[words © Mark Eveleigh]
Shortly before dawn I’m woken by a sound that seems at once very familiar and yet intensely exotic. At first I think that the rhythmic tack-tack is the ticking of my old bedside clock at home and it takes a moment for me to realise that I’m back in Sulawesi. The noise is, in fact, the unmistakable sound of a paddle knocking against the hull of a dugout canoe.
I lie awake now, listening to the hubbub of the waking village: the crow of cockerels; the distant wail of a mosque; children’s voices laughing over breakfast. The rising sun glints off the surface of the lagoon to ripple across my bungalow ceiling like an illuminated puppet in a shadow play. Tempted by the sun, I step out onto the veranda. The watery horizon is like polished steel but in the shade of my stilted hut the water seems almost impossibly transparent. It is hard to imagine that this jade garden of a reef could exist under a stilted village that is home to several thousand people.
This is Wakatobi National Park and the Bajo “Sea Gypsies” have been a part of this landscape since before anyone can even remember. At 1.39 million hectares this is Indonesia’s second largest national park (only Teluk Cendrawasih in West Papua is bigger) and one of the few parks where traditional inhabitants are granted the right to harvest natural resources.
There are 39 islands in Wakatobi but the archipelago’s name is a recent invention. The area was declared a national park in 1996 and the new name was derived from the first letters of the four major islands: Wangi-Wangi, Kaledupa, Tomia and Binongko. Today the entire region is famous to divers the world over for its outstanding reefs, but the Tukangbesi Islands, as they were originally called, are also home to nine villages of Bajo people (commonly known by the overly simplistic name of “Sea Gypsies”). With their unique language, lifestyle and traditions, the Bajo live in isolated stilt villages, entirely separate from the land-based inhabitants of the islands. Most are subsistence fishermen but some make a living collecting seaweed for export (many tons are collected each day yet nobody here eats it) or diving for sea cucumbers which are also sold to the mainland. They are said to be the best free-divers in the world yet their specially evolved respiratory systems are not enough to prevent many dying when, tempted by the bonuses of greedy employers, they stay down for too long. In the old days it is said that some men would deliberately perforate their eardrums to allow them to dive deeper still and this may explain the high incidence of deafness among the older generation.
“Ninety-seven percent of this park is water,” says Pak Sugiyanta, WWF’s project leader in Wakatobi. “Thousands of people live in the stilted villages and along the shoreline, and the big challenge for WWF and the park authorities is in protecting marine-life while at the same time making life easier for the human population.”
Bajo homes are unusual in that each house is built on its own little manmade ‘islet’ of sand and coral. One of the park´s major problems is in limiting the quarrying of coral and sand and so WWF have recently set up fish hatcheries as alternative work for Bajo quarry workers.
On a local cargo boat bound for Kaledupa, I met a Bajo man who lives, as many do, from harvesting delicious red crabs in his woven bu-bu traps.
“Since our home has become a national park it has been harder to survive,” he says. “There are more restrictions now but they tell us that when the tourists begin to arrive we will also be able to work as boatmen and guides.”
While the island of Tomia, home to Wakatobi Dive Resort, sees large numbers of tourists the rest of the archipelago is relatively inaccessible and sees very little activity. To get to Hoga Island, for example, you catch the same little outboard shuttle that brings school kids to and from the fishing village. The grandly named Hoga Island Resort is actually just a collection of faux-Bajo stilt bungalows that might have come from a Swiss Family Robinson picture book. At many times of the year you might be the only guest here. You wander like a beach-bum along curving scimitar beaches that are unmarred by footprints, or use the resort launch to explore some of the most spectacular snorkelling venues in Asia.
Or you can do what many do and just slip gratefully into a gently swaying waterside hammock. Just revel in the balmy breeze and let the pleasures of a tropical paradise island play on your senses. Dappled water explodes into diamonds as a school of flying fish skitter across the surface, fleeing from some unseen submarine menace. A sea turtle waves a lazy fin at you as it wallows on the swell and the scything flight of a frigate bird throws a jagged shadow over the white sand.
It is easy to lose track of time in a Hoga Island hammock. In fact, you might just stay here until you are woken again by the soft tack-tack of the Wakatobi wake-up call.
This feature was published in the June 2013 issue of Colours, Garuda Airline’s inflight magazine. The image above was the opening spread of the feature.