We affectionately nicknamed our vessel the “Smog Princess”. Its two massive Chinese engines belched smoke with a deafening roar and required nearly constant attention from the captain’s three sons who bailed water, tinkered with wrenches, and disappeared below deck only to reappear sweating and caked in oil. Jammed into wooden benches on the front deck under a plastic tarp it looked like the twelve of us were refugees seeking political asylum. However far from fleeing, we were reluctantly departing one of the most mesmerizing places we’d set our eyes upon.
Like most ‘developing’ places, transportation in the Togeans is a true testament to a person’s flexabilty and adventurous spirit. During our two weeks on the islands the biggest obstacles to moving around seemed to be finding someone ambitious enough to drive a boat for a few hours and then hoping they had access to a boat that was capable of the journey. But things have a way of working out in their own way here, and even after a week of watching with amazement, wondering how Katupat’s ferry managed to remain floating we were all quite grateful to hop inside the newly named Smog Princess for a five-hour journey to North Sulawesi when the regular biweekly ferry broke down.
Jutting up from the center of the Tomini Gulf, the remoteness of the Togeans necessitates simplicity, patience, and effort for tourists and infinitely more so for its residents. But the rewards are exponentially abundant. The Togeans are stunning. An archipelago made up of five large islands dotted by dozens of smaller ones. The Togeans are home to sandy coves, dense forests, hidden lagoons, fascinating villages, endemic species, and volcanoes all circled by coral reefs, azure waters, and playful dolphins. They offer the adventure traveler an idyllic setting to lounge, explore, and lose track of the days all at an extremely reasonable price…for now. Tourism continues to increase and an airport is planned for 2013…before cell phone towers or running water.
The Togeans are sparsely populated by a handful of small villages along the shorelines that often extend out into the sea itself. The majority of the island’s residents are Bajo, a nomadic seafaring culture with remote settlements throughout Sulawesi. Their subsistence lifestyle relies most heavily on fishing; though cloves, coconut, and durian fruit are cultivated on the island as well. Nearly all of the Togeans’ inhabitants are Muslim though they practice their belief with the general nonchalant attitude common among islanders throughout the world. The call to prayer is only heard once over the loudspeakers in the evening and the first four calls beginning at 4:30 am are played only quietly within the mosque. Once a new Imam arrived in the village of Katupat seeking to instill more conservative pious ritual into the community, however his avocation of broadcasting all five calls to prayer and the covering of women got him thrown out of the village after only three weeks.
Surrounding the picturesque Togean islands, glistening transparent waters blend in hue from deep cerulean blue to turquoise green that hint at a marine system of thriving purity. Especially if you’ve seen the reefs surrounding Una Una or have come from Bunaken in North Sulawesi, you may be somewhat disappointed your first swim around the house reef. In the early 90’s dynamite and cyanide were introduced into the fishermens’ traditional arsenal of homemade spear guns, nets, and wooden poles to catastrophic results. The reefs around the islands were heavily damaged and with them much of the archipelago’s fish stocks and marine biodiversity. These exploitative practices have since nearly ceased as villagers have faced their self-destructive results, however, overfishing, primarily a byproduct of increasing population and rising food and gas prices, continues to take its toll on the area’s reefs and their aquatic inhabitants. Notably, Katupat’s Fadhila Cottages helps manage the French run non-profit Everto that funds waste-management programs, supports ecotourism jobs, educates youth on reef conservation, and pays locals to gather plastic waste and remove coral eating crown-of-thorns starfish on a weekly basis. In an area wrought with previous destruction it is uplifting to see a local business seeking to effect change within its community. If you are staying at Fadhilia Cottages, each Saturday they welcome guests to volunteer with the local people on their weekly Bintang Tours, i.e., crown-of-thorns starfish removal.
If getting here wasn’t hard enough, pristine nature in the Togeans means even further remoteness and inevitably limited access, but always with great reward. The best diving we encountered in Sulawesi was off of the volcanic island of Una Una where ironically the destructive forces of nature have safeguarded the reef. An eruption in 1983 prompted the evacuation of all its residents. Since then only two of the five villages have resettled in much smaller numbers. Una Una’s dive sites were home to the largest populations of fish we encountered anywhere in Sulawesi (Kadidiri’s Black Marlin makes the hour speedboat trip when 6-10 guests have vested interest.) Additionally, the outlying Reef Five north of Malenge and the reef surrounding Hotel California near Kataput offered bountiful healthy corals for impressive snorkeling.
While underwater recreation abounds and can be arranged on any island, the Togeans’ prime activity is simply taking it easy. Malenge’s powder white sand beaches that quickly recede into deep cool water are perfect for swimming. Katupat’s beautiful house reef and ceaseless dice games provide great options for in-water and out-of-water activites. Try your luck at pool against the local staff between expertly guided dives on Kadidiri island, or laze away the day with a book and a cup of SariWangi tea. The options are definitely not endless, but that won’t matter gazing across the Togean turquoise sea.
Nearly all of the accommodations in the Togeans are similar in that they are primarily family run affairs where around $15 per person gets you a Spartan wooden bungalow and three simple meals a day which are typically grilled fish, rice, and a vegetable. Most are located on their own tiny island or secluded cove. While this makes for great ambiance it also means that generator powered electricity is only available during the evening and showers are typically cold buckets of brackish water. While all the accommodations tend to be similar in style, we especially enjoyed Fadhila Cottages for its beautiful setting, congenial staff, philanthropic goals, great food and unlimited free coconuts. Although we strongly recommend to budget as much time as possible to island hop. What else?!