A Charming Alternative

02 May, 2011 | Source: The Jakarta Post Weekender

It’s nothing like its bustling namesake in southern Sumatra, but that is what makes North Sulawesi’s Bangka Island a refreshing diversion.

 I first learned to scuba dive in Bunaken, North Sulawesi. Since then, I visit the area at least twice a year. And every time I discover something new.

 Most recently, I discovered a whole island.

Not so long ago I met Paul Batuna, the son of Dr. Hanny Batuna, who runs a pioneering dive resort in Manado. He asked me if I had been to Bangka Island, which is off the coast of the northern tip of Sulawesi, about halfway between Bunaken and Lembeh Strait.

 

When I said I had not, he did not look surprised.

 

Next time you come to North Sulawesi, give me a call and I’ll arrange a trip to Bangka for you,” he offered. “There’s a good possibility you’ll see dugongs, too.”

He hit my D-spot! Seeing this gentle, adorable creature in the wild is high on my underwater wish list. Excessive hunting for its meat and oil over the centuries has decimated the dugong population, and the species is now listed as vulnerable by international conservation agencies.

Intrigued by the proposition, I returned a few weeks later. Getting there was quite easy – certainly much easier than epic journeys to such places as Central Sulawesi’s Togean Islands and East Kalimantan’s Maratua Island.

From Manado’s Sam Ratulangi Airport, I took a pickup to the sleepy fishing village of Likupang. The hour-long drive took me along picturesque rural roads, with the scenery featuring cows grazing in meadows, children walking home from school, farmers working in their fields, women chattering and washing their laundry in a river.

On arriving at the black-sand beach of Likupang, I could see Bangka in the distance. After a 20-minute speedboat ride, I arrived on the island, where I made my way to Murex Resort.

Murex Resort nestles under shady trees on a pure white-sand beach in south Bangka. Its natural-timber bungalows sit just a few steps from the clear turquoise waters.

Like any typical dive resort, the resort has a separate building that functions as a common area and dining room. Meals are included in the accommodation package – the resort is in a secluded part of the island where guests have no choice of restaurants. But this sole option proved eminently satisfactory. I arrived at lunchtime and the staff greeted me warmly (as did the other guests and even the dogs!) and escorted me to the buffet table, weighed down by an array of delectable Indonesian dishes. My empty stomach responded eagerly – having taken an early flight from Jakarta, I had not had a proper breakfast.


No check-in forms to fill out?” I asked hesitantly before grabbing a plate.

Forms can wait,” I was told. “An empty stomach can’t!” 
 

That was surely the nicest thing I heard that day.

 




Bed of Abundant Soft Corals

 

This rugged, green island surrounded by pinnacles is home to abundant soft corals. Formed by active volcanoes that extend from the mainland into the sea, the dive sites at Bangka consist of relatively new reefs, because the hard corals have not yet had a chance to grow.

Furthermore, as the waters are quite exposed and subject to frequent strong currents from all directions, big pelagics come to feed here. The area around Bangka Island lies on a whale migratory path; the best times to spot whales are March and August.

The best features of diving in Bangka Island are the pinnacles covered with soft corals, sea fans and feather stars, which attract big schools of yellow snapper.

Underwater, currents can get very strong so reef sharks, jacks, Napoleon wrasse, barracuda, bumphead parrotfish and eagle rays crowd the area for a feeding frenzy. Diving as the strong currents swept through the area was a bit like walking in a garden on a windy day: The soft corals swayed and colorful reef fish hung close to the reefs for dear life. Between the corals and big sponges are the small crevices where frogfish, pygmy seahorses, nudibranchs, ribbon eels, leaf fishes and various crabs happily dwell.

Although sometimes the visibility at Bangka is not as good as at Bunaken because of the crashing waves, a dive at Bangka is a must for self-declared scuba junkies.

The weather was terrible on the second day I was there. Although it was bright and sunny when we left the resort for the first dive, we were hit by a sudden downpour when we reached Batu Mandi, one of the famous dive sites located close to Pulisan in mainland Sulawesi, and decided to wait until the weather improved. To avoid getting seasick, when the rain stopped, I swam ashore to take a little walk around an abandoned resort just 100 meters from the beach.

It was deserted but for an old woman and her sick dog. She warmly welcomed me to the island and invited me to check out the resort. Behind the empty bungalows was an estuary that reminded me of the White Crater of Ciwidey in West Java. Past the estuary were steps leading to the shore on the other side of the island – navigating the steep, narrow, slippery path as waves crashed against the rocks below turned out to be a thrilling experience. But given the breathtakingly beautiful view, I was glad I had attempted it.

Although I went for the diving, there is plenty of nothing to do here too. Bangka Island, home to only three villages and 600 people, offers the perfect opportunity to practice the art of relaxing in a tropical paradise. Murex normally offers two dives per day – one after breakfast and another one after lunch – but there is no pressure to join them. Diving in the morning, then whiling away the afternoon lying in a hammock and reading a book is one option for enjoying your getaway. Another fine option is to sleep in until the sun is high in the sky, take a dip in the turquoise waters just a few steps from the bungalows and then go diving in the afternoon. As with my previous visits to North Sulawesi, I found it very easy to gain one or two kilograms in the course of five days. Not only did the resort feed me great food, but the fixed meal schedule also compelled me to eat regularly.

I did not see any dugongs or whales on this trip, but I will be back when I have some more spare time. As it has the same name as the now famous and popular island in Sumatra, it’s just a matter of time until Sulawesi’s Bangka earns similar, if not greater, fame of its own. With Bunaken too crowded and Manado becoming increasingly disappointing with its constant reclamation plans, it’s time to move on to Bangka, a world away from the hustle and bustle of a popular holiday destination.

  

Written by Fransiska Anggraini

 

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