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As the world’s largest island nation, many of Indonesia’s islands have familiar names like Borneo and Lombok, Bali and Kalimantan. Shaped like a sprawling letter K, Sulawesi is sometimes forgotten, despite its size as the 11th largest island in the world. Located in the heart of Indonesia’s Coral Triangle, Sulawesi is one of Indonesia’s most intriguing islands, home to wildlife aplenty, a multitude of fascinating cultures, and marvelous stories of spice and maritime history. Below are some fascinating glimpses into this compelling destination.
Dissecting the islands of Borneo and Sulawesi and mirroring the Makassar Strait, the Wallace Line is an invisible line where the animals in the western portion are largely of Asian origin and of Australasian in the eastern portion. Named in the 19th century after British naturalist Alfred Wallace, the Wallace Line separates elephants and tigers from marsupials, monotremes and bird species like colourful barbets and trogons from honeyeaters and kookaburras.
Wallace observed an extraordinary array of wildlife species while trekking the Malay Archipelago (today’s Indonesia) in the mid 1800’s. He linked geological Ice Age history with species movement, noticing marsupials with distinctly Australian elements alongside primates, like macaques and tarsiers, from Asia.
Tarsiers, approximately the size of a mango with oversized saucer-like eyes, are nocturnal creatures found in South Ease Asia, with most (11 of 16 species) found in Sulawesi. Tangkoko Nature Reserve is a known habitat for these tiny tree-dwellers. At the other end of the size scale, orangutans, which are endangered and may weigh more than 100kg, can be seen swinging through the forest at the Samboja Lestari Rainforest in Borneo’s East Kalimantan.
Fast Fact: British naturalist Alfred Wallace observed zoological differences either side of an implied line which developed his theory of natural selection, prompting Charles Darwin to publish his own ideas in On the Origin of Species.
Don’t Miss: When walking through Indonesia’s lush forests, keep an eye out for Sulawesi’s endemic species like the black macaque with its mohawk-like tuft of hair or Bear Cuscus, a tree-dwelling marsupial the size of a cat.
Sulawesi was long known as Celebes after Portuguese explorers landed on its shores in the 1500’s and established the port of Makassar. The port city grew fast as the emerging spice trade capitalised on demand from both China and Europe for exotic spices such as nutmeg, mace and cloves. At the time the Indonesian archipelago was a fragmented amalgamation of kingdoms and sultanates vying for power over lucrative trades.
With the spice trade developing, the archipelago subsequently went through turbulent times, undergoing much change until the late eighteenth century: Java lost much of its former power, Islam extended its reach through populations across the archipelago, Europeans began to influence island affairs and Chinese labourers and merchants disrupted commerce. Spices remained at the heart of the archipelago’s fortunes or failures.
Indonesia is the world’s largest producer of the aromatic clove with Sulawesi central to the industry with vast plantations scenting the air. Harvest season is during the drier months generally from June to August with bud-like flowers picked by hand by workers clambering up and down bamboo ladders propped against the shrub-like trees. The buds are then laid out to dry and eventually sold to companies who process the cloves for worldwide distribution.
Toli Toli, in Sulawesi, is known as the city of cloves due to extensive production of this aromatic spice cultivated on the rolling hills around the town. According to legend, cloves were once so highly valued in China because visitors to the Han Dynasty court were only permitted to address the Emperor if their breath had first been sweetened with Javanese cloves. Prior to the discovery of the ‘spice islands’, these cloves were sourced through Arab sultanates on the Silk Road who controlled supply and trading routes.
By the 1800’s the Dutch had seized control of the archipelago, now known as the Dutch East Indies, and the spice trade was well and truly established. But locals across the 13,000 islands were growing weary of foreign rule and an independence movement steadily gained traction. Following the Japanese surrender at the end of WWII, Indonesia seized the opportunity to declare independence in 1945, renaming the island of Celebes to the Sulawesi we know today.
Fast Fact: With its anti-bacterial qualities, clove oil was once used in dentistry as a local anaesthetic though is more popular these days as a mould deterrent.
Don’t Miss: Visit a clove plantation during harvest time to witness the first steps in the clove’s journey from plantation to kitchen.
Once a significant port city at the centre of the spice trade, Makassar’s history is reflected in the aged glass of her weathered waterfront shopfronts and warehouses. At the southern tip of Sulawesi where the Makassar Strait meets the Java Sea, Makassar’s bustling harbour remains the lifeblood of the city: longboats powered by unmufflered diesel engines zip between cargo ships laden with freight; ferries disgorge travellers from ports unknown; timber phinisi boats bob gently in the wash, their elegantly curved bows pointing skywards.
These phinisi boats, which are built entirely from timber on the beaches of southern Sulawesi, once travelled as far as northern Australia in the 1700’s. Driven by the lucrative beche-de-mer trade, Makassan trepanger fishermen’s interactions with Indigenous Australians is documented in rock art paintings across Australia’s north coast.
On the harbour’s edge, Dutch-built Fort Rotterdam sits atop an existing fort of the Gowa Kingdom, one of the great kingdoms of South Sulawesi dating as far back as the 1300’s. Fort Rotterdam was built by Makassan rulers in response to a war with the Dutch East Indies company.
Today the fort houses relics from south Sulawesi’s sometimes turbulent history through kingdoms, wars and treaties which oftentimes dictated the extent of protection proffered for the portside city of Makassar.
Fast Fact: From above, Fort Rotterdam looks like a turtle, complete with a tiny, pointed turtle tail, and used to be surrounded by a two-metre deep moat – a small section of the moat remains in the southwest corner.
Don’t Miss: Wander the waterfront of Makassar and imagine the harbour as it was during the age of sail when the horizon was blanketed with the rigging of tall ships that traversed the world’s oceans on exploratory voyages searching for new lands to conquer.
Experience some of these remarkable stories and wildlife encounters with Coral Expeditions, Australia’s pioneering cruise line, on voyages through the Indonesian Archipelago onboard expedition ship Coral Adventurer.