We recently visited Bira, Sinjai and Malino in the southeast of South Sulawesi, traveling through some beautiful country and meeting young leaders from three local governments.
Getting to these lovely places took some time though. We left Makassar just after lunch and after a five hour drive arrived in Bira shortly after sunset. The first part of the journey was along a bumpy crowded road through the regencies of Takalar and Jeneponto, two of the poorest regencies in South Sulawesi. Both are dry and not as fertile as other parts of the province and the local economies rely heavily on small-scale salt production and seaweed farming. Jeneponto though, is increasingly rich in electricity, boasting a coal-fired power station and Indonesia’s second commercial-scale wind-power plant (20 wind towers producing up to 72Mw – see my blog no. 40 https://makassar.consulate.gov.au/mksr/Blog_40.html).
From Jeneponto to Sinjai we travelled on a better road built with Australian assistance under the East Indonesia National Road Improvement Program (EINRIP). We have travelled on part of this road to Bulukumba several times (eg see blog no. 8: https://makassar.consulate.gov.au/mksr/Blog_8.html) and I am always amazed at how well it is standing up to the heavy usage it gets. Well-built infrastructure that lasts gives Australian development assistance a good name.
Bira is a beach resort in the regency of Bulukumba, and at a lovely cliff-top hotel overlooking the sea we had supper with the young Deputy Bupati of Bulukmba, Tommy Yulianto. Tommy told us that Bira beach resort caters for all types of tourists: young students and backpackers from Makassar, family groups, and foreign tourists looking for something off the beaten track. There are quiet, secluded hotels on cliffs overlooking the sea; and down in the township lining the white sand beach are homestays and busy cafes, and water sports for all (banana boat rides are very popular with young Makassans). Bira reminded me of Kuta in Bali around 1978 (minus the surf breaks): laid back and rural, losmens scattered among coconut plantations.
Tommy said the local and provincial governments are keen to see Bira become more accessible. There are plans to build a small airport nearby capable of accommodating ATR-type aircraft. This would enable visitors to get to Bira direct form Bali in around one hour, or from Makassar in twenty minutes or so. An airport near Bira would also improve accessibility to the whole south-east region of South Sulawesi.
The Regency (Kabupaten) of Sinjai is located between Bulukumba to the south and Bone to the north. I had decided to visit Sinjai to congratulate the new Bupati, Andi Seto Gadhista Asapa, who is a young Australian university graduate, on his appointment.
We drove the two hour journey from Bulukumba to Sinjai along eastern part of the smooth Australian built EINRIP road, and in many little villages along the way there was a strong aroma of cloves drying in the sun on the road side. In Jeneponto the locals were drying seaweed on the road side; in Bulukumba we saw the road side being used to dry unhusked rice. The “hard shoulders” of the EINRIP road are well-used in South Sulawesi.
We crossed a bridge and found ourselves in Sinjai town, a small place at the foot of some hills looking out over the Bone Gulf towards the fabled “Nine Islands” (Pulau Sembilan). These islands are well-known in some parts of Australia for being home to a diligent group of illegal fishermen. Pulau Sembilan fishermen have often been caught by Australian authorities for “chasing Indonesian fish” into Australian waters north of the NT.
Pak Andi Seto and his wife met us in their Residence, a large and well-appointed building in the town centre. Gold lacquer was in great abundance on the chairs and tables and wall decorations. Andi Seto obtained his Masters in Law from Monash University in 2009, and then moved into business running a company that exports agricultural products such as coffee, cocoa and peanuts. He became Bupati of Sinjai in the 2018 elections and comes from a respected local political family: his father was a former Bupati of Sinjai.
Andi Seto introduced us to several of his key officials and explained his vision for developing his region. With a population of around 236,000 it is a relatively small Regency, but it is rich in agricultural products. We saw cloves on the drive in; the Regency also produces much cocoa and pepper. There is a growing cattle sector, and of course the Regency is famous for its fish (not all taken from Australia…). We were served some of the local fish over lunch – I think it was Milk Fish or Baronang - and I must say it was good.
With Bupati Sinjai Andi Seto and Wife
Andi Seto also wants to develop the tourism assets of the Regency. After lunch he took us to see two of the local sights: the Batu Pake Gojeng historical park, and the Tongke-Tongke mangrove forest. The first was a hill at the peak of which was the former settlement of a local king. Not much is left of the settlement except for many ancient stones with holes in them, reportedly used in the past for grinding rice. The view out to the Nine Islands was spectacular. Putri and I were particularly pleased with ourselves for having kept up the pace climbing up the hill with Andi Seto and his young wife, not to mention the entourage of officials and local media (a local TV report of our visit can be found here: https://youtu.be/fGK8jpzYk6s).
Then Andi Seto took us to the mangrove forest which was quite extensive, over 173 hectares of preserved and rehabilitated forest. We entered the forest along a well-maintained wooden walkway and inside it was cool and mosquito-free. A few hundred meters walk took us to a jetty that lead out of the mangrove forest onto a floating warung where we were treated to fried cassava and spicy dips, and coffee. It was very pleasant.
Andi Seto said that already a lot of locals visit the mangrove forest. He would like to increase the number of international tourists visiting but access to Sinjai is still difficult. From Makassar it is a six hour drive, either via Bulukumba or over the mountains via Malino. But when the airport gets built in Bira it will cut travel time significantly.
Malino is a hill town two hours east of Makassar famous for its cool climate (at around 1,500 meters above sea level) and fresh fruit and vegetables, and there we met the local camat (district head, one level below a bupati), the youthful and ambitious Andry Mauritz. We took afternoon tea with Pak Andry, his wife and fellow officials at the Green Peko Tea House atop a lovely hill overlooking extensive tea plantations, part of the Malino Highlands Resort (Facebook: @malinohighlands). The plantation has been rehabilitated in recent years and now the local tea is getting a reputation: it’s a strong black tea variety and very tasty.
Pak Andry told us of plans to improve the road up to Malino from Makassar, which has for years been in a very bad state. The road is also used by trucks carrying tons of rock taken from the Jeneberang River, which supplies Makassar with a large portion of its building material. This truck traffic has damaged the road in many places, which is only exacerbated each rainy season. Trucks of rocks and tourists do not go well together.
We overnighted at the Malino Highlands Resort and it was delightful to actually feel cold after the sun set. I went for a walk and saw the Milky Way. The next morning was sunny and I walked up the hill from our accommodation to have breakfast in the Green Peko Tea House: it was the most delightful walk I have had in eastern Indonesia.
Malino is a lovely place with a rich history. I hope those trucks can find an alternative route to transport the Jeneberang River rocks to the city. Leave the road to Malino for the tourists!