The au­then­tic es­cape

Get away from it all on Su­lawesi’s To­gian Is­lands

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - MATTHEW CROMPTON

ON a map, In­done­sia’s Su­lawesi looks like a starfish be­ing blown east­ward in the wind. This is the world’s 11th-largest is­land, a ge­o­log­i­cal odd­ity pop­u­lated by some of the most ex­cep­tional crea­tures and cul­tures in Asia.

Al­though I’ve jour­neyed for nearly three full days to reach the re­mote To­gian Is­lands in Su­lawesi’s heart, I’ve come as much for what the is­lands lack as for what they have. I’ve come, in short, to get away.

My quest is for an au­then­tic es­cape: a place where the flot­sam is drift­wood in­stead of plas­tic, there are no crowds and the peace is all-per­va­sive.

It’s at sun­set on the third day when I fi­nally step on to the dock of To­gian Is­land Re­treat with owner Sylvie Man­ley, the sun kiss­ing the west­ern hori­zon in a blaze of orange fire and my bones still buzzing from a 21/ 2-hour boat ride.

‘ ‘ I don’t like to use the word re­sort,’’ she says as we walk to­wards the cot­tages. ‘‘For me, it’s much more than that.’’

In­deed, for a Robin­son Cru­soe fan­tasy, you’d be hard-pressed to find a bet­ter im­age. On the broad porch of my cot­tage be­neath the shade of a co­conut grove, I sit in the dusk with a cold beer, ad­mir­ing the weath­er­beaten wooden j etty j ut­ting into the wa­ter like a crooked spine. There are tiny vol­canic islets in the dis­tance, the sea is as flat and clear as glass, a turquoise mot­tled cobalt with sea­grasses. There are no phones here, Man­ley has told me, and no roads, tele­vi­sion, in­ter­net ac­cess or neigh­bours.

If the apoca­lypse were to hap­pen else­where, it’s en­tirely con­ceiv­able that you’d miss it.

This is not to say the is­lands are with­out their com­forts. I’m stirred from my reverie by sud­den cries of ‘‘ Man­gia! Man­gia!’’ from the Ital­ian trav­ellers next door. They’re has­ten­ing to­wards the cafe like preda­tors out for blood, and I can soon see why. This tiny out­post, so iso­lated it can’t even re­ceive mail, serves, amaz­ingly, what must be some of the best in­ter­na­tional food in In­done­sia.

I’ve been on the road a long time, and af­ter liv­ing on rice for nearly two months, the menu is al­most porno­graphic.

I gorge on creamy pump­kin soup and mixed green salad, spaghetti bolog­naise and a pre­his­toric-look­ing grilled fish nearly the size of a com­pact car.

By the time the gen­er­a­tor conks off at 10.30pm, I’m more than ready to slip into a post­pran­dial coma, but first I take one last walk out to the end of the jetty. On this moon­less night, the dark­ness and quiet around me are so deep they feel like an ac­tive pres­ence. As I stare up into the sky at an end­less depth of stars, I hug my­self with a kind of spon­ta­neous grat­i­tude, feel­ing a soli­tude so rich it moves me al­most to tears.

Though ripe for mo­ments of keen ex­is­ten­tial im­port, the To­gians are also good for more sec­u­lar en­joy­ments. These is­lands are one of the world’s best des­ti­na­tions for un­der­wa­ter ex­plo­ration. To­mini Bay, in the bo­som of which the To­gians lie, is one of the calmest large bod­ies of wa­ter any­where, and one of the clear­est.

‘‘Vis­i­bil­ity on a good day can run to 40m,’’ Man­ley tells me as I grab my mask and snorkel next day and head to­wards the outrig­ger boat that will take us to the nearby dive site at Tau Pan, a shal­low reef with steep walls drop­ping off far into the depths. The To­gians are among the only places in the world where all three ma­jor reef en­vi­ron­ments — fring­ing, bar­rier and atoll — can be found in close prox­im­ity to one an­other and, rarer still, where you can dive for a week or more and never see an­other boat.

At Tau Pan, I’m still in the outrig­ger boat fid­dling with my mask when Sil­vana, one of the Ital­ian trav­ellers who’s plunged in first, sur­faces af­ter just a minute in the wa­ter. ‘‘ Bella!’’ she coos, tak­ing the snorkel from her mouth. I roll off the boat and am im­me­di­ately in an­other world: a gar­den of hard and soft corals in whites and mauves and pinks, dart­ing an­gelfish and wrasse, sur­geon­fish with their teardrop bod­ies, and or­ange­and-white clown­fish testily guard­ing the polyps of anemones.

The shal­low reef es­pe­cially is in great shape here, hav­ing re­cov­ered from a pe­riod of cyanide fish­ing in the 1990s. As I suck in a huge breath and free­d­ive down about 7m along the wall, I can see huge schools of coloured fish above me, cir­cu­lat­ing like snowflakes in the sun­light.

It’s the iso­la­tion of the To­gians that has kept these waters — home to large marine species such as the en­dan­gered hawks­bill sea turtle, dugong, and even whales — largely free of pol­lu­tion and over­fish­ing, but it isn’t just the reefs that have ben­e­fited.

Six eth­nic groups share these is­lands, mak­ing a liv­ing from fish­ing and co­conut farm­ing, and of these none is friend­lier and as un­touched by global com­mer­cial cul­ture than the Ba­jau.

Also known as sea gyp­sies, these for­merly no­madic boat peo­ple were forcibly set­tled by the Dutch, but now live in vil­lages built on stilts over the wa­ter, a sym­bol of their con­nec­tion to the sea. That af­ter­noon I tread an hour through the j un­gle with Gun­tur, Man­ley’s son, to visit the tiny Ba­jau vil­lage of Kul­ingk­i­nari. I have my cam­era with me but I’m feel­ing ner­vous.

Too many times I’ve vis­ited a vil­lage that’s been sat­u­rated by tourism and been met with sullen stares and de­mands for money, like an un­wel­come guest at a hu­man zoo.

‘‘Are you sure this is OK?’’ I ask Gun­tur as I en­ter the vil­lage, ner­vously fin­ger­ing my lenscap.

‘‘Of course,’’ he tells me. ‘‘These peo­ple are Ba­jau and they love to have vis­i­tors.’’

My self-con­scious­ness is in­tense, but as we walk the main street and chil­dren flood out from the door­ways to fol­low us as if we are pied pipers, I start to re­lax. Moth­ers are hold­ing up their ba­bies to be pho­tographed and old men in­vite us to sit for cof­fee — not from any ul­te­rior mo­tive but out of kind­ness and cu­rios­ity.

Af­ter the guilt I’ve felt on vil­lage vis­its else­where, it’s re­fresh­ing to be re­minded how nat­u­rally peo­ple can be brought to­gether by noth­ing more sin­is­ter than a shared de­sire to see how the other lives.

An hour later, af­ter many hand­shakes and count­less smiles, we board the boat back to Is­land Re­treat, skim­ming across the wa­ter in the late-day sun.

Look­ing south, I can see the hills of the main­land far away in the haze, but it’s like gaz­ing at the sur­face of a planet I’ve left be­hind. I smile and turn my face into the wind, feel­ing as un­teth­ered as a bal­loon. For a mo­ment at least, I have truly es­caped.

PIC­TURES: MATTHEW CROMPTON

Be­neath the turquoise waters there are co­ral gar­dens in­hab­ited by schools of brightly coloured fish

The Ba­jau, who live in vil­lages built on stilts over the wa­ter, wel­come vis­i­tors with kind­ness and cu­rios­ity

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