Arriving into the island of Sulawesi, we immediately felt different. The Eastern island is pretty far away from the bulk of Indonesia’s archipelago, past Borneo, and you can really sense it. It’s the intrepid folk who make it this far, drawn in by the world-class diving, Robinson Crusoe-style island paradise, and forgotten cultures like the animist tribes, the Torajans (See Tana Toraja blog).
We spent our first night in the frenetic city of Manado which, despite being BOILING hot, smelly and crazy with chickens running around, fruit and veg and rubbish decaying on the streets, we (surprisingly) really liked it there. Namely because the locals were SO friendly, with everyone shouting ‘Hello mister!’ and flashing us smiles, as the novelty white people in town. People were so friendly, and one guy even walked us through town to the dock when we couldn’t see the way through the labyrinth of shanty town homes and markets. We also ate some delicious cheap food here on the dock – my first taste of ‘ketoprak’, another wonderful peanut dish! (See Food blog)
A big downside to Manado, however, was the litter problem, and the dock (where you catch the ferry to Pulau Bunaken) was FULL of rubbish floating around in the water, which was pretty depressing. When we arrived on Bunaken we noticed lots of bottles and rubbish that had floated over, and given it’s a National Marine Park, this isn’t ideal!
However, the ferry was pretty fun, watching locals play card games to pass the time, and we met a nice guy who recommended Lorenso’s Hostel on the island, which we duly followed up, and it was amazing! Arriving on the tiny island of Bunaken, we felt all the stress and activity of the last few weeks just drain away. The island is really pictureque – a dormant volcano lying at one end of the island, bright turquoise sea, palm trees, a Disney-like pink church (Sulawesi island is mostly Christian), cute little dirt roads for bikes that cut through the jungle, and bungalows and dive schools dotted around.
We walked to Lorenso’s where we struck up an amazing deal of £8 pp/pn for a private bungalow with bathroom, three meals a day, and all the water, coffee and tea we could drink! We plonked ourselves down and basically stayed down for two days – reading in hammocks, swimming in the mangroves at high tide, eating delicious fresh fish, and bonding with fellow Lorenso residents from Italy, Switzerland and Germany.
Lorenso’s had a pretty special vibe, run by a lovely family who taught us some basic Bahasa Indonesian lingo, and Lorenso himself was quite a character who really knew how to whip up great food, from sweet potato curries to salt and pepper squid. On our last night, as three of us were leaving together, they even put on a little gig for us, covering pop classics in their laid-back tropical-island-style, on guitars and a home-made double bass! We were also plied with free shots of local palm wine, which luckily, didn’t make us blind.
Now, to the real attraction itself – the undersea life. Bunaken National Park is known as one of the most diverse underwater biospheres in the world, featuring over 300 types of coral and 3000 species of fish! One of the girls in our resort told us it was better than that of Borneo, and once we’d been snorkelling once, we knew what she meant. As luck would have it, the best snorkelling spot started just outside of Lorenso’s, through the mangroves, and as we drifted down on the current we saw pretty much everything we hoped to, from turtles to firefish, clownfish (aka Nemo), lionfish, yellow trumpetfish, and huge shoals of all varieties and colours.
The tide is known to be pretty dicey and Lorenso told us that, heartbreakingly, two people from his resort had died whilst being swept out on the current, so we had to be careful about when we went snorkelling, and always let one of the guys know we’d gone. This made me pretty edgy, and we only went out when the fishermen docked in the bay said it was ok!
We also managed a couple of dives in our time there which, although still really good, I’d say didn’t add tons to the snorkelling experience, as the real stars are the reef life here. We did however see huge shoals of beautiful big batfish, some turtles, white-tipped reef sharks, colourful nudibranches, scary moray eels, and giant clams. The visibility was really good (especially in the afternoon) and the colours were beautiful. The only downside to our dive was one really annoying fellow diver who insisted on trying to touch the coral, and had to be pulled off repeatedly by our dive master! Argh!
Anyway, after a truly relaxing 5 or 6 days (who’s counting?!) we teared ourselves away so we could make our transport links to the deserted island paradise of the Togean Islands…!