“It’s not unknown for there to be tears on the last day of a trip in Wakatobi,” reads the blurb on the Wakatobi Dive Resort website; “…guests simply don’t want to leave this little piece of heaven and return to the ‘real’ world.”
Words by Mark Eveleigh
The resort, at the far southern end of this island chain off Southeast Sulawesi, is one of Indonesia’s most exclusive dive centres. Even here, three islands to the north (yet a world away from resort luxury) on humble little Hoga Island, I feel far from the ‘real’ world.
This was my second visit to these islands and, while I hadn’t exactly been in tears upon departure that first time, I was delighted to be back. I’m in an archipelago that was traditionally known as the Tukangbesi (‘steel worker’) Islands but the view that lies in front of me couldn’t be farther from the skyline of an industrial steel town. Wherever you are in Wakatobi, it is impossible to think in anything but blissfully paradisiacal picture- postcard terms: ‘turquoise reefs’, ‘talcum- powder beaches’ and ‘fiery sunsets’ are a part of daily life here.
When this area was declared a national park in 1996, the name Wakatobi was chosen as an acronym for the four main islands: Pulau Wangi-Wangi, Pulau Kaledupa, Pulau Tomia and Pulau Binongko. There are actually 143 islands here, but only seven of them are permanently inhabited.
I’d spent time exploring Wangi-Wangi with its spectacular coast, world-class reefs and the otherworldly savannahs. I’d climbed to the summit of Wakatobi’s highest peak. While this is a mere 274 m above sea level, Wakatobi’s submarine canyons are said to drop off more than a kilometre.
I was in the mood for a little exploration so, on a whim and with no plans beyond following my instincts, I headed for a little three-kilometre-long hummock of rock, sand and palms known as Hoga Island. I took a small interisland ferry south from the little fishing harbour at Wanchi town on Wangi-Wangi and puttered down the channel near Pulau Kambode. By the time we were crossing deeper water off Pulau Komponaone I was already enjoying the sunshine, sitting on the roof of the boat with a group of islanders who were returning to paradise after a bout of labouring work 200 km away on the mainland in Kendari City. I had no doubt that they were even happier to be back than I was.
As the little boat throbbed across the shallow waters near Kaledupa Island, my temporary travelling companions waved in glee at friends in the timber houses that colonised the reef. Some were raised on stilted legs over the water, like gawky herons, but others were balanced on manmade islets of coral. I realised that the migrant builders were in fact Orang Bajau. More commonly known to the outside world as ‘Sea Gypsies’, the Orang Bajau are one of countless ethnic groups that live (mostly settled lives these days) on remote coastlines from the Malukus to Myanmar. I’d met truly
nomadic Sea Gypsies living in tented shanties alongside their little jerangka fishing outriggers while they followed the schooling fish northwards along the coast of East Sulawesi, and I’d swum with settled Sea Gypsy children in the Alor Islands, Borneo and Komodo. Once I did an assignment on the Sea Gypsies of Thailand, where they are often known as ‘Moken’. I’d hired a Thai translator for that story and, minutes into our first interview with a Moken headman, I’d stunned him by apparently speaking near-fluent Moken. (I allowed his astonishment to continue until I finally pointed out, later that afternoon, that I’d realised almost immediately that the language of the now sedentary Moken is almost entirely derived from Bahasa Indonesia.)
The people of Southern Sulawesi were historically among the world’s great explorers, and in ancient times they fanned out to colonise much of eastern Indonesia. It is possible that historians might never know the exact limits of their exploration, but these intrepid islanders (ancestors perhaps of the labouring men from Kaledupa) might even have sailed so far as to colonise Madagascar, more than 8,000 km away across the fearsome depths of the Indian Ocean. As I changed boats at the little jetty in Tamboeloeroeha town, I realised that some local place names – Kampenaune, Tolandano, Mount Sampuagiwolo – were strangely reminiscent of names I remembered from my Madagascar travels.
Now, on Hoga Island, I checked in to a tiny beach-front bungalow, tied my hammock up near the shoreline and settled down for a couple of blissful days of beach-bumming on a deserted strip of sand 1,000 km from the packed beaches of Bali.
I walked almost the full way around the island without seeing another foreign face, although a handful of friendly local kids teamed up to act as impromptu guides. The smallest had to be carried on her brother’s back across the sharp coral outcrops that form the foundations of many of these islands. I snorkelled on crystal reefs where the balmy water was so clear that it was possible to feel that I was floating in an invisible ether, rather than submerged in water. Here, in the mineral-rich waters where the currents of the Banda Sea and the Flores Sea meet, marine biodiversity seemed to have run wild and I lost count of the number of different fish species.
In 2012, Wakatobi was listed as Indonesia’s 12th protected area to come under the umbrella of the World Network of Biosphere Reserves. Even a decade before this, the WWF had launched their ‘Coral Triangle Initiative’ here. The organisation remains very active in combating destructive fishing practices such as bombing and poison, and they work closely with the traditional communities to find alternative sustainable lifestyles that are not damaging to the environment.
To get an idea of the importance of the region that has been designated the Coral Triangle (which lies mostly in Indonesian waters), bear in mind that a full 750 of our planet’s 850 species of coral exist in this area. The Caribbean is considered one of the pinnacles for globe-trotting divers and yet it boasts a paltry 50 species of coral.
The legendary French diver Jacques Cousteau summed Wakatobi up as ‘an underwater Nirwana’. There is no record as to whether the pioneer of modern diving actually wept when he left.
Makassar to Bau-bau
Flight Time 55 minutes
Frequency 7 ﬂights per week
5 Senses – Taste
Don’t leave without sampling doughy and delicious kasuami, a light breadlike local speciality made from cassava. Found in every community across Wakatobi, it is best eaten either with spicy coto Makassar beef soup or tangy sour fish soup. Wanchi’s early-morning fish market is an unusually vibrant place to see a mind-boggling variety of the inhabitants of Wakatobi’s rich waters.