Manado – a distant paradise
Located on the far coast in the North Sulawesi province of Indonesia, the city of Manado has a lot more to offer than what meets the eye and all it takes to discover its beauty is a dive in its surrounding waters.Our author explores this scuba diving husband discovers the beauty housed within its neighboring habitats.
I wasn’t too happy with the thought of going to Manado for our next trip until I sat to research about the place. The capital of North Sulawesi, Indonesia,I discovered that Manado has a lot that left me surprised and excited.This emerald mountainous volcanic island is surrounded by the Pacific Ocean, Sulawesi Sea, Manado Bay and Moluccan Sea and is one of the major muck diving capitals of the world.
The primitive rain-forests in its surrounding are home to some of the most rare and endemic birds and other wildlife. The island of Halmahara in the Moluccan Sea, in fact, plays host to the Standard winged Bird of Paradise which is also endemic to this island. Armed with this interesting piece of information, we decided to do a mix of birding and diving and the itinerary we drew up read something like this: Halmahara – Lembeh – Bunaken – Tangkoko National Park.
We drove down to the hotel on reaching Manado and noticed how the city, once known as the cleanest Indonesian city, had now transformed into a major business hub. We tucked into the local delicacy, Ayam Nasi Goreng – a sumptuous chicken fried rice dish,topped with a fried egg, and served with pickles and crackers – and turned in for the night as we had to board an early flight the next morning.
HAILING AT HALMAHERA
The obscure, rugged and mountainous Halmahera Island is located between North Sulawesi and East Papua, and is thickly forested with white sandy beaches. We took an early morning flight to Kao where our birding guide, Wang Wang, joined us as we set forth for Central Halmahera.
First on our birding list was the Beach Kingfisher and we spotted this beautiful white and blue-green bird in the thick mangroves found there. We had to walk through dead corals and pneumatophores to get a close look at the bird. We were delighted to see a couple of Blyths Hornbills as well, that are endemic to the island and look similar to Narcondam Hornbills.
Wang Wang delighted us with the story of his journey from a bird hunter to someone who now actively works to save birds. It took us about 7-8 hours to reach Eco Resort, which was located right beside the reef and opened out to the azure blue sea and the marshy green primary forest. We were astounded to find that the cottages were built from palm trees,the roofs made of dried sago palm leaves, plaited by local people, while dried Sago palm ribs form the walls. It was a crazy night that we spent far away from our homes in a remote Indonesian island under the endless sky dotted with countless shimmering stars;the background score of the breaking waves and uncanny call of the owls and the night jars adding to the scene.
After early breakfast the next day we drove down to the 700 hectares of protected forest owned by the Sawai Eco Tourism Foundation. Local villagers work together with the foundation to protect the lek of endemic Wallace’s Standard wing a bird of paradise –the most sought after bird of the island.
We trekked through the dense, wet rain forest to the lek of the bird of paradise. As soon as we reached,we saw this magnificent bird in the canopy – a medium-sized (28 cm approximately), olive-brown bird with a glossy violet and lilac crown and an emerald green breast shield.Its most eye-catching features are its two pairs of long white plumes that come out from the bend of the wing. The female is smaller, but has a longer tail than the male.
For my photographer friends,just a glimpse of the bird was not sufficient and they got busy trying to locate the bird from their preferred angle.The movement of bird of paradise stopped sharp at 9 am and we then began looking for other birds such as the Common Paradise Kingfisher, Ivory-breasted Pitta and other endemic birds. There are 28 endemic bird species and countless species of insects found in this forest. Our bird watching session post lunch helped us locate the Sombre Kingfisher, Purple Dollar Bird, Halmahera Swiflet, Goliath Coucal, Rainbow Bee eater, and Red Cheeked parrot among others.
We were quite excited to go diving the next and began precisely at 7 am. We reached our first dive site,Tajung Uli within 20 minutes, put on the scuba gear,back-rolled into the water and found ourselves in a different cosmos altogether.A huge coral table started below the surface of the water and was made of hard and soft corals of diverse colors and shapes. We could see thousands of colorful fishes, including the anemone fish, Parrot fish, Emperors, black snappers,trigger fish and butterfly fish to name a few.
Our next dive was in the Elmos Reef, a very steep wall with a shallow reef top, with countless caverns and caves.We could see, a very steep wall, with a shallow reef top, it has countless caverns and caves, and at most sites the white bottom is at 35-40 meters depth. Our third dive was in the mangroves in the reef adjacent to a mini-island, the landscape is quite different under and over water. It was about time to leave this pristine paradise of Halmahera, it was a feeling like three days over within a blink, and we loved the air, the soil, the smell, the food and people of Halmahera.
Our next destination was Lembeh, an island located on the Lembeh Straits – muck diving capital of the world – adjacent to Manado. A 20-minute boat ride from the harbor city of Bitung took us to Lembeh. Having been welcomed warmly at our dive resort, we immediately went to the dive shop to try out the scuba gear. Next morning, we went about exploring the underwater world at Lembeh. The muck dives consist of sandy black slopes covered with corals and a variety of small creatures – a macro photography haven.
For the first dive we went to Kareko Bato, a dive site with a maximum depth of 25 m. We saw a host of fishes of different color and pattern including the frog fish, ghost pipe fish, snakeeel and dragonets. We did nine dives in Lembeh’s different divesites, spotting corals, sea whips, sea fans, nudy branches, ghost pipe fish, whip coral shrimp, devil scorpion fish, blue ringed octopus and many kinds of lion fish, sponges, and rubbles,three species of sea horse, pygmy sea horse and so much more.We were also fortunate to witness the mating dance of the shy mandarin fishes.
Bumaken island, which is a part of Bunaken National Park, is situated on the other side of Manado. A 45 minute boat ride took us to our divers and the seaside resort that was hidden by the coastal mangroves. Bunaken National Park stretches over 890.65sq. km., with only 3% of the area being terrestrial. It is part of the Indo-Pacific Region that supports the highest marine biodiversity on the earth. Bunaken is famous for its coral, the water temperature varying from 27-30°C and maximum depth being 1566 m. The dives here were mostly in vertical walls with caves and spectacular reefs with a large variety of hard and soft corals in unearthly colors. We encountered fishes such as Parrot fishes, surgeon fish, sweet tips, trigger fish, butterfly fish, large green turtles,White tip reef sharks and a host of other species. The underwater world unveiled in front of our eyes like never before, leaving us stunned by its exotic beauty and grandeur that we would have never known about had we not dived. Our dive resort also had its own in-house reef and during low tide, we would walk there amidst the dead and live corals, seaweeds and pneumatophores.
TRAIPSING IN TONGKOKO
Our last stop was Tangkoko that is located in northern Bitung, two hours away from Manado. This 9000-hectare National Park is spread over the hills and valleys of Dua Saudara. No luxurious accommodation is available at Tongkoko and we stayed at a home stay beside a small stream that marked the boundary of the Tongkoko National Park.
In the afternoon, we drove down the gate of the park and found a Green-backed Kingfisher – a threatened species endemic to Indonesia – beside the gate in a lowland. We reached the foothills 10 minutes later and trekked through the forest trail for around 40 minutes before arriving at the habitat of the nocturnal Tarsier and Black macaques. We also spotted the magnificent Lilac kingfisher that is also endemic to Sulawesi.
We waited until dark to spot the Tarsiers and were rewarded with the chance to see the very small monkey with beautiful, expressive big eyes and long tails, peep out of a large tree trunk hole. While we couldn’t take our eyes off the Tarsiers, with darkness having descended over the forest, we had to embark on the return trek almost immediately.We wished to see the Sulawesi black macaque,found only on two Indonesian islands, and thus, we drove down to the forest early morning on the day of our flight back home to try our luck. After walking for around half an hour, we came upon a group of about 40 macaques – males, females and babies. These macaques have an entirely black face and body. The hair on their heads forms a long crest that is pointed backward and upwards and that helps distinguish them. They were very active and didn’t shy away,giving us an opportunity to shoot them.
We returned from the forest, and as we headed back home our senses were filled with the smell of the azure blue sea and the astonishing colors of the underwater world, the marshy green dense rain forest and images of unknown endemic creatures.We knew our lives had changed forever and we will go back a different person, enriched with the extraordinary experiences of this remote part of Indonesia.
How to go
You can fly from India to Manado by Singapore Airlines: Mumbai-Singapore-Manado (minimum 11 hours) or Garuda Indonesia:Mumbai-Singapore-Jakarta-Manado (minimum 18 hours)
When to go
The best time to visit is between February and October. Bunakenand Manado Bay are very sheltered and the sea is a bit rough visibility is generally over 20 – 40 m during the dry season, i.e.February to October. During the wet season, from November to January, the sea is often rough but diving is still possible.
Things to remember
Indians get On-Arrival Visa in Indonesia, while citizens from other countries will require visa formalities to be done.
For more information
- Manado is the capital city of North Sulawesi province of Indonesia
- Local Language : Minahasa Malay
- Best known for – Diving & adventures through the wild
- Best Diving Site: Bunaken Manado Tua National Park
- Best for adventurous treks – Tangkoko National Park
- Time difference: 2 hours 30 minutes ahead of India
- City’s Slogan: “Torang Samua Basudara” meaning “ we are all one family” How to reach: There are regular ferries for Bunaken
- Do Not Miss: World’s smallest monkey (Tarsier)
- Local Cuisine: Rice porridge (Bubur Manad), Klapperta art a special cake filled with slivers of fresh tender coconut
Images :Dhritiman Mukherjee
This article originally appeared in the 2016 March issue of Saevus magazine