The Spermonde Archipelago comprises of some 117 scattered coral islands stretching along the Makassar Strait from Takalar in the south to Pangkep in the north. The biggest cluster lies directly off Makassar, presenting a world of island hopping, snorkelling and diving opportunities within a half hour boat ride from the city.
The islands of the archipelago are small; most are more accurately described as islets or coral atolls. Less than half are inhabited and of these most only support a few families living in bamboo and timber huts or semi-permanent fishing villages. Skilled boat builders and fishermen, they eke out a subsistence living fishing and harvesting from the ocean around them, trading with mainlanders for whatever else they need. Lack of fresh water is their biggest issue as few of the islands have any reliable, permanent sources. They’ve learnt to be exceptionally frugal with this precious commodity, but it’s still been a natural impediment to population growth among the island communities.
The Spermonde islanders are probably best known for their centuries old tradition of trapang (sea cucumbers) fishing; free diving up to depths of up to 40m to collect the trapang from the sea floor. They are known to have made sea journeys of thousands of kilometres in small, wooden prau’s in search of this delicacy. Trapanger’s from around Makassar were regular visitors to the north Australian coast long before the Dutch discovered the west coast of the continent in the 17th century.
Unfortunately, the widespread uptake of destructive fishing practises such as dynamite and cyanide fishing by the islanders from the late-1900’s, and a lucrative market in ornamental shell and coral species, has decimated marine ecologies around the archipelago. Damaged coral reefs and low fish stocks are now more the norm than the exception. Nevertheless, there are still some worthwhile coral gardens for snorkellers and divers to enjoy, and with an abundance of white sandy beaches lapped by clear warm water and tiny tropical islands, it’s worth taking the time to visit one or more of these easily accessible islands.
The closest islands to Makassar are Kayangan, Lae-Lae and Gusuing which all lie within 1.5km of the mainland. Popular Kayangan is a small sand island with over water restaurants, basic tourist facilities, a small resort and guesthouse. Lae-Lae and Gusuing are located almost directly across opposite Fort Rotterdam, both have been extended to provide protection to Makassar’s port and they’re both quite densely populated. Whilst neither island is particularly appealing for tourists, many of the locals operate the small boats that you can charter to visit the other nearby islands.
Tiny Samalona Island lies a further 4km further out to sea. It’s so small you can walk around the entire island in about 15 min. The sheltered waters around the island are perfect for snorkelling although the coral is degraded; the best of it is of the northern tip of the island. Snorkelling gear is available for hire from a small shop on the island and you can also buy a simple but delicious meal made by one of the local villagers.
Homestay accommodation with a local family is available on the island but don’t expect anything fancy. Your bed will be a mat spread across wooden boards and a bed sheet, there’s no electricity or running water, squatter style toilets and you may or may not get a mosquito net. You will get excellent food and charming local hospitality which far out ways the discomfort.
Other interesting islands include Kodingareng Keke, a long thin island with pure white sand and clear water. There’s a jetty, a few trees and not much else but you could well have this sandy islet to yourself for a picnic or overnight camp.
Barang Caddi Island just to the north is so densely populated residents have begun building in the shallows adjacent to the island. They build their stilted homes on foundations made of coral ruble scrounged from the reef. The neighbouring island of Barang Lompo is slightly bigger but suffering from the same land shortage. Beside fishermen, there are some talented silversmiths living on the island.
Badi Island is home fishing community of around 400 families. Its beaches are nice but not great and the surrounding coral reefs are badly damaged, although since 2007 the islanders have been involved in rehabilitation efforts and its starting to show results. The coral is starting to grow again and fish numbers and species are returning. In the meantime, what draws visitors to the island is the quaint village atmosphere and friendly locals who don’t mind curious tourists at all.
Kapoposang Island sits on the outer edge of the Spermonde Islands, about a 2 hour speed boat ride from Makassar. It’s one of the bigger and prettiest of the archipelago islands with long white sandy beaches fringed with tropical forest, friendly villagers and a laid back island vibe. Happily, the reef around island has survived the damage seen elsewhere in the archipelago so the snorkelling here is much better. There’s a low key, bungalow style resort on the island offering dive tours to twelve sites along Kapoposang’s 200m deep drop-offs. During the months of September and October, whale sharks pass by the island on their annual migration north, providing a rare opportunity to swim with these majestic giants. From December to April, the island is visited by creatures of a different kind; Hawksbill turtles who come ashore most nights to lay their eggs along the sandy shores.
With the exception of Kapoposang, all of these islands can be easily accessed by chartering a small boat from Losari Beach, just across the road from Fort Rotterdam. The boatmen will probably hail you before your feet hit the footpath but in the unlikely event they don’t, wonder back up the beach towards the warungs where the small boats tie up. Expect to pay around 500.000Rp for a daytrip around the islands. The boats carry up to 10 people so if you wait around awhile you can probably find other travellers to share the cost. Remember, if you’re planning to stay overnight on Samalona or Kodingareng Keke, you’ll need to arrange for you boatman to come back for you the following morning. Of course, you’ll have to pay for the second trip as the boatman is required to make two return crossings but you should be able to negotiate a better rate.
Kapoposang can be reached by speed boat from Makassar (2 hours) or wooden slow boat (5 hours). Given the time and distance to reach the island, you should plan on spending at least one night there. Ring ahead to make sure there’s room for you and the resort will be able to help you arrange the necessary transfers.