of culinary experience in this trip was not at the Derawan Islands, but in Balikpapan city. The sweet n’ sour sauce crabs with a hint of lemon taste, and came in second place was the black peppered crabs. Both of these delights were our first meal in Balikpapan at Kenari restaurant, only a couple of minutes ride from the airport.
We didn’t actually pay for the meal because our new friend Gharonk, who resides in the city, treated us lunch. But I think it was about IDR 400,000 for the 8 of us (6 of us plus him and another friend of ours who was coincidentally in town).
A newcomer in the business, Dandito restaurant, is also famous for its crabs. According to Gharonk, who’s crazy about food reviewing, Kenari’s overall taste is more to the oriental flavor, while Dandito’s is sweeter, a bit more of Javanese flavor. Unfortunately I myself didn’t have a chance to taste Dandito’s crabs, but Ipink managed to take a portion home. And by home, I meant Jakarta. Yup, the well done crab can last about 12 hours before properly kept in the fridge.
In both of these restaurants you can also choose other kinds of seafood as your menu, as well as some veggies.
Mostly Seafood, some needed a pre-order
As predicted, 80% of food that we consumed in this trip was seafood, for Derawan is a mini archipelago. Their favorite seems to be fish, fried or grilled. This applies to the surrounding places as well, including Berau. Especially in Derawan, since it’s a small island (a walk around the island only took about an hour) with not so many people dine out, we needed to pre-order squids or shrimps in some of the diners.
The diner in the lodge next to ours provides ready-stock squids in their menu and they taste fresh and delicious. We didn’t stick to just one place to have meals because we like to try everything, but we just had to dine twice at this particular place. The slow service was no problem to us, and I take it that they really prepare the food carefully to maintain quality.
Newly picked from the trees, young coconuts (kelapa muda) can be found near our lodge, only 5 minutes of walking eastward, at a wooden drink stand with no name. Novi and I took our time to sip the fresh water and spoon the ‘meat’ of the young coconut while sitting under a tree shade, waiting for the fellas who went swimming with turtles.
The seller actually provided delivery service if you wanna enjoy the fresh young coconuts at your lodge, or you yourself could buy and take the delicacy back to your lodge.
A local once told me that we could also have young coconuts at Kakaban island, if only there was anyone there who could go up the tree and pick the fruit for us. Whew, that’s no easy condition, I think.
Bonting and crackers
Crab flavored shredded meat that has been boiled and fried – and ready to eat – called bonting (short for abon kepiting; kepiting = crab) was a new-found kinda food to me in Balikpapan.
Abon – more commonly made of cow’s meat – is usually consumed with rice, a luxury for those who don’t have time or passion for cooking. It’s like a fast food ready in plastic bags.
So I bought a couple of boxes of bonting for myself and my family back home, along with some other snacks before going back to Jakarta. These refreshments are available at Stalkuda area, where the shops open from 8 AM, or at Karangjati area.
Oh shoot, why did I forget to take pictures of these munchies?? *d’oh* Sorry, people…
At Derawan island
Derawan have been a favorite destination for international tourists for years and years. Only the last few years have local tourists been coming there for vacations. In the lodge where we stayed, which had about 10 rooms or so, we were the only Indonesian visitors, others were from Netherland, UK, France, and Italy. It’s a low budget lodge called Losmen Danakan (losmen = lodge).
Because the rooms were almost fully booked, thanks to the 3-day weekend that it was, the only room available was a big one with 3 single beds. So all 6 of us had to cram in there – well, it was still spacious, though – with 2 additional single mattresses. 3 single beds for 3 of us, and the 2 mattresses were joined together for the other 3. We took random turns of who’s sleeping on the beds and on the extra mattresses.
There are actually a lot of other lodges in the island, but not every one had rooms built above water like Danakan. Plus, it was reasonably-priced; IDR 150,000 / room / night, including the extra mattresses, and it came with a large cupboard, even though there’s no AC, just a fan. We stayed there for 4 nights, which means IDR 100,000 / person / 4 nights. Very economic!
The price didn’t include breakfast, so we’d order noodles in the morning, and sometimes we just bought cereal and milk in nearby minimarts.
If you’re interested in the losmen, just contact the owner, Mr. Kadek, by email email@example.com or phone +62 813 462 17 872.
His name is what popped up for a lot of times when we were searching for info and contacts about Derawan before we actually went. He’s also a diving instructor, so you could check with him about diving trips and diving apparels rent.
At Tanjung Batu
Before crossing to Derawan with a boat at early morning, we spent a night at Tanjung Batu, a port town 2 hours from Berau’s airport. We arrived at Tanjung Batu at 7 pm with growling tummies, we didn’t have much energy to go choosing motels. The rental car driver, Bejo, whom we’ve contacted from Jakarta to his mobile (+62 852 504 68 396) advised us to stay at Green Family motel. It’s only about 5 minutes ride from the dock, and I heard that it’s the only lodging in the area.
The building is typical of the area, painted in bright and contrast colors. We checked in 2 rooms, each cost IDR 100,000 / night, with AC and private bathroom. Breakfast is not included, but they provided hot drinking water for free in the common area. It was an okay stay.
Biggest city nearby: Balikpapan
Fly to Sepinggan International Airport, Balikpapan. Flights are available from several cities in Indonesia, and from Singapore. Flying from Soekarno Hatta International Aiport, Jakarta, will take 2 hours to get to Sepinggan.
We flew by Airasia airlines, which unfortunately closed their route to & from Balikpapan starting on August 19 2009, which was supposed to be our schedule back to Jakarta. So they moved up our schedule to August 18, their last operating day for the route (not very fair, but what the hell, we got the tickets on discount anyway).
The normal 2-way fare Jakarta-Balikpapan is about IDR 1,300,000, while we were so lucky to get promo tickets only for IDR 185,000 to Balikpapan and back. Other airlines that provide flights there are Batavia Air, Lion Air, and Garuda.
From Balikpapan to Berau
From Balikpapan, you need to take a 40-minute flight (with a propeller plane) to Kalimarau Airport in Berau. Berau is a town north to Balikpapan, with not much to see, really.
From Kalimarau, we took a 2 hours ride (we had reserved the car rental from Jakarta by email through Mr. Kadek, the owner of Losmen Danakan, for IDR Rp 350,000) through a long up and down and sometimes bumpy asphalt road to a port town called Tanjung Batu.
The ride had us see the jungle parts of Kalimantan, and some parts quite broke our hearts because trees were cut off and the forest was left dry. Issues of illegal logging is huge in Kalimantan, but there’s also a possibility that the forest burned itself due to the drought.
We arrived at Tanjung Batu at 7 PM. We could go directly to Derawan by speedboat, but we decided not to because the waters didn’t look too calm at night. The boatmen said it’s okay, but we didn’t wanna take any risk and better be chickens when it comes to safety.
So we spent a night at a nearby lodge, and crossed the sea to Derawan by speedboat as early as 7 AM the next day.
Finally arrived at Derawan Island
About half an hour later we were up on the jetty of Losmen Danakan, Derawan, and soon took a plunge in the waters under it.
It felt so great to finally get there after a long wait of almost a year!
A route that’s also commonly taken by others is to go to Tarakan instead of Berau. And instead of flying from Balikpapan to Berau or Tarakan, some people prefer the cheaper way, that is going by bus. We didn’t take this option – although we would love the more economic way – because we didn’t wanna sit for 16 hours on the bus, going through a bumpy ride – at least that’s what we found out from researching in the internet.
Derawan island is so small, it only took us about an hour to walk around it. The only motor vehicle found there is only motorbike and, well, motorboat. Other than those, expect bicycles only. While in Sangalaki and Kakaban, expect no means of transportation at all, other than your own feet.
Derawan islands are located east to Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo (north part of the huge huge island belongs to Malaysia and Brunei Darussalam). The closest international airport to Derawan is Sepinggan International Aiport, in Balikpapan, East Kalimantan.
Balikpapan is quite often mistaken to be the capital city of East Kalimantan province, while it’s actually Samarinda. But Balikpapan is said to be bigger and more modern, possibly because there are many oil and mine companies in Balikpapan which requires the staff – many are expatriates – to reside in the city, hence facilities are built.
Following is the rough budget of our trip.
- flight Jakarta – Balikpapan return = Rp 185,000 / pax
(by Airasia on promo price, but they don’t have flights from Jakarta to Balikpapan anymore)
- airport tax in Soekarno Hatta International Airport = Rp 40,000 / pax
- flight Balikpapan – Berau return = Rp 647,000 /pax
(by Kalstar on normal price)
- airport tax in Sepinggan International Airport = Rp 30,000 / pax
- airport tax in Kalimarau Airport = Rp 15,000 / pax
- car rental Kalimarau Airport – Tanjung Batu return = Rp 350,000 / car
(and because there were 6 of us, it was only about Rp 60,000 / pax)
- speed boat Tanjung Batu – Derawan return = Rp 300,000 / boat
(divided by 6, only Rp 50,000 / pax)
- fishing boat for island-hopping; Derawan-Kakaban-Sangalaki = Rp 900,000 / boat
(originally they charged us Rp 1,000,000 /boat, but of course we haggled, so it came down to Rp 150,000 / pax, making it easier for us to devide the cost)
- speed boat for island-hopping; Derawan-Kakaban-Sangalaki = Rp 750,000 / boat
(and that is Rp 125,000 / pax)
- taxi from Vilabeta – Sepinggan International Airport = about Rp 45,000 / car
(Vilabeta is Garonk’s place in Balikpapan, where we spent our last night before going back to Jakarta)
- Green Family in Tanjung Batu, Berau = Rp 200,000 / room / nite
(sleeps 3 people in double bed for our relatively small bodies, so that’s about Rp 67,000 / pax)
- Losmen Danakan in Derawan island = Rp 100,000 / 4 nites / pax
(now remember, this is a room with no AC. The price is actually Rp 100,000 / nite / 3 beds, but we added 2 extra mattresses @ Rp 25,000. That means = [4 nites x Rp 100,000] + [2 extra mattress x 4 nites x Rp 25,000] = Rp 600,000. Then divide that by 6 pax = Rp 100,000 / pax. Cheap, indeed.. haha )
Diving / snorkeling apparel
- Fins = Rp 25,000 / pair / day
- Diving (incl. diveguide, boat, oxygen, wetsuit, weightbelt) = Rp 200,000 / diving trip
(well, only Ipink & Norman who went on the diving trip)
The average price of each meal is Rp 25,000 / pax.