On a long weekend with his family and close friend, a Makassar-based expat decides to travel to Samalona Island in South Sulawesi, a beautiful island with pristine, white sandy beaches and coral reef, which he observes being trampled on and destroyed by inconsiderate holiday-makers.
I had to get away for various personal reasons. I entertained a sickie but I’m bound to my conscience, so sacrificed a day of leave. There’s a fair amount you can do with a long weekend in South Sulawesi. Toraja’s possible on overnight buses, though not so much for a family of four on a whim. There are the floating villages on Lake Tempe, but once was enough. Bira is five hours away with its islands, snorkelling and restaurants – but again, on contemplating paying for everyone with the latest jump in fuel prices, we passed. After some deliberation, the family and a good friend settled on an overnighter to Samalona Island, twenty minutes from the city docks.
Samalona, little bigger than a football field, used to be our regular getaway. A quaint village huddled around a well, under a lush canopy; it boasted a wide beach, fresh coconuts, friendly locals and fish cooked over a bonfire. We used to pass out on the moonlit sand and be rudely woken by the sun creeping over the mountains, cursing hangovers and desperate to return to a familiar toilet.
Alas, we stopped going to Samalona long ago. To make it attractive for day-trippers, the island was concreted over and adorned with tables and parasols. Big speakers went up so the monotonous sound of the tide, chickens and swaying palms could be countered by the more fulfilling din of drum’n’bass. Styrofoam jetties were extended for the city’s jet skiing jet set, leading to what was left of the reef being ground to lime. Inevitably, over time, nature has whittled Samalona down to a stub. In an attempt to save it, the locals built defences and a university project has been trying to regenerate the coral.
So, that was our plan: go on a quiet Friday, rent a hovel, see the reef and return early Saturday, before the selfie-obsessed hoards arrived.
And it was good! As we’d rented a house, we were excused paying the usual charges, such as the tariff on the island’s communal toilet: shower – Rp.15,000, squat– Rp.10,000, and a tinkle– Rp.5,000. Day-trippers are also charged for any spot they claim and are spied on throughout their stay to see what can be added to their extortionate tab at the store. Luckily we’d come prepared and by mid-afternoon we were getting our groove on. Mother-in-law was happy left with our 11-month old; brother-in-law was happy employing his new fishing kit with which, as ever, he failed to catch anything; friend was happy because she’d started drinking early and passed out; wife was happy because she was free to ignore paradise and focus on her Blackberry; and older daughter was happy because she went from being a non-swimmer to freely snorkelling out of her depth with no jacket. Because everyone else was so busy being so happy, I sizzled like a revolving wiener making sure my eldest daughter was safe and content in the sea.
On a waning afternoon high tide, friend and I slapped on our own gear and went to investigate the drop off, and were very pleasantly rewarded. Some hundred metres out, just where the mashed and bleached shallows ended, a lot was growing back and smaller fish were in abundance. At the point where I usually lose my nerve and power doggy-paddle back to shore, I swam over an area of laid stones to stimulate growth and almost had a rare feeling of optimism towards humanity. That evening, we drank much and talked into the late hours about what a progressive place Indonesia was becoming.
And then I was awoken by the heat of a new day. I cursed my hangover and pined for my toilet, which gave me nostalgia. It was set to be a stuttering start with my sore head in the gathering humidity. Luckily, the city folk arrived early to entertain us. We watched in hysterics as wife snapped photos of a group of men grappling with rented life-jackets, diving shoes and snorkelling gear. They posed for obligatory selfies before asking their female companions to take group shots. They then entered the low tide, which came no deeper than their knees and actually attempted to swim. We boggled at what they were hoping to discover: plastic bags, a sandal? So, there they belly-crawled over the shattered remnants, intermittently standing as if nervous about being up to their knees, metres from the shore in lifejackets.
Back on deck, we decided their paraphernalia was not for safety, but for looking cool on Facebook. And then another party arrived: six men in wetsuits, snorkels and lifejackets. We laughed until they wandered to where the coral was regenerating. For all their expensive accessories, not one swam. They just trampled. You could hear the crumpling of fragile life from the beach. Then more arrived, and then the jet skiers ploughed the drop off. And then the Europeans appeared in their Speedos and offered an interesting cultural side-by-side. The Makassar elite seemed to be saying, “Look at my expensive accessories. You can see my life is interesting!” The Europeans seemed more to be saying, “Look at my Speedos. You can see my testicles!” And that’s why we don’t go there anymore.
As we fled Samalona, we realized the extent of the invasion. Dozens had arrived on the westward side and pitched tents. Mellow groups playing guitars were competing with groups emitting infuriating phone music. Wind-blown litter was scuttling along the beach like crabs, even tumbleweed, and more boats were skidding ashore by the minute.
After my rare moment of optimism for humanity, I was left with a darkly humorous observation: perhaps the Samalona day-trippers are actually at the cutting edge of coral reef conservation. For, when it comes to the environment, they truly know how to leave behind nothing but their footprints.
Happy and considerate swimming out there (Speedos though?).
Google “Mining Bangka Island” for a much more poignant Sulawesi tale.
The Bangka Conservation Fund (BCF) urgently needs your support to save Bangka Island from illegal mining that is threatening the fragile eco-system, traditional livelihoods and tourism. A mining company has bribed its way onto the island and bullied local people and its preparations are moving at an alarming rate. To help, please visit: