When you look at a map of Sulawesi it looks really odd, like someone who has been run over by a steamroller. Sulawesi is one of the four Greater Sunda Islands. It is also the world’s eleventh-largest island, and is situated east of Borneo.
Sulawesi has a population of 19 million and the largest city is Makassar in South Sulawesi. The second largest city is Manado in North Sulawesi with a population of just over one million.
The central part of the island is ruggedly mountainous, such that the island’s peninsulas have traditionally been remote from each other.
You will find several volcanoes in Sulawesi, but the island is part of Wallacea, which means that it once formed a land bridge with both New Guinea and Australia. Interestingly, it is believed that sailors from Sulawesi may have populated the island of Madagascar, which is part of Africa.
Sulawesi’s tough terrain, massive size and great marine traditions, have combined to cause a wildly divergent set of peoples and cultures, speaking eight major languages and professing Muslim, Christian, Hindu and animist beliefs.
Getting to and around Sulawesi
The two main airports are in Makassar and Manado, which serve both international and domestic ports, but given the size of the island there are many regional airports as flying is one of the easiest ways to get around.
The Trans-Sulawesi Highway stretches about 2,000 km from Makassar to Manado. Despite the grandiose name, the road is narrow and twisty and can be dangerous for drivers who are unfamiliar with the territory.
There are plenty of local ferries, and when crossing the three gulfs, taking a boat can often be the most efficient way to travel. There are some speed boat services in various areas, which make the journeys quite rapidly.
The four provinces
Southern Sulawesi is home to the large coastal city of Makassar, which is also one of the main ports. Formerly called Ujung Pandang. This was the traditional capital of the Bugis kingdom who were known throughout the region as proud, fierce warriors and pirates and highly skilled mariners. Makassar is home to Trans Studio the world’s largest indoor theme park, and the city is also known for its fantastic cuisine.
Most of the province of Southeast Sulawesi is mountainous. The provincial capital Kendari is in the east on the coast of Kendari Bay (part of the Banda Sea), and is also the largest city of the province with a population of about 300,000. The only other independent city is Bau-Bau on the island of Buton.
Central Sulawesi has the small city of Palu as its capital, which was, unfortunately hit by a massive earthquake in 2018 which destroyed much of its infrastructure. Close to Paul is Lore Lindu National Park which provides habitat to numerous rare species, including 77 bird species endemic to Sulawesi. The national park is designated as part of the UNESCO World Network of Biosphere Reserves. In addition to its rich wildlife, the park also contains megaliths dating from before 1300 AD.
Much of Northern Sulawesi is a solidly Protestant Christian enclave in mostly Muslim-majority Indonesia. A centre of Dutch settlement in colonial times, the region still retains many traces of Western influence. The capital of the province, Manado, is the cultural centre of the Minahasa people, for a long time Manado prospered through trade with the nearby Philippines and the spice trade with the rest of the world.
Things to do
Visiting Tana Toraja when in Sulawesi is a must. Tana Toraja is in the highlands of Sulawesi. The region is famous for its elaborate funeral rituals and burial grounds. There are funeral sites where the dead are embalmed in living trees, cliff face burial grounds and you can even find mummified dead bodies in everyday houses. The other thing that Tana Toraja is famous for are the Tongkonan houses and the delicious highland coffee.
Bunaken National Marine Park
Bunaken is one of Indonesia’s most famous diving and snorkelling areas. The park is famed for the clarity of its water (35m visibility is common), the abundance of coral and fish, and for the precipitous “walls” at some sites. Bunaken Timur, right off the east coast of the island and featuring all of the above, is rated by many as the single best dive site in all Indonesia.
Tangkoko National Park
The Tangkoko National Park is on the north eastern tip of Sulawesi. It’s a beautiful place to get away from it all and isolated enough that there aren’t too many visitors. The park is famous for Tarsiers, one of the smallest mammals in the world, which look a bit like gremlins. You can also find Black Macaques here.
World’s fastest yacht race in Mamuju
The traditional Sandeq wooden boats that sail at speeds 15-29 knots without any electrical engine. They are renowned as the fastest yachts in the world. The ancestors of the Mandar tribes were regarded as the strongest and the oldest sailor tribes in Austronesian archipelago. The Sandeq Race Festival is held annually in August-September in Mamuju to celebrate the sailing exploits of their ancestors.