Mursala Island Waterfall, Sibolga, North Sumatra, Indonesia
Floating Heaven in Sibolga Bay
by. Ekky Siwabessy
It was Mr. Maryadi, the General Manager of Wisata Indah Hotel in Sibolga, who enabled us to make this journey across Sibolga Bay to visit some of the islands in these western waters. Even though we are still aching and tired from our overnight journey from Medan, it is hard to refuse his offer to make this journey along the shores of the Indian Ocean. “Your tiredness will disappear for sure,” promises Mr. Maryadi. The result is that at about 13.45, our speedboat prepares to leave the Hotel Wisata Indah harbor. Indeed, the sea air and the fantastic views surrounding us wake us up.
The stony outcrops and large waves are proof of the local fisherman’s bravery. As far as the eye can see, islands are sprinkled throughout the bay, contrasting with the blue sea. Coconut trees grow on the larger islands, we are surrounded by a ring of islands.
Today we are accompanied by Mr. Luhut Butarbutar, the captain of the ship, and his three assistants; Boy Sinaga, Bilmon Pakpahan and Mikael Sinaga. According to plan, we cross to Mursala Island, which is one of the biggest islands in the outer reaches of Sibolga Bay. It was this island that is believed to have saved Sibolga City from the 2004 Tsunami. It functioned as a cushion that lessened the impact of the tidal wave before it could reach the city.
Mursala Island is located 01.38’6,09” North and 98.35’7,22” East. This island starred in the Hollywood production of “King Kong”. It was pictured as an island full of Stone Age people, frightening animals and a number of other distortions. They named Mursala Island in Sumatera as the setting of the movie story, giving the world a false image of the island. Now, we want to set the facts straight.
Mursala Island is indeed covered in virgin rainforest, but isn’t surrounded by mysterious fog and sharp stony outcrops that sink approaching ships as in the film. The sandy beaches and marine ecosystem is still intact, making it a popular amongst Sibolgans. One can snorkel underneath the warm sun and observe the coral for hours without feeling cold. There are 700 different kinds of fish to entertain you while snorkeling and diving.
Another unique tourist attraction on Mursala is a 35 metre high waterfall which falls from the cliffs straight into the sea. About 100 metres from the shore, we can see coral and multi-coloured fish through the crystal clear waters, allowing us to observe the marine life despite being at a depth of 4 or 5 metres. Mr. Luhut stops the speed boat. He puts on diving clothes, snorkel and grabs an underwater harpoon.
“Someone has ordered fish, I’ve got to go and shoot it. You wait here, ok? Pick me up in an hour,” he says to his assistant. Then he looks at us and says: “Have fun, won’t you?”
Splash! He disappears into the arms of the ocean to make his transactions with the sea.
Mr. Luhut Butatbutar is a boat operator as well as a diving and snorkeling guide at Wisata Indah Hotel. His extensive experience as a marine guide leaves no room for doubt. In a moment, he has forgotten about us while looking for fish in the coral roof on the bottom of the sea below us. Our boat leaves Mr. Luhut behind to enjoy his own activities.
First of all, we are brought to the waterfall which faces the Indian Ocean. At 14.50, the waterfall is in sight. The falling water causes bubbles which mix with the waves. The water pours down the red granite cliffs of the island, then falls to the surface of the ocean with a booming sound. The volume of water will be larger during the rainy season.
I observe the blue-black ocean bed below us. This part is quite deep. We don’t waste the opportunity to take photos of this natural phenomenon. It is quite rare to find a waterfall that falls directly into the sea in this part of the world.
“This is the favourite diving spot for foreign divers. However, one must be careful because sharks are sometimes found here,” commented Bilmon. After taking photos for a while, we decide to land on the island in order to socialize with the Mursala inhabitants.
In contrast to Poncan and Putih Island, Mursala doesn’t have a resort yet. There isn’t even a pier. So if one wishes to meet the local people, boats have to anchor the boat and come ashore by canoe. The only place that boats can stop is the biggest village on the island, Dusun Hili Badalu. The only problem is that the village is on the left side of the island coming from Sibolga. In the end, we are forced to turn around, passing the spot where we dropped off Mr. Luhut and make our way to the village.
The Island People
A few minutes later our speedboat rests in a very basic harbour built of driftwood and planks. A house on stilts can be seen at the end of the pier. Some local fisherman can be seen preparing bait on the terraces of their houses. After leaving the speed boat, we walk 150 metres along the long pier towards dry land. The poor condition of the pier makes visitors walk extra carefully. Some parts have gone rotten due to the weather. The conditions mirror the economy of Hili Badalu inhabitants. “We have fixed this pier a number of times, but every time it breaks again. We can’t afford to buy the materials necessary to fix it properly,” says Mr. Halawa, a local inhabitant, as we pass his house.
Similar to most Mursala Island dwellers, Mr. Halawa, and his family come from Nias. The Nias people are indeed famous for stepping out to new lands. Sibolgans, however, don’t wish to live on this island with an area of less than 800 hectares because they believe that this island is home to a spirit named tondi.
Forced by the need for new land, some Nias people decided to move and stay on this island. Today, more than 100 families live in small villages spread out across the island.
In order to cover their daily necessities, the Mursalans plant cassava and rubber. “We sell the rubber in Sibolga every 3 months using a fishing boat. It isn’t much, because we are still experimenting. The cassava is our daily food staple,” explains Mr. Halawa.
A unique feature of Hili Badalu village is the presence of squirrel traps in every tree. “It is difficult for us to enjoy the fruit we plant because the squirrels always eat them first. So we have to catch them,” says Mr. Ndruru, the village head of Hili Badalu.
Apart from rubber and cassava, the people of Mursala Island are trying to cultivate seaweed. However this business hasn’t shown satisfactory results. “There are a number of problems. Starting from water pollution to people cutting the ropes which hold the seaweed cultivation areas in place. We are trying to protect the water and forests from pollution because Mursala Island is a place that must be protected and looked after. However every time we try to start a new environmentally friendly initiative, there are hindrances from irresponsible individuals,” complains Mr. Ndruru.
Another problem is that this vast island doesn’t have an integrated village administration. The village head who is in charge of all the villages on Mursala Island is situated in an office in far-away Sibolga, so that the village is not supervised on a daily basis.
Mr. Ndruru complains that some village dwellers have been suffering from fever and bodily aches and pains which are the typical symptoms of Chikugunya. “There is a mobile health station to check the health of the villagers living on the islands, but they haven’t been seen for a while,” says Mr. Ndruru, who is planning to bring a number of villagers to Sibolga for medical check ups.
Living on this island paradise isn’t as comfortable as it seems, and lacks equality for its inhabitants. They need a central government which covers many issues, economics, security and health in order to ensure a healthy lifestyle for local inhabitants. Imagine if their conditions remain as they are now. Poverty could result in local inhabitants exploiting the virgin rainforest and coral reefs. The loss would be felt by the Sibolgans, even by the whole world. This is because Mursala Island’s reefs have become part of the Coral Reef Rehabilitation and Management Programme (COREMAP).
Snorkeling on White Island
In order to pick up Mr. Luhut before continuing our journey we bid the inhabitants of Hili Badalu Island goodbye. After that our boat speeds to the place where we had last left Mr. Luhut. He is unaware of our arrival as he is still observing something below the surface of the water. “Catch anything, Sir?” I ask as he surfaces next to our boat. Mr. Luhut smiles while showing off the fruit of his hunt. Eight red snappers and other kinds of fish weighing from about 4 to 5 kg slide off the harpoon gun. He is indeed an expert.
After the captain joins us, we sail towards Putih Island. This island is a small island about 12 nautical miles from Sibolga. It is located near Marsala Island. Wisata Indah Hotel has built a simple cottage for its guests who wish to stay or just rest after diving or fishing around Mursala Island.
At 15.47, we arrive at Putih Island pier, which is located across the narrow channel separating this island from Mursala Island. We are welcomed by the island attendant. The coconuts have to be tried here.
There are less than 7 simple cottages each with a capacity 1 or 2 people. The price for staying here is included in the price for the boat. The biggest problem here is the lack of fresh water here, which is dependent on rain fall. This is why this island is just a stopover place despite its beauty being a potential tourist attraction encouraging longer stays. The beauty of the island is comparable to that of the location of the film “The Beach” around Phuket, Thailand.
We don’t waste anymore time. After putting on our snorkeling gear, we float on the surface of the clear blue waters, observing the underwater world in the bright Indian Ocean. The calm is only disturbed by small waves washing over us and the coral in various colours: red, grey, green and blue. This is home to many colourful fish chasing each other.
Believe it or not, coral is the source for a number of fishing industries. Of the 132 types of fish with economic value in Indonesia, 32 live on coral reefs. Reef dwelling fish have become an export commodity due to its unique taste. A healthy coral reef can supply 3 to 10 tonnes of fish per square kilometer per year. This is the kind of world which causes Mr. Luhut to play catch with the fish.
Poncan Gadang Island
At 8 o’clock the next day, we return by 40 HP boat which acts as a ferry for employees to Poncan Island. This island is situated 20 minutes from Sibolga Island and has a famous resort, Sibolga Marine, a branch of Wisata Indah Hotel. Every morning and afternoon, this boat ferries the 33 employees back and forth from the resort.
In fact, Sibolga Bay has 2 islands named Poncan (which means “island” in the local language), Poncan Gadang (Big Island) and Poncan Ketek (Small Island). The latter doesn’t have a resort because it is too small and doesn’t have a spring. Even so, the smaller island is said to have played a role in the history of Sibolga. Before Sibolga was inhabited, Poncan Ketek was the first trading post for Tapian Nauli Area.
About 20 minutes later, our small boat arrives in Poncan Gadang Island. The resort manager, Mr. Alvi, shows us around the island. In contrast to Mursala with its virgin rainforest, this island has complete facilities for its visitors. There are 70 rooms here ranging from standard, superior to deluxe. The price range is from Rp 225,000 to Rp 580,000 per night. This includes breakfast for two.
The Poncan Gadang resort has fishing, snorkeling and diving equipment for rent. Apart from this it is possible to use the jet skis and banana boat. For families, there is a playground with a swing and slide as well as a volley ball court. This is the reason why visitors use this island as a base for exploring the other islands in the bay.
Even though this island is of medium size, it has a small tropical rainforest. This forest has a historical site, the Japanese Caves, leftover from WWII.
While waiting to be picked up, we spend our time chatting and playing volleyball with the hotel’s employees. In the afternoon, we snorkel around the pier. We feel satisfied with our time spent around Sibolga Bay.
How to Get There
Medan-Sibolga: Rp 100,000 to 120,000 by taxi or public bus from Jalan Sisingamangaraja, Medan.
Chartered boat from Sibolga to Poncan Gandang Island: Rp 300,000 per group (13 people). Can be rented from Wisata Indah Hotel or local fishermen.
Chartered boat from Sibolga to Mursala and PutihIslands: Rp 1,320,000 to Rp 8,500,000 per day. This boat can only be rented from Wisata Indah Hotel. The prize depends on the size of machine and capacity of the boat.