It didn’t take Andy long to decide. A boatload of Indomie and smoking Bapaks in Batiks, an unshakeable stench of diesel, and a ceiling so low that only passengers aged to single-digits could walk upright—it convinced her in an instant. “I’m riding on top.”
We expected the public boat from Wangi-wangi to the outlying islands to be a bit of an adventure, but what we got was, well… was a half-dozen languid smokers at the Wanci pier trying to sell us a private speedboat ride. It was an alley full of kids playing trucks while their parents were manning the nearby eateries. It was sipping coconuts next to an ocean so placid that the sky had an identity crisis. It was two dozen motorbikes squeezing though any available centimeter between the pickups and flatbeds unloading goods onto the waiting boats. And it left a full forty-five minutes late.
Yeah, it was pretty much what we expected.
And riding on top, well, that was a throwback to the good old Maldives public boat. And it was just about as beautiful.
Sulawesi’s outlying islands—the majestic Wakatobi archipelago—lie sprinkled across a sea flat and shiny and sparkling that every gorgeous ray of tropic sun bounces right back to the heavens with its own turquoise twist woven in. And we cruised through two hours of it, hot breezes blasting our faces from atop the public boat lugging its way from Wanci harbor to Hoga Island.
It takes a brief layover in nearby—and much bigger—Kaledupa, but the trip to Hoga itself isn’t really that much of a challenge. In fact, with the sun blasting down and with the captain—all 22 years of him—stretched out for a nap across a motorbike strapped to the stern, it was fun.
Hoga, by the way, is exactly where the fabled Wakatobi really starts to feel like the hype.
Beaches are powdery and almost pink, palm trees laze their mop tops across the sky and splay firework bursts of shade across the strand, and seas are so still you start to wonder whether you’ve lost your hearing.
And here’s the kicker—it’s nearly empty.
We hopped out of the tiny canoe that ferried us over from big brother Kaledupa, rucked up the backpacks, and hiked off through the scratchy-dry beachside paths to find our guesthouse.
What we encountered was a scene from the freakiest zombie flick you’ve never seen. Dilapidated shacks perched precariously over volcanic rocks and sewage pits hacked into them. The shacks’ paint was peeling, the planks were warped, and the doors busted off their hinges. And it was quiet—far too quiet. We trudged past shack after shack, footsteps scratching through the sun-split scene, and no soul surfaced. I peeked through an uninhabited kitchen, nosed through a beat-up barn, and poked among the weeds and crooked tables.
Hundreds of bungalows. Not a person in sight. Cue the eerie, skin-crawling music.
Chickens clucked through the doorways, and silence followed fast on their heels. We hefted down the packs, guzzled a liter of water, and started looking for the zombies.
By all accounts of zombie cinema, they ought to come groaning and shuffling out of the woodwork about now. Cue the jangling chains and moans: it was just about time we start high-tailing through row after row of crappy shack with the undead hot on our heels and hungry for our brains.
No. Only silence.
I gulped. I ought to have packed a chainsaw instead of snorkel gear.
Then—a flicker of movement from the weed-bedraggled path! Andy screamed. I flung the butcher knife a perfect 20 yard shot into the monster’s skull. We grabbed rusted scrap iron and—
Oh, sorry. That’s just a bored imagination kicking in.
Reality consisted of Operation Wallacea—not a guesthouse, but a beachy kind of quasi-university for those needing an education in scuba tourism and oceanography kind of stuff. Wallacea kicks up a pretty hefty selection of courses when class is in session, and features quite a few bungalows in varying states of disrepair. In the off-season, the huts languidly await denizens and are open for anyone to rent.
But as it sat for us, school was out and zombie apocalypse was in. All we had to do was find some help in the maze of shacks and latrines and cafeterias, and that involved more than a few minutes of scrounging around the premises, poking our heads into doorways barely on their hinges, and gingerly stepping through remnants of the shacks.
Two dudes finally came to light, shy and unassuming.
The boss man wasn’t in, but his henchmen of the apocalypse, I mean, the staff, were mumbling through a conversation deep in the shade of the innermost recesses of the compound, and proved more than reluctant to show us around. A pair of lanky young men in sleeveless shirts and leather writ-bands and permanent slouches, they didn’t seem the types to be up and scouring the premises to find potential customers to escort around. No, they looked more the type to pilot a dive boat through a maze of reefs all day and strum out a dozen old tune on an acoustic at night.
They’d probably grown up on this tiny atoll, probably the only life they knew was one of fried rice for breakfast and a surfeit of sunshine all twelve hours of the daylight. Their eyes were numb to the wonder of the palms dripping lean spikes of leaves into the glassy blue ink of the sky, and could probably spot a sea turtle nest from twenty meters distant. Their gait was stuck in amble, clove cigarettes to their lips.
If the henchmen were chilled out to such an island state of mind, School must be something of a rocking time around the Wallacea compound. I’m picturing several hundred university students in swimwear, flip-flops, and a beach-nirvana mentality. Think Woodstock meets Jaws. Think spring break where class is actually on the beach. Think coral farming and turtle hatching and a tiny local populace trying to handle demand for toiletries and alcohol and prophylactics and writing utensils.
I wouldn’t come within torpedo range of the island when class is in session.
When it’s not, well, Wallacea is a pleasant little number with beachfront bungalows and a bit of running water. It’s a cheap sleep, but you may find spiders and mice.
We deferred to a less interesting but more amenities set-up a little ways down the beach.
By that afternoon, we were already settling into the Hoga routine: snorkel trips swimming out to the reefs, breaks back on the deserted beach, then another trip to the reefs a couple hours later. The beach featured plenty of palms and enough heat to roast a beef; sand was warm and golden, and stretched out all for us. All for us.
Island paradise for two, please.
I mean, of course there were others around. Somewhere. The bungalows we housed at had a few men working on some expansions; the guesthouse a kilometer further down had a half-dozen guys filming a travel documentary; and Wallacea in the other direction was a ghost town. But for all we could see in any direction, it was kind of like being on a deserted island – with a generator clanking away for a water pump and a circular saw.
At nights, though, the island truly shined. And by shined, I mean, got incredibly dark. No power grid exists, and generators only fired up for an hour or two, and that leaves any pair of wanderers on the beach below a million crystal stars splashed overhead. We unfolded the tripod and made pictures of the Milky Way and all its constellations. Then we sat and gazed and gawked a little more.
“Nights like this,” we whispered to each other, “need no sunrise.”
Water-wise, Hoga ain’t no slouch, either. It’s got a hundred meters of tidal muck sifting beneath a sea so clear you’re surprised to find your feet wet. Mask-up, belly-in and slide over the seaweed and pipefish; pop in for a visit with the occasional mantis shrimp, get friendly with the starfish only six inches from your face. Keep kicking, because now the coral starts – about 5 meters of horizontal garden bubbling up for a nice little pop of color in the sea.
And that’s it.
For the horizontal.
From there, well, things get pretty darn vertical. The drop-off plummets to a black abyss far out of eyes’ reach, and it does so with more style than an Olympic diver in a bow tie. The coral run rampant straight down the cliff face, offering a panorama of tropical fish in firework color and ever-increasing size as one descends. Drop straight through the textbook ecosystems and fish specimens on your way down.
This is the stuff divers obsess over.
This is the scene that kept replaying through my dreams, the flitting, morphing, grotesque-but-fascinating creatures of the deep creeping across my vision in eight thousand colors patched right across the spectrum every time I closed my eyes that night. The reef is haunting; its beauty defies your brain to let it drop.
Here the stonefish squat on the rocks and stare unblinking, while the angelfish flit by in deceptive bliss. Schools of yellowfin scurry in schools down below, and false clown poke in and out of their dancing anemone homes. But the real show, the centerpiece of Hoga’s reef, has to be the lionfish.
Large as a rugby ball and quiet as a sinner stewing through a sermon, lionfish float by in greater numbers than I’ve heretofore witnessed in all our travels. Prouder that a rooster, fatter than a turkey, and with all their glistening fins unfurled to the unseen current, these bad boys scowl worse than Scrooge in a stock market drop, feature more needles than a quilter’s junk drawer, and glimmer all the phantom beauty of psychedelic tie-dyed tiger in a hemp emporium.
Each afternoon, as dusk found a fingerhold on the sun and dragged him oceanward, we couldn’t turn around with coming face-to-face with another prowling lionfish. We stopped dead-swim. They stared. We stared. Slowly, the predator floated by.
Knowing the venom that lurks in the dozens of their spines, and the distance to the nearest healthcare facility several islands over (unless Igor could be persuaded to rub out his cigarette and hunt up the key to Wallacea’s medicine cabinet), it was a little unnerving. But somehow wonderful.
“Yes, but if you come here even ten or fifteen year ago,” Ms. Wia, the landlady of the bungalows down the beach, declares, “you see these reefs twice as good.” She flips her hand in careless circles out in the direction of the water. “The water gypsies do it. They still using the dynamite.”
She means the Bajo. It’s a tight-knit and mysterious ethnicity spread from the Philippines down through Indonesia and Malaysia. In all the thousands of miles of geography they straddle, Bajo manage to maintain something of a common language and a common culture: Walden-simple ways of life—dawns and sunsets fishing, hot days mending nets and smoking; little schooling, little healthcare, little electricity. These are the same Bajo with their tourist village on Wangi-wangi, and the same ones in the other direction on Pulau Tomia.
These Bajo are also the ones just across the channel at Kaledupa, in a village of stilts and skiffs and canoes. Wia accuses them of dynamiting, bit by bit, the most precious natural resource of the islands, the cash cow for the tourists, the reason for Wallacea’s location. What’s in it for the dynamiters? Well, a quick and effective fishing trip that leaves the colorful inbaitants of the reefs – both marketable and not – floating to the surface. Enough sale-able fish can be gathered, apparently, to cover the cost of the dynamite and bring a tempting profit.
I’m a bit skeptical, personally, of the accusations. Not that I’m naïve enough to think that National Park status would instantly wipe away a generation of environmental malpractice. I share Wia’s bleak assessment: if Indonesia can’t recruit and place and pay capable and effective park rangers and law enforcement across the islands to ensure proper fishing techniques, nothing is going to change.
On the other hand, it’s unlikely that the illicit fishermen would chose this reef to blast to bits – this is the home base and the center of Operation Wallacea, whose ocean-mongering students brings boatloads of income to Hoga – and the trickle-over – to Kaledupa – each new school session.
Plus, I didn’t see the evidence in the water. No busted-up reefs, no suspicious holes pocked into the thriving coral garden.
But that doesn’t mean the dynamiting isn’t going on in other places.
After all, I can’t help but wonder why Kaledupa, which possesses the same ocean currents and the same reef-building minerals, the same topography and the same underwater structure, as Hoga, should be completely barren of reefs, while Hoga is wallowing in beauteous majesty that brings underwater obsessors from across the globe. Is it true the villagers, Bajo or otherwise, have already busted up their centuries-in-the-making coral reefs for a quick cash pay-off, sacrificed their ancestral livelihood on the altar of consumerism? Exchanged the wonder and perpetual income of the sea for the cash to buy a decent motorbike?
I wish I would have pursued the subject a little further. I wish I could have spoken with the Bajo villagers, or with a fisherman on Kaledupa. Ms. Wia, I suspect, gleaned her information from the documentary team that was lodging in her bungalows, and from the steady stream of non-student Westerners who opt for better food and nicer beds than Wallacea affords.
Next time to Hoga, I’ll find more sources to ask.
What I did find in the water, though, was solitude. An early-morning jaunt to sea provided a shimmering, immobile plate of blue sky at my feet. The sole ripples sprang from the silent oars of a half-dozen tiny skiffs; men and women calmly guided their rafts over the magic surface – half mirror bouning back the clouds to themselves, and half window, offering unfettered glimpses of the fish below.
Donning fins and snorkel, I shuffled through the chilled water of dawn, until I dared to attempt a float. Miniature kicks and sweeps led me slowly over the muck. The tide was out, leaving the sand of the floor six inches from my face and belly. As if the going wasn’t slow enough, I found myself constantly turning aside from my intended destination of the drop-off. A net, and another, and another, kept me skirting fishermen’s boats.
These nets strung out in wide radii through the shallow pools, and I soon discovered that the skiffmen, in their perpetual cigarettes and knock-off European soccer jerseys, were not working alone. Rather, their nets strung out dozens of meters between them, and they carefully rowed to and away and back again to close the circle of the net, or to encompass another nice catch they could clearly see below.
Their chief problems, it seemed, were hanging their nets on a protrusion of mis-placed antler coral, or having to adjust their fishing to accommodate a vacationing foreigner intent not on feeding their families, but on soaking in the golden light and meditative silence of the Wakatobi morning. Golden sun glistened across the numb waters spread listlessly up to the carpet of sand. Drifting over these were the rampant green palms plastered against the impossibly blue sky, over-hung with loitering, strolling, careless clouds with nowhere to be and no hurry to arrive.
Somebody should have been around to crank out postcard photos.
And it was precisely that solitude that kept Andy and I planted on Hoga. No less than a kilometer of beach was expressly ours. The henchmen of Wallacea were content to smoke and listen to the radio; the workers in our lodging were dustily constructing more bungalows, and took their breaks around a generator and flat-screen TV rather than ocean. And Ms. Wia’s guests would be off in the days to visit other sites – both above and below water – for their documentary.
That documentary itself was a product of a news station, running a series of travel pieces showcasing to viewers the beauty of their homeland, and the possibility to travel domestically and visit world-class wonder. It’s an interesting proposition – marketing tourism internally to the quickly-growing market of Indonesian travelers. Jakartans love to hear stories of the beauty of their nation, Andy and I have learned that much from our years here, and they love to imagine themselves escaping the tiny rooms and dusty smog of the metropolis to witness firsthand the glory that they previously thought confined to Bali or to Thailand.
The documentary is a bit of propaganda, I suppose, designed to sell travel to the islands to the native owners, a project that skips over the alleged dynamiting of the reefs, of the bamboo homes of the often-impoverished denizens, of the scarcity of visitors currently wading from the boats and onto the shores. No, I expect this documentary to focus instead on the wondrous sunsets and the glistening palms, on the color-bursting reefs and a steaming plate of grilled fish splayed next to the steaming rice and flavor-bomb sambal.
The guys were lively and young and eager to test their English. They interviewed us, a pair of foreigners shopping for a hammock from Ms. Wia. Andy gushed excitedly over the starry, starry nights and the wondrous reefs, and the lovely smiles of all the welcoming residents.
I was still scowling at the hammock and gazing longingly at the distant reef, impatient to return.
That evening we languished through the final Hoga routine – the watery float over the d boundless abstractions in an Easter-themed palette, and the eventual appearance of the galaxies for our perusal. All enjoyed in perfect quiet; even the waves seemed loathe to rumble into our acoustic accompaniment.
The night and its stars would spin slowly by, until the sun come trouncing over the horizon and blasting the islands in splendor, and our waiting skiff send us off to the next island on the Wakatobi chain. Zombies and lions and sunny waters, hammocks and flippers and reef-crowded drop-offs – Hoga is an island for the ages.
Or at least for another vacation. At least until Wallacea opens its doors again and peppers the town with groaning, shuffling hordes of aspiring marine biologists.