Bunaken National Marine Park is a marine reserve – just off the northern tip of Sulawesi in eastern Indonesia – extending over 890km2. Tommy Schultz goes in search of its many underwater treasures, including a sea serpent that hasn’t been sighted for 40 years.
Pak Patriot, a Siladen villager, describes the ‘mythic’ creature as having the “head of a horse and the body of a snake”, and measuring more than 5m. Local fishermen from Siladen first noticed the mysterious creature gliding through the beautiful coral garden beside the island’s western coast in the fading light of late afternoon. Pak Patriot says he was just a boy when he first glimpsed the aquatic equineserpent, but even today he remembers that evening on the beach. Oddly, after almost four decades the Siladen villagers haven’t seen another of its kind. It might seem impossible that such creatures could remain hidden from a community where children are exposed to rare and exotic marine animals from the day they are born – until you consider the geography of Siladen.
Located on the edge of the Marine Park, the waters around the island plunge to 1,566m – more than enough briny deep to hide an encyclopaedia’s worth of exotic creatures that spend an entire lifetime without ever seeing the sun. And with new species of marine animals being discovered as recently as 2008, it’s easier to see how a ‘sea serpent’ might go undiscovered for decades. Only 3% of Bunaken National Marine Park reserve is terrestrial, including Bunaken Island, and the islands of Manado Tua, Mantehage, Nain and Siladen. Bunaken’s explosion of marine biodiversity makes it a top destination, not only for marine scientists but also for scuba divers in search of the trip of a lifetime. With more than 90 species of fish and 390 species of coral, even the most salty reef veteran is sure to catch a glimpse of something they’ve never seen before.
“Bunaken is a like a miniature representation of the entire Coral Triangle,” observes Dr Lida Pet Soede, the Director of the World Wildlife Fund for Nature’s Coral Triangle Programme – an international conservation effort that spans the spectacularly diverse seascapes of Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, the Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste. “You have every environment from shallow-water mangrove forests and 25–50m vertical coral reef walls to the deep sea trench where it’s possible to see very large animals underwater,” Soede adds.That’s why I’m scanning the cobalt-blue panorama of the deep trench beside the spectacular coral wall at Alung Banua – you never know what you might see swimming by in the open water in a place like this.
Ten minutes into this dive and we’ve already seen an endangered hawksbill sea turtle,
a whole circus of clownfish, and a porcelain-coloured crab freckled with brown spots
living within the protective tentacles of an anemone.
Just last night I heard tales of orca sightings in Bunaken from Daniele Marianelli, the man behind the Siladen Resort & Spa, a scuba diver-friendly collection of tasteful bungalows that’s rated one of the best resorts in the park. In between sips of fresh mango juice by the pool, Marianelli also tells me of recent whale shark and sperm whale sightings. The macro photo geek in me is excited to see smaller creatures like the extremely rare blue-ringed octopus, but nothing captures the imagination of my inner Jacques Cousteau like being dwarfed by the eclipsing shadow of a passing whale shark. Ten minutes into this dive and we’ve already seen an endangered hawksbill sea turtle, a whole circus of clownfish, and a porcelain-coloured crab freckled with brown spots living within the protective tentacles of an anemone. My camera’s memory card is filling up fast, but I’m still staring optimistically out into the blue abyss for a glimpse of something huge.
After an hour, the needle on my tank’s pressure gauge is dropping and it’s time to surface. My guide Delly signals me to pause 3m below the surface for a safety stop. A school of fish flutters past, shimmering in the silver light beams angling through the surface. Back on the boat, two French divers from our group are excitedly showing off the photos on their digital camera. “Did you see it?” they ask. “See what?” I ask, already suspecting my inner Jacques Cousteau might be getting rusty. “Whale shark!” they shout, with huge smiles on their faces.
The unmistakable silhouette of planet Earth’s largest fish lights up the camera’s LCD screen. Missing the whale shark is definitely a setback. But I still have another few days here and every dive is like an underwater lottery ticket to spot something amazing. An hour later, we’re in the water again. This time it’s Depan Kampung, a dive site located at
the north end of Bunaken Island. A shallow coral garden with a circus of darting parrotfish, fluttering damselfish and brilliant coral colonies abruptly gives way to an underwater cliff that plunges as far as I can see. I have a brief oment of vertigo as the current sweeps me over the precipice. Once again, I’m scanning the blue horizon for a glimpse of Bunaken’s undersea magic – imagining Pak Patriot’s legendary sea serpent.
The afternoon sun sparkles through the infinite seascape when I spot a green sea turtle gliding near the surface on its pectoral wings. With a few kicks of my scuba fins, I’m out into open water, swimming alongside. The turtle’s sharp eyes take in the awkward stranger struggling to keep up. After a few minutes alone with this graceful animal, I stop swimming, snapping a farewell photo with my camera as an old soul of the sea dissolves into the deep.
5 Senses – Sight
BRICK KILNS OF SILADEN
Sharp-eyed divers on Siladen Island will notice something unusual while walking back to their villas after their morning dives. Several large dome-like brick structures grown over with the snaking roots and twisted branches of a banyan tree can be seen just beside the island’s main beach. The overgrown buildings are reminiscent of Cambodia’s legendary Angkor Wat temples, but Siladen’s relics are from a more recent date. In the late 1800s, a few hardy Dutch entrepreneurs were making bricks on the island for shipment to nearby Manado. On a windless day under the equatorial sun, it’s not difficult to imagine how hot it must have been to work the huge kilns piled high with blazing firewood.
5 Senses – Taste
MANADONESE FISH CURRY
Traditional Manadonese fish curry, a tasty confection of sweet coconut milk sautéed with a kaleidoscope of spices and simmered with cubes of the freshest local catch of the day, will make you think you’ve skipped the main course and ordered directly from the dessert menu. Try it served over steamed rice with a few slices of fresh mango on the side.
WHERE TO STAY
Siladen Resort & Spa
Scuba divers are a social tribe. Put a couple of them together and they’ll talk for hours, sharing the highlights of their last dive or getting the scoop on a trending dive destination. Siladen Resort & Spa (located within the Bunaken National Park) is designed with the social diver in mind. From the cosy cluster of cheery villas arranged along the island’s beautiful beach, to the group boat rides to some of the world’s best dive sites, to the coordinated dinner schedule at night to share what they’ve seen over a meal, the resort makes it easy to befriend your fellow guests. For those who don’t dive, the resort has organised dolphin/pilot-whale watching expeditions, trekking the nearby Tangkoko Rainforest, or experiencing local culture in the Minahasa Highlands near Manado. For room rates and availability, visit www.siladen.com.
Chinese, Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and British all came to Ternate, driven by an all-pervading hunger to control the Spice Islands. Thanks to its fragrant treasure this tiny volcanic island once rose to become the most important city in Indonesia.
It’s one of the most famous views in the country, yet many Indonesians couldn’t tell you where it is…despite the fact that they’ve been carrying pictures of it around in their wallets for their entire adult lives. I’m sitting on the cliffs of Ternate Island but, even now, I don’t realise why the two volcanoes across the water seem familiar, until my guide Ahmad ‘Mus’ Mustakim holds up a 1,000 rupiah note. The picture on the back – labelled ‘Pulau Maitara dan Tidore’ – portrays the view we’re looking at.
It seems incredible that these tiny islands (Maitara is barely 3km across) could become defining icons in the monetary system of one of the world’s biggest countries. Then again, it is also incomprehensible that the sleepy little town down the hill from us could once have been the administrative headquarters from which all Indonesia was governed before the Dutch shifted their capital to Batavia. Perhaps Ternate was destined for great things from early on. The Chinese had traded for spices here long before European explorers even found their fabled route to the East. When Sir Francis Drake stopped here to visit the Sultan, he remarked on the spectacular harems of one of the most powerful feudal leaders in Southeast Asia. Drake was unable to stock up on spices, however, because his ship was packed to the gunwales with plundered Spanish gold.
This little group of islands – tightly wedged in the nutcracker of shifting tectonic plates that criss-cross the Moluccas archipelago – was the only place in the known world where nutmeg (a spice which was said to be a cure for the dreaded black plague) grew. Even today the jungle slopes of Gamalama volcano are still fragrant with the scent of cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon and mace. It takes less than two hours for Mus and me to drive all the way around the chain of fishing hamlets and secluded coves that fringe the island, and the ash-covered peak of Gamalama looms like a malevolent deity at every turn. Evidence of its awesome power is most visible, however, in the Batu Angus (burned rock) fields where twisted-rock sculptures, forged by powers deep beneath the earth’s crust, form a very provocative exhibition of natural volcanic art.
The Moluccas have been described as a hothouse of biodiversity. In fact, it was here that the great Welsh naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace came up with the theory of evolution in 1858. Wallace sent his famous ‘Ternate Essay’ to his friend Charles Darwin, who was coming to similar conclusions in the far-off Galápagos. The so-called Wallace Line runs across the Moluccas and these islands are famous for being a dividing line between Asian species and those of Australasia. The flocks of great white cockatoos frequently seen at Lake Tolire are a striking symbol of the Wallace Line.
We stood on a precipice with the mysterious lake, domain of giant crocodiles, below and the sulphur-choked vent of Gamalama volcano high above us. The Sultans of Ternate were traditionally believed to have the power to quell the volcanic forces. Although the present Sultan spends much of his time working as provincial ambassador for Ternate in
Jakarta, he returns frequently, and in 1983 he hurried back to calm the smouldering giant. He mounted a ceremonial boat trip around the island bearing the sacred sultanate crown (said to be adorned with human hair that never stops growing). Apparently, the volcano calmed even before the Sultan had returned to his palace.
Having completed our own circumnavigation of the island, Mus next offered to drive me up the volcano in search of Afo, the island’s oldest inhabitant. This ancient clove tree is said to be more than 400 years old and was named for the local rebel who planted it in defiance of the Dutch monopoly on the harvest. I’d read guidebook reports that said that Afo’s tree was now nothing but a broken stump. So I was impressed, when we arrived at the end of a short trek across a fragrantly forested valley, to see a great trunk looming up into the tangled greenery of the surrounding trees. For four centuries this tree has stood as a symbol of the starring role that tiny Ternate played in the formation of the Indonesia that we know today.
I was just about to turn and start the walk back down the valley when my observant guide whistled approvingly. “Look,” he said, “that branch is growing again.” He was right. A branch that I’d mistaken as belonging to another tree was in fact one long healthy limb sprouting from Afo’s trunk. A 400-year-old tree that had been declared dead had not only revived itself in the rich volcanic soil, but had also burst into fruit with a rich crop of cloves on the new bough. Like the venerable old tree, ancient Ternate has itself lived through many dramatic times. Perhaps it too is on the verge of another new and bountiful era.
WHERE TO STAY
Hasrun Rasai built Villa Ma’Rasai 15 years ago as a place to settle after two decades
travelling Southeast Asia as a private guide. He recently opened his home as an attractive hotel. You can wander the vibrantly painted public rooms, viewing old photographs of the Ternate of yesteryear and even handling magnificent Chinese
porcelain that predates the Ming dynasty. Pak Hasrun’s wife prepares delicious meals that complement the hospitable and homey atmosphere. As Pak Hasrun says, “Helping people and making them feel welcome is like a medicine to us.” Double rooms on a B&B basis start from US$55. www.villamarasai.com T. 62 813 9288 9475
Manokwari is one of the unsung adventure centres of Southeast Asia and a new route for Garuda Indonesia. Jack Orchard sets out to explore the historical city on West Papua’s north coast.
As the plane banked over Manokwari Bay I caught my first glimpse of the jungle-clad peaks of the legendary Arfak Mountains and endless sweep of beaches and coves that make up the dramatic coastline of New Guinea’s Bird’s Head Peninsula. I remembered a travel article I’d read recently about the two so-called ‘wilderness trekking capitals of the world’: Cape Town was described as a wonderful city with impressive mountainscapes and Rio de Janeiro is stunningly beautiful with its two sprawling urban rainforests. Even from the moment that the plane began to descend
into this jungle gateway on West Papua’s north coast, however, I was struck by the feeling that humble Manokwari could one day have the potential to compete with both these worldfamous metropolises.
Driving away from the airport I had the impression that, as befits
a jungle gateway, this little city is bursting with verdant growth
that erupts out of every untamed patch of land.
Driving away from the airport I had the impression that, as befits a jungle gateway, this little city is bursting with verdant growth that erupts out of every untamed patch of land. There’s a feeling here that if the city’s 180,000 inhabitants lose concentration for just a few days the jungle will begin to reclaim everything in no time. From the window of my suite that first morning I looked out over the swimming pool of the Aston Niu Hotel across a riot of jungle vegetation that is punctuated only occasionally by low rooftops. From this point I could look westward to receding chains of rearing mountains that stretched in a dramatic series of jagged peaks and mist-shrouded valleys all the way across New Guinea island. As the access point to what might be the world’s most exciting jungle island, Manokwari could surely be one of the great draw-cards for adventurous travellers.
The city even has its own Table Mountain (Gunung Meja) and, although not rising to the same scale as Cape Town’s, it is topped with statuesque trees, unique birdlife and jewel-like butterflies the size and colour of Fabergé saucers. While Rio is still a very long way from the tribal communities of the Amazon, a mere four-hour drive out of Manokwari brings you to the traditional territories of several of Papua’s proudest and most resilient tribes. It is estimated that there may be as many as 700 tribal languages spoken in Papua and a great many of them can be heard even in the city centre, among the clatter and chit-chat of Manokwari’s central marketplace. In a single afternoon here you might meet smiling tribesmen and chatty stallholders from more than a dozen Birds-of-Paradise
local tribes with musical-sounding names: Kuri, Simuri, Irarutu, Moscona, Sekar, Tohit, Imeko, Tipin, Maya, Biak, Serui, Asmat, Dani… You can buy souvenirs here in the form of fine Papuan carvings and the traditional koteka
phallic gourds that are still worn by highland warriors on ceremonial occasions.
At the entrance to the market a group of smiling women work, with deft and supple fingers, to weave the noken bags that are used by almost everyone in Papua. Some are ornately beaded and decorated with slogans; others seem at first glance to be simple net bags. But they are carefully woven from tree bark, and even the simplest noken might take days to complete. The thing that is most instantly noticeable about Manokwari’s vibrant market – apart from such disturbing local delicacies as turtle and flying-fox meat – is the incredible array of fruit and vegetables on display. New Guinea boasts the whole range of climates (even occasional snowfall in the highlands) and along with great heaps of betelnut the market stalls here are loaded with guava, rambutan, lychees, papaya, mangoes, mangosteen, rose apples, custard apples and pineapples. A dozen types of bananas are stacked next to piles of the world’s creamiest, sweetest durians.
Although Manokwari is sometimes called ‘Fruit City’, the most commonly heard name is ‘Bible City’ since it was the landing place of the two German missionaries who first brought The Bible to Papua. On the waterfront by the city’s oldest church I stopped to photograph a group of small children who were jumping off the harbour wall. Two of the children were named Otto after one of the pioneering missionaries. Across the bay from us on Mansenam Island I could see that work had already started on the base of Manokwari’s own 30m-tall statue of Christ. This statue, based on the famous icon in Rio de Janeiro, will face across the water towards the town and the rearing plateau of Table Mountain. Neither the statue nor the mountain can claim to compete with those other global icons in Brazil and South Africa. It’s been said many times, however, that great things come in small packages, and Manokwari has a unique spirit of wilderness adventure that is hard to match.
5 Senses – Touch
JASMINE BODY SCRUB
Feel the cleansing sensations of a jasmine lulur body scrub and soothing traditional massage from the Velvet Spa in Aston Niu Manokwari Hotel. This revitalising experience takes 90 minutes and is the perfect way to unwind after a day trekking or exploring the city. The Aston offers Deluxe Garden Rooms from US$62 (B&B) and wonderfully spacious and comfortable suites from US$168. www.astonmanokwari.com T. 62 986 212 333
Covered in dense tropical rainforest, the Arfak mountain range is home to a number of exotic bird species, including various birds-of-paradise – among them magnificent birds-of-paradise, western parotia, and lesser birds-of-paradise – top prizes for any bird watching enthusiast.
5 Senses – Taste
The delicate taste of papeda comes as a pleasant surprise after watching this weird glutinous sago paste being served. This Papuan staple looks like a bowl of overly thickened wallpaper paste, but when mixed with delicious yellow fish stew it is quite delicious and provokes a soothing sensation in the mouth that is curiously addictive. There are many things you’ll miss when you leave Manokwari…you might be surprised to find yourself reminiscing fondly even about papeda.