Bird of paradise
Raja Ampat is well known for its incredible underwater life, but look up in the trees and you’ll find that its avian population is just as spectacular. Papua is famous for its endemic birds of paradise, and many birders come specifically for them. Early colonials having never seen the bird of paradise apart from the plumes in tribal headdresses thought they were the plumes of the mythical Phoenix. One thing they did agree on, was that these were definitely birds from Paradise with the sheer extravagance of their feathers and the variety of colour.
We had just arrived on board a fabulous yacht in West Papua when that evening just as I was getting settled into this millionaire lifestyle, the cruise director mentioned that there was an opportunity to view the famous Paradise Bird the very next morning and it would be a 5 am start. Bearing in mind that one can’t view this bird in a zoo or a bird park, and they are only found on two places on the planet, this island being one of them, I decided it would be foolish to miss this experience. Time to put the inner diva on hold! My husband on the other hand didn’t think it would be suitable for our 6 year old and volunteered himself to have a sleep in, sorry I meant volunteered himself to look after our younger child on the boat.
Our walk into the jungle to catch a glimpse of the elusive bird of paradise started at 5:15 before dawn. Alarms were set the night before and we were advised that if we were not ready on time the boat taking us ashore would have to leave without us -such is the limited viewing opportunity for this creature. Long sleeves linen shirts and long trousers to protect from the mosquitoes were the order of the day. We headed to the island by R.I.B in eerie darkness.
When we reached the shore I could only just make out some stilted homes above the water and three dogs sitting on the jetty. A cute little boy of about five was on a swing watching us curiously- probably having woken up early to see the foreigners! We were already sweating with the humidity. The guide who met us was wearing a knitted long sleeved jumper. That was probably the chilly part of the day for him! He explained in the little English he knew what our walk would entail. ‘Go, guide, up, one hour, see paradise bird,then down, one hour. So two hours of walking plus however long to spot the bird of paradise – dripping with perspiration and eaten by mozzies. I wasn’t feeling optimistic about this!
With torches to light the way through the pitch darkness we headed up an incline following our guide.The narrow path was tricky and flanked by jungle on both sides and I was grateful I had worn trainers. Our guide was wearing flip flops and expertly making his way over the limestone rocks and tree roots! In pilates and yoga there’s a lot of emphasis on our toes and heels needing to be awakened – I could see why now, and I was glad mine were both very awake and present! In the modern world we are not used to negotiating our way in bare feet so no wonder the senses of the feet go to sleep.
As we trudged our way up the hill the only sounds were the crunching of sand under our shoes and a cacophony of bird and insect sounds in the darkness – and the occasional yelp from the dogs which terrified me as I kept wondering what was out there making them yelp! It was both terrifying and surreal. And I was concentrating so much on where I was stepping, and the noises, that I didn’t even notice the humidity. Thankfully the light was slowly filtering through the trees as we made our way. Through the morning haze we could gradually see the beauty of the jungle, like a watercolour slowly coming to life.
We finally reached a tall tree in which the paradise bird usually nests, and, we were in luck. There he was in all his wonderful splendour! But it was when he flapped his wings and flew that we really got to see him in all his glory. The visual impact of those reds, green, yellow and oranges as he flashed his feathers to attract the female was definitely worth the long humid trek. The group fell silent, passing the binoculars around. The only thing missing was David Attenborough’s gentle and measured tones as we took turns with the binoculars to observe this resplendent creature!
Soon it was time to make the descent back to the boat with a stop off at a lookout across the sea to the larger island.
By now my 12 year old had turned his attention to the dogs. He spent the walk downhill fussing over the hounds. When I caught up with him – he had apparently just been saved by one of the dogs from a falling tree branch! The dog had run out in front of him and stopped just as a large branch fell in front of them! Hmmm I was a bit sceptical, but who knows – maybe the dogs of Raja Ampat are attuned to that first creak and snap before a branch comes down. Either way I was very glad this wonderful experience hadn’t ended with an injured child. The thought of helping him slowly back down through the heat and sweat wasn’t appealing.
I was ready for that cold flannel and cocktail back on the boat. But first a stop off at the lookout half way down. And this was the view we feasted our eyes upon:
Just absolute unspoiled beauty. When I thought about doing a travel section in my blog I wanted to write about my unique experiences – like this, not about every hotel and tourist attraction I came across, and I feel this definitely ticks that box.