Covered with lush virgin tropical jungle, surrounded by countless small islets and the world’s richest reefs.
A Swiss-born Maya Hadorn welcomes travelers to explore Pulau Pef of Raja Ampat with its spectacular resort, white sandy beaches, hidden lakes, blue lagoons, ancient rock art on karst cliffs, pristine blue waters, mangroves, and an incredible variety of underwater diversity.
It’s been 11 years since Maya decided to open Raja4Divers. Through her adventurous journey, the resort’s Founder and Managing Director shares with Indonesia Expat about the majestic land and underwater world guaranteed to blow your mind.
Maya, please tell us about yourself.
I was born the fifth and youngest child on my parents’ farm in Switzerland. This allowed me and my siblings to grow up very close to nature. Our mother also liked to show us books with pictures from foreign countries. This was so fascinating that already as a little girl, it was clear to me that I wanted to discover the big wide world someday.
But first, I had to go to school and learn a profession. I completed my first apprenticeship as a cook and my second in the service sector. Later, I gained experience as a receptionist and worked in a hotel’s bar on the side.
Afterwards, I finally went on my first big trip, which took me to Hong Kong, Thailand, Australia, and the Maldives. It was there that I discovered the underwater world, which fascinated me so much that I extended my stay and learned to dive. One year later, I was already on a plane to the Maldives again, but this time for work.
After a good three years on the island of Helengeli in the Maldives and half a year in New Zealand, I returned to Switzerland, where, in addition to running various catering businesses, I also completed higher management training.
At the beginning of 2006, I was asked if I would like to work as a resort manager in Raja Ampat. At first, I hesitated because I had a good and happy life in Switzerland. In addition, I must admit that at that time I didn’t even know where Raja Ampat was! In the end, it was not only the incredible beauty of Raja Ampat that made me decide to accept the offer, but also the challenge of living, learning, and working with local people in a place that was still almost untouched at that time.
You were ready to head home but then discovered Pulau Pef, Raja Ampat in West Papua. How did you discover it in the first place? And did you cancel your homecoming plan?
During my time as the resort manager, my local employees had occasionally suggested that I should set up my own resort in Raja Ampat. But I categorically rejected this idea, because I wanted to be free to go and work anywhere in the world at any time. In addition, I considered such a project to be impossible for a foreign woman without a partner.
Shortly before my return to Switzerland in September 2009, my colleagues and I went on a small excursion by boat. It was late afternoon when a Papuan friend showed me Pulau Pef in the warm evening light – my first glimpse of the island from its best side, so to speak. The unbelievable beauty of Pulau Pef with its coconut palm-fringed beach, the majestic mountains, the golden rocks, the lush green jungle, and the old gnarled mangrove trees simply blew my mind. It was love at first sight!
Afterward, everything happened quickly, because I already had the plane ticket to go home in my pocket and there was not much time left. So, I contacted several Indonesian friends who had the necessary know-how and experience for such a project. They were important key persons for me, and they all said YES!
I didn’t cancel my flight home but traveled to Switzerland as planned. However, I went there to write a business plan, look for investors, draw the plans for the resort and make many other preparations to come back to Raja Ampat later. This time to Pulau Pef!
Take us on the journey of Raja4Divers resort’s establishment, Maya.
While I was working in Switzerland, my local friends in Raja Ampat were busy making arrangements and finding out who the landowner was in order to negotiate a lease with him and get the contract sorted out. We managed to get a lease for 50 years which gives us enough security to develop the resort in a sustainable way.
Six months later, we met in Jakarta to sign the land contract and register the company. In September 2010, I traveled back to Raja Ampat, and the construction of the resort started after a big ceremony, as it is the tradition here in Papua.
In June 2011, after only six months of construction and after some test guests/friends had visited us, we were ready to welcome our first guests to Raja4Divers. It was a couple from Hawaii with whom we are still in contact today.
Over the years, the resort has developed. We built more guest bungalows and now have a total of ten bungalows. This is where we will stop so as not to destroy the special atmosphere we have and the feeling of being one with nature.
Looking back to when you first established the resort, would you say building the resort has been an adventure and a challenge for you?
Only in retrospect can I say: yes, yes! Because at the time of the construction, I didn’t even think about it and just went for it.
Would I do it again? Absolutely!
What are the activities available at the resort?
Diving, snorkeling, swimming, kayaking around the island and through mangrove lagoons, climbing our house mountain Mount Pef and enjoying the breathtaking view from the platform, walk in the jungle and mangrove forest, discovering the unique flora and fauna (orchids, birds, lizards, etc.), table tennis, boccia, badminton and other games, massage, sunset bar, Pef band, library, etc.
How does a domestic and an international visitor get to the resort?
As a domestic visitor, you take a flight to Sorong and are then taken by our own transfer boat from Sorong to Pulau Pef. This 3.5-hour journey will take you through untouched areas and past picturesque islets, also passing the famous «Passage» and, if you are lucky, you may see dolphins or whales on the way.
International visitors usually arrive in Indonesia via Jakarta, Manado, Makassar or Bali and fly to Sorong as well. From there on, the journey is the same as for domestic guests.
With only domestic tourism allowed these days, how has Raja4Divers adapted to the new normal?
Many things are naturally given at Raja4Divers because we are located on a remote and completely isolated island. There are no other inhabitants on Pulau Pef and thus, there is no contact with other people. In addition, we only have ten very spacious bungalows that are generously located apart from each other. This means we hardly ever have more than 20 guests at the resort, even when we are fully booked.
We don’t have air conditioning at Raja4Divers. The bungalows and the restaurant are all directly on the beach and have large sliding doors and windows which allow for the sea breeze to provide optimal air circulation in the buildings.
Unlike other hotels, our guests don’t arrive and depart on a daily basis. They stay for at least one week, usually two to three or even longer. Like this, we don’t have many changes.
Our employees live in the resort and do not go home to their families in the evening or on their weekly day off. This results in very limited contact with the outside world.
There is also hardly any contact with other people while diving, as we offer many dive sites that are not frequented by other divers. As we discovered many of these sites ourselves, they aren’t known to others.
On their arrival in Sorong, we pick our guests up directly at the airport and take them to our own boat for the transfer to Pulau Pef. This transfer is not carried out with public ferries or rented boats.
At the resort itself, we have of course also made adjustments, such as additional hand washbasins, plexiglass protection at the buffet, a new installation to rinse the dive equipment, etc. All dive equipment is disinfected using UV light. All our washbasins are equipped with soap, disinfectant and small towels, which are washed after each use. We provide our guests with Raja4Divers face masks and have face visors and additional equipment on request. We pay special attention to our employees’ personal hygiene and provide all the necessary equipment.
What are you busy with these days?
All of our staff are still employed and continue to receive a small salary. We also continue to pay their health insurance so that they and their families are covered in case of illness. This means that approximately half the employees are on the island, working on various projects, mainly maintenance work, repairs and renovation.
It is important to keep the entire resort, including boats, engines, machines and equipment, in good condition, as the climate (the salty air, the humidity, the sun, etc.) has a very negative effect on everything and would quickly lead to permanent damage. We don’t want to risk losing it all. And a well-tended resort motivates us too and gives us a good feeling.
Managing employees is currently rather challenging. In order to keep them all employed, there are many aspects that need talking about, such as salary cuts, timing and duration of holidays, whether they stay at home or on Pulau Pef, coordinate off days, etc.
Due to the lockdown in April and May, rice was beginning to run out in some remote villages of Raja Ampat. Along with fish, rice is the basic food in our region. This is why we launched the project Raja4Rice to support our employees and their families with rice during these difficult times.
Our guests, friends or anyone who would like to support our employees can buy a bag of rice which our employees or their relatives pick up at the resort without getting into direct contact with us.
Raja4Rice still continues and coordinating this project still takes up quite a bit of our time.
As we would have been fully booked all of 2020, there are also still many cancellations that need dealing with and agents and direct booking guests ask for information about the current situation, etc.
And last but not least, we need to look for possible new investors, as a small resort such as ours is unable to survive a crisis like this one without additional financial support.
If you could give one piece of advice to our readers about moving to a deserted island in a foreign country and establishing a business there, what would it be?
It is essential that you have worked on-site for a few years to get to know the country and its people, to learn the language, and to be able to deal with the circumstances. Only then should you decide!
What’s a common misconception you get by living in a deserted, dream island resort?
Many people think that we live in paradise and have an easy life.
My experience is that many expats who have worked here were not only surprised by the amount and the demands of the work but very often it was simply too much for them. They did not last long. Some still say today that they never worked as hard as on Pulau Pef anywhere else.
You have to know that Raja4Divers has a very open structure. The staff area is not blocked off from the guest area, we all live and work very closely with our guests. It is this closeness that creates the informal and homely atmosphere that our guests love.
But this also means that there is not much privacy for our employees, they are always visible, as soon as they leave their room. Pulau Pef being so remote, none of us leaves the island in the evening or on our day off. We fully live on the island and only leave for our holidays.
This lack of privacy and the remoteness, together with the unpredictability of resort life in general and the flexibility this requires, is often misconceived and not always easy to endure.
How would you describe the underwater world of Pulau Pef?
In short: everything is possible!
Raja Ampat features an incredible variety and abundance of marine life. Our area lies in the center of the coral triangle. Nowhere else will you find as many healthy corals and consequently as many and varied marine animals living in and feeding on these corals. From giant mantas to tiny pygmy seahorses – Raja Ampat has it all.
During a typical week, it is possible to see countless varieties of schooling fish, pygmy seahorses, nudibranchs, wobbegong sharks, reef sharks, the endemic Raja Ampat walking shark (bamboo shark), bumphead parrotfishes, turtles, giant trevallies, barracudas, manta rays, crabs and shrimps in all sizes, invertebrates and almost every reef fish and critter you can find in books.
And you don’t need to be a diver to experience all of this. Many of our guests explore the underwater world by snorkeling and are just as fascinated as the divers.
Personally, I am fascinated with the mangroves and diving or snorkeling in them. It is such a different world, almost mystic with the sunlight shining through the mangrove roots. Our mangroves also feature archerfish in a rather big number – a highlight for any photographer who catches them hunting insects on the water’s surface!
Do you foresee yourself growing old in Pulau Pef?
My health permitting, I would like to continue living and working on Pulau Pef for many more years. But I also intend to travel to Switzerland often to see my family and friends. Maintaining and caring for my social environment is very important to me.
I don’t think I will grow old on Pulau Pef. I want to go back to Switzerland, where my family and friends are and where I can count on reliable infrastructure and amenities.
But nothing is set in stone yet – I still have a little time….
Tell us a fun fact about yourself, Maya.
During construction times, my employees once woke me up at 3 am to tell me that there was a fisherman in our lagoon fishing on the house reef too close to the resort. I grabbed my big torch and walked through the jungle to the direction the fisherman was driving off to. When I caught up with him from the beach, I pointed my torch directly at him to make him come over. Now, imagine a Papuan fisherman in the dark of the night seeing a white woman on an island he thought was still deserted! The poor man thought he was seeing a ghost! I will never forget his eyes as big as saucers. He froze and just stared at me without saying a word until I started explaining that there were now people on Pulau Pef and that we were constructing a resort.
When I think back, the way he looked at me still makes me laugh. I really must have looked like a scary white ghost!