Clusters of Indonesian islands and chugging fishing boats have faded from sight and looking down from the seaplane, the vast South China Sea is now unimpeded.
Eventually, the horizon morphs into the shape of six mismatched, volcanic islands. As we descend, I see islands covered with the vibrant greens of native teak forest, mangroves and old coconut plantations.
The plane touches down lightly in a lagoon whose turquoise appears digitally enhanced, and as we taxi towards the jetty, corals and outlandish giant clams are visible from my window.
Together with my husband, I have arrived at Bawah Reserve in Indonesia’s Anambas Islands, a luxury resort with 35 overwater and beach suites. Bawah is reached from Singapore by a private car and ferry transfer to the nearby Indonesian island of Batam. Then a 70-minute, 300-kilometre north-easterly flight.
A wooden plaque bearing our names marks the private trail to our canvas-covered beachfront villa, where our snorkelling kits and reef panorama await. Our concierge explains we may dine in the three restaurants, in-room or poolside, and our fridge contains freshly squeezed juices. Next, he disappears to book our first complimentary treatment at Aura Spa. Here, we are massaged into stress-free island life.
Our pampering continues, and the next day we are spirited away for a private gourmet picnic by a silent, solar-powered boat. Arriving on a coral-fringed beach, we find our sun shelter, day beds, snorkels and a double kayak, and as the boat leaves us marooned on our own island, we might be the only humans on the planet.
Solar-powered boats are one of many sustainable initiatives at Bawah. I tour the organic permaculture gardens with the head of engineering, Ketut Wijaya.
Ketut proudly shows me his vine-covered trellis tunnel dripping with pumpkins. Along the way, he explains how food waste is fermented and converted to fertiliser.
Multi-stage sewage treatment plants finish in ponds stocked with reeds and catfish, and cleaned wastewater is used for toilet flushing and garden watering. Drinking water is sourced from rainwater and desalinated seawater, and hot water is supplied through solar power.
Single-use plastic is almost non-existent, and even the in-room mosquito repellent and sunscreen is eco-friendly.
The diving here is also green. After showing me inquisitive reef sharks and relaxed turtles, my instructor emerges with a giant piece of fishing net, no longer a threat to sea life. Since opening in 2017, Bawah Reserve has removed 45 tonnes of discarded fishing nets and plastic from Bawah’s reefs.
Bawah Anambas Foundation
Majority owner of Bawah Reserve, 64-year-old Tim Hartnoll, is a nature-loving Englishman, born and raised in Singapore. Hartnoll feels compelled to not only preserve Bawah’s environment but to assist communities in the surrounding islands.
“As soon as you invest in an island and engage with the community, you’ve got the platform to make a real change,” Hartnoll explains. The Bawah Anambas Foundation was created to drive that change.
Although Bawah itself was uninhabited, the Anambas Islands are home to 45,000 people across 250 islands, with average incomes ranging from US$150-350 per month. The foundation centres on three of the poorest islands; Telaga, Mengkait and the closest to Bawah – Kiabu; located two hours north of Bawah by supply boat.
Indonesian Jerry Winata helms the foundation, and he is assisted by Ridho Hudho, a local from Kiabu. Ridho says that until recently, plastic was thrown into the ocean and dynamite was used to kill fish for food, destroying coral reefs. Hudho is now assisting his people to find a ‘new normal’.
The foundation helps fishermen to derive additional income from organic farming, providing an on-site trainer, facilities, and zero-interest loans, while the resort commits to buying all crops at a fair market price. The first harvest of greens (known as kang kong) yielded 100 kilograms, half of which the farmers decided to keep, selling the other half to Bawah. Recent crops have struggled due to drought and insect infestations, although the program is adapting, building a greenhouse to protect vulnerable crops.
A free digital English-skills program assists students find jobs in tourism at Bawah and in local tourism, as it expands. Twenty students are enrolled in the program, with attendance rates averaging 97 per cent. “The local government is now considering expanding this approach to hundreds of schools,” Jerry says.
Without proper solid waste disposal facilities, the island environments and tourism potential are impeded, and machinery is being built to turn recycled plastic and glass into eco-bricks. “The foundation will purchase the eco-bricks to build more storage units for recyclables,” Jerry says. He hopes that as tourism grows, communities will be able to sell more eco-bricks. The foundation also provides training in upcycling, such as turning used cooking oil into candles.
Conservation in action
The distances between islands complicates guest participation in the foundation, but those wishing to get hands-on can do so on Bawah.
To help repair historical fishing damage, the foundation launched a coral rehabilitation program on Bawah, and as I snorkel in the lagoon, I find coral nursery ‘trees’ where naturally broken fragments are suspended on lines to grow bigger.
Certified divers may join a conservation dive, helping marine biologists to attach these coral fragments to artificial reef structures known as hexadomes and coral spiders. Guests can adopt a hexadome, receiving a name plaque and regular photographic updates on their coral babies.
Bawah’s beaches are nesting sites for endangered green and hawksbill turtles, although the eggs are often consumed by monitor lizards. To increase egg success rates, biologists protect nests with fencing, and guests onsite when the eggs hatch can help release the youngsters for their mass scamper to the ocean.
On my last morning, I hike the steep mountain trail behind the resort. I admire the resort and magnificent lagoons below, and from the opposite side of the island, I spy Kiabu, 40 kilometres away across a lonely ocean, and seemingly a million miles from Bawah. With time, there’s hope the Bawah Anambas Foundation can help to bridge the gap.
The Journey to Bawah Reserve starts in Singapore, and you will be collected from your accommodation by a private luxury car and escorted on the 30-minute ferry to the Indonesian island of Batam. Here you will be taken to the seaplane to fly to Bawah.
Rates start from US$1980 (about A$2926) for two people, per night plus transport from Singapore at $US700 (about A$1034) per person. Rates include transfers from Singapore, all meals and activities, and daily spa treatments. Scuba diving and alcoholic beverages attract extra charges. bawahreserve.com