It’s been quite a battle to get this post online – the internet in Sulawesi leaves a lot to be desired!
Moving on from Komodo National Park posed a significant challenge for us. What could possibly match the experience we had here and not just be a disappointment? We knew three things for sure, at least: one, that we had a solid five weeks left in Indonesia (having needed to book a departure flight in order to extend our visa). Two, that there was still far more to see in this vast, logistically-challenged country than five weeks would allow. And three, that our thirst for amazing diving was nowhere near slaked.
Frankly it’s mostly the diving that is keeping us enthralled with Indonesia. The country is otherwise lacking in charm, culture, and cuisine compared to our previous locales (namely Vietnam and Thailand). This is a harsh oversimplification – the people here are friendly as anywhere, beautiful beaches and volcano panoramas abound, and the living is the cheapest we’ve yet encountered.
So what do I have to complain about? I suppose a lot of it actually comes down to food, as trite as that may seem. Cuisine and its surrounding culture is a big part of what we enjoy experiencing while traveling. Heading off to an unknown destination, having no idea where to stay or if we’ll be able to communicate or if there’s anything interesting to do, is much more fun if we know that no matter what we’ll be able to find a delicious and/or adventurous meal when we arrive. Vietnam and Thailand provided this in spades; Indonesia just doesn’t. This is no doubt due at least in part to more scant conditions, but regardless it’s a real aspect of traveling here for us.
To be sure: we’ve found some very tasty food here in Indonesia. Grilled chicken and fish, in particular, can be satisfyingly fresh and delicious in a way that farm-raised stuff you get back home just can’t be. Some of the homemade sauces and sembal are remarkably flavorful (and powerfully spicy), and nowhere have we had such perfectly prepared tofu and tempeh, it’s really good. But ultimately most meals center around a large scoop of rice with a modest amount of the aforementioned items and perhaps some boiled veggies, every time, and after a while it does get old. The various vibrant soups and salads of mainland southeast Asia are sorely missed. Much as it pains me to say this we’re thankful to have found some standout Western cuisine in both the Gilis and Labuanbajo.
Okay, enough on food and back to our conundrum of where to go. We wanted more diving, and thanks to Indonesia being quite cheap if nothing else, we could afford to do more so why stop now. We looked into a range of possible destinations. The Indonesian archipelago is literally swimming in reefs: Raja Ampat, Alor, the Bandas, Sulawesi… we narrowed down the list by what’s affordable (Raja Ampat off of Papua is amazing but also exclusive) and weather this time of year (not a good time for Alor or the Bandas), leaving us with Sulawesi – the immense contorted island that sits between Borneo and Papua and has several locations reportedly good for diving.
We booked a flight from Bajo to Makassar, the main city in the southwest corner of Sulawesi. A more adventurous and thrifty traveler – or any local – would take one of the large ferries that connect Flores to Sulawesi. This option is approximately free and comes with a corresponding level of comfort and accommodation. Having experienced 7 hours on a similar boat the prospect of a 24 hour journey was a bit too daunting for us. At least we made the ‘local’ journey on the way out!
The island of Sulawesi is large – dimensionally comparable to the UK or California, as a couple examples. Using the cool website of MAPFrappe, which I just discovered for this purpose, I can illustrate this for you by placing a scale outline of weirdly-shaped Sulawesi anywhere on the globe:
Now imagine getting around the UK or California, but all the roads are narrow, extremely contorted, and strewn with everything from goats to gravel. Aggressive dodging and weaving lets you max out around 60 kmh (37 mph). As you can imagine it takes a little while to get from A to B. Doing so being one of 10 people packed into a 7 seat car is neither unusual nor particularly comfortable. On these lengthy drives you are subject to the whim of the driver for whether you stop for food or a toilet. As mentioned before, these guys can survive indefinitely on coffee and cigarettes. Yup, you get to sit there while your fellow passengers smoke, but no matter, the outside air is often just as foul from the countless roadside trash fires. But everyone is smiling and friendly, and the driver – when he does stop – is happy to help you order something off a nearby grill to sustain you.
We were happy to finally arrive at our first Sulawesian destination of Pantai Bira following a pair of flights, an overnight in Makassar, and 8 hours of driving between taxi, motor-rickshaw, and public car. The distance we covered over land on Sulawesi was pitifully small compared to the whole island, leaving us pondering the remainder of our traveling here (foreshadowing: more flights in our future).
Bira is a quiet oceanside town populated primarily by goats. Cats and humans tie for second-most. It is a tourist destination for – you guessed it – diving! Compared to the dive destinations we’d been to so far, however, Bira is far less busy. We weren’t prepared for how challenging it would be to even find an outfit to dive with, having just come from the intense competition of Komodo and the Gilis. Other tourist amenities were also missed such as wifi (which we knew going in) and options for meals (a lot more scarce than expected).
The coastline here is the standard Indonesian mix we are now used to of glittering blue waters, green jungle, and garbage everywhere. We’ve been told several times that everything in Indonesia ends up either in a trash fire or the ocean and it’s no exaggeration – there’s no infrastructure in place for anything else. It’s sad and frustrating, especially since one of the biggest sources of garbage – plastic water bottles – are a necessary evil for everyone including ourselves. We have filters and purification tablets but that doesn’t help when the tap is part saltwater, or laced with toxic minerals.
Because we were only competing with about six other tourists for ten times as many guesthouse rooms, we succeeded in securing a relatively nice and spacious hilltop room sporting a real toilet and sink, plus a massive resident gecko that, in exchange for leaving equally massive droppings around, kept the place free of creepy-crawlies. Armed with a rental scooter we set out the next day to find a dive shop. Easier said than done! We visited a couple locations in the area home to recommended outfits but nobody was home. Surprisingly – given how things typically work here – email came through where face to face didn’t. (We had earlier purchased a data sim card for Elaine’s phone, thankfully, and so we could claw a little into the internet from time to time.) We got in touch with Johan who runs Sulawesi Dive Adventure and the next day joined some fellow Korean and Russian divers on a small converted fishing boat.
The diving here came nowhere close to comparing to Komodo. This was not helped by the folks running the operation, who were disorganized, non-communicative, and not very good at finding the best sites, all on account of the regular divemaster taking some time off from work. Still, we found we were confident in our ability by now to take full responsibility for ourselves and our safety – had we encountered this situation earlier on we would have been quite uncomfortable. We learned that we really wanted our own dive computers, to be further independent and safe; and we did get at least a few dives that were really great.
The best dive in Bira by far was the “Great Wall” off of Kambing Island which was a stunningly clear drift along a vertical reef wall extending below us to perhaps 60 meters; tuna swam back and forth past us through huge schools of triggerfish and fusiler as we cruised by. A venomous sea snake hunted through the corals. Cute reef fish, caring nothing for gravity, oriented themselves whichever way made the reef ‘down’ – in most cases, vertically, and when below an overhang, inverted. At one point a large group of sizeable blackfin barracuda slowly approached, and then as if we were a pylon of a race course or a judge in a parade, made a 180 around us a mere arm’s length away before meandering off.
We had a few highlights on some other dives as well. A giant bumphead parrotfish, several green sea turtles (big ones and juveniles), many whitetip sharks (again, big ones and juveniles), some big cowtail rays hiding in the sandy bottom, and a wee little baby banded sea snake thinner than a pencil figuring out how to swim and find dinner. Other dives, however, were marred by an abundance of floating trash, very low visibility, or some less than stellar guiding by our inexperienced crew. We had hoped to see some hammerheads or mantas, having read they might be around, but no luck. Overall we decided that coming to Bira wasn’t really worthwhile compared to other areas in Indonesia, but we made the best we could of it once we were there!
Other items of interest in Bira: watching cute little goat kids gallivanting around, strolling the beaches if you can dodge the trash, and checking out the local boatbuilding. This regional trade of fabricating traditional wooden boats and ships is still done on a regular basis at scales larger than the small fishing craft we’d seen so far. Scaffolding is erected directly over the beach where the vessel is pieced together by bending and pinning planks into place over a wooden frame. The results are beautiful wide-bellied hulls – some over 30m in length, I’d guess – which are fitted out in the nearby harbor to order.
So after a few days diving followed by internetless lounging (cards and books, mostly) we were ready to move on. We had, by this point, decided that working our way up by land along Sulawesi wasn’t going to happen – not much of interest to us and too much driving. We booked a cheap flight from Makassar up to Manado in the northeast of Sulawesi, an area that we hoped would suit us with its combination of tropical islands, reefs, jungle, and mountains. Another bumpy cramped car ride back from Bira brought us back to the hectic sprawl of Makassar and a comfy recharge-and-plan stay at a fancy hotel (TV and room service, wahoo!)
Specifics: if you go to Bira, definitely get a sim card first so you can use data and make local calls. It’ll be really hard to arrange things otherwise especially if your host doesn’t speak English. There are plenty of guesthouse options in town, none close to being full when we were there, though many people stay instead at one of the beachside resorts or bungalows to the east or west of town and you can probably get a good deal on one of those too if you shop around. Cosmos (beachside resort) was cute and popular. We dove with Sulawesi Dive Adventure – the owner Johan was helpful and responsive over email and based on reviews I expect diving with his normal guides is better than what we got. You might also try Bira Dive Camp which seemed somewhat busy, at least. But I think you’re better off going somewhere other than Bira unless you’re in Makassar, short on time, and it’s your only chance to see sharks.