Wakatobi is a group of islands located off the south-east tip of Sulawesi island. Their old name (Tukan Besi ‘blacksmith’ islands) seems to have fallen in disregard.
The name “Wakatobi” has been crafted based on the names of the four main islands : WAngi-Wangi, KAledupa, TOmia and BInongko.
The main draw here are the absolutely stunning coral gardens. It is also part of the Indonesian government plan to create “10 new Bali” to boost tourism revenue, even though for the moment most of the efforts are poured elsewhere (update 2019 : Wakatobi is still as empty as before, actually tourism has probably even dropped due to rising air fares).
Diving around Tomia island
For me Tomia is the highlight of Wakatobi. The dive spots immediately around Tomia (like Ali Reef, Ridge 01 or Roma) have the nicest shallow coral garden I’ve ever seen.
The walls around Sawa islands are also the most beautiful walls I’ve dived in Indonesia. When it comes to coral Tomia is even better than Raja Ampat or Komodo in my opinion. And there is almost no one underwater.
If you want to go diving, you have different local alternatives besides the expensive Wakatobi Dive Resort on Tolandona island (immediately off Tomia).
I was twice very satisfied by the services of Ahmad from Wakatobi Marine Dive (WA : +62 853 4085 3831). He charges 1’200’000Rp for 3 dives a day, including the gear (a bit outdated but in fair condition).
The dive boat is quite simple and his partner captain looks like an Indonesian version of the Hound in Game of Thrones. It’s not fancy but the price/service ratio is great in my opinion.
Otherwise Fahmi from Labore Homestay also offers diving, at a slightly higher price if I’m not mistaken.
The whole area is protected under a marine national park status. Accordingly, a 150’000Rp daily fee should be collected from visitors going diving or snorkeling but as of 2019 nothing seems to have been implemented. Things will probably change in the future.
If you just want to snorkel, gear can easily be rented in town. I guess the coral barrier surrounding Tomia can be reached and explored by swimming.
It’s definitely worth renting a boat for a day and go see the stunning island of Sawa (boats can get there, but check for the tide though).
There is a very large barrier reef surrounding Sawa that can be dived all along the way. The most remote spots are the only ones where you have good chances to see sharks in Wakatobi. Ahmad usually takes guests there if they are at least 4 on the boats to dive.
Otherwise, another offshore island has become popular on social media, it’s called Pulau Nda’a. It’s about one hour by boat from Kulati.
Local life on Tomia
Tomia’s inhabitants are very friendly and welcoming. The atmosphere is very laid back and the sky full of stars at night.
Yet I always struggle to get some food in Tomia. The warung near the harbour is reliable but its menu is very limited. There is also the night market near Lakota beach but I always found it half empty. Recently someone explained to me that you must go there very early to get some choice.
Kaledupa is mostly known for Hoga island. After you arrive in Ambuea in Kaledupa, you have to make the crossing to Hoga. It looks close but the boat has to navigate shallow waters and it actually takes 45 minutes. I did the trip with the school kids from Furaku.
The situation can be a bit confusing on Hoga so here is the big picture (as of my visit in 2017) :
- Year round you have only one inhabited village called Furaku, about 30 min away from the main jetty.
- You have a couple of middle price resorts (+ more in construction) like Hoga Dive Resort.
- Near the jetty you have a lady running a small warung, she can sell you instant noodles, snacks and if you buy fish in Furaku she will cook it for you.
- You have Operation Wallacea (OpWal)
Operation Wallacea is a an organisation that sells kind of science bootcamps. I feel that there is a lots of marketing involved and few actual research coming out of it but anyway they have like 200 guests during the summer months doing surveys on corals and birds.
So there are dozens of bungalows virtually empty for most part of the year. The local operational manager is a great guy called Jeffrey and the dive center is run by a South-African instructor called Rowan. By the time of my visit (October 2017) the diving operation was on track to be separated from OpWal, so the plan was to act like a regular dive center and to use OpWal logistics (the dining room and the bungalows) to accomodate guests.
It’s best that you get in touch with Jeffrey before arriving (Whatsapp +62 853-9530-3993) because the bungalows are owned by different people on Kaledupa and they keep the keys there. If you want to eat at OpWal it’s possible but they have to be told ahead.
I arrived on Hoga without telling OpWall ahead and I had to spend the first night at Furaku (because all the bungalows were locked up). I would not recommend to do that without good commands of Indonesian, some of the villagers are very poor (as well as lazy and inclined to petty thiefs according to Kaledupa’s people) and get quite drunk at night.
I remember there was a young girl who was so sorry because of that, she was very startled when I told her we have our own share of drunkyard at home. Nothing dangerous though but there could be some misunderstanding.
I did a couple of good dives with OpWal (400’000Rp each), some of them with Rowan some of them with Jeffrey (who is a master in finding pygmee searhorses). The spot Ridge 01 was very nice with great coral (but I think Tomia is even better).
I spent 2 night at Jeffrey’s house in Kaledupa. He left me his motorbike and his wife cooked me great food. Such a cool guy. There are a couple of beaches around Kaledupa but unfortunately the weather wasn’t really good.
If I remember well I saw only one car during the whole afternoon I spent exploring Kaledupa.
On my way back from Tomia I stopped again in Kaledupa. I stayed at a simple wooden homestay not far from Ambuea market, called Wisma or Penginapan Madya Siru. 50’000Rp for a simple room, bathroom outside. Right in front you have the small warung Elfian without many choices but you can buy seafood at the market and they will cook it for a small fee.
Near Sombano you have a small saltwater lake that is inhabited by huge and flashy red shrimps that come out at the end of the afternoon to feed.
There are three Bajo settlements around Kaledupa, the most accessible is Sampela, but you have also Mantigola and Lohoa. Those are the Indonesian names ; Sampela is called Sama Bahari by its inhabitants. In case you don’t know, the Bajo refer to themselves as Sama and call their language bahasa sama.
To get there, ask a women who has finished to sell her fish at the market to give you a ride. Give her 10’000Rp.
If you want to bring a souvenir, they sell makeshift swimming googles. Again very friendly people, I even got a lesson in Bahasa Sama.
Wangi-Wangi island is the main island of the archipelago with Wanci as its main town. There you have the airport, the main harbor (with a few Pelni ferries stopping by, even though most of them are only stopping at Baubau), ATM as well as an immigration office.
Most visitors are (understandingly) eager to rush their way to the islands of Tomia and Hoga and will be annoyed by the conflicting schedules of boats and planes, almost forcing to you to spend a night on the island.
That was what I felt and later someone explained to me on Kaledupa that the regent of Wakatobi did this on purpose to boost hotel business in Wangi-Wangi. But it turns out that Wangi-Wangi deserves some time.
Things to see in Wangi-Wangi
There is not much remaining from the old fort of Liya but the lagoon right behind is stunning. I think that it would be very rewarding to get to Liya village, hire a local boat there (I would expect to pay 400-500’000Rp for the full day) and explore the lagoon.
Otherwise you could do as the locals and go for a swim or a shampoo in Kontamale cave (Goa Kontamale) :
While wandering in Wanci I came across a very nice procession. If I’m not mistaken it’s called Karia’a, it’s a life-cycle ceremony for young girls who are paraded in the streets wearing stunning outfit right before they reach their teenage years.
Before you take the boat to others islands, you can also spend some time in the Bajo village of Mola.
Coming to Wakatobi from Kendari
The only public flights to Wakatobi is between Kendari and Wanci. Daily flights are operated by Wings Air and 4 flights a week operated by Garuda.
An ojek from Wanci to the airport is about 50’000Rp. It’s rather far from town (maybe 30 minutes).
Beware because until today (2019), the plane schedule forces you to stay one night in Wanci to get the boats to Kaledupa or Tomia the next morning.
I went from Kendari to Wanci by boat in 2017. By then, there were 4 ferries a week. Price is 191’000Rp, we left at 11:30AM and arrive at 9PM. The ferry stops at Ereke in Buton on the way.
Back then, there was no ferry on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. It’s worth checking Wakatobi tourism board’s official website to check for an eventual updated schedule.
Other cheaper solutions exists. Pelni operates a larger ferry called Jetliner that goes from Kendari to Baubau and then Wanci. You can find schedules for the departure from Baubau in the article on Buton.
An even cheaper option would be the KM Sabuk Nusantara 44 operated by Perintis who allegedly costs only 50’000Rp from Kendari to Wanci (goes to Tomia and other islands afterwards). Someone gave me a contact of a guy called Firman that was able to send me the schedule in 2019. You can have a look on the schedule here. Try to contact him in Indonesian on WA : +62 822-9644-4948.
How to come from Tana Toraja ?
I did it once in 2017. Here is what I did but retrospectively it was probably not the best solution :
- From Rantepao, take a minibus to Bolu terminal (5’000Rp). I got to Bolu at 7h30, got a shared taxi to Palopo who left at 9h20.
- At 11h20 we arrived in Palopo (40’000Rp for this ride), I took another shared taxi going to Watambone at 11h40 and I got dropped at 13h40 in Siwa harbour (50’000Rp). So I missed the ferry.
- Everyday the ship docks at 7PM and leaves in theory at 11AM on the next day (45’000), but it’s often more like 1PM, . You can sleep for free in the ferry after it has docked at 7PM.
- From Tobaku, take a travel to Kolaka (100), then to Kendari (100, the driver asked for 20 more to get dropped near the harbor). Prices were a bit inflated because it was already late at night.
- Got an hotel not far from the harbor for 80’000Rp a night.
- The next day, 15’000Rp ojek to the harbor.
- Check the section above for details about ferry from Kendari to Wanci.
In my case it would have been smarter to go from Palopo to Watambone and take the ferry at Bajoe harbor because it leaves at night and gets you directly to Kolaka instead of Tobaku. According to ASDP website it leaves 3 times a day at 5PM, 8PM and 11PM. The trip takes 9 hours and costs 73’000Rp.
Coming to Wakatobi from Buton
You have daily public boat connections from Buton islands to Wangi-Wangi and Tomia.
- From Kemaru harbor (3 hours driving from Bau-Bau) you have a daily ferry leaving to Wanci in Wangi-Wangi. ASDP website says departure at 7AM, Wakatobi Tourism office at 1PM. I never took it so I cannot confirm anything but only trust informations coming from ASDP office, the website is not up to date based on my experience. Return boats leave in the morning from Wanci from what I understand.
- From Murhum harbor in Bau-Bau you have boats leaving almost everyday night Tomia. It costs 215’000Rp and takes bewteen 8 and 14 hours. If the tide is low when you arrive, local boatmen charge 15’000Rp per person to transport you to the island. Returns from Tomia at night.
Pelni ships calling in Wanci
Pelni are cross-provinces public ferries. A few lines make a stop in Wangi-Wangi before continuing their way towards eastern Indonesia : the monthly Leuser gets you to the Banda islands in 3 days for instance.
You may be interested by the fact that if few Pelni ferries stop in Wakatobi, many of them stop in Bau-Bau in nearby Buton.
Please read my guide to boat travel in Indonesia to get all the information.
Boats within the archipelago
The Wakatobi Tourism office has made a lots of information available online. Here is my personal experience :
- From Wanci to Kaledupa, there is a boat leaving everyday from Mola harbor in Wanci to Ambuea harbor in Kaledupa. It costs 50’000Rp and is supposed to leave at 9AM. I left at 10:40AM and arrived around noon.
- To return to Wanci, the boat leaves everyday at 5AM from and to the same harbors.
- To get to Hoga from Kaledupa you could charter a local boat (the Tourism office say it should cost 50’000Rp) but also use the boat that brings the kids back from school to Hoga. It leaves from Hoga at 5:30AM and returns from Kaledupa around 1PM. Give 20’000Rp to the boat captain.
- On the boat from Wanci, I got told that it would stop directly at Hoga if there are enough passengers going there. It’s worth asking the captain, you never know.
- The boat returns from Ambuea in Kaledupa to Wanci in Wangi-Wangi at 5AM everyday. I left at 5:30AM.
- According to the tourism office, there is a daily boat leaving daily at 9AM for Jabal harbor in Wanci and heading to Tomia. You can catch this boat from Kaledupa by doing the following :
- From Ambuea get an ojek to Taou harbor near Tampara village (30’000Rp). The boat passes around noon.
- From Taou harbor, take a taxi boat to catch the boat from Wanci directly in the sea (the boat doesn’t stop at the pier) for 10’000Rp.
- Pay 50’000Rp on board, it’s a 2 hours trip to Tomia.
- The boat returns to Wanci everyday at 6AM (the full trip is like 4-6h). You can also get dropped near Taou harbour in Kaledupa on the way (you pay the taxi boat and the ojek like above).
There are different kind of boats available either wooden traditional boat (kayu) and speedboats. I always took what was readily available, I think I took the speedboat once. What I’m sure of is that I always paid 50’000Rp between each island.
For boats to Binongko from Wanci, check the website of the tourism office (link posted at the beginning of the section), the boat stops over in Tomia.
- In Wanci-Wanci, Penginapan Jelly starts at 80’000Rp for a single room with fans. Motorbike rental available.
- In Hoga I stayed at Operation Wallacea bungalows. 50’000Rp per night.
- In Kaledupa you can stay in Wisma/Penginapan Madya Siru (50’000Rp, single room, bathroom outside).
- In Tomia I stayed at Penginapan Bantea if I’m not mistaken (from the pier, you walk straight, it’s like 20 meters after the crossroads). I don’t think they speak much English, I had the room for 100’000Rp by promising I would not use AC, cold shower, breakfast. Penginapan Terapung also starts at 100’000Rp.
As usual I put most of the places quoted in this article in a Google Map. For detailed maps of the villages, please read this great document.