Sunday, September 4, 2011

Wakatobi - A Place We'll Never Forget

It's difficult to write about our time in Wakatobi because so much happened over the 9 days we stayed there! I have attempted to organise my writing chronologically by describing our experiences, the people we met and the things we saw to create a picture of this amazing place. This entry deals with our time in Wakatobi while the next will describe all of the cultural events we went to. 
Wangi Wangi harbour has many of these old, beached ships.
At the rally briefing back in Darwin we had been impressed by the presentation about Wakatobi by the regent of this cluster of islands just off the south-east corner of Sulawesi. His PowerPoint presentation included amazing photos of corals and a beautiful woman wrapped in various coloured sarongs. We were promised 100 litres of free diesel and a wide array of cultural events. Our curiosity was piqued and we decided to investigate.

Anima safely at anchor (until the wind blew up, we dragged and moved to a mooring), we tied up our dinghy at a huge facility that would suit ferries and cruise liners. The locals had constructed a wooden platform complete with stairs to allow us to get ashore with ease. A new building at the end of the pier staffed about a dozen Indonesians who were working for the W.I.C. Their job was to help us enjoy Wakatobi. Another dozen teenagers were volunteer guides who wished to practice their English as they helped us locate whatever we required. We were so impressed with the level of assistance we were provided with during our stay here. Rally yachts next year and any other cruising yacht travelling through the area should definitely check this place out!! 

Andrew, Novi, me, Siti and Penny.
Chess is big here and the guides or random locals sitting near the W.I.C building were almost always seen playing the game. Rene of course played a few times and was beaten in every match! They're good!! 
Rene playing chess against a master!
On our first day we set about our errands, exploring and organising. We took our empty diesel jerry cans ashore, a huge bag of laundry (this time the price was 10 000 per kilo) and rubbish. Robyn and Wal explored the village of Wangi Wangi with us and a few guides. One of my first impressions was to compare this village to Banda – the main differences I noticed were that the cats are not looked after in Wangi Wangi (they all look so unhealthy and are usually spotted pawing through rubbish) whereas the chooks and roosters looked much bigger and healthier here! The dust here is white rather than black, the local kids only know a few words in English and the prices are better here! There are night markets, morning markets and day markets all filled with women selling veggies, eggs and bananas.  
Penny at the local day markets
There's also a supermarket here whose main product seemed to be various types of chocolate milk (Milo is big here – it's even available in cans – I tried it but was disappointed that it was just milky Milo as I thought it would be carbonated). Rene was more adventurous (surprise surprise) as he tried drinking a popper of Mung bean drink. It tasted a bit like Japanese Lotus cakes. 
mmmmmmm..... ?
Everywhere we go, we're met with a chorus of “Hello Meestrrr!!!” and kids waving and smiling. The women look at me, full of curiosity and say things like 'inda chantik' (you're beautiful). Many women (and some men) walk around wearing a thick, white substance on their faces. We discovered it is to try and promote skin-whitening. It looks quite strange and a bit alarming sometimes when the paste is falling off or is smudged and smeared. White skin is considered beautiful. The soap stars and officials from Java who we met and saw during our stay here were all much paler than the local villagers here. 
Painting one's face white is considered beautiful here.
White-painted eyes are common.
On the 27th of August, it was a special day in the Ramadan month. Muslim's believe that the 27th is the day when the K'oran descended to earth. To celebrate, the more orthodox believers dye their fingertips bright red (I didn't figure out the significance). 

Everyone uses the end of Ramadan to pretty themselves up. People get haircuts and buy new clothes to wear on the first day after the month of fasting. Home-owners were also seen painting their buildings (lime green, pink and blue are popular colours). Women bake heaps of sweets and cakes and everyone starts dreaming of being able to eat and drink again. 
Diabetes anyone? They love sugar here!!
Every night there is a display of fireworks for Ramadan. On one night we were returning from dinner at Pelangi restaurant and the fireworks started exploding right over us!! They were being set off from a building about 30 metres away. The locals don't even flinch – but Robyn and I quickly took shelter under an awning by instinct. Some of the yachties bought their own fireworks, setting them off from their yachts at night with lots of yahooing and excitement. I decided to try out the local fashion by buying a veil or 'jilbab'. I think it suits the locals more than me! 
Trying out the local fashion...
On our second day in Wakatobi, we hired motor bikes with Robyn and Wal. Rather than pay for a guide to accompany us, we set out on our own with no maps - just a sense of adventure. It cost us 100 000Rp to hire a bike which we doubled on (it was cheaper to hire them in town but we wanted to support the W.I.C). Rene drove and I sat at the back trying to keep my helmet on which didn't actually tie up. First we filled up with fuel. I'd seen glass bottles sitting at stalls lining the roads and wondered if they contained juice. They're actually unleaded fuel for 7000 Rp a litre. The seat of our bike lifted up and the fuel was decanted in with a funnel. 
Robyn & Wal fill up with fuel
Petrol stations look like this in Wangi Wangi!
As a related point, part of the “deal” with rally yachts coming to Wakatobi was that we would each receive 100 litres of free fuel. We all took advantage of this extremely generous offer but felt a bit strange about doing so. The offer came from someone official in government who is working hard at boosting up tourism in this region. They really want the area to become a first-class tourist destination. The issue with this offer is that (as one of the locals told me), the villagers themselves have never once been given anything for free from the government. Another issue is that some yachts simply came to Wakatobi for the fuel. They stayed long enough to get it and then left again - barely giving the community anything back in return. I think the fuel offer could have been a smaller amount (and would have still attracted a similar number of yachts) such as one or two jerry cans (20-40 litres).

Motorbike riding is made interesting here due to the numerous pot-holes and variable road surfaces. Rene was continually having to swerve to avoid holes, other riders, children and chooks. We set off south through small villages and came to a thin, bumpy, steep forest track with a cliff-face plummeting down below. At the summit we came to a village with an interesting rock wall formation. Rene became our language guru as he began communicating with a small group of locals, trying to ask if it was OK for us to explore the unusual stone structure. One man decided to look after us and we followed him through a small cemetery, up into the stone (on closer inspection, these stones were actually lumps of coral rock) fort. At the top was a square space enclosed by frangipani trees rustling in the breeze. In the centre was shrine of sorts with three small clay lumps all covered in old cloth and wearing caps. There were offerings of flowers and food in small bowls too. Rene and the local struggled to communicate to each other, the complexities of such a place using our Bahasa Indonesia – English phrase books. The gist of it was that this was the centre of a large fort, “Lokasi Benteng” in “Liya Togo” village, and the offerings were to the dead king's wife... we think!
Phrasebook communication
We set out again down through the village and into another one that was by the sea. Again Rene started practising his Indonesian – this time with a man who came out of the house we'd pulled up in front of, by the name of Saharuni. He was a community facilitator in this village, Liya Bahari Indah Lagundi, and had pretty decent English, too. They continued chatting while we wondered off to explore the picturesque jetty and Agar Agar plantation / drying farm. The sea was a brilliant bright blue, covered in line upon line of seaweed farm. The lines are held buoyant with small plastic water bottles and pieces of broken Styrofoam. The local boats are carved from big trees, their anchors are either bits of broken coral or old machinery parts. Agar Agar seaweed was drying on wooden platforms and inside a small house above the water were a family sorting through nets.  
Agar Agar drying
Agar Agar growing
When I returned to Rene he had arranged to buy some coconuts from another local – whose house we were now in front of. Saharuni helped us out with the knowledge that the correct price for coconuts should be 2-4,000 rupiah, and that the owner was charging too much with 5000. After a little negotiation we got down to 4000 (50 cents) – which would probably be the price a rich local would pay. As a rich local would, we viewed it as charity and agreed to get one for each of us. While the man was climbing the tree, Rene practised Bahasa Indonesia with the man who appeared to be the land owner. They found out that we were Australian, had been here for a couple of days and planned to stay another few days, that we were both 30 and didn't have any kids but wanted to travel for a little first (they found the fact we didn't yet have children the most confusing). By the time the coconuts were down and sliced open we had made some kind of connection. A great time was had by all the kids watching the silly tourists trying to drink coconut juice and getting it all over themselves (I realised that they find it hilarious due to our big Caucasian noses).  
There's so much juice in these coconuts!
Squashed nose = cause of much laughter with locals.
It was so delicious – perhaps the best we've had. When Rene tried to pay his attitude sort of seemed to say he didn't want us to pay for it, but Rene gave the agreed amount. He took us down the road to meet his wife, and we had a good old village photo shoot out and a yarn. He told us that there is a big event on at the fort tomorrow, some kind of kick boxing or capoeira (see Posepa'a, below). When we left, he made sure we took some extra coconuts because I think he felt bad charging so much.

After a fun but strangely awkward lunch back at Pelangi (meaning 'rainbow') restaurant we set out again – this time, north. The lunch was fun because we shared it with our new Polish friends who are crewing on a yacht. It was made awkward due to the death-stares we sustained from the two late-teenage wait staff throughout the whole meal. I figured it was due to their intense hunger and jealousy – Ramadan doesn't allow them to eat or drink during daylight. We decided to only eat lunch on Anima from now on to avoid bad feelings between the locals and us non-Muslim visitors. 

Myself, Rene, Robyn and Wal on our bikes - in front of Pelangi
We set out north through more villages and forest in search of a natural spring. We were told there was a sign for it but our idea of a sign is pretty different to what's here – there are no street signs, only the occasional miniature billboard (made of wood nailed together) with many words displayed in small font. So, we kept driving and exploring and stopped about a dozen times to ask locals where to go for Kotemala springs (each time we went to ask however, we forgot the name and had to look it up!). Rene continued to excel at the language while Robyn, Wal and I either tried to mime or add in the occasional word to help. We drove all afternoon until our bottom's hurt from the bikes bumping along the uneven roads but it was glorious! After hours of unsuccessful searching, some locals took pity on us crazy tourists and showed us the way – it was quite different to what we were expecting. The natural spring turns out to be the local washing spot. It was filled with kids swimming, teenagers jumping and doing tricks, teenage girls (fully clothed) washing their hair and a woman with her laundry! Rene nearly got in too but was put off by the layer of oily scum on the water's surface.  
Kotemala Springs - Wangi Wangi
That night we dragged Penny from her sickbed and had a contented evening onboard Robyn and Wal's boat, Annwn. They very generously shared the last of their good cheeses with us so we drank wine and learnt more about each other. I love this aspect of cruising – getting to know all sorts of lovely people!! I think the socialising aspect is in fact my favourite. We had plenty of fun times with the crew from Kelolo, Annwn, Narid, Honalee and many more. We ate out almost every night at local restaurants for between 20 000 and 35 000 Rp each, including a non-alcoholic drink (about $3).
James, Sam and Wal -  sundowners on the good ship Kelolo.
Eating out at a local establishment with fellow yachties.
Wakatobi is renowned for its pristine coral grounds – we'd heard that even the drop-off near where our yachts were moored was worth a snorkel (unfortunately I didn't take my camera this time – sorry!). So one afternoon Penny and I swam over to Kelolo (about 20 metres away) and then we all (including Robyn from Annwn) swam together to the shallow sandy coral area before the drop off. This is the area where we'd observed local fishing boats chasing fish by slamming long bamboo poles into the water. It was low tide when we swam over, so there was only about 50cm of water. We had to swim through seaweeds that grew up almost to the surface (shudder!) and over sand (I was imagining sting rays being startled and stinging me Steve Irwin style). We saw lion fish and giant star fish coloured in reds, oranges and yellows with spikes! I also saw a moray eel and then was stung by something invisible on my leg so I took a deep breath and swam quickly to the drop off. It was pretty spectacular considering how close it was to a major village. There were lots of small fish and plenty of colourful corals. Sam found a large toad fish that looked like a death panda-fish and I had a go at swimming down to the corals, equalising my ears as I went. The only problem that I was getting stung all over my body, continually. I tried to ignore it – like everyone else but eventually my neck was stung so bad that I had to get out. I powered back over the shallows and across to Kelolo's dinghy. Getting out I felt a little shaky (I'm not a strong swimmer) and my feet were numb. I had stings all over my body – especially my neck. When Sam and James returned, they saw my neck which was covered in red spots and took pity on me, driving me back to Anima in their dinghy. I tried dousing the stings in vinegar but it only made it worse. I ended up sitting in the cockpit, spraying fresh water all over my neck for an hour. It looked pretty bad and felt pretty terrible. After a few hours though, the red blotches had receded and I was still alive. I want to be more of a sea-going person but every time I get in the water, something gets me! I think I'll just have to wear my wetsuit or stinger suit more often – stinging creatures seem to love my skin. I think the reason why we saw such a prevalence of poisonous fish is that everything else is eaten.
A local boat glides by
Local ferry easily motors over the shallow reef.
We found Wangi Wangi island in Wakatobi to be phenomenal. We had such a fantastic time there due to the locals who devoted themselves to making sure we had a good, safe, happy time. They even threw a surprise party one night when it happened to be two yachties (and Gino's) birthdays. 
A local birthday dance party!
This place is really special and will only get better. We hope to return one day....
Being mobbed with hugs and English practice is common here!


  1. Wow, even mundane things like shopping sound exciting over there! It's great to read about your adventures. Keep it up!