Derawan Island, Borneo

Derawan Island, Borneo, Indonesia

Getting to Derawan Island is not for the faint of heart. We took 2 planes, drove 3 hour through the jungle and finally a 1/2 hour boat ride out to the island. We were going to be in Borneo for Camp Leakey to see Orangutans.   A month before our trip, I read a travel article in BBC Travel about an island with “powder-fine beaches, lush interiors and mysterious lagoons with sting less jellyfish.”  When I ready the part about exploring this “hidden paradise before the inevitable rush of tourists” I was hooked.  I  decided that we had to add it to the itinerary and see it for ourselves.   Describing this island as rustic is an understatement.  There is one main street and it is all sand.  There are no cars on the island only a handful of motor scooters.

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When we first arrived, I was a little concerned about what I had gotten us into.  But, the island quicky has a way of growing on you.  Watching sea turtles lay eggs on the beach and helping release baby sea turtles didn’t hurt.  There is no internet here and limited phone service, so you are really off the grid.  We stayed in a homestay over the water. At $25 a night for the 4 of us, it is a bargain.  A single room for my dad was $17. The accommodations are sparse, but I was happy to have a western flush toilet after traveling around Indonesia.  There was a small restaurant at the homestay and others a short walk away. We ate lots of rice, noodles and chicken. There are not many places where you can feed a family of 5 for $14.   The island ruined my long held hypothesis that you can get chicken nuggets, Coke and Kit Kat Bars nearly everywhere on earth.   I couldn’t find any candy bars on the island.

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The water is crystal clear.  When we arrived, a sea turtle was swimming around in front of the rooms. Just sitting on the dock we saw puffer fish, lion fish, small stingrays and trumpet fish. You can snorkel right off the dock.  I swam with 3 different sea turtles.   The homestay tie up banana leaves outside of the rooms, so you can sit out in front of your room and watch them.  One of the things I really enjoyed was the friendliness of the other travelers all over the island.  There were so few of us and the island so small, it is easy to run into each other.


The highlight for us were the nightly turtle walks. WWF funds locals to chart the turtles who come to lay their eggs.  They then they dig up the nests, count them and move the eggs to different hidden nests until they hatch.  The night starts off by walking the perimeter of the island, looking for nesting turtles.   Then comes the really fun part, releasing the babies. There were at least 50 little turtles to release on both nights that we did this.  There is no fee only a donation to the guide if you choose. The island is so small you just need to ask where you are staying to seeing the turtles and they will get word out to one of the volunteers.

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Logistics: This is the hard part.  The only international airport that connects to Berau is Balikpapan.  You can fly from Surabaya, Singapore, Jakarta and Bali into Balikpapan.  We flew from Kuala Lumpur to Surabaya.  A new airport in Berau opened in March of this year and a second airport is being built in Maratua to help tourism for Derawan Island.  With the new airports it should make it a little easier to get to Berau, but will also make it a little more crowded.

Where we stayed: Derawan Homestay. It is one of the few places that had a website. I texted the number on the website and arranged our stay by text.  The owner was very friendly and made all of the arrangements for the driving transfers and boat out to the island.

Other helpful articles: www.bbc.com/travel/feature/20120329-derawan-island-and-the-sangalaki-archipelago

2 Responses so far.

  1. Rosi Lewis says:

    Thanks for the really useful blog. We are considering a similar itinerary with our 3 kids this august, also going to Camp Leakey. I was wondering what time of year you were there and will there be hatching turtles in august? Thanks again.
    Best wishes Rosi

    • heather says:

      Hi. We were there in the June. I just looked up turtle hatching season for Borneo and it looks like it goes through August, so you should be good. I looked on Lonely Planet Thorntree forum to try to get some referrals for the boat rentals. Our boat rental guy forgot about us and was not at the airport to pick us up, so we got something kind of thrown together. It still worked out well, but that was the hardest part in the planning.

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