A Tropical Sanctuary on Una-Una

The Togian Islands are probably the most out-of-the-way destination of our trip so far. Tucked into the huge gulf formed by the northern arm of Sulawesi, this Indonesian equatorial archipelago is only accessible by boat from a couple towns that are already far-flung themselves. We weren’t by any means certain it would be worthwhile to go here: a quick Google search will show the islands are indeed quite beautiful, but so is much of the Indonesian coast; and we had heard mixed things about the quality of the diving there. Would the experience make up for the trials of traveling via public vans, tuk-tuks, local ‘airlines’, and overnight ferries? The short answer is, yes indeed!

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Wakai – the Togian Islands

We began this leg in the northeastern Sulawesi town of Tomohon, where we closed out our visit by finding more delicious ragey (fatty pork sate – we hadn’t had pork in a while, with much of Indonesia being primarily Muslim!). We worked our way to Manado’s airport on a combination of minibus and mikrolets – these are small blue hop-on hop-off vans which make up 99% of non-scooter traffic in this region of Sulawesi. We then took a short flight over to Gorontalo, skipping a 10-hour bus ride by paying $24 each rather than $12 (woo-hoo!). We parked ourselves in this nondescript port town for 36 hours, awaiting the ferry for our next leg.

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driving a mikrolet, it’s common practice to keep cash piled in the dashboard for quick change

The “Tuna Tomini” ferry that sails between Gorontalo and Wakai in the Togeans offers a range of accommodation from open deck free-for-all (see this post for more on this Indonesian seagoing standard) to small bunk-bed cabins with AC. These are actually 4-bunk crew cabins that they rent out to tourists in an unofficial manner. They run 600-700k (~$50), quite steep compared to normal costs here in Indonesia, and they aren’t exactly posh! But having been on similar vessels before we were loathe to spend 13 hours in the heat, smoke, and noise of the cramped common areas. The best scenario would be to share the 4 bunks with another couple travelers but we didn’t know how to find anyone, nor did we know how to actually secure a cabin. Happily, both of these problems were solved simultaneously by asking at the hotel front desk: she knew a guy who arranged cabin bookings, and a Swiss couple passing by heard the discussion and said they were also looking for passage. Five minutes later the go-between shows up, sends a text to his buddies on the boat, and tells us there is one cabin left. Cash is exchanged for nothing but an assurance (this is typical) and the transaction is complete!

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we made friends with a guy at the post office who, finding the supply of postcards in Gorontalo to be lacking, decided to make his own.

Our overnight ferry voyage was uneventful; we and our new Swiss friends were quite happy to have a small room. The common areas were indeed hot, smoky, noisy, and busy with both locals and less-fortunate tourists (of which there were many!). The bunks were tiny, but we actually slept fairly well and awoke to the sunrise as we arrived in Wakai.

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ferry cabin! we were obligated to accept the American sheets.
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outriggers in Wakai’s harbor

The final leg of our trip would be by a small boat out to our island of choice. For many travelers this is Kadidiri which is close to Wakai and has several dive resorts and homestays. We almost went there ourselves, but while considering our options a couple days previously we had decided instead to make for Una-Una. Una-Una is an active volcanic island that sits apart from the Togian chain and is remote even by local standards, with few inhabitants or connecting boats. So why go there? For the diving: unlike the other islands, Una-Una has not been commercially fished, which sadly in Indonesia commonly included dynamite and cyanide fishing in the not-too-distant past (which as you can imagine is not so good for reefs). So for Sanctum Resort on Una-Una we were bound. After some in-port confusion due to the surprisingly large group of seven of us who had made the same choice, we were packed into a small fiberglass boat for the 90 minute ride. This 5-meter vessel was close to meeting its match on the 1.5 meter swells in the open channel crossing and we were all soon soaking wet. The low, wide silhouette of Una-Una was painfully slow in changing from a hazy blue-green to distinct lush jungle and sand as we wallowed and splashed across, but finally we arrived, shot through a gap in the reef, and beached in front of Sanctum.

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Sanctum’s pier, boats, and one of the friendly resident mutts.

Our soggy arrival was quickly righted by a warm welcome, warm shower (geothermal!), and hot coffee. Being greeted by two cute puppies Gula and Madu (Sugar and Honey) also helped, and this pair entertained us endlessly during our stay with their playful and friendly nature. What a place to be a puppy – an expansive beach, grass and jungle, friendly people, the occasional fish to gnaw on… Anyway we were quite comfortable here ourselves with a simple airy room, hammocks everywhere, a nice open area for meals and hanging out, and a great view along the empty tropical beach.

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Gula and Madu playing on the beach

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Despite its distant location Sanctum was quite busy with fellow travelers and we made some good friends from Paris, Amsterdam, and Barcelona. The energetic dive staff also hailed from all over – Finland, Israel, France, and one instructor from Colorado. Family meals were a happy busy mix of guests and staff and were followed by lively games of cards and dice. It was a great group to hang out with and a wonderful place to relax! The food was simple – to be expected given where we were – but well done, with tasty vegetables, occasional fish or chicken, and fiery homemade sambal. One dinner we were all treated to some trevally sashimi by one of the guests who free dives with a speargun, and who also apparently travels with soy sauce and wasabi. It was served on a baking sheet and was incredibly delicious.

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Gula and Gregor both tired after a busy day
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life is tough here on Una-Una.

So we ate, made some friends, played cards and read, cuddled the puppies and watched the moonrise on the beach – all in between some great diving! The out-of-this-world experience that was Komodo remains unmatched, but Una-Una gave us some great sights and highlights that we were more than happy to have made the trip for. With the furthest sites merely 20 minutes away by boat (most much closer), going out for a dive was a breeze; and with absolutely nobody else around, each location was all ours to explore. We checked out underwater pinnacles decorated artfully with huge sponges and fans; drifted along reef walls and slopes; and hunted around in the ‘muck’ (sand/mud/grasses etc) for weird critters. We swam alongside big dogtooth tuna and banded Spanish mackerel, hung out inside a blackfin barracuda tornado, and visited with a couple cuttlefish (smart!) and a spiny seahorse (dumb!). On one dive we were paced for a solid ten minutes by a spotted eagle ray, which I’m pretty sure was just showing off as it glided around with occasional bursts of speed. That same dive we heard something new underwater as well – a deep, dull explosive boom which our guide confirmed via a unique hand signal as Una-Una’s volcano rumbling away.

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tiny transparent blue shrimp hanging out in an anemone
As before, we didn’t bring our camera on most dives and the photos we have barely scratch the surface! But we got a few fun ones. Top left down the column: a pair of gobies, colorful tunicates (weird transparent animals), and three nudibranch (colorful mollusks). On the right, a mantis shrimp peers out of its hole, and on the bottom, a broadclub cuttlefish checks us out. See a cool video we got of the cuttlefish here – watch it change shape and color near the end!

As on Bunaken, a night dive here on Una-Una was a special treat and this was definitely our most amazing one yet. As soon as we dropped in we were face to face with a pair of juvenile African pompano, gorgeous silvery fish with long delicate filaments off of their fins – a special thing to find on a dive, and just the start for us. From there we found several bigfin reef squid hunting in the dark with their huge eyes. We didn’t seem to bother them and they swam quite close at times. After watching each other for a few minutes we actually saw one dart in near some coral, catch a fish, and tuck it away right in front of us!

The dive was still far from over. We went on to see a bevy of weird little shrimps and crabs, a blue-spotted stingray rooting around in the sand for something to eat, and hefty broadclub cuttlefish hovering around slowly like an alien spacecraft. Elaine found a pink/purple reef octopus hiding in a rock and I spotted a big blunt decorator crab moseying along in its disguise of reef detritus. After a full 90 minutes of diving (our longest by far) we emerged exhausted and exhilarated, with our guide Dean also ecstatic – one of the best dives of his life, he said. Hunting squid! Juvenile African pompanos! He was bubbling over the rest of evening chatting with his fellow dive pros. It was also with Dean that we saw the eagle ray, spiny seahorse, and many other awesome things – by the time we were leaving he had declared us quite lucky and wished he could keep diving with us.

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the hand-sized blunt decorator crab! See its two eye stalks sticking out?

Once again we managed to completely exhaust ourselves by the time we packed up to leave our diving destination. Our trip to Una-Una brought me to over 60 dives, with Elaine not far behind – considering that merely seven weeks before we had arrived in Indonesia with nothing but a notion to perhaps try out diving, this is some combination of impressive and ridiculous. But we both remain completely enthralled with the activity, and given how much Indonesia has to offer at really good prices, I can’t say I find that number to be excessive at all!

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Our journey away from Una-Una partially retraced our steps; a small boat to Wakai (thankfully smaller swells) followed by taking the Tuna Tomini ferry to Gorontalo, this time bunking with a couple of our new friends from Sanctum. After staying a night in Gorontalo and visiting the local “pizza” establishment (ever do the toaster-oven pizza thing with English muffins, frozen shredded cheese, and processed red sauce? Think that flavor) we caught a couple flights through Makassar to Bali, thereby re-emerging from our several weeks of travel pretty far off the beaten path.

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departing the Togians at sunset
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cards on the top deck with our Dutch friend Merit
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locals relaxing on the ferry
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Una-Una is the island in the distance on the right hand side.

N.E. Sulawesi from -40 to 1600 meters

Our journey from Sulawesi’s southwestern corner to Palau Bunaken in the northeast was a familiar relay of car – plane – car – boat – motorbike. The only close call came in catching the public boat out of Manado’s ferry after we landed in the afternoon, but fortunately (for us; not so fortunate for the folks who had been waiting on the boat for hours) the departure was delayed due to the tides and we got onboard just in time. This was a typical public Indonesian vessel piled with dry goods, fresh food, Bintang beer, and 5-gallon water jugs, with people parked in the remaining nooks and crannies.

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on the boat to Bunaken

As we puttered over to the island we ran into Ferdinand, the Dutch owner of the dive resort we were headed for. He’s a funny guy with a ton of diving experience and we enjoyed chatting with him during our stay. Like many other expat-run businesses he’s teamed up with his local wife and family – she runs the room and board and he handles the diving. Their place (Cakalang – pronounced cha-ka-leng) is a cute beachside set of bungalows and buildings where they serve tasty family-style meals in between dive excursions. They have worked hard here to create something functional and sensical and it works well – Ferdinand has designed and built many components of the business himself from the main building to the trash incinerator (a real one, not a typical roadside fire) and even the details of their commissioned dive boats.

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relaxing by the beach
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Cakalang’s tiles are homemade from incinerated trash!
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Bauer (named after the air compressor) hanging out by the boat

Bunaken is much more of the tropical ideal for us than Bira was. Having a perfect place to stay certainly helps a lot, but it goes well beyond that. The island is a beautiful combination of jungle, mangrove, beach, and reefs, with no big eyesore resorts marring the palm tree vistas. The air is fresh, the sand and ocean mostly garbage-free, and the water is the clearest we’ve seen – you can look down from the dive boat before even getting wet and clearly see corals and fish tens of meters down. Once down on a typical dive you’re floating along  at 25 meters with crystal clarity above and a view down the vertical reef wall to at least another 30m deep, often more. This makes for some spectacular views – sunlight beams down over the top of the reef and through caverns onto massive sponges and fan corals, and just off the face of the wall thousands of fish are schooling and eating while turtles glide around everywhere.

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Elaine with her new dive computer!

Most outings here were peaceful wall dives like this, each unique and interesting thanks to our guide Mervy being very good at finding interesting critters.  Bunaken is not a place to see big sharks or rays, but we’ve seen a lot of small amazing things here that are really exciting to find like leaf scorpionfish, ghost pipefish, brightly colored ribbon eels, and an adorably minuscule pygmy seahorse (no way in hell I would have found that myself – thanks Mervy!). A night dive was also prolific with all sorts of crustaceans including big hermit crabs, banded shrimps, and a chunky hand-sized decorator crab (these stick reef rubble on their exterior for camouflage and look like a weirdly animated collection of junk when moving). In the dark we also found a trifecta of mini cephalopods: tiny octopus, cuttlefish, and squid.

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our intrepid guide Mervy
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I jumped in between dives for a quick photo

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Evenings at Cakalang are a time for relaxing in the perfectly warm air, enjoying a cold beer while playing cards or reading, and listening to one of the locals play guitar or Ferdinand tell some of his stories. He’s got some good ones, both from his 12 years here in Bunaken and his previous life diving in Europe. The waves gently wash up through the mangroves on the beach and the three rotund little dogs contentedly lie nearby, at least until one of the big red jungle crabs wanders near looking for some food scraps. It’s really quite lovely!

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listening to Ferdinand’s stories
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Cakalang in the evening

One dive that didn’t fit the Bunaken wall-dive mold was the Molas wreck. This is a pretty big (70m long) steel cargo or fishing vessel off the nearby mainland. It sank sometime around WWII and lies almost upright with a slight starboard list. We’ve been on a couple other ‘wreck’ dives before – see our Gili post – but this was our first honest-to-goodness shipwreck and it did not disappoint. We descended through relatively low visibility for here (still 10-15m), following a line until the huge bow of the ship slowly appeared. Swimming down along the starboard side we marveled at all of the stuff that has grown on the structure in the last 70 or so years, and then descended to close to 40 meters at the stern (our deepest dive yet) to see the two big screws. After ascending a bit around the port side, but while still pretty deep, suddenly one of the other divers in our group caught my attention – she had a problem. It was unclear what, and she was panicking a little. She wanted to immediately ascend, but she did a good job signaling and staying with the group instead. I tried giving her my secondary regulator but she waved it off, only wanting to surface. So I took her over to our guide to get his attention and he quickly helped her calm down and switch to her backup regulator – later we found out that the rubber mouthpiece had torn and she was getting some seawater in as she tried to breathe. It all resolved itself quickly and we continued the dive, but this was a good experience for me to see how Mervy calmly handled the problem!

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We weren’t very excited about leaving comfortable Cakalang behind but we had to pull ourselves away eventually. Our next destination was Tangkoko Park on the main island of Sulawesi, home to some fun creatures such as the tarsier. We took the public boat back to the coastal city of Manado with the intent to head to a bus terminal and make a couple transit connections out to the park. As we walked along with our heavy packs in the midday heat, fatigue started catching up with us (doing 3 dives a day, even when they’re calm, is tiring!). We’ve been there before plenty of times – the stress of figuring out how to get somewhere can sap your energy – but usually we just push on through. Not this time, however – upon losing a lunchtime roll of the dice on what turned out to be unappealing organ soup, our ambition to travel further that day evaporated into the hot and smoky city air. Revising our goals for the day, we sought refuge at a nearby hotel that Ferdinand had recommended. This was a good decision. We napped, caught up on odds and ends, and found a good satay place for dinner.

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the sembal in this part of Indonesia is deadly spicy

After further planning we decided to skip Tangkoko altogether and spend a few days up in the cool hills of Minahasa, an area south of the city of Manado. We took a public bus up the windy narrow road to the small destination town of Tomohon, popular with both locals and tourists. Of fame here is a macabre market (which we skipped), birdwatching (we saw some nice birds, though I think the grandeur was a bit lost on us compared to the camo and camera laden pros), and the volcanic jungle countryside. We got a bungalow at a run down but cute place with a view of the dramatic Gunung Lokon (an active volcano) and spent an afternoon wandering up through the town.

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on the public minibus
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one of the local volcanoes, Gunung Lokon
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our bungalow

Tomohon itself is a pleasantly clean place with a good sidewalk (rarities in Indonesia!). Beyond this the town itself isn’t remarkable, though it is surrounded by some beautiful countryside. Finding a place to eat that looked okay and offered more than a collection of fried items was a little challenging, but happily we decided to stop at a busy little satay place where smoke was billowing out of the fire pit. This place goes by the name of Ragey Von Von (ragey is a type of satay here in the Minahasa region, turns out) and they served up some super tasty pork belly skewers and grilled tuna.

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Tomohon is really several clusters of buildings strung out along a main road
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These signs are all over Indonesia and we finally got a photo of one. Everyone here is rail thin and yet their crosswalk man looks like the Hulk. Maybe it’s supposed to make drivers think twice about hitting someone, but if so it doesn’t work well because these signs are meaningless here.

Having heard that hiking up nearby Gunung Lokon was a good way to spend part of a day, we wanted to give it a shot. It’s close and small enough to do on your own but it being an active volcano with a few different ways to die we figured we might as well go with a guide. We arranged one through our host and set our alarms for 3:30am the next morning so that we could enjoy the sunrise up at the crater.

We met our guide Jotje in the predawn dark over some coffee. Jotje has been guiding here in Minahasa for decades (he told us about some of the first Americans he guided, missionary doctors back in 1975) and has climbed Lokon over five thousand times by his estimate. So to say the least he knows the mountain rather well. We began the hike on a fairly gentle slope of an old andesite lava flow scattered with rubble from huge boulders to black sand. A starless cloudy sky made us a bit apprehensive about it actually being worth coming for sunrise, but as we neared the crater (and the level of the low clouds) we started to see breaks coming through. Unlike one’s mental image of a ‘typical’ volcano, Lokon’s crater sits adjacent to its bright green peak rather than atop it, so reaching the crater is quite easier than actually summiting.

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catching sight of the summit through the dawn clouds

We arrived at the crater by sunrise and our early start paid out in spades with dramatically lit views of the smoking quarry-sized pit and neighboring peak fringed with passing pink clouds. Past the crater we could see the coastline and the island of Palau Bunaken where we had just been. As the low fluffy clouds rolled by Jotje continually remarked at how unique and beautiful this morning’s scene was – lucky us! (I don’t think he was just saying that for our benefit – he couldn’t restrain himself from taking photo after photo himself).

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Jotje our guide
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looking out at the islands where we had been diving

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From the crater we looked uphill and began climbing towards the summit. At this point the toxic smoke from the cauldron appeared to stop which made Jotje nervous – “it’s not good when it stops smoking”, he observed. “Maybe we only go up a little ways.” It was only a brief pause, however, and with billows of smoke behind us (blowing away downwind) we hoofed up the steep slope. This was tough going on the way up and we anticipated correctly it would be even less fun going down: lots of loose, sliding rubble for a ways followed by steep dense mud covered with tall sharp-edged grasses. Our efforts were rewarded with some grand panoramas of nearby Sulawesi, in addition to actually reaching the marked summit of the volcano. For scenery alone we decided the summit wasn’t worthwhile compared to the crater, but as many tourists only visit the latter we left with the satisfaction of a unique accomplishment (along with more than a few scrapes and cuts).

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The summit trail heads up left past the crater. Watch out for loose rocks and toxic fumes!

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the summit itself isn’t much of a view because of the grasses

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We spent our remaining time in Tomohon relaxing though afternoon rainshowers, playing cards, wandering around, and dodging rather sizable, tenacious, and painful spiny ants. Our next intended destination, after a stopover in Gorontalo, are the off-the-grid Togean Islands for more tropical coast bliss and diving (hopefully) – who knows when we’ll be back online!

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putting your hand down on one of these little devils isn’t fun

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