Indonesia p1: North Sulawesi

Written by on May 18, 2013 in Asia, General with 1 Comment

Upon arrival in Indonesia on May 2, I spent a fun-filled 4 nights of partying in Seminyak, Bali with my friend Jess, who’d flown in from Kuala Lumpur for a long weekend getaway.  She’s been coming to Bali for years and had a couple friends with villas that let us stay with them which was an awesome way to kick-start my Southeast Asia grand finale!  Thanks to Fio for his amazing hospitality, and to Jess for coming down to hang and show me around!  In all honesty, the weekend is a bit of a blur, but I know we had a lot of fun and I’ll leave it at that 🙂

On Sunday night, I met up with Eliza, a friend I’d met diving in Borneo.  She’d been in Indonesia for a month, but was interested in heading to some far flung dive spots and we figured it’d be more fun, safe and cheap to travel together.  So, instead of following the normal Bali-Gili T-Komodo path, I’m saving that for last.  It was nice to catch up again and we made a plan to meet at the airport tomorrow for our flight to Manado, a city at the far NE corner of Sulawesi, one of the four Greater Sunda islands and the eleventh largest island in the world.  We landed in Manado late and the dark streets looked and felt really sketchy, especially by our hotel which was by the harbor, and I was immediately glad Eliza and I had teamed up.

Our hotel was nothing to write home about, and the AC was broke, but it was right on the harbor and in the morning we were going to go haggle with a fisherman to take us across the 30 minutes by boat to Bunaken Island.


We were pleasantly surprised when we were quoted a price below the market rate and immediately took it.  We grabbed our bags and in less than an hour we were pulling up to our home for the next several days, the Sea Garden Resort.  It was situated on a mangrove with no real beach, and it was low tide, so the boat couldn’t get any closer than about 100 meters out.  Luckily there were 2 guys in the boat that could help with our bags as I was afraid I might drop mine in the water as the bottom wasn’t flat and I could visualize myself tripping on a star fish or something!   This was definitely the most adventurous approach to a hotel of the trip so far.


We decided on our guesthouse because the reviews were good, it was a smaller family run place, and it was the cheapest place we could find with a dive shop. It was a cute place, and they had some really nice touches throughout the property.


We paid the price in other ways, though, as they didn’t have electricity running between between 9am-5pm and that first day was smoking hot and really humid.  We had no idea it would be low tides in the hottest part of the afternoon or that there would be so much trash in the water, making it kind of gross to swim in shallow water, so there was really no way to cool off.  This gave us a perfect reason to join the afternoon dive!

Bunaken is part of a marine reserve that is well known for its visibility (which apparently reaches 35 meters plus, although we experienced more like 15 meters), it’s great wall diving (which came nowhere near to Sipadan in Borneo), and an abundance of coral and fish.  I think Eliza and I have both become very spoiled diving the best sites in SE Asia, so we weren’t wow’d.  But, it was “good” diving relative to most people’s standards.

That said, I saw my first pygmy sea horse here…this little guy is a little bigger than your thumbnail and there’s no way I wouldn’t have seen it without the aid of our guide.


And I saw my first black ghost pipe fish, which our dive guide knew exactly where to find.


And we saw over a dozen turtles.  Maybe two dozen, even. This one was just chilling out in this massive sponge when we came drifting by.


On our second and third day, it rained a bit in the afternoon, so at least it wasn’t so unbearable to hang out in the afternoons.  And we saw some pretty rainbows 🙂


We met a really nice group of people, which always makes it fun.  On our last night, they had a little party where the owner bought a large bottle of captikus, a liquor made from palm trees which tasted really nasty, but was making everyone happy 🙂  The local guys were up for a party and then a band formed, with one on the ukelele, the main singer also played acoustic guitar, one on a make-shift bass and then they grabbed the guests to help play drums and with the tambourines.


It turned into a full sing-song, with a group of 60 something Australians leading the charge with old songs like “Waltzing Matilda”.  I think they were off-key all night, but it was charming and turned into a fun night for those of us that stayed up.

The next day we’d arranged a transfer through Two Fish Divers, the shop that was next door to our resort and who we decided to dive with in Lembeh, which was about 3 hours by boat-shuttle-boat away.  The transfer went smoothly, and took us through Bitung, an industrial city on the shores of the Lembeh Straits, where we’d be “muck diving” for the next 3 days. Much diving is exactly what it sounds like.  It’s scuba diving along black sandy slopes that lots of interesting and hard to find critters, some that are not found anyplace else in the world.  The dive sites in Lembeh are generally sand, rock, muck, or rubble, but there are a couple sites with nice corals and walls.

I didn’t think I’d like muck diving, but I actually loved it.  How could I not, when I saw such incredible creatures?  And, the black sand makes for a better backdrop for pictures.  The octopi were super-cool to watch.  This one is a coconut octopus.


An even better spot was this blue ringed octopus, which is highly poisonous.


You can see how small he is compared to the photographer’s hand…and why he was such an awesome find!


I think the coolest of all was the wonderpus, which changed colors from a dull brown to this brilliant white and black before he started to slither gracefully across the black sandy bottom.  Looks even cooler in the video.


Here’s a cartoonish looking mantis shrimp.  I’ve seen these in a few other dive spots, but never this colorful.  I later saw one that was completely white, which was cool too.


Every dive I saw 10-20 new underwater critters that were weird and interesting and mostly found in the Lembeh Straits.   It was like a treasure hunt, and on every dive we were trying to top the number of crazy things we’d seen on the previous dive.  Forget turtles, sharks and rays.  We were searching for crazy, funky stuff like this hairy frog fish.  Isn’t he cute?!?


I think this porcupine fish is much cuter.


He looks like he could be a Pixar character, right?  In fact, I’m now convinced that many monster and alien movie directors got a lot of their ideas from under the sea.  Check out this creepy sea cucumber.


Or this golden cuttle fish.


Or how about this spiny devil fish?


Some of these critters looked more like reptiles or bugs, than fish.  This young flying gunard is an example.


Or how about this dragonet?


It’s no wonder the fish and critters are so weird here as we were diving in the sea in front of this.


The water was pretty disgusting, and the majority of dives were just trolling along the black sandy bottom to see what lives there.  Nothing a shower or two won’t wash off!   I really enjoyed muck diving and will have to check out where else is a good spot to try it.  But, diving everyday was wearing on my wallet and is not very “cultural”, so I said goodbye to my new friends, and to Eliza who was headed to Cambodia to meet up with a boy, and headed up to Tangkoko Park to see if I’d have any luck finding any tarsiers on a night walk through the forest.

I rode in a pickup truck sitting on a plank above the bed of the truck about 30 kms up a hill through gorgeous stretches of nothing but palm trees.


Cost ~ $1.  The truck dropped me off at Mama Roos’s homestay, which had inflated prices, bad food, buggy rooms and no power.  But, there wasn’t much choice in Tangkoko.  Some locals were hanging out in front playing guitar and singing, so I grabbed a beer joined them until it was time to go on my night walk.  I was the only one who showed up for the walk, and my guide later informed me that during low season, which is now, they get about 10 visitors a day.  I was number 9 that day.  Crazy!

We walked one way and saw a bunch of the black macquacque monkeys before I informed my guide I was much more interested in seeing tarsiers, the smallest primate, which would fit on the palm of your hand.  I missed them in Borneo, and skipped going to a sanctuary in the Philippines, so this was my chance!  Little did I know that they hang out in very specific giant silk trees and aren’t that tough to find if you go at the right time, which I did 🙂  We saw 5 of them that night, a family of three, and then these 2 cuties.


They were soooo adorable!  Like little furbies or what was the name of the cartoon character?   I wanted to take one home with me!  Unfortunately, after he found the second set, my guide really couldn’t be bothered about the tarsiers and kept asking me stuff like “would I like an Indonesian boyfriend?”, “what do I think of Indonesian guys”, and just kept insinuating that I should be interested in him.  He was a stocky guy that was about 5’1″.  I kept trying to deflect, but started getting a little nervous since I was alone in a forest with him and didn’t even have a flashlight.  Now the fact that I was only the 9th guest of the day was not striking such a nice chord.  I’m sure he was harmless, but he definitely ruined the high I got from watching the cute little guys and I did everything I could to get him to get me out of that park.  Ugh.  I HATE THAT.

When I was in Bunaken, I joined the 60 something Aussie guys on a trip to the village, where a bunch of guys had an impromptu street party on the corner when the Aussie’s asked to buy a few beers.  That type of thing is just not possible as a solo female traveler, and honestly even if it were me and Eliza, it would have been different.  I met another Aussie guy in Lembeh who had just traveled through Papua and had an amazing experience.  I asked him how safe it would be for me and if I could repeat his trip.  He strongly advised against me even going to Papua in a guided trip, much less by myself.  Ugh.

Anyway, I got back to my homestay ok and made it very clear that I wanted the guy to scram, which he thankfully did, but not before asking me a dozen times if I wanted to go the beach with him.  Are you kdding me?!?

I met a French family in the guesthouse who was headed in my direction the next day, so arranged to share a taxi with them en route to Tomohon, a town with a couple volcanoes and pretty terraced rice fields.


I took a walk up to the edge and around some of the crater of Mount Mahawu (inactive) to get a better look at Mount Lokon in the distance, which you’re not allowed to climb as it’s still quite active.


We also stopped at a really interesting Minahasa cemetery, where people were buried and encapsulated in stone sarcophogi called waruga in a seated position with their arms wrapped around their knees.  Some of the waruga were decorated to show who or what family was inside.  The entrance had a stone mural showing an entire scene of how the waruga was made and then how the bodies were eventually placed inside.


Here are some of the actual waruga in the cemetery.


That afternoon I was going to stay up in Tomohon, but decided to head down to Manado to see if I could catch up with my new dive friends Alex, Stefan and Andrea.  It was great to catch up with them one last time.  We were all sick of rice dishes and agreed that we should hit up the Pizza Hut we’d seen signs for on the way into town.  I can’t remember the last time it’s tasted so good!   I guess I missed Western food more than I thought.

I flew out of Manado early this morning to a small town called Sorong on the Northwest side of Papua, where I’ll be picked up tomorrow morning by a boat to head to Raja Ampat for a week of diving.  Stay tuned for pictures/stories!

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  1. Christopher Fain says:

    I don’t know what furbies are, but those things look like Gremlins to me. You should have put some water on them to Gremlin-test them.

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