What to say about a perfect, peaceful holiday on an idyllic tropical island? I have just returned from two weeks in paradise, aka Pulau Weh. Clearly I haven’t quite woken up from ‘chill’ mode since this blog has been once again neglected for a bit too long.
Weh is a tiny dot of land just off the north tip of Sumatra. It is accessed by ferry from the northern city of Banda Aceh. If this region sounds at all familiar it is for all the wrong reasons. In 2004 the now infamous “boxing day tsunami” ripped through Banada Aceh leaving over 180 000 dead, no that number is not a typo. Pulau Weh, though just off shore got off very lightly (only 13 dead on the island), due to it’s rugged geography. In Banda Aceh the flood waters gushed several kilometers inland stripping homes and offices from the map. Whereas in Pulau Weh the surge came in and smacked right into the steep hills that rise from the sea, then receded again. People here were able to scramble to higher ground and wait it out.
Banda Aceh’s other claim to fame is being at the heart of a violent civil war, one that tore apart Aceh province for fifty years. For a long time tourists simply could not enter the region. Even Indonesians required special permits to enter Aceh and most considered it too dangerous. The silver lining to the devastating tsunami was that in the aftermath of the destruction people put aside their differences and rebuilt together. With the help of foreign NGOs Banda Aceh has been rebuilt and is now wooing tourists with it’s clean and peaceful new look. Not to mention that Aceh province has some spectacular, intact old growth forests, pristine coastlines and of course superb scuba diving on little Pulau Weh.
During the heyday of NGO presence in Banda Aceh, Pulau Weh gained a reputation as the ‘island of sin’. In the very conservative Aceh, which still adheres to sharia law, Weh became a bit of an exception. It’s beauty and small, laid back population made it the favoured vacation spot for the foreigners working in Banda Aceh. In Weh locals don’t mind if you sip the occasional Bintang or wear a bikini on the beach. Although it is by no means a party spot like Bali.
These days it is the diving that lured me and most other tourists in. The appealing isolation of Gapang beach and the spectacular diving just minutes offshore inspire a relaxed joie de vivre. I brought with me my laptop thinking I would get some work done on my holiday and only ever used it to blare mellow tunes while I lounged in the hammock on my balcony. I settled very quickly into the eat, sleep, dive routine of the place. During the obligatory surface time I enjoyed cold drinks on the breezy veranda overhanging the beach while chatting with the delightfully eclectic folks who had also stumbled upon this little nirvana.
Getting to Pulau Weh is the challenge I had to overcome to realize its splendor. Perhaps my normally low stress level just needed to be amped up in order to truly appreciate the ensuing relaxation. On the morning of my planned departure from Jambi my passport was still in the hands of the local immigration office. They had been “extending my visa” for over two weeks. Bags packed and ready to go, I went in person to the immigration office and chatted about orangutans for about an hour with the lovely office ladies. Only then did they graciously hand over my passport, the ink still fresh on my visa stamp. From there I went to the airport only to learn that the booking I made had been mysteriously cancelled. Despite my having a printed e-ticket from the airline, I had no seat on the plane (and, as I later realized, no charge on my credit card). With no time to spare I went to the ticket agents outside and bought a one way ticket to Jakarta. There was no space on my planned connecting flight to Banda Aceh. In Jakarta I visited all the various airline ticket offices and discovered that the only flight I was going to get to Banda Aceh was a first class Garuda flight leaving at noon the following day. The choice was between that singular ticket or trying my luck at going standby on the upcoming fully booked flights. Not feeling very lucky, being in desperate need of holiday time, and certainly not keen to spend the first few days of it in the smog and bustle of Jakarta, I bit the bullet and payed the price. Then I checked into the swanky airport hotel for good measure. Sometimes even this vagabond has to indulge. And indulge I did in a long hot shower (!!!! first shower I had seen in two months!!!!), a flushing toilet complete with toilet paper, a plush queen size bed, cable tv and air conditioning (this last perk was a bit over the top, I generally prefer a fan). In the morning I enjoyed the amply stocked, “complimentary” continental breakfast buffet before checking into the executive lounge. I must say, at this point I was feeling uncharacteristically posh.
As my proximity to Pulau Weh increased so did the delights. With one quick phone call I arranged a homestay in Banda Aceh since my flight would have me arriving just in time to miss the last ferry of the day. Linda, the lovely owner was waiting at the airport to pick me up and gave me the quick driving tour of town on the way to her home. My room was actually a little bungalow out back with a huge bed and air conditioning. Linda brought me fresh Acehnese coffee and some duku fruits then offered to join me for dinner. We went to a wonderful restaurant nearby and had some of the spiciest and most delicious noodles I have had in Indonesia. Linda was a very interesting dinner companion, she is an older woman and has lived in Banda Aceh her whole life, she has endless stories to tell about life here both before and after the tsunami.
In the morning Linda drove me to the ferry and even helped me to buy a ticket. The crossing was fast and on the other side I was immediately greeted by a smiling becak driver. A becak is a motorcycle with a rickety wooden bench attached as a side car. I asked the driver how much to Gapang beach, he said 70 000 Rp and I said I was told 50 000 (which is true), with zero hassle he broadened his smile and agreed upon 50 000. The kind guy even stopped at a couple of scenic lookouts and graciously waited while I snapped some photos. At the second of such lookouts my wonder at the panoramic vista was displaced by an adorable troupe of monkeys eager to pose for my lens. The other marvelous thing about a private becak is that during the thirty minute drive I did not have to suffocate in a crammed mini van with a dozen other sweaty passengers, instead I had the wind in my hair and thoroughly enjoyed the twisting hills of Pulau Weh. By the time I pulled up in front of the small dive shop and hotel I was totally smitten with Pulau Weh.
As the days went by I got really into the simplicity of life at Gapang beach. Every dive I discovered new fish and invertebrates. Moray eels of all varieties guarded their caves; delicate, colourful nudibranchs adorned sprawling coral heads; schools of hungry trevaliers patrolled the blue, searching for yummy shoals of fusilliers. The occasional sea turtle; sting ray or shark streamed by while lion and scorpion fish casually modelled their venomous beauty. Having never been diving in this part of the world, the very easterly edge of the Indian ocean, many species were totally new to me. I spent hours after dives pouring over field guides trying to identify the plethora of new creatures I was encountering. Even snorkeling offshore from the hotel revealed wonders: beautifully coloured giant clams, octopus changing colour, tiny pipefish, meticulously camouflaged frogfish and so much more. On one very memorable dive I was the first to discover a pair of cuttlefish. I could hardly contain my joy as I flailed about trying to get the attention of my dive mates. Then as we hovered, watching in amazement as the pair put on a brilliant colour show, one flashing a ghost white while the other alternated between deep red and mottled brown, I realized what we were witnessing. This was a mating pair. The female was releasing long, slender, white egg cases into a crevice in the corals. Simply spectacular!
Back on land I also had a few minor adventures, but as this is getting long I think I will save them for the next post. Stay tuned. More pictures will soon be added.