Mantabuan Island, off Semporna. Borneo, Malaysia. (July 2006)
Mantabuan Island, off Semporna. Borneo, Malaysia. (July 2006)

Expedition project in Derawan

  Borneo [Malaysia and Indonesia] - July 2009

Dear English-speaking readers, this page is an automatic translation of an article originally written in French. I apologise for any strange sentences and funny mistakes that may have resulted. If you read French, click on the French flag below to access the original, correct text: 

I finally decided on the stages for my Malaysian-Indonesian trip in July: Perhentian, Mabul (Sipadan), Derawan. Nothing but islands! These vacations will be island and watery.

Distant archipelagos

It is the exceptional diving sites of these distant archipelagos that attract me. And the beauty of the islands.

Mantabuan Island, off Semporna. Borneo, Malaysia. (July 2006)
The island of Mantabuan, off Semporna. Borneo, Malaysia. (July 2006)
Sipadan (Borneo, Malaysia). July 2006.
Sipadan (Borneo, Malaysia). July 2006.

I have already dived in 2006 Perhentian and Sipadan, easy access and tourist destinations. On the other hand, Derawan will be a discovery, a little more off the beaten track.

It's far away, Derawan...

Crossing the border between Malaysia and Indonesia in Borneo

Even when I have crossed the thousands of kilometers separating Europe from Southeast Asia, it will still be far away. Derawan is a very small island located on the east coast of Borneo, in the Indonesian state of Kalimantan.

I plan to go to Derawan from Tawau, my entry point to Borneo. To get there, it's easy: there are several daily flights from Kuala Lumpur to Tawau with Air Asia.

Itinerary Malaysia-Indonesia: the stages of my journey of July 2009.
Itinerary Malaysia-Indonesia: the stages of my journey of July 2009.

I will first dive in Sipadan and Mabul, on the Malaysian side. Then I will cross the border to go down to Derawan, Indonesian side.

I will have to spend a day in Tawau to get the Indonesian visa done at the consulate. Yes, here, no "visa on arrival" at the border! Then, the trip itself will take me at least two days... I hate to plan everything in advance, but I have to anticipate my trip.

I contacted Kadek Wirawan, an Indonesian dive-master who organizes dives around Derawan. For those of you who are interested in this itinerary, here are the practical details he sent me by e-mail.

  • Journey Tawau-Tarakan. We leave Malaysia for Indonesia by boat... There is a ferry every day, except Sunday. The crossing lasts in the 3-4 hours. The ferry is supposed to arrive at destination around 5 pm. It is therefore necessary to spend the night in Tarakan.
  • Journey Tarakan-Derawan. After, there are two options, Kadek tells me: taking the ferry and then with a route that passes through Berau, or finding a boat in Tarakan to make the trip directly by the sea ...
Map of possible routes from Tawau to Derawan.
Map of possible routes from Tawau to Derawan.

Option 1: via Berau

Boat + road + boat, via Tanjung Selor, Berau and Tanjung Batu :

  • The first crossing is a connection by public boat between the island of Tarakan and Tanjung Selor. It must last 1 hour 30 minutes if I believe the testimonies gleaned here and there on the web. Announced price: 80.000Rp (about 8USD).
  • Then, Kadek suggests me to charter a vehicle, to go in one go to Tanjung Batu (the port from where we embark for Derawan). Duration of the journey announced: 4 hours. In my opinion, it could be much more... I know from experience that the weather is very elastic in Indonesia, and the last part of the road that leads to Tanjung Batu is apparently quite rotten! If ever it rains, it's guaranteed to get stuck in the mud... Besides, I'd better find people to share the trip, because the price would be around 800.000Rp (80USD).
  • I guess we go through Berau (also called Tanjung Redep) to make this trip. The Lonely Planet indicates that there are buses to go from Tanjung Selor to Berau. That would allow me to make the trip for less money (but obviously, it will be less comfortable). Once in Berau, to reach the small port of Tanjung Batu, we find kijangs (4×4 vehicles that leave when there are enough passengers, i.e. at least 5-6) for about 50,000Rp (5USD) per head.
  • Then, once in Tanjung Batu, you can reach Derawan by "speed boat" in about 20 minutes for 300,000Rp (30USD) according to Kadek. But I imagine that there is also a way to find less expensive slow boats or to charter the speed boat.

Option 2: speed-boat crossing

Direct route by sea, making the Tarakan-Derawan crossing:

  • Duration of the crossing: about 4 hours. But there, you have to "charter" a speed-boat for a hefty sum of... 4.000.000Rp or about 400USD! Other travelers tell me about a more reasonable price of only 1.000.000Rp.
  • Conclusion: I will meet there. If the price is too exorbitant, and unless I find a group of ten Japanese willing to board on the same day and share the cost with me, I should rather choose the first option.

Well, it's not the first time that I've been on stupid trips on crappy roads. That I sleep in "improbable" places as the other guy would say. Or that I embark with optimism on rusty Asian ferries... This expedition to Derawan promises to be quite folklo!

See all articles on this trip:

→ Borneo [Malaysia + Indonesia]: July 2009

  Borneo [Malaysia and Indonesia] - July 2009

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  1. @LeMarnais: Quite a journey ahead, indeed. 😀

    @Manta: Yes, thank you, I have already read that link... 😉
    - There is no flight Tawau-Berau to my knowledge...
    - Between Tarakan and Berau, the Lonely Planet also talks about a flight by Kal-Star and by another local company whose name I forgot. But Kal-Star only has a crappy blog where existing flights are listed (not sure if this list is up to date) and Tarakan-Berau is not on it. In short, I'm not sure that there is at least one flight per day, or even that this link is still current. I'll check on the spot.
    - Regarding the Tarakan-Tanjung Batu ferry, I'm a bit wary of the information given on the link you mention, they are not necessarily up to date: from experience, I know that ferry and plane connections change often in Indonesia. The best thing would be to meet me on the spot: a first time during the day I'll have to spend in Tawau anyway to get the visa; a second time in Tarakan, where I'll maybe discover that there's a place for me in a plane, or that there's a cheap public-boat to go from Tarakan to Tanjung Batu in one go... Suspense!!!
    - Well, no, Balikpapan is not especially convenient for my itinerary because of the poor air connections for what I'm interested in: it implies first to get, on the right day, a seat on the Kal-Star cuckoo that flies from Berau to Balikpapan (or else to spend a lot of time on the road, or on ferries?) Then to do Balikpapan-Jakarta + Jakarta-Kuala Lumpur with Air Asia. Air Asia has stopped its KL-Balikpapan route which was launched in 2005. Too bad!

    But I'm not too worried and I'll have some time to spare. I remember, in Sulawesi, I managed to find a local travel agency to improvise some transfer by plane, and then I found a Dutch family to share a car... So I don't worry, I tell myself that I will find a solution! I'll write again to Kadek, who might be able to direct me to other contacts in Tawau and/or Tarakan.

  2. 🙄 Indeed, you have studied the situation well... it's crazy such a complex connection between a few not so distant dive sites... it's worth it!
    It's certainly doable, time consuming, but a fun experience... I look forward to reading about your adventures!
    😉 By the way, the South East Asia map is my dream, my eyes and mind have been wandering over the different possibilities it represents right on my favorite area!

  3. @Manta: Well, it will happen, one way or another. And who knows, maybe there's a daily public boat that goes from Tarakan to Tanjung Batu in one go for cheap (that would be great, I must say!)
    I am also very inspired by this map... It is my favorite "playground".

  4. You'll see, Sipadan has changed a bit compared to your photo ... there is a big pontoon and a slew of military now!
    Think to book well in advance your dives if you want to go to Sipadan every day (or almost), there is a limited number of permits and I saw divers doing only one day in Sipadan, on 5 days planned...
    And if not, Tawau-Berau by road is hell?
    Finally, how do you join KL from Berau?
    In any case, it sounds great!

  5. @ Marie-net: In fact, the pontoon is on the right of my picture, you can't see it... There were some military at the time too, but their presence was rather discreet. They were content to ogle the girls in swimsuits and to check the permits.

    Alas, it's looking compromised, my Sipadan splash project. 👿 Three years ago, I was headlining about "The rush to Sipadan". But I had still managed to dive on the site, showing up with my hands in my pockets, without a reservation. Except that now, it's the super-rush! One of the centers I contacted told me that things had changed a lot, that it was now "very busy" and that they didn't have any more availability for permits this summer, at least not before mid-August... I sent another mail elsewhere, to see, I'm waiting for the answer, but I doubt it will be positive.

    Obviously, you have to prepare at least 3 months in advance, or even more, to get a permit in summer. With my habit of not doing too much preparation, unable as I am to decide nor to plan months in advance where I will be such or such day, I inevitably find myself in the water... Unless there are some cancellations while I am there. Anyway, to be continued.

    Otherwise, to answer your question, I do believe that the road from Tawau to Berau is far from being a nice smooth 4 lane... But the ride can be fun! 😡 I was planning to reach KL on my way back to Tawau.

    But then... if I shorten, or even skip completely my passage through Tawau because of possible dives in Sipadan, I can maybe finally leave by Balikpapan (there is a connection Berau-Balikpapan by plane) and aim at other things in Indonesia... Oh dear, still new possibilities, new choices to make, it's too hard!!!! 😀

  6. 😕 Sipandan is so complicated to book? Not cool for those who can't make it 3 months in advance!
    So, new decisions?
    ❓ By the way, what camera do you go with?

  7. @Manta: No, that's it, it's fixed!!! 😀 😀 😀

    I just received the email I was hoping for. At Billabong, unlike Scuba Junkie, they answered me positively, and even confirmed the dates of the dives! And on top of that, they are less expensive.
    I am looking forward to it. I'm going to dive four days in Sipadan itself, and three days in Mabul-Kapalai. I am happy, happy, happy!!! 😈

    I leave with the Powershot A95 camera I got back from Koh Lipe, and a friend of mine will lend me a mini APN as a back-up, if ever the other one should fail me... I don't have enough money for the moment to invest in new equipment, but it will come.

    Ah! Life is beautiful!!!! 😆

    Well, now that the dates are set for Sipadan, I'll be able to organize the rest: Derawan !!!! 8)

  8. 😀 Nice for you, it's starting to become clearer!
    The holidays are fast approaching... 😉

  9. I have just read your different comments; phew, I thought for a moment that you were not going to succeed in diving in would have been a pity...
    On our side, I just have to count the D- and admire the various photos of sites, everything is organized, and confirmed!!!I still have a hard time realizing that everything I saw virtually does exist...and that in a few weeks, I will be there!!! 🙂
    Lots of love!

  10. @Manta: That's nothing to say... Just think about it: this week, I'm in training; the following week, I work from Thursday to Sunday; and on Monday, I'm on the plane!

    @ Helen: Too bad? A drama, you mean!!! I think I was ready to go to the Togians or to Bali out of spite. But well, everything works out fine in the end. So I will be in Billabong's longhouse in Mabul.
    They even make me a small discount compared to the prices shown, given the number of dives I will investigate with them on the week.

  11. 😉 Well, you won't see the time go by!
    In training, the pace is cooler than at work, right? You'll have until Thursday to pack your bags!
    Bali, what a punishment! I'll go back next year, I deserved it, I'm not wise, na!

  12. @Alimata: Yes, everyone says good Billabong. They are pretty good at believing the testimonials found on the web. I will test the link. Thank you!

    @Manta: Exactly... In training, we finish at the same time as "normal" people finish their work day, which makes for long evenings for ourselves. Much less tiring than a normal work day... Bali next year? Too hard.

  13. Hi Corinne,
    I just connected to your blog, from the Paradise beach of Besar in the Perhentians. I was coming to check on your upcoming trip. It promises to be heavenly.
    Here is a week that I have been diving, no Tioman finally, we liked it so much here, that we stayed a few more days... which allowed me to make other interesting dives.
    By the way, I saw that you have already dived in 2006 with Coral Sky Divers... if you ever change, I recommend you Watercolours, they are great, very professional and very nice.
    I leave the island tomorrow, for Malacca, I leave you my place! While some leave, others arrive... Life is life!
    See you soon, and have a good trip! 8)

  14. @Anthony: Oh my gosh, how funny! I'm starting my journey in the Perhentians, and I've just booked at... Watercolours!!! 🙄

    After Perhentian Kecil in 2006, I want to test Perhentian Besar. And as it's better to book at Perhentian, as it's so crowded in this season, I chose, a bit randomly, after browsing the web, Watercolours! I'm glad they made such a good impression on you, so I was right on target!!! 🙂

    Coral Sky on Perhentian Kecil has been closed for a while now, but I found Erika and Yves (who used to run this center) in... Koh Lipe (where they used to work at Forra Diving), during my last trip in Thailand! I don't know what their next stop will be, but one thing is sure: the world of divers is very small! 8)

    Me too, the Perhentians had this effect on me, three years ago: I liked it so much, that I was stuck for longer than expected.

    Have a good trip to Malakka (or Malacca)!!!! 😉

  15. Selamat ...
    Really crazy site... A gold mine !!!!
    After getting tickets for August at a very good price at Air Asia, I gently launches in preparation trip to Borneo, a month. Let's combine jungle & beach for dive.
    Allow me to contact you if necessary, for specific information.
    Thank you for the multitude of information that you reveal.

  16. Hello.
    You have given me a very good idea for a route.
    We also have as project to go to derawan in August. We arrive in kuala lumpur, and so to leave by tawau is very astute. We would also like to visit the tanjung punting park at the beginning of the trip (and finish by the islands of course). And I would have liked to know if it was essential to reserve the plane tickets in advance (tawau - kuala lumpur, I imagine that the island is more frequented in August.
    Thank you for your advice.


  17. @maelisk: I don't know if the Tawau - Kuala Lumpur route on Air Asia is that busy... In my opinion, it's probably not essential to book in advance if you're not within a day or two.

  18. Hello Corinne!

    And best wishes for this new year.
    Full of travel.... waaah how original, I'm sure I'm the first to tell you 😉

    Tell me, the visa in Tawau, it is not too difficult? Can we show up the same day without an appointment?

    Terima kasih!