Thursday, December 4, 2008

Wakatobi, Sulawesi: everything but the diving - Part I

Wakatobi is a beautiful diver’s resort located in southeast Sulawesi in the Banda Sea, just a short 2.5 hour flight from Denpasar in Bali.

Wakatobi is named from the combination of letters of the names of four surrounding islands: Wangi Wangi, Kaledupa, Tomia, and Binongko = WA KA TO BI. It is pretty remote and there isn’t a lot to do if you are not a diver, unless you really dig lying in a hammock waiting for divers to get back!

I flew from Exmouth to Perth then Perth to Denpasar. I got nailed for excess luggage at both airports. Skywest, the only airline to service us here on the Ningaloo Reef, is being extremely strict about their 20kg policy and every kilo over is an additional $3; I had 37 kgs and really couldn’t have gotten it down more as the carry-on policies are also strict at a maximum 7kgs! So add another $51 to the trip. I’m a bit miffed about this policy as if you have golf clubs or surfboards or select other sporting equipment, you simply pay a flat $20 fee – as long as the weight is under 32 kgs. The counter staff told me that Skywest’s policy regarding scuba gear was that “you can hire it when you get there so you don’t need to take it with you”. I am pretty sure you can rent golf clubs most places, too, but hey, what do I know.

In Perth, flying Garuda Airlines, I was again nailed an excess baggage fee as international trips to Indonesia & Europe from Australia also have a 20kg limit. Who knew?! The check-in staff was very good and I was able to pay only the $6 rate instead of the $15/kg rate as they did class my scuba gear as “sporting equipment”. The little man in the booth where one pays said that all of the airlines are now auditing their check-in crews so if a bag is entered as over the allowable 20kgs and no fee is collected, presumably the check-in crew get into hot water with the higher ups. Chalk up another $90 – she was kind enough to knock two kilos off, though.

I don’t know why people complain about Garuda’s international flights. Mine was superb. The seats were comfortable, I had more leg room than on any Qantas flight I’ve been on over the past several years, the service was excellent, we were given a cool drink before takeoff, the meal was OK, we were on-time…a very good airline experience really.

I dealt with booking my flights, but my friend Ross (Gudge around the boards) did most everything else. From what I had to do with the set up for our trip it seemed very smooth. Crispin, Wakatobi's representative, was very attentive and helpful in responding to questions and in offering advice via emails. When I landed in Bali, two Wakatobi representatives met me as I came off the plane and escorted me through security and immigration to the luggage collection area where they snagged my bags. One of my escorts handed me a mobile phone and Crispin warmly and enthusiastically welcomed me to Bali and made sure I was getting taken of properly. I was meeting friends who had already arrived in Bali and I didn’t need the welcome staff’s help in getting a taxi so we said goodbye and they went off to meet the next arrivals.

Ross had sorted out our Bali accommodation at the Harris Hotel…not the one by the airport as originally intended, but the one further away and this one turned out to be fabulous. Our rooms were basically a four room suite with a living area, a huge bedroom, two bathrooms and a massive deck.

The main bathroom was a little “retro” and could use an update, but it was functional and there was plenty of water pressure and hot water.

Too bad we were only there overnight. They won extra points for having bright orange as their theme

and for providing a massive number of extremely comfortable pillows without even having to ask! We had a couple of cold beers then hit the hay, ready for our earlyish morning flight to Wakatobi.

The airport was a breeze – I’m sure the security check actually does do something useful, though it wasn’t apparent what that might be…at least there was no long line. We met by Crispin and his departure team on the other side of security. They tagged our bags, handed out boarding passes and then escorted us to the private lounge to wait for the flight. The lounge was comfortable with a variety of hot and cold drinks, a good selection of breakfast items and good air-conditioning to beat the humidity that was already oppressive. Handy traveler hint for the little plastic cups of water: use the pointy end of the straw to jam the straw into the container as the foil "lid" does not actually come off like you may be used to! Internet connection was available, though I couldn’t connect to the free one on my laptop. We had about an hour or so wait time, then trekked to the bus that took us to our waiting Fokker 50.

The Fokker was surprisingly comfortable and the service on board was excellent. A cool drink and cold wash cloth to start, linen table mats, prettily packaged utensils (they really should drop the packaging, though, as it isn't very eco-friendly), nice meal and a short flight. When we landed at the airstrip that services Wakatobi resort, we were met by more Wakatobi resort staff and ushered to waiting mini-vans.

The mini-vans have seen better days and are quite...ummm...rustic. Some had air-conditioning, some didn’t. All had bench seats and there were 6-8 people in each one it looked like. It was a bit of an experience, but it was fun…like a mini-adventure!

All the local kids along the way would run out to the road or wave excitedly from their yards. We did not head to the Pier for the taxi boats as it was under construction on our arrival, so we headed to a very pleasant beach area and loaded from there. We only needed to think about our hand luggage as Wakatobi staff dealt with all of the heavy bags.

The trip by boat to the resort itself only takes about 20 minutes and is on the same boats that we dive from. The airport is on a different island than the resort, so you get a picture postcard view as you slowly cruise to the Pier or mooring area (depending on the tides). We also got to cruise past the resort’s liveaboard yacht, the Pelagian.

Mary & I on the taxi boat that takes you from the moored dive boat to the shore when we arrived at the resort.

Once everyone was ashore, we all gathered in the dining hall. The dining hall staff is excellent – very friendly and attentive. We started our stay with a cool mocktail followed by a yummy buffet lunch before for our resort briefing and room allocation.

Initially, I had been given the wrong room type, but Ilan was able to sort it out quickly and efficiently for me and the resort staff took care of any repacking we had to do and moving everything to the new digs – my friends moved, too, as we were meant to be together.

Accommodation at Wakatobi is bungalows and larger villas based on two person occupancy. I do love their policy of allowing you to book as a single as long as you are willing to share with another person of the same gender. I hate single supplement fees and I’m happy to roll the dice on having a roomie. I ended up with a great roomie this trip – we even shared the same last name and her daughter’s name is the same as mine, right down to the spelling! How freaky is that?

I had a beachfront bungalow (#22)at the very end of the resort on the breezy side. It was perfect. We had a daybed on the deck, two lounge chairs overlooking the ocean right on the beach plus a hammock. I spent a bit of time between activities snoozing on that daybed with the perfect breeze rolling off the sea.

Ross & Mary's bungalow was a garden unit (#19, I think) and they had a superb view. They also got some of the breeze each day which, I think, is essential to help beat the humidity and heat.

I personally would not want one of the bungalows on the other side of the resort as they did not get the same breeze we did. We originally had #12 and #13, both garden units, but I had booked a beachside bungalow so we moved. #12 & #13 are very nice and secluded but it didn't seem like the breeze reached them at all and to us they did feel stuffy and a bit opressive. All of the bungalows are the same dimensions and follow similar layouts whether they are beach front or garden. Some of the garden villas have great views to the beach and also get the breeze, others are tucked back a bit in lush tropical plants that screen them from the pathways. There are larger villas on the other side of the island and they have more room and are more expensive.

There is internet connection of a sort in the rooms. I was able to connect some days and not others. It is not fast, so be prepared and try not to upload or download large files as it can jam the system for everyone. The rooms have the appropriate cable already in the rooms. Internet is also available in the long house, too.

Housekeeping does a fanstastic job and there are plenty of towels for bath and beach. I did have a travel pillow go missing and it took several trips up to the front desk to even begin getting it sorted out. In the end, they did not find the pillow and were scurrying around looking on the day of departure, even though they'd known about it for several days. It wwas never found, but Ilan assured me that he would contact Crispin in Bali to arrange a replacement for me before I made my international connection. Didn't happen.

After lunch on the first day, it was time to settle in and/or head out for the mandatory check out dive. We chose to do our check out dive from the shore on the afternoon of our arrival so we didn’t have to muck around with it on the boat the next day. They brief that you cannot take your camera on the check-out dive so that was another reason to get it out of the way early! Turns out that they do not actually enforce that on the boat, but I’m glad we did the check out dive early anyway.

The check-out dive is pretty basic: share air and clear a mask. Presumably they look for buoyancy control, too. The whole skills bit took our group of five about 10 seconds :)

It would be nice to be able to take cameras on the check out dive and I’m not exactly clear why you can’t. Seems to me it would be much more indicative of a diver’s skill and attention to do the check-out dive with the camera rig he/she would be diving for the holiday as we all know that things change once cameras are added. Not to mention that we saw some wonderful things on this dive that we didn’t see again and felt really frustrated not being able to shoot!

Wakatobi has a good set up for diving, as expected. The resort was almost at capacity during our trip, 51 of a possible 52, with only one non-diver. There were four boats assigned and groups were kept together. I was in a group of three and we had another group of 9 on our boat along with two dedicated dive guides. Our boat was Waka III.

The dive guides are committed to each group for the duration of your diving, bar one morning or afternoon when your guide has some time off and a relief guide steps in. The boat was not crowded with our 12 divers and six divers to a guide was very workable most of the time.

Each diver is given a numbered dive box and area in the dive shade houses. If you are boat diving, you simply leave your box on the dive boat from day to day. There is a nice rack onboard to hang suits and everything else gets stowed in your numbered box, under your numbered seat. Very slick. If you want to dive on the house reef, you simply slide your box into the aisle on the boat when you leave and the dive crew brings it back to the shade house for you. As long as you are listed on the boat board for the next boat dive, the dive staff will make sure you box is back on board ready and waiting for you. Don’t want to dive on the boat? Simply put an X next to your name. An excellent system all round.

I liked that they had different sized tanks available for both nitrox and air. And while I’m mentioning nitrox, dive it. If you aren’t certified in it, get certified before you go. It will greatly improve the flexibility you have on your profiles and for these sites, you’d be mad if you didn’t, imho. They have 7, 10, 12, and 15 litre tanks available; if you want the smaller ones you do need to let them know as their “standard” tanks are 12 and 15 (labeled “BIG”!) and I did have to wait a few times to get the smaller tanks. Our group of three dived 10 (me), 12 (Mary) and 15 (Ross) each dive and it worked very well as we all had enough gas and no one had to drag a too big tank around. Big tanks probably annoy me more than other people, but I don’t need the extra volume and the larger sizes simply hurt my back after a while.

Tanks are stacked in a dedicated tank area and there are two nitrox analyzing stations. You are responsible for analyzing and tagging your tanks for the upcoming dives but the dive crew load them. On the first evening, there is a briefing that explains the system and how it works. The system seemed to work pretty smoothly most days.
Ok, no shots of the actual tanks, but this is the Nitrox testing area and the geckos love it! be continued!

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