Escaping hectic Jakarta is always a good idea. I have found a hidden paradise in Tanjung Bira.
Since I’ve always been a beach-seeker, a long journey to a beach is mandatory. The Celebes, better known as Sulawesi, was my destination, the city of Makassar to be exact. I never thought about Makassar beside its delicious local dishes, grilled Konro, green Banana Ice, or Pallu Butung soup with greasy meat and coconut sprinkles.
Then I found a hidden paradise five hours’ drive from Makassar. Tanjung Bira is located in Bulukumba, where phinisi sailing boats are made. Before I arrived, I always imagined it to be a somewhat neglected area, with only a few stores open selling goods at inflated prices. My friend and I took the last flight from Jakarta and arrived after midnight.
At Sultan Hassanuddin International Airport, a car and driver picked us up and we headed to Tanjung Bira immediately. As the journey is 200 kilometres it normally takes five to six hours by car; at midnight it’s only four hours. We arrived with the sunrise welcoming us at the gateway to Tanjung Bira.
As I predicted, there was only one main street with lots of motels and bungalows. Not to forget locals selling beverages and snacks, Sulawesi cloth and local delicacies. While waiting for our boat for our snorkelling trip to a few other islands, we sipped a cup of local coffee at the coast.
Boats awaited fishermen seeking their catch offshore. Nearby, a large phinisi-like boat turned out to be a fancy restaurant with views of the coast. This would be the perfect dinner venue at sunset, since Tanjung Bira has no sunset views unless you are atop a cliff. Just imagine yourself cruising in a boat with traditional Makassar cuisine served fine-dining style. Jack Dawson and Rose Dewitt from Titanic – eat your heart out!
There are at least three good snorkelling spots worth a visit: Liukang Loe, Kambing and Bara islands. Liukang Loe takes almost 20 minutes to reach by speedboat. This is one of the largest islands and is home to around 150 families that earn a living from running hostels and small restaurants.
With all-white sandy beaches, you are tempted to sit for a while listening to the crashing waves. Not far away, sunlight on the the blue water gives it a crystal-clear appearance. You can even see yellow-black clown fish from your boat.
With greater depth, the water turns torquise. This is where you can dive to see more sea creatures or beautiful coral. From June to August, Kambing island is the best place to spot sea turtles. We were lucky enough to see them swimming under the coral during a 20-metre dive off Kambing island.
Although the waves were quite large, you get tanned even after a short swim or just lying down under the sun. The captain of our boat took us to Bara island, where we were going to spend the night. Bara is known as an “extension” of Tanjung Bira and has a completely different, more exclusive “hidden paradise” ambience compared with Tanjung Bira.
At Bara the coral can be seen at the surface, where it has been eroded. It is also possible to walk from Bara to Tanjung Bira along a kind of causeway with rocks and caves along it.
The tourist bungalows and hotels perched on Bara’s hills are reminiscent of the iconic blue and white buildings at Santorini island, Greece. They are ideal for a honeymoon or quiet getaway. The wooden gate and red brick walls at the lobby to Mango Lodge bring to mind the movie Vicky Christina Barcelona or Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. Just relax and allow yourself to be pampered with food, massages and quality time spent with your loved ones. Bara island boasts the only nightlife at Tanjung Bira, with its bar full of music and locals. It may not be the classiest venue but what the hell!
Time will stand still while you’re at Bara after all those bottles of ice-cold beer, massages, seafood and sunbathing. Eventually you have to return to reality.
Before returning to Makassar, we took a trip to Bulukumba where the phinisi sailing boats are built. The most pressing question is: how were these vessels constructed without nails before hi-tech boatbuilding techniques were known about? The phinisi dates back to the 14th century when legend has it that a sailing boat broke up into three pieces that ended up at Ara, Tana Lemo and Tanjung Bira.
When the pieces were reunited, the seven-sail boat became famous for its durability, and it still plies the route between Makassar and Tanjung Priok, Jakarta, carrying cargo. Most phinisi today are used as cruise ships, with buyers and cruisers coming from as far afield as Europe and the US.
The perfect souvenir of Tanjung Bira, perhaps?
Text and photos by Gayatri Nadya