Our plane made its final descent over the island of Sulawesi, verdant green forests stretching for as far as we could see. The runway was lined with palm trees, contrasting vividly against the sky’s blueness and the wisps of white cloud.
A man named Frank greeted us and we embarked upon the two hour drive to our homestay. For the first time, instead of enclosing ourselves in an air conditioned bubble, inching along in fumey traffic, we wound down the windows and sped through the countryside with the wind in our hair, enjoying the 90s classics blaring from the car’s stereo. The driver honked his horn frequently to say I’m here! as he wound unexpectedly carefully along the forest roads that had steep drops on one side or both.
Unlike Java, Sulawesi (at least here in the North) is a Christian land, first hinted at by the Christmas decorations here and there (yes, in August)! The huge, imposing mosques were exchanged for huge, imposing churches – an alarming number of them in fact, with one every couple of hundred metres. Many had ornate, pristine three-storey façades but behind were bare, roofless breeze blocks as if funds had run out during construction. As it was Sunday, now and then we passed one buzzing with worshippers in their best clothes but the rest stood empty.
Our ‘homestay’ (one of only a handful situated around the entrance of Tangkoko National Park) was a bit of a disappointment. The name, Mama Roos, had implied a warm, welcoming matriarch and some home comforts but alas, it wasn’t to be! Instead of spending the afternoon in our uninspiring room, we took a walk to the nearby village which turned out to be a lovely experience. The people were friendly and responded with smiles when we greeted them with selamat sore!
We took a peek at the beach of black sand and then wandered around the village trying, unsuccessfully, to snap photographs of skittish piglets. Turning a corner, we saw a gathering of children playing up ahead. We waved and smiled. They took one look at my camera still hanging around my neck and charged over, posing to have their picture taken. We exchanged names as we showed them the photographs which were met with utter delight!
One picked a flower for me and the rest followed. Encouraged by our laughter, I soon had a whole bouquet! Hysterics ensued as the joker of the group, a little boy of about five, instead began presenting me with leaves and sticks, looking up at me with a mischievous grin each time.
We attempted to wander on but the kids had other ideas. They wanted to give us a tour of their village.Giggling, some of the little boys hung precariously off Dean’s shorts and pulled him along by his hand whilst a quieter girl walked with me, pointing out the papaya trees, ayam (chickens) and their sekolah (school) to me – our only mutually understood words.
Excitedly, some of the children dashed into their houses, returning with equally smiley mums who were insistent on photographs with me, Dean or both of us on their camera phones. This is becoming quite a defining feature of this trip actually which we’re finding quite bizarre!
I doubt the full extent of this experience is captured by my words and perhaps you had to be there, but it was definitely one of the most genuine, pure, joy-filled experiences we’ve ever had on our wanderings. So often photographs are left untaken because they are unwanted or followed by a request for money or sweets. So to be welcomed and swept along by such innocence, communicating with only the universal language of laughter was truly special.
The next day was an early start. We met our guide, Edgar, and headed into the forest for a five hour trek. It wasn’t too hot but it was incredibly humid so we were soon drenched. The tall trees created a canopy way above our heads. Armies of ants made their motorways over anything that stayed still long enough. Butterflies and dragonflies flitted about their business. Scrawny squirrels darted up trees out of sight. Brightly coloured spiders lay in wait on their webs, stretched between two trees, usually at head height. Dean adopted his tried and tested method for spider-in-face-avoidance: continually waving a stick back and forth in front of him. I used my tried and tested method: walking in Dean’s footsteps!
Birds don’t just chirp and sing in this kind of forest, they cackle, chortle, wail eerily, wolf whistle, whoop and bark. Yes, the sound of a hornbill – one of the day’s star attractions – could easily be mistaken for a dog. And its wings sound like a small helicopter. We saw and heard several but this was our best sighting: a male returning to his mate and their nest of babies.
We also saw some woodpeckers.
I’m not sure I’d even heard of a cuscus before this trip but they were one of the main goals of the walk. Good old Edgar, hacked new paths through the undergrowth in order to get us this view of a couple, way high up in a tree. I’ve no idea how he spotted them! They’re odd things which move incredibly slowly, have the body of a bear but with a tail and the face of a koala. Here is a website with better pictures!
The highlight of the walk was meeting a hundred-strong troop of critically endangered black crested macaques. Staying with them awhile, we watched them variously stroll, bounce, swing and play-fight past us, occasionally causing us to dodge liquid deluges from above! (Dark animal + dark forest + distracted photographer = you may need to put your screen brightness up for these!)
Tiny babies clung to their mothers; mischievous adolescents made daring leaps between branches and slid down slender tree trunks; some paused to nibble on juicy berries; others seemed to pose for photographs shouting what sounded very much like hello;and at one point the muscular dominant male stalked past, calm, collected and in charge. It was an ideal situation because they were comfortable enough around humans that they didn’t run away but wary enough that there was no chance of them approaching us.
This guy was my favourite – so full of expression!
Later that afternoon, we returned to the National Park for another two hour walk, this time to find tarsiers. They’re tiny marsupials with disproportionately large eyes and look a lot like Yoda. They are nocturnal and like to sleep in giant fig trees in the daytime. By 5pm, they’re just beginning to awaken in readiness for their night of hunting. After checking a few trees in the fading light, Edgar eventually found a little tarsier family. There must be a limited number of trees in the nearby area where they’re likely to be found because after a little while there were several other people there. Some of the guides placed crickets (with a leg removed so they would not escape) on a branch to coax the tarsiers out whilst another held a torch and we tourists pressed our shutter buttons. So not the most natural, wholesome experience but it was still fascinating to see them dart away from the tree, their tiny hands gripping the bright green cricket, then their tail whip around as they returned to their holes to munch on their breakfast. I didn’t really have the right equipment to photograph high up tiny creatures in the near-dark so this is the best I’ve got!
Leaving Tangkoko, we returned to Manado and headed to the harbour where we were met by a boat and taken 45 minutes to the island of Bunaken.
On arrival at Froggies dive resort we received a warm welcome and a cold glass of guava juice. Their motto is ‘the laziest dive experience ever’. It was definitely one of the most relaxing and most luxurious diving experiences we’ve ever enjoyed with our own thatched bungalow and verandah, delicious and varied family-style meals three times a day (not just the fried rice and fried noodles we’d existed on thus far), a free laundry service, all our dive equipment set up and ready to use and very friendly, easy-going staff who even busk a little during dinner! Someone even put my fins on for me before each dive as I struggled to bend down whilst kitted up!
Many people spend a week or more here but we only had a day so we made it a busy one with two dives in the morning and then a night dive too. Our dive guide was an American called Nat who runs the centre with his wife. He made the whole experience very fun and we appreciated not being rushed into the water as we have been on some occasions.
Unfortunately our underwater camera met an untimely death on a previous dive so I have no photos to share. During the day dives, on some colourful coral reefs, the highlight was loads of green turtles (and my first ever hawksbill!) – sleeping, swimming, eating and just hanging out. But, in addition to these and loads of the usual colourful reef fish, we also saw giant trevally, plenty of nudibranch, a clown trigger fish, lion fish and pipefish. At the end of one dive, we were completely enveloped by schools of red-toothed trigger fish, sergeant major fish and some kind of wrasse. Usually schools swim away but these just allowed us to stay amongst them. Pretty cool!
Dean’s photo from the dive boat:
The night dive was excellent. In a way, the reef’s corals, sponges and anemones are actually more colourful at night because your torch reintroduces the light, and therefore the colours, that normally disappear the deeper you go. Most fish seen in the day time were hidden inside rocks sleeping although we still caught ocasional glimpses of them if we searched. We even saw a few turtles, one of which swam past me so close I could have touched it!
Night time is a whole new world. Tiny pairs of orange glowing shrimp eyes watch you from rock crevices. The green eyes of spiny lobsters flash and then disappear. Translucent jelly fish float around. A huge range of crabs emerge including long-necked crabs and crabs in all kinds of colours. But the best types are decorator crabs – which stick various other creatures onto themselves so they’ll grow there and become a disguise – and sponge crabs who use some special extra legs to pick up a big sponge and hold it over themselves but still scuttle about as if to say I can’t see you so you can’t see me!
That wasn’t all though. After about 30 minutes of exploring, Nat turned off our torches. Once our eyes adjusted to the darkness we could see millions of tiny bioluminescent specks of plankton. Not only that but, waving your arms around, as if in possession of a magic wand, activated even more bioluminescence which danced and twirled in front of us. It really felt like some kind of magic!
Then for the slightly nerve-wracking part of the dive: we swam in the darkness (aside from the plankton) for about 10 minutes! I don’t understand how we managed to avoid getting lost or colliding with the reef wall but we came out unscathed!
I also discovered that it’s possible to scream underwater during this dive! I must have disturbed or confused a sea cucumber whilst swimming beneath a rocky overhang because it fell right onto my head and really made me jump!
I’ll leave you with a few more photos from our wanderings around Bunaken. Next time, Papua!