Indonesia Raja Ampat - Surfing in the Land of the Four Kings

If you like to do your surfing alone, free of crowds of other surfers or in many areas of Raja Ampat; any other people at all, then these remote reaches of the vast Indonesian archipelago are for you.

The far distant reaches of Pacific Indonesia are better known as diving destinations, but the Raja Ampat region does have surfing waves in abundance.

People and places in the Raja Ampat area of Pacific Indonesia

These coral reef and beachbreak waves are in some of the most remote island groups in the country, nearly inaccessible to all but the most determined surfers. If you like to do your surfing alone, free of crowds of other surfers or in many areas of Raja Ampat; any other people at all, then these remote reaches of the vast Indonesian archipelago are for you.

The islands of Raja Ampat are some of the most remote in the 18 000 islands of the vast Indonesian Archipelago

The gateway to Raja Ampat, both the diving and surfing areas, is the small city of Sorong, on the western tip of the island of New Guinea, in the Indonesian province of West Papua. A somewhat gritty town of oil and gas industrial facilities with little charm, Sorong has a large natural harbor where dozens of live-aboard dive charter boats can be seen at anchor in the off-season for diving.

Virtually no visitors and not many people at all in the remote areas of Raja Ampat

When West Papua is mentioned in the world’s media, it is usually in relation to the ongoing dispute between the Indonesian government in Jakarta, some 3 000 kilometers to the east and the Free West Papua movement, a sometimes violent sepratist movement led by indigenous Papuans to achieve independence from Indonesia.

Emiliano Cataldi, charging the beach break with an audience of village children who had never seen surfing before

The independence movement has smoldered and flared into violence many times since the Netherlands turned over political control of their colony of Papua to Indonesia in 1962, after a referendum the independence people insisted was rigged.

Independence activists are fighting to secure the political independence of the Indonesian half of the island of New Guinea

The former province of Irian Jaya, the Indonesian half of the island of New Guinea, was separated into four provinces including Papua and West Papua in 2001 and both of these operate as autonomous provinces, quite unlike other regions of Indonesia.

With few roads in the area, most transportation is by boat

One of the government policies the indigenous Papuans object to most strongly is the infamous “transmigrasi” program, where impoverished Indonesian citizens, usually ethnic Malay Muslims from overcrowded islands like Java and Madura, can apply for government assistance to relocate to less densely populated parts of the country like West Papua, where the indigenous Melanesian people are primarily Christians.

Emiliano and Alberto having lunch on the pier, leftover rice with fried eggs and sambal chili sauce - definitely delicious

The policy was first initiated by the Dutch colonial government in the early nineteenth century to provide labor for plantation agriculture and has been continued by the Indonesian government.
Transmigrasi is regarded by the indigneous Papuans as a government subsidized invasion program and there have been many clashes and acts of violence against these tens of thousands of new arrivals from other islands.

Surfing the outer reef with Alberto Lima Castro from Rio de Janeiro in Brasil

Never mind that the new arrivals are Indonesian citizens with every right to live where they like inside the boundaries of the Indonesian nation, regardless of their religion or ethnicity.

A minority in Indonesia, commonly referred to as "the world's largest Muslim country", most of the indigenous Papuan people are practicing Christians

Indigenous Papuans regard the transmigrasi program as an attempt to populate them out of their ancestral lands, making indigenous Melanesian Christians a minority in a sea of ethnic Malay Muslims.

Emiliano Cataldi, surfing the outer reef in the Pacific Ocean

The transmigrasi program was discontinued in Papua in 2015 by order of President Joko Widodo, but independence activists vow to stop the programme permanently and reverse it upon achieving independence.

Alberto Lima Castro, surfing on the outer reef in the Pacific Ocean

Away from the violent politics of transmigrasi and other repressive Indonesian government policies in West Papua, there is stunning beauty in abundance in both land and sea.

Raja Ampat: stunning beauty on both land and sea

As the Raja Ampat area is considered part of the tropical ”Coral Triangle”, several of the few areas that have been surveyed to scientific protocols have scored the highest tropical marine life biodiversity ever recorded, with dozens of species of hard corals and thousands of varieties of tropical reef fish. Hence the justified popularity of the area with divers, who come from all corners of the world to dive the fantastic underwater world in Raja Ampat.

Boats are the key to transportation in Raja Ampat, used like cars are in other places

Surfing is a far more obscure activity in the area, as many surfers are unaware of any surfing possibilities in the Raja Ampat area at all. The dive areas are relatively sheltered with abundant accommodations, but to get suitable waves for surfing, one has to go to the north facing coastlines which are far more remote and exposed to ocean swells and the northwest monsoon.

The outer reef was offshore on a northwest wind

Just getting to one of the few towns with any place to stay is a very long, multi-stage boat trip on the Pacific Ocean, during which in the wave season of November to March, one is guaranteed to get soaked by at least one heavy monsoon rainstorm. If you aren’t getting soaked by spray coming over the gunwales of the wooden boat, you are getting soaked by the heavy tropical rain.
Bucketloads of saltwater or freshwater, it’s your choice; either way, you are going to get wet and stay wet for the duration of the trip!

Brasileiro Alberto Lima Castro, surfing on the outer reef

Once established in an accommodation, then the fun starts. As ocean swell in this area is quite consistent in the November to March wave season, there are surfable waves every day, with the best spots offshore on the prevailing northwest wind. Of course, in a remote area like Raja Ampat, there is no one surfing other than the occasional surf charter live-aboard boat from Sorong, which are very few and far between.

Clean peaks on the outer reef, in the Pacific Ocean

The villages are mostly underdeveloped, as very little government assistance or private investment reaches these remote areas of Pacific Indonesia. Other than the odd shop run by ethnic Chinese or transmigrasi Malay people from Java, there is very little commercial activity at all, with most of the people relying on fishing and farming for sustenance.

Walking through the coconut forest to get to the coastline

In recent years, there have been more and more empty houses in the villages, as locals migrate from traditional lifestyles and occupations to take advantage of better schools for their children and job opportunities to earn a cash income in the cities of Sorong or Manokwari.

Getting soaked by rainstorms was a regular occurrence in the rainy season in Pacific Indonesia

We did chance upon a new development outside of one village, they have built six or so cottages of traditional materials behind the beach, along with a shower and toilet building and a kitchen for meals, in an attempt to capture a small portion of the Raja Ampat tourism business.
Fortunately for them, they have a high quality, ultra-consistent beachbreak in front of their new accommodation facility, not that they knew anything at all about surfing before construction.

Emiliano Cataldi surfing the beach break with an audience of children from the village

We were the first foreign guests to stay at this new development and while it is quite basic, it was a luxury for the area to have a clean and dry room to sleep in at night with a foam mattress and take shelter from the heavy downpours.

Accommodations in Raja Ampat, quite a luxury in this remote and rugged area

With good waves directly in front, there was no driving or boats to go surfing and we were happy to be staying with the villagers for several days, giving our indigenous Papuan hosts some advice about their expected visitors, as they have no experience in hosting guests at all.

We were the first foreign guests this village had ever had and they gave us a warm welcome

We moved on from the village beachfront accommodations to a nearby island with an enormous barrier reef and a charming native village. Enormous breadfruit and coconut trees backed the beachfront, likely planted and re-planted over the centuries to provide food for the village.

Emiliano Cataldi, surfing the beach break, clean conditions during a heavy rainstorm

This village is likely to have existed in some form for centuries, as the huge expanse of flat reef; nearly exposed at low tide, was a primary source of food for the village with dozens of people foraging at low tide for octopus, fish, shellfish, sea urchins, sea turtles and other marine creatures as they likely have done for centuries.

The stunning environment of Raja Ampat, equally spectacular on land and at sea

At the point where the reef curves around just enough for the northwest wind to blow offshore was a good quality left reef wave, fun on a high tide and more challenging and intense on a low tide.  We surfed this left for several days, enjoying village life and the splendid isolation of this remote community.

Distant waves on the outer reef in Raja Ampat

Alberto Lima Castro, surfing the outer reef

We moved on again to a nearby village with a long barrier reef with a good right and left peak at the end of the village. Walking to surf the right in the afternoon, we would start collecting a few village children in the first minute of walking, then as we passed the church at the center of the village, the crowd of kids would increase. As we got to the other end of the village, it was not unusual to have 30 or 40 kids in tow, running along to see what these strange foreigners with surfboards were going to do next. They would settle down on the beach in the shade to watch us surf, gradually drifting off in twos and threes to do more fun things in their carefree childhoods.

Emiliano Cataldi, walking on a spectacular beach in Raja Ampat

Leading a parade of children through the village, walking to surf the right-hander

Foreigners were great entertainment for these children in the complete absence of any motorbikes, cars of any kind, internet, television or even mobile phone signal or radio stations in this remote place almost exactly on the equator.

Emiliano Cataldi, surfing on the outer reef in the Pacific Ocean

We certainly enjoyed our time in this remote part of the vast island archipelago of Indonesia. Raja Ampat is an area of many charms, not only for diving but for surfing as well.

Swimming in a clear freshwater river, deep inside the tropical forest of Raja Ampat.

Text: John Seaton Callahan / surfEXPLORE
Images: John Seaton Callahan / surfEXPLORE

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