As much as I enjoy Kura Kura and its brand of castaway luxury, I’m keen to see what some of the other islands have to offer. The first stop on my island-hopping tour takes me back to the main island, Karimunjawa proper, whose mountainous interior rises above a cove-scalloped shoreline fringed by mangroves and electric-blue shallows. More than half of the archipelago’s population lives here—communities of Javanese, Madurese, Bugis, and Bajo. Karimunjawa is also home to the lion’s share of the local hotels and guesthouses (not to mention the only gas station for a 100-plus kilometers), while the neighboring island of Kemujan, to which it is connected by a short causeway, has a bare-bones airstrip that is served by an eight-seat turboprop from Semarang during the high season.
In the island’s small port town, I meet Muchamad Shaiful, one of Karimunjawa’s earliest tourism boosters. He tells me that back in 1999, when he first began promoting his home to Indonesian holidaymakers, there were no hotels at all; visitors would have to bunk with local families. Now, there are dozens of accommodations, ranging from basic inns to somewhat more upmarket operations like the Nirvana Laut, perhaps best known for its raucous New Year’s Eve beach parties. Shaiful says that his own tour operation attracts about 300 visitors every month, which has enabled him to save enough money to send his daughter to one of the country’s top universities.
It’s drizzling by the time I settle under the canopy of a wooden boat that I’ve rented for the day. We head east across a clear blue lagoon teeming with colorful reef fish; seabirds hover in the skies above, scanning the water for their next meal. The boatman points off in the distance to where a rocky outcrop called Pulau Gundul is baking under the afternoon sun. It doesn’t look particularly appealing, and for good reason: the Indonesian navy, he says, uses it for target practice.
After puttering along for another 45 minutes or so, we make landfall at Pulau Tengah, a teardrop-shaped speck with a jetty connected to two overwater cottages, and a beach house on the shore. Though all three are occupied by weekend guests, the island’s caretaker, Pak Tampi, welcomes me to join him on his porch for a cup of coffee. Over sips of the strong brew, he tells me that tourism has been good for him; once a fisherman, he now no longer needs to go out to sea—his income from caretaking the island and renting his boat out to guests has set him up for retirement.
I also visit Pulau Cemara Kecil, just to the southeast of Kura Kura. Kecil means “small” in Indonesian, and the minute island lives up to its name: it couldn’t be any larger than a basketball arena, with a tuft of casuarina trees ringed by blazing white sand. On the beach I meet a Dutch teenager who camped here overnight because she “wanted to get away from the tourists” of Karimunjawa proper. She couldn’t have picked a better spot. Cemara Kecil has but one resident, a wiry fisherman named Harto, who lives in a thatched hut on the farther shore. He seems to take us interlopers in his stride.
The last stop of the day is at a sandbar—locally called a gosong pasir—that, because it’s now high tide, is submerged below the waves. I drop over the side of the boat to cool off, and find myself standing up to my waist in bath-warm water in the middle of the sea. It’s like the ultimate infinity pool.
Not all of Karimunjawa’s islands are tropical wonderlands, however. Some are marred with rubbish—plastic bags and water bottles, glass, sandals, even plastic spoons wash up on their beaches. Situated between Java and Borneo, Karimunjawa is like a planetary system in the middle of a big watery galaxy, with a strong gravitational pull for garbage.
Overfishing is another concern. Despite its national park status, Karimunjawa attracts trawlers from elsewhere in Java, and while rangers now patrol the waters, 112,000 hectares is too much for their two boats (and dire fuel budget) to adequately police. “Since I began working here in 2009, I have never seen a patrol boat around the resort,” says Kura Kura staff member Liza Adhy. “We sometimes see fisherman in off-limit zones and we report them to the authorities. But after that, there is no action or consequence.”
And with tourism set to expand—plans are already afoot for extending the airstrip on Kemujan Island—so too will the pressure on the archipelago’s fragile environment. Back at Kura Kura, I ponder what the future will hold for the archipelago, but without much success. Because for today, at least, Karimunjawa is beautiful.