Adventure travel has become very popular, but sometimes the adventure takes over!
The journey to Wakatobi Resort is plenty adventurous—thirty hours of flying time from Pittsburgh to Bali. Then two more plane rides, from Bali to west Sulawesi one day and from west to east Sulawesi the next day, then an eighteen-hour overnight boat ride to Wakatobi. Four to five days in all (it gets hard to keep track after a while, with time changes and the International Date Line. We have two nights scheduled at the Bali Hyatt to relax. When we originally booked the trip, a direct flight from Bali to the island of Tomia, next door to Wakatobi, was scheduled, but the airstrip was not completed in time for our departure.
We’re running one hour late when the plane lands in Hawaii, which means our layover now consists of walking from one gate to another. The plane is pushed back from the gate, then the captain’s voice comes over the loud speaker—damage to the airplane from the luggage ramp has just been discovered. We go back to the gate and sit on the airplane while pictures are taken and sent to Houston. The verdict comes back after about an hour—a quick fix, which means--600 mile an hour duct tape? We take off, no problem, except our flight from Guam to Denpasar, Bali is not held for us.
We spend the night in Guam, everything paid for by Continental. Guam is pretty cool: U.S. 800-numbers work there, and the postage is the same as in the states. There’s a huge mall with an amusement park inside it, and the tourist buses are funky.
The next afternoon we take off from Guam and land five hours later in Denpasar. It’s midnight by the time we arrive at the Hyatt, and our departure is 7:00 A.M. the next morning. So much for rest and relaxation! If asked how the Bali Hyatt is, what little bit we saw of it looked great! Back at the airport, we start meeting other Wakatobi trekkers.
After an hour flight from Denpasar to Ujung Pendang in west Sulawesi, we’re met and whisked off on a private tour with student Andreas as our guide, visiting Bantimurung and its giant waterfall and butterfly park. As we walk along the vendor-lined walkway, the locals walk up to say hello, shake our hands, and try to sell us dead butterflies sealed in plastic. Next to the waterfall is a pep rally for a cigarette company, including perky young ladies dressed in bright red suits, handing out cigarettes to potential smokers of all ages. Next stop is Leang-leang, where a short walk and many steps allow us to view ancient handprints and a painted pig on the vertical cliff face, and to look inside a prehistoric cave.
We check in at our hotel, eat lunch, and rest a bit before heading out to the fishing docks, Fort Rotterdam, and a private orchid garden. It is now raining and the bicycle taxis are encased in plastic to keep the passengers dry. Although tiring, the touring is well worth it, and our guide to entertaining.
At 4:00 A.M. very loud wailing awakens us; it’s the first call of the day for devout Muslims to pray to Mecca. Now we know what the arrow on our bedroom ceiling is for—it points to Mecca!
Andreas meets us after breakfast in the ship restaurant for a quick trip to the airport. Wakatobi Dive Resort personnel meet us and take care of our luggage. After a short forty minute hop from Ujang Pendang to Kendari, on the east side of Sulawesi, we’re met by more Wakatobi staff who herd everyone into various vans for the thirty minute ride to the dock. We board the Ciska for our Indonesian cruise to the resort; we have expanded to nineteen, their largest group ever.
The Ciska is interesting; there are berths in places you would never think to look, and everyone scurries around the boat looking in nooks and crannies to account for luggage. Our assigned cabin is above deck with four bunk beds, two of which have a large diameter pipe running up through them. Most people drag their mattresses up onto the top deck, until there’s no more room. Most of the crew has lost their beds to us, so when we go searching for the heads in the middle of the night, we find crew sleeping anywhere they can find a spot, without mattresses!
Eighteen hours on a boat filled to capacity is better than eighteen hours on an airplane, but it’s still a very long time. Relax, eat, stare at the water, fidget, read a book, sleep, eat, stare at the water, then high-five when we arrive at Wakatobi!
The resort is lovely, and very private. The name is actually a composite of the four main islands in the nearby area—two letters from each island. The main lodge consists of dining and sitting areas, the dive shop with separate camera and gear storage rooms, eight second-floor bedrooms, and a communal bathroom. There are also four bungalows with en suite bathrooms. The strong-smelling tap water is used for showers, but drinking water is hauled in by boat. November is supposed to be the start of the rainy season, but most of our stay was very hot and dry; one night we had a torrential downpour.
There are two boat dives each morning, leaving about 8:30 A.M., using the Ciska and the Wakatobi Tika. A smaller boat is also available; there were never more than eight divers on any boat. After divers set up their tanks, the tanks and remaining equipment are carried to the boat. The water was about 84 degrees. Many dives are wall drift dives; one in particular felt like under water white-water rafting! Other dives include large pinnacles and rubble areas, where the boat is anchored on a mooring. There was always at least one divemaster in the water, hunting for neat critters, like leaf fish. There weren’t any dive restrictions, although we saw them get on one couple’s case about staying together better. Long safety stops were encouraged, which were incorporated into most dives, since the top of the wall begins shallow. Divers are rotated between different boats, divemasters, and departure times, so no one feels stuck in a rut. Although we saw a couple of sharks and eagle rays, most of the diving is macro to mid-size. But the macro is absolutely fantastic; we found pygmy sea horses, nudibranchs, and many crabs we’ve never seen before. Next time I’m taking a magnifying glass! The corals are in very good condition, and the soft corals are as impressive as Fiji’s, but it was depressing to see large amounts of trash floating during some of the drift dives. The first time it happened, we swam out to see what kind of jellyfish was there, but quickly learned it was garbage. The boat crew is very attentive and during the hour-long surface intervals, there are cookies and cold or hot drinks available. Back at the resort, the gear is hauled back to the dive shop and cameras are carefully placed in the camera rinse tank. Divers rinse their own gear, hang up wetsuits, and replace their equipment bin in the storage room until the shore diving frenzy begins
Lunch is served between 1:00 and 2:00, and then it’s time for unlimited, shore diving, which is super easy: get your dive gear from your dive bin, sign the blackboard, walk twenty feet to the water, snorkel across four foot deep water to the edge of the wall, pick your depth and direction and dive! It is also possible to hitch a ride on the small outboard for a short ride up the shoreline. There’s a fantastic cavern starting in about 70 feet of water, full of neat critters like pipefish, tiny crabs and shrimp, and a disco clam. After exploring the cavern it’s usually an easy drift back to the resort. If the current is running the wrong way, the boat picks you up. Closer to the resort, it’s a cinch to find all types of nudibranchs, crabs, shrimp, eels, lionfish, and lots of very cooperative clownfish!
Most people did 3-4 dives each day. We tried to do night dives before the 7:00 dinner; otherwise we usually never got around to it. Luckily it gets dark early. Night dives are done so they finish to the left of the resort, usually coinciding with a large sand chute that leads up to the shore. The best stuff seems to hang out around the sand chute, and there are things like crabs and octopus hanging out in the 2-4 foot range. After finally ending the dive, usually from hunger, it’s a short walk back to the lodge. A few boat night dives are also an option.
A variety of plentiful food is served. Breakfast is buffet-style: eggs, juice, toast, cereal, and wonderful oatmeal. Lunch and dinner are served family-style, usually starting with soup, then a main dish, bread, vegetables, rice, and dessert. The meals seem to be Indonesian trying to appeal to American appetites. Most people liked it; some of us didn’t, but there was always something to eat. There were pre-dinner snacks; some were more successful than others. Over the course of our stay, about half of the guests and a couple of the staff got sick, one at a time; whether due to water, food, or a virus, we don’t know. Bottled water is available for a small charge.
Island entertainment is scarce. Two afternoons, trips were made to neighboring villages to meet the natives, tour the village, and watch the children dance. There are a few old magazines lying around, a couple of videos, and a small guest library. Mostly we went to bed early and got up early with the sun; Wakatobi is for serious diving. One advantage of the eighteen hour boat ride back to civilization is that it’s possible to dive right up to the time of departure; after a couple hours hanging on the Ciska, it’s dry. Just like a long plane ride home, the trip back to Sulawesi seemed longer, and the boat a little smaller!
Getting to Wakatobi is time-consuming. The bottom line is: would we go back? Absolutely, but for our second trip, we’ll try waiting until the airstrip on nearby Tomia is built, we’ll either drink only bottled water or use a water purifier, and we’ll take more snacks from home. We’re glad we experienced it the way we did, because once the airstrip is built, Wakatobi will get a lot more crowded. Even though the resort’s management is very serious about keeping the diving pristine, once the area is more accessible, its slow decline is inevitable. In fact, we may go back before that happens, but we’ll schedule more recovery time at the Hyatt. The boat diving is excellent, the shore diving exceptional, the staff friendly and accommodating, the water warm, and the sunsets spectacular—what more is there?
Downey Diving 213 Summerfield Drive Baden, PA 15005 (724) 869-1989