The hidden gem of
One of the most extraordinary islands in the entire South East Asian region with top exotic and cultural encounters.
Oh, Sulawesi… what a wonderful exotic name for an island that is truly one of the most remote regions of South East Asia. Sulawesi is quite likely also the world’s most strangely shaped island: a clash between old continental plates has lifted Sulawesi from the sea floor to form four large, odd-shaped peninsulas that makes the island look like a giant 1200 km long octopus.
1200 km in length makes Sulawesi a vast island. Grab an atlas and study its size. It’s the 11th largest island on the planet – larger than Cambodia and 2/3 the size of the Philippines.
No wonder it took us more than five weeks to cross the entire island from northeast to southwest. Sulawesi’s four peninsulas reach towards Borneo, the Philippines, Maluku and the islands of Flores and Sumbawa in the south. In the middle, the peninsulas collide to form a central mountain range and spectacular landscapes with wild highlands and smoking volcanoes, tropical jungle, deep green lakes, and leveled rice fields surrounded by several smaller coral island archipelagos.
Location: Sulawesi in Indonesia, during 5 weeks
Our journey started in the top of the archipelago nearest the Philippines, in Mindanao, near the Tomohon highlands where locals eat dog and rat for lunch, and near the fabled Bunakan reefs, one of the best diving spots on the planet. We continued by jeepney, 4x4 and ferryboat to the Togian Islands and from there towards the central mountain chains at firstly Poso Lake and secondly the Tana Toraja highlands. Our journey ended in Makassar at the bottom of the peninsula pointing at Flores.
Sulawesi is spectacularly exotic. Volcanoes fume above its rain forests and we did several splendid ascents. Tradition hasn't lost its grip and indigenous tribal customs such as necro-centric Toraja funerals occur throughout July and August. Attending one of these funeral celebrations is a macabre privilege that we really enjoyed. Vanilla and pepper plants scented the air of highland villages while we were exploring limestone cliff dolls of the deceased, the so-called tau-tau statues. And we found some of the world's greatest marine diversity accessible just offshore in the volcanic archipelagos in the Celebes Sea as well as the in the Gulf of Tomini. We saw many of the canyons, cliffs, and deep coral shelves, prized by divers the world over.
If you love Indonesia see also our island pages on the Togian Islands inside the Sulawesi archipelago, Bali & Lombok or our page on hunting volcanoes across the archipelago. Also, the island of Mindanao in the deep south of the Philippines is rather close to Sulawesi.
Selected pics during our encounter:
A clash between old continental plates has lifted Sulawesi from the sea floor to form four large, odd-shaped peninsulas that makes the island look like a giant 1200 km long octopus or perhaps a drunken spider.
Beneath several volcanoes sits Tomohon, a fascinating city in Northern Sulawesi. It is much cooler here than on the coast and we spent several days here exploring the village and area. We climbed several volcanoes including Gunung Lokon (1.850m - shown in the picture) and Gunung Klabat (2.022m). The picture was taken from the Gunung Mahawu volcanic crater rim (1400m) during a hike.
We reached Tara Tara village by feet from Tomohon and it is part of the highlandes. There was an interesting but small market there. Outside Tara Tara village we saw several hot springs, caves and pretty waterfalls. Tincep waterfall was especially nice.
We continued south of the Tomohon Highlands near the coast and spent a few days at Lake Tondano where we did several smaller hikes in the area. There are several tiny fishing villages where small warungs serve fresh fish from the lake, as well as caves, mineral springs and public baths. The local fishers were quite talkative and our very basic Bahasa Indonesia skills was tested. Selamat Jalan!
The Tomohon day market was a truely exotic experience where we saw several exotic animals for sale, including bats, dogs, rats, cats, birds, monkeys and snakes.
The sight of a dog being clubbed to death and then burned is not for those with weak stomachs. It is however part of daily life and a cultural aspect for the locals oa truely exotic village where rat, dog and cat is served for lunch and dinner.
Gunung Klabat is easily the highest peak on the northern peninsula of Sulawesi. The climb goes through farmlands and rainforest.
From Manado we boarded a small boat bound for Bunaken Island. The reefs around this island offer some of the best snorkeling and diving in SE Asia.
Most of the island's residents live in Bunaken village at the southern tip. Pantai Liang is a beautiful tropical beach, but westerly winds often sweep piles of garbage on the beach.
Bunaken boasts some the world's most spectacular and accessible coral drop-offs, underwater caves and valleys. We did several dives and also spent must "surface time" simply snorkeling offshore. Just 100m offshore the flat coral takes a dramatic 90 degree turn, plummeting from 2m depths to dark oblivion. Starting at the northern end of Bunaken Island we would drift along the reef all the way to the southern tip. Simply snorkeling we saw several turtles, sharks, eels and doplhins.
The boat boat on one of our diving trips turned 30 years of age and we were invited to his birthday dinner party in Bunaken Village.
Manado Tua, or Old Manado, is a nice little island just across from Bunaken Island. It is easy to charter a boat here as boatmen approached us when we walked along the beach.
The volcano can be climbed in 3-5 hours following a jungle path. The reefs around Manado Tua are also in good shape and more remote, i.e. less divers.
We visited Pulau Siladen on another day trip from Bunaken Island. The island is a basic but pleasent alternative to Bunaken and during our stay we saw at least one homestay there. Other islands worth exploring inside the National Park are Nain island and the Mantehage islands.
Despite its size, Manado is a nice city on the ocean full of temples, Indonesia hero monuments, and rumah makan street food stalls.
Manado is a mecca for adventurous diners - regional delights include fried forest rat, spicy dog meat, stewed bat, tender gold fish and pig intestials.
Gamy rintek wuuk is spicy, tender dog meat and a local favourite. The night warungs along the esplanade offer a good selection. It was excellent for backpackers on the cheap such as ourselves.
From Manado we traveled west to Gorontalo. We were a bit under time pressure as we had to catch a ferry for the Togian Islands and could therefore not rely on the long-distance busses or mikrolets from Mandao. Instead, we found a local pick-up truck and got a space in the back. The road through the thin peninsula of northern Sulawesi was bone-crunching with many zig-zag roads up and down hills during the 10-hour ride. Next, we boarded a boat for the Togian Islands. The crossing took 20 hours.
The Togian Islands is an archipelago of 56 pristine coral and volcanic islands and islets located in the Gulf of Tomini in Central Sulawesi. We spent two weeks of island hopping from one forested golden-beach to the next across more than 10 of the islands in the Togian archipelago. Se elsewhere in our Island Sites.
Se elsewhere in our Island Sites.
Se elsewhere in our Island Sites.
From the Togian Islands we continued by boat to Ampana and onwards to Poso in Central Sulawesi. Poso make a detour worthwhile due its interesting culture and landscapes.