Sunday, 30 October 2011


Banggai Island 

Our first sailing on Indonesia’s famous ferry line, Pelni, was an eye-opener to say the least. It almost goes without saying, that when we turned up at 7am to board our ship to Banggai, we discovered it was late, and didn’t end up leaving until 1.30 pm. We expect these things, but what we didn’t expect was the ridiculous scrum to board the ship. Instead of letting everybody who was getting off in Bau Bau disembark first, someone decided it would be a good idea to open all the gates, so hundreds of people were getting on and off at the same time through a opening big enough only for single file. The situation was made worse by porters shoving their way through the thick crowds to nab a job carrying someone’s luggage and cargo.

Chaos at Bau Bau port

Bau Bau port (a quiet moment)

Bau Bau port

We finally made it on, and set off to find our seats. Sea travel isn’t quite as cheap as we expected here, so we opted for deck class (the cheapest). We had a deck number and a seat number, but as the ship was coming from Java, a trip of several days away, everyone was well and truly settled into their bunks. It was pretty grotty down there, and extremely hot, so we found a quiet-ish space on the deck, spread out our rice sacks that Richard has been carrying around since India, and enjoyed the first part of the journey, with sunny weather and views of uninhabited islands, as well as fishing villages. The night was not so enjoyable, as we tried to sleep on the rock hard deck, and we were happy to arrive in Banggai in the wee hours of the morning. 

Pelni ferry, deck

Pelni ferry, inside

Not having any idea about Banggai, we decided for a couple more hours of hard semi-sleep in the ferry terminal, to wait for the sun to rise. When it did, we found a ramshackle, busy and tiny town, with the same welcoming and responsive people we have found everywhere so far on our Sulawesi trip. It seems Banggai is another place rarely visited by foreigners, and everyone immediately wanted to be friendly and say hello and talk to us as much as possible. We were amazed to find one hotel (and not too bad, either), and collapsed into bed without even a shower, for a deep catch up sleep for several hours. 

Hotel room, Banggai

Our hotel welcome

Cloves drying

Banggai girls

After attempting to hire a motor bike for the day to look around the island (a concept not understood at all), we opted for a combination of walking and minibuses, and explored some of the area for the next couple of days. We did have visions of beautiful isolated beaches, but what we got was small villages with bamboo huts, some on stilts over the sea, people making a living from fishing, a lot of rubbish, markets and lots and lots of smiling faces everywhere. 

Banggai chooks

Starting early

Banggai village

Banggai village

Banggai village

Banggai village

Crab traps

Banggai village

One highlight was a visit to the local market, where the stall owners, especially in the fish section, were outrageously happy to see us, and all wanted their pictures taken- we had a fun time there!

Fish market, Banggai

Big fish (on the left)

Fish market, Banggai

Fish market, Banggai

Market colour

Yet another boat ride awaited us from Banggai. We were becoming naturals (of course, Richard is very experienced on boats, but Sally’s annoying habit of sea-sickness seemed to have been cured!), and knew this time to show up super early at the port on the other side of the island for the 9am boat to Luwuk. Although we had visited the harbour the previous day and checked (in Indonesian) about the day and time of the boat, when we arrived we were told it wasn’t leaving today, but there was another boat leaving from the port five minutes from where we had been staying! So we rushed back to find it actually wasn’t leaving until 1 pm (in other words, between 2pm and 3pm). We had a few reservations upon seeing the rickety old ferry, but when we boarded we found a great boat with mattresses all set out to sleep on, plenty of fresh air (it was entirely open at the sides), and the ticket lady had given us the best bunks right at the back, so we could lie down and still see the view! As usual, everyone else rushed on at the last minute, were curious about us, and to the strains of the theme from Titanic on someone’s mobile phone, we set sail!  We spent the next eight hours, snoozing and watching out for sea mammals, which are supposed to be common in that area. Right near the end of the trip, we were lucky enough to see a pod of dolphins very close by following the boat. The scenery was beautiful, and similar to our other trips by sea along the east coast.

Banggai to Luwuk ferry

Banggai to Luwuk ferry

View from Banggai to Luwuk ferry

We had an unfortunately terrible hotel in Luwuk, and decided, because of that mainly, to leave immediately the next morning. Again, confusion with where we caught the bus, but we finally sorted it out, and found ourselves on a swanky kijang (share 4-wheel drive taxi) heading to Ampana. The trip along this peninsula was one of the most stunning of our travels, with us driving through secluded beaches, mangroves and jungle. We had advice to stay in a village just outside of Ampana for the night to be near the ferry for the Togean Islands the next morning, and we headed straight there. A good thing about the kijangs is they will generally drop passengers where-ever they want to go within the town, often saving another trip from an inevitably far flung bus terminal.

Togean Islands
We were now to find out where all the other travellers we hadn’t seen for nearly three weeks had been hiding! On our little ferry from Ampana to Poyalisa Island (part of the Togean Island group), four other tourists all going to the same resort. It was a shock, but nice for us to chat with English speakers again.  Typically, half way into the three hour trip, our ferry lost half its power, and we limped into dock at Poyalisa Island, much to the relief of the crew, who were having to hand pump the water out of the boat (the pump had stopped working!).

Nearly there, Poyalisa Island

Togean ferries

The Togeans, along with Rantepao and Pulau Bunaken in the north, are the most popular destinations on Sulawesi, and when we arrived at the island, we found out why! Poyalisa is a true tropical paradise, and everything looks absolutely perfect, as it would on a postcard. It is about one acre of gleaming white sand, crystal clear water, surrounded by coral, with eight simple, pretty, wooden huts, no running water or electricity (only a generator at night), and a basic restaurant. We were surprised at the tiny size of the place, and also that it was full! As we stayed here, people came and went- sometimes there were 20 people, and at other times just the two of us. We scored a hut with sweeping views of both side of the island, as well as a bird’s eye view of who was coming and going! Good for sticky beaks like us! The deal with most places in the Togeans is a package, where all food is included in the price of the hut (most places are remote and there are no restaurants). At Poyalisa, the amazing food was cooked in Bomba, a small village five minutes away by boat, and brought over four times a day. Yes, four times a day! For us, who usually only eat once or twice a day, it was a struggle, but the food was so delicious, we ate everything put in front of us! The snorkeling we were doing every day off the island did help us to work up an appetite. It was like being inside a tropical aquarium in those waters, definitely the best underwater sights we have seen- hundreds of different sorts of brightly colored fish, and some colorful coral, although dynamite fishing has been rampant around here in the not too distant past, and destroyed a lot of it. We aren’t the best snorkelers in the world, but we practiced a lot around the island, and eventually went out of a few of the free snorkeling trips organized with other guests. We were very happy, and decided to stay a while. We grew used to being pampered, with the women who worked on the island so welcoming and hospitable, and always making sure we had enough to eat and drink, bringing us afternoon tea on our verandah, and doing an amazing job of cleaning up around the place- they swept the entire island every day! Being away from all noise (except the put-put of the small boat engines), and the pollution of the towns was wonderful.

Short video of the entire island, including our bungalow, the ladies sweeping the beach, and the restaurant:

View from verandah

Our bungalow


"Our" beach

Gorgeous trip to mangroves

Sunday, 2 October 2011


Where we are!

Makassar and Pantai Bira

An incident occurred in the first few minutes we were in Sulawesi (actually we were lining up to pass through immigration at Makassar airport), that set the tone for our time here. A young couple (he British, she from Makassar), approached us, and after a few minutes of chatting, we were invited to their wedding the next night! We exchanged details, and the event ended up saving us from an average time in Makassar. Our first night in a crappy backpackers, passed in a blur of traffic, noise and fumes. The next day wasn't much better, and after we had changed money (and become instant millionaires, as $100 equals 1,000,000 rupiah), and tried to find out about ferries out of the place, we were thoroughly exhausted and over it. We made ourselves get dressed up in our finest gear (pretty pathetic!), and caught a $2 taxi to the address on the piece of paper we had been given at the airport. We arrived to find a huge celebration in full flow at the bride's family house. We were instantly glad we had made the effort. It was really amazing for us to see such a traditional Muslim/Sulawesi ceremony, and to have everything explained to us in perfect English by the couple. It was not the actual wedding- that was to take place in a couple of days. This was the occasion where the groom is formally introduced to the bride's family. The bride sat on a huge, ornate bed for the whole night, with heavy makeup and resplendent dress, in the intense heat of the house, surrounded by her family. The men sang songs, the groom stayed outside, and everyone ate copious amounts of food. We left with promises to visit the couple in their home in Penang.

Bride and ladies in finery, Makassar

With groom at wedding, Makassar

Our rough plan had been to catch a boat to the South-east of Sulawesi from Makassar, but after some efforts in trying to decipher the Pelni (national ferry) timetable, and communicate what we wanted to the staff, we discovered the boat going in the direction we desired was not leaving for another Three days. I could not bear the thought of two more nights in the city, so we opted for a bus trip to a “nearby” beach. I say “nearby” because we stupidly were led to believe by our Lonely Planet it would be a simple three hours on a bus. We forgot how things are in Indonesia. After a dawn one hour ride in  a pete pete (city minivan), we had an uncomfortable seven hours in a crowded bus with very few windows, filled with cigarette smoke, on what a policeman described to us as a “broken” road.

I’m going to go off on a tangent here. Indonesians smoke EVERYWHERE. We didn’t remember it being as bad on our previous trips to Indonesia- maybe it’s more in Sulawesi, but all men seem to smoke here, and don’t mind lighting up anywhere at all, whether it be on public transport, in internet cafes, hotels or shops. No-one ever says anything, but the non-smokers (mainly women and children) must suffer terribly from it. The tobacco companies have huge influence here, with every second sign we see advertising cigarettes. HATE it!! It has made us realize how most of the world (even in places like India) has changed for the better in this respect, with stricter non-smoking laws.

So, anyway, we arrived at Pantai Bira , south-east of Makassar, and checked into a lovely old wooden house high on a hill overlooking the stunning coloured sea, and instantly forgot the horrible trip to get there. We discovered in our five days there two different beaches. There was the local’s beach, where holidaying Makassarese come for the weekend. This took up the first 300 meters, and was filled with stalls selling food, renting inflatable toys and rides on banana boats. Beyond this was kilometre after kilometre of the most gorgeous beach with powdery white sand, and the bluest sea water we’ve ever seen, where we spent our days. It was a great spot to celebrate Richard’s birthday, and in typical Richard style, we spent the day taking a big walk along the beach, swimming, relaxing on the verandah taking in the view, chatting with fellow guests and the lovely local woman running the place, with a meal of prawns and more prawns for dinner with a beer or two!

Clearest water, Bira

Richard on long beach, Bira

Beach, Bira

The South-east
While we were in Bira, I started to study a bit more Indonesian. We’ve always picked up a bit from our previous trips to Indonesia (quite a few years ago), and Malaysia (where most people speak English), but I knew we were heading into a more remote area, so I began to revise more earnestly. I still know only a little bit, but the comparison with trying to speak Thai is startling. People here actually understand me when I speak to them, instead of staring in wonder as they do in Thailand. Indonesian isn’t tonal, so it’s quite a bit easier, and conversation nearly even flows! It was to become apparent very soon, that this small bit of language was to come in very handy, very quickly!

From Bira, we bussed it to the town of Watampone, another noisy, polluted town, with not much to see. However, the bad side of the town was balanced by the astonishing openness and over the top friendly attitude of the people. They literally never see bule (foreigners) here, and sometimes their reactions to us were hilarious. We had countless people stop driving to run over to us to chat or take a photo. There were quite a few near crashes on the road thanks to us. We have had the movie star treatment before, of course, in India especially, but people here are so dramatic in their responses to us. 

Our reasons for being here was to travel to the South-east region of Sulawesi by ferry. We didn’t realize this, but in August, there had been a terrible accident when a ship sunk on this route with 500 people drowned. We showed up at the ferry terminal to buy our ticket for the afternoon boat, but when we tried to enter the gates, we were told the ferry was full, and we had to wait for the evening boat. We were pretty pissed off, as we had turned up early. But what could have been a long, hot, boring wait anywhere else, was not to be in Sulawesi! We had the best time of our trip so far making instant friends with the Bugis hawkers waiting to get on the same boat as us; practicing Indonesian, making them laugh, and having the resident lady-boy fall head over heels in love with Richard! The Bugis people are famous throughout Asia for their sea faring past, and in times gone by, they fought with the Makassarese over who had the superior kingdom.

The ferry trip was overnight, and passed without incident. That is, once everyone had been over to see us, learn where we were from and how much Indonesian we could speak, inspect what we were wearing and what was in our packs, we all settled down on mats on the floor and got a bit of sleep.

Boat Watampone to Kolaka

Our introduction to the South-east passed in a blur of two big towns, Kolaka and Kendari, which we passed through quickly by kijang (4-wheel drive share taxi, holding up to 13 people). Even though the local’s reaction to us here was just as positive as in Watampone, the big town thing was starting to get old. We found the Pelni office in Kendari. There were no other customers there, and a very nice man who worked there and spoke English (very rare in these parts) helped us with our ticket purchase. We were counting on catching a particular ferry up the east coast, and were shocked when we saw it wasn’t leaving for another three weeks. The Pelni timetable only comes out once a month, and the dates are always different each month. The difficult part is not being able to plan ahead, as until you arrive in the town with the port you are leaving from, you can’t know when the ships are leaving!! So, we had to make some quick choices. The only way out of Kendairi (apart from overland the way we had just come- not appealing at all!), is by boat, so we chose the only one going to roughly to the area we wanted (north!), and hoped for the best! The fact that we knew next to nothing about the destination (Banggai Island), we hoped would make for a good adventure!

Rubbish Kendari

Rubbish Kendari

To catch the Pelni ship, we had to travel to an island port further south called Bau Bau. Our second boat trip in Sulawesi, the “Superfast” ferry from Kendari to Bau Bau (and it was very fast) was very different from the first. As it was an expensive speed boat, the people were more affluent, and more restrained (ie: they didn’t stare at us in wonder for hours on end!). We all had plush air-con seats allocated, and it wasn’t crowded. We spent most of the five hour trip out on the back deck enjoying the beautiful view of isolated islands, beaches and small fishing villages.

Fancy speed boat from Kendari to Bau Bau

Scenery Kendari to Bau Bau

Richard on speed boat

Speed boat Kendari to Bau Bau

Bau Bau was literally a breath of fresh air. It’s small, just as friendly as our previous towns, with a huge port, great little market,  several low key guesthouses, and of course, many smiling faces and “Hello Mr!,  Hello Mrs!” greeting us every few seconds. More churches started appearing in this part of Sulawesi, in addition to the mainly mosques we saw in the south-east. Bau Bau also has a huge fort area left from when the Dutch were here, which we spent a day exploring. There are lovely traditional old wooden houses inside the walls and people living here, so we weren’t alone, and had crowds of kids following us most of the time.

Bau Bau

Ergonomic carnival ride

Traditional house, Bau Bau

Traditional house Bau Bau

Kids at Bau Bau fort

Bau Bau fort

Sea Eagles