Travelblog#24: Tomohon – Sulawesi, Indonesia

20th-23rd November, 2014

My time in Sulawesi was now drawing to a close, and me and my travel-buddy Roy had just parted ways: he was destined for Sri Lanka, whereas I still felt like I was not finished with Indonesia just yet, so I was heading for Sumatra.

Now a solo traveller, I had three days to wait for my flight. I decided to spend them in a little town called Tomohon.

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I stayed in a place called Volcano Resort, which was situated at the base of Mount Lokon and set around some very pretty gardens.

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So, I had: stunning views of the nearby volcano, a cabin all to myself, cool mountain air, and some peace and quiet (apart from the constant birdsong, but I didn’t mind that). The only thing that I was missing was some wheels.

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Which the very helpful lady running the resort kindly found for me.

Any visions I may have had of me seeming all man-like roaming around on a motorbike were squished when I asked for a crash helmet and was handed the Pink Power Ranger’s headgear.

Kimberly, I believe this belongs to you?

Kimberly, I believe this belongs to you?

But safely first, and all of that. The next morning I set off.

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My first destination was Mount Mahawu, which had a very impressive crater. I walked around the rim and was rewarded with a great panorama.

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I then made my way back down the mountain and got lost for a while. But in a good way: I roamed around lots of villages. The people were all very friendly and the hills were blanketed with farms and greenery.

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After eating a quick lunch at a warung, I then went to Linow Lake, which was a vivid green colour and had lots of bird life.

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I tried to walk a full circuit around it, but found myself having to turn back three-quarters of the way in by a rather obnoxiously placed fence. Not matter. I walked back around, and got onto my bike again.

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Tondano Lake was next, and it was rather large (10,500+ acres). I started driving around it and was shortly heckled by a group of ladies I am guessing were having a hen do. Maybe it was just all the arak they were drinking, but apparently fairly average-looking white guys wearing Pink Power Ranger helmets are desirable in this part of the world, because they were very insistent that they have their picture taken with me and there was much giggling and blushing.

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They tried to make me stay and drink with them, but I politely reminded them that I was driving and still had most of a lake to explore. I put my Pink Power Ranger helmet back on and started up the engine.

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Tondano Lake was very beautiful, and I passed through many small hamlets and villages along the way, stopping every now and then to take photos.

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In the late afternoon I finished my circuit and turned my bike back towards Tomohon. I got back just in time to make a quick visit to its infamous market, where pretty much anything with four legs was on the menu.

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I had planned to climb Mount Lokon the next day, but after making an enquiry I was warned that I would be doing so at my own risk because the volcano was currently active. It last erupted less than a month ago, and was smoking only yesterday.

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So I decided it would probably be wise to give it a miss. Instead, I spent a day relaxing in the lovely gardens at Volcano Resort, watching the birds, reading a book, writing this blog.

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Tomohon was a wonderful way to finish off my time in Sulawesi.

 

More photos can be found here.

Travelblog#23: Bunaken & Tangkoko Nature Reserve – Sulawesi, Indonesia

15th-20th November, 2014

The first thing I saw, as I waded out to sea, where lots of starfish scattered along the seabed.

Note: This photo was not taken by me. I lifted it off the internet.

Note: This photo was not taken by me. I lifted it off the internet.

And that was all I saw, for a while. I carried on swimming and eventually came across some corals, too, and a few little critters. None of it was anything particularly exciting or new to me, though: I had been in Indonesia for almost two months by this point and at least a third of that time had been spent by the sea. I had swum with manta rays, sharks, morays, dozens of turtles, the list goes on…

Just as I was beginning to think, “What is the big fuss about this Bunaken place?” I then caught a glimpse of some bright colours glistening in the blue ahead. I swam faster.

When I reached the ocean wall, the first thing that hit me was how striking the coral was. It was like a cliff edge in some kind of strange and beautiful alien world. It went so far down I couldn’t even see where the ocean floor was and there were hundreds of tiny fish in a whole variety of shapes and colours swimming around the face.

Note: This photo was, also, not taken by me and was lifted off the internet.

Note: This photo was, also, not taken by me and was lifted off the internet.

The second thing that hit me was a strong current, which abruptly began to pull me downstream. I fought it, trying to pull myself along the surface with breast-stroke.

I then noticed that between all the shoals of fish there were two figures ahead – fellow snorkelers, hanging on for dear life to a buoy attached by a rope. They were motioning for me to come join them.

I switched to front-crawl and swam hard, fighting the drift. Once I had reached them and safely grabbed hold of the rope, I pulled my head to the surface.

“Crazy currents, huh?” one of them said.

“Yep. It’s awesome down there, though,” I said, briefly dipping my mask beneath the water again.

They both nodded.

“You don’t have any fins!” one of them exclaimed, laughing.

“How long have you been here?” I asked.

“Two days,” he replied. “You?”

“Literally just got here. Is it all as good as this?”

“Pretty much.”

Nice… anyway, I am going to swim up there now,” I said. I thought I could feel the current weakening, and I definitely wanted to see more.

“Be careful, dude.”

I let go of the buoy, and swam off. It was hard work, but after a hundred meters or so the current eased.

I had never seen so many shoals of fish in my life, nor coral as abundant. Yeah, there weren’t any sharks or any other predators of note, but I swiftly realised that Bunaken doesn’t need larger creatures because it is more about the micro-life.

I swam all the way up to the northern peak of the island, and every span of the journey was spectacular and teeming with life. After completing what was probably the best snorkelling I had ever ventured out on, I retired back to by beach hut behind a small patch of mangroves.

I ended up staying on Bunaken Island for three days. On the final day Roy and I signed up for some scuba diving, but it was a bit disappointing. Firstly, because we didn’t really see anything else by going deeper because there were actually more fish nearer to the surface and, secondly; the dive outfit we were taken out with (Immanuel Divers) weren’t very professional (no buddy checks, very little guidance underwater, Roy’s depth gage didn’t work, as well as a few other things). We signed up for three dives, but Roy only completed one; I gave up after the second.

We left, and made our way to Tangkoko Nature Reserve.

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On our way there we passed through a town called Girian where by a stroke of fortune we bumped into Jenly, who just happened to own Tarsius Homestay which is situated just outside the park headquarters. He gave us a lift there and, along the way, told us many stories about the park, the creatures which lived there, and about how crew from the BBC Natural World series stayed with him while filming Meet the Monkeys.

When we arrived we were fed and told about all the different guided expeditions we could be taken out on. As well as all the jungle excursions there were also dolphin spotting tours being run by local fisherman. We were told that the dolphins nearly always turn up and sometimes, if you are lucky, you can even swim with them. Roy didn’t have time for this (as it meant staying for an extra day and he had a flight to Jakarta to catch) but I did.

Myself and the four other people were taken out on the boat the next day and were apparently very unlucky; there were no dolphins that morning. It was a shame but, if they did turn up, swimming with dolphins is probably an experience I would have remembered for the rest of my life. If you don’t ever take chances like that, you’ll miss out on some amazing experiences.

I arrived back from that rather disappointing tour with plenty of the day still left. So, what did I do?

Well there was a whole jungle just beyond the balcony of the place I was staying in…

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So I did something a little bit naughty, and snuck in.

I thought that because I didn’t have a guide who knew their way around the place there wasn’t much chance of me finding anything too exciting. I saw a few birds, lizards, and a black squirrel.

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I wasn’t at all expecting to stumble upon these guys.

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Celebes crested black macaques. They are indigenous to Sulawesi only, and now, thanks to the destruction of most of their natural habitat and poaching by locals, on the red list of endangered species.

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It was pretty awesome to see them, but they were a rather large group (there were many more in the trees around me) and it made me all too aware that I was alone in the jungle. I soberly made my way back to Tarsius Homestay, sat on the balcony with a Bintang, and read a book while listening to the jungle.

The following morning I woke up at 4 am, got dressed, sprayed myself with plenty of repellent, and went to meet the others for our jungle trek.

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Jenly was taking us out himself, and also with him was Untu, a bird specialist.

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It was still dark when we set out, so we walked by torchlight. We got to hear the dawn chorus and even saw a few tarantulas along the way, but they all crawled back into their tree-holes before I could snap a picture of them. By the time it was light we reached a tree where the tarsiers come home to roost after a long night of hunting insects.

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When we had finished admiring and taking photos of them, Jenly went off on his own to see if he could find out where the monkeys were while Untu took us bird-spotting. He found a red-backed thrush, which is something we were quite lucky to see.

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It was a bit too far away to get a decent picture of with my camera. I tried to get a little bit closer but it flew away.

The hornbills were probably the highlight of the entire day for me. We found about five of them, in all, and they were amazing creatures. Whenever they flew you would hear a great whoosh-whoosh as their wings beat against the wind, and the sounds they made when they opened their beaks was like nothing I have ever heard.

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We also came across a pair of cuscuses, but they were sleeping and could only be seen with a pair of binoculars. They were far too high in the treetops for me to take a photograph. The same was true for the woodpeckers and some of the other species of bird we spotted with Untu’s binoculars.

Time seemed to fly by very quickly in Tangkoko; before we knew it we looked at our watches and realised that we had been there for over six hours and it was time to head back. We found another group of the macaques on our way out though, which was a great relief to the four other people I was trekking with who had not seen them yet.

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I then went back to my room, showered, packed my bags, and got ready to begin a new chapter of my journey. After over three months of travelling together, mine and Roy’s paths had now been destined for different directions; he was heading to Sri Lanka, and I, to Sumatra. From this point on, unless I click with someone who just happens to be on the same route as me, I will be a solo traveller until I reach Taiwan.

More photos from Tangkoko can be found on my Flickr account.

Travelblog#22: The Togians – Sulawesi, Indonesia

5th-13th November, 2014

The backpacking scene is quite well networked these days. During my time on the road I have made lots of friends – from both this trip, and the one I went on a few years ago – and many of them I am still in touch with via Facebook, email and Skype. Occasionally my path will cross with one of theirs again but, even if it doesn’t, it is still interesting to find out where they wind up on their journey.

One of the benefits of this networking between travellers is the sharing of information. When we notice that others are about to venture to an area we have already been to we will often throw tips to each other. A cheap hostel to stay in, perhaps; or a one of those “travellers’ secrets” (places that are played down or barely mentioned in the Lonely Planet, often purposefully and/or by request); or, more often, somewhere that is in the guide book, but we just want to make sure they are going see it.

Such was the case when I reached Sulawesi: I received a stream of private messages and Facebook comments. “Go to the Togians!” they said. “Are you going to the Togians?” “You HAVE to go to the TOGIANS!”

So, we went to the Togians.

Kate was, sadly, no longer with us: her spider-bite which we thought was healing got infected again so she was told she would not be allowed to swim nor hike for a while and – as that is pretty much all there is to do in Sulawesi – she decided her time might be better spent in an area with attractions which are easier to access and had better hospitals, such as Bali, or Java.

So it was back down to the original duo again; me and Roy.

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The journey to the Togians took almost three days, in all. I won’t bore you with too many details. There was a stomach churning bus through south-Sulawelian mountains (Roy threw up, I merely felt nauseous), followed by a night in a dingy hotel in Poso. Then, in the morning, we hopped onto another bus, this time along the coast, to Ampana, where we had an afternoon to relax before we caught the boat.

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In the early evening, just as it was getting dark, we arrived on Malenge Island.

We didn’t have much time other than to claim a bungalow each at Lestari Cottages (where we were stayed) and eat dinner that night. In the morning we finally saw the place in the daylight and realised that it was paradise.

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Lestari Cottages is perched on the narrow straight between the joining of a small peninsular to the rest of the island. One side of the resort opens out to a stunning sandy beach, dotted with grass and trees.

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Walking through to the other side of the decked out restaurant area brings you out into a small lagoon.

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We swiftly found out that the owners of Lestari Cottages also own a small canoe which is free for guests to use so, on our first day there, we commandeered it and rowed out to a nearby Bajo village.

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The Bajo (also referred to as “sea gypsies”) are the oldest inhabitants of the Togians, and many of them still live in villages built on stilts over the reef.

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Many of them are even said to possess evolutionary adaptations, such as changes to the muscles of their eyes to help them see clearer underwater and bodies which are more efficient at conserving oxygen (indeed, when Roy snorkelled out this way a day later, a boy swam out to meet him and, without any mask, fins, or breather, was ducking beneath the surface, holding his breath, opening his eyes, and swimming around with a grace which put Roy’s own efforts to shame).

They were very friendly and enthusiastic, and happy to show us around their village. The children kept asking us to take photos of them so they could stare in wonder at the screen, and never at any point did any of them ask us for money, or ”gula” (sugar), like many of the kids on the mainland (who live comparatively much more comfortable and modern lives) have been trained to.

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I stocked up on some snack foods at a small shop and was quoted prices which were much lower than I what people often try to charge foreigners on the mainland. By the time we got back onto our canoe and began rowing back, I realised that these sea gypsies were possibly the happiest and most honest of the people I have met in Indonesia so far.

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Much of the exploration we did around Malenge was below the water. We didn’t see big creatures such as sharks or turtles, but the micro-life was spectacular and the coral was some of the healthiest and most intact that I have ever seen. One afternoon I simply jumped into the water and followed the coral gardens along the coast until I reached a mangrove forest a couple of hours later. When I emerged from the water a sighting of a pale snake slithering in the shallows put me off exploring, as I was barefoot and wearing only my swimming trunks, so instead, I just sat there for a while and rested while enjoying the sounds of the birds.

I am not one of those flashy travellers who owns a GoPro, I’m afraid, so I have no photos. You’ll just have to take my word for it.

Birds were another attractive feature on this island. The lagoon was a great place to lounge in a hammock and watch them fly by, and bright green parakeets were a fairly common sighting. Roy and I also went on a walk through the jungle early one morning and spotted some other interesting species which we couldn’t name. We were past the Wallace Line by this point, so much of the fauna was unfamiliar to us.

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The rest of our time in Malenge was spent relaxing: reading books, playing chess, laying in the shallows of the water, and staring out at the sea. We were tempted to stay there much, much longer, but there was more of the Togians to explore so, almost reluctantly, we left on the fifth day.

Sorry Tioman, you are now my second favourite island in the world.

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We went to Kadidiri next. We were a little bit underwhelmed by the location: the sandy cove, with three different resorts to choose from, was nice, but it didn’t have a spot on Malenge.

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Or maybe Roy and I have been a bit spoilt recently, when it comes to islands and beaches.

Kadidiri is, however, – with its larger population of tourists – a much better location for booking tours and venturing out to places. On our first day there Amal (the son of the family were staying with) look us on a free trip to nearly Taipi Island for some snorkelling.

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We also ended up visiting a lake nearby which had a very unique eco-system; it was absolutely full of stingless jellyfish, and many other curious creatures.

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We swam around for a while with our snorkels. I ended up spending much of my time childishly swishing my hands around and, without touching them, casting the jellyfish off in different directions with the waves I created.

“Feeling powerful, Tej?” Roy asked me, lifting his head up from the water and removing his snorkel.

“Yes.”

He ended up doing the same thing for a while, and discovered its rather addictive quality. I have since named this art “Jellyfish Kinesis”.

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Click here for more photos from the Togians.