Things to bring when you’re backpacking
- Minimal clothing that fits into a backpack (7kg is ideal)
- Hygiene kit
- First aid kit
- A water bottle
- Snorkeling mask and spray cleaner (it really helps)
- A bottle of courage — especially if you’re a typical Filipino who can’t drive a scooter, swim or jump from cliffs
- Also a tiny bottle of faith, in case yours run out.
There is not much extensive guides about Southeast Sulawesi in Indonesia, although no doubt many backpackers have already been here. (Do they not know the social media game?)
Southeast Sulawesi is a place where a number of waterfalls, lagoons and beaches do not have names. Many people call it whatever they want to. My tour guide, Petra, takes it upon himself to name them. Julia Beach is where Julia fell from her hammock while sleeping. Sofie Falls is where Sofie fell down the slippery stone. There is Petra Falls, which I assume is his favorite one.
There are 148 waterfalls in Buton Island. Petra says a backpacker visited a hundred in 1 month before moving on to the next location.
There are 23 lagoons in Muna Island. 28 caves with ancient wall paintings.
Wakatobi is part of the Coral Triangle, which is an area where you can find the richest marine biodiversity on the planet. It is made up of Wangi-Wangi, Kaledupa, Tomia and Binongko islands. It is one of the best diving sites in Sulawesi.
Southeast Sulawesi is where foreign tourists are seen as curiosity, even Filipinos like me. The receptionists at my inn in Baubau in Buton Island asked for a selfie with me. We were asked for photographs during a food fiesta in Muna Island (along with 3 Spanish backpackers who were with us).
Southeast Sulawesi is mostly rural and beautiful, known only to daring backpackers or tourists with their handy Lonely Planet guides. It has beaches, jungles, jungles, jungles and lagoons. It has thriving coral reefs and more secrets underneath the sea.
More secrets than I am bent to tell here.
The best tour guide in Sulawesi
My tour guide Petra is a character. He lives in Baubau in Buton Island. He likes adventure, such as trekking to virgin waterfalls. I asked him how he discovers them — he says when he sees a water trail, he follows them even if it takes hours.
He climbs coconut trees, freedives 30m deep, spearfishes in the sea.
He knows the best hidden spots. The Secret Places of Sulawesi. Caves with pools and glittering stalactites; towering waterfalls with light-green pools; clear, green and blue lagoons; the jellyfish lake; the best dive spots even.
He is always late and then he moves and walks and treks in a rush. He drives the motorcycle bat crazy. The motorcycle leaned sideways as we traversed the curves of the mountain roads, like the shots you see in sports magazines. Only it involves a middle-aged guy and a nervous Filipina. He is among the best though, if not the best, guide in this part of Sulawesi.
If I am to write a travelogue around a character, I would write about him. His passion and his job and his enthusiasm.
Petra seems used to independent backpackers. I “backpack”, but I am a babied one. I need assistance in trekking, I am a modest swimmer and more often than not needs a lifevest in the sea, I cannot see in the dark without my glasses, I cannot drive a motorcycle nor do I have a license. I did not bring my own snorkeling gear, and so I had to buy one in the local market.
Petra helped me go along.
Exploring Southeast Sulawesi in 7 days
Petra greeted me at the airport in Baubau. He asked me which places I am interested in. I said just a little bit of falls and jungles, more lagoons and beaches.
A full week in Southeast Sulawesi thus began.
In the first day, we visited a beach and Petra Falls, the rice fields and Mini Bali. It was raining all day. We couldn’t do anything else. We met the Spanish backpackers who decided to come with us for the next 3 days.
We island hopped in 2 islands. In the second island, Petra climbed a coconut tree to get fresh coconuts for us. We trekked a cliff that overlooks a beach and devoured slices of juicy pineapples while watching the sunset. Sweet pineapples are a proud produce of Buton Island. While trekking back, we noticed a fossilized clam on one side of the cliff. Like the rock formations in Coron in Palawan in my homecountry, this place was once underneath the ocean.
In our third day, we moved to another island to see lagoons. Some of them are unknown even to locals. To get to one lagoon, we literally had to push our way across a field of overgrown bushes. There is barely a trail. Leaves brushed, thorns cut against the skin on my legs. There is a wood with indents that serves as stairs to the lagoon, but the best way to get in the water is to jump from the small cliffs above.
The next day, the miniature version of Raja Ampat. It has clear green water, karst formations similar to the ones in the Philippines. Palawan, Not Palawan. Petra says we are the first foreigners to visit here.
We then visited Napabale Lake, the widest lagoon in the island. There is a tunnel our boat has enter to get to the other side. Sohoton Cove, Not Sohoton Cove. We passed by a small community that makes jellyfish pudding. Did we hear that right? I wonder what that tastes like. Then there’s the jellyfish lake (called by locals as Danau Ubur-Ubur, a literal translation of Jellyfish Lake), one of the only two existing ones in Indonesia. Petra says the locals do not like the jellyfishes, they are seen as rubbish in the lake. The jellyfish lake is located a bit deep into the forest, where it is possible to get lost. We learned through stories though that getting lost is not an option. A woman in a nearby village had been eaten whole by a python, just 2 months prior to our visit. Oh and finally, we stopped by Liang Kobori, a cave with ancient wall paintings of the Muna Tribe. We made guesses on how long have the paintings been there. Petra says Stone Age, but the Spanish lady with us pointed to a drawing of a boat, which we all know is a recent advancement. I thought that drawing looks like eyelashes.
We bid goodbye to the Spanish backpackers.
In our fifth day, we ventured to Wakatobi. We watched the sunset in a beach in Tomia Island. It was low tide and the seaweeds were visible, fields and fields of it. Locals picked up shells for food and carefully placed them in baskets.
We snorkeled in a giant coral shelf, relaxed in a private beach. The underwater scene was incredible. It reminded me of Apo Island in Dumaguete, and I wondered what I missed when I was then too afraid to go to the deep parts of the ocean.
We went back to the capital and relaxed in a pinkish-sand beach, drank ginger tea in one of the warungs in the pantai.
The next day, I woke early morning to catch my flight back to the city of Makassar. It was a blood moon. Goodbye, beloved islands. Petra gave me a soft sarong, I gave him my snorkel mask. I do not know if it is a fair exchange, I felt like I was given more than paid for.
When I arrived back in Makassar, my bones are tired and muscles sore. I have itchy spots in my legs. I was shades browner. My eyes, however, are brighter.
Southeast Sulawesi: Not for the faint of heart
I pride myself of backpacking, but Southeast Sulawesi caught me off-guard. I realized that there are skills I have to learn to survive, to truly backpack and not just do budget travel, to explore untouristy provinces particularly in Asia.
I think I am a typical Filipino traveler. A lot of my friends can’t swim, so the fact that I can float and move is an achievement in itself, but I’m still nervous in the open sea. Also, I don’t know how to drive and I’m (again) wary of the frequent motorcycle incidents I see in the news. I need a guide not just to point me where to go, but also to help me do things.
In the Philippines, no matter how remote, you will always find a local with a scooter willing to tour you around. Boat guides and even regular fishermen always have life vests in storage, or at least know how to procure one. I have always managed, somehow, sometimes with Hali too.
In Southeast Sulawesi, to backpack is to be capable of doing things on your own. Although it’s preferable to get a guide to show you around, it’s better if you can drive your own scooter — particularly if you’re going with a party. Otherwise prepare to shell out millions of rupiah in exploring for days with a car. It’s little differences in money that make a huge difference if you’re traveling for weeks or months. Also, there are lagoons and beaches where you can swim at your own leisure — if you can. If you can’t and you didn’t bring your own lifevest, well, too bad. In majority of the places we visited in Southeast Sulawesi, we were literally alone. A lot of times, there are no commercial shops or stores around, much less other wandering people like us. It’s just you — and your fears (or bravery) — and nature.
In Muna Island, we drove 60km in 2 hours, and some of the route includes bad roads. Petra drove, while I sat in the passenger seat. At one point, we crashed. We had scratches and broken skin on hands, arms and legs. My fingers were swollen for days. (The Spanish guy suggested naming the place Kat’s Road.)
In the next day, we did 90km in 2.5 hours. It’s crazy. I had never been in a motorcycle ride that long before. My butt hurt, my knees were stiff, and after the fall I was kind of miserable being on the road.
We also went to a wide lagoon where the boat did not have stairs where you can climb back up after swimming. Instead, there’s a flat tire you can place your foot on so you can push yourself up. This isn’t new to me, but the boat was huge and, if I am not careful, I may land with my leg hitting the wooden seat. In the first try, I did badly and fell back into the water. I felt a sharp pain, a visible bump in my left leg, and thought I had dislocated a bone. Oh, good. Because I don’t have travel insurance and the nearest hospital is probably 1-2 hours away.
Thankfully, that wasn’t the case. I was helped, pushed and pulled back to the boat without further incidents. My leg went back to normal.
Still, I am a bundle of accidents to happen.
I admire the Spanish backpackers we met because they are able and independent and more hands-on. I relied everything to my tour guide, and even though I am thankful that I didn’t need to do much planning and logistics, I was also embarrassed that I didn’t involve myself more. (Lesson: Even if you have hired a tour guide, know your itinerary by heart, know the routes and how long to get to places, know if the schedule is feasible according to your flight schedules, know which things to bring and which things are unavailable in your destination — again, not every place has lifevests and snorkels!)
Friends and acquaintances often ask me why I don’t invite them to trips. Well, I do. But whenever I pass out invites, nobody wants to come especially if they are not familiar with the place. Or I get a lot of “requests” that I may or may not deliver, and I don’t want to invite people to trips that may involve hours of driving under the sun, sleeping in decrepit beds or camping without the usual creature comforts we’re accustomed to.
Southeast Sulawesi is very beautiful, but its very nature renders it not for the faint of heart. It is not an easy travel, for me at least. You have to explore in the primal sense of the word, you have to learn to depend on yourself. (Of course, if you’re a longtime backpacker, this is but normal.)
Southeast Sulawesi is one of the places I genuinely want to go back to. I know I always say that, almost every time in fact. Sometimes I just feel compelled too because there are places I missed visiting and I wanted our readers to know I am an avid explorer. But this time it’s true. Indonesia is my favorite country so far. Hali knows this, my friends know this. The rice fields, mountains, rural villages and its 18,000+ islands are begging to be visited and explored and appreciated (and, if I may, loved by me).
It’s one of those trips I immediately want to gush to friends once I got back home but, at the same time, want to keep as a secret.
Here are some photos from my solo trip to Southeast Sulawesi, Indonesia:
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Katherine Cortes is a long-time backpacker and a freelance writer/editor. She likes beaches, snorkeling trips, and relaxing staycations (preferably with bath tubs!).