Enter Sulawesi: Heaven and Hell on Bunaken Island

Posted by on July 15, 2013

Bunaken-5914After surfing in Bali, I decided it was time to leave and go exploring some more remote regions again. In the end, venturing off the beaten path is where my heart is. I remembered that I always wanted to see Sulawesi, a huge island situated right between the Malucas and Borneo. I had heard of remote islands, unspoiled and rugged regions without a lot of tourists, great diving at untouched reefs and difficult transportation. Exactly the adventure I needed after three weeks spent in a rather blissful manner. I had booked the flight to Manado, Sulawesi’s Northern capital and gateway to my final destination Bunaken Island, just a few days before. And that flight was already an odyssey itself with a delay of six hours, arriving at 5 am instead of 10:30 pm, a change of planes and a whole lot of chaos at the airport. A good start of this adventure but what I didn’t know at this point was, that there were other, way more nerve-wracking challenges waiting for me.

Bunaken – An invitation for relaxation
After a short night in a shabby hotel in Manado, I took the public boat over to Bunaken where supposedly some of the world’s best diving was awaiting. On the boat I met Stuart from Australia, Philippe from Switzerland and Becca and her friend Charis from England who were also heading to Bunaken and the same resort I intended to stay. What a coincidence. The place we had picked was Daniel’s Homestay, an, according to the guidebooks well kept and locally run bungalow resort, set amid a beautiful garden and with a good dive shop attached. Sounded good and when we got off the boat, one of the members of the family running the joint was already waiting for us. After a short march across the island, we arrived at Daniel’s and each got set up with our cosy, little bungalows. The descriptions were right, the place was beautiful. The garden was spacious and green with the bungalows spread out and the dining and common area right in the middle of it. The bungalows were right by the white sand beach which was lined by shady mangroves. It was beautiful and I could instantly feel the relaxation setting in.

That day we all didn’t do much but sign up for the dives the next morning and getting to know the few other guests staying at the resort. It was a good group of people and the secluded character of the place made getting to know each other an easy task. One of the people there was a retiree from Germany named Hans. Hans has been living on Bunaken for 8 months a year for already 5 years now. Always at Daniel’s Homestay which he calls his home away from home. Going by the nickname “Bunaken Hans“, he is not only a keen diver and snorkeler but also one of the best underwater photographers I have ever met. Some of his pictures, some of them award-winning, were on display in the common area and those made me overly excited about diving Bunaken the next day.

Bunaken-6300

Everything ok underwater. Picture taken by Hans Gerd “Bunaken Hans” Broeder.

I did two dives the following day at dive spots going by the names of Ron’s Point and Lekuan II. Bunaken Hans was also with us, trying to get some more of those fantastic shots of his. All I can say is that the underwater world at Bunaken is fantastic. Fellow traveler Stuart described it perfectly: “It’s like swimming in a fish tank full of colorful fish, turtles and very bright coral gardens”. The colors down there and the masses of different species of fish were amazing. And even snorkeling the local reef was just like that and almost as good as diving. The deep waters off shore and a constant exchange of waters by strong currents keep the reefs alive, colorful and blooming. The setting is perfect. Unfortunately a beginning cold kept me from doing more dives, only some more snorkeling. But luckily Bunaken Hans provided me with some of his best shots which I am proud to present here in the gallery below.

If you ever make it to Bunaken, make sure to look Hans up as he not only has a lot of info on diving Bunaken and the area in general, but also is just a very likable, inspiring and entertaining character. He also sells printouts of his shots you can use as posters or postcards. Make sure to check out his website / blog at www.bunakenhans.com for more info and a selection of his pictures.

Bunaken Hans and I with some of his amazing shots.

Bunaken Hans and I with some of his amazing shots.

Things can change very quickly as I had experienced already once before in the Philippines and it happened again here on Bunaken. After those days of good times with great people at Daniel’s Homestay, good diving and snorkeling and some relaxed hours in the garden, I was about to go through hell after coming back from snorkeling the local reef.  I was just coming up when a super poisonous jellyfish got a hold of me. I had been stung by these creatures before but this was different. The sensation was like millions of deep stings with hot needles – all over my face, neck and back. I freaked out seeing the long and thin tentacles wrapped all around me. The instant pain was unbelievable and I rushed to the resort as fast as possible. They treated my with vinegar which was the right thing to do but still didn’t help much. After a bit, things just got worse. A severe back pain set in which only allowed me to lie down on my bed. My muscles started cramping and that was even more painful than the stings which were still burning like fire. Then my abdomen started to cramp as well and my whole body became extremely tense. I started sweating gallons and at one point I couldn’t even talk properly anymore. It sounds stupid but at one point I thought, if this will get any worse, I might have a good chance of dying. It was honestly the worst agony I ever went through in my whole life. After 4 hours in severe pain, my suffering finally eased a little bit. I could eat a little and get some sleep. It was unbelievable how potent that poison must have been. The next morning the pain was gone and only the tentacle marks on my skin were signs of the horrors of the night before. It was definitely one of the most intense experiences of my travels. At this point I want to thank Philippe, Bunaken Hans, Becca, Caris and the staff of Daniel’s for taking care of me that night.

But you never know what things are good for. Because I felt I had to recover a little bit, I changed my itinerary skipping Tangkoko National Park and extending my stay at Daniel’s for another day. That day I spent relaxing around the resort, talking to some of the new guests and recovering. In the early evening I took a stroll along the beach through Bunaken Village and that was so worthwhile.

Strolling through the lanes of Bunaken Village.

Strolling through the lanes of Bunaken Village.

The people there were so friendly and welcoming that it was nothing but fun walking around and talking to everyone. Not so easy but some phrases out of a little phrasebook usually put a smile on peoples faces. Once again the friendliest ones were kids who instantly came up to me asking for their “portret” to be taken. It was one of these days where good pictures just come out automatically. The atmosphere was great and I walked around town until it got dark. It was a forgiving end to my stay on Bunaken.


Last thoughts …

Despite that horrible experience I had on Bunaken, the stay there will remain a very positive memory. It felt good to get away from the beaten path once again and I think the rest of my journey through Sulawesi will be just as good. People in those more remote regions are just friendlier, more welcoming and less focused on making a quick buck off of the tourists.
Bunaken itself was great. The place offers so much relaxation and serenity and just asks for staying at least a few days if not a week. Diving and Snorkeling were superior and the combination of that together with the great people I have met made the island so special. I know I could have stayed longer and I can’t blame Bunaken Hans for spending most of the year there. Once again special thanks to Hans for letting me publish his pictures. It was inspiration meeting him.
A general thought is concerning the environment as I experienced a day of snorkeling in a lot of trash and mainly plastic floating around shore. It was only a temporary phenomenon due to unfavorable currents but it showed how fragile our environment is and how badly we treat it. It’s important that we develop a sense for that and start to act accordingly. So please think twice if the cashier at the supermarket counter asks if you’d like a plastic bag. Save the ocean!

Good Bye Bunaken!

Good Bye Bunaken!

25 Responses to Enter Sulawesi: Heaven and Hell on Bunaken Island

  1. London Caller

    Such a lovely place!
    I would like to visit this place one day.

    • Phil D.

      Hey London Caller,
      thanks for your feedback, mate. The place was a bliss…super nice and not so touristy. I can definitely recommend it. Today the weather here in Sulawesi more or less seems like London … grey, windy and rainy. Greetings!

  2. mfnaughton

    Reblogged this on mfnaughton.

  3. samokan

    oh my I can’t imagine the pain, glad you came out alright.
    The island look very beautiful. I do need to learn to snorkel or dive so that I can see those beautiful under water.

    Great shot and beautiful photo from Hans Bunaken.

    • Phil D.

      Oh yeah, the pain was incredible. Horrific experience but at least one more cool story to tell now ;). If you have the chance, try snorkeling. You have amazing spots in the Philippines. There is a lot to see down there. Greetings from Tanah Toraja! Phil

  4. Nin

    What an experience! and the picture also beautiful…

    • Phil D.

      Hi Nin, thanks for your feedback. Glad you liked the pictures. Sometimes the time and place are just right to take some nice shots. Thanks again for stopping by. Philipp

  5. Dini

    those pictures of the sea creatures are amazing!

    • Phil D.

      I know, they are awesome. But unfortunately not my own. Credit goes to Bunaken Hans at bunakenhans.com. So afr I haven’t gotten into underwater photography and I don’t think I will. The equipment is just too expensive and I am not spending soo much time diving. How about u? You like diving as well?

      • Dini

        unfortunately I cannot dive, but I can barely swim lol.
        swimming in the pool is ok, but not in the sea and I have this scary imagination about sea monsters (beautiful poisonous sea snakes or jelly fish etc.) Good that you recovered fast. Be safe in your journey!!!

        • Philipp Dukatz

          Hi Dini, nothing that you can’t learn if you really want. So if you wanna do it, take some lessons and get confident in the water. It is really nice and most of the times you don’t even need to dive to see beautiful things. Snorkeling is usually enough. Maybe someday you’ll give it a try…. Greetings from rainy Tanah Toraja, Phil

  6. chris

    Reading at work was a bad idea

    • Phil D.

      Hehe, sorry to distract you from you work man. Keep it up. By the way, Sulawesi would be the bomb with you guys. Motorbiking at its finest, nice landscapes, super friendly people, great diving. Would have been killer with the BLC Crew …. We have to do Kalimantan though ….

  7. Joy Heersma

    Hi Phil,

    I was googeling Bunaken and found you’re blog online. Looks like you had a good trip after all! Funny to see the fenomenon ‘Bunaken Hans’ on your pictures 🙂

    Greetz from Rotterdam

    • Phil D.

      Hi Joy, thanks for stopping by. After all it was a good trip and I wouldn’t wanna miss having stopped in Bunaken. And of course, gotten to know the famous Bunaken Hans was an experience itself. Have you met Hans as well?

  8. Nerija S.

    Woah, glad you were able to recover within a few hours from the jellyfish! Other than the vinegar, did you need any other treatments, or was it generally just waiting until the effects went away on their own? I wonder if those kind of jellyfish are often swimming near Bunaken — if so, people should definitely be warned about that before trying any water activities.

    Well, other than that horrific experience, I’m glad the rest of the diving was good! And thanks for sharing those shots from Bunaken Hans — I love the one with the creature that looks like a giant blue eye! The undersea world really is surreal and amazing, isn’t it?

    • Philipp Dukatz

      Hello there, besides the vinegar I received a traditional potion which I had to drink. Supposedly against the pain. But the pain was so severe, that nothing did help. After reading about it online and looking back at the intensity of the effects I had, I definately should have been taken to a hospital. There they would have given me a shot of a really potent muscle relaxant which apparently works very well. But I was on Bunaken and the hospital was a bit far away. It was a bad experience but it’s nature. And especially the seas are home to some really creepy creatures. What can you do…. Meeting Bunaken Hans was great. He is an inspirational character and his photography is awesome. Do you also dive or snorkel? Greetings from KL, Philipp

      • Nerija S.

        Lucky, I guess, that the poison wasn’t fatal — at least once you were treated. Still, I imagine it’s impossible to think of the silver lining when you’re in that much pain :-/ But, like you said in the post, you’ll have a story to tell, and first-hand experience with just how dangerous some sea creatures can be.

        I’m still saving up for diving lessons; hopefully within the next year I’ll have my certificate.

        • Philipp Dukatz

          Hey, it is true, at one point I was getting pretty scared because I didn’t know how far this would go. But yeah, a story to tell. I think you will have a good time taking lessons. Let me know how it went once you are certified …..

  9. Luis Castelo Branco

    Thanks for your excellent description of your trip to Bunaken. Photos from Hans are just remarkable ! I will go to Bunaken next April with my wife and kids (9 and 10 years old) and I was very concerned with your experience with the box jellyfish (probably a big Chironex or a small Irukandji) as it is the first time I have heard about it ! Did you heard other stories like yours? I’m a afraid specially for my children as they love to snorkel and I know that they are even more at risk because they are children. I am a scubadiver, so I have my diving suits, and I recently order 2 sting suits for them (similar to the ones used in Australia), but still…
    Anyway, I am very happy that everything went well with you, but I imagine you have suffered a lot, and to what I’ve heard, you were lucky too. Probably because you are young and well fit, you were able to resist to the poison. I wonder how it goes in a 9-10 ten years old child !!!
    Best regards and continue to post your trips !
    Luis

    • Philipp Dukatz

      Hi Luis,
      thaks a lot for stopping by and your feedback. I am sure you have a great time in Bunaken. It’s a diver’s paradise and very relaxed. The jellyfish incident was really something. It was some of the worst pain I experienced. I think the best thing for you guys would be to talk to the locals at the dive shop about the current situation. They will probably know and give advice. I mean, it doesn’t happen all too often there as far as I know but you never know. But I’m sure you will be fine. Enjoy your trip Luis and keep me posted… All the best, Philipp

  10. shaepy

    waooowww… kerennnnn mas brooooww. thanks to share. I’m from Indonesia maaannnn…