We didn’t think we’d make our flight let alone the 12-hour ferry. On the way from our hotel to the Manado airport we hit horrific traffic, crawling a metre every few minutes. At the time we needed to find a taxi it was raining heavily and there were none around, so Chriswan flagged down an empty microlette (the term for angkot in Manado) and we chartered it. The microlette of Manado are famous. They’re like mobile early ‘90s clubs, all blasting the driver’s favourite tunes (terrible techno, dangdut, top 40 but also some excellent Indonesian rap) and decked out in neons and multi-coloured faux-leather seats. One of the Bunaken dive guides called them ‘sakit telinga’ – sick ears. Instead of a horn they crank their exterior speakers, making all within earshot grimace or grin and triggering spontaneous dancing in children. An absurd overabundance clogs Manado’s main roads, but despite their brashness they’re iconic and endearing. Our driver’s soundtrack for our slightly panicked airport ride: Shania Twain. Could be worse.
We made our flight. it was delayed an hour, and this is why we presumed we wouldn’t make the ferry from Gorontalo in Central Sulawesi to the Togean Archipelago, because it was scheduled to depart when our flight would arrive. But as we should have known, in Indonesia almost all forms of public transport (except planes – although budget carrier Lion could be an exception) rarely depart until they’re full. The three blasts of the ferry’s horn finally sounded just before 9pm – three hours after scheduled departure.
I was keen on a good night’s sleep so we requested a cabin, but only one was still available: the Captain’s Cabin. Oh well, it’ll have to do. I laughed and laughed as I hauled myself up the steep steel stairs to the top floor of the Tuna Tomini, a 300 passenger/19 car ferry built in 2004. It crosses the Gulf of Tomini, from Gorontalo to the tiny port town of Wakai on Pulau (Island) Batudaka, twice a week. As I mentioned in my last post, I think of Sulawesi as a giant letter K. The Gulf of Tomini is one of the calmest in the world because it’s sheltered by the two right arms of the K. The Togean Archipelago, comprising 56 islands and islets, lies in the middle of the gulf.
Being but a humble public East Indonesian ferry, the Captain’s Cabin, complete with Captain’s cap resting on the desk, was sparse but supremely comfortable. A double bed, a little sink, a power board. Luxury! After observing the Captain’s instructions to his crew – “dua dua maju” (two two advance) – we spent a spectacular hour in the salty breeze under a light blanket of clouds illuminated by the full moon, always on the lookout for flying fish. It seemed only passengers kipping in the Captain’s Cabin were permitted at the front of the ferry. It was a very special privilege indeed.
My first night at sea I drifted off the moment my head hit the pillow. The gentle roll and rumble of the engine lulled me into a very deep sleep. I awoke just before sunrise and smiled at our little window onto the glassy blue.
When we docked in Wakai there was a bit of a delay on disembarking. The ramp was jammed halfway and unable to be lowered. More often than not one must wait for something or other when island hopping in Indonesia, but everyone is always patient and there’s always an inquisitive and appreciative audience for the repair crew. After it was fixed I sat transfixed, watching the arduous process of unloading cargo. Two men carried a TV cabinet, some hauled giant sacks of flour, rice, boxes of Indomie (naturally), motorbikes (there are no cars in Wakai). As I watched the men file onto the ferry then adroitly unload its cargo, I was observing one of the reasons why development in Indonesia is so drastically disparate.
We’d booked Black Marlin Dive Resort on Pulau Kadidiri, and when their small dive boat sent to collect us sailed into its tranquil little bay I was struck by the thought it was the most picturesque resort I’d ever seen. It was straight out of a tourism campaign; alluring areas to lounge on cushions overlooking the ever-smooth sea abounded, the water two-toned aqua and azure. It was very quiet – like most small islands in Indonesia there is no electricity during the day as power is only by private generator. There is a weak mobile signal in certain spots (like at the end of the jetty) but no 3G network access and definitely no wifi. On Kadidiri fresh running water for bathing is also limited to the hours of 8-9am and 5-6pm. What a glorious thing it was to look forward to each day: cool, fresh water!
While Chriswan went diving that afternoon I opted for a snorkel on the house reef and spent a fascinating half hour with a giant cuttlefish. A foot long and bulky, it morphed colours and patterns every few minutes to meld with the coral beneath. Cream with lilac spots, splotches of orange and mustard, mottled brown and white, and Van Gogh’s Starry Night. When the coral was particularly textured it became textured too! Little spikes and ridges rose up all over its broad body. Not once did it attempt to escape me, but not once did it take its opalescent eyes off me. I floated a couple of metres away, circling to admire it from all angles. Every so often I’d drift a little closer but it never tried to flee. I wondered if the fascination was mutual. It became a bit of a Mexican standoff! When I was little I was intrigued by the chalky, brittle cuttlefish ‘bones’ washed up on the beach. It was a surreal pleasure to swim with one.
The day we arrived on Kadidiri there was only one other guest at Black Marlin, Andrey, an adorable, burly Russian who’d spent some time working in rural South Australia and Queensland and gave me the most Australian goodbye hug I’ve ever had in Indonesia. Later that afternoon three women arrived, two Canadian nurses and a beautiful blonde Finnish dive master (her hair colour led me to ask Chriswan whether all female dive masters he’d encountered were blonde. He pondered this proposal then confirmed they almost always are). The Finnish woman, Heidi, had come from Una Una, a volcanic island two hours’ boat ride from Wakai. Heidi’s Finnish dive instructor friend Emmi and her Indonesian partner Andri were building the first dive resort on the island: Sanctum.
Although Sanctum is still very much under construction Emmi and Andri are guiding divers, and Andri’s family have converted their home into a homestay. At dinner, Andrey, Chriswan and I sat enraptured by Heidi’s reports of the diving at Una Una; giant schools of jackfish and towers of barracuda, immense, healthy coral structures and reefs teeming with thousands of fish. Her marine doco descriptions were rendered all the more fantastical because during his two dives that day Chriswan was slightly crestfallen by the ostensible lack of fish life at Kadidiri’s dive sites. Andrey was on the dive boat which collected us at Wakai, and he immediately reported that “the fish just aren’t there”. The Black Marlin boatman then divulged the unnerving information that dynamite fishing and cyanide poisoning were practiced in the area, and that police patrols were few and far between. Una Una was naturally secured as our next stop.
One morning I went out with the dive boat for a snorkel. I was informed the dive site wasn’t too flash for snorkeling as the reef was deep below, but I decided to go anyway. I’m so glad I did. Although I was about ten metres above the reef I could still discern the silhouettes of big fish below. It was an excellent lesson in fish identification; trevally, unicorn fish, titan triggerfish, was that a tuna? I also delighted in the specs of glitter occasionally floating by, reflecting sunlight and flashing metallic orange and purple. After a decent Google I’m yet to discover what they were – perhaps a type of jellyfish? – but naturally they made my heart heave with love for my dear old friend and infamous glitter-bomber, David Caffery.
Just as I decided it was probably time to swim back to the boat so it could collect the surfaced divers, an eerie silhouette sailed beneath me and was soon joined by three more. Spotted eagle rays. They were the first I’d seen. I recognised them from Lars’ descriptions in Bunaken – they’re one of his favourites. Magnificent, mesmerising creatures, I was stunned by their exquisite pattern and exceptionally long tail, which can grow up to almost five metres.
The next day I accompanied Chriswan on his daily pilgrimage to Wakai to steal some wifi from the Pusat Kecamatan, the sub-district office. As he’s working and needs to access emails he’d been boating there daily with the Black Marlin staff then sitting for a couple of hours on the shiny cool tiles outside the office, tapping their feeble wifi. That morning I could open my Gmail but I couldn’t actually open any of my emails, which was somewhat frustrating as my daily PoliticOz mailout had the subject line ‘Terminal Tony’. From the multiple news sites’ mailouts’ subjects in my inbox I learnt there was going to be a leadership spill but could glean nothing more. Tony was in trouble and big things were going down in Canberra town but there was no way of knowing exactly what without hoping a text message to Dad requesting information would get through. I reveled in the coolness of the tiles and the blessed breeze, the lone cow trundling by and the coconut palms swaying against the strong blue sky and chuckled at the hilarity of it all.
When we returned to the jetty the Kadidiri staff were engaged in a meeting so we borrowed a bike and motored down the bumpy but relatively decent main road to check out the market. It was past lunchtime and we were peckish, so our faces lit up when we spied a well-stocked cake cabinet. I went for a steamed bun stuffed with coconut and gulah merah, locally made palm sugar. It was dark and thick and smoky. Chriswan gobbled with childish glee a thick wedge of white bread covered in sugar. The simple things. Seconds after we’d returned to the road we both bellowed with delight when we spotted an old-fashioned manual shaved ice machine, then leapt off the bike. The es kacang susu, shaved ice ladled with liquid gulah merah then drizzled with sweetened condensed milk and sprinkled with peanuts was devilishly good and without doubt the most satisfying I’ve had in Indonesia. A giant tub of white bread wedges pressed in sugar was placed on the table in front of us. The tiny port town of Wakai and its smiling citizens totally charmed me.
After four nights on Kadidiri we returned to Wakai to board the public boat to Una Una. With its forests of coconut palms craning over the beach and dense jungle behind, deep waters and black sand beaches, Una Una appeared strangely prehistoric. The volcanic island is about ten km in diametre and lies across a deep channel, about 30 km northwest of the Togeans. The last volcanic eruption was in 1986; thankfully the villagers were evacuated but fearful of another eruption many sold their land. Andri’s father bought up big and it’s on land purchased post-eruption Sanctum is being built.
A man and a motorbike with steel box tray attached awaited us at the jetty. On the boat were three other tourists and we all piled our bags in – there’s only one homestay on Una Una. There we were met by another beautiful blonde Finnish woman, Heidi’s friend Emmi, who greeted us warmly and showered us with sweet smiles as she explained that the homestay was quite full but we would of course be accommodated – Indonesian hospitality combined with her exceedingly friendly personality.
Not once throughout our stay did Emmi cease ensuring everyone’s needs and requests were met; that we were comfortable, happy and full at the homestay, properly geared up at the dive centre and feeling safe, secure and thoroughly briefed on the boat. She even drew me a diagram of one slightly challenging site to illustrate the direction of the currents and to plot our corresponding swimming path. Her energy and enthusiasm were relentless, her dedication to her vision inspiring. Not the easiest of gigs establishing the first dive centre on an extremely remote island in East Indonesia, but together with Andri and his supportive family she is giving it absolutely everything she has.
On our first night Chriswan and I stayed in a lurid green room in the main house with a double bed and nothing else, not even a light, then moved to a bungalow the next morn. Just like on Kadidiri electricity was only by private generator, which would be cranked in the early evening and switched off after the men of the family had returned from their nightly fishing and enjoyed their supper of ikan bakar, grilled fish straight from the sea. Fish is eaten every day in Central Sulawesi. Every day at Om Nino Homestay we dined on fine white fish caught the night before then lovingly prepared by Tante, whom Emmi adored and I did too. I’ve never eaten more fish in my life than I did in Sulawesi, and not since childhood fishing trips with Dad have I eaten fish so sweet, fine and fresh.
We dived in the afternoon on our first day at Una Una. Emmi was superb dive instructor; calm, caring and meticulously descriptive. As I’m still relatively new to diving I still fizz with slight nervousness when I’m spitting in my mask and struggling with my weight belt, but Emmi quelled it immediately. Almost instantly after deflating our BCDs and descending were flanked by hundreds of hefty silver jackfish. I’d never been in such close proximity to a giant school of fish before. The colossal coral structures and quantity of fish, from massive Napoleon wrasses to iridescent cardinals, damsels and hundreds of other species, was dizzying. I’d never seen so many fish in my life. This exact declaration was expressed the next day by another diver. After all, the Togeans are near the centre of the ‘Coral Triangle’ – the nexus of global marine biodiversity harbouring the most biologically diverse coral reefs, mangroves and seagrass beds in the world.
About halfway through our dive Chriswan and I spotted something very strange; what appeared to be a three to four metre chain of transparent jellyfish, all swimming in sync. A few rotund clown triggerfish were tentatively nibbling it but without conviction. I could tell by Chriswan’s gestures he’d never seen anything like it. The moment we surfaced we asked Andri what it was, this ular ubur-ubur, this snake of jellyfish. He thought they might have been mating. Chriswan deduced they might have been dead as when he touched them they were hard – not the gelatinous surface he was expecting. With no internet on Una Una research would have to wait until we’d returned to mainland Sulawesi.
Other Una Una underwater highlights included a forest of thousands of garden eels – they weren’t squat and cute like the little fellas I’d met at Bunaken but long and twirling – it was a truly ethereal sight. One dive site is a fish breeding ground where we spotted numerous nudibranch and our hearts melted at the outrageously adorable baby fish – mini red tooth triggers, mini orange striped triggers and mini puffers which had me constantly ‘naaawing’ into my regulator. I also did my first night dive. Gazing into the pitch black was exhilarating. When Emmi directed me to kneel on the sandy bottom and switch off the torch so we could see the phosphorescent plankton, I danced wildly with my arms, green sparks streaming from my fingers. I felt like an elated little girl enchanted by sea magic. I could have danced with the plankton for hours, possessed. When we surfaced the water was a little rough and with no moon nor stars it was unnervingly dark, but Andri, an expert boatman, sailed us safely and swiftly to shore as Emmi lit the way with her torch.
We returned to Wakai the next morning, as the public boat only departs every second day and the ferry back to Gorontalo was the following day. We overnighted at Rumak Makan and Penginapan Riscy near the market, which is where we devoured the es kacang susu after our wifi stealing session at the Pusat Kecamatan. After dropping our bags we had a wander, sat down for a drink and a bite at a basic eatery near the pelabuhan, the port. Spying a box of mangoes and a blender we ordered jus mangga. The blender was powered by a small generator. Remote island life. We got chatting to some fisherman who told us they now had to travel up to two hours for prime locations – a result of the dynamite and cyanide fishing. Many people in Wakai bought fish at the market caught in Una Una’s waters. On the subject of dwindling fish supplies Chriswan showed the fisherman a video he’d taken while he was a passenger on a large fishing boat in the Sulawesi Sea which would land up to four to five tonnes of skipjack tuna a day with just the basic pole and line method. On a good day even more. “Hujan ikan!” laughed one of the men. It’s raining fish!
In the late afternoon we rented a bike and bumped down a gravel track to the next village. The road towards the coast was new, creamy and sumptuously smooth – it was made from limestone. I always appreciate a good road in Indonesia. We sat on a bench beneath a shelter, and as the golden light faded a fluorescent bulb flickered alive. “Look! Electricity!” remarked Chriswan excitedly. Public electricity. Chriswan asked a young boy loading a heavy ice brick into a long, narrow wooden boat about Wakai’s power. Unlike in Kadidiri and Una Una and thousands of other Indonesian islands, the Government provides electricity throughout the night presumably because Wakai is a transport hub. The boy puttered off across the gently glowing water. On the way back to Wakai I noticed every house’s matching fluorescent blurbs, piercing the dark.
That night we ate some of best grilled fish I’ve ever had. One of the primary industries in the Togeans apart from fishing is copra – dried coconut meat, from which coconut oil is extracted. Before grilling the trevally was rubbed with the oil, minyak kelapa. The aroma emanating from the kitchen was heavenly. The minyak kelapa isn’t pungently sweet like coconut tanning oil, but smokier, richer. With a squeeze of calamansi, a type of citrus native to Asia and spoonfuls of Sulawesi’s sensational sambal, dabu dabu (which in Wakai is also mixed with minyak kelapa), the meal was a fitting finale to our magical time in the Togeans. I thanked the fish gods we had enough time before our ferry departed to order the exact same dish for lunch the next day.
The chain of jellyfish we saw in Una Una was not a chain of jellyfish, but a chain of salps. I knew Ruby, whom I met in Bunaken and raved about in my last post, would know what a salp chain is.
Her WhatsApp response, verbatim: “SALP CHAIN!!!!! That’s amazing!!! They reproduce sexually and asexually – and they poop out chains of ‘mini-mes’! So cool!!”
Read on for a seriously cool marine creature…
From Wiki: a salp “is a barrel-shaped, planktonic tunicate [a tunicate is a marine invertebrate animal]. Salps have a complex lifecycle, with an obligatory alternation of generations. Both portions of the lifecycle exist together in the seas — they look quite different, but both are mostly transparent, tubular, gelatinous animals that are typically between 1 and 10 cm (0.39 and 3.94 in) tall. The solitary life history phase, also known as an oozoid, is a single, barrel-shaped animal that reproduces asexually by producing a chain of tens to hundreds of individuals, which are released from the parent at a small size. The chain of salps is the ‘aggregate’ portion of the lifecycle. The aggregate individuals are also known as blastozooids; they remain attached together while swimming and feeding, and each individual grows in size. Each blastozooid in the chain reproduces sexually (the blastozooids are sequential hermaphrodites, first maturing as females, and are fertilized by male gametes produced by older chains), with a growing embryo oozoid attached to the body wall of the parent. The growing oozoids are eventually released from the parent blastozooids, and then continue to feed and grow as the solitary asexual phase, thus closing the lifecycle of salps.
And now here’s what I reckon is the coolest part:
“Although salps appear similar to jellyfish because of their simple body form and planktonic behavior, they are structurally most closely related to vertebrates, animals with true backbones. Salps appear to have a form preliminary to vertebrates, and are used as a starting point in models of how vertebrates evolved. Scientists speculate that the tiny groups of nerves in salps are one of the first instances of a primitive nervous system, which eventually evolved into the more complex central nervous systems of vertebrates.”
Fingers crossed for another salp chain when I return to Sulawesi and to Sanctum.