OR, ESCAPING JAKARTA AND THE JOURNEY ON TO BUNAKEN, SNORKELLERS HEAVEN.
I rushed to leave Jakarta for my final destination of Bunaken. I was so happy to be on the road again (or should I say in the air) that I never even contemplated it being dark when I arrived at the bustling port of Manado in North Sulawesi. It was, and the hotel was scary, and the place was alarming, but I had got there and would spend the night before bartering for a boat ticket first thing the next morning.
This place I had heavily researched. I knew even when in London that I wanted to go to this difficult-to-access, but wonderful top-ten-in-the-world for snorkelling. I had decided upon this along with swimming with whale sharks in Cebu in the Philippines and visiting the orangutan rehabilitation centre in Sepilok two months previously. These things were carved in stone, gonna do them before I die, things. Each one was in a small specialised venue. In other words, each one was a bastard to get to.
The Hotel Celebe is a rough and ready two-star pit stop. I had chosen it as it was cheap and right by the port where the boats to Bunaken went from. They were surly staff as this was clearly a place where a lot of ducking and diving went down. Most small ports have this vibe and you have to tie down your belongings or they’ll disappear in front of your eyes.
I don’t think that I ate anything that day and felt uneasy going out to get a morsel. when you arrive somewhere like that frazzled, and fraught and it’s getting dark you feel vulnerable I think I just stayed in my room wanting to relax and watch a bit of Netflix. There began a new test to my mettle, Netflix suddenly said that I had no account. There started a farcical call to them. To be fair the man was a lifesaver, I was semi-hysterical and aware of the huge cost of the call but he talked me down from the ceiling as I whimpered and whined on.
Me: Please save me. and be quick I’m calling from far away.
Him: Tell me what is the problem?
Me: Netflix is saying I don’t have an account and I’m in a very scary place and need to take my mind off what a fix I’ve got myself into….
Him: Don’t worry I can see what’s happened and I can fix it right now!
Me: Thank you, thank you, thank you. I thought I was going to go mad…
Him: I can see why you’re so upset but it’s ok now [then, more comforting words as I cried a bit]
Suffice to say he cleared up the matter (for indeed it was their fault) and all was well. For a change it wasn’t the ordeal I expected it to be. What a lovely man just in time! Sometimes a lifebelt is thrown to you when you need it most and I was able to watch some shit in my room and get a half-decent night’s kip despite the noisy exterior.
The morning brought a beautiful bright day with a much less sinister feel to everything. Indeed there was a splendid market being set up as I raced over to have a hard bartering session for my boat passage over. I’d booked a homestay in a ‘bungalow’ there at the tiny village on the island which was just around the corner to where the boat came in, so I felt reasonably happy as I sipped a coffee and had my dire little breakfast that was included in the hotel price. All was well and after an hour I was on my boat for the half-hour boat trip across the water.
By this time it was incredibly hot and the sea air was glorious. I love boats and this tricky trip was reaching its conclusion I could start breathing again. My weary body responded to the adrenaline of both the bright and loud market and the running around checking out boat prices. I am a good haggler so I was smug and buzzing from the experience.
It’s truly a magical experience getting to this place of clean air and pristine waters. After the loud smoggy smelly Jakarta, it was a cleansing of the soul experience. Upon disembarking, I found a beautiful little bright and clean hamlet and was pleased to see a lovely little house where I would be staying for the next two days. My room was pretty and a comfy living area and terrace were where I was to eat the home-cooked meals. Great you think, as did I, but it turned out to be an oppressive situation. To start with my room soon became unbearably hot. I had wondered why the lady showed me the fan in such a demanding way. She also told me sternly the food times that you had to adhere to. This was fine I thought but actually, when I met her husband they started on their racketeering and made it awful to spend any time there at all. Luckily I didn’t find this out until I had returned from my first snorkelling adventure.
Looking back, it’s strange I have no photos of that village and the pretty one-storey buildings on a simple grid with an odd simple shop, all painted brightly and well maintained. I think I must have got rid of them by accident freeing up space on my camera, or maybe because I ended up disliking the woman and her husband so much. I just have a video of leaving through the village on the back of a motorbike. This is an example of ‘blanking’ out bits as you travel and when you don’t have a handwritten journal. It seems for this chapter it’s left out in any pictorial sense which is a shame.
Top Tip: A lot of the smaller guest houses can have a rapacious attitude about squeezing extra money from you. They prey on solo travellers especially. It’s unpleasant and can ruin a trip. In my case what started as a fairy tale became a horror story. If this happens just make other arrangements it’s simply not worth the hassle. I was lucky as I met the chap who had the other room there. We finally moved on together to another place by the water that wasn’t much more expensive and infinitely better on all levels. Do not be bullied by these unpleasant people. Sometimes you’re just unlucky and get lured by the price and pictures when booking. That’s why I tend to book for just one or two nights if I’m unsure and know there are plenty of other places to stay. Don’t feel embarrassed to pack up and bugger off!
The First Swim and Snorkel
I booked a boat snorkelling tour from the query so I literally chucked my stuff into my room blissfully unaware that later I would be unable to sleep in the oven of a room with one wonky fan and no breeze at all. I met the group and off we went.
This island has plenty of coral around and a huge amount of sea life. As soon as you jump in there are almost too many things to see and the water is limpid, sparkling and well, bright. I’ll cover all this later as it was really worth the big journey to get there, I saw that immediately. We went to three sites by three islets and you could see how well they maintain and protect their well-deserved reputation.
Wiki: “Bunaken National Park extends over an area of 890.65 km2 of which only 3% is terrestrial, including Bunaken Island, as well as the islands of Manado Tua, Mantehage, Nain and Siladen.”
“The waters of Bunaken National Marine Park are up to 1,566 m deep in Manado Bay, with temperatures ranging between 27 and 29 °C. It has a high diversity of – corals, fish, echinoderms or sponges. Notably, 7 of the 8 species of giant clams that occur in the world, occur in Bunaken. It also claims to have seven times more genera of coral than Hawaii, and has more than 70% of all the known fish species of the Indo-Western Pacific.“
” Oceanic currents may explain, in part, why Bunaken National Marine Park has such a high level of biodiversity. Northeasterly currents generally sweep through the park but abundant counter currents and gyros related to lunar cycles are believed to be a trap for free swimming larvae. This is particularly true on the south side of the crescent-shaped Bunaken Island, lying in the heart of the park. A snorkeler or diver in the vicinity of Lekuan or Fukui may spot over 33 species of butterfly fish and numerous types of groupers, damsels, wrasses and gobies. The gobies, smallish fish with bulging eyes and modified fins that allow them to attach to hard surfaces, are the most diverse but least known group of fish in the park.”
So you can see that it has a lot to offer and snorkelling reaps more or less the same splendour as diving in this particular environment. My friend who went with me to the new beach cabins actually said when he saw my pictures and videos that he felt I might have seen more than he did by diving! He was especially envious of “my” turtle. The only thing I missed out on was cadging a space on a night dive which is usually reserved only for divers but sometimes they will allow a snorkeller to join them. I couldn’t nab a space when I was there however my pal said it was a strange and beautiful experience but he didn’t actually see that much. Luck of the draw like all these things, one usually hopes to see a display by a group of squid amongst other stuff. I was lucky enough to have a show of incandescent marine creatures in the waves coming in one night in Punta Allen, Mexico so ‘Je ne regrette rien’.
After hours of swimming and wonder, I was dropped back in the colourful little village for a rough night despite my exhaustion.
See you next time with the pictures and more experience of island life and the change of tempo.