Our plan was always to spend a couple of weeks at our favourite dive resort in Central Sulawesi (Prince John Dive Resort, Donggala) but it’s popular so we were thrilled they had room for us at a time that fit in with our, as yet, vague itinerary.
In the now familiar surroundings of the resort we would be able to easily relax, get back into the water and readjust after leaving Australia. We would also think about starting to plan our route around Sulawesi and east Indonesia. But basically, the first stop on our trip was going to be a two week holiday in relative luxury.
We had a late afternoon flight from Adelaide to Bali, where we stopped overnight in a small hotel near the airport, and the next morning we caught our flight to Makassar then another on to Palu.
The flight from Bali was a little delayed but as we were flying with Lion Air, an airline with a less than perfect safety record (we memorably watched news reports in Balikpapan airport when one of their planes overshot the runway in Denpasar and landed in the sea – quite spectacularly but thankfully with no loss of life), we were just hoping for an uneventful journey.
A taxi arranged by the resort met us at Palu airport and we were whisked off through streets of Palu past colourfully painted houses and arrived at the resort just outside the village of Donggala by late afternoon. We checked into our stilted bungalow with huge terrace and matching hammocks overlooking the bay. The heat was oppressive and we were soon propping up the bar enjoying our first cold Bintang.
The Indonesian staff were, as ever, welcoming and seemed genuinely pleased to see us (never underestimate the value of tipping well) and Paul, who had been chattering away in Indonesian as soon as we landed in Bali continued in this vein, delighting the locals with his ability to speak in their own language, all his hard word clearly paying off.
Although it was almost a year to the day since we had left Donggala, after a couple of hours it was as if we had never been away.
There were more reunions when Mona and Chris, a couple from Luxembourg we met last year from, joined us at the bar, and Alex and Anna (the German couple who run the place like clockwork) welcomed us too.
Plans were made to dive the following day and I met my instructor for the Advanced Open Water Course, another German living and working here with her partner – there are lots of Germans here. It did not take long for Melbourne, Adelaide and Australia in general to feel like a distant memory.
Back in the Water
It was a year since I had completed my Open Water Course and altogether I only had 8 dives under my belt – totally inexperienced compared to most guests here who are serious divers with between 1000 and 3000 dives racked up. The first 3 dives this time around were a bit testing for me as I had anticipated they would be.
We decided to start with a couple of fun dives before I started my course. We went with my instructor as a guide and she had us setting up our own equipment and I found this to be a reassuring kind of ritual. Obviously I had forgotten where everything went and got it wrong but someone always checks it and after a couple of dives it became second nature.
We began with two dives on the house reef, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. On the first dive I could feel myself starting to panic and nearly called it off but managed to get myself calm again.
The same thing happened on the second dive where we had to perform a backward entry from the boat and I had only done this once before. I managed to get into the water but during the first 10 minutes could feel myself growing anxious again. Once again I calmed myself down but was starting to think this was going to be a problem.
The following day I started my Advanced Open Water course with a deep dive so I gave myself a stern talking to. Paul was going to accompany me on some of the dives in the course (except buoyancy and navigation which involved exercises which he would have found tedious) and his presence was reassuring but nevertheless I couldn’t keep having anxiety attacks for no good reason. Although, and I stress, no-one in the diving community would expect you to continue a dive if, for any reason whatsoever, you felt uncomfortable and unable to continue (it’s happened to everyone) but, and this was particularly the case in a place like Donggala where most of the guests are hardened divers, I had to calm myself down a bit or I would risk spoiling everyone else’s enjoyment. If I wanted to get out after 10 minutes every time I might as well just give up now.
On the deep dive we planned to descend to 25 metres. We headed out from the shore to a site called Green Wall (so called because of the beautiful vivid green coral) and descended slowly. The deeper you go (anything beyond 15-20 metres really, depending on the sun and visibility) the darker it gets and colours become washed out. Visibility on this day was not too bad and we followed the wall descending a few metres every few minutes. I was so busy swimming instead of looking around and enjoying the dive that all of a sudden I glanced at my dive computer and saw that I was at a depth of 28.9 metres. I looked up and Paul was gesturing (what I thought was wildly) and the instructor was a few metres above me peering closely at the wall seemingly oblivious. I don’t know what came over me but it was a combination of thinking I had done something wrong and also of feeling (excuse the pun) out of my depth. As I drifted upwards to join Paul and the instructor my breathing started to get out of control again and I could feel myself starting to panic. Paul asked if I was OK a couple of time and I assured him I was as inside I fought to calm myself down. I couldn’t go on like this.
Meanwhile, the instructor was poking about in the wall with her stick trying to entice some tiny weird creature out of its crevice so she and Paul were suitably distracted while I hovered about breathing deeply and slowly and concentrating on my buoyancy. As I was doing this I was distracted by the most amazing and humungous orange, blue and yellow striped angelfish. It was simply enormous and vividly colourful and stood out starkly in the relative darkness. This beautiful fish was the size of a very large dinner plate and it mesmerized me as it swam around in a pattern, backwards and forwards, and before I knew it I was fine. The fish seemed to have entranced me out of panic mode.
I went on to relax completely and immensely enjoyed the rest of the dive. It was at this point that I felt I had turned a corner.
In the two days that followed I went on to not freak out on a night dive (a minor miracle), fine tune my buoyancy (losing 2 kilos off my weight belt in the process), get lost doing my navigation dive but managed to do the rest of it right, and I took some terrible photographs doing the underwater photography dive. At the conclusion of these five PADI “Adventure” dives I was deemed to have achieved Advanced Open Water Diver certification and although I will be a lot better once I have a few more dives under my belt my confidence had grown, my buoyancy improved beyond recognition, and my enthusiasm for the underwater world grown to a level which could be described as obsessive.
Paul never has any qualms about jumping back into the water with a tank on his back and appears to be part fish. Where he can appear a bit clumsy on land because of his size, in the water he is graceful and controlled. Although he has the benefit of 80 dives under his belt he fights a constant battle to conquer his painful equalization problems with a determination I can only admire.
After my course I should have had an opportunity to put my new found skills to the test on a two day trip across the peninsular to Marantale and Parigi but less than one week into our trip Paul was struck down by a virus the day we were due to leave with a high fever, sickness and delirium which, thankfully, didn’t last long but was a huge disappointment. He was plied with paracetamol which helped with the fever and aches and pains and was quickly on the road to recovery but beer and diving was put on hold for a couple of days which is an indication of just how ill he was.
Although we were sad to miss the Marantale trip with Mona, Chris and their friend Vicky, a few days later we went on a day trip to the other side of the bay on the “big boat”. That, as they say, is another story…