An archetypal tropical idyll

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February 13th 2011
Published: February 15th 2011
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The Togean are a group of equatorial islands in the Maluku Sea. They are embraced by the northern arms of Sulawesi, which itself is just one of the 17,000 islands that together make up the worlds largest archipelago, Indonesia. In a land of islands, where the sea is a constant in many of its inhabitant’s lives, the Togean remain a beautiful example of how this relationship must have started. Whereas somewhere like Jakarta is representative of the dirty, industrialised apotheosis of a seafaring nation's relationship with the sea, the sparsely populated Togeans are indicative of a humbler, less overtly materialistic interpretation of this symbiosis. The Togean are almost entirely populated by indigenous Togeans and the Bajo, a race of seafarers whose existence has always been linked inextricably with the sea. The thread that binds the Bajo to the water is so strong that outside of Wakai, the Togeans nominal capital, almost all Bajo houses eschew the land and use instead the water as their foundation. Indeed, as is there tradition, many of the Bajo in the Togean still practice a nomadic lifestyle, with whole families moving often from island to island in search of shelter, food, and companionship.

Travelling in the spirit of the Bajo we have spent our time in the Togean by following in their paddle eddies and drifting contentedly from beach to beach, island to island. For ten days we have rarely been more than fifty yards from the ocean, and on the few occasions when we have, it has only been because the path from one beach to another, or from our simple accommodation to the local village, has wound its way inland on route. We have eaten fish at least twice a day, our hair is salty and thick, our skin is tanned and our eyes have developed new wrinkles from squinting against the glare of the water. We have sand in all our clothes, we have lost track of the time and gained whole days in return. We have been smiling far more than is natural. The sea has been our highway, our playground, our garden, our muse. It has served as our larder, our sink, and due to the basic nature of our lodgings, also as our shower. But most importantly, it has become our friend.

In the short time that we spent travelling the incomparable Togean, we stayed on only three separate islands: Pulau Kadidiri, Pulau Melenge, and Pulau Tomken. Of these Pulau Kadidiri was the busiest, Melenge the prettiest, and Tomken had by far the best food; but in the Togeans many things are relative, not least my humble opinions. Busy, in the Togeans, means sharing your beach with up to ten people, most of them locals, and in this stunning archipelago pretty islands are like so much small change; the island of the least value here would be greedily pocketed almost anywhere else in the world. We spent our days like a couple of amphibians, alternating our time between cooling our bones in the ocean and warming our blood on the land. In the water we swam and snorkeled, leaped from bridges and pontoons, paddled and sailed and floated; on the land we bathed in the sun, took walks in the jungle, ambled the beaches and explored the fascinating villages. When not engaged in the above, we slept.

Pulau Kadidiri is the most popular island, has the most bungalow operations (3), and is therefore the busiest. Its relative popularity probably has more to do with its convenient location adjacent to Wakai, as opposed to possessing superior beauty. This is not to say that Kadidiri is in any way ugly, it is not, far from it. It has lovely sweep of pale gold silica that is studded by several large leaved tropical shrubs, is backed by the requisite bank of gently swaying palms, and has four smaller islands just off shore to help break the monotony of staring at such a large expanse of perfectly blue ocean. During our stay on Kadidiri we were forced to share the beach with almost ten people. To escape this rank overcrowding it is possible to do as we did and trek across the island to find a further two beaches. These two little beauties you will almost certainly have to yourself.

Whilst on Kadidiri we stayed at the Lestari Kadidiri. This was the cheapest option on the island, with room and three meals going for 100,000 Rupees per person, which is not as expensive as it sounds, working out at about £7 a head. The rooms particularly, and to an extent the food, definitely reflected this exceptional value. But I must again stress how in the Togeans everything is relative. It is true that the food was basic, but twice a day we could eat our fill of freshly grilled fish and, though lacking that indispensible accoutrement to island living, the hammock, our room was clean, was three yards from the ocean, and it was, as mentioned, incredibly cheap. We stayed on Kadidiri for three days before taking the local boat to Pulau Melenge; the first one, due to a long spell of inclement weather, for over a week.

After docking at the small pier that served Pulau Melenge's main settlement of about a hundred stilt houses, we disembarked and made the acquaintance of Rudy, the genial owner of the Melenge Lestari. After waiting a while in Rudy's "town base" where we drank coffee and watched the sun go down, we then climbed into his wooden outrigger and under skies intermittently illuminated by lightening made the slow journey around Melenge to his remote cottages. As we cut through the inky black water the twin bamboo outriggers had phosphorescent chevrons glowing in their wakes, and as we trailed our hands in the water luminous sparks shot from our fingers and fizzed off into the darkness behind us. It was a magically memorable journey. As we had arrived after dark we were forced by necessity to wait until the morning before appraising the view from our spacious bungalow. When the sun crested the horizon the following day I was able to enjoy, swinging in the hammock on our hut's large veranda, a view that has rapidly become a firm favorite of mine.

Under a grapefruit pink and melon yellow sky and below the thin line of the horizon, running parallel with it for hundreds of meters, was a rickety wooden walkway. This extended jetty connects a small, stilt-house island village, with another on Melenge itself. The houses of the village cluster around the rocky island as though they are moored there, temporarily. It was not just the houses; in the cracked crystal glow of morning the whole island seemed tenuous and impermanent, as though were it not for the connecting bridge then the whole thing would have simply floated away like a giant life raft. The water which surrounded the island, warmed the wooden supports of the walkway and lapped imperceptibly at the fine white sand of the beach was still, and clear, and flat, and turquoise and green and blue. Below the water could be seen stands of sea grass, outcrops of coral and great shoals of shimmering fish. Upon it chugged small dugout canoes that ferried young children in maroon and white uniform to the local school. They were all singing and waving; my heart rose in my chest and joined them.

For many reasons, not least the exquisite serene beauty of the place, Pulau Melenge was my favorite island of those that we saw on the Togeans. A massive contributing factor to its seniority amongst my island affections was the beautiful, unsullied stilt village which surrounded the small rock-island just a hundred yards away from our cottage. To reach the island from our hut it is possible to trek through the jungle and to then walk the kilometer long pontoon that connects the village to Melenge itself. A much easier way is to paddle there in a simple dugout canoe. We chose the latter option. As soon as we had made the rickety raft fast against a post of the pier and inelegantly clambered the three slippery feet up from the water, we were assailed by an excitable gaggle of half naked local children, all of whom were screaming "hello mister" at us at the top of their lungs. We were accompanied by this ratty-tatty retinue for most of our time exploring the village, and it was only when taking their photos, something that was demanded of us at least once every minute, that they would let up in the hollering of their "hello mister" mantra.

From the village, we walked out and along the connecting wooden walkway which was less solid up close than it appeared when viewing it from our accommodation. Through gaps in the deck we could see great heads of coral oscillating below in the water. It was amongst these coral gardens in the water below the pontoon that a young boy was hoping to spot an octopus. He stood on the wooden deck with a long stick that was topped by a sharp trident, constantly scanning the water below for octopus, or conger eel, or squid. If one of these creatures should be unlucky enough to swim or crawl near the boy then they would promptly end up speared on the end of his pole. All along the bleached white wood of the pontoon we could see large black stains that were created from the ink an octopus will excrete when alarmed; they bore compelling testament to the efficacy of this young fisherman's techniques. On our walk along the extended pier we were passed by many people travelling to the opposite village, and to a man (and woman), they were all of them singing. The sweetest song of all emanated from the mouths of the little sopranos in uniform who were returning home for lunch from the local school. It was a shame that whenever we passed a group of these happily singing children, they would always break song so as to be able to shout "hello mister" at us!

Our final port of call in the Togeans was Fadhila cottages on the island of Tomken. This small island is located barely a hundred yards from the tiny and relaxed village of Katupat, which is conveniently where the local boat stops on its way through to Wakai. A short journey in the resort's outrigger later and we were walking along another pontoon and stepping onto another white sand beach. A footfull of steps later and we were comfortably ensconced in our hut, the best yet by far, and enjoying the delectable views across the water to Bollilanger island. Fadhila cottages are the place to come to in the Togean if you crave a little activity. There are walking trails cutting into the small island, there is a free canoe to hire which you could use, as we did, to travel to Bollilanger or to circumnavigate Pulau Tomken, stopping at a couple of beautiful, deserted beaches on the way. There is also volley ball, table tennis, a selection of board games and some of the best snorkeling in the area that gives an excellent chance of seeing turtles and a guarantee of many large lionfish swimming around the pier at sunset. The food, as mentioned before, is so good that lunch and dinner constitute an activity in themselves.

As may have become apparent by now, Anny and I have both fallen a little bit in love with the Togean. Neither of us are by any means aficionados of tropical archipelagoes, but we have both seen enough in the past few years to be able to say, without too much trouble at all, that the Togean contain enough of the requisite ingredients for island perfection that, for us, they are now easily our favourite tropical island utopian paradise! The most fundamental difference between the Togean and any island, or island group, that say Thailand, Malaysia or the Philippines could offer, is the remarkably low number of visitors they receive and the almost totally unsullied cultural experience to be found there. There are no hotels, there is no airport, there are about three small roads on only two out of the hundreds of islands, and consequently life here drifts along in much the same way as it has for centuries. Thankfully, this doesn't look like it's going to drastically change any time soon. The main reason for this is that the Togeans are, while not difficult, extremely time consuming to reach.

For a backpacker, the islands are really no harder to reach than anywhere else in Sulawesi; for a European on a two or three week vacation the islands are almost completely inaccessible. I would surmise that it may be possible, at a push, to get here from London, living room to white-sand beach, in four full days. Which means that out of a two week vacation, eight days will be spent travelling and only six luxuriating on the Togean's blissfully laid-back beaches. I personally believe it may in fact be worth the effort, as what you will find on the Togeans is so unique that the extra days you may be able to buy yourself on Ko Samui will feel like an expensive waste of money in comparison, and the experience a cheap approximation of the dreams of island perfection you had before leaving. But I know that very few will be willing to take such a risk with their precious holidays, leaving this beautiful island paradise as the sole preserve of a small bunch of badly dressed, sanitarily compromised but adventurous and dedicated seekers of the worlds few remaining untouched lands: the backpacker.

It is staggering to know that in the Togeans there are, not including a handful of one room losmen, only nine bungalow resorts and one up market Italian run dive resort in the Togean. When every available bed in the archipelago is full, including staff quarters and hammocks, there are estimated to be only 140 available at any one time. There are many hotels in Puket with twice that number. This staggering statistic goes to show how surprisingly light the visitor numbers are. It is true that we were here out of season, but we had fantastic weather for our entire stay and all three of the places we visited were very far from full. Indeed, when we left Melenge Lestari and Fadhila cottages, we did so leaving them with no guests at all.

Speaking with the owner of Fadhila cottages, a man who is also involved with an NGO and has a powerful say in the archipelagoes interests, we were told that the Indonesian government is extremely keen to push mass tourism on the islands. So far the Togean have successfully resisted an attempt by the government to build an airport here, as well as all plans to develop some of the islands in readiness for resorts and large hotels. The islands recognise their need to increase tourism, but according to our friend, they are determined to do so on a small scale and to keep it in the hands of the locals and at easily sustainable levels. This foresight is as commendable as it is needed, and I for one desperately hope that they can continue to successfully resist big business and central government; keeping these islands protected from the worst ravages of mass tourism for a llittle longer yet, or at least as long as it takes for us to return here!

Additional photos below
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15th February 2011

beautifully written, as always
This blog has put the Togeans high on my to do list, particularly as I am hoping to return to Indonesia next year. Those Bajao seem to get around - I met some of them in the Cuyo Islands in the Philippines!
15th February 2011
Anny on the pier

Yet again another brilliant blog with beautiful photos.
15th February 2011

One of my favourite spots on the planet! For more on the Bajau Laut check this out:
16th February 2011

sorry that previous comment was me - logged off when I sent it. Anyway, like I said, love it; I was there in 1998 and hope to return this year.
17th February 2011

Thanks Jason, Sophie, Dale and Ed! Appreciated. It is a memorable spot, as Sophie and dale and Jason will testify. Ed, don't just take our words for it, get yourself there ASAP!
17th February 2011
Sun and storm: white, green and black

It's a get-together of colors... fantastic!
24th February 2011

hi guys
Hi there, I am heading to Indonesia in a couple of weeks, I am currently in Vietnam. Was only going to spend a couple of weeks there but after reading your blog I am interested in this area. I have no time restraints so taking time to get there is no problem. I am meeting a friend in Bali but after that I might look into going to these islands. Can you please give me a rough guide to getting there from Bali or even jakarta. Michelle
27th February 2011
The kilometre long pontoon opposite Melenge Lestari

this is beautiful! ... this is on my list now.

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