Wakatobi wasn’t on our radar when we began researching our trip but we stumbled across it and learned more about this fairly remote part of south east Sulawesi (originally known as the Tukang Besi Islands) so it was added it to the ever increasing list of places we wanted to visit.
Wakatobi is the name of the regency and is also the name of the marine park forming part of the famous coral triangle. It is home to many diverse species of coral and fish life and the islands themselves remain fairly untouched with reasonably large bajo communities (traditional sea gypsies). The name Wakatobi, although exotic sounding, is just basically a made-up name formed from the first two letters of each of the main islands (Wanci (or Wangi Wangi), Kaledupa, Tomia and Binongko.
We were mainly there for the diving but more of that later.
But there was more to Wakatobi than just the diving. From the mid-1970s onwards tourism In Indonesia steadily increased until the late 1990s when the troubles in Sulawesi and Maluku started and people stopped coming so the industry took a bad hit. Over the past few years since everything calmed down from about 2007 onwards people have started returning to explore Indonesia and all it has to offer. Places like Wakatobi are still a little off the beaten track but it is experiencing a steady increase in popularity. Infrastructure is improving but there are still limited accommodation options. Apart from a ridiculously expensive all-inclusive dive resort on Tomia (it is rumoured you get your own butler), all the other accommodation options are fairly basic, isolated and usually include all meals. Beer (our downfall) is obviously extra.
We had originally planned to stay for one week but once again we stayed longer than anticipated and found it hard to leave, even after 11 days.
Of the options available we chose the Hoga Island Dive Report which was run by a lovely lady called Wia. We called to book – online booking and email is unpredictable, unreliable or simply not an option the further afield you travel from the well-trodden tourist path. We told Wia our flight details and she said she would arrange for a taxi to meet us at the airport in Wanci to take us to the daily ferry to Kaledupa and from there we would be met by a small boat to take us to Hoga. It all seemed a bit complicated and long after our safe arrival at Hoga Island we wondered how on earth our journey from Makassar to Hoga Island had been so seamless.
It was an early morning start from the hotel in Makassar and we caught a taxi to the airport while it was still dark. A delay at Makassar meant we nearly didn’t make the ferry at Wanci but we later discovered that word gets round if the flight is delayed and if Wia is expecting guests she will call the ferry captain and ask him to wait.
As soon as we climbed out the taxi and paid the driver we were quickly hauled (literally) on board with our bags and as soon as our feet hit the deck the ropes were cast off, the engines fired up and we were off to Kaledupa. We’ve never had a ferry delayed for our benefit before but it’s clearly a common occurrence in these parts. No-one seemed bothered and we were only greeted by smiles and questions from curious fellow passengers. You do pay a small surcharge when the ferry waits but it’s worth it to get to your destination rather than try to find somewhere to overnight in Wanci to catch the ferry the next day.
The ferry’s first stop was a traditional floating bajo village (wooden huts built over the water interconnected by ramshackle wooden walkways and piers) and then at the end of the 2 hour ferry journey we arrived at Kaledupa where we were unceremoniously hauled off the ferry again and bundled onto a tiny, slightly less stable boat to continue to Hoga Island. Our inability to jump on and off boats with the same agility as your average Indonesian was a source of great amusement to everyone watching.
Eight hours after we left our Makassar hotel we arrived at the Hoga Island Dive Resort slightly disheveled and were warmly greeted by Wia with delicious doughnuts and fresh coffee. We had a chance to unwind and, after the mayhem of the Makassar streets and our long journey, we slowly accustomed ourselves to the tranquility of island life.
Hoga Island Dive Resort
Our wooden bungalow was simple and clean with a bed and mosquito net, shelves and a table. Five minutes after we moved in we unzipped our bags and the contents exploded within 30 seconds flat as we hunted down mosquito repellent, shampoo and a change of clothes. This always happens when we arrive somewhere new despite our best intentions to be neat and tidy and a source of regret when it comes to stuffing everything back inside our backpacks again!
Most of our time at Hoga, when we weren’t diving or being stuffed full of amazing food, we were lazing on the huge veranda, complete with table, chairs and mandatory hammock.
Each hut had a view of the beach and the sea beyond but the sunset was best enjoyed from a cane chair on the small deserted sandy beach with an ice cold beer. When I say deserted I mean there were no people however the beach was crawling with hermit crabs which formed a carpet wherever you went. I fed them coffee grounds in the morning which they seemed to enjoy.
Each adjoining pair of bungalows shared one mandi bathroom, accessible by stairs out the back but as there were few guests we had ours to ourselves. Bathing for the next 11 days consisted of scooping buckets of cold water out of the barrel and pouring over our heads.
Apart from a few days at the beginning of our stay we were the only guests. There was a group of four Germans with an Indonesian guide had travelled by boat from Bau Bau. Even by our standards they were fairly hard core and had beer for breakfast every day before diving – not something we would do and, frankly, a bit foolhardy but each to their own. Unfortunately, illness struck down three out of the four of them so they were cutting their stay short and heading back early the following day to Bau Bau.
There was also another German, Matthias, travelling alone who spent about 4 days at Hoga and an Algerian guy and his Chinese girlfriend who only stayed for one night. Matthias was the last of our fellow guests to leave and after that we had the place to ourselves.
Well, almost to ourselves. There were quite a few, quite large, monitor lizards roaming about at mealtimes around the kitchen and elsewhere in the surrounding forest next to our bungalow and on the beach; chickens that roosted in the trees at night (but thankfully no noisy roosters), and a few cats.
In addition to the hermit crabs there were also land crabs (the size of Paul’s fist) that roamed about after dark, rustling in the fallen leaves around the bungalows sounding a lot bigger than they were. And geckos. Lots of large (a foot long) tokay geckos living in the bathroom and the roof, as well as lots of your common or garden ordinary geckos. And there were fireflies. The roof space and bushes around our bungalow lit up at night with the bright tiny bulbs of fireflies. There was no shortage of wildlife around us which was perfect although we could have done without the mosquitoes. The mosquitoes were many and were vicious little critters.
Wia and her staff were amazing. Nothing was ever too much trouble and Wia’s cooking was out of this world although she always cooked too much. Although she spoke good English Paul’s Indonesian was improving so much so she spoke only Indonesian with him, which meant he had a lot of practice. By this time I had begun to understand a lot more and follow simple conversations but I still had a long way to go.
Our days were filled with snorkeling (Paul), lazing about on the veranda (a lot), reading (me), and eating delicious food (we can heartily recommend the warm doughnuts and amazing chips). I was up early each morning to see the village kids catch the boat to school on Kaledupa and throughout the day we watched people from the village come and go, and locals fishing out at sea. There were no roads on Hoga, no scooters or cars – the only mode of transport was boat from place to place on Hoga and to the nearby islands.
We quickly settled down to enjoy the simple island beach life.