As our car creeps slowly along the back of the Bontomanai hills, the sweet scent of vanilla wafts through the cool air from both sides of the road, like calming aromatherapy.

“Now, the price of vanilla is around four million [rupiahs] per kilogram – it’s the most expensive commodity in Selayar,” explains Ismail, the head of the local section of the Department of Agriculture, who accompanies us to Bontomanai. I still find it hard to believe that this island, famous for its beautiful beaches, is also a paradise of expensive plantation crops.

On our journey, Ismail introduces us to Suherman, a young farmer with vanilla that is ready to harvest. “This will be my first harvest,” Suherman explains. “Before, the vanilla was less desirable, no one wanted to buy it. Now it is on the rise again with a good price and high demand. It has given me the enthusiasm to plant.” Suherman’s neighbours have already harvested their crops and are drying the vanilla in the yards of their homes, flanked by white walnuts and candlenuts. Between the trees, I can see Pasi island below, separated from Selayar island by the Tarrusang strait. I imagine how happy and peaceful life could be in a fresh and fertile place like this, with abundant plantation produce and a beautiful panorama out to sea.

Once we finish looking at the plantation, Ismail takes us to Bitombang, which he tells us is the oldest surviving traditional neighbourhood in Selayar. The majority of houses in Selayar are built on stilts in Bugis style, but, in Bitombang, the stilt houses are supported by very tall, thin wooden pillars, so I have to tilt my head up about 80° to reply to the residents’ greetings.

Another unique aspect of Bitombang is that the houses are built on hard, rocky land which is also very steep. The people believe that this strengthens their homes. I enjoy exploring the narrow alleyways of the neighbourhood and admiring the terraces decorated with flowering plants. “It would be nice to stay here for one or two nights while joining in with one of the traditional festivals,” says Oswald Sirapandji, a member of staff at the German consulate who joins me that day.

Returning to Benteng, the Selayar town centre,  I begin to consider the coast. Selayar is an island that stretches from north to south, an ideal position that offers perfect views for watching sunrise and sunset from the long beaches studded with towering coconut palms.

I start my exploration at Baloiya beach, about half an hour east of Benteng. Right beside the main road, this white-sand beach is shaped in a curve, with little coves. A number of small coral islands stick up from the sea, including Baloiya island, which can be accessed at low tide.

Several hundred metres from Baloiya is Sunari beach, where young local children end the day playing on a swing hung high up in a coconut tree. This beach has accommodation as well as a café, but the natural setting is well preserved.

I also stop off at Biring Balang beach, which has shady huts for watching the fishing around Pakumbukan village. The people here make small boats, called joloro, which are used to fish around two nearby islands, Malimbu and the longer Buang.

The asphalt road to the east comes to an end at Pattumbukang harbour, the gateway to Taka Bonerate National Park, the third largest atoll coral reef in the world by level of biodiversity. This harbour is the starting point for divers heading to the abundant coral islands close by, such as Bahuluang, Tambolongan and Polassi.

Jean Philippe, a long-haired French diver who has lived on Selayar for many years, takes me to visit Bontosikuyu, where he is building a guesthouse for lovers of the underwater world. “I am building the accommodation in the forest because I like being in a well-preserved natural setting,” he explains. “Even though it’s difficult to get a phone signal here, and I have had to get my own electricity source, I fell in love with this place the moment I first saw it.”

I agree with Jean Philippe: Bontosikuyu is like a dream. The clear turquoise sea showcases its splendid coral, while sharks and octopuses swim back and forth at the edge of the pristine white sandy beach. Just mention Bonetappalang or Pinang beach – the two names are well known to European visitors. “But we must work extra hard to protect the marine life here, by educating visitors, especially the young, so they don’t treat  the baby sharks as entertainment,”  Jean Philippe stresses.

Regarding marine-life conservation, a visit to Turtle Neighbourhood (Kampung Penyu) on the Bontomanai coast, west of Benteng town centre, makes me more sympathetic to the issues Selayar faces. Datu, the initiator and manager of Turtle Neighbourhood, welcomes me with a radiant smile. “You are the first visitor to the new hatchlings, which just hatched yesterday,” he explains. He then reveals a large basin containing dozens of tiny turtle hatchlings.

I discover that Datu was a turtle-egg hunter who changed his ways when he became conscious of the impact of his activities on the local turtle population. “It was a short process, but what has been difficult is the journey to get my friends who are turtle-egg hunters to stop hunting,” he says. “It takes commitment, not to mention [the work] seeking support for this project.”

The father of four speaks of the pure happiness he feels when he releases the many hatchlings into the sea. “The past is a teacher – I know the ins and outs of turtle [behaviour] from my own experience,” he says. “I can also read the patterns of the turtle-egg hunters, who are sometimes naughty, because I was like that once.” To disseminate his message, Datu often collaborates with other parties to organise events or activities held at Turtle Neighbourhood. “It’s conservation combined with tourism,” he says.

The concept of conservation tourism has begun to receive serious attention in Selayar. The enthusiasm surrounding Turtle Neighbourhood is also present at Matalalang Mangrove Forest, about five kilometres  from Haji Aroeppala Airport. “We see that the potential is there to bring residents,  and especially the young, close to conservation-related issues through tourism,” explains Andi Nurdiyana, my  host, who works at the Transportation Department. Matalalang Mangrove Forest  is fairly large, complete with footpaths designed to highlight the beauty of the transcendent moments of sunset.

Throughout the week I spend in Selayar,  I notice and enjoy the openness and friendliness of the people, who are both spontaneous and naturally graceful. I am reminded of the words of Ismail on my first day: “Our island has a very low crime level, and kindness towards newcomers has been our way for hundreds of years.” I don’t doubt it: the islands have been a haven for many peoples since the golden era of maritime travel. The name Selayar comes from Sanskrit and literally means ‘One Sail’, clearly implying the role of the region as a melting pot and meeting place of sailors arriving from all directions. The stories of sea-faring adventures and past glories are an intrinsic part of this very special archipelago, along with the delicious aroma of vanilla, the waving palm trees and the beauty of bountiful waters.

From Travel Colours July 2018


Spread across more than 5,300km², this protected area has the largest atoll in Southeast Asia, which consists of coral cliffs around 21 islands, as well as giant lagoons filled with large reefs. It exhibits various examples of rare marine life. Since 2015, Taka Bonerate has been listed in the UNESCO World Network of Biosphere Reserves.