The authentic escape
Get away from it all on Sulawesi’s Togian Islands
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.
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