STEER Sulawesi logo
Dr John's Journals
An exclusive compilation of journals written by Dr John van Wyhe, to illustrate his perspective of the STEER trip
Pre-trip visa issues

This expedition did not get off to a propitious start for me. My passport had less than the required six months on it, so I sent it to be renewed; however, it would not return in time. I therefore applied for a temporary passport. (£100) This is valid for only one journey, and you must show them your plane tickets. Indonesia provides a visa on arrival system, but this is not offered to a temporary passport. So, I had to apply at the Indonesian embassy for a visa. ($100) This was a world of chaos I was not prepared for. It would be too tedious to recount the occasions of contradictory information and instructions, superfluous return trips and so on. In the end I applied on Monday and was told it could take up to five days. (The embassy website says two days.) We were flying out on Saturday morning, six days away.

On Friday, sadly, I received news that my visa was approved, but that I had to collect it until Monday. (!!!!) I went anyway just in case there was a small chance and was rudely turned away.

So, the twelve NUS students left Saturday morning without me while I waited nervously for my visa. I booked another flight leaving Monday afternowas at 5.40pm. I was veron. I picked up the visa at 3.45pm and went straight to the airport. My flight y nervous that the passport might be rejected since it carried a printed message that it was for a trip leaving on the 19th. Although it was carefully scrutinized in Singapore and Jakarta, I was allowed to pass through. After a short wait at Jakarta airport, I took another flight to Makassar, Sulawesi, where I finally landed at half past midnight.

Observations, en route to Malino

The chaotic traffic of Makassar has to be experienced to be believed. In addition to the ubiquitous motorbikes, here one also sees a sort of trishaw powered by motorbike. These seat two passengers in front of the driver.

I also saw at least three old women with one leg sitting on little trolleys and punting themselves along with a stick on the side of the road with a begging bowl. This looks like an extremely hazardous profession.

Eventually things became more rural and occasional rice paddies could be seen behind the houses. In some of the rice paddies were Bali cattle grazing and occasionally a pony. These fields seemed all rather small and not well tended compared to their manicured Bali equivalents. Some of the houses were built in the traditional style for south Sulawesi, on stilts with crossed gable beams. I read that this represented buffalo horns.

We skirted a huge lake, Jeneberang. Its water level seemed to be low judging from the brown rings around the islands and shoreline below the vegetation. Fishermen in small outriggers dotted its surface.

Deeper into the mountains an endless series of lorries trundled past us on the narrow roads carrying gravel or riverbed stones. The river valley below on our right was mostly dry and it was the most extensive region of rolled and rounded river stones that I can remember seeing. Vast parts of it are being quarried.

We continue to climb twisty roads up into the mountains. At this elevation deciduous trees begin to preponderate. I notice that the lower trunks are deeply gashed, and small collecting cups hang to gather the sap.

Mini Zoo at Malino

Along the way down I saw a rusty sign pointing up a partially overgrown path. It read “Mini zoo”! Intrigued I turned up the path. I saw a low wall topped with a chain link fence. Peering though my eyes widened to see a large crocodile sunning itself! It seemed utterly abandoned out here in the hills. Looking further there were actually more animals - and very interesting ones.

Then in a nearby hutch was a delightful creature - the Sulawesi bear cuscus. This adorable little animal has a face like a bear and tiny yellow eyes. It was placidly munching on some leaves. We saw another later on which came out of its sleeping area to sit next to us. We watched it for a long time, and we were very close to it. We could ever stroke its head through the fence. I could not see any teeth as it munched gently on some grass. The lower half of its tail was bare skin, to help with gripping branches. Two of its hind toes were fused and the big toe was completely pointing backwards to allow good purchase on branches. Despite the noise and the prodding, this sweet little creature quite happily and patiently endured our audience. Sulawesi is the furthest west that marsupials ever reached. The rest of their relatives live to the east towards Australia and New Guinea.

Pasar Sentral Malino

So late in the day it was largely empty but there were several distinctive productions I had not seen before such as little bundles of a tiny pale flower and the local speciality of Markisa or the Malino passion fruit juice concentrate.

To an unpractised eye it would appear to be a squalid and filthy slum market with flies and fish guts rotting in the open gutters, chickens roaming at pleasure and the shacks and makeshift structures of the market in various stages of falling down and rotting. But such are very rural markets in many parts of Indonesia. Every time I turned a corner someone sitting behind a counter or on a bench would smile and say hello (though not in English). I’m pretty sure they were calling me ‘tuan’, or sir.

Leang Leang Cave

We stopped at a tiny place called Leang Leang to visit the Leang Petta Kere cave. Here we paid a small fee to enter the park and to have a guide (who spoke only Indonesian). After a short walk through a park strewn with strangely eroded and sometimes tree entwined limestone blocks, we climbed up to the cave entrance. Finally, one must climb a rusty metal stairway which has a locked gate near the top. The guide unlocked it and we climbed up to a narrow cave ledge under a massive overhang with stalagmites the size of a car hanging from it. Standing nervously near the edge, I looked up at the wall above and there it was. Wow! On a dark patch of stone were many distinctly white handprints made by blowing red ochre onto the hand as it was pressed on the wall. The outlines were so crisp one would think they were made yesterday. In fact, it has been determined that some are an astonishing 39,000 years old – which would make one of them the oldest known cave hand prints in the world. The other surviving features were two red babirusas, the endemic Sulawesi wild pig. These latter had clearly been painted long after the hand prints (of which there are 27, some very faint or only partial). Some of the colour from around the handprints had fallen away on flakes of stone. But some of these white patches were painted over with the dark red of the pigs’ bodies. They were also painted over some of the handprints. These paintings would have been made by the first wave of modern humans to sweep through southeast Asia. They would have looked like aboriginal Australians rather than the Malay races that later replaced them. It was such a privilege to see these tiny traces of a human world so long gone. Recorded history is only 7,000 years old. These will undoubtedly be the oldest human artefacts we will see during this expedition.

Bantimurung National Park

This is the off season and almost all of the tourist souvenir stalls are closed. Unusually, most of them sell butterflies in cases or otherwise preserved. Here is an actual living example of Wallace’s profession still being practiced in one of his most exceptional collecting grounds. (Later), I went back to the spot where the butterflies were swarming, and now beams of sunshine were illuminating the area and there were even more butterflies. They seemed to be landing to drink salty water from the mud. I took countless pictures and films of these exquisite creatures fluttering about just inches from me. Bantimurung never disappoints.

When we reached the famous double waterfall, I spotted a swarm of butterflies. These were of many species. There were turquoise ones, yellow ones, black ones, orange ones, white ones, like a flying kaleidoscope of colour. The flashing colours that fluttered all around was simply breath-taking. I just felt like constantly shouting ‘wow’! It is worth travelling many hours just to experience the swarms of often very large and very beautiful butterflies of Bantimurung. I have never seen anything like it anywhere else.

Mangroves in Sulawesi

South Sulawesi once had 110,000 hectares of mangrove forests. Now 80,000 of these have been cleared for timber, firewood and conversion to Tambak - brackish water ponds for producing fish and prawns. In the early years this process was encouraged and facilitated by the government in order to increase national productivity. The loss of the mangrove habitats leads to manifold bad consequences, not least of which is a loss of biodiversity.

Observations en route to mangrove village

Local people hear the unusual sound of a bus and come out of their houses to see what’s going on and then stare in amazement at the faces of foreigners looking out of the windows.

The Bugis houses in these rural areas are usually the traditional style - on stilts about 7 feet above ground with a porch and wooden stairs leading up. The charming crossed gable beams and usually some ornate balustrades, panelled wooden facades and shutters. Often, they are brightly painted. I find them utterly enchanting and can’t stop taking pictures of one lovely little house after another.

Reaction of the locals

We arrive at the small village of Bontomanai in the midst of this vast plain of ponds (‘flooded fields’ seems a better phrase for their appearance). The bus stopped in front of a very simple local school and the children and teachers all come out and crowd around their gate to watch the unprecedented spectacle of foreigners appearing in their village. One of the teachers, a lady in a yellow and red headscarf, offers me her hands and says in almost incomprehensible English “hello Mr. My name is…” and here she got stuck and paused for a moment. Then the excitement and embarrassment of the moment caught her all at once and she burst out in a hysterical fit of laughter- even clapping her hands and jumping up and down. All the students laughed with her.

Mangrove fishing village

There are 600 hectares of fish ponds in this district. Once it was all mangroves. No one knows how long this practice has gone on here. The population is 3000 with 900 heads of families. One of the speakers was from the Ministry for the environment. He said this village had the best example of sustainable fish farming in the country- thanks to the help of Blueforests from 2010-14. The organic fertilizing is only practiced by a growing proportion of the fish farmers. The others continued to use chemicals. We were told that this often caused the “mass death” of the fish in the ponds or eventually caused some of the ponds to become unusable - as when the salinity grew too high for the fish or prawns grown there.

Exploring the village

I walked all around these delightful wooden houses and the local people were lounging about on their porches or benches out front and they stared and smiled and were as friendly as any people I have ever seen. The kept goats and ducks. Under a stand of bamboo, I saw what looked like a miniature table and kitchen with old clam shells lined up on them. This was obviously where a child had been playing who had no ready-made toys but made her own. At the back of one house a woman sat on the ground by her well and scrubbed the laundry with a soapy brush. The architecture of the houses fascinates me - the way the beams are joined and fastened - very ingenious and also attractive.

As we were preparing to leave I could not resist the temptation to go into the very tiny little roadside stall across from the school to see if I could buy some local snacks or drinks. A pretty young woman in an unusually full head scarf smiled and motioned for me to come in. Her outfit is called a karudung which showed that she had probably recently gone to prayer. She spoke no English but I smiled and pointed at this or that and asked if she had “ice kopi” which she did and took from a refrigerator. She called to her mother who came out to help with my purchases. I also took some locally made fried crisps that were covered in honey. The ladies were beaming with smiles so I asked with gestures if we could take a photo together. They laughed and the mother quickly pulled on a green hijab and we took a photo.

Mangrove reforestation

Most of the replanting of mangroves by the government fails - and the reason is interesting. Mangroves are adapted to live in intertidal areas where the water rises, lowers, and drains away during a day. But heavy land use means that only the very lowest part of the slope into the sea is free to plant trees - i.e. the part that the water never leaves - and thus it is not suitable for a full mangrove environment.

On the Mayor’s smart city plan

I wonder how much all of these (land reclamation and future developments) cost? At the same time, the filth and pollution here is unbelievable. The drains, which one sometimes almost falls into because drain access covers are often missing on the pavement, are a horror of putrescent stench that words cannot describe. The poverty is heart-breaking. As I type these words a little boy is singing at the driver’s car window (on our way to the airport). The boy is standing in the middle of a four-lane road at a traffic light, in the rain. And he is not the only one. The traffic is also unbelievable. Clearly the mayor has his work cut out for him.

About Manado and Crater Lake

Most of the mainland area of North Sulawesi is hilly and mountainous. Its geology is complex because it is at the junction of three of the Earth’s great tectonic plates – the Eurasian, Indo-Australian and Pacific. The Australian plate is moving north, the pacific west and the Eurasian is driving south-southeast. This has both pushed up the mountains and perhaps even this whole part of the island but also creates the volcanic activity throughout this part of Sulawesi. Our main destination today is Lake Tondano. It fills a 20×30km wide caldera which was formed by massive volcanic eruptions in the Late Miocene or Early Pliocene. The giant crater then filled with water and is now a lake.

Comparison between local architecture

Watching the houses and villages go by, I was struck by the completely different style of architecture here - the roofs often have numerous faux dormers and an elevated and smaller second level of roof on top which creates a pleasing effect. Some had fine woodwork and ornate balustrades. Almost every building in this region has a tin roof.

Pickpocket incident

I was walking back when there was some commotion amongst the people to my right. I saw people rushing in the same direction I was walking. There was also some shouting. I moved more quickly to see what it was all about and got my camera out. Then things just got more and more intense. More people came running and pushing, from all directions now, no longer dozens but now a couple of hundred. The shouting grew louder. I saw a man holding a woman by the wrist and walking away - they seemed to be the centre of attention but there was nothing special about them that I could see. The crowds were not angry or afraid, the shouts and mood were more of excitement and even amusement. For a moment I thought the man must be someone famous or a politician. Then I learned that he was a policeman and he was taking away the lady, a pickpocket. Who would have believed there could be so much fuss and interest over a pickpocket? The crowds simply increased and followed this non-spectacle. It turned out that the police car into which she was deposited was only 20 feet or so from our van. The police car was mobbed with amused and curious onlookers pressing their faces against the glass. The policemen could hardly open their doors to get in. Once inside they shouted over and over on their loudspeaker for the crowd to disperse. They took little notice and it was some time before the police car could make progress down the road.

Tondano waterfall

After much talk with Bemo and the guide who runs the ‘photo op shop’ atop the hill, and much Googling in vain- it seems that that once famous Tondano waterfall is no more. It was at the outlet of the lake where today there is a major hydroelectric works. Sad. The waterfall was so beautiful that many artists painted, drew and engraved it before and after Wallace’s time.

Volcanic hot spring

We arrived at Bukit Doa, a volcanic vent and hot spring... At the top of the hill there is a church, a mosque and temples of other religions. How odd- since volcanic gasses emitted by a volcano need not be holy for any of them. Perhaps reverence for these sites predates these later religions to arrive in Sulawesi.

Tangkoko Nature Reserve

I asked about the Babirusa, hoping there was a small chance we might see some of these bizarre wild pigs unique (endemic) to Sulawesi. Ateng told me that they had been exterminated in the reserve by poachers. Gosh. He says there are only 5 rangers to protect the entire reserve. However, things are not as bad as they were. Harsher penalties for poaching seem to have deterred most people and the macaques are no longer killed, he said. About ten years ago 3 men were caught and sentenced to 5 years in prison and fined 2 million rupiahs. One wonders if this would work elsewhere?

I caught a flying lizard with my hand and held it to show the students. I delicately pulled open one of its ‘wings’ which are flaps of skin attached to a lengthened folding rib. The wings were beautifully striped with black and yellow.

Sadly, we did could not see the Babirusa and we also did not see the Maleo - the large ground-living bird that buries its eggs in beach sand to incubate the eggs. When Wallace was here these birds prompted him to do some reflections on animal structure vs. instinct. Which comes first, a structure or an instinct to do something? He thought the tiny bit of webbing on the feet of the Maleo, which helps them kick sand away, could answer this. He wrote a scientific paper in which he, for the first time, used the phrase “natural selection” in print and where he first referred to the theory of evolution as Darwin’s theory. And that was even before the Origin of species was published.

Snorkelling: Bunaken National Park

What I saw far exceeded my expectations. I found a tropical coral reef in all its splendour. The area was teeming with fish of many species and the corals were vibrant and colourful to an extent that words cannot describe. It was simply wonderful. I have not seen such a beautiful and thriving coral reef in 16 years. I was beginning to think there were no such reefs left. Things became even more exciting when we spotted a Hawksbill sea turtle swimming in their slow and graceful way through the depths. Later we saw as many as seven Green turtles. These were either swimming along or feeding along the edge of the reef.

We were very, very lucky indeed today. We saw one of the most beautiful natural environments on earth - a thriving, colourful coral reef in all its glory and on top of that were lucky enough to see dolphins and turtles at very close range.

Exploring the private island

I decided to explore the island a bit. Dressed only in my swimming shorts, stretchy top and booties, I headed off down the beach. I heard some beautiful bird song so when there seemed to be a little trail leading into the forest, I took it. The birds were, I think, little sunbirds. I then stumbled on a totally unexpected mini-adventure. In the undergrowth not far away, I saw strangely shaped stone or cement objects. I moved through the undergrowth with big red ants biting my ankles and found that it was an old cemetery. There were dozens of graves with substantial cement monuments in shapes and styles I have never seen before - very interesting. It was a Christian cemetery and the few names that could be made out confirmed this. Most no longer had visible writing on them. The oldest that I could make out seemed to date to 1919. Several were from 1924-8 and others from 1948. The odd thing was, these were substantial monuments, not the graves of peasants or fishermen, surely. I wondered why this tiny island had so many well-to-do graves. The oldest graves were so degraded by time and the forest growing about them and breaking them up that they were just piles of stone or outlines of where a monument had once been.

Scuttling over the tombstones were tiny lizards (skinks) with dazzlingly bright blue tails. I tried to get some photos and films of them, but they were rather skittish.

At the edge of this old cemetery that was so overgrown was a recent set of graves under a pavilion. These were in a very different style and covered in brightly covered tiles. I followed a trail on into the island. I found a large bird egg - no idea what it could come from, perhaps a sea bird? As I walked on through the many banana trees there were also mighty forest trees, some so tall that I had to bend my head painfully far back to attempt to see the top. These were covered with so many epiphytic ferns and creepers that each tree seemed to house its own mini forest. The blue-tailed skinks were here too, as were other little brown skinks.

As I walked on there were chickens scratching about in the dead leaves. I then came to the edge of a village with several bamboo animal pens. No one was around so I had a closer look. Several hutches had mother hens with newly hatched chicks. Near them were pens with strange looking pigs. They were alarmed. I talked to them soothingly and their intelligent eyes starred at me nervously. They were an odd breed of small dark pig with fat bellies. One pen had a female and an adolescent. On the ground nearby were several thick pink petals from banana trees - thicker than shoe leather. I put these in the pen and the little adolescent pig sniffed them and began happily munching the juicy petals.

I walked on and came to a small village. It was very hot, and the midday sun was beating down, so I took a large banana leaf from a tree and held it over my head for shade. I heard voices but saw no one outside. There were more chickens and pigs roaming about. The village was remarkably tidy and the ground around the houses was well swept. Then I was walking through forest again. I checked my cycling app, which showed a map and my location and the track by which I had come. I saw that I was actually almost coming to the beach again and had made a huge circle around our lunch site. A came to another village of houses not unlike those in the mountains around Manado. The village was incredibly pretty. There were hedges and flowers in front of the houses and along the narrow footpath. I walked by some women sitting under a pavilion. One was nursing a baby. “Hello Mister” one said in a friendly voice. “Hot?” she asked, pointing at my banana leaf. Haha yes. I made it back to the beach with its ring of little resorts for tourists and the attractive part of the island was behind me.


We hired a Grab car to take us to the small village of Airmadidi Down to see the unusual historic tombs of the Minahassan people called Waruga. It was a 40-minute drive away.

When we arrived, we found a large rectangular enclosure made of a low wall and a gateway with rows of small stone monuments in neat rows. The grave monuments have been moved here at a later date - they once stood next to family homes. Each one is a rectangular stone base about 4 feet high that has been hollowed out to form a receptacle for bodies in a seated or foetal position. Each was then capped with a large stone usually in a triangular shape and often adorned with carvings or reliefs. There were many types which clearly changed over the centuries. Some still showed traces of colour, such as some red on the heads of human figures. Some were very primitive, and the human figures were almost stick men with smiley faces scratched onto them. Some clearly represented males or females (the genitalia were very conspicuous) and some showed women giving birth in a squatting position.

After looking at many of them, one began to recognize some common motifs. Many had a double animal on the top, a type of dragon with heads facing outwards at the top. Usually there was an object like a club on the narrow ends of the triangles. These had notches carved across them, one per body once entombed within. There could be three or as many as 12 I read. Some of the monuments were broken somewhat which revealed their structure. And a few had writing carved on them in the Roman alphabet, including dates. Obviously, this was after the arrival of the Dutch. I saw dates from 1765 to 1847. The Dutch government eventually banned the practice of these above-ground burials both because the smell was offensive to neighbours and because of fears that it could spread disease such as cholera. So, this ancient tradition, which went back at least 800 years, came to an end.

We left at 2.25 and ordered a Grab car to take us to a nearby village which had another collection of Waruga plus a museum. While we waited I bought some local snacks at a small Warung. These little pastries were not fresh and not very good. A driver soon arrived and drove us in 15 minutes to the village of Sawangen. As soon as we alighted a ripple of excitement seemed to pass through the local community. Foreigners had arrived! A woman wearing a polo shirt bearing the name of the site came to point us to the monuments. She was accompanied by two children. One of them, a cute little girl named Valerie, instantly latched on to me and pointed in an overly formal manner in the direction I was to go etc.

The ‘musuem’ was located in a traditional-style building on stilts. The door and windows were open and the single room contained only about 7 very dusty and decaying cabinets of grave goods such as ceramics and bronze bracelets and necklaces which were found in the Waruga during excavations. These cabinets were sometimes unlocked. Another woman who spoke more English arrived to help. When we moved on to the Waruga themselves she was able to explain what some of the carvings were though I suspected that some of the things she told us were hearsay or legend. She did identify one of the horned animals carved at the top. It was an Anoa or sapiutan, a forest animal with horns (a miniature water buffalo) unique to Sulawesi.

Valerie followed me everywhere I went and she pointed at various carvings. She then indicated, through hand gestures, that I should take a photo of her. So I did. She then had to see it. Then she wanted to take one of me, so I let her. She then took me by the hand and led me across the enclosure to some special monument to see. Two other children followed us. They said what few words of English they knew and I responded with my few words of Bahasa. They then sang a song which matched English and Bahasa words. This was so cute that I made a film of them singing. As soon as they finished little Valerie ran over to see the film and they all laughed with delight to see themselves.

By the time we had seen all the tombs it seemed that half the village had arrived to sit and watch us. Actually, apart from a few boys, they were all women and girls. The usual requests for photographs came next so we did our duty and posed with our new friends. It is hard to describe how kind and friendly they were. I noticed one of them was filming me everywhere I walked with her iPad. We were then asked to sign a guest book. The whole group walked with us to watch this solemn occasion, almost leaning over the book. Then there was another familiar scene. One of the ladies said “Mister she say you handsome” followed by a blushing young lady hiding behind the speaker. In this case they even asked for a phone number! So, the with final photographs taken we took our Grab car back to the city.