Maybe I should start by answering the question “where is Sulawesi”. Among the 6000 inhabited islands of Indonesia, lies Sulawesi, one of the country’s largest. Announcing we were off to explore Sulawesi, my friends and I all got the same puzzled reaction: “Oh, how lovely… What’s in Sulawesi?” To be honest, I wasn’t quite sure when we left. I had read a couple of thing here and there, but it was a big question mark to me as well.
So here’s is what I found on the island of Sulawesi
1. Jaw dropping landscapes
Mist rolling over hills and valleys, tiny motorways crossing vast plains of rice fields, rugged cliffs, jungles, volcanoes, beaches… Diverse landscapes lending themselves perfectly for hikes and motorbike rides.
2. Tana Toraja- remarkable culture and architecture
Land of the Torajan people. Emerge yourself in the fascinating culture of the Toraja in the southern half of the island. Torajans welcome guests to discover their unique culture and beliefs. I know the word “unique” is often used too loosely to describe pretty much anything, but if there was ever a correct description for this culture, unique would be the one! I found their “death-centric way of life” particularly interesting.
3. Gorgeous deserted islands
The Togean islands for example… If you keep in mind the effort to get there- we drove and sailed for 2 days, non-stops- it will not come as a shock that there is no phone or internet connection on the tiny islands. Great as a digital detox or just a relaxing few days of beach, snorkel, eat, sleep, repeat.
4. A dark side
As mentioned above, death is everywhere around you in Southern Sulawesi. Not in creepy, dangerous way, but as a natural, celebrated part of life. Every now and then you stumble upon a collection of century old bones and coffins. Bodies are buried in cliffs and caves, skeletons are given cigarettes and money. Sometimes I imagined myself on the set of a gothic music video.
5. Top notch underwater scenery
Prepare to redefine your perception of colour… Some of the brightest, most colourful coral and fish can be found in Sulawesi. Despite the years of dynamite fishing in the area, there is still a considerable amount of intact coral. The fishes’ patterns, textures and colour schemes inspire a mental creation of a new wardrobe. Such a pity I’m not a designer!
For the experienced who have had their share of coral gazing and would like to see a different kind of marine habitat, the Lembeh straight offers some world class muck diving opportunities. Snorkel in Bunaken, muck dive in Lembeh and dive around the Togean islands.
If you ask me, they are the cutest primates on this planet. Sulawesi houses tarsiers in two of their national parks. We tracked them down with a guide at the crack of dawn in Tangkoko National Park. My nine year old self gave me a big “high five” for seeing them in real life… Childhood dreams come true!
7. A new cuisine to try out
The cuisine in Sulawesi has its own personality. Sure, you can find your typical “mie goreng” or “nasi campur”, but an abundance of traditional dishes are waiting to be sampled. Vegetarians/vegans beware: Sulawesi dishes are heavy in meats or fish, so you’ll have a hard time finding something other than rice to eat- the rice is exquisite though. I tried “pa’piong”, a Torajan speciality: meat (or fish) with vegetables and traditional black spice, slow cooked in a bamboo tube over an open fire. Incredibly strong and distinct flavours!
8. Jellyfish lake
On the Togean islands you will find a lake full of stingless colourful jellyfish. You can swim with them, observe them while snorkelling. There are supposedly only three lakes in the world where this is possible! The jellyfish have no natural predators in those waters therefore they’ve lost their traditional defence mechanism, which makes them harmless to you, swimmer. It’s a magnificent experience. I quote my dear husband: “it’s like swimming in a lake full of boobs”.
9. A Buffalo and Pig market
Admittedly, this is a rather strange attraction, but definitely worth a visit. I was so impressed I could hardly think. The noises, the smells, the fact that everyone else seemed so much at ease while I was fearing for my life (not really)… I find it enriching to challenge my views of what is “acceptable behaviour”, in this case behaviour towards cattle. Again, maybe not a good idea for vegetarians/vegans…
10. Beautiful national parks, home to endangered species: crested black macaque
There are many national parks with impressive fauna and flora. One of the parks is home to the critically endangered crested black macaque. I must say, I had no idea how bad the situation was. These apes are literally on the verge of extinction, even more so than tigers, orang utans or rhinos!
11. Fantastic coffee
The plantations lie in the Torajan highlands and produce a coffee bean that is good enough to be internationally distributed as ‘gourmet coffee’. The premium beans can hardly be found in the rest of the country, they are reserved for export, but we found a restaurant that was serving premium Torajan coffee (Cafe Aras in Rantepao). WOW! If you can’t make it to Sulawesi, why not try a cup of their coffee in your country?
Things to keep in mind
Sulawesi is not a cheap destination. Transportation is either extremely uncomfortable or pricey. Prices for meals are slightly higher than in Java or in Bali. If you are planning on diving, which is recommended, don’t forget to include that in your budget as well. Most dives are priced at 30US$. Accommodation on the smaller islands start at 20US$ per person, not per room (!) and include three meals.
To travel in Sulawesi means to wait around a lot. Slow travel is key if you want to see the island. The attractions are scattered around, which creates “dead days” between two attractions; days of travel or waiting for a connection. Take your time or travel by plane. There are 6 airports on the islands: Makassar (South) and Manado (North) being the biggest ones.
Had I known what I know now, I would have brought to the islands: a frisbee or a ball, a bottle of quality rum to make cocktails which are not served in Togean and extremely expensive in Bunaken. I would have brought more reading material– one novel wasn’t enough and some good snacks from the mainland– I was often hungry before dinner was served and got tired of eating the cookies from the only shop on the island.
Have you heard of Sulawesi as a tourist destination? Would you consider going?