© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin

Wild, remote, unexplored: Buton Island in Southeast Sulawesi

3 minutes to read

In a country comprised entirely of equatorial islands, it is easy enough to find one that does not yet feature on tourist itineraries. Buton Island in Southeast Sulawesi may be a good place to start. Despite its remoteness and middle-of-nowhere ambiance, it is easy to reach, it has the necessary minimum of amenities, and relatively good roads (not in the rainy season, admittedly). Additionally, it is coral, limestone, not volcanic like most islands in Indonesia, with all the typical karst features: caves, stepped cascades, weirdly shaped rocks. Finally, it is quite sparsely populated. Its forested interior is still predominantly wild and unexplored, hiding waterfalls, river pools and abundant fauna of both Asian and Austronesian varieties (since Sulawesi straddles the Wallace Line). Few travelers have visited Buton Island, leaving a chance for a true discovery - for instance, Wambalamba Waterfall was ostensibly found and put on the map in 2019.

© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin

Waterfalls

One of the main attractions of Buton is waterfalls. There are plenty of those, and most are exceptionally lovely: hidden in the jungle, untouched, featuring wide flat pools alternating with sheer drops. Limestone bedrock adds smooth, flowing contours to each cascade, and pristine greenery reflects in the still water between them, creating the vibe of primeval Earth, the world before man. Hiking, wading, climbing, and, in all likelihood, a fair amount of falling into mud and catching on spiky lianas are required to reach all of them, except one: Tirta Rimba, right next to Baubau city. Some of the best waterfalls are Kogawuna, Wambalamba and Kondawu-ndawuna, but you are free to check the other ones or discover your own.

© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin

Caves

As it is common for karst areas, there are hundreds of caves on the island. Lakasa Cave, not far from Baubau airport, has an underground lagoon at the bottom. Other cave systems are spread throughout Buton Island, and it is hard to tell how large or unique they are, as apparently none of them have been entirely explored. 

Beaches

Sulawesi is rightfully famous for the transparency of its seas and the abundance of marine life. Snorkeling should be equally rewarding anywhere in Buton, but diving may be hard to arrange due to the absence of tourist infrastructure. Nirwana Beach, about 10 km from Baubau, is the only one equipped with accommodation, a set of rather overpriced modern bungalows. For the landscape, perhaps the most spectacular is Lakadao Beach - wild, surrounded by cliffs, only accessible on foot or by boat. Bahari Beach is popular with locals and has some picturesque rock formations.

© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin

History and culture

The Benteng Keraton (palace castle) of Baubau is reputed to be the largest complex of fortifications in Indonesia. The walls, built of eroded coral stone, are quite photogenic, as are the traditional houses inside - tall wooden structures with pineapple design, the local symbol of the people's perseverance, near the crest of the roof. Local belief claims such buildings have a life of their own. Lots of smaller citadels dot the island, but most have been reduced to nondescript piles of rock by locals, who smuggle away stones for construction. Festivals are frequent, such as Konde-kondea, a community feast with a match-making twist, or Pasuemba, the giving of family blessings to a pregnant woman. Buton Island has its own martial art, manca, and mock fights are often staged during festive events. Folk dances are inevitable, too.

© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin

Practicalities

Buton Island can be reached by a short flight from Makassar. Ferries connect it with other destinations in Southeast Sulawesi, such as Kendari on the main island, Wanca and Tomia in Wakatobi, etc. Departures are relatively stochastic, and a fair bit of asking around will be necessary to figure out what sails where, from where, and when. Some minivans and the occasional bus traverse Buton, but the main forms of transport are motorbikes and small boats.  Baubau has a range of hotels; anywhere else you would have to rely on impromptu homestays or wild camping. To visit the most remote corners, still essentially unexplored, one would have to be entirely self-sufficient. A few entrepreneurial locals in Baubau run custom tours for travelers

Benteng Keraton Baubau, Buton, Southeast Sulawesi
Benteng Keraton Baubau, Buton, Southeast Sulawesi
Jalan Labuke, Melai, Murhum, Melai, Murhum, Kota Bau-Bau, Sulawesi Tenggara 93713, Indonesia
Kogawuna Waterfall, Buton, Southeast Sulawesi
Kogawuna Waterfall, Buton, Southeast Sulawesi
Lakologou, Kokalukuna, Bau-Bau City, South East Sulawesi 93758, Indonesia
Wambalamba Waterfall, Buton, Southeast Sulawesi
Wambalamba Waterfall, Buton, Southeast Sulawesi
Winning, Pasar Wajo, Buton Regency, South East Sulawesi 93754, Indonesia

The author

Mark Levitin

Mark Levitin

I am Mark, a professional travel photographer, a digital nomad. For the last four years, I am based in Indonesia, spending here roughly half a year and travelling around Asia for the other half. Previously, I spent four years in Thailand, exploring it from all perspectives.

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