Wakatobi hangs off the bottom of Sulawesi’s south eastern peninsular; a dazzling archipelago of 143 tropical islands sitting resplendently among a 1.4 million hectare marine wonderland. “Paradise on earth” is a tag so commonly applied to Wakatobi it’s almost cliché but anything less complementary would be churlish.
Wakatobi sits right in the heart of the so-called Asia-Pacific Coral Triangle. Its warm clear waters provide such a perfect habitat for coral that nearly 90% of the world’s known coral dwelling species are found within is boundaries. No less than 25 separate fringing, atoll and barrier reef systems are teaming with a stunning array of colourful corals, fish and other exotic marine creatures whllst whales, dolphins, manta-rays and turtles are equally prevalent. Over 50 dive sites provide abundant diving opportunities but with many shallow reef systems and excellent visibility, snorkelling is just as rewarding.
The islands are just as pretty; low lying sandy isles and atolls crowned with tropical jungle, mangrove forests and white sandy beaches fringed with swaying palms. Of the 143 islands, only 7 are inhabited, predominantly by ethnic Bajo sea gypsy communties who have moved among the islands for centuries. Traditionally known as the Tukang Besi Islands, the popularly adopted name Wakatobi is actually an ancronym for the four largest islands, from north to south – Wangi-wangi (WA), Kaledupa (KA), Tomia (TO) and Binongko (BI). The largest settlement, Wanci on Wangi-Wangi Island is the Wakatobi capital but it’s far from busy. Like the rest of the archipelago, it has a languid chilled out vibe that makes doing anything other that hanging out in a hammock in between snorkelling and diving trips seem downright excessive.
Having said that, it’s worth rousing yourself to check out some of the land-based attractions around the islands. Wangi-Wangi Island has a number of historical forts, relics of the Buton Kingdom which was established around the 14th century and saw off the last Sultan as recently as 1960. Fort Lya in Liya Togo Village was constructed in 1538 by an influential Islamic cleric. Much of the village is contained within the inner and outer walls, which are in varying states of repair or ruin. The village itself is quite interesting and features an old mosque, a Baruga (a raised wooden meeting house) and an ancestoral graveyard. Other notable forts are Fort Tindoi atop Tindoi hill, Mandati Tonga Fort and Kapota Fort.
For a glimpse into the fascinating culture of the Bajo sea gypsy village of Kampong Bajo Mola, tucked in between Wangi-Wangi’s western shore and adjacent Kambode Island. To the south of Wangi-Wangi, Kaledupa Island has some of the best beaches such as Sombano Beach, Peropa Beach and Puncak Jamaraka. Popular Hoga Island is just a narrow channel crossing away to the east and in terms of rustic tropical island charm, it can’t be beaten. The tiny islet of Sampela between Hago and Kaledupa is home to another Bajo sea gypsy communty living in a combination of slilted and floating houses.
Tomia Island lies around 15km south of Kaledupa. With swaying coconut palms lining its long sandy shore, Untete Beach at the Kulati Village is picture postcard perfect, but then, so is the rest of the island.
The southernmost of the main islands is Binongko Island. Like the rest of the islanders, its inhabitants are heavily dependent on fishing for their income but the the Binongko are also well regarded metal workers, specialising in a type of machete blade, called parang. It’s possible to watch the traditional blacksmith at work by visiting any of the small villages on the island.
Around the main islands, there is a good range of accommodation to suit every budget. There are several dive resorts which offer all-inclusive packages including accommodation, meals, boat transfers and diving and they all happily cater to non-divers as well. Wangi-Wangi Island has a medium size dive resort offering mid to upper range accommodation as well as a number of smaller accommodation establishments in and around Wanci. Tomia Island home to the luxury Wakatobi Dive Resort which operates private charter flights between Bali and a small airstrip on the island for guests. For a cheaper alternative, there are a couple of hotels near Waha Habour. Popular Hoga Island has several homestays and bungalow style accommodation ala Robinson Crusoe; clean but basic with cold bucket showers, a few hours of electricy each evening, no TV and no internet; just the sound of the waves lapping the sand, fresh and delicious food, friendly hosts and world class diving and snorkelling right on the islands doorstep.
Professional dive charters operate from each of the four main islands and island hopping around the archipelago using local public boats or chartering a local fishing boat is easy so the question of where to base yourself is more likely to be based on budget than anything else. For public boats between the main islands, fares range between 25.000-50.000Rp
Be aware the only ATM is located in Wanci on Wangi-Wangi Island so when travelling to the other islands be sure to take enough cash with you to pay for your accommodation, meals, boats, diving and whatever else you’ll need for the duration of your stay.
Alternatively, there is no shortage of all-inclusive liveaboard dive boats plying the Wakatobi’s. In fact, prior to the opening of the Matohara Airport (WNI) on Wangi-Wangi Island in 2009, this was the easiest means of visiting the islands and still remains an extremely popular option for those that can afford it.
Getting to the Wakatobi’s is relatively straightfoward with regular flights connecting Wangi-Wangi with Jakarta or Makassar. Alternatively, you can travel to Wangi-Wangi via Bau Bau on nearby Buton Island, which has a wider range of air services. From Bau-Bau you can fly or take the speedboat service between Pelabuhan Murhum port to Wanci which departs Bau Bau on even dates and returns on odd dates. The 3 hour journey costs around 155.000 Rp each way. We recommend finding and booking flights online with tiket.com or a reputable travel agent once you’re on the ground in Indonesia.