Seven Days on Alor: Part Two - The "Not Diving" Stuff

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highdesert

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The first part of this report is posted here ... http://www.scubaboard.com/forums/indonesia/438798-seven-days-alor-part-one-diving.html

Donovan Whitford, the "Aussie guy" referred to by several posters, started exploring Alor with his father when he was 19, some 23 years ago. They pioneered and named almost every dive site there. Two exceptions are Kal's Dream and Sharks Galore, named by Kal Muller, who dived with them often. Trivia: Donovan and Kal were also aboard one of the first liveaboards to Horseshoe Bay, Komodo, in the early '90's, where Kal named the dive site Cannibal Rock after watching one Komodo dragon lunching on another one on the shore of Rinca.

Donovan's schedule is that he runs one one-week trip a month, which he has done for years, missing only a trip or two in the process. He lives in Kupang, West Timor, with his Indonesian wife and five kids, and manages a business there. He makes the flight to Kalabahi, Alor with his guests, meeting them as they transit through the Kupang airport. He essentially escorts you through the entire trip, taking care of all the domestic flights, baggage details, hotels, meals, etc, and guides every dive.

Aside from the four dive operations, Alor is hardly a tourist destination. It's a busy, bustling, noisy Indonesian city of about 60,000. There are a limited number of hotels and restaurants. For those familiar with Sorong, the jumping-off point for Raja Ampat, let's just say Sorong, about twice the size, offers far more infrastructure for the diver or tourist. You get the idea.

He uses one hotel on Alor, and rents a room for himself there year-round where he stores supplies for his monthly trips. He checks you in, hands you your room key, and knocks on your door at 6:00 in the morning. The hotel is two stories around a long courtyard. The rooms are large but very spare and plain. This is not Bali; don't expect to relax in style, probably anyplace on Alor. Plenty of hot water, though, and the bed was comfortable. A/C was functional enough, but no more. You may want ear plugs on your packing list. As is common in Muslim Indonesia, the recorded muezzin starts his call to morning prayers at 4:00 AM, about the time the roosters start too.

Breakfast is at a long table in the hotel courtyard. The hotel has a small kitchen for room service orders, but no operating restaurant. Donovan works with them to produce this full breakfast every morning for his group. Eggs, nasi or mie goreng, banana pancakes, fruit, tea, coffee, juice, etc. Plenty of food.

Dinner is handled also as a group affair, this time by Chris, an enterprising local, who owns a large homestay operation at his courtyard home, and also owns a bima and another car. Thus he is also the transportation for the week. Finish breakfast, and there he is with bima and car for the 5 minute ride to the boat. Get off the boat, there he is. Shower and walk to the hotel lobby, there he is again for the ride to his home for dinner.

Dinner is local style food, soup, chicken, fish, vegetable and fruit dishes. It was always varied, but got a bit repetitive by week's end. No complaints, though, and always a very sociable affair. Last night, we went to a new restaurant owned by an acquaintance of Donovan's. Good food! The tab was also included in your week's price.

Much has been made in another thread about that fact that Donovan doesn't live on Alor or own his own boat. His take on this: After 4,000 dives on Alor, and knowing many locals, there's little to be gained by living there. He makes an income in Kupang that allows him to educate his five kids, including sending them for stints in Australia as they grow older. By not being in the dive business every day, it makes his monthly trips a pleasure rather than a daily chore.

Donovan charters one of two different boats each trip. His feeling is that if he can charter a boat, bring his group aboard, and direct the boat where and when he wants, what's to be gained by adding the inevitable headaches of owning a boat? Any boat owner can identify with that.

We were aboard the boat owned and operated by Thomas Schreiber, "the German guy" who also runs one of Alor's four dive ops. This is a purpose-built dive boat with stations for 16 divers. Tanks are filled ashore and ferried aboard every day. Entry is via back roll over the side, and return to the boat via a comfortable aft ladder. No separate dive dinghy. There is no seating on the boat, and the ride to/from the dives is long. You have your choice of a hard, flat piece of covered deck aft of the cabin and forward of the dive stations, room for three or four in a cozy manner on the foredeck, or the cabin roof.

The boat has a comfortable head and a little galley, where you serve yourself a hot, full meal at lunch. Your lunch was made previously in Chris's kitchen, and brought aboard by Donovan in Thermos containers and heated up. Again, plenty of local style food, and varied enough to keep it interesting. As an aside, I didn't hear reports of anyone having any digestive "issues" during the entire trip.

Donovan's operation is aided by a mountain of plastic tubs in his room/warehouse at the hotel. This includes any rental gear he provides, his tanks and compressor, tubs for each diver, dishes/silverware/containers for food, etc. He has his own boat guy, Benjamin, who works about 19 hours a day for the entire trip, ferrying gear and filling tanks, always smiling. On arrival day, each diver's gear goes in a tub, and Benjamin assembles each rig every morning.

Thomas's boat is "spare," I suppose in that efficient German sense of the word. Donovan brings aboard throw pillows for seating (there were numerous times when I was sitting on the foredeck, leaning against the pilot house, that he tapped me to lean forward while he put a pillow behind my back), a new piece of carpeting every trip to cover the shaded open deck space, and the food/cookware/dishes for lunch. Someone posted in another thread that this was the best dive boat they had ever seen in Indonesia, but I must take issue with that. Wakatobi's boats are a quantum leap superior to Thomas's, IMHO..

A note here about Thomas himself. I've seen "Thomas rocks" in other threads, but I have to say this is one of the dourest, most stone-faced, tight-lipped people I have ever met. There was a running joke all week about trying to get him to smile. It wasn't considered a success unless you saw his teeth. I don't know if it was ever achieved, even by Stewart, an affable Aussie diver on board, or a flock of smiling, talkative young Indonesian professionals from Jakarta. To be a diver on one of Thomas's own trips, not just aboard his boat, would be an experience I would prefer to pass on. As to the "spare" aspect of his boat, it's rumored that his opinion is that if divers get too comfortable, they get lazy. Hmmm ... this is a pleasure trip, right?

Donovan, the person: I've seen several remarks in this forum about Donovan's "attitude." Donovan has a big personality, he's not shy, and he's very confident in what he does. He doesn't mind getting into a friendly but challenging conversation about anything, sometimes playing devil's advocate just to get a point out. I can see where, if pressed, he would have no problem telling someone exactly what was on his mind. But we never saw that. He's talkative and funny, and can take good-natured kidding just fine. This guy really puts together a well-run operation, and I'd be happy to spend time with him again under any circumstances. I don't recall that there was ever even a minor negative issue between him and anyone over the course of a week. We found out late in the trip that he had just arranged for a young girl working at the hotel, born with a cleft palate, to be taken to a clinic on Flores where a surgeon would repair it at no cost. That's "attitude" I like.

Having six weeks now to look back at the trip, and review my photos and video, it allowed me to see if my earlier opinions were still the same. I still feel there was a lot of very healthy coral, but maybe not as colorful as Komodo, Raja Ampat, or Wakatobi, that the viz was very mixed, and that a lot of the dives were not very fishy where I would expect it (with a few exceptions). I still think that local fishing, even if not on a big commercial scale, has impacted the fish populations significantly. There are a lot of local people in the area who need food, and fishing has always been the means of getting it. There are no marine protected areas, and I doubt there is any management of fishing practices. Maybe I'm just weird, but when I go diving, I like to see fish.

My own personal opinions on the four local dive ops: Two are clearly much closer to the dive sites. One of them is a fairly basic, backpacker-type operation on a small island. It may work well for some, and maybe for me if I was half my age and single, or with a similarly-inclined companion. But I wouldn't want to do it now. The other features some nice small bungalows on the beach, has a faster, small boat to shuttle to/from dive sites, but offers only two boat dives a day plus house reef. I think it's pricey for what it offers, but if you like a very leisurely dive trip, in a remote setting, with lots of nap time, this could work for you.

I've already discussed Donovan's operation, as well as my thoughts about Thomas and his boat. Either operation is based in Kalabahi, and requires a long boat ride out of the sound to the dive sites ... and both boats are slow. But the ride is comfortable, and pretty enough to be enjoyable, watching the activity on shore as you go.

I would do this trip again if there was more consistent fish activity on the dive sites. That's a downside to me. Maybe the next time around it would be different, but we don't have the funds to travel a long way without a decent percentage of a "payoff" in what we want to see. But if we did go back, we'd do it the same way, with the same operation. YMMV, but then refer to the first line of my signature below.

Happy diving!
 
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jake11

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Great trip report! Very informative!
 

Shasta_man

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Thanks for a very helpful report. I wonder how these sites compare to the experience on the Komodo Dancer, when it does Alor.
 

Luko

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Very useful report, thanks for your insight of the local dive operations.

The other features some nice small bungalows on the beach, has a faster, small boat to shuttle to/from dive sites, but offers two boat dives a day plus house reef. I think it's pricey for what it offers, but if you like a very leisurely dive trip, in a remote setting, with lots of nap time, this could work for you.
I agree Alor Divers maybe little expensive for me, but for an average of 150€/day full board and diving incl. (no single surcharge) I feel it is very competitive compared to for instance Raja Ampat, Wakatobi or even Sipadan resorts and most of Lembeh's.
In my late 40's, I wouldn't consider the backpacker places nor am I testosteroned enough for a week in a hardcore diving operation. Like you wrote : diving is all about pleasure, isn't it... It's been a while I lurk at Alor, I can't see anywhere else I would stay, especially if the diving can sometimes be disappointing with fishlife.
 

frogfish

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An other point ot note about Alor Divers is that the owner is a keen photographer so understands their needs... And the house reef is very very good, never got tired of diving it at least once a day on both my stays there.
 

ocdiver1

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Good to hear of your experiences in Alor with the two operators that I talked to extensively but didn't wind up booking with (I've stayed at La Petit Kepa and Alor Divers on prior trips). With Donovan I ran into some of that "attitude" that others had spoke of, and it caused me to look elsewhere, Thomas was out of town at the time of my second visit so he wound up not being an option, but he didn't seem as knowledgeable about especially local muck dive sites as either LPK or Alor Divers. For example, when asked about rhinopias sightings, he's said he hadn't seen one for several months, but in arriving at La Petit Kepa they immediately knew of six they'd seen recently and we went out and saw four of them. That was a theme with LPK...excellent knowledge of the dive sites, where to look for what and when, and experienced dive guides that ensured nearly every dive was full of spectacular sightings. I'd noted that in your original post you'd rated Alor as mediocre muck diving at best, while I'd rate it among the best I've been to..and I've been to Lembeh/Ambon/Anilao/Milne Bay etc. many times. I would say some of the disappointment with what you saw was a function of who you dove with...no matter how happy you were with the operation you went with I think you might have felt differently if you had dove with either of the other two. And as much as Donovan pioneered diving in Alor, he obviously isn't diving the sites every day.

La Petit Kepa is fairly basic but is comfortable (and dirt cheap!), but I wouldn't construe it as "only backpacker"--the majority of the guests when I was there were 30+ and most were repeaters. Alor Divers (Eco Resort) is far more comfortable and I'd agree with another poster who said they didn't feel it was overpriced compared to other destinations. Gilles runs a great operation, and +1 on the house reef there being very good. While I can claim no experience with the two operators you went with, I can say I loved the diving in Alor and can't imagine that anyone could "go wrong" with going to LPK or AD.
 
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