In the wake of the Makassans

By Helen Hayes 8 December 2023
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Following this ancient route with Coral Expeditions will open up a world of aquamarine water, pristine islands and myriad wildlife.

This article is brought to you by Coral Expeditions.

Who are the Makassans? They live on the South Peninsula of Sulawesi, in Indonesia, and from the 16th century, they ventured forth across the seas to find and catch trepang, or sea cucumbers, thus becoming known as ‘trepangers’. They sailed through the Flores and Savu seas, and travelled as far as Arnhem Land and the Kimberley.

They sailed off into the unknown on traditional perahu boats – but you can join Coral Exhibitions on this fascinating 14-night itinerary onboard the Coral Geographer.

For four decades this Australian-owned company, based in Cairns in Queensland, has been a quiet achiever. Coral Expeditions offers small ship, expedition-style cruising in the Great Barrier Reef, the Kimberley, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and the islands of the South Pacific.

There is an exceptional opportunity to explore places you may not have visited before. The itinerary, a special Australian Geographic Society departure, will set sail from Makassar on 23 April 2024, and take you on a voyage of discovery as you island-hop all the way to Darwin.

Phinisi Tana Beru, Indonesia.

All aboard

Boarding Coral Geographer in Makassar – the capital of the South Sulawesi province – you’ll be thrilled with the comforts of your floating home. The newest ship in Coral Expeditions’ fleet, Coral Geographer can carry up to 120 guests, with the company’s renowned Australian hospitality and friendly service obvious from day one. The ship was launched in 2021, and was purpose-designed and -built to access remote shores that are often inaccessible to larger vessels. Another important fact is that this small boutique ship does not overwhelm local communities or the environment at these far-flung places.

The ship boasts 1000sq.m of open deck space, several bars and a well-equipped gym, while the majority of the staterooms and suites have balconies from which to watch the ocean and landscapes drift by. The onboard chefs have the creative freedom to prepare small-batch meals from fresh seasonal produce, with no set times to dine. When it comes to disembarking to go ashore and explore, Coral Geographer is equipped with lightweight, dual Xplorer tenders, referred to as ‘safari jeeps of the sea’ because they are fast, sturdy and comfortable on the water and allow for easy access to get on and off, both ashore and from the ship.

Clockwise from left: The Vista deck; the Explorer Deck Stateroom and the lecture room onboard Coral Geographer. Image credit: Coral Expeditions

Makassar to Komodo

On the first sector of this stunning itinerary, you will visit the island of Tana Beru, where traditional wooden pinisi ships have been constructed by the Bugis boatbuilders. The method of boatbuilding – handed down through generations since the 14th century – is incredible, using no nails. You will also hear tales of this seafaring community, and board one of the pinisi boats for an inspection.

Traditional boat building at Tana Beru, Indonesia. Image credits: Coral Expeditions

Then travel overland to Tana Toraja – a highlight of this itinerary – in the highlands of Sulawesi, where you will experience the ancient culture and traditions of the Torajan people. Visit the Tongkonan houses at Marante, the stone graves with Tau-tau effigies at Lemo and the hanging burial sites of Bori Parinding. Wander through a local Torajan market and discover where buffalo and pigs are purchased for funerals, and explore Kete Kesu, a 400-year-old village high in the mountains, where you will stay overnight and join the locals in music and dancing. This is an unforgettable, off-the-beaten-track experience.

Back on the sea, the island of Sogori, home to the Bajo and Bugis peoples, is perfect for swimming, snorkelling and diving, or just strolls along the idyllic white-sand beach. The brilliant blue waters of Tinabo Island will introduce you to the village way of life, while at Tinabo Besar, you can help with the important conservation programs by tree planting or coral transplanting, under the expert guidance of the staff at Taka Bonerate Marine Park.

Komodo to Darwin

Komodo Island, in Komodo National Park, is known for its ancient – and slightly fearsome – Komodo dragons, only found in this part of Indonesia, in a handful of places. Walk with local rangers to spot dragons, and hear all about their habits and how villagers live with them. Visit a local village, and later in the day, marvel at the dusky pink sands of Pink Beach and dive into the turquoise water to swim, float or snorkel.

For more panoramic beauty, visit Padar Island, also in Komodo National Park, where you can tackle the climb to the top of the peak. Get your breath back while you take in the astonishing views over the blue sea and the verdant islands. If a challenging hike is not for you, you can hop in the tender and explore the island from the water.

From crystal clear water to misty mountains, you are bound to love the excursion from the coastal town of Ende up to Kelimutu. Stop at a orphanage on the way for refreshments with the nuns and orphans, and then carry on to the spectacular tricoloured Crater Lakes, where the custom is to throw a stone into the water for good luck.

The village of Lamalera, on the island of Lembata, is rarely visited and is known worldwide as the home of traditional whaling. Meet the locals who will welcome you and share their way of life, ancient beliefs and taboos, and traditional methods for Ikat weaving and other local crafts. The hunters still use simple sailboats to feed the village, as they have since before the Portuguese came in the mid 1600s.

Coral Geographer alongside a local fishing boat near Lamalera Village. Image credit: Coral Expeditions.

Your last stop, before pulling in at the wharf in Darwin, is Tablolong Bay in Kupang. Go for a swim or a snorkel, and listen to the gentle music of the sasando, an instrument that produces harp-like sounds.

This article is brought to you by Coral Expeditions.

Expedition In The Wake Of The Makassans

Join the Australian Geographic team onboard Coral Geographer for a 14-night expedition voyage departing on 23 April 2024. On this voyage, follow ancient Makassan trading routes and witness the confluence of cultural heritage and natural beauty of Sulawesi sailing, as you cruise from Makassar to Darwin.

East Indies (Makassar to Darwin AG Hosted Voyage departing on 23 April 2024)

To book call 1800 079 545 or +61 7 4040 9999, or visit