Boat at the jetty at Poya Lisa resort

Poya Lisa: Cats, Coral and Birdwatching in the Togean Islands

Poya Lisa is a must-stay destination in the Togeans. The resort is on a tiny island in a small bay off Batudaka island in the southwest part of the archipelago. As is the case throughout the Togean Islands, the term “resort” doesn’t denote a five-star luxury experience. Rather, it’s a set of basic beach bungalows in a magnificent setting. Like all the resorts in the region, accommodation is full board, dining is at communal tables, the hosts arrange great snorkeling trips, and there is a pleasant stretch of soft white sand. Divers can arrange submersible activities with Bomba Divers just across the water.

To get there from Una Una, we took the thrice weekly public boat to Wakai, then transferred to the convenient express boat, the Hercules, which runs a daily shuttle Ampana-Wakai-Ampana. The captain will make the short detour to Poya Lisa on request.

Snorkeling at Sunset

Clear Togean seas.
Sunset snorkel trip.

We dived straight into the action soon after we arrived. The house reef is nothing special but the resort runs free late afternoon boat trips out to nearby reefs. We jumped into an outrigger, grabbed a life vest for Buxton, and headed out to Stefan Reef. The reef was a glorious coral wall drop off. The coral was healthy, the visibility fantastic, the blue was beautiful shot through with rays of light, and the fish plentiful. There was an abundance of big fish too. Trevallies, jacks, and truly enormous pipefish.

The pipefish attracted the attention of local spear fishermen. Spearfishing seems a little more sustainable than most other forms of fishing. Mainly because their success rate is fairly low! It is quite something to watch a local dude hold his breath underwater for several minutes before hurling a spear through the briny. I never saw them get a hit but they don’t miss by much. I assume they get their daily fill.

Spear fisherman. Togean Islands
Spear fisherman on the reef.

It was a beautiful evening, so the boat captain dropped us off at another spot called Suzana Reef. The water was much shallower here. In fact, it was low tide so it was quite tricky to avoid the coral. The standout feature here was a huge pulsating ‘brain coral’. It really was quite mesmerizing.

Coral at sunset. Togean Islands
Coral reflections. Togean Islands

Snorkeling in the shallows near Poya Lisa.

Hanging Out at Poya Lisa

Classic Togean scene. Poya Lisa
An outrigger pulled up at Poya Lisa’s jetty.

As ever in remote spots, there was a cool bunch of travelers in residence at Poya Lisa. A retired Dutch lady was returning for the first time since her initial visit 22 years earlier. There were no resorts back then, so she stayed with local families. She brought with her a collection of photos from the earlier trip. She realized that the boat captain was one of the kids in her photos. A very serendipitous connection.

There was a very rare sight too: an Israeli in Indonesia. Israelis are not allowed to visit the country. Jonathan had a second passport, which allowed him passage. A very cool guy. As ever with solo Israeli travelers, he tried to find offbeat places to stay. He was trying to go ‘Robinson Crusoe’ on one of the uninhabited islands but he was struggling to find someone to sell him a stash of food at a decent price. The resorts clearly were obstructive, obviously because they benefited from him staying there. Mind you, he made it through Papua New Guinea without problems so I have no doubt he would have succeeded eventually.

Rounding out the dinner table was a second generation Dutch-Indonesian guy who had been visiting family in Maluku. The province of Maluku has some very interesting history that is little known in the western world. There was civil unrest after Indonesian independence and his parents, like many other people from the area, emigrated to Holland. I think he was in the Togeans trying to come down from the swell of emotions that rose up during the family visit. Well, he certainly picked a great spot to chill out. I doubt there is a more relaxing spot on Earth.

Wildlife Encounters of the Creepy-Crawly Sort

Cat and coconut crab. Poya Lisa
Kitten and coconut crab at Poya Lisa.

That evening, we saw our first coconut crabs. Laura had been hoping to see a coconut crab all through our time in the tropics. These gargantuan crustaceans are alleged to climb coconut palms, cut themselves a fresh coconut, return to the ground, and break the nut open. As you can see from the photos, the crabs look like aliens from another planet. The resort’s very cute kittens were intrigued by this beastly presence. We saved them from too painful a nip when they got a bit close.

That night, we had our first encounter with Togean rats in our bungalow. We heard them scratching overnight and in the morning, one of the bananas we had hung near the dresser had been nibbled clean. Rats are a persistent problem at resorts in the Togean Islands. They have a taste for all things edible and are annoying since they noisily run around the room while you are trying to sleep. They are harmless, though, so don’t let them put you off coming.

Beaches, Reefs, and Snorkeling

Deep blue dropoff. Bomba Atoll, Togean Islands
A deep blue dropoff on a coral atoll.

Over the next couple of days we snorkeled at numerous reefs around Poya Lisa. Bomba Atoll and Taupan Island reefs are spectacular. Gazillions of fish and coral gardens galore! The trips cost 300K per boat load (four people per boat). There are always plenty of people to share costs with at the resort. The Taupan island trip has the added attraction of a barbecue lunch on an isolated white sand beach. It felt a little odd chowing down on fish on a snorkeling trip but I ain’t going to deny it was tasty!

Taupan Island
Us at Taupan Island.

Swimming into a new world. Togean Islands
Jumping off the outrigger.

The beach at Taupan Island has a very nice reef just offshore. There was a baby reef shark flitting around the shallows, but I was never sharp-eyed or fast enough to catch a glimpse. We had one minor moment of confusion. We swam back towards the beach just in time to see the other boat sail away. Our boat was nowhere to be seen. WTF! We had heard one scary story about a couple of snorkelers being abandoned 45 minutes offshore in the Kei Islands.

We were in no mood for a similar situation, so we hollered the other boat. They sailed over and pointed at our boat somewhere in the distance. Uh? Well, what to do? We couldn’t get in this boat since it was at capacity. But, the captain told us to grab on to the outrigger. Okkkkk? And, off we sped! This was highly unexpected but fairly exhilarating. We rendezvoused with the other boat and found out captain fancied a bit of deep water fishing while we splashed around. Well, that’s OK I s’pose!

Coral and anthias. Bomba Atoll
Anthias at Bomba Atoll.

Bomba Atoll is one of the jewels in the Togean crown. It is a magnificent sight. Stupendous amounts of fish and masses of healthy colorful coral. Coming back was exhilarating too. The heavens treated us to the mother of tropical downpours.

Hornbill Heaven

The view from the hornbill tower.
The view from the hornbill tower.

In the evening, we decided on a little on land action. There is a bird viewing tower about 30 minute by boat from Poya Lisa where you can catch a glimpse of Sulawesi red-knobbed hornbills. Again, the trip cost 300K per boat. We didn’t really know what to expect. We had been told that the hornbills flocked in the trees at sunset, so off we went.

On the way over, we stopped off at a Bajo (Sea Gypsy) village. These places are pretty much the same all over Indonesia but I never get bored of dropping on in. There were colorful stilt over water houses, a small market, people fishing, and noisy curious kids to keep you entertained. I have no doubt the entertainment factor was reciprocal.

Bajau kids. Togean Islands
Bajau kids fishing off the dock in their village.

Sunset was coming, so we motored along to the location of the hornbill tower and walked the short path. The rickety tower reaches up to about sixty feet. The railing round the top is decrepit and vertigo is an ever present threat! Not too auspicious to be honest.

As the sun set, we caught a glimpse of a few birds here and there. It was impressive but nothing to get too excited about. I was ready to leave. Then, 13 birds flew directly over us. Now, we are talking. Then, 16 more. Then, another 12. This was getting silly! The sun set and the call to prayer sounded across the tiny village while the sky turned pink. Meanwhile, flocks of hornbills continued to swoop over us. They were roosting in trees just beyond the village. And, boy, did they kick up a ruckus! In all, we estimated we saw more than 110 hornbills. It is truly phenomenal. An absolute must see in the Togeans. One of the finest wildlife encounters of the whole trip.

Final Thoughts

Cat on the dock.
Did we mention how cute the Poya Lisa cats were?

Poya Lisa is probably the busiest resort in the Togeans, and the bungalows are the most basic of all the resorts we stayed at. But, don’t let that put you off. It is a real must-see place. There is an incomparable list of activities here that cannot be replicated elsewhere in the islands. Phenomenal snorkeling. Crazy wildlife watching. Lots of interactions with locals. And, I have no doubt the diving would be sensational too.

One piece of advice. And, this is true for every Togean resort. Don’t bother coming July to mid-September. We visited in mid-June and were told that the resorts were already fully booked with European holiday makers for the month of July. People have to sleep on the beach, in the hammocks, and in the communal areas. Island hopping becomes trickier since everywhere is booked. Diving gear will be at a premium. We have been twice in off-season (mid-September and early June) and both times it was absolutely perfect. Easy to get rooms and move around. OK, you get the odd tropical downpour but that rarely ruins a whole day.


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3 thoughts on “Poya Lisa: Cats, Coral and Birdwatching in the Togean Islands

  1. Pingback: Scared Swimmer to Scuba Diver: Paul's Odyssey | Design Think Travel

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