Mapia Atoll, Kepulauan Mapia in Bahasa Indonesian, just north of the Equator, is about as remote as it gets. This tiny island group has also been named the Freewill Islands and St David's Islands over the years. Indonesia’s “outermost” island group, sharing an ocean border with the independent nation-state of Palau in the Micronesian geographic region, the tiny islands of Pegun, Fanildo and Bras that make up the above-high-water-land of Mapia Atoll are very isolated. There’s not much information out there about these islands, there’s a Wikipedia page in Bahasa Indonesian for Pulau Bras, which has less words and info then I have given already, and not much else.
Kepulauan Mapia or Mapia Atoll is about as remote as one can get
An 1899 New York Times reference to the island group
The particularly small Pulau Fanildo together with the only slightly more substantial Pulau Pegun and Pulau Bras, each have a lighthouse on them, marking the roughly triangular shape of the atoll. Fanildo in the North West, Bras in the North East and Pegun in the South. The lighthouses are apparently only occasionally manned by work parties from Indonesian Maritime authorities. All information points to these islands being uninhabited. There is a reference out there that I came across that the people who USED to live here spoke a Micronesian language similar to the language of Chuuk to the north in what is now the Federated States of Micronesia, but that was about that. I had planned a landing on the southern tip of Pegun where I know dive boats had visited and commented on good reef there, but when we arrived the weather and wind conditions made that end of the atoll unpleasant, so we headed north for some shelter. Approaching the northern end of Bras, smoke rising camp fire style alerted us to the potential presence of people, and a quick look through the binoculars showed a substantial jetty. It seems Mapia was not uninhabited after all……..
Looking from the north back onto the North Eastern tip of Bras, this infrastructure seems to indicate this is NOT an uninhabited island after all
First view of the “uninhabited” (?) island as we come ashore
Landing next to the substantial yet dilapidated and unusable jetty, it quickly became apparent there was a substantial settlement here. And in a very short period after stepping foot ashore it became even more apparent that this was not just any settlement, this was an Indonesian Military Outpost. On this extreme outermost island on the strategic border of the Indonesian Archipelago, it shouldn’t actually have been that surprising that the Indonesian Military has a surveillance and patrol outpost right out here in the middle of no where.
The houses on the foreshore were really not that different to what you would find in just about any other Indonesian coastal village
The jetty on the island seemed to serve no other purpose but provide a roost for Boobies, Terns and other sea birds
The sign outside this unassuming building clearly defines our location; the Regency of Supiori, the District of West Supiori, the Village of Mapia, the office of the Secretary of Mapia
I was immediately welcomed and taken to the Naval Base Commander to seek permission to formally land. I was also cautioned that no photographs of the military installation itself would be permitted. The sprawl of this community surprised me. There were easy 200 people living here. There was a substantial school and many other facilities. It was old and run down but not a lot different to most remote Indonesian communities. No body spoke English, but with my broken Bahasa and their broken English communication was not that difficult. The inhabitants where all either Navy, Marine or other Government workers and their immediate families. Some of them indicated they had lived here for 4 years. There was some kind of advanced long range infra red surveillance device on a tripod facing out to sea and there were radar and radio towers as well. A large barge mounted pile driver lay anchored in the lagoon seemingly ready to one day start construction of a more modern jetty facility, perhaps? The sailors, marines and their families were friendly and super surprised to receive sudden visitors, I am sure it broke up the boredom of life that would certainly impose itself on one living in a remote place like this.
A group of Indonesian Marines passed with this wheel barrow full of dried fish. Normally a staple through out Indonesia, I imagine with very little choice on Mapia, dried fish would be vital.
Mapia kids at play with floating “toys” made from oceanic flotsam and jetsam
Looking out over Mapia’s Lagoon from Pulau Bras
Along the main row of buildings there appeared what I would describe as an old plantation house. Row after row of ancient coconut tree indicated that at some time in the past this was a copra plantation. If these islands had always been part of what is now Indonesia it could have been Dutch, if it was linked to Micronesia or linked to what is now Papua New Guinea it could well have been German. Another surprise was a Japanese memorial, obviously some kind of link to WWII. After returning I searched for information linking Mapia Atoll to WWII and what I found was surprising. Mapia Atoll played a role in the Battle of Morotai. As the Japanese were being pushed back across the Pacific and the invasion of Morotai began, Japanese bases on Mapia could track and report on maritime traffic (ironically the islands are still being used today for that purpose outside of war). 1,200 US troops from the 2nd Battalion, 167th Infantry Regiment and attached units were landed on Pulau Pegun on November 15, 1945. 1,200 troops is a HUGE number for this tiny island. By the next day they were on Bras, and by the 18th the 172 Japanese troops of the 36th Infantry Division based on Mapia Atoll were defeated after putting up strong resistance. It’s hard to believe having seen the size of these seemingly insignificant island that 1200 troops fought an intense three day battle here.
This Japanese monument led me to uncover the military history of these remote islands during WWII
What appears to be an old plantation house, possibly Dutch
Local military and their family look on with mild amusement at the sudden arrival of visitors in their remote community
At some point there was a reasonably deep water wharf berth connected to the main island
Well so much for an inhabited island in the middle of no where. Well it is still the middle of no where, but it seems these seemingly insignificant islands have so much more to them. The plantation house, the WWII History and the current Naval facility where all unexpected. Such an amazing travel experience made up of the unexpected!
Bye Bye from Mapia Atoll….
Leaving Mapia Atoll, I would never have guessed what surprises existed here…..
So you want to go to Mapia Atoll?
- There is no real easy way to get to Mapia Atoll unless you take some kind of organised vessel based tour or you have your own boat
- Several live aboard dive operations, operating around West Papua/Papua often schedule sailings the incorporate Mapia Atoll
- Expedition cruise companies, such as Orion Expeditions, will often schedule visits to Mapia