Somewhere south-east of Sulawesi: that is where I should, or could be, right now, if this pandemic had not changed our world. Two days earlier, we would have landed in Manado on the northern tip of the squashed-spider-looking island that is Sulawesi, Indonesia. The next day we would travel across to the eastern coast to visit the Tangkoko Reserve which is the home of the rare nocturnal tarsiers (Tarsius tarsier) – smallest primates in the world and fierce little predators too. And today, the 5th, we would embark on the Ombak Putih, (the white wave) a wooden pinisi or traditional Indonesian wooden boat. The Ombak Putih is one of two converted pinisis owned by Seatrek-Bali that ply the lesser known spots of Indonesia.
This would have been our third trip on the Ombak Putih. We so enjoyed our previous two 12-day ‘cruises’ with them that we decided we would book for this one: a 14-day trip along the eastern coast of Sulawesi, to end at the western point of Flores Island to see the famous Komoda dragons. And being bird-watchers, one of the big attractions was the possibility of seeing the endangered Maleo birds (Macrocephalon maleo). These are strange creatures indeed – looking like a cross between a wild turkey and a gallinule. Stranger still, they lay an egg five times the size of a domestic chicken and the egg is laid deep in specially chosen sand where volcanic or thermal warmth will incubate the eggs. From then on, the egg and the emerging chick is on its own in the world.
That is not all, each day the Ombak Putih planned to cruise to take us to remote islands and coral reefs, to visit tiny fishing villages: to swim with stingless jellyfish in Lake Mariona, to visit the remote Bokan Islands, to meet Bajau ‘sea gypsy’ communities and to visit the Wakatobi National Park. But this is not to be. Across the world travel plans are in disarray and those people who took a chance and went on cruise liners – often with close on 3,000 people on board – have ended up in a dangerous hiatus and at a greater risk of infection.
On reflection, I have been thinking of the way in which cruise and wildlife tourism has expanded with the demand to see wild places and rare, endangered animals. Now that we are confined to quarters, we are hearing that nature is enjoying the reduced disturbance. Think of all the cruise ships previously going to the Antarctic; the inside passage of Alaska; remote Pacific Islands; the Galapagos Islands etc. I fear it is but a brief hiatus before we take off again.
For us, the cruise was scuppered partly by the Indonesian Government announcing that they now required a visa for Australians and a current health certificate to enter their country. At the same time, our government changed their travel advice for Indonesia to ‘reconsider your need to travel’. We also had the consideration: if we did go, we could be stranded in some remote city. So, it was not to be.
And yet, I know how lucky we have been. As a child I lived in remote places while they were ‘unspoilt’; as an adult I have been to some of the most precious wild places in the world. This would have been our third trip on the wonderful Ombak Putih. Previously with them we swam over the relatively unspoilt coral meadows of the Raja Ampat triangle; hid in hides to see birds of paradise; followed the Alfred Wallace science trail from Ternate Island; landed on deserted volcanic islands swarming in sea birds and visited the distant spice islands of Run and Banda Neira.
So, instead today I watched YouTube videos of active maleo birds, scratching in grey volcanic beach sand, uttering their strange cries, chasing one another and I thought how they looked more like half-dinosaurs. I enjoyed myself. Long may the maleo live undisturbed in remote Sulawesi. I may never get to see them, but I am content.