The Last Post
This is the last post recording our travels on our 2015 – 2016 Asian odyssey. I can be thankful that I can type these last lines staring out of our Seattle apartment on a clear sunny day with views of the magnificent Mount Rainier. But, with the maelstrom of a miserable election campaign washing over us I pine for those quieter and simpler times.
But, hey, winter’s coming and you are looking for a beautiful tropical place to sit back, get some rays, and unwind. Well, I have two wonderful places for you to contemplate. Jeez, even looking at these photos is chilling my ass the f#*@k out!
May I introduce the fantastic and mostly unspoiled islands of Malenge and Bolilanga in the Sulawesi region of Indonesia. If you are looking for stunning coral, astonishing marine life, soft white sand, tasty but simple food, and zero connectivity then this is the place for you. The islands are a pain in the ass to get to (for now). But, that’s why they are unspoiled.
Return to Malenge
We had visited Malenge Island on our previous visit to the Togean Islands. It was truly fantastic. We were a little reluctant to return since we wanted to try something new. But, both of us wanted to snorkel Reef #5 offshore from Malenge. Laura had snorkeled there before and she thought it was the best snorkel of the trip. Back then, I wouldn’t swim in deep water, so I sat in the boat with the captain while the rest of the group snorkeled for hours and saw all kinds of fish and coral. Now that I swim in deep water, I was itching to see the reef for myself.
We took a private outrigger from Poya Lisa to Malenge. The owner of Poya Lisa said we might have to pull into shore during the journey since the weather forecast predicted rain and wind. We didn’t have to shelter but it was a stormy crossing. The winds whipped up the waves and the dark clouds periodically dumped torrential rain on us. I was glad when we finally pulled in at our intended resort, Bahia Tomini. Even better, we left the rain clouds behind as we arrived and it was warm and sunny.
We had met the owners of Bahia Tomini on our last visit. Back then, they were in the process of building the bungalows and resort. Kike and Eva had abandoned their comfortable life in Spain to live out their tropical island dreams in Malenge. The resort has since opened and has great reviews on Tripadvisor. Sadly, when we arrived they were closing up shop for a week to attend to some legal business in Bali. The cottages looked great. Oh, well. It gives us another reason to come back.
We decided to stay at the newly built Sandy Bay resort a few bays along the coast. Malenge, like most of the Togean Islands, has a rugged limestone coastline scalloped with small bays lined with pocket beaches. There is a footpath of sorts linking several resorts by way of fishermen’s cottages and coconut drying stands.
Unlike bustling Poya Lisa and Sanctum Una Una, the Malenge resorts were quiet. We were the only guests at Sandy Bay. The rooms were really fantastic. The best bathrooms in the Togeans (proper showers and flush toilets!), huge rooms, very comfortable beds, and a porch with hammocks. The bungalows had big windows so there was plenty of natural light. The food was plentiful and tasty, if a bit repetitive. We vowed to not eat white rice ever again on our return home.
Unusually for the area, no one spoke much English at the resort. Generally, we got by OK but this may frustrate some people. The resort is owned by the same team as the Marina Cottages in Ampana on mainland Sulawesi. Both are efficiently run and well set up to help travelers move around the Togean Islands.
Sandy Bay arranges snorkel trips to the nearby atolls, visits to the local Bajo villages, and walks into the rainforest that covers most of Malenge. For some reason, we ended up arranging all our activities with their neighbors, Sifa Dive Center. We highly recommend them. The manager speaks good English so arranging dive and snorkel trips was a tad easier than with the resort. The manager of Sandy Bay was cool with the arrangement. In the quiet season, this also spreads the money around the local community a bit more.
On our first evening, one of the staff guided us around the house reef to try to find some bumpheads and sharks. We didn’t find many fish but we did find bats! The guide swam up to a small cave on the shoreline and hauled himself into the entrance. He was looking for a giant monitor lizard but instead upset the local population of bats. They came swarming out of the hole above our heads. An unpleasant smell came with them! An unusual sight to see on a snorkel trip.
Snorkeling Reef 5
We headed out for Reef 5 a little north of Malenge island early the next morning. The boat initially dropped us off at a spot that was known for regular bumphead sightings. Bumpheads are Laura’s favorite fish. The captain pointed out the direction we should swim… in that vague Indonesian manner we have come to know and love! The current was really strong and the waters not so clear. Bummer! Soon we were a long way from the boat and not enjoying this one bit. This did not look like the reef we had visited before. We turned around and swam against the current back to the boat. It was really hard work! I was knackered and we were only in the water ten minutes.
The captain laughed a little awkwardly, pulled us into the boat, and drove to the other side of the atoll. We were a little apprehensive now but we dropped in to test the waters. Aah, this is more like it. Deep blue water gloriously penetrated by light rays. Huge impressive drop off. And, fish galore. The coral was magnificent. The currents were pleasant too. We spent hours in the water. We alternated gazing out into the blue, swimming along the drop off, and gliding over the shallower coral gardens atop the reef. There were not so many big fish but it was a kaleidoscope of colorful shoals of fish. In a word, mesmerizing.
Tropical Storm in Malenge
Laura arranged for a dive at Reef 4 the next day with Sifa. Apparently, this is one of the most spectacular dives in the area, and it is also known as “Pasar Ikan” or “Fish Market”. However, the weather did not play nice. The sky was black, the wind howled, and the waves battered the beach. It appears that the wind had changed direction and was blowing from the west. When this happens, it brings miserable weather. This is unusual in June. The seas were so rough, Sifa could not bring the boat into our beach to tell us the dive was off. Mind you, we would have to be pretty dumb if we didn’t figure the reason for the no-show!
We were pretty much trapped in our room for the next couple of days. We read a lot but were restless. We didn’t want our trip ending on a low note. On the evening of the second day of rains, the storm let up. We quickly changed into our snorkel gear and plunged into the sea. We were rewarded for our perseverance. Laura spotted a family of six bumpheads very close to the beach. They were pretty relaxed at our presence and let us get real close. They have an ugly profile and buck teeth, but up close you can see their beautiful scales. This was my first real close up bumphead encounter so I was super stoked.
The bumphead sighting was a nice wrap-up to our return trip to Malenge, so we decided to try somewhere else the next day. We had heard good things about Bolilanga Resort, so we arranged a boat for the next day with Sifa. We kept our snorkel gear handy in case we could quickly drop into Reef 4 on the way. Sadly, the weather was not on our wavelength. Oops! Sorry for the terrible pun! The ocean was way too choppy to risk snorkeling. Well, at least we were nearer Wakai to catch our ferry out in a few days.
Bolilanga Resort has a great beach, good rooms, a wonderful house reef, a picturesque jetty, and good food but for some reason it lacked the atmosphere of other resorts. We never felt really comfortable there. It should also be said that the owner bragged to me about his sexual conquests of foreign tourists while Laura was off snorkeling. Whether his boasts were true or not, we think solo female travelers should be warned. The weather improved though, so Laura could get her long overdue snorkel trip to Reef 1. I didn’t go since there since the resort didn’t have any life vests. I still haven’t conquered my fear of deep ocean sans safety vest!
Snorkel Trip at Reef 1
Hanging Out at Bolilanga
Like Poya Lisa, Bolilanga is built on a tiny private island. Accommodation is in simple beach cottages. Like many other places in the Togean Islands, the bungalows are inhabited by rats that will eat any food that you leave out.
We had been told that Bolilanga had the best house reef in the Togean Islands, and Laura thinks that is true. Despite some damage, there is a lot of intact coral and lots of fish. Laura even encountered a family of bumpheads on her last two snorkels.
The resort has a lovely jetty, which is a nice place to read a book, drink a beer, or watch fish without entering the water. The jetty has a small colony of beautiful lionfish. Just before sunset, they float to the surface to eat shellfish attached to the pier.
Leaving the Islands
It was with a heavy heart that we packed up our bags to head to Wakai to catch the Tuna Tomini ferry back to the mainland. As it turned out, this was to be the last major destination of the trip. It was definitely the right decision to come to the Togean Islands to wrap up our Asian adventures but, damn, it was hard to leave. It is no exaggeration to say that the Togean Islands saved our trip and gave us the energy to go on the first time we came here. The first part of our trip in Central Asia was tough going and we decided that if Sulawesi didn’t work out we would consider going home. We never again thought of cutting the trip short from the moment we first sighted the islands.
We arranged for a private boat from Bolilanga to Wakai after lunch so that we could connect with the late afternoon ferry to Gorontalo. Even the ride back to Wakai was lovely. Beautiful turquoise waters, islands covered with jungle, a stilt village and coral everywhere!
Aboard the Tuna Tomini, we spent a couple of hours chatting to Irina, the charismatic Russian owner of our very first resort (Sunset Beach) in the Togeans. It was fun to reminisce on our time in the Togeans. Irina stoked our excitement for our return trip to Indonesia sometime in the future. She told us some amazing snorkeling and diving stories from her two-week trip to Raja Ampat. That is now firmly top of our list of next travel destinations.
The evening treated us to one of the finest sunsets of the trip. Indonesia was throwing everything it could at us to make us stay!
Unusually for an Indonesian ferry, the boat arrived early. This was good since we had a flight to Kuala Lumpur the same day. We jumped in a cab to Gorontalo airport and got dropped off at departures. However, something wasn’t quite right. This was the airport, all right. We recognized it from our first trip to Sulawesi. But why did the terminal look like an abandoned demolition site, and why was it closed? Odd, but the taxi driver looked non-plussed. He noticed our confused looks though and (thankfully) hung around. A man on a scooter rode up and the taxi driver threw our bags back in his car. Uh? We followed the dude on a scooter. Was our trip going to end in some weird scam that would end up with us getting robbed in some remote field?
Nope! As it turns out, Gorontalo had a new airport terminal. So new, in fact, that our taxi driver was unaware it had opened! Ha! A typically Indonesian end to our trip.
Getting There and Away
We got to the Togean Islands via the port town of Ampana on mainland Sulawesi. When we went, there were no flights to Ampana, requiring a long drive from the nearest airport. By the time you read this, Garuda Airlines will have started flying direct to Ampana, making it a lot easier to get to the Togean Islands.
We flew into Luwuk Airport from Bali via Makassar on Lion Air. Even if you have been issued a boarding pass for the Makassar-Luwuk segment in Bali, you will have to fight your way through an unruly scrum in the Makassar transit lounge to get a new boarding pass for your connecting flight. Luwuk airport is possibly the tiniest of all the tiny airports in remote Indonesian destinations.
We arranged for pickup from the Luwuk airport with Marina Cottages in Ampana. It might be cheaper to arrange a ride with Luwuk taxi drivers, but Marina has an excellent travel agency that arranges transfers with a minimum of fuss. The taxi took eight hours including a dinner stop. It cost 800K rupiah. The room at Marina Cottages cost 250K including a light breakfast.
Early the next morning, the travel agency arranged our passage in the new and very convenient Hercules Express boat to Wakai, the main hub in the Togeans. The boat is very fast and takes one hour. We purchased our ticket at the port and it cost 130K per person.
We took the Tuna Tomini ferry from Wakai to Gorontalo to leave the islands. The ferry makes the journey twice a week. It leaves at 5pm and arrives in Gorontalo sometime between 3.30 and 5am. The economy seats cost 60K. We also paid an extra 500K to get a comfortable cabin for two. The fixer who arranges this will find you at the port. The crew rent out their cabins to tourists to make a few extra bucks. You get a good night’s sleep and we think it is worth it.
We took a flight from Gorontalo to Makassar on Sriwijaya Airlines, then went on to Kuala Lumpur with Air Asia.