While we are at Pia’s Poppies we heard good things about Tanjung Bira. We had originally ruled out a visit to Bira as part of our itinerary as this would have involved doubling back to Makassar but when we cut short our stay in Toraja and found ourselves with a spare week we decided to detour to Bira for a few days after all – a decision we didn’t regret.
However word on the streets of Rantepao was that everywhere in Bira was fully booked (it being New Year and all that) and most people we met had reluctantly left early for that reason. As luck would have it however it only took a couple of emails to book into Bira Dive Camp (our first choice) for a week over New Year and we were good to go.
The Trek There
The journey from Rantepao to Bira consisted of a night bus to Makassar (a bus so comfortable that the Wooky didn’t want to get off) followed by a taxi to Bira (a 6 hour journey for $70).
The overnight bus picked us up from Pia’s Poppies but the final destination of the bus in Makassar was not a bus station as you might expect (or not – it being Indonesia and all). We were advised that our bus would terminate at “the flyover” in Makassar – a pretty vague destination that no-one was able to identify in terms of location so we were not able to pre-book a taxi. For all we knew we would find ourselves in a remote corner of Makassar where we would not be able to find a taxi very easily at 5 o’clock in the morning or at all.
Our fears were unfounded. As it turned out, after a comfortable air-conditioned trip during which we both managed a bit of shut-eye, we reached Makassar at 6.00am and were indeed booted off the bus very near what was without a doubt a flyover. What we should have realised was that taxi drivers always know bus schedules and there was a fleet of cars waiting. As we climbed off the bus a bit bleary eyed we were accosted by dozens of drivers vying for our trade. It was surprisingly easy to negotiate the 700,000 rupiah fee with the first driver who approached us and before we could blink we were whisked off at high speed through the otherwise quiet streets of the city.
Admittedly our driver was a bit of a crazy driver but we soon realised that you have to be a bit crazy to drive in Makassar. Firstly he drove us to his lodgings where we were introduced to some random people while he grabbed his cigarettes and lunch for the journey. When we set off again the traffic had started to build and it was every man, car, scooter, bus and articulated lorry for himself.
As we headed east out of the city through crowded streets and past local markets our driver spent the next 2 hours on his mobile phone calling everyone he had ever met in his entire life to tell them that he was on his way to Bira. He made literally dozens of calls (while negotiating the mad Makassar traffic) and in every one of them the only words we could decipher (as he spoke Bahasa at a million miles an hour were “saya pergi ke Bira…wisata” which roughly translated is “I’m going to Bira…tourists”. He clearly could not contain his excitement although it was not his first visit to Bira so we couldn’t really work out why – maybe it had just been a very slow week and Bira was a good fare.
After a couple of hours we took a bit of a detour and turned off the main highway ending up in the small village that the driver explained was the village where he was born and where he now lived with his wife and son. He lived and worked in Makassar during the week and only went home at weekends so this was an opportunity for him to pop in and see his family so maybe that was why he was so excited.
While alarming amounts of oil was poured into the car we were invited into his home by his wife and treated like royalty (monkey royalty would be more appropriate as half the village turned up to gawp at us and the children looked terrified). We were plied with tea and delicious sticky coconut sweets while they grinned and stared at us, exchanging the odd word. Obviously we found this incredibly uncomfortable and it didn’t help that we were very tired. When it came to the time for the obligatory photographs we were quite relieved as this signaled the end of our ordeal although we appreciated their generous hospitality.
Our driver’s brother joined us before we continued our journey and he took over at the wheel. We gazed out of the window and enjoyed the lush green scenery of rice paddies flying past with the mountains on our left and the glimpses of the sea on our right as we skirted the coast.
Unfortunately after another couple of hours we were stopped at a police checkpoint and there seemed to be a problem with the brother’s driving licence (or something). We were not entirely sure what happened but the brother made a clumsy attempt (and failed) to bribe his way out of whatever predicament he was in by handing over a few hundred rupiah which was brushed aside (in a manner that said “how very dare you!”). It is possible that the presence as foreigners was the reason for the officer’s righteous dismissal of the obvious attempt at bribery or whether corruption is indeed on its way out in Indonesia (irony – we have no doubt this was for our benefit and that corruption is alive and well).
Either way, we were delayed again and the mercury was rising.
We sat in the car, sweltering in the heat, while one of the policemen chatted happily through the window to us and after about 30 minutes all was resolved and we were on our way again.
Six hours after we set off from Makassar we reached the end of our scenic drive through south-west Sulawesi and arrived in Bira. An extortionate fee of 40,000 rupiah for each tourist is paid at the tourist gate (again, irony – it’s a $4 or £2 one-off payment and hardly breaks the bank) and once we entered the village, we turned right off the main road and started the 10 minute drive along the back road to Bara Beach and the Dive Camp. The road turns to rubble and makes for uncomfortable driving. Obviously we drive straight past the first time but eventually we find it, are warmly welcomed by Laura and Hannah and safely deposited in a bamboo beach bungalow.
Bira and Bira Dive Camp
Accommodation in Bira is quite expensive (relatively speaking), particularly down the Bara Beach end as the main beach near the town tends to be cluttered up with rubbish most of the time. Bara Beach is, however, simply stunning. Fine white sand leads to warm aquamarine water changing to turquoise and finally darker shades of blue to the cobalt colour of the deep channel. And most of the time it was practically deserted.
There are some lovely but expensive options along Bara Beach and the Dive Camp is definitely the budget option (and it is marketed as such – it is £15 a night including breakfast) with simple and clean stilted bamboo bungalows but with shared facilities. I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to survive for a whole week without a private bathroom but before we knew it we had been there 10 days and Laura had to practically throw us out! The lack of an en-suite was clearly not as much of a priority as I first thought. There are times I think I’m too old to live like a backpacker but give me a simple bamboo hut, a balcony with a view across the beach and beyond, a hammock, and I’m happy as the proverbial pig.
Laura was technically the dive guide at the Dive Camp and had only arrived herself at the beginning of November but she had been running the show since around the middle of November when the manager decided to pop off for a holiday and leave her in charge. Although it was fairly quiet (apart from a bunch of impossibly young, beautiful, hip and trendy Swedish people and three really annoying Dutch) she had been running basically everything since then and doing an admirable job. The absent manager (who is French which obviously explains a lot) still wasn’t back at the time of writing this at the end of January.
However Laura, with the help of her partner Hannah who arrived around Christmas, were doing an amazing job running things along with a few Indonesian staff. Neither Laura nor Hannah could speak much Bahasa but they managed to cope and it was obviously stressful at times (particularly when Laura lost her phone and cracks understandably started to appear). However, they both displayed patience and perseverance and despite the situation they found themselves in, they were a pleasure to spend time both diving and socially.
The one task not down to Laura was the cooking which was undertaken by a rather formidable Indonesian woman, Sirti, who was an amazing cook but also a little bit scary. Otherwise everything else fell to Laura from organizing the diving, preparing the rooms for guests, cleaning the rooms and keeping the shower block clean. She also mucked in with the beach cleaning which meant that the stretch of beach in front of the camp remained idyllic – no mean feat at this time of year when the tides and currents mean that a lot of plastic and other waste is washed up every few days.
The Camp is in lovely grounds, with some greenery growing among the limestone rocks (which you don’t want to fall onto). There are four basic private bamboo bungalows and two really spacious dorm rooms all with verandas and views across the beach and beyond, and all sharing the same shower block facilities.
We spent a few days diving but the wildlife was plentiful both above and below the surface. Macaques visited the camp grounds every morning and evening (I think they slept through the heat of the day and quite frankly I don’t blame them), and early one morning I counted at least a dozen coming and going. Tokay geckos were everywhere you looked (there was a nest of about 10 of more living behind the mirror in the shower block). There were also dozens of your common or garden ordinary gecko, the usual skinks slinking about, lots of different types of colourful birds, and thousands of butterflies.
One morning I got up at about 5.30am to catch the monkeys and instead came across a family of cows happily grazing on whatever they could. The monkeys seemed a little unnerved by the cows but after an hour or so the cows sloped off and the monkeys got back to the business of feeding off whatever it was in their favourite tree.
It was rainy season (like most of Indonesia) and although we had hardly any rain the downside was that it was very hot and humid. This brings out the mosquitoes and they started to get a taste for the Wooky who was not impressed (although he did concede that bringing a bucketload of deet was a good call).
As for Bira itself, apart from the diving and snorkeling we decided we would hire a scooter as Paul particularly wanted to visit the local traditional boat builders. Plenty to keep us busy for a week (or so).
We spent a few days over New Year just relaxing and hammocking (which is a verb) and Paul went out snorkeling but I gave it a miss because you had to wade through or swim over seagrass to get to the coral and I’m a wuss about that. He reported back that the snorkeling was lovely along the coral reef and the drop off which was about 100 metres from the beach. I saved myself for the diving.
New Year was a bit of a damp squib. The six beautiful Swedish people could all (naturally) speak English better than we could (although when they chatted together in their own language it was like being on the set of Wallander). They had hoped to spend the New Year on their friend’s newly completed boat but there were some last-minute problems with the boat so instead they decided to celebrate in the Camp bar with the crew of a passing liveaboard. We never could work out the whole story but I suspect we didn’t try hard enough.
We were invited to the New Year party and were kindly provided with free beer (always a good thing) but something was amiss. We realised we were the only people drinking said free beer while the Swedes and their liveaboard friends were all having a lovely, chilled time dancing to the music (which sounded like some sort of trance but I’m no expert) and being overtly touchy feely with anyone who came within spitting distance. It slowly dawned on us that they weren’t drinking because they didn’t need to drink.
Everyone was lovely and they all made an effort to talk to us, and they were generous (with the beer anyway) but we kind of felt that we had been invited to the party but hadn’t been invited to the party. It was a giggle and entertaining to watch but feeling slightly on a different level we sloped off to our little bamboo hut at about 11.00pm and promptly fell asleep missing the New Year altogether. Oh well, unless you’re in Scotland celebrating Hogmanay it’s not really proper New Year anyway.
On New Year’s Day we woke us without hangovers (despite the free beer) and three annoying Dutch turned up. From the minute they turned up they quibbled about everything – the taxi fare from Makassar (they paid less than we did), the $4 entry fee into Bira (they were convinced they had been ripped off and took some persuading that everyone had to pay it), and throughout their stay they were demanding, rude, miserable and unfriendly.
Towards the end of their stay, we were sitting with Laura and Hannah in the (open air) bar/restaurant when they turned up and after they had happily munched through our tempe goreng (fried soy bean cake – delicious) which Paul had generously offered around, they had the cheek to ask him to move and use his vaporizer (e-cigarette) somewhere else because the “smoke” was bothering them. Paul just pointed out that it wasn’t smoke and stayed where he was. I was kicking myself for not having an actul cigarette. Neither Laura nor Hannah smoked (or vaped) but they couldn’t believe the sheer cheek of them. We were outdoors, it was Indonesia (where smoking is practically mandatory) and they had happily eaten half our supper!
And at the end of their stay, as if to prove that our instincts had been right all along, after spending 20 minutes querying each item on the bill (and trying to slope off without paying their food bill) they split it 3 ways to the last rupiah and also entered the figures on a spreadsheet; this was to us proof beyond doubt that they were all bin-eating idiots. Luckily they only stayed 3 nights.
So we had got New Year out of the way and before we knew it we had been at the Dive Camp for 3 days so we decided we better actually do something other than lazing about on the beach, in the hammock, reading and other exhausting activities so we planned a few dives. Time to get back into the water again.