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The Indonesian archipelago is made up of more than 18,000 islands.
Obviously, I don’t have time to visit them all. But I do want to break away from the more traditionally visited islands – like Bali and Java – and challenge myself a little while I’m here.
True to its wild-looking form on the map, Sulawesi presents a number of challenges. Not the least of which is deciding where on the island to go.
Sulawesi’s rugged interior is thick with mountainous jungles rendering it virtually impenetrable. This leaves 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.
Where to go in Sulawesi
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. And on a 30-day round-the-world trip, that can quickly derail a large part of your itinerary. Booking direct flights whenever possible is the way to go.
So, I narrow my search area to Makassar and surroundings. With just 3 nights on the island and a late night arrival in the capital, my ultimate destination has to be driving distance.
Unfortunately, diligent research reveal there isn’t much of interest to the casual visitor close by. And information available online about the island is sparse to say the least.
Throwing a dart at the map
The closest beach that sounds promising is a 5-hour drive from the airport.
But the tiny village of Bira seems like exactly what I’m 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 decide it just 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 land in Makassar at 8:30pm, an hour later than expected.
Luckily, my hotel has arranged transportation and the driver is waiting patiently when I exit the airport. We hop into his SUV and head out into the chaos of Friday night traffic in Makassar.
Next stop, Bira.
The Drive to Bara Beach in 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’m wrong, the drive takes every bit of 5 hours. And my driver is lead-footing it the entire way.
So much so, that I eventually have to stop looking at the road. I attempt 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 do 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.
Arrival at last in Bara Beach
A little after 1:00am, we reach the long dirt road that leads up a hill to the Mangga Lodge.
Located about 2 miles from the town of Bira, the hotel is set on what I’ve read is the best beach in the area, Bara Beach.
I am 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, are waiting up to welcome me.
Elvis offers me a cold Bintang beer and Klaus slices up some cheese and sausage. After that drive, they are now my new best friends.
We sit down on the terrace and get acquainted for a few minutes before he eventually shows me to my room. The room is bug-free and has A/C which are pretty much my only requirements at the moment.
Within minutes I’m 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 Beach
The next morning, I awake refreshed and excited to make the short walk down to Bara Beach and explore.
After a quick breakfast, I grab my camera and head down the path to the beach. As my toes hit the sand, my eyes take in the wide expanse of sand and two-toned clear azure sea before me.
I am literally speechless.
It is even more beautiful than the pictures I’ve seen (how often does that happen?). I can hardly believe my luck and I immediately wish I had planned a longer stay.
I spend the morning walking the long stretch of white sand. At low tide, the beach actually goes all the way to the town of Bira.
More hotel options on Bara Beach
Later, I make a stop by the only other hotel in the area, the Bara Beach Bungalows.
It’s the other place I considered staying before deciding on Mangga Lodge and it’s just beautiful. It would be hard to go wrong with either if you’re planning a visit to the area.
That afternoon I plant myself under a palm tree with my book and a cold Bintang.
It is paradise and I have it ALL to myself.
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’m grabbing a beer from the lodge’s super-convenient honor-bar-fridge (you just write down whatever you take under your name on the wall), Elvis asks me to peruse the dinner menu and place my order.
Mangga is such a small hotel and there are only two other guests at the moment – Klaus and another couple from Germany, all divers. So dinner will be served at 7pm and we’ll all dine together family-style.
He also mentions that on Saturday nights they all head into town for a beer or two. He invites me to come along.
A Saturday night on the town in Bira, how delightful! Of course I’d love to join them.
At dinner, I am reunited with Klaus and meet the other guests. They are Gabby and her husband (who tells me his name and then assures me I will forget it because it’s German and complicated, he’s right…sorry, Gabby’s husband!).
They’re all German but speak excellent English and are kind enough to converse in English every time I’m around so I can join in the dinner conversation.
After dinner, we pile into the hotel’s pick-up truck for the trip into town. We’re joined by Evan from Spain – the lodge’s head dive master. The hotel manager drives us down the long dirt road into town – guys in the back, Gabby and I squeezed into the cab.
A night on the town
I’m not sure what I envisioned when Elvis said we were going to a bar in town. But it certainly wasn’t the small open-air seaside shack with chairs scattered about that turns out to be our destination.
It is, however, absolutely perfect for the occasion. And there’s a cooler full of ice cold Bintangs.
The main road in Bira is lined with similar “bars” selling souvenirs, sodas, snacks and beers. This one is owned by a family employed by the lodge. So everyone there is either a guest or a staff member.
As we sip our beers and chat about potential dive and snorkel spots for tomorrow, we run into (seemingly) the only other tourists in town.
Making friends in Bira
Judith and Barbara are sisters from Germany (why is everyone here from Germany?) and I met them briefly on the beach earlier today. Mostly because we were the only ones around for miles.
Judith works in marketing for L’Oreal and is taking a year-long career break to travel. Her sister Barbara has 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 are all pretty easy to spot.
They join us for a beer and Elvis invites them to come along on the snorkeling trip we’re planning for tomorrow.
We continue talking and drinking for a few hours having a fabulous time. By 11pm, I’m getting tired but trying to maintain enthusiasm for the sake of everyone else. It’s not really an option to go back to the hotel on my own so I need to wait for the group to be ready to go.
By midnight, things are winding down in town. And not a moment too soon because I’m beginning to worry I’ll have to investigate the bathroom situation (and I really, really don’t want to do that considering the general absence of running water in the area).
We say goodbye to the German girls and Elvis arranges their pick-up time for tomorrow’s snorkeling trip. Gabby and I hop back in the cab while the rest of the now raucous bunch piles into the back of the truck.
The ride back to the hotel
Along the road back, Evan – who had a few too many Bintangs – decides to stop to use the bathroom at one of a 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 seem empty though the music blares well into the night. They may or may not be a front for inappropriate activity as there are usually scantily-clad young Indonesian girls standing outside.
Whether these girls have anything to do with Evan’s sudden urge to use the facilities, I can’t say.
I’m just hoping he’ll be quick because I am holding out for the clean bathroom waiting in my room. Gabby, however – ever the optimist – decides to follow him into the tiny karaoke bar and try her luck. She comes back out moments later with a nauseous look on her face, so obviously she reconsidered.
It takes a group effort to get Evan back into the truck but finally we’re back on the road to the lodge. When we get back, I say speedy goodnights and head immediately to my room. It’s now well after midnight and the plan is to head out for the dive/snorkel trip at 9am.
The rest of the group, however, continues the revelry long into the night, some until 4am. It’s pretty obvious I can’t hang with Germans.
The next morning, the sun again shines brightly. And it appear I’m the only one who got any actual rest.
Evan looks positively green and I am immediately glad I’m just snorkeling today, not diving.
Of course, unlike me, everyone here is an experienced diver. So they find Evan’s condition more humorous than a cause for concern.
Judith and Barbara arrive at 8:30am and we are all outfitted for gear at the dive shop before heading down to the beach to board the boat.
Liukana Loe island
The plan for the day is to drop me, Judith and Barbara at the nearby island of Liukang Loe.
There, we can snorkel offshore and enjoy the beach for the morning while the divers go out and do their thing.
On the island, there is a small restaurant run by a local family in the village. We’ll all meet back there for lunch around noon.
The family is terrific and gives us a place to store our belongings while we snorkel. As we get in the water to head out to the coral reef just offshore, I notice a lot of small pink jellyfish.
I have no idea whether I should be concerned or not. But after a quick discussion with Judith and Barbara the general consensus is that they don’t have tentacles so they probably can’t sting us.
We also figure if the beach was inhabited by thousands of killer jellyfish, Elvis surely would have at least mentioned it.
So, we wade through the jellyfish and out to the coral reef and spend an hour or two snorkeling.
As I’m heading back to shore later, jellyfish bumping off my arms and legs, I can’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 spend some little time relaxing on the beach before the divers return for lunch around 12:30pm. Lunch is traditional Indonesian fare – BBQ fish, rice and lots of veggies.
It’s a ton of food and incredibly fresh and delicious. After lunch, the divers head back out for another round. The girls and I resume relaxing on the gorgeous beach.
Is there a better way to spend a day?
The Boat Builders of Bira
When we return to the hotel around 4pm, I really want to drive over to one of the beaches where the boat builders work.
I’ve read that boat builders in Bira used age-old techniques to hand-craft traditional ships right on the beach. Yesterday, Elvis said they could drive me over to see it when we return from the island.
Judith and Barbara also decide to came along.
We make the 15-minute drive over to Marumasa just outside of Bira. I can’t believe the size of the ships, they are huge!
I was expecting smaller fishing boats, not something cruise-ship-sized. It’s quite a site as sawdust clogs the air and the sound of hammering assaults my ears. We wander between the three ships currently in progress and snap a few photos.
On the way back, our driver drops the girls off at their hotel in town. We all exchange e-mails and say 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’s been 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’s time to make the hideous drive all the way back to Makassar.
Though my flight isn’t until 4:30pm, Elvis suggests I leave by 9:30am just to be sure I have enough time. I’m not looking forward to the drive at all but figure it might be better in the light of day.
I have breakfast with Klaus, Gabby and her husband and say fond goodbyes to everyone.
It really has been a fantastic stay and I’m sad 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 hands-down one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. And the people of Bira and Bara Beach are all so friendly and welcoming.
It’s the kind of place you could lose large chunks of time and never miss it. If only I had more time to lose. Sigh.
The drive is at least more interesting on the way back.
My driver makes a brief stop so I can see one of the other boat-building beaches a little further from town but on our way. It’s a much larger village of boat-builders and there are tons of boats in progress.
My driver motions to one of the high gangplanks leading up to the deck of a boat. He asks if I want to take a look inside. I do, but it never occurred to me that was allowed. He clears it with one of the workers who waves us up and we climb up the narrow plank onto the bow of the boat.
It’s awesome to take in the view from above and I can’t believe I just scaled a 10-inch-wide gangplank with no visible safety precautions. Living on the edge, so to speak! We make it back down safely and resume the ride to the airport.
The countryside of Sulawesi is quite beautiful in many places, lots of rice fields and small villages. Several hours later as we approach Makassar, the traffic is horrendous and we are barely moving. It’s nearly 2:30pm and I’m getting concerned I’m be cutting it close for my flight.
We finally arrive at the airport at 3:30pm, with just one hour before departure.
After check-in, I breeze through the security checkpoint just in time for boarding. Unfortunately, I then have to wait out another two-hour delay to Bali. I begin to seriously wonder if any of Lion Air’s flights actually leave on time, I’m 0-2 so far.
At least the airport is modern and comfortable. And it gives me some time to reflect on my stay in Sulawesi.
It really is a gorgeous island. But it’s also the kind of raw, undiscovered destination 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 is 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.