Published: Garuda Inflight Magazine, August 2010
I didn’t want to end up like Tom Hanks, who had to struggle to stay alive, however when I looked at Samalona, I could imagine how it must feel to be marooned on an island in the middle of the ocean.
To get to Samalona Island, I only needed to make the crossing by speedboat. The ride cost me Rp.300,000 from Makassar Wharf, which is located right in front of the five centuries old legacy of the Kingdom of Gowa, Fort Rotterdam.
The wharf didn’t look like you might expect it to however. It was more like a park than a commercial area. It was not busy with ships loading and unloading. In fact, it was bustling with people jogging, taking leisurely strolls and even swimming alongside a tanker. Hopefully these brave souls didn’t ingest any oil!
From Makassar to Samalona is only two kilometres and so the island can be reached in just 30 minutes. The calm water and the bright morning sky ensured that the short voyage was a sheer delight. From a distance Samalona looks like an uninhabited island overgrown with big trees and ringed with white sand. Viewed from above, the island looks like an insignificant green speck on the blue sea. The map shows Samalona to be a diminutive island indeed, however it is lucky in that it at least has a name. Many Indonesian islands do not yet have such an identity.
Samalona lies in the Makassar Strait in the northwestern part of South Sulawesi. This tiny island is not yet well known by tourists but is developing slowly into a popular weekend destination for the population of Makassar and its surrounding areas.
“Fire…. Fire…!” were the words uttered by Tom Hanks when he succeeded in making fire using primitive methods in the movie Cast Away, a film that tells the story of a man who was stranded on a desert island for several years. I didn’t want to end up like Tom Hanks, who had to struggle to stay alive, however when I looked at Samalona, I could imagine how it must feel to be marooned on an island in the middle of the ocean.
Three boats with outriggers were anchored at the edge of the white sand beach. The waves here were so becalmed that the waters looked more like a lake than an ocean. How lovely this island was. I jumped out of the boat and waded onto the beach. As I was walking onto the soft sand, two locals approached and offered me a place to stay overnight. Aside from fishing, tourism is a main source of income for the local people here, as there isn’t enough land or fresh water for them to farm.
Samalona does not have a wide choice of places to stay in though. Apart from villas on stilts on the seashore, the only other available options are the locals’ houses, which are rented out at certain times. The rates vary and nothing is standard, it very much depends on how good you are at haggling. Unfortunately, most of the villas were not very inviting because they are not well maintained and I learned that many visitors are reluctant to spend the night on the island.
I came on holiday expecting to see a thriving place. However, despite being located only half an hour from Makassar, the island of Samalona is apparently not that highly regarded. There were only a few visitors when I arrived and the island can apparently be quiet at any time of year.
The locals peddling villa accommodation were loitering however, hunting for tourists looking for a place to stay. In another corner, a number of people were fishing with an air of contemplation, waiting for their prey to take the bait. In addition to being known as a place to relax on, the island is apparently a favourite for those who love fishing. I had a camera with me and so I started to take pictures of things that interested me along the shoreline.
We were able to explore the short shore in a very short time. Walking leisurely and taking pictures every now and then, it took me a mere 45 minutes to walk around this 2.3 hectare island. I observed a few people snorkelling on my walk. The advantage of Samalona is that it has gently sloping beaches and shallow waters, so visitors are presented with a large shore area to enjoy. However, you’d better be careful because in some places there are sharp rocks that can hurt your feet.
Visitors who cannot swim well don’t need to worry because snorkelling equipment and life jackets can be rented from the locals for Rp.20,000 per set. However, if you are serious about snorkelling, it is better to bring your own equipment because the ones available for rent here are not exactly in a great condition.
I also recommend that you carry enough cash with you when you visit as most of the public facilities on the island are not free. Gazebos for resting can be rented for between Rp.30,000 and Rp.50,000; water for rinsing yourself and showering costs Rp.15,000 a gallon; using the bathroom costs Rp.5000 a time (not including the cost of the water) and a room costs Rp.100,000 per unit and will house three people. This is how the locals make money from visitors to the island.
At first I was surprised to see the condition of the island, which looks as if the local government has pretty much ignored the place. Some locals told me that they’d had problems getting clean water and visitors would be well advised to bring their own drinking water with them because there is only one restaurant on Samalona. Considering its charming natural beauty and its proximity to Makassar though, Samalona actually has a lot of potential to be developed as a tourist area, not only for Sulawesi but at a national level too, or perhaps even beyond that.
In the meantime, I just enjoyed what was already available—the quiet atmosphere, the beach that was relatively free from litter and the clear seawater. The island is an ideal place on which to retreat into solitude and escape from the hustle and bustle of big cities.
Samalona is also quite a good location for a pre-wedding photo shoot. A picturesque lighthouse protrudes a little way out at sea, warning ships that sail too close to the shallow waters.
The gently sloping beach on the western side of the island is full of rocks, in contrast to the eastern side, which is fully covered in sand. When exploring both sides of the island, I caught a glimpse of a clown fish with black and yellow stripes. There were also several other kinds of tropical fish swimming in and out of the reef. Unfortunately the waters were too shallow to swim in, so I could only paddle. A bit further out to sea there were many more fish. Again, I spotted some clownfish among the coral.
The lack of access to clean water, the dirty bathrooms, too many public facilities charging too much money, the limited electricity supply and the behaviour of some of the locals who pressure people into renting villas, are the main problems in Samalona that need to be addressed if this island wants to become a well-liked tourist destination. There are also boards and signs everywhere displaying prices and these are ruining the views. The only thing free here is the well water and you have to draw that yourself.
Another problem is that there is no clear information about the best snorkelling spots and the locals seemingly do not know the potential of the place that they inhabit. My boatmen couldn’t provide adequate information and the locals who rented out snorkelling gear could only say “there” and “there”. However, every time I went to the places that they pointed out, I only found damaged and dead coral.
I rested for a while under a tree and enjoyed the stillness. My mind again wandered back to the film Cast Away. I started to imagine what being stranded on an uninhabited island would feel like. Fortunately though there were people around me, and not merely a Spalding volleyball!
As it approached midday, I returned to Makassar with an empty stomach and my mind filled with images of Makassar specialities such as konro and saudara soups, pallu basa and iced green banana. I crossed the dark blue water past tankers waiting to enter the port of Makassar, which were queuing in the strait. The hustle and bustle of the city was visible. I had already left my Cast Away island and my visions of Tom Hanks behind me.