Balabalagan: Touring Uninhabited Islands of Sulawesi

In October 2016, Sardhy Binsal had put out an open invitation for travelers to come and hang their hammocks on the uninhabited islands of Balabalagan. The chance attracted five foreign nationals – from France, Croatia, Canada, Switzerland, and Italy – and some local diving aficionados; the boat, for this first-time expedition, filled quickly – to the wooden trim.

The simple islands are suitably called only ‘islands’, or Balabalagan, in the language of Mandar. A scattered archipelago once torn in between Borneo and Sulawesi, the regency was made part of Sulawesi only ten years ago. Local officials have been promising to develop the regency ever since – and there are even rumors South Korea wants to blemish it with a casino. Perhaps due to corruption of funds, these balabalangan remain mostly unchanged and uninhabited – but is that such a good thing?

Departing Mamuju, after four and a half hours cutting waves on a speed boat we crawled ashore on the bright, bright island of Arbo; children came out to meet us, leading us down the white sand streets between their bright colored homes, up on stilts. At an intersection of straits and currents, people here will surprise you with their brown hair and eyes, deep-set dimples, light skin, curls; some of them are descended from the Dayak tribes of neighboring Borneo, while others – it is hard to say!


Sambil makan siang (pulau Arbo, Balabalagan).

In what must have seemed a very foreign impulse, we then piled back in our boat and left them in favor of an uninhabited island.

There was a party of Bugis fishermen inhabiting the island of Pattilagaan, however, having come all the way from Makassar. In a clutter of mangrove roots and sand we strung our hammocks up in the rain and set in on cooking some nasi goreng. Our cluttered shelter was back-to-back with the Bugis men’s – these kind seafarers and nomads of Indonesia, who gave us coffee with sugar and took a smoke break while listening to the only French saxophonist the island is likely to host.


Lunch in Arbo: David (Canada) Alex (Croatia)

After a slow rise we spent the next day submerged, diving and snorkeling around the drop off. While the bule foreigners were impressed, a local diver sighed, exclaiming:

The reefs are ruined!

Never mind Korean casinos, locals suffering economic lows pose great threats to their own natural resources – fishing the modern way: with bombs and poison bius. Sardhy hopes the election of a new regent will bring some change, come February 2017. He also hopes that a few islanders are sent abroad for comparative studies to learn how to protect the environment and open up for ecotourism.

At the next landmass our Indonesian faction would stay behind with the boat. Sumanga Besar, an austere bank of white sand with a buffer of shrubs and conifers, bears a curse: Anyone who sleeps here will lose all of their vitality and cheer, they say. A direct result of this fear-mongering myth, the frilled and rolling reefs around Sumanga are neon and complete, sloping down into a wall of eerie blue; green sea turtles passed on their commute through psychedelic corals.


Handstands on Melambar: Sardhy (Memuju, Sulawesi)

Scouting out an island to camp on, we found the uninhabited half of Malamber island rimmed in shallow reefs and rough waves; our curly-haired pilot, as he calls himself, diverted us to an only less uninhabited island nearby. There, the two wives of one very large and happy fisherman met us with coffee. Together with three of their eleven children, the family lives alone here in the shade of 500 square meters of coconut palms – rimmed in white sand.

The rain was a never-ending applause as we picked out our house and base camp. Few can convince their children to stick around the islands so there were five large wooden homes raised on stilts to chose from. Sardhy said that one could be purchased for around $10,000 or less. Anyway, we took over the ghost town, and I asked, “What are some local myths?”

In West Sulawesi, everyone knows a few To Dolo – tales that have been passed down. These might involve the modern city of Waitira, hidden behind a waterfall that you can only enter with an offering of five white chickens. Or the To Pembunyi, a fabled tribe said to live in the rain forests – also the fabled ancestors of the people of West Sulawesi and originators of the local animistic variant, Moporondo.

Other tales involve tabani gnomes: noses upside down living in fear of the rain that pours into their nostrils – but taking a gleeful pleasure in tickling people…to death!

The reefs surrounded Melamber like painted eyelids – intact, rich, alien megalopolises; coconuts were ripe; we watched the last sunset like a film, walked the island late at night to see the stars and watch for turtles – then piled into the boat and went home, salt-sprayed, wind-swept, sunburned, with impressions of Balabalagan.


Melambar, see you again!


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