There has been an evolution in the heart of Southeast Sulawesi, transforming a hidden port into a modern city with iconic architecture nestled around a bay. Colours stopped by to witness the Kendari dynamic. A decade after my first visit, the face of Kendari has truly changed. Then, the views across most of the city consisted of flat and peaceful peatlands. Now, Kendari is awash with new colours. It’s like visiting somewhere totally different.

A few kilometres from the city’s Haluoleo Airport, my car passes two roundabouts with fighter planes decorating the central islands. “The first was a CASA aeroplane owned by the Indonesian navy, while the second was an F-16 owned by the Indonesian air force,” my driver Ahmad explains as we pass by. He often slips the particles mi, pi and ji into his sentences, a characteristic of his Sulawesi regional dialect.

There is no link between Kendari and the hustle and bustle of the military, however. These installations were put in place simply to beautify the capital of Southeast Sulawesi province. According to Ahmad, there is also an Indonesian army tank monument.

Out of all the monuments in Kendari, the one that grabs my attention the most is Tugu Religi (Religious Monument), located in the heart of the city. This landmark has a tower that is nearly 100m high; at first glance it looks a little like the Oriental Pearl Tower in Shanghai. Occupying a large area of land, Tugu Religi was built to mark a religious event in 2004, and the area is now busy every weekend with people involved in sports activities. “This place needed a regular event so that it didn’t end up neglected and redundant,” says Ahmad.

From the top of the Tugu Religi tower, there is a 360-degree panoramic view around Kendari city. To the east, there is a bay of calm water that reflects the sun’s rays, which is where we head next. We visit the southern part of the bay, occupied by the floating Al-Alam Mosque, which isn’t yet completely finished. As twilight approaches, the verses of Shalawat Tarhim invite people to partake in the evening prayer here. When I get close enough to see it, I realise that the minaret is a smaller-scale model of the Burj Al Arab tower in Dubai.

Al-Alam Mosque faces across the bay, where several hotels are lined up behind the Lahundape mangrove forest. The next morning, Ahmad takes me to the mangrove forest, which isn’t very big but is popular

as a tourist spot. A bridge is painted in bright colours and around it people in small boats fish for prawns. “At the mouth of the bay is a small island, Bungkutoko, and there the mangrove is larger and better enjoyed by residents, especially because it’s close to Nambo beach,” Ahmad explains.

We travel to Kasilampe, the narrowest point of the bay, which looks more like a canal. Cargo ships and passenger ferries are a common sight passing by.

We head to a high point for a better view across the bay. It’s especially beautiful when seen from the slopes of Mt Jati. While looking at the view across the hills, I try to imagine how the Dutch writer and cartographer Vosmaer made the first map of Kendari in 1831. A year later, on May 9, 1832, Vosmaer founded a palace near Kendari harbour for the leader of the local Tolaki people. May 9 is still celebrated here, marking the birth of the city.

Although it is not as large as Makassar or Manado, I can see that Kendari has the potential for rapid development. Since the day I arrived, I have been able to see the growth of this area, nicknamed ‘Lulo City’. There are recently opened wide roads and many commercial buildings, such as shops and offices, which are so new you can almost smell the paint.

The city has several shaded parks for people to relax in, such as Walikota Park, Teratai Park and Halu Oleo University Botanical Garden. These facilities will only thrive if they are brought to life by local communities. “Of course we need groups of musicians, literature enthusiasts, or any kind of art form, so that these parks are useful and draw in the younger generations,” Ahmad says.

Regarding the arts, Ahmad tells me that the city is home to a legendary handicraft called Kendari Werk. This is a local silversmithing craft that has grown and developed since the 1920s. The city once received a special order from Queen Elizabeth II for a Kendari Werk carriage.

Ahmad takes me to the Baruga area, to meet an old craftsman, Jaelani. He shows me the process of making Kendari Werk, which is quite complex because the silver must first be melted and then transformed into a thin metal wire. From this silver wire, he makes the frame of a model, and then embellishes it with fine motifs. “We call the frame a kerrawang. After it is assembled it must be rubbed until it shines,” he says earnestly.

The Kendari Werk craftspeople and craft centres are shrinking in number, because the process is considered difficult and time-consuming, not to mention that the market is slow. Ahmad thinks that it would be wise to use this special local product as the brand of Kendari. I quite agree.

Hoping to escape the city centre for a moment, I head to the Nipa-nipa Mountains, around 1.5 hours by vehicle from the city. This area is not well known, but it is enjoyed by nature lovers because the forest is still heavily protected. I meet two groups of visitors who have come to camp and enjoy the wildlife, which includes the endemic anoa buffalo, a kind of miniature water buffalo.

The forest in the Nipa-nipa Mountains has been part of the Murhum Forest Park since 1995. It is not difficult to explore the forest, especially for those who enjoy walking. On my trek I come to a stream of amazingly clear water; it is surrounded by primary forest trees, which have orchids (Diplocaulobium utile) growing in them. I also encounter the remains of a cannon, which could have belonged to the Dutch or the Japanese. A visit to this forest is unforgettable, not least because the Southeast Sulawesi area falls right in the middle of the Wallace Line, separating the Asian and Australasian ecozones.

The day before leaving Kendari, I plan to visit several small, white-sand-ringed islands close to the city. Unfortunately, the sky is cloudy all morning, so I decide to save this trip for my next visit. I am curious to come back and see how Kendari develops in the future. “Meu, modimbahi (Come, visit)…!” replies Ahmad as he waves me off at Haluoleo Airport.

From Travel Colours September 2018