The Togean archipelago in the Gulf of Tomini, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, made the Rough Guide to 2018. However, Una Una, the northernmost and most secluded of the 56 Togean islands, is the one most definitely on the rise. The only volcanic island in the region, it has a fascinating story behind it.
Formed by the multiple layers of hardened ash and lava of the smoking Colo volcano, Una Una island has been the most prosperous among the Togeans for decades. But it was completely abandoned in 1983, when villagers predicted the violent eruption of the volcano, and subsequently fled to the mainland.
Local legend has it that only one man stayed behind on the island. He closed his house doors, locked the windows shut and rolled himself into a thick bamboo mat, and managed to survive the eruption. But, as fate would have it, he died a month later as the result of an accident while working in construction in the city of Ampana on the mainland.
It took many years for the villagers to repopulate Una Una island. Formerly the heart of the province, after the eruption it had little left to sustain their livelihoods. But the prolonged absence of people eventually turned out to be a boon in disguise, as it helped to preserve the stunning marine environment that has led to the island becoming the protected marine park it is today.
Of Indonesia’s abundance of islands, Una Una is arguably one of the most beautiful, and now is the best time to visit. Since late 2017, more boat connections to the island have been provided by Dutch-Indonesian-run Pristine Paradise, a new intimate resort for adventurous beach-bliss seekers. Because of this, Una Una is finally surfacing on the traveller’s map.
Even more laid-back than the other Togeans, Una Una island also benefits from an unspoilt and incredibly diverse marine life. Its isolation spared it from the blast fishing techniques of the Bugis people, who dwell on the other isles in the archipelago. And the waters around the island offer numerous diving opportunities at 35 known dive sites with fantastic reef walls and drops.
Currently attracting significantly less tourist traffic than the established nearby diving destinations of Kadidiri and Bomba, it’s also the ideal location to experience authentic Togean village life.
Visitors can decide to do as much or as little as they want to on the island, from diving and snorkelling, to swinging lazily in a hammock for the best part of the day. But Pristine Paradise has more in store for those who wish to truly taste the local flavour.
“I’ve heard that other resorts had problems because they didn’t try hard enough to integrate with the local community,” says Emiel Weavers, Pristine Paradise’s co-owner. Tired of his native Holland’s cold winters and a career in finance, Weavers travelled to Una Una to advise his aunt on opening a resort. Enamoured with the island, he ended up leaving the rat race behind and setting it up himself.
“From the very start, I tried to blend in,” he says. “I was lucky: I have been playing football all my life, and when I found out that Una Una island’s main village has a game every Friday, I found a match made in heaven.”
Besides playing football and befriending the locals, guests are also encouraged to help teach English to disadvantaged local kids. It's a chance to experience the Togeans beyond the schools of barracudas and Napoleon fish, and make a difference by helping the island community.
Local guides can take visitors on the climb up to see Gunung Colo, the island’s active volcano. If you prefer not to ride pillion, bear in mind that it’s an arduous slog on unpaved roads, with dangerous stretches of sand, until the beginning of the trek proper. It’s another hour on foot to reach the remains of the exploded caldera: a breathtaking sight with awe-inspiring lava formations and hissing sulphurous gas blanketing the sky and surrounding lush vegetation.
You can get to Una Una island either from North or South Sulawesi. The closest airport is Ampana, the small coastal town to the south of the Togeans, from where boats depart twice a day to Wakai, the archipelago’s main town.
From the north, the Tuna Tomini ferry also connects the port city of Gorontalo with Wakai. It leaves twice a week on Tuesdays and Fridays at 7pm, returning to Gorontalo on Thursdays and Mondays at 4pm. The trip takes about 12 hours.
There are direct flights between Sulawesi’s capital Makassar and Ampana with Wings Air. Otherwise, you can take on the long overland journey from Makassar by bus, with recommended overnight stops at Tanah Toraja and Poso Lake.
Pristine Paradise picks up their guests in Wakai, or you can catch the slow public boat that leaves from there on Sundays, Tuesdays and Fridays at 8-9am.
Top image: © Marco Ferrarese