By Indonesia specialist Rael
There are a number of different ways to explore some of the 17,000 islands that make up Indonesia by boat.
You can ply the azure waters around the coast on an island-hopping tour, or cruise through the river network of the Tanjung Puting National Park in search of the country's most famous resident: the orangutan. Cruising in Indonesia is an efficient, cost-effective and rewarding way to travel and in many areas this is the only way to explore the islands.
Take a two night river cruise to find orangutans
Get up close to orangutans in the Tanjung Puting National Park
This remote region is home to the Camp Leakey rehabilitation centre for orangutans, many of which can be viewed at its numerous feeding stations. This is the main reason for a cruise here and the excitement builds the night before you visit the camp. As you glide through the waterways you’ll hear the animals calling to each other in the distance.
Viewing is almost guaranteed at Camp Leakey. Although the park is vast, the orangutans need the feeding stations as part of their rehabilitation and will actively visit. This is an 'up close and personal’ experience with only a rope separating you from them.
During my visit I saw between 15 and 20 primates. I vividly remember the orangutans staring down at me from the trees as we arrived at camp. When we returned to our boat to eat, we discovered the smell of our lunch cooking had attracted another group of these gentle creatures.
Boat options for Tanjung Puting National Park
Travel by traditional klotok boat
In Tanjung Putting you travel by traditional klotok. This is a converted wooden vessel, which provides an intimate experience as you’ll have it all to yourself except for a small crew. An upper deck provides the perfect vantage point for spotting wildlife such as proboscis monkeys, crocodiles and a variety of birdlife.
Though the boats are fairly simple, they do have air-conditioning and a Western-style toilet, as well as a crew of six, including a captain and chef who serves up delicious, locally-sourced food such as fish and tofu.
There is one cabin on board and you can choose to sleep here or, alternatively, the crew will make up a bed on the top deck for you. Covered in just a mosquito net you can fall asleep with the night sky above you and the sounds of the jungle all around.
Best time to cruise in Tanjung Puting
Peak cruising time in Tanjung Putting National Park is between June and September, when the weather is dry. I would recommend bringing a torch with you as well as a good book or pack of cards for the quiet evenings in the jungle.
Take a seven night cruise from Bali to Komodo Island
Komodo Island's dragons
A journey from Bali to Komodo Island is perhaps the most popular cruising option in Indonesia, and with good reason. Komodo and the smaller nearby island of Rinca are renowned for the Komodo dragon, sightings of which are almost guaranteed.
Rinca boasts the larger number of dragons, many of which congregate around a local cook station attached to the ranger station. Attracted by the smell, they’re easy to spot. On Komodo the dragons are more spread out but a lot larger than those found on Rinca.
The best time to view Komodo dragons is either in the morning or early evening, when the temperature is slightly cooler and they are more active. The snorkeling is extremely good around Komodo, too, and the island’s rugged landscape lends itself to walking and trekking.
Local market, Lombok
This cruise visits Lombok where you will see local villages in the north of the island where farming, pottery and weaving are the main occupations. You’ll also stop off at Sumbawa to visit a Buginese settlement, an area not normally visited by Westerners.
Here, the men are boat builders and the women produce beautiful, bright cloths and fabrics. The fishing port of Labuan Bajo on Flores is the departure point, which is easily reached by air from other parts of Indonesia.
If you’re short on time, it’s also possible to take in Komodo Island on a two day cruise.
Boat options to Komodo Island
The Ombak Putih, part of the SeaTrek fleet
There are two vessel options for a cruise around Komodo Island. As with Tanjung you can hire a boat for your sole use or, alternatively, take a longer cruise aboard one of the SeaTrek fleet, which sail between April and September.
The SeaTrek Fleet operates two boats on this cruise. The Katharina is a traditional Indonesian phinisi (two mast sailing ship) with six cabins that can accommodate up to 14 passengers. If the wind is good the captain will raise Katharina’s deep red sails. The Ombak Putih is slightly larger, with 12 cabins that can accommodate up to 24 passengers. This is a traditional Indonesian schooner.
On both boats all meals are included and the standard of cuisine is good. All cabins are en suite and air-conditioned.
For a more cost-effective option, you can hire a houseboat for a night or two. Similar in style to klotoks, houseboats are simple, wooden vessels and my favourite option for the flexibility they offer in terms of the route and stops. Unlike a cruise on one of the SeaTrek fleet, you can spend longer with the Komodo dragons if you wish, or request a snorkeling stop.
Cruise around the Raja Ampat Islands
Spot cuttlefish around the islands of Indonesia
From October to December, the SeaTrek’s fleet cruise around the Raja Ampat Islands. Sitting in the northeast of Indonesia, this glorious archipelago contains over 1,500 small islets and is part of the Coral Triangle, a region rich in marine biodiversity and a protected conservation area.
By visiting these islands you will cross the Wallace Line so the flora and fauna is completely different to the rest of Asia, with a landscape and wildlife more akin to Australasia. You’ll likely see manta rays, cuttlefish and eels.
These cruises are more specialist and focus on wildlife, culture, food or nature events. They don’t have a set route, though they do have scheduled departures. Many also have expert speakers on board who will lead the expedition and provide talks on subjects like birds of paradise.