Kai Islands (Kecil & Besar) – Indonesia – What the Fako?

Our visit to the Kai Islands was certainly one for the books. When Google Maps and Maps.me both showed the small town of Fako in the wrong location, our little ‘overnight trip to Kai Besar’ turned into a fiasco. Buttttttt we initially started our trip on the island of Kai Kecil so let me start there.

In Indonesian the word kecil translates to ‘small’ and the word besar to ‘great’. So essentially we were birding the small Kai island and the big or great Kai island. The Kai Islands are located in the southeastern edge of The Maluku Islands (the Moluccas) and actually consist of more than just kecil and besar, but those are the two largest islands in this group. These tiny islands have few native animals due to the deep waters that border Wallacea on the east and west, however, there are a few native birds, and as per the usual, we were trying to see them. We were planning to start on Kai Kecil, see a few birds and then go for an overnight trip to Kai Besar.

Kai Kecil is by far the more touristy of the two islands, and rightfully so as the beaches on Kai Kecil are not only some of the nicest in Maluku, but in all of the world. If you are into fine, soft white sand, clear blue waters and having a beach all to yourself, I highly recommend a visit. Kai Besar on the other hand is more volcanic and does not boast the same kind of knock-out beaches as its next-door-neighbor. We arrived in Kai Kecil, and after a bit of negotiation with the taxi drivers who are accustomed to charging triple the going rate to tourists, were taken to a homestay on the west coast where the premier beach, Pasir Panjang, and the birding spot we were hoping to visit are located. The cottage closest to the birding location was completely booked (apparently up through the next several weeks) so we had to go to another place about two kilometers away. Our first night was a rest as we didn’t arrive to Evelyn’s Cottages. The next morning we walked the two kilometers north along the beach and visited a small patch of small stone forest that still remains. The area was dead. Unbeknownst to us, this was not the best birding location on the island anymore! It was the early part of the morning and we hardly saw any birds! We had to work very hard just to dig up a few of the specialties, but eventually had nice looks at Little Kai White-eye, Island Whistler, and White-tailed Monarch. Since the area was dead, with no hopes of the birding picking up any time soon, we decided it might be best to go back to town and catch a ferry to Kai Besar.

It was daylight on the walk back to our cottage so I could finally see this beach that we had slept next to the night before. Honestly, before visiting I had no idea that Kai Kecil was known for these killer beaches. Truly, Pasir Panjang was out of this world. I was in my hiking boots but I quickly took off my shoes and walked the whole way back in my bare feet! It was incredibly beautiful with white sand soft as flour and turquoise blue waters. But the best part is that during our two kilometer walk back to our cottage we didn’t pass a single other person. The birding location is not worth a visit, but if you come to Kai Kecil (for birds or otherwise) you should still make the trip to this side of the island!

We packed our bags and set off for the ferry terminal to go to the island of Kai Besar. Tourists usually don’t go to Kai Besar, but birders do. Birders go as a day trip though, taking the 9am ferry over in the morning and the 2pm ferry back again later that day after they see their two target birds. Ross likes to do things a bit different and as you may know, does not dip owls, so he wanted to stay until after dark to try for the owl that is found there. Kai Boobook was initially called a ‘boobook’ and named as such, but DNA evidence shows that it is more closely related to Barking Owl and therefore the new book places it firmly in the realm of Barking Owl. Whatever kind of owl it is, Ross wanted to see it. We devised a plan that we would take the 2pm ferry over, spend the night camping wherever and come back the following day. We saw on the map (using both Google Maps and Maps.me) that a small town, Fako, was right next to the birding location. Our birding destination known by birders as ‘The Mission’ is an abandoned missionary complex with forest nearby. We figured if we went to Fako we can get dropped off and walk over to the birding spot and possibly just camp there. If not there then certainly we could find a place to stay in the town of Fako. We found a bemo (van-style public taxi) that was headed in that direction so we got in. I’m not sure if it was a public bemo or just someone with a van picking people up, but it was insanely crowded and we definitely got a few strange looks when we piled in with our bags. We started up the hill heading towards Fako and after 30 minutes or so, passed our birding destination signposted with a white archway signally “the mission” at the top of the road. On both of our maps Fako should have been only a kilometer or two away from this location, but we soon started going back downhill and that was when Ross asked the driver where Fako was. Our maps were wrong. Fako was actually the whole way down on the other coast! Ugh! We were too far down the hill to get out (in hindsight we should have gotten out anyway) but at the time it seemed we now had to go to Fako and see if we could get a ride back up. No wonder we got a few strange lookes when we got in the bemo asking to go to Fako. Their thoughts probably were, why on earth would white people want to go there?! Fako is nothing more than a small village on the water consisting of poorly-built wooden houses, some with straw roofs some with tin. But by the number of children running around when we got there, it should at least quadruple in size in the next decade. Family planning clearly does not exist in a place like Fako where there appeared to be nothing else to do but go around making babies. Anyway, there was no transportation going back the opposite direction. We appeared to be stranded. Thankfully we saw one vehicle in the town, a truck, and attempted to ask him to take us but apparently he couldn’t go until the next morning. Either his truck was broken as several men were working on it when we asked, or he simply didn’t want to. Probably the former. It was dark but we had to resort to taking ojeks (motorbikes) up the steep, once-paved mountain road to ‘The Mission.’ The people in Fako thought we were crazy for wanting to go there but we explained that we had a tent and it would be fine to sleep outside. Personally, I think it is crazier to get on the back of a motorbike with all of your bags, in the dark, on a crappy pot-holed road without a helmet on, than camp at an abandoned missionary, but I digress.

We coordinated (aka flagged down) passing motorbikes and were taken back to the location we passed up two hours earlier. We weren’t under the abandoned shelter of The Mission more than 30 seconds before the skies opened up and the rain began to pour down. Ross was a bit worried that the whole town of Fako now knew that two foreigners were alone up in the woods and opted to stay awake in the off-chance that someone might think to come rob us. He sat awake while I slept. (Are you thinking aww what a lucky girl or think I’m a crazy lady?!) It proceeded to rain the rest of the night making owling essentially pointless. At 2AM it did stop so Ross walked the road looking for this owl but no luck. When morning came he hiked up the trail and immediately had looks at Kai Island Leaf-Warbler and Greater Kai White-eye. I wasn’t in the greatest mood after leaving a beautiful beach to come camp under an old abandoned building so in protest, I opted not to climb up the steep muddy trail in the rain and passed up birding that morning. Greater Kai White-eyes are so common however that I didn’t have to do anything other than pack my bags to leave in order to see several in a nearby tree. Ross consoled me by saying “just think, back in the day the white-eye is all that people came for so you are no different than them!” Really, though I didn’t need any consolation. It’s only a leaf warbler, amiright?!

Later that day we took the morning ferry back to Kai Kecil, found a hotel and decided that we would check out another birding area. It wasn’t until Ross really started to think about it that he became angry that he missed the owl. He found a phone number in an old trip report of a guy that once met with birders so he called him. Adolof speaks English and met with Ross later that afternoon and informed him that he works on Kai Kecil but has a house on Kai Besar. Adolof also said the owl was common. Not more than four hours after leaving Kai Besar, Ross was back on the ferry going to try again for this owl. Meanwhile, I stayed in the hotel on Kai Kecil. That night Ross and his local “guide” Adolof walked the same road Ross was on earlier that morning, but at least this time it was nice weather and Adolof wasn’t so much a guide as he was access to transportation. I wasn’t there but as the story goes, after 2 hours of searching Ross finally heard the owl. And luckily there happened to be a trail leading directly to where the bird was calling from. So Ross goes in after the sound and just like that he is looking at Kai Boobook/Barking Owl! It was then that Adolof admitted that he has never actually seen the owl before! He had only ever heard it. Adolof was more excited to see the owl than Ross was! Perhaps though this was information Ross might have liked to know before he boarded the ferry. Oh well, it all worked out in the end! Ross isn’t the type of birder who absolutely needs a guide and now he has shown a local where to take future birders who might benefit from a little help when searching for this owl. (Whether or not other birders actually care to see this owl is yet to be determined!)  Anyway, not only was Adolof acting as guide and transportation but he also made a room for Ross to stay in that night and his company was more than worth the inexpensive cost!

Kai Boobook/Barking Owl

The next morning was August 17th. I do not often include exact dates in these posts as usually that is irrelevant, but anyone familiar with Indonesian history might know that August 17th is the day Indonesia declared their independence. As it was a national holiday, the ferry back to Kai Kecil wasn’t running. Ross was effectively stranded on Kai Besar while I was on Kai Kecil. It took hours, and I mean HOURS (all day to be exact) but finally Ross and Adolof found someone with a boat willing to make the journey back. It was raining and the boat was small so over the 3-hour ride back water was frequently sloshing in over the sides. I’m really, really glad I missed out on that! The internet in my hotel wasn’t working so the whole time this was going on, I had no idea what was happening and kept thinking Ross was supposed to have been back by now! I was beginning to get worried when a slew of Facebook messages finally came through. When he finally arrived back to Kai Kecil, Ross was soaking wet and wanted nothing more than to eat (something he hadn’t done all day) and sleep (something he did very little of the night before.) It had been a crazy day to say the least!

The next morning we went to a different birding spot on Kai Kecil that is supposed to be better for bird watching. I was a bit disappointed because the first spot was right next to that beautiful beach and birding the new airport road meant I wouldn’t get to visit it again. We had two ojeks drop us off on the side of the new airport road and we hit several of the off-shoot trails. It was much birdier and we had several birds such as Kai Coucal, White-tailed Monarch, Yellow-capped Pygmy-Parrot, Papuan Pitta, and Stephan’s Dove during our walks. Certain parts were clearly being farmed and several acres of trees had been chopped down, but there was still a good bit of nice forest around. Who knows how much longer this forest will stay birdy, but for us it was clearly much better than the first spot we had tried a few days prior.

We only had a morning in this area so by 9AM we headed back to town, packed our bags and early that afternoon we left for the island of Buru! Our time in the Kai Islands was certainly one for the record books!

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