The Beauty of Bira: Taking it Easy in Sulawesi

Asia | Indonesia | RTW #9: All About Africa & SE Asia
Bara Beach Sulawesi Indonesia

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The Indonesian archipelago is made up of more than 18,000 islands. Obviously, I didn’t have time to visit them all but I did want to break away from the more traditionally visited islands – like Bali and Java – and challenge myself a little while I was over here. Enter Sulawesi…

True to its wild-looking form on the map, Sulawesi presented a number of challenges, not the least of which was deciding where on the island to go. Sulawesi’s rugged interior was thick with mountainous jungles rendering it virtually impenetrable which left just the four spider-leg-like peninsulas jutting out into the sea as realistic options.

Sulawesi has two major airports, one in the capital city of Makassar and one in Manado in the north.

There were some good beach options near Manado but since I was coming from Yogyakarta, the direct flight to Makassar was too alluring to pass up. When dealing with small, domestic airlines in random countries, I find it’s generally smart to adopt a “less is more” strategy when it comes to your number of flights.

The more flights you have, the greater your chance of a cancellation or delay that can wreak havoc with your plans. Booking direct flights whenever possible is a good idea and driving is nearly always a more reliable option.

Yogyakarta Airport Java Indonesia
Waiting out a flight delay in Yogyakarta

So, I narrowed my search area to Makassar and surroundings and with just 3 nights on the island and a late night arrival in the capital, my ultimate destination had to be driving distance. Unfortunately, diligent research revealed that there wasn’t much of interest to the casual visitor close by. And, unfortunately, the information available online about the island was sparse to say the least.

The closest beach that sounded promising was a 5-hour drive from the airport. But the tiny village of Bira seemed like exactly what I was looking for – a relaxed vibe, dry conditions known for more sunny days than the rest of the island and inexpensive lodging options, all set on a dreamy white-sand beach. Ultimately, I decided it might be worth the drive.

After a short but delayed flight from Yogyakarta (the 1st of 4 flights with Lion Air, probably not a good sign), I landed in Makassar at 8:30pm, an hour later than expected. Luckily, my hotel had arranged transportation and the driver was waiting patiently when I walked out of the airport. We hopped into an SUV and headed out into the chaos of Friday night traffic in Makassar. Next stop, Bira.

The Drive to Bira

When someone tells me a drive is going to take 5 hours in the back of my mind I always think, “It can’t really be that far, probably more like 4 hours or so.” But I was wrong, the drive took every bit of 5 hours and my driver was lead-footing it the entire way.

So much so, that I had to eventually stop looking at the road and try to immerse myself in a book on my iPad so as to distract my attention from various obstacles in the road and my driver’s complete disregard for personal safety.

Of course, I did manage to find a few minutes between panic attacks to Tweet about the drive. For your amusement, I shall recap my Twitter feed in case you missed it:

8:55pm: Finally on the ground in Makassar. It’s nearly 9pm & it’s a 5-hour drive to Bara Beach, this should be fun!

10:01pm: 1hr down, 4 to go. Driver doesn’t speak English, but does apparently speak Nascar. Seems intent on honking horn all 5hs to Bara, ala India.

11:37pm: Halfway point. Sulawesi drive is Malawi midnight drive all over again (x) 2.5hrs (+) potholes (–) goats. Better be wine at hotel.

12:17am: Was mistaken in previous tweet. Found goats.

Mangga Lodge Bara Beach Sulawesi Indonesia
My room at Mangga Lodge

A little after 1:00am, we reached the long dirt road that led up a hill to Mangga Lodge. Located about 2 miles from the town of Bira, the hotel was set on what I’d read was the best beach in the area, Bara Beach. I was fully prepared for the kind of late night welcome I’d received in Malawi (which was none) but instead the owner, Elvis, and one of his frequents guests from Germany, Klaus, were waiting up to welcome me.

Elvis offered me a cold Bintang beer and Klaus sliced up some cheese and sausage and we sat down on the terrace and got acquainted for a few minutes before he eventually showed me to my room. The room was bug-free and had A/C which were pretty much my only requirements at the moment and within minutes I was sound asleep, exhausted from the drive.

But not before sending one last Tweet to reassure my followers (and mostly my mother) that I’d arrived alive:

1:44am: Arrived in 1 piece at Bara Beach. Hotel is lovely. Owner, Elvis, even had cold beer waiting. Can’t wait to see the beach in the morning.

Blown-Away by Bara

The next morning I woke up excited to make the short walk down to the beach and check it out. After a quick breakfast, I grabbed my camera and headed down the path to the beach. As my toes hit the sand and my eyes took in the wide expanse of sand and two-toned clear blue sea before me, I was literally speechless.

It was even more beautiful than the pictures I’d seen (how often does that happen?). I could hardly believe my luck and I immediately wished that I had planned to stay longer.

I spent the morning walking the long stretch of white sand (which went all the way to the town of Bira at low tide) and then made a stop by the only other hotel in the area, the Bara Beach Hotel. It was the other place I’d considered staying before deciding on Mangga Lodge and it was just beautiful. It would be hard to go wrong with either if you were planning a visit to the area.

Bara Beach Bira Sulawesi Indonesia
Bara Beach, Sulawesi

That afternoon I planted myself under a palm tree with my book and a cold Bintang. It was heaven. Why don’t I plan more days like this on my trips? It’s always go, go, go. Really must rethink that.

Saturday Night Fever in Bira

That afternoon as I’d been getting my beer from the lodge’s super-convenient honor-bar-fridge (you just write down whatever you take under your name on the wall) Elvis asked me to peruse the dinner menu and place my order.

Since Mangga is such a small hotel and there were only two other guests at the moment – Klaus and another couple from Germany, all divers – dinner would be served at 7pm and we’d all dine together family-style.

Bira Sulawesi Indonesia
Saturday night out in Bira with the gang from the hotel

He also mentioned that on Saturday nights they all usually went into town for a beer or two and invited me to come along. A Saturday night on the town in Bira, how delightful! Of course I would love to join them.

At dinner I met the other guests, Gabby and her husband (who told me his name and then assured me that I would forget it because it was German and complicated, he was right…sorry, Gabby’s husband!) and was reacquainted with Klaus. They were all German but spoke excellent English and were kind enough to converse in English every time I was around so I could join in the dinner conversation.

After dinner, we piled into the hotel’s pick-up truck, joined by Evan from Spain – the lodge’s head dive master – and the hotel manager drove us down the long dirt road into town – guys in the back, Gabby and I squeezed into the cab.

I’m not sure what I envisioned when Elvis said we were going to a bar in town but it wasn’t the small open-air seaside shack with chairs scattered about and a cooler full of ice cold Bintangs that turned out to be our destination. It was, however, absolutely perfect for the occasion.

The main road in Bira was lined with similar “bars” selling souvenirs, sodas, snacks and beers. This one was owned by a family employed by the lodge so everyone there was either a guest or a staff member.

As we sipped our beers and chatted about potential dive and snorkel spots for the next day, we ran into (seemingly) the only other tourists in town. Judith and Barbara were two sisters from Germany (why is everyone here from Germany?) and I’d met them briefly on the beach earlier that day – mostly because we were the only ones around for miles.

Judith works in marketing for L’Oreal and was taking a year-long career break to travel. Her sister Barbara had taken 3-months off to join her for part of the trip.

I knew they were staying at a guesthouse in Bira and kind of figured we’d run into them while in town. In a place so small and with so few tourists, we were all easy to spot. They joined us for a beer and Elvis invited them to come along on the snorkeling trip we were planning for the next day.

We continued talking and drinking for a few hours having a fabulous time until about 11pm when I was getting tired but trying to maintain enthusiasm for the sake of everyone else. It wasn’t really an option to go back to the hotel on my own so I’d need to wait for the group to be ready to go.

Bira Beach Sulawesi Indonesia
Bira Beach, Sulawesi

By midnight things were winding down in town and not a moment too soon because I was beginning to worry that I would have to investigate the bathroom situation (which I really, really didn’t want to do considering the general absence of running water in the area). We said goodbye to the German girls and Elvis arranged their pick-up time for the next morning for the snorkeling trip. Gabby and I hopped back in the cab while the rest of the now raucous bunch piled into the back of the truck.

Along the road back, Evan – who’d had a few too many Bintangs – decided he wanted to stop to use the bathroom at one of the string of karaoke bars that oddly line the dirt road back to the hotel.

Don’t ask me why Bira has a cluster of karaoke bars, they always seemed empty though the music blared well into the night – they may or may not have been a front for inappropriate activity as there were usually scantily-clad young Indonesian girls standing outside. Whether these girls had anything to do with Evan’s sudden urge to use the facilities, I can’t say.

I was just hoping he would be quick because I was holding out for the clean bathroom I knew was waiting in my room. Gabby, however – ever the optimist – decided she’d follow him into the tiny karaoke bar and try their bathroom. But when she came back out moments later with a nauseous look on her face, it was obvious she had reconsidered.

It took a group effort to get Evan back into the truck but finally we were on our way to the lodge. When we got back, I said my goodnights and headed immediately to my room. It was well after midnight and the plan was to head out for the dive/snorkel trip at 9am. The rest of the group, however, continued the revelry long into the night, some until 4am.

Underwater Bira

The next morning, the sun again shone brightly and it appeared I was the only one who had gotten any actual rest. Evan looked positively green and I was immediately glad I was just snorkeling today, not diving. Of course, unlike me everyone there was an experienced diver so they found Evan’s condition more humorous than a cause for concern.

Liukang Loe Island Sulawesi Indonesia
Arriving at Liukang Loe Island

Judith and Barbara arrived around 8:30am and we were all outfitted for gear at the dive shop before heading down to the beach to board the boat. The plan for the day was to drop me, Judith and Barbara at the nearby island of Liukang Loe where we could snorkel offshore and enjoy the beach for the morning while the divers went out and did their thing.

On the island, there was a small restaurant run by a local family in the village and we’d all meet back there for lunch around noon. The family was terrific and gave us a place to store our belongings while we snorkeled. As we got in the water to head out to the coral reef just offshore, I noticed a lot of small pink jellyfish.

I had no idea whether I should be concerned or not but after discussing with Judith and Barbara the general consensus was that they didn’t have tentacles so they probably couldn’t sting us. And we also figured if the beach was inhabited by thousands of killer jellyfish, Elvis surely would have at least mentioned it.

Liukang Loe Island Sulawesi Indonesia
Snorkeling through jellyfish

So, we waded through the jellyfish and out to the coral reef and spent an hour or two snorkeling. As I was heading back to shore later, jellyfish bumping off my arms and legs, I couldn’t help but fondly remember my afternoon in Jellyfish Lake in Palau on Round the World #6. Of course, those jellyfish were much bigger but equally harmless.

We spent a little time relaxing on the beach before the divers returned for lunch around 12:30pm. Lunch was traditional Indonesian fare – BBQ fish, rice and lots of veggies. It was a ton of food and it was really delicious. After lunch, the divers headed back out for another round and the girls and I resumed relaxing on the gorgeous beach.

The Boat Builders of Bira

When we returned to the hotel around 4pm, I really wanted to drive over to one of the beaches where the boat builders work. I’d read that boat builders in Bira used age-old techniques to hand-craft traditional ships right on the beach. The previous day Elvis had said they could drive me over to see it when we returned from the island. Judith and Barbara also wanted to check it out so they came along, too.

Sulawesi Boat builders Tana Beru Indonesia
The boat builders of Tana Beru

We made the 15-minute drive over to Marumasa just outside of Bira and I couldn’t believe the size of the ships, they were huge! I was expecting smaller fishing boats, not something cruise-ship-sized. It was quite a site as sawdust clogged the air and the sound of hammering assaulted my ears. We wandered between the three ships currently in progress and snapped a few photos.

On the way back, our driver dropped the girls off at their hotel in town and we all exchanged e-mails and said our goodbyes, promising to keep in touch as we continue our travels. I’ve met so many awesome people so far on this trip and it was a lot of fun to hang out with other girls roughly my own age during my stay in Bira.

The Drive Back to Makassar

The next morning it was time to make the hideous drive all the way back to Makassar. Though my flight wasn’t until 4:30pm, Elvis suggested I leave by 9:30am just to be sure I had enough time. I wasn’t looking forward to the drive at all but figured it might be better in the light of day.

I had breakfast with Klaus, Gabby and her husband and said fond goodbyes to them, Elvis and the rest of the terrific staff. It really had been a fantastic stay and I was sad that I didn’t plan a few extra days. Sure the power went off frequently and the promised wifi turned out to be mostly non-existent, but the beach was one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen and the people of Bira and Bara Beach were all so friendly and welcoming.

It’s the kind of place where you could lose large chunks of time and never miss it. If only I had more time to lose. Sigh.

Boat builders Sulawesi Indonesia
On the bow of one of the boats under construction

The drive was at least more interesting on the way back. My driver made a brief stop so I could see one of the other boat-building beaches that was a little further from town but on our way. It was a much larger village of boat-builders and there were tons of boats in progress. My driver motioned to one of the high gangplanks leading up to the deck of a boat and asked if I wanted to take a look inside. I did, but it didn’t occur to me that that was allowed. He cleared it with one of the workers who waved us up and we climbed up the narrow plank onto the bow of the boat.

It was awesome to take in the view from above and I couldn’t believe I’d just scaled a 10-inch-wide gangplank with no visible safety precautions. Living on the edge, so to speak! We made it back down safely and resumed the ride to the airport.

The countryside of Sulawesi was quite beautiful in many places, lots of rice fields and small villages. Several hours later as we approached Makassar, the traffic was horrendous and we were barely moving. It was nearly 2:30pm and I was getting concerned that I’d be cutting it close for my flight.

traffic Makassar Sulawesi Indonesia
Traffic in Makassar

Adding to my concern, I needed to visit the Lion Air sales desk to take care of a couple of things before check-in. The day before my arrival in Sulawesi, I’d gotten an e-mail from the travel agent I used to book my Yogyakarta-Makassar and Makassar-Lombok flights since it was impossible to book domestic flights within Indonesia from the US.

My flight today from Makassar was supposed to connect in Bali and then continue on to Lombok. But Lion Airways had changed the time of the Bali-Lombok flight and it was now scheduled to leave before I landed in Bali. My travel agent was concerned about re-routing me but it actually worked out in my favor as I’d recently decided to spend two nights in Bali before heading on to Lombok.

So, all I needed to do was see if they would let me re-book my Bali-Lombok flight for two days later. I also needed to book my flight from Lombok to Jakarta for the last leg of my Indonesia visit.

We finally arrived at the airport at 3:30pm and with just one hour before departure I was worried I wouldn’t have time to do it all. Luckily, after going through a couple of agents, I managed to get someone at the Lion Air desk who understood what I needed to do.

They were happy to change the flight to the date I actually wanted and I booked a ticket for the only direct flight from Lombok to Bali. They even printed my boarding pass for my current flight saving me the time of waiting in the check-in line.

I breezed through the checkpoint just in time for boarding. Unfortunately, I then had to wait out another two-hour delay to Bali. I began to seriously wonder if any of Lion Air’s flights actually left on time, I was 0-2 so far.

At least the airport was modern and comfortable and it gave me some time to reflect on my stay in Sulawesi. It really was a gorgeous island and the kind of place I might never have ventured just a few years ago. These days, however, I like to think I seek out the more remote and adventurous destinations to balance out all those traditional tourist hotspots (like Bali).

And I often find the most remote places to be the most rewarding, that was certainly the case with Bira. Sometimes the harder you work to get somewhere, the more you appreciate it once you arrive. Sulawesi was perfect in its own unique way but I must confess; I’m looking forward to getting back to civilization and reliable power. At least for a while.

Next stop, Bali!

Disclaimer: Accommodations provided by Mangga Lodge.