From Makassar to Manado: Backpacking Sulawesi

Sulawesi is all about volcanoes, lush green landscape and paradise islands – and then there are the ever-friendly locals: approachable and fun!

Sulawesi is all about volcanoes, lush green landscape and paradise islands – and then there are the ever-friendly locals: approachable and fun!

Sulawesi is a curiously shaped province within the Indonesian archipelago (that consists of some 17,500 islands in total) – conveniently located just north of Bali and Lombok (Nusa Tenggara), east of Malaysian Sabah and Kalimantan (Borneo), south of the Philippines and west of the Moluccas. It is the planet’s eleventh-largest island (176,600 sq km) – within Indonesia only Sumatra, Java and Papua are larger in territory and only Java and Sumatra are home to more people. That said, Sulawesi (with some 18,5 million) really didn’t feel overpopulated. However, that might easily be due to having spent some time in Vietnam just beforehand.

After Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam, Indonesia is the fifth country on the list on this trip and my first time on the archipelago since 2015 when I visited Northern Sumatra. I first came to Indonesia after traveling around Australia for a year in 2006/07 – my good friend Donnie and I spent a month exploring Bali and Lombok, Nusa Tenggara (that includes the islands of Komodo and Rinca, home to the notorious Komodo dragons) plus Java. I utterly fell in love with the country back then and it again delivered this time – I would love to return some time, possibly for discovering Kalimantan (on Borneo) or Papua.

The k-shaped island with the red dot it is – surrounded by Borneo to the west, the Philippines to the north and Nusa Tenggara to the south.

The k-shaped island with the red dot it is – surrounded by Borneo to the west, the Philippines to the north and Nusa Tenggara to the south.

Not the most expensive place to travel in: This is what I paid for in 14 days.

Not the most expensive place to travel in: This is what I paid for in 14 days.

So while I was winding my way up from Southern to Northern Vietnam (December 20 to January 5), cK was already enjoying himself on Bali and Lombok before we finally reunited at Makassar Airport in Sulawesi’s very south west. The unusual overall shape is basically due to the amount of peninsulas (take a closer look at a map, it’s worth it) which makes you reconsider your itinerary thoroughly.

Despite various interesting destinations on any of the island’s legs we decided to start in the capital (Makassar), then head north while avoiding Palu and the rest of the west coast (due to the tsunami that hit the region hard in September 2018) and make our way to the Togean Islands, easily considered Sulawesi’s prime destination due to excellent snorkelling and diving, savage island coasts, an authentic Robinson Crusoe ambience and enchanting surprises like sweet Jellyfish Lake.

The trip couldn’t start any better really when we managed to avoid the usual taxi scam by hitchhiking into downtown Makassar where we booked a guesthouse in advance – however, the address given proved to be false, but our drivers hooked us up with just another guesthouse where we ended up staying instead (after lots of confusion and some fun conversations with Japanese guests).

Especially local kids were more than keen to either interview us or take selfies. Quite the action!

Especially local kids were more than keen to either interview us or take selfies. Quite the action!

Makassar‘s main tourist attraction: Fort Rotterdam.

Makassar‘s main tourist attraction: Fort Rotterdam.

Makassar provided a comfortable base for the first two nights, even though there isn’t overly much to do besides getting lost in back alleys or taking selfies with super-curious and highly approachable locals. The only real sight is centrally located Fort Rotterdam, a well-preserved example of Dutch architecture where you can walk along the original walls and take even more selfies with enthusiastic locals.

After the second night in town we got on a bus north into the rather peculiar region of Tana Toraja, famous for a stunning scenery, elaborately painted houses (originally used for rice storage) featuring boat-shaped roofs plus a once-animist people that has a certain obsession with bloody funeral ceremonies. We were offered to attend one of those, but happily declined since one is expected to pay a rather astonishing amount of money for that (in comparison).

Riding the bus to Rantepao in the Tana Toraja region.

Riding the bus to Rantepao in the Tana Toraja region.

On top of things again: enjoying the views from Rantepao‘s highest hill.

On top of things again: enjoying the views from Rantepao‘s highest hill.

However, we later met a very likeable European couple that was willing to attend the funeral and talk about it: lots of wicked chanting and elaborate dance acts, but also a shocking amount of cruel animal torture and slaughtering – e.g. pigs whose legs were tied together for general amusement, trying to jump around helplessly before being killed. Apart from that it was apparently most interesting to observe the social structure – it basically comes down to: The more buffaloes your family can afford, the better your stand in (the Toraja) society.

We settled in Rantepao and decided to explore the wider area by foot and bicycle (after virtually every scooter rental we turned to had trouble with their machines) – then my bike broke down half-way up a mountain (on the way to a place called Batutumonga) – luckily the only thing we needed to do was turn around and roll down for half an hour until we were back in town, passing cheering school kids and the occasional honking taxi driver.

Curious Toraja architecture: They originally used these houses to store rice.

Curious Toraja architecture: They originally used these houses to store rice.

We booked the bus ticket further north (to a place called Pendolo) at some dodgy backstreet agency whose owner was very keen to sell us a funeral tour. Also, we didn’t get bus tickets (or any sort of confirmation for the money we paid him). The morning of our departure his family told us he’d be in the hospital (did he talk about his own funeral?) and of course no-one really knew about the tickets we bought from him. As was to be expected, though, it all worked out just fine. South-East Asia, I love you for this (incalculable chaos).

After a bumpy 10-hour bus ride we eventually made it to Pendolo, a little village just south of Danau (Lake) Poso, a rather beautiful freshwater lake in Central Sulawesi. We arrived in darkness and picked the Pendolo Cottages to stay at – when following our landlord passing over a wooden bridge towards the bungalows, one of the boards bursted and I sort of fell through it – at least with one leg. Quite the experience. Nothing happened besides some scratches at the leg – the plank actually hit my eyes, but the glasses protected me. After we saw the cottage and negotiated a price our landlord returned with some tiger balm which made me smile big-time.

Having the most enchantable morning after breakfast on the bungalow terrace.

Having the most enchantable morning after breakfast on the bungalow terrace.

Collecting trash at Lake Poso and then enjoying a long lovely swim!

Collecting trash at Lake Poso and then enjoying a long lovely swim!

Since Rantepao I fell in love with a dish called Gado-Gado: basically rice with vegetables, tofu, sometimes tempeh and always peanut sauce. So once we headed out to hunt that down we rather surprisingly stumbled into a proper nightly fairground, complete with “giant” wheel, carrousel and even a spook hall (one guy accompanied us through and made sure we’d have a fun time). We also found some gado-gado that night.

After some great night sleep we awoke in paradise: our caring landlord served us fresh fruits and strong black tea for breakfast and cleared the bit of beach for us as well. I put up the hammock, we smothered ourselves with sun screen and off we went into the sea – only to discover it to be filled with (mostly transparent) plastic trash. Great! We made the best of it and spent the following hour collecting garbage from beach and lake – some dude from the adjacent cottages got his phone out and filmed us doing so (and hopefully makes it go viral on YouTube and his circle of mates).

One of those wooden bridges was rotten and I basically fell through when crossing it at night.

One of those wooden bridges was rotten and I basically fell through when crossing it at night.

More cottages in the sweet village of Pendolo.

More cottages in the sweet village of Pendolo.

The tranquil times weren’t too last unfortunately – when we returned from village (were we had lunch and also acquired for a bus towards the next target) we found the two surrounding bungalows occupied with other guests: two big and rather noisy Indonesian families (after all this was a Saturday we then realized). We didn’t actually mind the company, but it was lovely to have the beach just for ourselves for a change – and, well, they then started a karaoke session that kept on going well into the night. But this is Asia after all!

The day after was a Sunday and on Sundays there isn’t much going on in that part of the country (the Christians here take this rather serious), but the promised bus came and off we went to Poso (the city which gave the lake its name) where we changed into a night connection into our target city of the day: Ampana – the gateway town to the long waited for Togean Islands!

Making our way north through Central Sulawesi (passing through Poso and ending in Ampana from where we took the ferry to the Togeans).

Making our way north through Central Sulawesi (passing through Poso and ending in Ampana from where we took the ferry to the Togeans).

We arrived in Ampana basically in the middle of the night, being the only passengers leaving the bus and then making our way straight to the ferry terminal. The streets were pretty much deserted and so was the harbour area, but we did encounter some information giving us an idea about the accommodation prices on the islands: with 225,000 Rupiah (15 euro) per person about three times as much as we were used to from, say, Pendolo. And then there was an additional national park fee of 150,000 Rp. – to be paid for by day.

We would consider our options the following day, but first needed to find a place to catch up with sleep – we ended up at the Oasis Hotel nearby, but the place was as empty as the streets around. After some extensive sneaking around we decided to crash on the lobby couches, switched off the lights, closed the entrance door and fell asleep just when it began to rain heavily (the lobby’s back area was basically open, so some rain drops touched down on my face). Around 06:30 or so the hotel receptionists showed up, so we asked for a room, were given one immediately and kept on sleeping until it was too hot and humid to bear.

cK temporarily working for the harbour administration.

cK was temporarily supporting the harbour administration.

The following day we spent in town to acquire more information about the Togeans and how exactly to get there (and away from), find a wifi spot and then tried to catch as much sleep as possible in order to fully enjoy the island adventure. We were keen.

A local ferry took us to the rather unappealing town of Wakai before heading on to Pulau Kedidiri where we stayed at one of three guesthouse complexes named Leskiri Cottages. That same night we got to know a bunch of fellow travelers who we then successfully recruited for a trip to Jellyfish Lake the following day.

Our bungalow at Kediri Cottages

Our bungalow at Kediri Cottages.

The island dogs: our regular companions – steadily seeking distraction and new adventures.

The island dogs: our regular companions – steadily seeking distraction and new adventures.

I first heard about that funnily named locality from friends who went to the Togeans in early 2018, marked the place on maps.me and forgot about it again soon after. And now here we were – reading about it in guide book PDFs and on ad flyers lying around in the cottage lunch room. A tranquil lake filled with a stingless species of jelly fish peacefully passing through horizontally day by day. We just had to see it!

While sharing some happy hour cocktails at the Kadidiri Paradise bar (one of the competing cottages) we met Kristin and Delio, actors from Hamburg and Zürich, plus Joaquin and Antonella, globetrotters from Buenos Aires (who happened to live in Berlin for a year until recently). The morning after the six of us were on a boat heading to the lake, sufficiently equipped with water, snacks and fins (prohibited while swimming with the jellyfish, but obviously handy for some good snorkelling at a nearby coral reef).

Robinson Crusoe style beach near Jellyfish Lake.

Robinson Crusoe style beach near Jellyfish Lake.

Corals calling!

Corals calling!

The remaining time on the Togeans we spent hanging out on the jetty, at the beach, in hammocks, on comfy couches near the bar and discussing the life at home, the funky pleasures of traveling and what comes with it.

On the morning of our departure day we went inland to explore another beach close-by (called Baracuda Bay) and the bunch of local dogs happily accompanied us as if they were just waiting for some distraction. It’s been playing Robinson Crusoe all the way! Probably one of my highlights on this trip.

Baracuda Bay!

Secluded Baracuda Bay.

From Wakai we eventually got on the night ferry towards Northern Sulawesi and arrived in Gorontalo around 03:30 in the morning. We decided to walk into town (some 4 kilometres away), making several breaks in between, witnessing the sun rising above the usual accumulation of modest, but colourful mosques. It actually proved to be quite the hassle to find a transport to Manado, the last target on this voyage across the island. We went to two bus stations from where we hoped to catch a bus north-east, but we were only told to rent a car instead – that seems like an expensive idea, but this is South-East Asia after all! For 175,000 each (around €11) we squeezed ourselves into a private car with just another tobacco-addicted driver and off we went to Manado.

Unexpected roadtrip interruption due to landslide cleaning work.

Unexpected roadtrip interruption due to landslide cleaning work.

After some 10 hours and an unexpected interruption due to a landslide (the road needed to be cleared with help of chain saws and caterpillars) we finally arrived in Manado, Sulawesi’s second-largest city (with some 750,000 inhabitants). The name means something like “on the far coast” or “in the distance” and originally refers to a volcanic island just off the mainland where the town was originally located. The reason we were heading here (apart from the airport proximity) was another island just next-by: Bunaken. I got to know about it only some months ago, but was quite keen to get there because the marine life is supposed to be just spectacular.

However, we never made it to Bunaken since the ferry times were not in our favor and we didn’t feel like arranging an overprized private ferry for a mere daytrip. Instead, we spent our last full day on Sulawesi inland. A cheap and nicely crowded public bus brought us to a mountain town called Tomohon: fresh and cool air, attractively shaped volcanoes and a small, but highly sulphurous lake that changes colours (depending on the light) was all that we could ask for.

Volcano watching from Tomohon, a sympathetic town some 25 km inland from Manado.

Volcano watching from Tomohon, a sympathetic town some 25 km inland from Manado.

We celebrated our last day with cold Bintang beer, tasty donuts and an even tastier dinner – that included some spicy tempeh – back in Manado (where we resided at the popular Celebes Hotel). The morning after we were on a plane back to Makassar and I’m writing these lines now (January 21, 2019) while hanging out in the Bunk Backpackers close to Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA), having Pink Floyd’s Time in my ears (one of my favorite tracks on The Dark Side of the Moon). We’re all excited because later today we’ll be finally boarding a plane to Honolulu on the island of O’ahu – the first time for both of us crossing the vast Pacific Ocean. This new chapter of the trip, however, will be written at another day and another place…

The Togean Islands – this is Pulau Kediri as seen from the Kadidiri Paradise jetty.

The Togean Islands – this is Pulau Kediri as seen from the Kadidiri Paradise jetty.

Hawai‘i already on our mind... the next adventure is coming up shortly.

Hawai‘i already on our mind… the next adventure is coming up shortly.

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