Ara must surely be one of the prettiest villages in all of Indonesia. The streets are still lined with elegantly stilted wooden houses, painted in all shades of sun-faded colours. Many of them are ancient and increasingly unsteady on their buckling legs, like rows of friendly old folk leaning haphazardly against each other.
Each of the houses has a carving on the gable end. Some show dragons or warriors, others have delightful interwoven Arabic script showing the name of Allah (PBOH) or phrases from the Qur’an. A few simply have crossed beams signifying a fish tail and informing passers-by that this was the house of a fisherman. The shaded area under the house is used for all sorts of work: a man mends his nets; another tends his chickens; a woman sits at a rattling sewing machine; another expertly operates a handloom, weaving a length of vibrant ikat. Steps lead up to the house itself and on most of these stairways there is a pleasantly shaded area for sitting and watching the world pass by once the work is over. This is a small village, but it can take a long time to walk from one end of it to the other with villagers inviting you to stop to chat every few metres.
Ara is home to the Konjo people, who have inhabited this part of South Sulawesi for longer than anyone can remember. Frequently confused with the Bugis people, the Konjo themselves claim to be related more closely to the Makassarese people with whom they share roughly 80 per cent of their language. Like the Bugis, however, the Konjo were among the world’s most fearless sailors and perhaps the most talented shipwrights in all of Asia. Legend has it that word of the beauty of Ara’s architecture and of the Konjo’s talent for carpentry spread far and wide until a Sulawesi king called La Galigo commissioned the village’s leading carpenter to build him the most beautiful ship ever seen in the islands. And they have been doing just that ever since. In fact, the Konjo communities of Ara, and nearby Tanjung Bira, have been building some of the world’s finest sailing vessels since long before the first Western explorers even set their eyes on what they would come to know as the Spice Islands. Just 50 years ago this coast was still home to the largest sailing fleet in the world, and the locally built schooners known as phinisi would set sail from here on voyages that would take several months and carry them before the monsoon winds as far as Papua and Sumatra.
Several hundred men in Ara still work building timber phinisi using methods that have barely changed over the centuries. The work is still carried out largely by hand, using perangs and hand drills, or with the local adze that is known here as a bingkung and is used for gouging out the core of the immense hardwood logs. Like the Inuit with their famous thesaurus of countless words to describe snow, the Konjo have a seafaring vocabulary that would be hard to match. It is difficult sometimes to grasp the nuances of the different types of boats that are built here: the pajjala with its accentuated curve towards the bowsprit; the banggo, which has no partitions below the sweeping deck; the jerangka – little fishing outriggers – that are the favoured vessels of the sea gypsies whose lives have perhaps changed the least over the centuries. The sea gypsy plastic-sheet shanty village has been resting among the coconut trees on Panrang Luhu Beach in Tanjung Bira (a few kilometres from Ara) for the last couple of months, which means they will soon be packing up and following the fish to another village farther along the coast that lies more in the lee of the monsoon winds. These days, while the talents of the Ara boat builders are used primarily for the production of motorised timber fishing and cargo boats, their skills are increasingly in demand with discerning sailors who are aware that these romantic and beautiful ships – so reminiscent of the age of exploration – are the perfect vessels for luxury island-hopping and live-aboard dive charters. Even today a 20m ironwood phinisi can be made to order for about US$100,000 and would take about a year to build.
Pak Haji Wahab is a living legend even among a community that has become known worldwide as legendary boat builders. He is one of the local heroes of a craft that was already ancient when his great-great-great-grandfather was building phinisi for traders and sailors. We are sitting on the deck of the boat that, more than any other in his 40-year career, is responsible for the Haji Wahab legend. I started working on my first boat when I was 15 years old,” the master shipwright explains. “I figure that I must have built almost 60 boats since then. This boat is unique – Dunia Baru turned out to be the perfect marriage of the finest Konjo boat-building tradition and the most advanced Western marine technology.” Dunia Baru (www.duniabaru.com) has returned to her home port briefly for scheduled maintenance and now lies at anchor just beyond Ara’s deep-blue barrier reef. Described as the most luxurious traditional sailing ship ever built in Indonesia, she is the culmination of hundreds of years of Konjo boat-building talents (further improved with the latest Western technology in her security, safety and navigation systems). Pak Haji Wahab spent seven years working on the Dunia Baru project, not only in Ara but also in Kalimantan (to be close to the big timbers needed) and in Surabaya and Bali where the project was completed. His nephew Jamal continued on board as a member of the ship’s 18-strong crew and – like his forefathers – has now sailed the length and breadth of Indonesia.
These days this southern tip of Sulawesi is attracting increasing numbers of more adventurous tourists and travellers who are keen to see a less trodden and more timeless side of the world’s greatest island nation. Many come here to dive or snorkel on the crystal reefs off nearby Liukang and Kambing islands. The diving is world class – offering a chance to see barracuda, manta rays, dolphins and plentiful sharks (tigers, hammerheads and even occasional whale sharks) – but many of these visitors tend to overlook the land-based attractions of the area. At Apparalang the swirling ocean currents have carved out a great gouge in the cliffside, while at peaceful Lemo Lemo the wavelets ripple onto a great stretch of deserted white sand that is a vision of paradise itself. Visitors who take the time to explore invariably fall in love with the fascinating boat-building communities of Ara and Tana Beru and the fishing communities of Panrang Luhu, a bustling little port at Tanjung Bira. In fact, travelling here these days – exploring what must be one of the most attractive and delightfully friendly regions in Indonesia – it is hard to imagine why those intrepid old-time Konjo sailors ever left their island paradise at all!
1. CLIFF WALK
Steep coral cliffs surround much of this coastline – broken only where the sea has carved out picturesque beaches. At Apparalang you can enjoy great sweeping vistas along the coast. A steep timber stairway leads from here to a high concrete jetty that offers an even more dramatic view of the ragged cliffs and the mysterious caves that are part of the geology of the whole area. Many of the villages on the mainland have deep freshwater caves that have been the traditional bathing and laundry areas of the communities for centuries. Legend has it that many of these flooded caves are connected by subterranean caverns that have never been explored. Just another of the countless mysteries of Tanjung Bira.
2. DIVING TANJUNG BIRA
Get wet while you’re here! Tanjung Bira is becoming famous as one of Indonesia’s most beautiful and unspoilt regions for divers. Amatoa Resort can arrange diving tours throughout the area (and even PADI Open Water certification) to spots with evocative names such as Shark Point, Stingray Bay, Goat Island and Fishmarket. These clear waters – part of the Coral Triangle – are unbelievably beautiful habitats and are known for their large numbers of sharks and rays.
3. GOAT ISLAND
Rumours abound surrounding Pulau Kambing (Goat Island): most locals will tell you that there are no goats at all and some even say that they were all eaten by the huge pythons that inhabit the island. Few people have explored the island and this might be because the steep-edged coral shelf is very hard to access and there are only a couple of points where you can just about clamber ashore from a boat. Even a short exploration on land, however, shows tracks of a great many goats, although, happily, the giant snakes are harder to find.