Saturday, August 04, 2012

Swimming With The (Jelly)Fishes

Sulawesi is undoubtedly one of the world's oddest-shaped islands. Sometimes described as resembling an octopus or the letter K. Either way, its trailing tentacles and testing topography make travelling time-consuming. Bus journeys rarely take less than 8 hours and the various boats that service intra-island routes have seen better days. The tenacious are, however, rewarded with spectacular views of jungle-clad mountains that sweep down to isolated bays with turquoise waters and some of the best diving to be found anywhere in the world.

Sunset in the Togians always seems to be gorgeous.

The Togian islands are sandwiched in the middle of the gulf formed by the curl of Sulawesi's top "limb". They are a well-known destination amongst more independent backpackers as a relaxing, tropical island getaway, with no hordes of drunken beach-bums, friendly locals and some decent snorkelling and diving. All very pleasant, but nothing out of the ordinary. My reason for visiting was a little more obscure. Togian island contains a small lagoon that is effectively cut off from the rest of the sea. When the lagoon formed it isolated a group of jellyfish who had the good fortune of not being locked in with any predators. The lack of competition meant that over time they lost their stings which were no longer required (much like cave-dwelling animals losing their sense of sight). This lake is one of only three places in the world where there are such stingless jellyfish, although there may be more given that this one was only discovered less than two years ago. It is also by far the most accessible of the three (another being off the east coast of Borneo and the most famous in the Palau islands). As it is such a new attraction and not mentioned in any guidebooks (I only found out about the lake's existence from my host in Jakarta) I wanted to sort of keep it to myself and didn't mention it to other tourists. Not that it mattered much, as when I did finally tell some other travellers they were decidedly unimpressed and couldn't really see the attraction. Obviously tastes vary.

In many places around the Togians the reefs are so shallow that you can't even swim over them without grazing against the corals (watch out, coral cuts take forever to heal!). This allows the construction of such storehouses that seemingly float in the middle of the sea. (Unfortunately I have no photos of the jellyfish as my camera is allergic to water.)

Once on the islands though I did have to sell the idea as to get out to the lagoon it is necessary to hire out a boat and such trips require a minimum of six passengers. Again, I though that I'd have no difficulty in mustering enough people from the three resorts that shared the same beach. But once again I was wrong and it wasn't until my last morning there that I managed to get enough people together to join the excursion; and I wasn't at all disappointed. Swimming in the green, turbid waters of the lagoon as these pulsating pods, coloured orange, purple, white and blue, some with and some without spots, dreamily floated above, beneath and around me was a truly magical experience. They would brush past me as if examining me whilst I could cup them in my hands and inspect the minutest details of their anatomy as they softly pressed against my palms. Of course I didn't spend all my time just waiting for people to go and see the jellyfish with me (although being tropical islands my activity levels were pretty low) and I did go and do some snorkelling in the nearby reefs as well. Along with a multitude of corals, fish, starfish and other marine critters I had a close brush with a sea snake (a yellow-lipped sea krait to be precise), literally, when it nuzzled up past my foot as I was standing in a sandy part of a shallow reef. I was very excited to see it, although a little alarmed at the proximity, as a bite from such a krait is more than enough to quickly kill a human. Luckily they're pretty docile and phlegmatic animals and you'd have to try pretty hard to get one to bite you. One animal that I did encounter that could give you a nasty nip was the nocturnal, terrestrial coconut crab, the largest living land arthropod, and apparently a very tasty one at that too (one of the reasons why it tends to die out wherever humans are present).

Rats and bats in Tomohon's market. The rats, onastick, are in the foreground, whilst the bats are to the right and back.Top left are bats that have not yet had their fur burnt off.

My aquatic adventures over, I headed back to dry land and the northeastern tip of Sulawesi, the Minahasan peninsula for another animal experience, although this one was slightly more morbid. On the drive up through the peninsula I was immediately struck by how prosperous the region is. The road, although windy and pretty narrow, is of a very high quality, and the villages we passed were all neat and tidy, with painted picket fences and well-tended gardens. The wealth (as far as I've been able to tell) stems mainly from mining in the province. Another way in which North Sulawesi stands out from most of Indonesia is that it is a mainly Christian province, with churches prominently visible almost everywhere you go, along with crosses still up from Easter celebrations. My target though, was the pleasantly cool town of Tomohon, nestled amid a ring of volcanoes less than an hour from the capital Manado. It is famous (notorious?) for its market, where local butchers supply the unfussy Minahasans. What Muslims may eat is very strictly proscribed, something that Minahasans can't deal with. They're quite happy eating pretty much anything that moves, and so the market is teeming with the standard fare of veggies, fruit, fish, chickens and pork. But then there are a few things that are not so common. Wild boar can be found along with its tamer cousin, and rows of bats as well as rats on a stick can be found just across from the python seller. But the market is most famous for its canine wares. The small, local dogs are kept in group cages and individually pulled out, given a few brief clubs to the back of the head, and then quickly singed by blowtorch (in what seems to be a Sulawesi custom) to remove the fur. The blackened beasts are then lined up, along with the bats and the rats, and hacked up into manageable pieces for the discerning customers. Not your average market for sure (and for those who want to try the local delicacy they can find it in restaurants under the euphemism RW).

Cage of dogs awaiting the butchers club (which you can see atop the cage, suspended like a Club of Damocles). I think they're probably aware of what's about to befall them as they're pulled out individually and clubbed on the spot before being blowtorched (a trio of "finished", blackened dogs can be seen on top of the cage as well).

1 comment:

Nathan Anderson said...

Great post, man! Sulawesi sounds like a singular place, definitely want top check it out someday.