Published in Now! Jakarta, June 2010

Biak Island

I have always wanted to visit West Papua, which is renowned, for its extra-ordinary dive sites (Raja Empat the most famous) and its rich local culture.
Last month I was invited by Bali-based sculptor Pintor Sirait to be on a team of tourism and design experts researching Biak, the region’s capitol, and surrounding islands.
My flight from Bali went via Makassar (formerly Ujung Pandang) with an eleven hour layover: I treated myself to an afternoon in the delightful Aryaduta hotel and a few excursions to see some of the cultural delights of this ancient port.
I went first to the Fort Rotterdam shell shop — the only shell shop in the world inside a 17th century Dutch fort — to buy a few curtains for my coming stage adaptation of the video “Cowboys in the Pandanus”.
Some  local characters were playing chess on the old Armoury’s  terrace and five local ‘guides’ offered to show me the fort museum but despite this enthusiasm it was an unrewarding detour — it’s just a rather stodgy old Dutch fort with limited architectural merit.

The western gate of the fortress township of Somba Opu, outside Makassar.

More exciting, however was Fort (Benteng) Somba Opu an half hours drive away with its ‘intra-muros’ section now filled with a museum of Sulawesi traditional stilt-houses. The highlight of these was the intricately carved Toraja  compound.
Down the road in the outdoor museum’s main square, a band of Indonesian silat students in black loose pyjamas were practising.
There were zero tourists in sight and one sensed there had not been for months.

•    •    •

Why did the Sultan of Gowa build such a large fort here in the 16th century?? My guide Amri, a local Bugis student, explained how a major river was just 500 metres away and the coast just a kilometre or so down stream. It suddenly made sense: seafaring Bugis of yore were legendary traders who spread the Malay trading language as far afield at Madagascar, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Cambodia and even Darwin — Somba Opu was once one of their main entrepôts.

Toraja houses in the Somba Opu architectural museum.

A young pencak silat student practises his martial arts inside Somba Opu.

Outside the handsome ‘roman brick’ fort walls — (almost identical in materials and design to the walls of the old fortress town of Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand) — is an idyllic rural village with rows of colourful Bugis homes.
The Toraja exhibition, inside the fort was good, but the real architecture museum is outside the fort — by the grace of God the local Buginese still love their gorgeous, climate-appropriate, traditional architecture and communal lifestyle.

Painting of phinisi trading vessels on the Makassar Coast.

•    •    •

Late the same night Pintor and I sped to the ghastly new Makassar airport — the architects should be shot (it is so user unfriendly) — with a Balinese driver who explained how he was born in a Balinese village in Sulawesi 600 miles north of Makassar which is already 10,000 Balinese strong!!
Watch these pages for a story on that in the future!
Driving back to the hotel we passed Makassar’s legendary port where traditional phinisi boats are still in service — ‘feeding’ goods to Eastern Indonesia.
Adjacent the port and fronting the main road is a string of girlie bars — X-Box, Madonna, Amore — that may easily lay claim to being the oldest row of such establishments in the seaport; world on a parr  with, say, Quandong (Canton), Kochin and Alexandria (bigger girls there). Surely some serious historical research needs to be done on this subject.

•    •    •

Owi Island off Biak Island.

The Garuda Red-Eye Special arrived in Biak at five a.m.. On arrival we were swept into a V.I.P. lounge decorated with plastic flowers and woven anti-Makassars in the Imelda Marcos style so popular amongst the Indonesian elite.
We then walked down the road to the charming new Aerowisata airport hotel — built by the Dutch in the early 1960s when Irian was still a Dutch colony. It is a low-eaved rambling ‘Queenslander-style’ affair with a killer karaoke lounge, and pretty gardens by Pak Dwi the engaging G.M. The pool overlooks a stunning bay dotted with islands.

Traditional Biak area carving in the lobby of the Aerowisata hotel.

The village head’s grandsons, Pulau Owi, West Papua.

The Biak islanders are traditionally coastal-dwellers with a strong dependency on the sea: for food, transport and now marine tourism. Anywhere near the coast they break into song.
At noon our hosts take us to Owi Island to see the remains of the U.S. Air Force landing strip from where McArthur’s finest defeated the “nasty nips” (our guide’s words) who had taken the mainland.
There are various mementos from the second World War on the island: small gulches filled with rusty petrol tanks; bomb shell casings come suspended as church bells, table legs and outrigger anchors; and of course the overgrown landing strips on raised ground in the island’s interior. Old air force maps show the island — today virtually uninhabited — covered with military huts and outposts.

War memorial in the grounds of the Owi Christian church.

Typical family gathering plus dog, Owi Island.

With Pintor Sirait and Lieutenant Colonel Juhari, Commander of the Biak Area Armed Forces.

The islanders here lead a blessed existence with fish and coconuts just falling into their laps. Even their prize pigs are housed in luxury boutique pens that fringe the perfect white sand beaches. The water is blue, the villagers are impossibly mahogany-honey-coloured, and the children have blonde lipped fuzzy halos from a life spent in the sea. Inland I discovered a rare “Red Hot Poker” (a creeping pandanus) with an extraordinary daffodil-yellow flower that had been nibbled by Birds of Paradise, the state bird. All terribly exotic.
There seem to be no snakes, ants or spiders on the island: even the ubiquitous house dogs didn’t bark.
It is hard to imagine that 65 years ago this island idyll was centre stage for one of the great battles of the ‘War in the Pacific’: in fact the whole trip has been like “Thin Red Line” meets “South Pacific”.
The Indonesia government is planning a flying school on the island and a small resort for divers and relatives of the war heroes who will come to visit the planned War Memorial. Book here now!

Walking back from the Owi interior with a rare red-hot poker.

Later the same day, back in Biak, we found the best Manadonese pork stall and a beefy masseur from Blitar, and a shop selling feathered koteka (penis sheaths) for the man who has everything.
In the evening the entire Eastern Command (top brass) descended on the “Tikus Meki” Karaoke Lounge and serenaded us with Papuan love songs while morsels of freshly grilled fish were dropped into our mouths.
One Melanesian bruiser in a black leather jacket stood in front of the Spongebob poster and crooned the local favourite “Big Wave” with such finesse that pretty local dream-girls started streaming into the bar.

P.S. Air Asia is soon to fly into Biak and Jayapura: this will hopefully link the world to this delightful exotic corner.

| back |

Subscribe to the Poleng Magazine! Get your hard copy of the diary with large format photos and contributions from some of the island's more talented essay writers, cartoonists and photographers. E-mail your request, and kindly send letters or useful travel tips to:

Copyright© 2009,