Off the southeast coast of Sulawesi is a quiet cluster of islands known collectively as Wakatobi. It’s not uncommon to have beaches and dive spots to yourself here. While the area is well known to divers and marine biologists, this Indonesian regency, with the slightly Japanese-sounding name, receives little attention due to the limited number of flights and the refreshing lack of commercialism.
The name “Wakatobi” is an acronym for the four main islands that make up the regency: Wangi Wangi, Kaledupa, Tomia and Binongko. Wakatobi National Park, a World Heritage site established in 1996, is world-famous among divers and marine biologists.
It boasts the second longest coral atoll in the world and is home to 750 coral species and 942 species of fish. Matahora Airport is located on Wangi Wangi Island, so you will most likely be starting your Wakatobi adventure here and then jumping a ferry to the other islands. As the capital of Wakatobi, Wangi Wangi has a small town surrounded by local villages including Liya Village and Fort. Sharks and rays are commonly seen at the Wangi Wangi Island City dive.
The next island over is Kaledupa. Just off the northeast coast the smaller Hoga Island’s reefs teem with mobulas (the manta ray’s smaller cousin), sea-mounts and coral gardens. While sailing past Kaledupa, you’ll notice a floating forest of mangroves lining the shores. Meanwhile, Tomia is famous for white sandy beaches and clear waters; its popular dive spots are Sawa and Ndaa islands. Last but not least, Binongko is known for its rocky terrain and a strong blacksmith and earthenware trade.
Divers head for Koromaha and Koko reefs where coralcovered walls, overhangs, massive walls and caves attract turtles, sharks and eagle rays. The most popular times to dive are between October and December and March to May, right before and after the rainy season when the weather is calmer. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to spot dolphins, manta rays, turtles, hammerhead and whale sharks, dugongs and whales. During July and August, plankton blooms decrease visibility but attract larger pelagic fish.
Non-divers can enjoy snorkeling, water skiing, kayaking or relaxing on unpopulated white sandy beaches with breathtaking sunsets and sunrises. Tomia Island’s Huntete Beach, a one-kilometer stretch of white sand, is a local favorite.
When you visit one of the 61 villages spread out among the four islands, you’ll soon realize music, art and food are woven into the fabric of everyday life. You might even stumble upon a wedding or birthday celebration where you are likely to be warmly invited to participate in an evening of food and dancing.
Daily morning and evening prayers broadcast from local mosques remind you the population is Muslim, although some tribes also practice their traditional beliefs and ancestor worship. If you keep your eyes peeled, especially near beaches and caves, you might glimpse a shrine where locals have left small gifts for loved ones who have passed on.
The villages of the enigmatic Bajo tribe, also known as Sea Gypsies, make for a fascinating visit. Traditionally sea nomads, the Bajo people are dispersed throughout Southeast Asia and interestingly all speak the same language despite the great distance that separates them and their long history.
They are completely sustained by the ocean, living mostly in houses that appear to be floating in the middle of the water but in fact are built over coral stone foundations or stilts. The Bajo people are masters of spear fishing and free diving, and they travel from house to house, mosque or store by boat.
Leaving one of the Bajo settlements – this particular one built partially on land – an elderly man hands over a pair of handmade wooden mata mata (goggles), a significant tool and symbol of their livelihood. “I’ve been supplying the villages with these for a very long time,” he said as his lined fingers expertly whittle yet another pair.
Behind him, curious children jump into the water to cool off and go fishing. Though the Bajos live a hard life, utterly dependent on the ocean, their endurance, minimalist lifestyle and respect for the environment make them an enviably blissful people.
The Karst Peak of Kahianga on the island of Tomia is the highest elevation on Wakatobi (just 250 meters above sea level). Although there isn’t much high ground on these relatively flat islands, there are plenty of places to discover below, with underwater rivers and channels waiting to be explored.
Kontamale on Wangi Wangi Island feels otherworldly. The serene beauty of the two natural pools is due to the azure freshwater shaded under a canopy of trees that block out wind and sound. One of the pools serves as an entrance to an underwater cave which makes for an unusual diving experience. You can also visit Tomia’s Tolandono Bat Cave in the east and Tee Wali Bat Cave to the southwest.
Once the sun goes down, head down to Pasar Malam. Things get lively at this evening market at the pier in Wanci. Fishermen bring in fresh catches, stalls are lined with fruits and chili of every color and aunties try dressing you up in sarongs while festive local tunes blare above the din of activity. On your way out, pick up some rainbow-colored sweets, tarts or cakes (the coconut pandan cake is a personal favorite) and Wakatobi’s famous karasi (crunchy snacks made from cassava root flour).
If you are on the search for souvenirs, Wakatobi’s woven leja sarong is a light, travel-friendly gift. The eye-catching stripes have long been artistically woven in this iconic cloth that can be seen everywhere – from bags to sarongs to book covers and more.
Fresh seafood, along with kasoami (steamed rice-like meal made from cassava root), is the primary staple of these tropical islands. While chatting with some locals at our last dinner about the cost of living in Japan, gigantic lobsters and countless fresh coconuts appeared on the table in front of us, our hosts proudly assuring us there were more where they came from.
The next morning, our small plane lifted off the runway as passengers chatted excitedly about their travels and business. Wangi Wangi’s flat terrain and glowing reef disappeared in the distance.
After a stop in Makassar, we landed in Denpasar, the bustling capital of Bali. The airport was filled with creature comforts such as Wi-Fi and designer goods, yet I already yearned for the simple pleasures of Wakatobi. A friendly airport staffer, perhaps sensing my malaise, asked how was my trip. “You can’t get more local Indonesia than that,” she said with a smile and walked away.
GETTING THERE: There is currently one flight to Wakatobi per day via Wings Air from Sultan Hasanuddin Airport in Makassar, South Sulawesi, (stops once at Kendari) to Matahora Airport on Wangi Wangi Island. Alternatively, visitors can fly from Bali to Kendari. Wings Air, Lion, Silkair, Garuda and AirAsia have daily flights to Makassar from major airports such as Denpasar, Jakarta or Surabaya, and internationally from Kuala Lumpur or Singapore. There is also a chartered flight operated by Wakatobi Dive Resort from Bali to Tomia Island.
GETTING AROUND: To reach the other three islands from Wangi Wangi, take a ferry from the Bajo Mola Harbor for Kaledupa and Hoga Island or Jabal Rahman Harbor for Tomia Island. If you are staying at the Patuno Resort, arrange for transportation to the harbor with the resort staff and confirm the schedule as ferry departures are limited and may change depending on weather conditions.
ACCOMMODATION: Wakatobi has two luxury resorts: Patuno Resort on Wangi Wangi, the only dive resort in the area with a house reef, and Wakatobi Dive Resort near Tomia. Additionally, there are more than 20 inns, cottages and homestay programs managed by locals. Visitors going for the sole purpose of diving can travel in style on a live-aboard yacht cruise from Kendari with Seven Seas Indonesia or from Maumere with the Grand Komodo. The Pelagian Yacht also departs from Wakatobi Dive Resort.
DIVING: To schedule a diving tour, you can contact local operators such as Wakatobi Dive Trip, Tomia Scuba Dive and Hoga Island Dive Resort. There are also rental shops for snorkel gear around the islands.