Bunaken

Trip Start Jun 30, 2006
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Trip End Jul 10, 2006


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Saturday, July 1, 2006

I found it hard to whittle my 400+ photos down to managable size. I still came away with 113 that I thought were fairly important to my story. Those can be seen at my yahoo photos page or my flickr page since it is a royal pain in the butt to download that many photos to this blog. Both sites have an identical set of photos, but flickr is pretty slick, I think. If you're a real glutton for punishment, you can see the whole shebang (400+), including hi res photos, at my new Smugmug site

We arrived to a bright and sunny Manado, Sulawesi around 1PM on July 1 - Handover day in Hong Kong, but no special day, in particular, in Manado. We flew Silk Air, a subsidiary of Singapore Airlines, which is the most well-known airline that flies to Manado. Next you have Garuda, Merpati, Bouraq, Lion Air, and a host of less recognizable regional carriers (Lump them together and call them 'Scary Air'). It's a fairly big airport by Indonesian standards. Dad and I visited the ATM and became Indonesian millionaires (9600 Rupiah to the dollar).

We were met by a smiling, older gentleman with a sign reading "Kevin Claus" and the name of a Japanese woman who was also visiting Cha Cha Nature Resort on Bunaken Island. We loaded our bags and were whisked off to the somewhat seedy harbor. On the way, people were flying their world cup colors on tall (maybe 20 meter) bamboo poles. The most popular teams seemed to be Brasil and England, who both crashed out in the quarters later in the week. The other curious sight on the way to the harbor, was the endless advertising for Djarum black cappuccino - apparently a cappuccino flavored cigarette? Hmmm. Condensing the coffee break? Apart from the flags and the advertisements and the plethora of Christian churches, the town looked like a lot of places in Thailand/Indonesia/Malaysia.

The harbor was a murky cesspool, crowded with small boats and big freighter/passenger ferries. There were the concrete remains of former dock pilings and other structures sticking up out of the muddy water and looked like they'd be good for sinking a ship or two. Our driver led us to our boat - a bright orange number with a catchy name which I have forgotten. We piled in and pushed off, thankful to be closer to our island paradise.

Almost immediately outside the harbor, the almost perfectly conical island of Manado Tua comes into view. A dormant volcano, it neighbors Bunaken. After a 45 minute cruise, we arrive to our promised "wet-landing". Cha Cha employees greet us with neoprene diving booties with which to protect our soft pink toes on the crushed coral scramble to shore. Bunaken (as well as most of the other islands in the area) is completely surrounded by fringing coral reef, which drops off in an abrupt wall to impossible depths. The surface of the reef is exposed at low tide, and never more than 4 or 5 feet underwater. The booties are necessary for the walk over broken coral to shore.

We are greeted by Raf and Reiko, the owners, with our welcoming drink - young coconut. Raf is Italian - Irish, but sounds to me like he is from London - but what do I know. Reiko is his Japanese wife. They met on Bunaken, and after a whirlwind affair (a couple of hours in the Raffles Hotel bar in Singapore, if you ask Raf), decided to start a resort on Bunaken. The resort is made up of 10 rooms and a common dining area, and can accommodate up to 20 guests, although the maximum during our 9 night visit was 13 guests. The resort is by itself with no nearby neighbors which makes it a very peaceful place. The clientele was all Japanese, except for the 5 or us, while we were there, and on our arrival, Raf expressed his relief at being able to shoot the shit in English for a while.

We were shown to our room at the top of the hill. It was quite nice, with a queen bed and a single bed for Nate, mosquito nets, bathroom with hot shower, etc. The grounds were immaculate and filled with nice plants and trees and an assortment of animals: 3 dogs, a few puppies and Fred - an ancient rooster. Fred was an old, crotchety fellow, who could be counted on to crow at precisely 5:30, but after the first night, I slept like the dead, and didn't hear him. I did, however, hear the screeching forest dwellers. Their piercing shrieks are hard to ignore. We never did see the source of the sound, the diminutive kuskus (local name), which I think may be a marsupial?

The main purpose of our trip to such an isolated spot on the globe was to take in the world-class diving scene. The diving certainly lived up to its reputation, although Raf claimed that it wasn't that great, comparatively. I think he was referring to the visibility, that, at times, dropped to as low as 10-15 meters where you would normally expect 20-30 meters. It was fantastic. The diversity of coral and fish was mind-boggling, even compared with other prime dive spots we've been to in the Philippines and Malaysia. Most dive sites were wall diving, which made it slightly spooky as you looked below you to the deep blue. The surrounding seas were incredibly deep - thousands of meters in places, and 800 meters between our island and the neighboring island that is only about 1 mile away. Deep.


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Among the more interesting critters we saw, were: ghost pipefish, turtles (some enormous), scorpionfish, leaf scorpionfish, at least 3 types of lion fish, a giant flathead fish (aka crocodile fish), blue spotted rays, many colorful nudibranchs (like a sea slug), etc., etc., etc.

Karen and I took the PADI Advanced Open Water Diver Course while we were there, and I managed to get my parents to take the Scuba diver course (dad ended up continuing and finishing his Open Water Diver certification). Our courses were pretty laid back, maybe too much so, without a lot of the formal course structure that had been my previous experience with PADI courses. Mom never really got comfortable underwater, and as a result, I don't think she enjoyed the diving that much, preferring to join us on the boat for a snorkel instead. Dad seemed to take to it alright, having dived before in a previous life (as a 16 year old) with sandblasted fire extinguisher tanks holding the air and without the luxury of a BCD (buoyancy control device - an inflatable vest). A different era, I guess! I don't blame mom for not taking to it. There really wasn't a good place on Bunaken to work on skills. Most courses start you off in a pool, working on learning the basics. On Bunaken it was more like - okay! let's go diving! It wasn't very conducive to making anyone comfortable.

Our dive guides were fantastic at pointing out the critters to us. They had great eyes for the little stuff. Nate wasn't too bad, either, once pointing out a perfectly camouflaged scorpionfish that was right in front of me. We had Junko, the Japanese head instructor, and Ade, a local Indonesian guy, most of the time. Both were great.

Later in the week, we had planned to move on to Tomohon, in the highlands (around 4,000 feet) for a little cool air and some volcanic scenery. The problem was that there was a national gynecological convention in Manado that had booked out all of the hotel rooms for the weekend. We kind of felt like Cha Cha captives at that point, but signed on for another 2 nights. Instead, we elected to take a day trip to the highlands, where we visited the local market, Gunung Mahawu (Mount Mahawu), Lake Tondano, and a small pottery village.

The market sold all kinds of local delicacies like dog, bats and rats. In preparation for being sold (and eaten), the salesmen use a propane torch to burn the hair off, which also has the unfortunate effect of giving the animals a horrendous, snarling death-grin. In one stall where they were in the process of de-furring 2 dogs, there was a third laying on a table in the back. It was breathing - either sleeping or unconscious. We tried to convince ourselves that it was somebody's pet - at least temporarily.

Gunung Mahawu is a semi-active volcano that spews sulfurous steam and has a fairly large crater about 600 meters across and maybe 300 meters deep. Our driver dropped us off at the trail head and pointed us in the right direction, but waited with the car as the five of us set off. The air was significantly cooler and drier than at sea level. On our hike up, we were still sweating, but it was a comfortable sweat! We passed through lush volcanic farm fields and overgrown trail before popping out on the crater rim after about an hour. The rim offered great views of the other volcanoes in the area; Gunung Lokon and Gunung Klabat. Gunung Lokon was interesting, with it's two distinct dormant peaks and active crater in the gap between the two. There were also views back toward Manado, including Bunaken and Manado Tua Islands, as well as across to the Lembeh strait on the South side of North Sulawesi. I managed to browbeat Karen and Nate into circumnavigating the crater - about a mile I guess. For our efforts, we were cut to shreds by the sharp grass growing head high around the crater. Karen still bears the scabs over a week later - and holds me responsible.

For lunch we headed down the road to Lake Tondano, known for it's freshwater fish. The wind had picked up to about 20-30 miles per hour across the lake. We selected a table outside, overlooking the lake, but quickly moved inside, cold from the damp clothing and cool wind. We ordered the "deep-fried goldfish" and some other dishes. The gold fish turned out to be a big koi breaded and fried, and surprisingly tasty rather than swampy-tasting, as I expected

From there, we headed to a pottery-producing village. It looked like the clay was being dug straight out of the ground on the property, as there were several pits visible and filling with trash. They looked to be making the pots using coils and big manual wheels. Some of the pots were huge. The stuff was clearly for domestic sale, as most of the pots were painted garish, fluorescent colors - not exactly my taste. I had been hoping to score a unique souvenir.

We spent our last day on Bunaken doing a couple more dives and snorkel trips. I was enjoying the snorkeling more in the end because I could take some nice photos in the more natural light at shallower depths, and it seemed that Cha Cha were repeating the same dive sites.

After getting packed up on our last day, we took one more brief snorkeling trip and then jumped on the boat for the mainland. We had lunch at the airport, where dad got crazy and ordered a random fruit drink from the menu that turned out to be avocado juice with chocolate syrup. Not the best combination, but we all had to try it to make sure. Karen left us at our stopover Singapore to go on her business trip to Edinburgh and Munich, and the four remaining members of the group had an uneventful return to Hong Kong.
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