Hidden Gem of Gorontalo

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April 11th 2014
Published: April 11th 2014
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I could not believe I couldn't find Gorontalo in the 'location list'. Anyway, Gorontalo is located in the Northern part of Sulawesi, Indonesia. It used to be part of North Sulawesi province but since a few years ago, it became a province of Gorontalo. Coming from Singapore to Gorontalo via Manado by Silk Air, I felt the stark contrast of the culture between Manado and Gorontalo. During my transit in Manado, I was reminded how friendly the people were; I could not help overhearing an immigration officer asking a tourist at the counter the purpose of his holiday, and jokingly said 'honeymoon' to the middle aged couple - unlike the kind of flat tone we heard from immigration officers anywhere else. While waiting at the airport lounge, I was reminded the outgoing nature of the Manado people; some lady staff at the airport lounge took a break and had cigarettes, a very unusual scene in any other airport lounges in the country. Majority of the population in Gorontalo is Moslem, while majority of the population in Manado is Christian.

I continued my journey from Manado to Gorontalo with Wings Air, operated by Lion Air, of which departure time fits nicely with the earlier flight from Singapore (yes, I had a chance to taste the famous Cakalang Yellow Rice at the airport during transit). The 40 minutes flight in a propeller plane was bearable (the 15 kg luggage allowance as it was not sufficient to cover my luggage and dive gears though). Reaching Jalaludin airport, I could see the beautiful arial view of Gorontalo and its surrounding. Like any other smaller town in the Eastern part of Indonesia, the airport was small and packed. After getting my luggage and dive gears, I stepped outside expecting to see my airport transfer. After waiting for almost half an hour, I didn't see any of the sign of my airport pick up, while the airport was getting quiet as people started leaving the airport.

As I had not stepped my foot in this part of Indonesia, I didn't dare taking transportation by myself, and happened to stand next to this young lady who was in the same flight and was waiting for her boyfriend looking for a transport. When I asked her how far Hotel Maqna was, she said it was near and offered me to have a ride with her. Delighted, I accepted her offer and shared the transport to town (it was not that far actually, it took almost an hour from the airport to town). I noticed that Gorontalo is quite spread out, and along the way from the airport to town, we passed many houses and not a single area that are inhabitable.

I was relieved to reach the hotel and found the hotel above my expectation (after my visit to Alor and Ternate a few months back where accommodation was standard). It's the only 4 star hotel, located at the only mall in town. By the time I arrived, 5 of my friends, who arrived earlier in the day from Jakarta, had just finished their check dives and returned to the hotel. All of us were so hungry and decided we went to Sari Laut Mas Joko 99 which is a seafood restaurant near the hotel. The six of us ordered so much food: fish, cuttlefish, prawn, grilled chicken, clams and morning glory - all of which were extraordinary spicy and delicious (our next table neighbour must have thought we hadn't had dinner for the past one month). When we got the bill, we were pleasantly surprised to see it as it was very reasonably priced. Even though the restaurant was quite near the hotel, we took "Bentor" or "Becak Motor" (motorbike tricycle) for the experience of it. Before heading back to our hotel room, we checked out the Mall and had our coffee at Solaria of which service was below standard.

The next day, we were told to be ready by 8 am and gathered at the lobby. Finishing my breakfast early, I decided to go down to the lobby and met our Dive Master, Rantje, while the rest of my friends were still having their breakfast. I could not see anybody that resembles a Dive Master at the lobby as I only saw this lanky white man sitting at the couch, so I decided to take a seat at the next couch. Coming out of the elevator, my friends were all laughing as the lanky white man who sat next to my couch happened to be our Dive Master! I had expected a local, buffed, dark skin guy (as Rantje is a typical name from Manado). It turned out Rantje is a Dutch who is a US national from Florida, living in Gorontalo as a Dive Master (who would ever guess!).

From the hotel, Rantje drove us to Miguel Dive Center, by the river, and took a boat to the first dive site. We met two other dive guides: Yunnis and Udeng, who were related and had been with Miguel Dive Center for a long time. The nice thing about Gorontalo is that the dive sites are relatively easy to reach, within 15-30 minutes ride by boat. Our first dive was at Olele Marine Park area. We could not believe our eyes as the view was stunning: turquoise blue sea, greenish hill along the shores, and clear blue sky - what a perfect 2nd day of the year (it was January 2nd, 2014).

Before we went for our first dive, we decided to blow our paper trumpets to celebrate the beginning of the year. First dive was at Jin Cave ("Geenie Cave") of which underwater contour was cave-like. It gave me a bit of eerie feeling as I looked up I could see the shade of the rocks from below. We had an individual photo session at this famous site taken by Yunis using Nova's camera but found out the next day that she had accidentally erased the memory of her card (she almost cried upon knowing they were all gone).

The underwater experience was even better than the surface as visibility was clear and we could see many interesting tiny creatures such as mantis, colourful nudibranch and pygmy seahorse (unfortunately my 3+ eyesight didn't help much - I tried my best to spot those small creatures with great difficulty but managed to get a few 'acceptable shots'😉. We had our intervals before going for the 2nd dive around the area, which was incredible as well where we had our lunch and enjoyed the uninhabited white sand beach, where some of us had their saultos into the water. I decided not to join the 3rd dive and stayed on the boat while everyone else went down. As we were near the village, a bunch of kids went swimming to the boat and was delighted when they were given some sweets. We finished our dives with big smiles on our face and could not wait to see the results in our cameras. We reached the hotel before it's dark, and decided to go for dinner at Mawar Sharon Gorontalo which was famous for its fried chicken and spicy sauce (it's awesome).

The next day, we were taken to the other side of Gorontalo at Tanjung Putih, which was equally interesting. Throughout the dives we kept seeing humongous Salvador Dali sponges (+1 meter) on the walls along with many other beautiful soft corals. Thanks to Nina's idea, we had an underwater gift exchange session on the first dive - and you could imagine how difficult it was to open the gift wrap and kept the items after opened. It's not so much about the gift, but it's about the experience and memory.

We went back to Oulele Marine Park on the last day of our trip. The first site was Helicopter Bay, where the rock formation at the shores resembles helicopter. For leisure diver like me, this place is ideal as there was not much current and visibility was great. The only thing that I had regret was that I was not prepared was my eyesight and inability to spot the small underwater creatures.

When we returned to Miguel Dive Center, we were greeted by Rantje's friend, Roly Raseda, who asked me if I were on top of the boat taking photos the day before. It turned out that he took some shots of the boat while going to our dive sites from the top of the hill and saw me taking photos from the roof of the boat! Thanks to Roly Raseda, I managed to get some beautiful sunset shots of Gorontalo in the afternoon before heading for our dinner (I had used the same driver that had sent me to the hotel on the first day - and even he didn't know the location of the temple at the hill). He said he had been going to the same spot for a few days but could not get the perfect sunset shots because of the cloud, and only on the last day of our trip, he managed to do so! What a blessing.

We ended our trip by having dinner together with our attentive Dive Master, Rantje, who by now was more Indonesian than American (he even has an accent of a local when speaking bahasa!), Yunnis and Udeng. We could not leave Gorontalo without tasting the local fruits, Durian, which was difficult to find because it was not the season for Durian. Thanks to the driver, he managed to find the Durian seller while we had our dinner. The next morning, I took a flight back to Manado before heading back to Singapore.

Even though we didn't spot any pelagic marine life during our dives (mantas and whale shark were often seen around March/April), it was a fulfilling New Year Dive trip for all of us who came back the next day not only with big smiles on our faces, but also great underwater photos and unforgettable memory! Check out the dive site of Miguel Diving: www.migueldiving.com and check the seasons as it is closed from May to October.

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