The best trips in Indonesia imply a level of hardship that can scare off many travellers. In order to get to a paradise seen only by a privileged few, multiple forms of transportation will be required. Planes (always more than one, departing at odd hours, with not-so-safe airlines), cars (for hours on end, with friendly drivers prone to hair raising overtakes in narrow roads), boats (overflowing with people and baggage alike) and sometimes even a motorbike or two. After a couple days of rough travel, you will be rewarded with stunning, deserted beaches, transparent waters, breath-taking mountains and fascinating communities.
The Togean Islands fit easily in this category. Housed in the Gulf of Tomini between north and central Sulawesi, they compress over 56 islands and islets. They are the home of the Bajau people, also known as Orang Laut (“Sea people”) or sea gypsies. The Bajau are a nomadic group, present also in Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei. They live both on the sea, in wooden houses on stilts on the water, and off the sea, diving for fish to feed their families. Their impressive lung capacity allows them to free dive for long periods of time, several times a day.
The Bajau used to move from one location to the other, preventing overfishing. This has now changed as they are banned from keeping their nomadic lifestyle, and in order to obtain enough fish for own consumption and sale, they have had to resort to dangerous, life threatening practices which are illegal and damage the environment, such as dynamite and cyanide fishing and even fishing with compressor – which involves diving to depths of up to 40 metres with a hose that pumps regular air from the surface, helping boats to corral fish with large nets. Many have died fishing in such ways.
The Togeans had been on my bucket list for years, and the Netflix documentary ‘Jago, a life underwater’, made me only more keen. The documentary introduces us to Jago, a Bajau fisherman, as he tells us his life story, with the sea at the centre of it, and some incredibly scenic landscapes. I knew it was going to be beautiful, but I was little prepared for its magnificence.
Despite being a relatively remote destination, the archipelago offers a number of islands and resorts where to stay, so choosing one can be tricky (many tourists end up island hopping). I choose mine based on the fact that I have heard great reviews about the resort and that the owners are Spanish, like myself.
I arrive there after an arduous journey that took the most part of 2 days (logistic details below). The final, and most pleasant leg of the trip, is a boat journey in one of the traditional local boats, very narrow and stabilised by wooden arms on each side. After admiring a sequence of mostly uninhabited islands, I reach my own mini-paradise, Bahia Tomini, an eco-resort made up of 4 bungalows, run by a charming couple that have made the Togeans their home.
When I arrive they seem a bit confused. ‘Are you actually Spanish? Like a real Spanish?’ ‘Is there such a thing as a fake Spanish?’. I have heard before that my accent in Spanish, my mother tongue, is a bit difficult to place, after 12+ years living all over the world. But in this case it’s not just that. ‘We don’t get many Spanish people here, and certainly not a Spanish girl, all alone’. I have to admit this is not a common sight.
Eva and Quique visited the Togeans for the first time 20 years ago, when local tourism was not very developed. They fell in love with the place and promised they would come back for good – and they did! Over 4 years ago they started building Bahia Tomini with their own hands and the help of local artisans. Their ethos is environmental preservation – for the construction they have used local materials whenever possible, kept their waste to a minimum and have done a fantastic job of looking after the local ecosystem. Both are deeply committed to the nature surrounding them, and the resort is a work of love, with charming, colourful bungalows that overlook a blue and emerald sea. The bay has an abundance of vegetation, with lush palm trees that contrast with the blue of the waters and the sky.
The beach is mostly covered in seagrass, which might not please those looking for clear water beaches, but it means that the underwater life is thriving – almost every time I went for a swim I saw stingrays and plenty of fish, including the rare Javanese damselfish. The safety of the bay attracts bigger species as well – next to one the cabins there is a fish nursery where numerous baby black tip sharks congregate every evening. The healthy coral reefs allow for some of the best snorkelling I have done in years – there is even a spot where two majestic eagle rays circle around visiting snorkelers.
Outside the water there is also plenty of life – from bats to snakes and macaques, and hermit crabs that populate every corner of the beach.
Meals are served in a big, airy cabin by the beach. Eva and the cooks make the most delicious meals, using mainly local ingredients, creating innovative dishes such as moringa and coconut milk soup, but also sticking to traditional Spanish food such as Spanish omelette.
The magic of Bahia Tomini is that you can do as much or as little as you want, from snorkelling and diving (visibility is fantastic, up to 50 metres, and currents are barely existent), to kayaking, visiting local villages, or just lazily napping in your hammock whilst being gently rocked by the afternoon breeze.
I decide to visit the nearby villages to see how the Bajau are living nowadays. The largest one, Pulau Papan, sits traditionally on stilts, and it is linked to a nearby land based village where the children go to school by a wooden bridge. The bridge is in a sorrow state and it seems to have been broken for months. Children have to jump to the water and swim the final stretch in order to go to class. The villages are pretty and relaxed, but unfortunately, they don’t enjoy the protection of wildlife as some of the touristic resorts do, as the Bajau, Muslim by religion but still deeply attached to ancient beliefs, believe evil spirits live in trees and have been cutting those near their homes. Sea erosion has also contributed to a diminishing coastline.
The Togeans are one of the most beautiful and pristine locations in Indonesia, but in order to keep it this way, further protection is needed. Locals and resort owners alike are pushing for the area to be declared a marine park, just like Raja Ampat in nearby Papua, where the underwater life is protected from illegal fishing and the locals have taken an active role in its preservation. You can also contribute by staying at eco-resorts such as Bahia Tomini.
Arranging the trip:
- Getting to Ampana: To get to Bahia Tomini you need to fly to Poso or Luwuk (both are accessible from Jakarta, Bali or Singapore via Makassar), and then take a car to Ampana (3-4 hours from Poso, 5-6 from Luwuk)
- Overnight in Ampana: You can spend the night at Triple R homestay, managed by Dadang
- Getting to the islands: Public boats to the Togean islands leave at 8-9am from the Ampana port. Depending on the day it is a direct boat to Pulau Papan, where you will be picked up by Bahia Tomini staff, or to Wakai, where a boat will take you to Bahia Tomini
- Transportation: Bahia Tomini or Triple R homestay can help you arrange drivers and boats
- Hotel: I booked Bahia Tomini and Triple R directly through their website https://bahiatomini.com and https://triple-r-homestay.weebly.com (whatsapp is the quickest way)
- Books to read
- Indonesia, Etc.: Exploring the improbable nation, Elizabeth Pisani
- Beauty is a wound, Eka Kurniawan
- Films to watch
- Jago: A life underwater, James Reed, James Morgan (available on Netflix)
- The act of killing, Joshua Oppenheimer
- The look of silence, Joshua Oppenheimer
- Kartini, Hanung Bramanty
- Women travellers
- I felt very comfortable and safe at all times, even when I was alone with male drivers, boatmen etc. Some fellow boat passengers asked about my personal situation and once I made up a fake husband in Jakarta, they left me alone (Disclaimer: I speak basic Indonesian, which makes everything easier)
- Often you will get lots of attention from people in rural areas, especially children, but it tends to be limited to people calling you ‘bule’ (foreigner) or ‘mister’. If anyone asks/ tries to take your picture, feel free say no, they don’t tend to insist
- Indonesians tend to be very tolerant of foreigners’ clothing choices, but when travelling alone, I feel more comfortable with my legs covered
- Indonesia overall is incredibly safe, just exercise usual caution with your belongings
- Rainy season is from December to March. However, I was there in March and it only rained some evenings, we had sunny skies the rest of the time, and I was told this is quite common
- Other considerations
- Ramadan: Some activities/ restaurants might be closed during the month of Ramadan