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Moored in Makassar

“Where are you going again? Madagascar?” I remembered a friend asked me. Silly as it was, it might not be a far-off question after all, since the local seafarers actually reached Madagascar a long time ago before any Western sailor ever did. I am going to the land where divers rejoice and nature lovers exult. I am going to Makassar.

Words & Photography: Ari Vanuaranu

Living in the city, I have to go out of my way every time I want to have some sea-sun-sand time, but as I found out later, the people of the bustling city of Makassar do not suffer the same predicament. I started my day in Makassar on the city streets where I watched a bunch of impromptu street performances amidst the busy human traffic. But in just mere minutes, I was already off shore, heading towards the Spermonde Archipelago. Turns out, paradise is not far from the city!


The Blue Waters of the Spermonde Archipelago


Paradise found in less than half an hour from the city

     I (wet)suited up (boardshorts FTW) and was excited to start my trip at Samalona, just 7km from Kayu Bangkoa Jetty. I wasn’t expecting much as I thought that the island’s proximity to the city meant muddy polluted water and dreary surroundings, but I was pleasantly surprised by the colourful corals which glistened under the clear water’s surface in the bright sunshine. I also met some stingrays which always bring up an image of the late Steve Irwin. A few hours later, I was glowing red like Rudolph (sunburn is no joking matter) but as happy as the reindeer itself. It was fascinating encounter with the underwater kingdom.


There are only a few houses on the islands and they are owned by 7 siblings. You can arrange to stay with them if you want to.

     Next, I headed over to Kodingareng Keke (a neighbouring island) to find that I had the entire island to myself! Well almost – there were also three cute cats cavorting around. I played in the crystal waters with the pelagic fishes swimming around the corals. I caught a glimpse of the sloping reefs filled to the brim with so much fascinating corals and marine life that I wished I had gotten my diving license. Oh well, snorkelling is fun too!

Kodingareng Keke-Sangkarang-Spermonde-island-archipelago-island-beach-se

For that afternoon only, Kodingareng Keke was my own private island

     Adamant to get my diving certification the moment I get back home, I made a mental note to dive in nearby islands Lanyukan–famous for its barrier reefs, and Kapoposang where I’ll be able to swim among giant groupers, stingrays, turtles and sharks. Okay, items added to bucket list!


Darn, I forgot my underwater camera, so you’ll have to settle with my finned feet instead. Snorkelling is a great activity for young and old.

     On the boat ride back, I couldn’t help but think about the future of the islands. Their proximity to Makassar mainland means that the reefs are in constant danger. Tourism can either accelerate or hinder the protection efforts. I had better see as much of the islands as I can in this lifetime!

How to get there:
You can go to Spermonde Archipelago (Kepulauan Sangkarang) from one of these three jetties: Kayu Bangkoa, Pulau Kayangan or POPSA. Renting a motored boat to go island-hopping around the archipelago will take you approximately IDR 800.000 (but you can haggle). The best way is to go with a group of 10 (maximum load for most boats) so you can share the fare among yourselves.


The view from the fisherman village – I watched the fishing folks going about their daily lives in their boats or mending their nets on land.


Romancing Old Makassar

     Before I explore the mainland, I think it’s best for me to explain to you why I am here in the first place. Some of my Malaysian friends have Bugi/Makassar/Mandar roots but they don’t really know much about their ancestors’ land. This part of my journey is dedicated to them.

     To get to know the history of the region, I headed over to the Tombs of Tallo Royalties, 7 km north of Makassar’s city centre. The 16th century twin kingdoms of Gowa and Tallo are perceived as the origins of modern Makassar. Channelling my inner Tomb Raider, I observed the tombs one by one. Some of them were built in stacks just like ancient temples while others have arches and domes. Between the ornaments adorning some of the bigger tombs I could see a shift from Lontara (native script) to Arabic inscriptions. I sat under one of the big trees and started sketching on my trusty notepad amidst the calm serene surroundings. The wind whispered gently as the overwhelming silence brought an ethereal feeling of peace. My little “me time” was disturbed by a stampede of school students coming out of a bus. Never one to withstand the smell of teen spirit, I moved on to my next destination.


There are supposed to be 778 tombs from 17th to 19th centuries, but only 78 of them survived after the Kingdom of Tallo fell under the rule of Colonial Dutch East Indies.

   My next stop should be interesting for Malaysians as their prime minister Dato’ Sri Mohammad Najib bin Tun Abdul Razak visited Tamalete & Balla Lompoa Palace Complex in 2007 in recognition that he is a descendant of the Gowan monarchs.

Balla Lompoa-Tamalete-palace-Gowa-kingdom-Sulawesi-Indonesia-Makassar

The palace complex of past Gowan kings – grand yet serene.

     Now a museum, Balla Lompoa houses a collection of jewelleries, weapons and ceremonial paraphernalia. The most exquisite item is Salakoa, a 1,768g crown made from pure gold. This very crown was worn by the 1st Monarch of Gowa, Queen To Manurunga, in the 14th century and has been passed on to every Gowan monarch. Imagine wearing an almost-2kg crown on your head every day – I know I would definitely have a migraine after an hour!


The crown Salakoa was first worn by the 1st Monarch of Gowa, Queen To Manurunga Bainea (14th century) and was last worn by the 36th Monarch of Gowa, King Andi Idjo Karaeng La Lolang (20th century).

     Arriving at the 16th century Fort Somba Opu, 6 km south of city centre, I imagined myself inspecting the many heavy-calibre cannons in every corner of the fort’s bastions, and then wandered to the trading offices outside the stone walls. The walls were ancient–built sturdy and firm–but it’s a pity that the reconstruction of the fort has not been completed.


fort-Somba Opu-Gowa-Makassar-Sulawesi-Indonesia

By the 17th century, the Portuguese, Dutch, British, Chinese and Danish had their trading offices opened up outside these walls of Somba Opu, making it a very lively “international village” of that time. Now it all seemed quiet and empty.

     It was here that I learned about the traditional houses built nearby the fort. Apparently a Buginese house (bola) is a portable structure that you can relocate whenever needed (sounds like a caravan to me). Also, the number of water buffalo horns in front of a Torajan house (tongkonan) corresponds with the owner’s wealth. I wondered if I had a house filled to the brim with horns, will I be revered during the olden times?


Left picture: A newly-built tongkonan without any water buffalo horn. Right picture: An old tongkonan with numerous water buffalo horns, showing a high status in Torajan society.

     The 10th Monarch of Gowa ordered the construction of Benteng Ujungpandang fort in 1545 in the shape of a sea turtle symbolizing the people of South Sulawesi who call land and sea as their homes. After being seized by the Dutch in 1667, the fort was rechristened as Fort Rotterdam.


Fort Rotterdam was once an important centre of commerce, and is now a culture preservation centre.

     Inside the complex you can find a museum which showcases the history and culture of South Sulawesi. My favourite display is the one on UNESCO’s Memory of the World’s Sureq I La Galigo, the longest epic poem ever written, even longer than Mahabharata or Odyssey and Iliad together. The locals are more famous of their seafaring (and piracy) prowess, but this piece proves that they also have a refined and longstanding literary tradition. An image of Queen We Tenriolle and her mother Tjolliq Poedjie working together to rewrite the epic poem accompanied by flickering oil lamps left a lasting impression.

Sureq-I La-Galigo-epic-poem-Bugis-Makassar-Mandar-Sulawesi-Indonesia

Nowadays, Sureq I la Galigo in its original Buginese Language can only be understood by less than 100 individuals.

     Speaking about seafaring, it was time for me to head to my last destination for the day. By the time I arrived in Paotere Harbour, the sun was getting ready to give way for the night. Some of the workers were still busy loading and unloading their boats and ships, while the children played around the vicinity. Rows of Phinisi, two-masted ships traditionally built without using nails, were moored at the historical harbour from where the king of Gowa-Tallo sent his armada of 200 ships to help Malacca in the 14th century.


Watching the sunset at Paotere Harbour

     I felt a sense of accomplishment as I had gained a better understanding of Makassar. This was where the people of the region built their reputations, be it as master seamen or ferocious pirates known as “bogeyman” (Bugi men). Paotere is apparently also the place to go if you want to enjoy fresh seafood, so I headed over towards the delicious wafting scents to end the night.


Oh-so-green Makassar!

     The next day, I took a short trip out of the city with pete-pete minivan to Bantimurung-Bulusaraung National Park to understand why famous British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace called this place “The Butterfly Kingdom”. Wallace found 256 butterfly species in the area – I’m not sure if there were as many, but rest assured, I did see many butterflies fluttering nearby the waterfall. Look closely and you’ll see the fluttering rainbow of colours with the splashing waterfall as its backdrop!

Bantimurung-Bulusaraung-waterfall-national park-butterfly-Makassar-Sulawesi-Indonesia

Bantimurung Waterfall – you can’t see the butterflies from this picture, but they were definitely plenty fluttering about.

     The park is also home to many endemic species such as Tarsier fuscus (a very small mammal that looks like Furby, only much cuter) and False Spider Cave Crab. You’ll also find the Maros-Pangkep Limestone Hills in the national park–the second largest karst area in the world.

     I made a new friend Ancha along the way who took me on a short and bumpy ride to Rammang-rammang Scenic Area where we saw karst rocks scattered between village houses and rice fields. From an unassuming small jetty by the roadside, we rented a boat to go to Berua Village.


Karst rocks standing in the middle of a rice field – a common sight in Rammang-rammang.

     Our boat slowly outlined the winding river accompanied by an orchestra of chirping birds. Aside from the imposing yet amazing karst rocks standing tall in the distance, there were smaller ones by the river itself. The ride was pleasantly delightful (aside from the heat). In fact, I had more fun on the boat than on theme park boat rides. We navigated through sharp bends and karst tunnels, constantly guided by the tall green trees by the river bank.

river-Makassar-Sulawesi-karst-Indonesia-nypa palm

Every time our boat passes a karst tunnel I feel like I was in a theme park ride…but even better!

     After half an hour or so, we arrived at Berua Village. I saw fishes swimming, ducks quacking and even spotted a gallant eagle flying by while a bunch of bats made an appearance up high in the cliffs. I was so impressed by the show that nature presented to me that I wasn’t even listening when Ancha suggested to spend the night here so we can trek the prehistoric caves the next day. Good idea!


Berua Village was just so quiet and lovely that you can help but to think you’ve found yourself in a hidden valley.

     In the caves the very next morning, I came to a sudden realization. It’s amazing what women can do. Claudia (who was in the same cave tour group) ventured into the caves with us in a dress and heels, climbed many staircases, and explored caves 45 meters above sea level like it was a walk in the park… in sneakers! But as we learnt from the guide, the caves were nothing short of amazing either. On the walls of Leang Petta Kere, we saw prehistoric paintings of hands and boars, estimated to be 5,000-year old or older. One of the most important findings in Leang Pettae was the shellfish fossils. Experts drew a conclusion that the area was once submerged under the sea! I found that all simply intriguing.


Some of the hands only have four fingers, showing finger-cutting tradition to show grief over the death of a loved one which persists to this very day in a few Melanesian tribes in Indonesia.

     It dawned upon me that the people in Makassar have always had a connection to the sea since prehistoric times. Even on an elevated place like these caves, the evidence was clearly in front of me. I could definitely see the area being surrounded by the vast blue ocean even though it’s now refreshing greenery all around. Makassar itself is an ocean of many different things – from tropical islands to lush forests, and I can see why so many have their hearts moored in Makassar, because I am now one of them.

Have you ever visited a place that you felt like you belonged? Share with us in comment box below!

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  • Lulu

    Hey, Ari, I enjoy reading your Makassar stories. Esp for the history part. Really impressed by “the longest epic poem ever written, even longer than Mahabharata or Odyssey and Iliad — Sureq I La Galigo”. What is the content of the epic poem about? BTW, it is good if you can share with us your sketchings on Makassar.

    • http://www.airasia.com/travel3sixty Travel 3Sixty

      Hi Lulu, thank you for reading the article! Sureq Galigo is a creation myth in which gods from the Upper and Under World create the Middle World and fill it with life. The epic also centered around a reckless hero and his unhealthy obsession with his own twin sister. My sketches are also like him: reckless. So I prefer to I keep them for my own eyes. Thanks again for your appreciation! :)
      – Ari Fajar