Bunaken: Reef Master
Andy gripped my hand even harder. The plane rocked, steadied, and dropped lower for its final approach. Our third attempt at a final approach, to be exact. After two last-minute botched approaches, to be even more exact.
The first went like this: we sped over mile after mile of runway from a questionable height of a hundred feet. “We need to go down. We have to get lower.” Andy kept insisting. “We’re not going to hit it.” We didn’t. At the last minute, without any pilot notice, the power surged back and yanked us back up to the cloudy heavens.
I closed my eyes and shivered in a new bout of flu-fever chills, then burst into a ragged coughing fit. Andy’s grip twisted tighter, and she trembled, but couldn’t stop staring out the window.
The second try was similar, but involved less gut-churning trickery at single-digit altitudes.
On the third, our flight pitched, leveled, then screeched its tires across the tarmac, palms speeding past the windows. Andy sighed in breathless relief. “Thank God. My stomach was in the life vest compartment located underneath my seat,” she quipped.
Our island vacation wasn’t exactly off to the smoothest start, but at least we’d made it to Manado. Miles of sunshine, beachfront, and crystal waves at the world famous—well, at least among divers—island of Bunaken was less than an hour away.
For those not privy to the divers’ whispers and rumors of Bunaken, the name might ring no bells nor spark no interest. But for those who have sat up late night in hammocks and saltwater chatter, for those willing to lean in closer over the near-empty bottles on the rough-timber tables, for those who heed the whispers of the hardiest wanderers under the waves, the name Bunaken will slip to the ear and carve an impression of an island wonderland beyond compare, an El Dorado of mystic coral gardens soaking in the clearest waters ever to caress an isle’s white sands.
“Don’t go,” a colleague told me over coffee-time chatter at work. “Small beach. Expensive lodging. Nothing to see on the island.” She shook her head, grabbed her papers off the table, and started to class. “Indonesia’s got tons of better islands.”
But the pull of the twilight chatter under the drifting stars of the tropics pulled me back—back to the vision of sparkling fishes flitting among the sun-lustrous reef and the heaving panorama of color and life stretched before my goggled eyes. No—if even half the grizzled old divers spoke was true, then I was in for amazement.
I just didn’t realize that amazement would include fever trembling on a third-time’s-a-charm landing among the razorback mountains and sweeping crosswinds of Manado’s international airport. That landing left Andy trembling just as badly as my fever left me.
But we made it to Manado.
At the crooked tip of the craziest-shaped island you’d could dream up, Manado swills in year-round sun with no real rainy season to speak of. Its modest harbor brought Dutch shippers here as a stop on their maritime spice route, and its pleasant clime and fruit-laden hills drew in missionaries by the barrelful to spread good news to the generations of islanders spread across the rifts and valleys and peaks of Sulawesi’s northernmost tip.
Mellowed by the sun and undeniable island vibe, Andy and I left behind the thrills of the flight to cruise past rice paddies and rambutan plantations and banana trees giant enough to dwarf orchards full of tamer apples. Dreamy moments floated by before we found ourselves toting backpacks across a jetty and boarding a tiny speedboat booked for Bunaken. Before we knew it, we were lying on the roof of that boat, brilliant sun floating above, crystal water sliding beneath, stretched and warm and happy as two kittens sprawled in a summertime sunbeam.
Manado, that lovely little tip of the curliest island in the archipelago, dropped off to the stern, and Bunaken, that glowing little jewel of our obsession, slowly drew into focus across the glittering expanse of the lake-smooth sea.
Oceanographers could explain the lilting currents that swirl around this tropic speck of land; a marine biologist could tackle the bonanza of luscious plankton they bring; a climatologist expound upon the precise balance of baking sunshine and drizzling raindrops mixing in from above.
What can I tell you?—only that the combination adds up to some of the craziest reefs and variegated life found in any waters anywhere. Coral gardens thick as glaciers and glowing like Vegas at Christmas stretch meter past dizzy meter in front, beside, behind, and below you. And sifting slowly through it all is a Jurassic size herd of the most pompous-colored fish you can ever imagine.
Clumsy, purple boxfish stare with puppy-dog eyes; sleek sweetlips flount fluorescent stripes; feisty Nemo look-alikes charge out of their anemone shelters to challenge the GoPro; lumber-headed Morays lurk gaping in the crevasses; and the floating poison porcupine of the lionfish struts through the midst of it all in unabashed pride. In Bunaken, you witness creatures so bizarre you’ll swear George Lucas was scuba-tripping here on LSD before he dreamed up the Star Wars Cantina scenes.
Whatever you’ve ever heard whispered about the glories of Bunaken’s reefs, don’t believe it. Double it, exaggerate it, expound upon it, and then you’re closer to the truth.
Andy and I have spent the better part of two years skipping around the beaches of the archipelago, and we’ve yet to see the rival for Bunaken’s watery bliss.
But first, there was the small matter of a hotel and a fever to deal with.
Fortunately, the lodging wasn’t tough to work with. The guesthouses and hotels are spread along two of the main coasts of the island. Between the lodgings lie some of the most treacherous, pot-holed, blind-curve-in-a-jungle frenzy of a road you’ve ever seen a motorbike bounce over. Miniature hogs root among the decaying leaves and banana trees; hens and roosters cluck and strut across the street. And in every open clearing you come to, a head-high pile of sand and a truckload of cinderblocks means yet another hotel is going up.
Build another spot? Why not? Bunaken’s got world-class reefs right out the back door. No boat is needed: just wade out to the reef. Plus, unlike most dive spots with this kind of wildlife, it’s accessible. Unlike Banda or Wakatobi or Raja Ampat, This little gem sits less than an hour’s ride away from the coast of a major city with a well-connected airport.
Europe’s practically got a train rolling in here: up and down that rutted and black-hogged road, the white guys come strolling in in flip flops and sunscreen, smacking of French and Dutch and Deutschland. Euros flow more freely than Rupiah, and every other boat off the jetty might as well fly the Union Jack. Europe to Singapore. Singapore to Manado. From there, Bunaken is just a boat hop away.
In other words, Bunaken is accessible. And it’s lucrative.
What exactly did that mean for us as our boat churned into the high-tide parking spot right there in the surf? Well, it meant a beachfront stay in a basic room at rates about double what we’d paid in Maluku. “It’s the Europeans,” I growled to Andy, “driving the prices up with their Euros.”
She nodded and felt my forehead. “Grumpy. Still got that fever. Better get you a nap.”
Fortunately, naps ain’t hard to come by, either, in a place with lazy hammocks under every other palm tree on the coast. After the nap, a dinner in the hotel dining area was included in the price. That’s not uncommon, here, either, to have a daily dinner thrown in to your hotel fare. The reason is simple: not many restaurants, not much transportation, not many attractions outside of the water. In Bunaken, you wake, you dive, you nap, you dive. And you sleep. Or snorkel, in our case.
If you show up looking for much else, well, there’s not exactly a lot to find.
We walked the village a few nights. It involved bats circling overhead, rank jungles crowding the jagged paths, those same black hogs rooting among banana trees, and files of locals ambling slowly through the afternoon sun. It was local. It was great.
The village features a miniature beach full of eight million boats: fishers, ferries, dinghies, and scuba specials all crowded into real estate fit for half that number. Half are parked right on the beach. The other half a few meters out to sea. To the left, the Christian half of town; to the right, the Muslim.
On the Muslim side, we met a man sitting in the shade surrounded by kids; two of his own, and a horde from his neighbors. They squealed and posed for pictures: one sister tried to spin the one-year-old’s head 180 degrees to see the camera. But the kiddo was shy, and his head didn’t spin so far. The father/uncle/neighbor chatted with us between snapshots: he worked for a tour company in Manado, every day commuting by ferry to arrive and guide tourists around some towns in the countryside. The main draw up there is the food market featuring not just the typical goats-chickens-fish, but also hogs and dogs and rats and bats and bugs and every other non-halal creature that a guy could imagine. That’s right: the child-bedecked fellow earns his bread showing infidels around some of the most outlandish cuisine available on that, or any other, island—they say the only thing with four legs not eaten up there is the table, maybe the chairs. Pork knuckles? Bat soup? Mice kebabs? Dog heads? None of such delicacies he’s permitted to think of tasting. Poor guy.
In the evening, he’s back to his island home. “Hey,” he tried us, “do you feel like touring some villages in Sulawesi?”
We declined, but decided to buy some roasted peanuts from the tiny shack his sister was running. And by “running,” I mean texting disinterestedly while ignoring potential customers. We insisted, and walked away crunching some peanuts.
Down the beach, it’s much the same: houses frying up the evening meal, neighbors sitting under shade trees chatting, children running amuk in sweaty summer playtime, impromptu football matches if any sand is left free from parked boats.
On the Christian side of the town, we tried more portraits, but now the parents got in on the act, dads posing for flirtatious pictures with the moms, adult siblings laughing with each other and introducing their kids. One lady owned a tiny shop alongside the wharf of the public ferry; the dad looked like he could bench press the boat and swim to Borneo without breaking a sweat. The little kids giggled and swarmed around.
The houses seemed sturdy but simple; the churches and mosques stood proud in the glow of the twilight, and all the townsmen spoke of siblings and neighbors they’ve had who intermarried on the other side and crossed town for their new life and new religion. “But we’re OK,” they always insisted, “we’re all peaceful here.”
The next day we set off on a water-safari of remarkable proportions—dropping anchor and splashing into the glass-smooth mirror of a sea. I don’t know how many times I’ve tried to describe the sight of a snorkel trip in Indonesian seas—it must be dozen at least on this blog—but every time, I think words come up far short of the reality.
Maybe the best way to communicate my fascination is to say the many hours later, after I’d showered and toweled and stepped through the cricket chirps and fluttering bats of the garden to my dinner, after I’d waddled back to a beachside hammock, after I’d closed my eyes and drifted into the fluffy slumber under the stars, the sea seeped back into mind.
All my dreams morph into the strange phantasms of the deep: the goggly-eyed, many-limbed, fluorescent moans and slow drift of the life beneath the waves. It comes in many colors and tentacles and unending motions, one creature shifting to another, that monstrosity flicks its tail and blends into coral and squirms itself into a turtle, or a porpoise, or a flounder, all reaching for me, swimming for me, bringing wide mouths of beaks and teeth and fins and tentacles to me until I’m swimming in a gooey syrup of mesmerized wonder.
I wake slowly to the star-speckled night and the quiet pour of waves just beyond reach—waves still teeming with wonders more bizarre than those peopling my dreams. Palms slick slowly past each other in the high breeze above.
And each sun-side dip into the reefs’ wondrous flurry merely fuels more nocturnal visions. White ribbons of sunlight drift down through the smallest waves and curve unending arcs across all the colors of the deep.
I couldn’t stop taking pictures. The reef dwellers flitted and flurried past.
Topside, back on the boat, shivering with the wind whipping past as we sped around the island to another reef, Andy tried to tell the dive masters how lucky they were to be born Bunakenese. “It’s amazing!” She shouted over the drone of the outboard motor. “And you see it every day!”
The young man smiled, but shook his head. Staring off to Manado and the vast arms of Sulawesi beyond that, he told us, “But I already boring here.”
He tried a grin that slipped back down to nothing. “Every day we dive. We know the reefs. We know the fish we will see. Very nice everything, but I already very boring.”
He’s twenty-five, been in Bunaken’s tourism trade since he was ten, and has been leading dives for years. The island home with so little happening has always been his only haunt, and the ripple-waves and ticker-tape reef which formed his childhood and shaped his livelihood have grown stale in their salty kisses.
He wants to move away. He wants to see more of life. With so much of Europe jetting in to taste his island, he’s bored and wants to slip away.
Fortunately, the best cure for an island-fevered divemaster is a buddy with a six-string who knows a few chords. Fortunately, this lonely divemaster has about half a dozen such buddies—and they were all free in the evenings.
It wasn’t so fortunate for us.
Not that I mind a beachside sing-along on a moonlit, palm-lined swatch of sand—unless it’s right around the corner from where I plan on sleeping. At that point, the half-dozen self-taught strummers and wailers going into the third rendition of “In the Jungle” get a bit monotonous. On the chorus, another guitar and two more voices burst through the closed windows and doubled the nightmare.
The lion may sleep tonight, my friends, but I sure wasn’t.
But what else can you expect from these young and dead-ended beach-bodies? Why not learn the guitar? Why not push the guests not just for snorkel dips but also nightfall soirees to their humble accompaniment? Why not hoodwink the lurking depression in some old Beatles hits and waltz into the midnight full throttle?
But the morning brings forgetting, and plenty of breakfast in the hotel’s upper room. A wide balcony hosts a table with a sweeping view over the crystal bay, the cool blue beyond, and Sulawesi’s saw-tooth horizon. Meals feature Asian garlic noodles and fried rice alongside western fare of toast and fried eggs and chicken thighs. It’s simple but filling, no frills nutrients and some decent flavor—and that’s basically how the dive-shack stint runs: you don’t need to go out, you keep your vacation loaded with free time, and you lengthen the evenings into marathon star-counting and hammock-chatting sessions on the veranda, till sleep closes in and drifts down gently to you eyelids.
Then the guitar-toting divemasters barged in a splinter the dreams to pieces.
Is it possible to catch a sniffle of island fever in a week’s stay? Well, we got a little restless one afternoon, and went off chasing a sunset, up and over the fetid jungle hills, clear across to the western rim of the island.
The sky was free of its humid haze for the first time all week, and as the sun dripped past the blazing stage and painted the distant hills of North Sulawesi in the golden light, we shelled out a few dollars for a scooter and sped off on a reckless quest toward the west end of the island, to see that hotshot sun glow its final flames over the horizon.
“Sped off” actually isn’t the best choice of terms.
The roads bounced our rented motorbike nearly to oblivion, and we ached and wailed louder than divemasters with guitars. Tiny shacks spread from the splayed weeds draping lazy heads across overgrown paths. Local workers trod the long roads home in the fading day, or bounced past on motorbikes of their own, arms full of evening groceries.
Above, hints of the glorious sunset pinks emerged through the thick leaves: tell-tale signs of picture-perfect tropic glory. But we were surrounded by a darkening jungle instead.
We didn’t know the way. Vague talk of forks in the road and of radio towers as landmarks came through in broken English and too-fast Indonesian. The thin traffic likewise prevented many stops for further questions.
And of course, the apocalyptic road conditions prevented speeding anywhere.
At first, we laughed at the constant swerving and braking and struggling to keep heading west. Then, we grew silent. Finally, we argued. Which fork at which place? Should we keep on or turn back? What exactly was the old man with the stringer of silver fish trying to tell us?
Just point the bike west and keep on chugging—that’s what we decided. Turn on the headlight as darkness seeped into the jungle floor.
It seemed like hours before we puttered up to a decrepit jetty half-flooded in the tide and dying light. There, a handful of people struggled to carry a frail, barely-breathing grandmother over the swollen tides to a waiting boat beyond.
We stopped and watched a moment—a stern-faced man carrying the anemic woman across the broken planks as the tides crashed in. His wife held hands to her face and watched from the shore. Little ones stood silent by.
Where was the boat at the end of the jetty taking her? Why this night with the high tide and evening winds sweeping in?
All I know is that I saw it, and that it painted our sunset search in quite a different light.
Back in the last town, chasing the last path open, we ditched the bike and bribed a preteen with a sweet tooth to guide us to the fabled shore. He obliged, pocketed the candy we offered, and rambled off into the dark forest. We followed, slapping mosquitoes and waving at villagers staring at us from the doors of bamboo huts. We stumbled down trails and leaped flooded ditches and kept a wary eye on the graying light overhead.
“This way,” the boy turned and shouted back. “Down here.”
We scampered after him through the palms and bananas, down a non-existent trail over the steep edge of a west-facing hill. At the bottom, surrounded by thick forest and deep shadows, he spread his hands. “Here it is.”
We stared at the woods in front of us—it looked more like a cruddy creek than a sunset shore. Dense spreads of leafy trees obscured everything but a marshy mesh of a trash-laden western edge of a legendary island. No sunset in sight.
No beach in sight—just the thriving mangroves. True, these nutrient factories help fuel the colorful combustion of the surrounding reefs’ wildlife. But they sure make sunset watching tough.
We sighed and turned back to the bike. We tossed out candy to the village kiddos on our way out of town. We bumped and shook over those same rutted roads in the near dark. We did take a side trip, just for laughs, over one of the questionable intersections we had argued over earlier. Five minutes later, we were strolling out onto a robust tourist pier in a gaping harbor piled with scuba launches and transport boats.
The day’s dying grays faded to black behind the unmistakable cone of Manado Tua in the distance. This was the south beach. This would have been a wonderful sunset-watching spot.
But that’s Bunaken for you—it saves its best for the water.
This is an island paradise for those loving nothing more than long hours in the deep beneath, and long afternoons in hammocks, and maybe some long evenings rocking out with the karaoke dive masters and the unending rhythm of the surf. Just beyond our sight and out of our reach, even as we steered that bike back over the rutted and gutted paths through the forests, the torrid rainbow of the coral glided on in blackened night colors.
I loved Bunaken. I couldn’t get enough of the afternoon sun shimmering onto the toothy masquerade of the neon reefs. I loved the siestas on the terrace, typing away my useless little love notes to Bunaken. The nighttime serenades, well, I endured. But not in any good mood at breakfast.
Was it worth the thrice-attempted landing, and the flu and island fever, and even the sunset quest gone wrong?
Indulge in one more story with me, and decide yourself.
On the way out, we pulled our gear onto the sun-splattered roof a local ferry, and leaned back to enjoy the warm glow and salt spray of the tropics. Boats slipped smoothly by, the island faded, and we entered the ripened, chilled blue of deeper seas. Suddenly, shouts rang from the bow: “Come! Come! They’re here!”
Dozens of cell phones cameras appeared in an instant, and as Andy and I clamored to the starboard flank, we saw exactly what all the fuss was about. “Get the camera! The camera!”
I was already fumbling with the latch of the bag. Andy was frantic. “Hurry, before they leave.”
In the heavenly blue of the sea beside us swam three dozen of the smoothest, swiftest, most beautiful dolphins ever to play alongside any motorboat. We watched as they surfaced and sank, meter past meter, in curves and arcs and grace, into the clear blue sea of the channel. Then, a mamma dolphin led her little prince in an innocent frolic right before our eyes, his tiny gilt body flicking its effortless fins at a pace that put our boat’s twin engines to shame. Then, with a nudge of her gentle fin, she guided her sleek sea rocket back to the blue oblivion.
Yes, I’ll be back, Bunaken.