Why diving in Indonesia rocks

 

On any dive boat, pretty much anywhere in the world, when you're chatting about the world's best diving, Indonesia just keeps coming up. Obviously, 17,000-odd islands offer plenty of options, plus delightful surface intervals on palm-fringed, white sand (or even pink sand) beaches. Further, occasionally ropy safety standards, not to mention the currents, can make for outstanding bragging rights.

Yet there are good, solid reasons why diving Indo is so great. Indonesia straddles the equator, meaning the seas are fairly toasty – even compared to Egypt, let alone the Atlantic. Sunny days, current action and limited river or soil runoff at most dive sites make for consistently good visibility. In many areas that liveaboards visit, population density is so low that the reef is untouched even by boat anchors.

More importantly, however, much of Indonesia sits within the Coral Triangle. Probably Earth's most diverse marine habitat, the Coral Triangle is home to over 600 different types of reef coral, six out of seven types of turtle, plus thousands of species of fish. Basically, dive pretty much anywhere in Indonesia east of Java or the east coast of Borneo, and you're diving one of the most diverse marine environments on earth: Papua's Raja Ampat islands, a diving mecca, claim the highest recorded marine diversity on the planet.

One issue that comes up a lot with old Indo hands is currents. Indonesia is famous for currents: some of the archipelago's iconic dives, like Cannibal Rock in Komodo National Park, are exhilarating (or terrifying) high-current dives, where you negotiate powerful, multi-directional currents and lock into the rock with a reef-hook to watch big, ocean-going creatures like sharks and rays cruise past. Crystal Bay at Nusa Penida off Bali is celebrated not just for the chance to see the giant oceanic “mola-mola” sunfish and mantas, but for currents that can (and do) kill if mishandled.

 That's not to say that all Indonesian diving is high-current diving. There are plenty of stunning coral gardens, dazzling walls, gentle drift dives and outstanding muck dives. The coral-fringed wreck of the USS Liberty off Bali is a world class dive site that's suitable for absolute beginners; the underwater volcano in Galela, off Halmahera, is fascinating, unique and unchallenging; some of Lembeh's famous macro sites are easy dives. Still, it's currents, specifically the Indonesian Throughflow, that make Indonesia's diving what it is.

The Indonesian Throughflow occurs because Indonesia sits between the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Put simply, the Pacific Ocean is higher than the Indian Ocean, so flows of water so vast they need to be measured in units called Sverdrups race through Indonesia each day, causing associated, complex currents as they interact with topography, weather and the archipelago's complicated tides. This throughflow brings nutrients and larvae from ocean to ocean, enriching diversity - even dive sites which are shielded from powerful currents benefit from it.

The Indonesian Throughflow sweeps through, past and around most of Indonesia's best dive locations – many, though not all, of which are best accessed by liveaboard dive boats. It pours down the channels between Bali and Lombok, Borneo and Sulawesi, Sulawesi and Maluku, and Maluku and Papua, and powers its way through Komodo and around Timor.

All of which means that it's hard to go wrong when diving in Indonesia – there's plenty of marine life even on the over-rated and over-busy Gilis. Note that, even on Bali, the dive sites are a long way from a decompression chamber. So don't skimp on price, check gear and safety standards carefully, listen to the briefing and dive within your training and ability. Most importantly, if a dive doesn't feel right, or an operator or dive guide suggests it's outside your abilities, sit it out.

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Published by Stuart Lodge

 

Indonesian public transport

 

A month in Indonesia had made us lazy. With a private driver costing barely £30 per day and cross-island 3-hour transfers in comfortable air-conditioned taxis typically £20, anyone travelling on more than a shoestring budget can avoid the alternative (when it exists) of a gruelling trip on a long-distance bus.

There's no shortage of options for the 17 km journey from Yogyakarta to the 9th-century Hindu temples of Prambanan. Shuttle buses take tourists several times  a day, and a metered taxi costs around £4. But it was our final day in Indonesia and I had decided that a ride on a local bus was long overdue.

We duly found the correct bus stop, paid our 20p fare and sat down to wait for the 1A bus. We waited. And waited. Despite the platform attendant assuring us that the buses came every 15 minutes, it was half an hour before a crowded bus pulled up. The cheery conductor made a signal to tell us it was full and the bus left. "Another 10 minutes," our attendant said in a sympathetic voice. 20 minutes later another crowded bus came and left, and we came to the belated realisation that we had a choice of a visit to a 9th-century temple or an afternoon at a sweaty bus stop.

Less than 40 minutes in a taxi and £3.60 later (there was no quibble about refunding our unused bus tickets) we were passing through the special Foreigners' Entrance Gate at Prambanan. We still had three hours until sunset - long enough to negotiate the ever-present menace of selfie sticks along with the regular requests for photos with local tourists. The temple complex itself is compact, with the vast majority of visitors staying near the main building. We wandered up to the Candi Sewu temple, also part of the Prambanan site but around 10 minutes' walk away, and despite it being only marginally less impressive than the main site, it was deserted. It was here that we spent most of our time, exploring the inner chambers, admiring the intricate stone work and playing with the camera in the late afternoon light.

 While agencies in Yogyakarta make a big deal of selling sunset tours to Prambanan, by the time the sun actually goes down the crowds have mostly left and the staff are busy closing the site. Without any transport arranged we lingered until most people had left and then walked out to the road, determined once again to find that elusive 1A bus. We even waved away the offer of a motorbike ride back into town; it was our final evening and we weren't going to leave Indonesia without at least one bus ride.

With some helpful pointing from local shop owners we finally found the 1A bus stop, and this time the conductor had mercy and opened the doors to allow two very grateful foreigners to squeeze into the crowded bus. For 30 minutes we hung on as a group of young ladies (student teachers from Surabaya, it turns out) interrogated us about our experiences and impressions of Indonesia, and gave us stern warnings not to fall for the many scams aimed at foreign tourists.

On the outskirts of town we were abruptly told to leave the bus and wait for a connecting service, which we were told would stop right outside our hotel. We waited, and waited, and waited. 40 minutes later we got back onto another 1A bus, realising that the 20-minute walk from the terminus would have been by far the most sensible option. The bus soon hit the Yogyakarta traffic, and the final kilometre took over 30 minutes to negotiate. Stepping out into the warm evening, we were pleased that we could tick the Indonesian bus ride off our list. In this case at least, once is certainly enough.

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