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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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).
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!