Blue water at Bunaken

At the Edge of the Map in North Sulawesi

I first heard of Sulawesi at age 9 or 10 from the Tintin comic, Flight 714. Tintin and his friends are on a plane that crash lands on a tropical island, where the lush jungle and smoldering volcanoes conceal mysterious machinations by the island’s secretive residents. Hmm, could this have inspired Lost? Anyway, at one point the book mentioned that the island was located in the Celebes Sea. I didn’t know where this was, so I called out to my father in the next room, “Daddy, what’s the Celebes Sea?”

“Er, the celibacy is when a priest or nun makes a vow not to have sex.”

Confused, I showed my father the text of the comic strip.

Embarrassed laugh. “Oh, that’s a sea in Indonesia!”

I later learned that Celebes is the former colonial name of the starfish-shaped Indonesian island of Sulawesi. After several weeks hitting the tourist highlights of Java, Bali, and Lombok, we decided to head to this less-visited island reputed to have fantastic wildlife, jungle-cloaked archipelagos, and unique culture. Our route would take us from Manado on the northeastern tip all the way to Makassar on the southwest.

Map of Sulawesi
Map of Sulawesi from Wikimidia Commons

We planned just under a week in the Minahasa region, the northeasternmost tip of the island. Our first stop was the immigration office in Manado, where we needed to get our Indonesian visas extended.

Manado is a large city with a beautiful setting on a curved bay with several volcanoes looming on the horizon. In the streets above the harbor, palm trees and bougainvillea spill down over the houses and churches. Yes, churches. Jesus is Lord in Manado! In a sharp contrast to most of the rest of Indonesia, the Minahasa area is strongly Christian.

Manado is also a hot, sweaty and fairly uninteresting city, so after dropping off our passports at the immigration office and running a few errands, we headed into the jungle.

Creatures of the Jungle in Tangkoko

Tangkoko-Batuangus Forest Reserve is a patch of rainforest near the village of Batuputih on the very tip of the Minahasa peninsula, home to several strange and wonderful animal species. Getting there by public transportation was an adventure involving several connections culminating in a ride on the back of a pickup truck through hills covered with forest and palm plantations. Palm plantations are encroaching on the jungle, erasing wildlife habitat. We even saw men with chainsaws attacking the forest by the side of the road.

We jumped off the pickup in front of our guesthouse, the Tarsius Homestay in Batuputih. The owner, an outgoing woman named Yvonne, greeted us and showed us our room. The cost was IDR150,000 ($11) per person including all meals, which were served communally.

We made arrangements to go for guided walks through the forest the next day and spent the afternoon relaxing at the guesthouse and taking a short walk to the black sand beach at the edge of town. It felt like the edge of the known world. The waves were thunderous, curling around in whirlpools and riptides not far from shore. Children from the village ran up to us, practiced their English, and asked us to take their photo.

Laura and local kids on the beach at Batuputih

Wake-up call for the jungle walk was at 4:00 the next morning. We got in a pickup truck with two Dutch couples and were driven into the forest in the dark. We then had a short walk to the first attraction, the tarsier “sleeping tree”. Tarsiers are nocturnal monkeys the size of a fist. They sleep in hollow trees and emerge at dusk to hunt insects, which they catch by making flying leaps between vines and branches. They are also one of the world’s cutest animals.

Tarsier. Tangkoko Reserve, North Sulawesi
A tarsier in its tree.

Sightings of tarsiers are practically guaranteed in Tangkoko because the guides feed them crickets. A couple of the people in our group held out crickets to lure the tarsiers to jump to their hands, but we declined. Feeding the wild animals isn’t cool, and it isn’t even necessary to see tarsiers since the family always sleeps in the same tree.

After some time with the tarsiers, we moved on through the jungle. On the way, our guide pointed out a green viper on a branch. “Very poisonous! If it bites you, you die in 15 minutes!” Disconcertingly, the snakes like to drape themselves on branches at hand level, and their green color blends in with the leaves.

Green viper. Tangkoko
Wickedly camouflaged green viper

A much more adorable animal that we spotted was the cuscus, an arboreal mammal similar to sloths. They spend most of their time in the canopy so are tricky to see up close. Seen through binoculars, they look extremely cute and cuddly. Unfortunately they are almost impossible to photograph.

At home in Seattle, we lived across the street from Woodland Park Zoo. Our favorite bird in the aviary was the red-knobbed hornbill, a large fruit-eating bird with a long yellow beak and red crest. Hornbills are unrelated to toucans, but look similar and occupy a similar ecological niche. This species of hornbill is endemic to Sulawesi, so our number one desire for our visit to Tangkoko was to see one.

Travel can be an exercise in dealing with disappointment. Sometimes you can travel a long way to a place in hope of seeing a certain animal or a certain famous view. The animal doesn’t show up or clouds ruin the vista. We had had a few of those moments so far on the trip, so I set off on the jungle walk without any expectation of seeing a hornbill. I’m happy to say that we saw not one but two!

Our guides took us to a tree where a female hornbill was nesting. A nesting female encloses herself in a hole in the tree, and the male brings her food every day. We sat down below the tree with a thermos of coffee and waited for the bird to arrive. After not too long, we saw not one but two hornbills soaring overhead! They are unmistakable with their long beaks, wide wingspans, and fast, direct flight pattern. One hornbill flew away and the other perched on a branch far above. We got a great view with the binoculars as the hornbill sat on the branch, nibbled some fruit, and brought it to the nest.

Sulawesi red-knobbed hornbill
The male hornbill brings food to the female.

Our last wildlife encounter was with a troupe of black macaques, monkeys that are endemic to Sulawesi. Sadly, they are endangered by habitat loss and hunting for Christmas dinners. They are social animals that live in troupes of up to a hundred. We joined the macaques at a watering hole and enjoyed their antics and expressive faces.

Black Macaques
Black macaques.

One of the pleasures of traveling is the opportunity to meet other travelers. In Java, Bali, and Lombok, we met some nice people but these areas were mainly the domain of couples on short holidays to “easy” destinations. Sulawesi, with less name recognition and more adventurous edge, attracts a very different kind of traveler. We met up with two friendly, well-traveled Dutch couples at the Tarsius homestay who joined us on our jungle walks. One couple, Marco and Annemarie, had come north from Makassar, doing our trip in reverse. The other couple, Dirk and Simone, were heading south a few days ahead of us. We swapped tips on where to go and places to stay in Sulawesi.

The next morning, we headed back to the immigration office in Manado. We hoped that our visa extensions would be ready, but no! We were fingerprinted, had a brief “interview” with the immigration officer, and paid the extension fee, and were told to come back in two days. That suited us fine, since we were headed to the island of Bunaken for a few days.

Breathing Underwater in Bunaken

Pulau Bunaken is an hour from Manado by public ferry, a creaky wooden boat loaded with kegs of drinking water since the island has no fresh water. We met up with Marco and Annemarie again and made our way to the dock. Manado harbor is a colorful place bustling with activity in the nearby market, with the occasional overpowering whiff of dried fish. As the public boat, a creaky wooden affair, pulled out of the harbor, we could see tiny wooden skiffs battling for position against larger speedboats against a backdrop of stilt houses and palm trees. It felt like being a sailor on the Seven Seas, heading out to find lands unknown and do battle with pirates.

Exotic harbor. Manado
Manado harbor.

Bunaken is famous mainly for its underwater attractions. It has some of the best-preserved coral in Indonesia, crystal-clear water, and a plethora of marine life. The side of the island with the best snorkeling is lined with a very thin strip of beach fringed with dense mangrove. Beyond that, there is a coral reef that drops off to blue depths a few hundred meters from shore.

Clear Bunaken Sea
Clear water at the Bunaken harbor

Our guesthouse, the Sea Garden, was another all-inclusive deal with a cute bungalow with a view of the mangroves. Marco and Annemarie ended up at the same place, and we also met Mark and Noleen, a well-traveled Australian couple. They hiked the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal 25 years ago, raised a family, and then returned to Nepal last year to hike to Gokyo in the Everest region. We’re planning to trek to Gokyo in October, our concerns about earthquake damage having been alleviated, and hearing Mark and Noleen rave about the scenery made us even more excited to go.

The snorkeling in front of our guesthouse was fantastic. Although I was nervous to swim alone above the dropoff, the corals were beautifully illuminated against the brilliant blue of the deep water. In the shallow areas, I saw lots of triggerfish, parrotfish, Moorish idols, bannerfish, and many other species of fish that I couldn’t name.

Turning to the Sea

Pure Indonesia. Bunaken
I was enticed into the sea at Bunaken.

One of the interesting things about travel is how spur-of-the-moment decisions can completely reshape a trip. We never thought of ourselves as beach people. When we were planning the trip, we put a heavy emphasis on mountains and trekking. We go hiking or backpacking almost every summer weekend in Washington, and we expected trekking in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Nepal to be one of the highlights of our travels. As it happened, trekking in Central Asia was less rewarding than expected. The treks we did in Kyrgyzstan were nice, but the scenery was more or less on par with what we can see at home. We ended up not trekking in Tajikistan at all because of the bad weather, high costs, and logistical headaches. These experiences made us decide to avoid multi-day treks for the rest of the trip unless we know that the scenery will be above and beyond anything we could see at home (Nepal, for instance).

On the other hand, we have found another fascinating, beautiful natural environment to literally immerse ourselves in: the sea! In Gili Air, we realized that tropical beaches and islands give very easy rewards. All you need is a bungalow, a hammock, and a beach with some coral, and it’s almost impossible not to enjoy yourself. This combined with my snap decision to do an introductory dive in Bunaken led to us re-orienting our trip towards islands and beaches with dive and snorkel spots.

Our hotel, like most places on Bunaken, was mainly a dive shop, and the signboard above the reception desk advertised an introductory dive for 85 euros. I had never envisioned myself as a diver. When I was 10 or 11, I read a stupid Christopher Pike horror novel about a girl who goes diving in Hawaii and finds a dead body in an underwater cave. It gave me nightmares and put me off the idea of diving for a long time. But after seeing beautiful tropical fish while snorkeling here and in Gili Air, and listening to the diver talk over dinner at the Sea Garden, I decided to give it a try. Marco and Annemarie, the Dutch couple from Tangkoko, were also staying at the hotel and Marco signed up for the dive too. That afternoon, we watched a PADI video that described the various pieces of scuba equipment and stressed why you should never hold your breath while diving or your lungs will explode.

The next morning, Marco and I were fitted for wetsuits and got on the dive boat with two groups of divers and our instructor, Arjuna. After dropping off the divers, we motored to a shallow spot to practice our skills. Arjuna helped me into the buoyancy vest, canisters, and weight belt, which add up to a heavy load when you’re not in the water. I was a little skeptical that I would stay afloat with all of this gear strapped to me. Then I found out that the first thing I was expected to do was to fall backwards off the side of the boat with the gear on and the regulator in my mouth. Yikes!

Scuba boat. Bunaken
Laura and Marco on the dive boat. Many thanks to Marco for providing this photo.

I needed a little nudge from the dive assistant but finally toppled backwards into the ocean. The first breaths I took underwater were in an upside down position with the sea and sky spinning above me. I righted myself and popped my head up. I was afloat and breathing through the regulator.

We found a sandy spot a few meters deep, where we knelt on the bottom and practiced controlling our buoyancy, retrieving our regulators, and clearing our masks. Then we followed Arjuna on a short dive through the corals, never more than three meters deep.

We got back on the boat and drove to another spot on the other side of the island. Here, we did a second dive alongside the coral wall that was one of my highlights of the trip so far. By now I was more comfortable with the deep water and the scuba equipment and could enjoy the beauty of the underwater world. We descended alongside the wall, with the corals to our left and the drop off to our right. The sight of schools of brilliantly colored fish and corals illuminated against the pure deep blue sea was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. It was like being in an underwater cathedral, perfectly silent except for my breathing, with rays of sunlight sending beams into the darkness and sparkling across the coral. Schools of white and orange fish swirled in the deep like living confetti. Sea turtles nested in overhangs among the coral and schools of fish darted around us. We saw a school of huge silver jackfish, and one barracuda in the distance. The multicolored corals housed more types of striped, spotted, and shimmering reef fish than I could have imagined.

This photo of Bunaken from Wikimedia Commons gives an idea of what it looked like, although the spot we went had much more colorful coral.

Coral wall in Bunaken

We dove to a maximum depth of 10 meters and spent almost an hour underwater, although it felt like no more than 20 minutes. As I climbed onto the boat all I could think about was when I could do this again. There was an almost addictive rush that made me understand why divers are so enthusiastic about their sport. My sister Kelsey is an avid diver. Most of her vacation photos are taken underwater. Now I understand why! Coral walls have now joined alpine lakes and glacial basins as one of my favorite natural environments.

The other great thing about diving and snorkeling in Indonesia is that wildlife sightings are guaranteed. The thrill of seeing tarsiers and hornbills in Tangkoko reminded us how much we enjoy seeing wild animals in their habitat. That’s easy to do in the tropical waters of Indonesia. Wade out to a depth of a few feet, put your head in the water and you’ll see all kinds of reef fish. Go deeper and there are sharks, sea turtles, and many other strange and wonderful creatures of the deep. You never know what you’ll spot, but it’s hard to get bored of the multitude of crazy colors and patterns of tropical fish.

My plan is now to do an open water dive course in southern Thailand in November after we finish our month of trekking in Nepal. Paul isn’t keen on diving yet but became a big fan of tropical reef fish during our stay in the Togean Islands (to be described in an upcoming post). Now I’m researching dive spots in Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines, and compiling a bucket list of species to spot underwater (manta rays, nautilus, sardine clouds, and the list goes on). While we still plan to visit mountains, inland areas, and cultural attractions, we’re re-orienting our trip to include plenty of beaches, snorkeling, and diving.

Sulawesi: Just what we needed

As I write this, we have been in Sulawesi for just over two weeks and it has absolutely met and exceeded our expectations. It is our favorite Indonesian island so far. Java, Bali, Gili, and Lombok were each enjoyable in different ways but marred by the effects of mass tourism: extortionate prices, jaded locals, and a sense of being on a tourist treadmill. Sulawesi is just developed enough that travel is relatively easy, but locals are genuinely friendly and WATM (Walking ATM) Syndrome is not so common. It has the dash of true exoticism that had been lacking from our trip so far.

Outriggers. Manado harbor
Wooden boats at Manado harbor, on our return from Bunaken.

Another great thing about Sulawesi is that it is really cheap! Many guesthouses charge per-person rates inclusive of all meals. These have been as low as IDR150,000 (about $11). Food and transport are also much less expensive than we have seen on other Indonesian islands. Our daily costs in Iran and Central Asia now look stupidly high in comparison. After a couple of months in Central Asia, we had moments where we considered coming home because the rewards of travel were not outweighing the high cost.

Coming to Sulawesi has erased all thoughts of returning home anytime soon. It has reminded us what our travel priorities should be: somewhat remote (yet not completely off the beaten track) areas with beautiful scenery, nice people, oceans, and plentiful wildlife. After our expensive and often unrewarding experiences in Central Asia, Sulawesi was just what we needed to reignite our enthusiasm for travel and map out a new plan for our trip.

Up next, we find tropical paradise and Paul becomes one with the sea in the Togean Islands.


View full size photos on Flickr

10 thoughts on “At the Edge of the Map in North Sulawesi

  1. Lori

    How wonderful, glad you are getting into diving. Many coral reefs are shrinking, so great to experience while you can. Nice writeup and photos!

    1. Laura Post author

      Hi Lori, nice to hear from you! I just completed my Open Water course and I’m looking forward to seeing more of the underwater environment. Yes, it sounds like this year’s El Nino could cause a lot of coral bleaching. The coral around the Gili Islands were affected by the big El Nino in 1997 and is only now starting to recover. Hope all is well with you.

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  4. ash green

    It was really insightful.
    Thanks for such a nice content.
    BTW if anyone interested more have a look . thanks

  5. Nicki

    Nicely written! It really draws you in and makes us want to travel to Sulawesi again right now!
    We have only seen the Minahasa Highlands, Lembeh and Wakatobi region.
    Happy to hear you also tried diving and liked it. Sulawesi offers some of the best diving of the world.
    We spent a lot of time with our heads and cameras underwater and I thought you might enjoy this natural wonders of the Celebes Sea too:
    Keep on exploring, sharing and hopefully diving!


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