Nudibranchs, They Make Me Happy….Manado, Suluwesi, Indo. (Oct. 29th – Nov. 5th)

After a couple of hours hanging around the airport, the sun began to set as we boarded the plane for Manado, Suluwesi. Finally out of the jungle…now ready for some reef! The plane landed, and as always…we entered into ‘find hotel mode‘. Not knowing anything about the area, we hit up the trusty ‘Lonely Planet-South East Asia’ and randomly picked out a hotel, just to give the taxi driver something to go by. Off we went…giant souvenir box and all!

When we arrived to Rex (the hotel we selected) there was no vacancy, but fortunately another budget hotel down the street had a room just for us. We checked in, then began a search for an internet café in the downtown area….just minutes (by public transport) from our hotel.

Manado was much more classy then Makassar, Suluwesi. Even the Mikrolets, Bemos, mini-buses…whatever you want to call them, were more upscale (each air-conned, under lit with black-lighting and bangin’ with some ear-catchin’ bass). Makassar was too industrial for our liking, but here in the north of this huge orchid shaped island, the chill factor increased along with the per capita income as far as I could tell. We found our internet café and began making plans for tomorrows activities from searching websites (that’s how we do it!).

We knew Manado offered great diving….but where do we go, and how? We noticed a large World renown National Marine Reserve (Bunaken) to the north, but what tickled our fancy was an area known as Lembeh Strait. There, not only were the sites accessible by shore (even though that only appeals to Michelle and I, the Do-It-Yourselfers), they featured incredible muck diving opportunities! If you don’t know muck diving…you’re not nearly as experienced as I in the underwater world (just playin‘…I didn’t know the term either). Muck diving is the searching of small critters, like nudibranchs, frogfish, and cuttlefish, normally in the not so mainstream of locations. Well, tomorrow we decided to hit up one of the most premiere muck diving areas on the Planet. After a bite to eat at ’Dolphin Café’, we returned home (hotels are our home) excited for tomorrow’s adventure.

Early the next morning we woke up and flagged down a taxi. We began our hour and a half long drive east, allowing time for a cloudy day to turn bright and beautiful. When we arrived, the plan was to search the small city of Bitung for a dive shop, and if none emerged, to high tail it to a resort and rent gear from them. As we drove through…we saw no rental place to speak of, so off we went to Kungkungan Bay Resort.

Unfortunately, the all inclusive establishment had no available equipment to rent out to us, so we decided to try our luck down the road at Kassowary Resort. Our taxi driver wanted a ridiculous amount more money for the additional 2Ks remaining, and with the arrogant manner he went about it, I didn’t even feel like bargaining with him. Michelle and I became determined to do it our own way, and he thought we were nuts…but hey, the feeling was mutual…we didn’t need him. We began to ascend the mountainous coastline by foot…at a fast, steady pace since we were so excited to get into the water (Ya, that taxi would have been a good idea, let me explain).

A motorbike came by, and we flagged it down. The plan was to let Michelle hitch the first ride to the resort, then I’d meet her there when another ride comes by. Well, off she went, and there I was ascending the steep roads as quickly as I could. Finally, after about 30 minutes of sweating under the heat in paradise, my opportunity came in the form of another motorbike. I wasn’t going to let this guy pass, and he was nice enough to give me a ride. ’Kassowari’ I said…and with a nod in response I figured he knew where he was going…I mean how many resorts are named Kassowari? A good 10 minute drive found me getting off the bike at the end of the road. He pointed into the jungle, at a little trail, and said ’Kassowari’. I was confident he new the area better than I, so off I jogged.

It was so hot, I wanted nothing more then to gear up and submerge, but now I found myself jogging up more hills on a skinny, rocky trail overlooking hill after hill of palm trees (It was really beautiful). I passed some little dwellings (houses would be putting it too nicely), and about three times I asked for directions to Kassowari. Everybody kept pointing me in the same direction down the trail, so even though it felt wrong (the distance was too great), I trusted them more than my instinct. Eventually, 30 minutes later, I found myself at the little town of…..guess what….Kassowari! AHHHH!! How stupid is this, Kassowari Resort is in the town I had jogged from, and here I was, in Kassowari town. I know this from talking to the Canadian owner of a brand new resort called Black Sand’s here in Kassowari. I was a bit frustrated, and listening to the man talking about how his plants were having a hard time to grow in the dry season didn’t help much. I asked him which was the fastest way back, and he said it was from the way in which I came. He also mentioned some people have rented ojeks for the route (motorbikes), but he said when you do it once, you’ll never do it again. I figured with the day slowly wasting away (it was now around 1 o’clock), I was willing to risk it….plus, I’ll never have the chance to do it again, let alone not want too.

I found a guy napping under a tree and woke him up to bargain with him a price. We agreed at something around five dollars (in Rupiah of course), then off we went. Yup…it was worse then I expected. What was easy to do on foot, was rough to do on the bike. Not only that, but this guy was definitely trying to make good time. The rocks were slick, and a couple times we wiped out softly to the rubble. I was always ready to jump off, so I felt I was never in too much jeopardy. Several times however, I had to jog ahead just so the bike could get through…it certainly wasn’t easy. Saving about fifteen minutes by returning via motorbike, a short 3 minute ride from the start of the road dropped me off finally at Kassowari Resort. Halleluiah!!!

Michelle was up stairs talking to the ’owner’ (really the manager which we joked about being the owner), and had already sorted out dive gear, waiting on me to arrive. Perfect (expect for the fact I was really late). I apologized to her for holding us up, but she was in a good mood and thought the whole situation was funny….I was sweating so bad, she could tell I worked hard to get there as fast as I could. We tried to rent a kayak from the resort as well, but when that didn’t work out, a small fishing boat was just about to leave. We asked for a ride, and for a small chunk of change he came through. Michelle and I (with the help of the resort staff) loaded our gear into the boat, and went out around the corner. We got dropped off at our own little beach, planning to walk our gear back after our two dives were complete (Yes…that was my idea and it was as stupid as it sounds).

A few breathes were needed to admire how beautiful our surroundings were…completely isolated by palm trees on three sides, and a bright blue ocean to our front (with a huge palm tree island in the nearby distance). From our own little strip of sand, we slipped on our equipment and faded into the sea.

At first, not much was visible, but then little things started to emerge. A nudibranch here, then one there….along with a cool crab so adapted it looked just like the soft coral it was on. We took a little break in between dives (you have to or you will explode!!), and I found a coconut and husked it open. We drank its juice and ate its meat, reminding me of the good times living on the beach for a month in Palau!

At the beginning of the second dive…just after spotting a new ’Nudi’ species, I realized my camera wasn’t working (perhaps dropping it in the sand wasn’t the smoothest of moves). I signaled to Michelle how I planned to surface while she perhaps could remain below marking the spot of our new find! I went up the 30 feet or so (slowly of course), then realized it was too risky to open up the camera there in the middle of the ocean. I was afraid of waves splashing in or the camera falling out. I decided to swim to shore, fix the camera, and hustle back out there. I did just that.

When I returned to sea however, I noticed Michelle was surfaced as well. Apparently, the seven minutes or so that passed by had Michelle freaking out down there alone. See, the sound of a boat had passed nearby, and with me not being in sight any longer, she was worried I might have been split into pieces by a passing propeller (in South East Asia you really have to watch your back for boats overhead when your about to surface). She though she marked the nudibranch’s locations, but we never found them again. Oh well, there were more to find…and the Camera was working!!! I can’t blame her for being worried about me, I would have probably done the exact same thing if the roles we reversed.

Eventually, we ended up diving in an area known as ’Nudi Retreat’!! Yes, there were nudibranchs…but sadly, there were other divers as well (that paid a lot more than us, Ha). Nonetheless, the wall was covered in beautiful coral structures and bright colored sponges. Some new species of sea slugs (for us) were photographed…Yahoo!

When our tanks ran dry, we snorkeled back to our private tiny beach. We rested for a moment, then proceeded up the steep slippery hill heading back towards Kassowari (The resort of course…I didn’t want you to confuse it with the town…I mean what idiot would do that?). Michelle had her BCD on with the tank, and in her arms she held all the fins, masks and snorkels. I also had my BCD on with the tank, and two more tanks were respectively in each one of my hands. The first slope was rather easy, but after that the lactic acid built up and I began realizing how much more difficult this was going to be. I mean we were probably a mile or two away, not exactly sure of the direction, and it was nothing but up and down on unmanaged trails. I had to stop every once in a while to give my arms a break, and eventually (probably half way) decided to leave a tank and come back for it later. I hid it in the bushes, and we carried on.

I felt sorry for Michelle the whole way for complying to such a ridiculous idea, but regardless, we pushed through and eventually the tiny trail met up with a larger path. About two hundred meters from here was the beginning (or end) of the village. I dropped off all the gear from my sore back, and returned empty handed for the tank I had hid. Michelle proceeded down the hill, and the plan was to meet me at the paved road below. The day was almost gone, and night had nearly taken complete hold when I finally emerged from the jungle. There was just enough light to see the people’s faces in the crowd that Michelle had acquired. Everyone thought we were nuts (that definitely transcended the language barrier), but they were enthused to help us regardless. When we finally made it back, we tipped everyone a couple Rupiah, but for the father and daughter team that helped us out the most, we invited them up for a drink at the resort’s bar. They were extremely nice, and it was fun to relax with a drink (we were the only people there) after a day of exciting dives.

We chatted as best we could and after one beer, our friend (Captain Charles…the father of about 40 years old) was already feeling it. In Indonesian culture it’s not taboo to be touchy between guys, and I mean that in a straight way. Still, for me, it was a little unusual. He wanted to hold my hand while walking around…and although I wanted to be friendly, it was a little weird so I tried to avoid it. They invited us to see a monkey, so we decided maybe to check it out tomorrow. We bid farewell, then decided to find a hotel back in Bintung.

The manager of the resort was on our side, and understood how we couldn’t afford their ridiculous price. The security gave us rides by motorbike, and we followed the manager who was picked up by her boyfriend heading back to town. We went to a tiny hotel she recommended and rented out a room. Afterwards, we followed them to a nice place to eat where we parted ways. Through out our journey we’ve had several occurrences where people go out of their way to lend us a helping hand. This was another example…she was extremely gracious. We are extremely grateful to have met so many beautiful people along the way.

For dinner I had fresh fish grilled on the BBQ while Michelle dined on some vegetables. The market type atmosphere was lively and festive, and there was a lot to take in. The people of Suluwesi apparently eat Ticous (jungle rat), but we were unlucky (or lucky) since we didn’t succeed in our attempt to taste it. We couldn’t find it for sale anywhere…most likely even the wild rats are going extinct here in South East Asia. After our quiet dinner in a hectic place, we returned back by motorbike taxi and went to sleep recharging ourselves and our camera batteries for more exciting diving days manana (I don’t have a tilde button, sorry!).

Bright and early, we hopped out of bed and walked over to the central area of the town. We purchased some rice dishes that we planned to snack on for a picnic lunch. We also bought some cookies for our buddies back at the resort. We grabbed a cab and drove to Kassowari. The plan today was a little different. We rented the same dive gear, but this time had the taxi driver bring us back towards town a bit and drop us off on a beach where we could access on our own, a dive site named ‘Nudi Falls’. We suited up, and although there were a bunch of raggedy boats docked along the shore, below the surface was a completely different world. The vertical wall was flooded with life. The nudibranchs were thicker than expected…and I was expecting thick! In addition, the highlights included two ribbon eels, one was electric blue! We saw several lobsters, a couple blue-spotted rays, and a handful of the bright green, crazy mantis shrimp that were constantly inquisitive. Between dives we enjoyed lunch, and our leftovers fed a skinny dog and a family of chickens. Michelle had fun chasing the chickens, something I ended up getting yelled at for after the dives by the locals. It was entertaining!

After two beautiful dives, we dried off then carried all the gear to the roadway….something that was easier than yesterday’s haul, but not a walk in the park. It was probably a good 300 meters. We waited for a taxi/mini-bus to come by, and this lasted a little longer than expected. About an hour later (now dark), we caught our ride and rode by Bemo (mini-bus) back to the resort. Wow, how much fun can you have…what a day, what a week, what a year, what a life!

We dropped off our rental stuff, then decided to take up Captain Charles and his daughter’s offer and see the monkey. I was expecting it to be a Tarsier…the world’s smallest primate, so I figured it would be neat to see (plus Shane P. and Ruthless got to see some in the Philippines that I missed the boat for, literally). Off we went down the dark road while a cab was scheduled to come pick us up in a few minutes. The entire town had no electricity (power outage), so most places were pitch black. As we walked through the town, we asked locals where Captain Charles was, but even saying the name without the native accent made things difficult. Finally, about ten minutes later after waiting in a strangers house, Charles and his daughter came in and we proceeded with a huge group of probably thirty people to find this monkey. Haha, it was kind of funny, cause it felt like the whole town was following behind us. Captain Charles held my hand too for a little bit of the way…giving Michelle plenty of time to make fun of me and take pictures. I wanted to be liberal and support their customs…plus, I’m secure in my sexuality (I think)…(The I think part is a joke), and I didn’t want to offend him in any way by not accepting the kind gesture. Changing the subject, we finally found the monkey…and it was tied to a tree. It was a type of macaque, black in color, and it wasn’t anything near what I expected. Nonetheless, the whole hunt for the monkey was an interesting scenario that Michelle and I will cherish for some time to come. Fortunately, the cab came and found us, honking its horn a couple of times to get our attention. It was a perfect excuse to leave, so we sadly said bye to our new friends, then piled inside for the long ride home (well….Manado).

Dozing on and off, we pulled up to the mall where Michelle and I were feeling a little hungry. We ended up having some salad, then taxied back to our hotel. We re-rented a room and called it a night.

The following day we rushed around town completing errands. We found a flight leaving early the next morning, and bought two, one-way tickets back to Bali (only for transfer). In addition, we scoured the entire city in search of a Bank Negara…since it seemed to be the only bank doing cash advances on my credit card. Later in the day we used the internet for a bit, and all-in-all, we accomplished lots of chores. Now, more than ever, we were ready for a land adventure……where else can you explore more than, you guessed it…..BORNEO!!!

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