I’m so happy to be finally writing this blog after several months of uncertainty. It’s even more serendipitous that it’s all come together at New Year, a symbol of regeneration and new beginnings. This is BIG news, and big changes are afoot for us.
Yes, we are becoming dirt-dwellers! After 11 years of living aboard, we’ve both agreed it’s time to swallow the anchor and move onto new adventures. We love the freedom the cruising life gives us, and we’re so grateful for the opportunities we’ve had to travel and explore amazing places that many people don’t get the chance to see. But we’re not getting any younger, and long ocean passages are not something that are on our agenda anymore. And Bruce is definitely over squeezing himself into tiny, hot, humid spaces to fix yet another problem. But what to do instead? Of course, we want to spend more time with our family. But our shared passion in diving and underwater photography is something we don’t want to give up just yet.
As fate would have it, we were sitting here at Dayan Island, our favourite spot in Batanta, enjoying the sunset one evening last June when an idea started to form. What if we could stay in Raja Ampat 6 months of the year, and be home in Australia for the other 6 months (Covid permitting, of course)? As we’re thinking this, we’re staring at this picture-perfect little tropical island with a disused homestay (think guesthouse/Airbnb) and wondering if it’s possible to lease it. As it turns out, the Saleo family who live here own the surrounding land and are descendants of the first inhabitants of Raja Ampat. We asked, and to our surprise they said “Yes, we’d love you to live here”! Could it possibly be that simple?
Well, no, of course not. It turns out that the island we’d set our sights on was the subject of an ownership dispute with another part of the extended family. It was for this reason that the homestay hadn’t been used since it was built by the other party 5 years ago, who then onsold it a local government official. It’s a long and complicated history involving kinship, slavery, murder, bribery, and corruption that would make for a fascinating read if the family ever allowed the story to be told. But they were so keen for us to live there that they decided to try and regain their title to the island – not an easy task when there’s no written records or title deeds. So, we’ve been waiting for the process to play out, which has involved endless meetings with the aggrieved parties held initially by the police, and more recently the traditional “Adat” council of Raja Ampat. Time was ticking by, and there was always just one more meeting to be had, usually because one or other party failed to attend the previous meeting. When the latest meeting in December last year failed to produce an outcome, we knew we had to draw a line underneath it and move on.
We’d been looking at alternate sites, and found a spot on the larger, adjoining Dayan island that we thought might work. There were no ownership complications here, and the only other inhabitants of the island are Han’s uncle and his family.
On Monday Dec 21st we had a meeting with Hans’s family and agreed in principle to a 5-year lease with an option to extend, paid our first 6 months lease, and on Tuesday 22nd December the land clearing began! We had already employed a local solicitor to advise the family on their other issue, so we’ll get a legal agreement written up and signed when we next go back to Sorong.
The new site is a lot more work as we have to start from scratch. Literally. With just machetes, chainsaw, and their bare hands the family have cleared the land in less than a week.
In fact, we now realise it’s probably a better option than the original island we were looking at. We have not one, but two beaches, as the block sits in the saddle of the island with a beach on the north and south sides, better soil, and more space. It’s also more private because in the tourist season the phinisi tourist boats use the small island as their staging post and it would be hard to stop that practice (did we mention the big drawcard of this area are the manta rays?!)
We’ve been pitching in and helping with the land clearing where we can – and in the process have discovered muscles we never knew we had. I think we overdid it the first couple of days – Bruce came down with a fever and severe muscle aches over Christmas which we assume was either heat stroke, or possibly the start of an infection from a cut on his leg. He’s all better now, but we’ve learnt to pace ourselves and not try and keep up with the family!
Everything will be built in traditional Papuan style, using local timber and palm fronds. Eventually we hope to have a workshop, kitchen, open-air lounge/dining, a house for us and two guesthouses. But it won’t be 5-star. Oh no, no, no. This is going to be a pretty basic 1 -star facility. Or as Bruce calls it, “Camp Toucan – where you wouldn’t dare send your children”.
At least we can transfer our self-sufficient skills to the island – we’ll install solar power and a watermaker and have a petrol-driven generator as back-up. It’s going to be a lot of work, and the challenge now is to get as much done as we can before we sail Toucan back to Australia in April, and hopefully find a new home for her. It’s exciting and daunting, but we couldn’t be happier. And probably just a touch crazy.