Bira – Part 2 – Exploring above and below the waves

The Indonesian crew and staff

New Year was out of the way so a few days diving was on the agenda followed by a day or two exploring on a scooter.

We were excited to be getting back into the water again and looking forward to cooling down a bit.  The three annoying Dutch joined us for our first 2 days but it wasn’t much of a problem because when you’re underwater you can’t actually hear anyone talking.  This is one of the reasons the Wooky has taken to diving in such a big way.  And the fish of course.  He loves to chase the fish.  He’s like an underwater puppy sometimes (and just as difficult to control).

On board the dive boat


After reading various reports online about currents and hearing a couple of first hand experiences I was a little wary about diving in Bira as many said the currents made it suitable for only experienced divers.  However, Laura assured us that in the weeks she had been here leading up to our arrival the diving had been good with average visibility and little or no current.  In any event she reassured us that she always checked the current before a dive just to be on the safe side (which she did – thoroughly and religiously).

A nudibranch

As the drop off was a fair distance from the beach and therefore a long and impractical swim in our gear to justify beach entry all our dives were made from the Camp boat so I’m now an expert at backward boat entry (and pretty good at climbing back on too which always helps). At this time of year the boat was moored at the town harbour  which was a 15-20 minute drive from the Camp on the truck.

An obliging cuttlefish

The young Indonesian crew, Amun (the captain) and his helper Ismail, were lovely, funny and incredible helpful.  They had only been working with the Dive Camp for a few weeks but they were just great, knew exactly what they were doing and nothing was too much trouble.  They were both from a village near Makassar and had previously worked as compressor fisherman which meant that instead of having a tank they dived with a hose attached to a compressor feeding them air from the surface.  It’s fairly dangerous as they undertake this with none of the technology that we rely on as recreational divers such as dive computers that tell you how deep you are, how long you have at that depth before you go into decompression, when and where to have your safety stops.  Dive computers make diving a pretty safe pastime these days but these fishermen are risking decompression sickness and nitrogen narcosis (and therefore death) every day.

Blue spotted stingray

Ismail’s and Amun’s diving skills were second to none and when we were anchored up in between dives eating lunch and doing a bit of snorkeling they demonstrated their ability to control their buoyancy in a way that would be the envy of most divers.  Ismail would hurl himself off the side of the boat and float on the surface for a bit before slowly sinking to the bottom and staying there for as long as his lungs would allow.  I need an air cylinder and 5 kilos of weight to do that otherwise I just bob around like the proverbial cork!  It was Laura’s aim to train one or both of them as dive guides but they were both a bit hesitant about relying on a tank!

Another obliging nudibranch

On the first dive there were 7 of us; me and the Wooky, Laura and Hannah, and the three annoying Dutch.  The two Dutch girls were Open Water only so considered novice and restricted to diving at 18m and had to stick with Laura.  The rest of us could descend further but, as always, we all needed to keep the rest of the group within sight.

A scaredy-cat moray

After a bumpy ride on the back of the truck to the harbour we all climbed onto the boat (embarrassed by our tentative attempts while the Indonesians jumped on and off with ease carrying all the equipment and tanks!). We motored out of the harbour and over to the island across the bay from the Camp and anchored up for the dive.

A tiny porcelain crab

Fifteen minutes into the dive we turned a corner of reef and were caught up in a strong current which I personally found quite challenging (although didn’t lose it so was quietly proud of myself).  As there was 7 of us in the group in order to make sure that we all stayed together and that no-one was swept away, Laura signaled for us to hang on to something (anything) which we all did apart from one of the annoying Dutch who was being swept head over heels towards me and Paul who were hanging on to a clump of coral.  As she went flying past Paul grabbed one of her fins and held on until Laura signaled for everyone to let go – Hannah at the front and Laura behind so that they could shepherd us like collies rounding up sheep.

Sneaking up on a blue spotted sting ray. Now you see him…

We continued the dive and it calmed down again but when we surfaced the annoying Dutch girl yelled at Paul for grabbing hold of her insisting that she was perfectly fine and she continued to sulk for the rest of the day.  The rest of us agreed later on that she hadn’t seemed to be coping particularly well but we made a mental note to let her drown next time.

…now you don’t! (This happens a lot with fish.)

We dived 10 times in total over 5 days and visibility varied which was usual for this time of year, although for the last two days it seemed to improve but even on the not so good days visibility was still about 15 metres.  We always saw masses of fish, including loads of different reef fishes and lionfish, nudibranchs, moray eels (shedloads of morays), funny garden eels, sting rays and turtles.  Speaking of turtles Paul just couldn’t get a picture despite the fact that we both almost fell over one and watched while it swam away into the blue, but for some reason the camera wouldn’t focus.  Turtles are difficult.

A few fish just hanging.

The coral was in good condition and it was good diving with lots of macro but we didn’t see any really big stuff because the water was just too warm (31°C) so not cold enough for sharks (you could see the disappointment on my face – not).

Laura was amazing at spotting the little critters particularly bearing in mind she hadn’t been there that long and probably wasn’t all that familiar with the usual spots.

A beautiful (and quite poisonous) lionfish

We spent the first three days diving most spots that Laura was familiar with but for the last couple of days we all decided that it would be fun to explore other dive sites that she hadn’t yet been to herself.  We weren’t particularly bothered if every dive wasn’t amazing and it would be fun to explore.

An orangutan crab hiding in his anenome

At one of those sites west beyond the house reef we saw so many moray eels (at least 4 different species) we voted it be called “Moray Bay” or something equally appropriate.  We saw lots of turtles (usually when we weren’t expecting too) but none would pose long enough for our camera to focus.  The Wooky experimented with the video option on the underwater camera but the quality wasn’t great but it was great for close ups and macro.  This is why nudibranchs are such good photo subjects – they stay put and don’t move too fast.  Hannah had a GoPro on a stick which took amazing footage and that got us thinking about picking one up in Makassar.

Another fierce moray

To sum up the diving, although Bira is famous for dangerous currents and big fish (particularly sharks) it really isn’t that simple.  We did not experience any current problems apart from on the first day and that could hardly have been described as a dangerous situation (more of a drift dive) and could happen anywhere.  If currents are a problem on a particular day which rules out other sites there is a sheltered area near the harbour which is almost always free of current.  And although we didn’t see any sharks or other pelagic fish we did see loads of other stuff.  We really enjoyed the diving and would definitely go back.

An unusual species of lionfish

Bira Boat Builders

The boat builders in the Tanjung Bira area are legendary among the boat building community worldwide.  They use centuries old traditional methods to build “phinisi” sailing boats entirely of local wood and using only traditional hand tools.  The only concession to modern methods is that they now tend to use metal bolts in the hull but otherwise they use only local sourced wood including wooden fasteners for the entire construction.

Another tiny porcelain crab

Different types of wood are used for different areas of the boat; the hull is usually ironwood and the fittings teak but there are other types of wood used throughout.  These skilled boat builders do not work to plans which is why it is necessary for anyone commissioning a boat to be on hand to project manage to make sure they get what they want.  Skills are handed down through generations from father to son and those skills do not include interpreting plans.

Not happy with the mode of transport

The boats themselves are beautifully crafted vessels quite similar to a schooner.  They have hardly varied in design since about 1600 except that in the last 40 years or so motors tend to be fitted as standard slightly altering the shape of the boat.

While they are still used to this day as cargo boats many have been commissioned for the liveaboard trade which invariably results in altered design to accommodate additional cabin space for passengers and crew.

A village just outside Bira

Quite a few Europeans have made Bira their home while commission a boat for the purposes and we met a couple of these people when they popped into the Dive Camp Bar.  It became apparent that this endeavor was not for the faint hearted nor indeed for the poor.

We saw many newly completed boats moored in the harbour but the Wooky wanted to see the boat builders in the process of actually building one so we aimed to visit the main boat building village of Tana Bera about 20 km from Bira and apparently easily reachable by scooter.

More Sulawesi village scenery

A scooter was duly hired for 3 days at the end of our stay however they obviously they took one look at the Wooky and gave him the oldest, noisiest scooter in the whole of Bira with the worst suspension, a dodgy exhaust and slick tyres.  It took us a day to summon up the courage to climb on the contraption and venture out on it with me riding pillion clinging on for dear life (and a week to get over it).

Lahongka Panorama Cafe

The first section of “road” from the Dive Camp back to Bira is basically rubble and as it was dry and dusty the rocks were liable to skid out from underneath you.  It was a bumpy, uncomfortable and nerve-wracking 5 minute ride before we reached the tarmac section where we would relax (a bit) and feel slightly (not much) more secure.

The view from the cafe across forest to the sea

Luckily in Bira and the surrounding area the roads are pretty quiet apart from the odd truck hurtling past at high speed carrying an array of bamboo poles, wooden planks and water tankers which could easily take your eye out (or worse!).  The speed of Indonesian traffic seems to be dictated by the size of the vehicle; the larger the vehicle the faster they zoom past you forcing you to seek refuge in the ditch or the undergrowth.  We survived but can’t help thinking it would have been an altogether less terrifying experience had we been provided with a roadworthy vehicle.

We finally stumbled upon the boat builders

The second day with the scooter we tried to find one of the boatbuilding villages following Nick’s instructions.  Nick was one of the Europeans that had spent the last two years living and working in Bira while supervising the building of his boat, a smallish liveaboard with which he now intended to make his fortune (and most likely would – it’s a lucrative business).  However his directions were rubbish and we found ourselves riding down an almost vertical track of rubble leading down to a section of coast with no boats in sight.  We aborted half way down the hill on the basis that if we attempted to carry on we would likely end up in a tangled heap where no-one would ever find us.

One of the more expensive boats under construction

We spent the rest of our time that day driving around the villages outside Bira and found it really was a lovely picturesque unspoilt part of Sulawesi with the colourful painted houses characteristic of this part of Indonesia.   Everywhere we went people waved and smiled and shouted hello and again we saw the usual mix of Christian and Muslim living happily side by side.

Smaller but still way out of our price range (sadly)

On our third day, having sworn the day before that we would rather stick pins in our eyes than climb on the contraption again, we agreed we would have one final journey out on the death trap in a last-ditch attempt at trying to find the boat builders.

On our ride the day before we had spotted a new café (Lahongka Panorama) at the top of the hill on the way out of Bira so decided to stop there for coffee.  The café was skillfully decked out in beautiful wood and bamboo and the owner was lovely, spoke English and welcomed us warmly.  We had the best coffee I think we’ve tasted in Indonesia and the most amazing fruit juice (orange and mango).  The café was on a hill on the road leading out of Bira so it was a little cooler than the beach but the café’s best feature was the breathtaking view across the forest all the way down to the sea.  It was stunning.

Some of the finished articles in Bira Harbour

While chatting to the owner he gave us directions to Tana Bera, directions which were so straightforward that after about 40 minutes driving we turned left off the main road (as instructed) and lo and behold found ourselves on a lane running parallel to the beach on which there were between 20 and 30 boats in various stages of construction.

A beautiful (but expensive) phinisi sail boat

As soon as we parked the death trap we were spotted by some men working on a boat nearby and the Wooky was invited to climb up on board an enormous half-built boat to have a look around.  However he didn’t trust himself to climb up the precarious ladder (or for this makeshift ladder not to collapse under his weight given that it was built for your average Indonesian that weighs about 7 stone).  Instead he inspected their craftsmanship at ground level.

Another view of the finished phinisi in Bira Harbour

Wandering up and down the lane we saw several boats of various sizes in different stages of construction.  That these beautiful designed and crafted vessels are built with such precision without the benefit of modern machinery or implements was a source of constant fascination for the Wooky.  We were glad we had risked life and limb to finally locate these amazing craftsmen.

One last sunset shot from the bar

Although we had only intended to stay a week in Bira before we could blink ten days had passed.  We thoroughly enjoyed our time there; the Dive Camp was simple but relaxed with a beautiful beach, great diving and wonderful hosts, and the surrounding area was picturesque, and the roads quiet enough to explore on a scooter so long as your scooter is fairly roadworthy.

And one last shot of the beach

We had met Europeans drawn here by the boat building expertise of the local people but who had ended up making Bira their home and it was easy to understand why.

However, for us it was now time to head back to Makassar for a few days to enjoy the luxury of some aircon and a hot shower before flying to Wakatobi.

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