Somewhere on the remote Indonesian road between the cities of Tanjung Selor and Berau I met a group of government officials eating papaya at road stand. Three men wearing black uniforms offered me fruit and a place to rest out of the hot sun. They didn’t speak a word of English so we conversed in my newly learned Indonesian basics. Each of them were wearing copious amounts of jewelry with large stones on rings, bracelets and necklaces, and they smoked fragrant clove cigarettes. The leader of the group was a tribal looking man with a stone the size of an I-phone around his neck and after learning that I was from America invited me to stay at the government office in the city of Berau 30 km away.
It quickly became dark, and I contemplated pedaling the rest of the way to Berau. From previous experiences I had a good idea of what my night would look when I got there and knew that I would probably spend the majority of the evening being a “exhibit”. Whatever the drawbacks I liked the bosses style as it reminded me a lot of what my father in the past. Even though it was dark and I was tired, I decided to pedal there.
At night the city of Berau becomes a maze of motorcycles, restaurants and mosques. The evening call to prayer began just as I approached the city limits and I swerved and dodged pedestrians, dogs, idle minivans and mopeds. The streets were covered in mud and pot holes and as I pedaled on the city began to come alive. Traffic in Indonesia, like Malaysia, Brunei and Japan drives on the left, but since many of the city roads have cement barriers keeping traffic from colliding many cars and motorbikes often drive on the right side of the road to reach small businesses and driveways. I quickly learned the Indonesian driving rule of thumb: If traffic is coming towards you pedal on the right side of it, if you are going with traffic pedal on the left.
Finding the government building in the center of town I arrived to a warm welcome and was quickly given similar jewelry from a large glass display case in the lobby. Within minutes my fingers, wrists and neck were adorned with large stones on rings, bracelets and necklaces. I was given new clothes and I posed for about a dozen photos before jumping into the back of a police pick truck. I was with a group of about 15 officials sitting on a bench welded to the back of the pickup truck. They all smoked the same fragrant cigarettes and were completely decorated in gemstone jewelry. We drove around the city and I watched the red moon came out of the clouds. It would eclipse in less than an hour.
We came to a stop in front of a busy restaurant that took up the entire sidewalk. Tables were spread out everywhere and all sorts of Indonesian cuisine colored the white table clothes. A large table was brought out and soon learned that I was the guest of honor. “Makan Coto Makassar”? ….. “Sure” I said Not really having any idea as to what I was being asked. I was soon brought a large bowl of white colored soup filled with cow stomach and intestines. After the soup there was fresh fish, fried chicken, and rice all eaten by hand, with each person given a small bowl to wash between courses. Throughout the meal the boss kept telling the other officials at the table to give me their jewelry! So slowing as I turned from appetizer to main course I had more and more rings and bracelets on my hands.
Afterwards they drove me to the outskirts of town where the boss owned a karaoke bar/harem. The place was filled with locals yelling, dancing and singing and quickly the boss called all the ladies to our table.
“Which girl do you want”? he asked. “I would rather sign a few songs” I said in broken Indonesian.
He laughed then called a few of his minions over to the table. The night went on, I lost track of my hosts, but always seemed to have a cold beer on the table as well as an unopened pack of cigarettes at my disposal. I sang duets with the girls at the bar, danced and waited for sleep. Finally close to 1 am my hosts returned and asked me if I was ready to go back.
The next morning a car prepared to take me to Tanjung Batu where a boat was waiting to take me to the island of Derawan. I was told to leave everything behind but I packed my tent and sleeping bag and hoped into the company limo for a 120 km drive to the port. Along the way the boss bought all sorts of fruit for me to eat while on the island, and even let me drive the mountainous jungle roads in the company car. When we arrived in Tanjung Batu the boat was waiting and the boss put money in my shirt pocket. I waved goodbye and the boat speed into the sea.
The island of Derawan is extremely small and consists of a small village with a few restaurants and shops. It took me 30 minutes to walk all the way around the island and in that time I was passed by several locals riding motorbikes. It seems the people on the island think they need motorized transport on an island the size of a suburban cul de sac. Half of the island is completely undeveloped with palm trees, forgotten coconuts and a long white sand beach. There is an abandoned presidential estate on the eastern corner of the island which made a great campsite and I ate coconuts and swam in the clear warm water completely isolated from the rest of the island. The sea near Derawan is so shallow that the tides drastically change the scenery. When the tide is low swimming on the north side of the island is close to/if not impossible. The sea fades away and exposes the ocean floor giving it an almost desert-like feel. When the tide finally returns the water becomes almost unbearably warm, and feels as if swimming in a Jacuzzi.
In my 4 days on the island I did not encounter another western foreigner, and no one spoke any English! The island definitely remote with no nearby airport and the closest city close to 4 hours away. The diving was fantastic with so many turtles that they soon became common place! Some are so large that they almost look like Volkswagen beetles.
While writing this post on Derawan I came across a multitude of questions regarding travel to and from the island as well as where to stay. Since I was traveling with locals I was able to get a good idea of the normal price for transport.
A few notes/tips for anyone heading to Derwan Island:
A minivan from Berau to Tanjung Batu (the nearest port to Derawan) costs 100,000 IDR (local price)
A speed boat from Tanjung Batu to Derawan costs between 60,000 -100,000 IDR (local price). The trip takes 30 minutes, find a speed boat with 1 engine it will use less petrol and can be bargained to a cheaper price.
Camping can be found throughout the eastern and northern part of the island and unless you pay the $100 US for a beach resort room it is a lot nicer than any of the local guest houses.
Don’t make any reservations with the dive companies found online, their prices are close to double that of the local price.