We had the chance to check out the diving in the Derawan Archipelago, specifically at the islands of Maratua, Kakaban, and Sangalaki, in the province of Berau, East Kalimantan, Indonesia which are home to some unique ecosystems and offer a spectacular dive experience.
Our plan was to take the fastest route and fly from Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia at 7:30 a.m. to Tawau on the East Coast of Sabah, and then catch the flight to Tarakan Island, Indonesia. From Tarakan, we would go by speed boat, arriving at Maratua Island by 3:00 p.m. that afternoon.
Maratua Island is only located less than 500 Km from home. What can possibly go wrong? Well, it all began when our flight from Kota Kinabalu to Tawau was delayed, and we realised that we would miss the flight to Tarakan, which only goes 3 times per week. [alert type=”info” close=”false” text=”When we took the trip, there were only 3 flights a week between Tawau and Tarakan. Since then, the service has been updated and there are daily flights available, but you will still need to plan around the boat schedules. There is also another route available via Balikpapan.”] We considered deferring our trip, and even unloaded our baggage, but decided to go ahead and try some alternative ways of getting to Maratua Island that day.
At 9:55 a.m. our flight to Tawau finally took off, and 45 minutes later we landed at the airport. Unfortunately, our luggage didn’t make the flight as well. Eventually we learned that it had been left in Kota Kinabalu and would be sent on the next plane, which was due later that afternoon. We had just enough time to take a taxi to the ferry terminal to buy our tickets, before rushing back to the airport to collect our luggage (the later flight was also delayed so we needn’t have hurried) and returned to the ferry terminal just in time to board the last ferry of the day for Nunukan Island, Indonesia.
On board the colourful, crowded ferry we joined the other passengers in stowing our belongings under seats and in the aisle for the 1.5 hour trip to Tunon Taka Port, Nunukan, Indonesia. Since this is the popular and cheap transport for cargo and the local people between Malaysia and Indonesia, both the terminal and the ferry are extremely busy and noisy. At last, we could relax and focus on the people and sights around us. We also gathered some useful information about Nunukan from helpful fellow-passengers.
Finally, at 5:30 p.m., we arrived in Indonesia! We checked in at the comfortable Neo Fortuna Hotel and decided to venture out and enjoy the sights, sounds, and smells of Nunukan despite our exhaustion.
The people of Nunukan are not wealthy, but they certainly have an abundance of ingenuity, happiness, and hospitality. We admired the amusement park in the square in front of the hotel with its ingenious, cyclist-powered merry-go-round and other attractions. It was full of laughing children, taking turns in the ball pit, fishing for prizes and squealing with joy on the rides. It was rather like stepping back in time, seeing the old-style photo booths, the rattling buses with doors held closed by strategic pieces of wire, brightly-painted tin toys and simple open-air structures.
We dined at Warung Sari Laut Cak To, a popular local seafood restaurant, and admired the fan with its built-in air-freshener (a sign of local ingenuity). The delicious ikan bakar (grilled fish), fresh from the sea, was grilled on a simple charcoal grill outdoors, and we were able to continue to watch the colourful local night life while we anticipated our dinner. Later, we returned to the hotel and sank into bed. Despite the disruption to our plans the opportunity to connect with local people more than compensated for the day’s travel frustrations, and reminded us that the trip was about more than just diving.
After a good night’s sleep, the following day saw us heading back to the ferry terminal. Since it was a public holiday many of the local people in their colourful Sunday best were also taking the 3 hour trip to Tarakan. Once again, we enjoyed their company and reveled in the warm sunshine and beautiful ocean, despite the fact that this ferry was even more crowded and the seats were even narrower than the one the previous day.
At Tarakan, we chartered a private boat for the 3.5 hour trip to Maratua Paradise Resort, Maratua Island, and arrived at 2:30 p.m. – almost 24 hours later than we had planned.
We were warmly welcomed at Maratua Paradise Resort, whose owners we have known a number of years, also operate the MV Celebes Explorer at Sipadan. The courtesy and attention they showed us, and the other guests reminded us that in the diving world, there are no strangers – only friends you have not yet met.
Our accommodation was simple but clean and comfortable, and we enjoyed the constant sounds of the sea. The water villas, and the restaurant, perched on stilts above the clear water lend a special atmosphere to the resort. The food was delicious, with an abundance of freshly cooked seafood.
Maratua Paradise Resort is focused on the diving opportunities, but our hosts arranged for a local dance troupe to perform for us one evening, and the trip around the island riding pillion on a scooter was a wonderful experience on our ‘dry’ day.
The diving at Maratua, Kakaban, and Sangalaki is really amazing! Highlights included the giant Manta Rays, huge schools of Barracuda and Green Turtles, and the elusive Picture Dragonet, Mandarin Fish, Two-eyed Lion Fish and more.
Would we visit Maratua Island again? Absolutely! There is so much more to see, and we had a great time there. But next time we will probably not follow our “let’s try the alternative routes” to get there – although… I wouldn’t have missed our time in Nunukan for anything, and we definitely had more adventure than we bargained for.
If you are planning to visit Maratua Island, we recommend:
1. Making sure your Travel Insurance is current (for delays, baggage, and accidents);
2. Allow more time between transits in case of delays. Let us help you with your planning to get there;
3. Expect the unexpected – and enjoy the experience.