The island of Sulawesi looks a bit like a contorted starfish with four long peninsula’s hanging off a mountainous interior. The geography has endowed the island with an extensive coastline whilst the central highlands created a natural barrier that isolated the inhabitants to their respective peninsula’s for thousands of years, fostering distinctly different indigenous cultures and a stunning array of endemic faunal species.
From north to south, east to west, the landscape is breathtakingly beautiful. The south is predominated by swampy lowlands and vast rice fields lorded over by massive karst formations, endless miles of sandy beaches and countless offshore islands surrounded by coral reef gardens. Island hopping, snorkelling or diving, delving into limestone caves adorned with prehistoric art or visiting a stilted Bugis sea gypsy village is the order of the day.
The central highlands are the traditional home of the Toraja ethnic group, whose elaborate funerals, burial sites and towering tongkonan traditional houses have fascinated the world since the first intrepid explorers ventured into the isolated heart of Sulawesi. If the intriguing Toraja culture is the lure, its valley after valley of emerald rice terraces nestled between verdant jungle slopes, quaint villages and friendly locals that are the hook.
Beyond Toraja land to the north, Sulawesi shows a different side to her character with a chain of volcano’s that stretch the full length of the northern peninsular then emerge as a long string of tropical islands jutting into the Celebres Sea. The volcanic landscape is widely variable and exceptionally fertile, characterised by densely forested mountains, montane forests, lush river valleys, ancient crater lakes and tropical lowlands. Even non-trekkers will be tempted to climb at least one volcanic peak.
The far north is the home of the Minahasan’s, who’s Austroneasian ancestors first came from the Philippines 5,000 years ago. Ancient stone megaliths further south in Lore Lindu National Park point to an even earlier habitation by an unknown race of people.
For bird watchers and wildlife enthusiasts, North Sulawesi is the mother load. Amidst the mixed habitats an amazingly diverse range of wildlife, including many rare and endemic bird and fauna species have flourished. Among them, the intriguing Giant allo, the Maleo fowl, Tonkean macaque, North Sulawesi babirusa, Mountain anoa and the wide-eyed Pygmy tarsier just to name a few.
Sulawesi’s marine environment is as rich and varied as its terrestrial counterparts. The island’s clear, warm equatorial waters and sheltered lagoons among the offshore archipelago islands provide a perfect habitat for coral gardens, sea grass beds, fish and larger species such as dugong, dolphin, turtles, rays and whales. By contrast, an amazing array of weird and wonderful critters found in the murky waters of the Lembeh Strait off the northeast coast of North Sulawesi, draw muck diving enthusiast from all over the world. You can find your own piece of tropical island paradise among the palm fringed sandy beaches of the Wakatobi’s, Togian Islands, Bunaken-Manado Tua Islands or the remote Banggai Islands, just to name a few.
Put simply, Sulawesi has it all. Your first challenge will be deciding what to see in the time you have; your second will be dragging yourself away.