The Secrets of Selayar Island, South Sulawesi

December 1, 2011 No Comments »
The Secrets of Selayar Island, South Sulawesi

“Once you have travelled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quietest chambers.  The mind can never break off from the journey” – Pat Conroy – One of the secrets of visiting Selayar is discovering how to get there.  The very fact it takes nine bumpy hours overland to reach this unspoilt, idyllic, tropical sea gypsy paradise, makes this little known tucked away treat in the South of Sulawesi a pleasure.  Places that are this far removed from the trappings of mainstream tourism lead you on a discovery; an adventurous travel experience that is truly unique.

Selayar Island is eighty kilometres long and teeming with rainforest, white sandy beaches and sits in the Asian coral triangle. The clear blue waters and scattering of twenty-one small islands and atolls make for perfect snorkelling and diving opportunities, opening up a world of colourful corals, huge sponges, sea fans, turtles, dugongs, rays, tuna, parrot fish – the variety and proliferation of this underwater sea adventure is virtually unsurpassed in the world.

Flores Sea
Selayar sits in the Flores Sea and is the gateway to Takabonerate National Sea Park, the third biggest atoll in the world, after the Marshall Islands and the Maldives.  Takabonerate is a Bugis word meaning “coral pile up on the sand”.

The unique barrier and fringe reefs allow for exploration, as well as the challenge of steep walled drop-offs.  Many divers say the diving environment is more beautiful than Bunakin National Park in Northern Sulawesi, which enjoys developed tourism and is promoted successfully to the world.  Selayar on the other hand is a gem of unspoilt beauty, pristine nature and clear waters; a secret find on planet earth.

Selayar was once part of the ancient trading route to the Moluccas. Historic relics have been found on Selayar dating back to the 14th century when Chinese, Philippine and Thai traders regularly passed through this part of South East Asia.  The island’s main town, Benteng has a unique one room, stand-alone museum which proudly houses a kettle drum – the oldest and biggest in the world.  The drum was brought to Selayar by mariners from China and dates back to the Bronze Era.

To view the drum you need a special key, which your tour guide can organise.  To the Selayar locals the drum is known as the gong and when it’s struck it is said the sound can be heard for miles with perfect pitch and tone.  It is the pride of Selayar.  “Have you seen the Gong?” is a question you will be asked many times.

Benteng is a hub of prolific action:  a bustling small town with colourful becaks competing on small streets with motorbikes, cars and pole vendors making their way to the busy fishing market and the pride of the town: the football field, where everything seems to happen.
Selayar locals are very proud of their football field.  Centrally located it doubles as the cultural piazza (open square), for the Annual Takabonerate Island Expedition, a colourful cultural festival.
Sea Gypsies and Master Boat Builders

Of  the twenty-one islands stretching out from the mainland to form the Takabonerate National Park, only seven are inhabited.  The Bajau and Bugis ethnic people live on these islands.  The sea gypsies (Orang Bajau) of Sulawesi are a nomadic people who have roamed the seas for generations. They live by subsistence fishing practices using handmade boats, nets, spears and primitive fishing tools.  Their livelihood comes from trade and, of course, the sea.  An interesting aspect of the Bajau people is their ability to hold their breath under water for an unusually long time.  According to local legend it is believed their lung capacity is larger than the normal human and not so many years ago many of them preferred to sleep on water, rather than on land.

The Bugis ethnics are a boat-building race.  They are well known for their remarkable wooden sailing boat craftsmanship. They design and build their beautiful wooden vessels by hand and totally by memory, without a drafted plan.

Getting There
If the nine-hour journey overland by car and local ferry sounds a little too challenging, there is an alternative.  There is a direct flight, which takes 45 mins from Makassar to Selayar.  SMAC is an air charter service and operates this route.  On boarding the plane each passenger is handed a pilot-like headset with huge orange earmuffs.  This definitely helps to soften the deafening sound of the noisy twin propeller plane.  The Internet states, “SMAC air has no scheduled services”, so it’s safe to say it’s unreliable.  Travelers have to book a flight well in advance and even then there is no guarantee that SMAC will hold the seat.

The airport strip on Selayar sits between the main town of Benteng and a series of small stilted villages.  The runway is part of the main road which links village to village and when a plane is due  (three times a week at present) a red fire truck can be seen hurtling out on the runway, siren blaring alerting all motorbikes, cars and trucks that a plane is coming.  This is really not a problem because the propeller plane is deafeningly loud.  The real purpose of the shiny red fire truck’s warning system seems to be a noise alert to clear the goats off the runway.

Where to Stay
If you want a canopy of coconut palms, a pure white sandy beach and a hammock, then sunset can be viewed from a delightful spot, The Selayar Island Resort, only nine kilometres from Benteng.  The resort features beautifully appointed beachfront bungalows and runs small group dives for entry level beginners through to advanced, technical dives.  The open plan restaurant offers both Indonesian and international cuisine served with a warm smiles in a comfortable, friendly and very casual atmosphere. At sunset, it is a pleasure to watch the evening sky dance with the orange and red hues, then as full bodied as your signature “sunset sangria cocktail”, you can sit back and watch the sky deepening into a blend of rich reds and vivid purples. As the sun drops behind the horizon it is a sensational moment to savour – of blending of the colours of nature.

Annual Event of Takabonerate Island Festival
Selayar Island has hosted the The Takabonerate Island Expedition since 2009.  The festival is held in October every year.  Highlights of the festival includes an International Fishing Competition (open to everyone), a Cultural Festival featuring music and dance from the 23 different regencies of Sulawesi and an Underwater Exhibition, including 300 naval divers competing in technical dive techniques.
The lasting memories of spending time in Selayar Island, a charming friendly and remote place will live with you, every time you close your eyes.

Fact File
Makassar, South Sulawesi to Selayar Island
Road/Ferry: Makassar to Selayar by rental car/bus /ferry combination – 8-9 hours
Air: SMAC Air Charter – Makassar to Selayar (Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday) – 40 mins
SMAC Office in Selayar (0414) 21361/081355222282
Selayar Airport (0414) 2700099/085242016932

*) SMAC do not have a website.  It’s highly recommended to make

Words by Stephanie Brookes | Photos by David Metcalf

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