I am gliding over the coral reef, like superwoman. Fan corals stand proud from the reef wall, pink and purple, hiding their pygmy seahorses, while the hard stag corals resonate in blues, oranges and greens, interspersed with waving fronds of anemones, complete with their Nemos, guarding eggs. Butterfly and surgeon fish dart in and out of the intricate fretwork and shoals of fusiliers dart by in a flash of silver before disappearing into the blue.
We are in Wakatobi, a small island resort in south Sulawesi. We had booked to come here two years ago and, when my leg began playing up, I went to see the docs thinking I had DVT. ‘It’s a hematoma,’ they said, and prescribed physio – deep tissue massage. When it didn’t get better I went back as I was desperate to go diving on this special holiday for our 30th wedding anniversary. Sitting before the surgeon after a whole host of scans, I said to him, ‘You know I’m going diving tomorrow unless it’s a case of life to death.’ He looked at me and simply said, ‘I think you had better cancel the diving.’
So here we are two years later, relieved to be here, not only to be alive, but with a leg that still functions despite half of it being missing!
We are staying in a seafront villa, with a large verandah, a hammock and a couple of sun loungers. The reef comes almost up to the top of the beach so its not easy to swim here, but after spending 3-4 hours a day in the water, it’s not such a loss!
The food is delicious, a mix of local and international, but beautifully presented and served. We sit outside every day in the cool breeze, away from the other guests who are, on the whole, not very friendly or personable. We decide that you get interesting and nicer people in the cheaper resorts: in these pricey ones people are too rich or introverted to chat much: one man had even bought a drone with him to fly over the reef…see what I mean.
But no one can trounce the Americans who are as loud as ever. There is Vermont, a group of four, led by a skinny blonde woman, who screeches greetings in Indonesian at the staff on every possible occasion and hails us heartily too. Luckily not on our boat…
Then there is Texas, a huge group we have the misfortune to dive with on one day; they are obviously a dive club and have identical gear and cameras. One large guy has an annoying braying laugh that chases us around. As our dive buddy Grant – a rather amusing Australian police liaison officer, who has minded Prince William on security details along with other politicos – also a dive instructor says, ‘I’ve never seen so much useless equipment – three reels, knives, scissors, gloves, extra-long regulator hoses like you use for cave diving – you name it! And as for the cameras – so much stuff and they don’t even know how to use it! You should hear them in the camera room…’
And they run out of air on the first dive. The irony of this being some of the safest diving we have ever done, restricted to 20 meters, is not lost on any of us. We steer well clear of them, especially as they sing along to the rather dreadful music that accompanies every single meal. Why do hotels – and eco resorts at that – insist of drowning out the sound of the sea, birds and insects with ‘popular music’.
But the diving operation runs like Swiss clockwork: four boats carry us out in different directions in a choreographed rotation; at snack times there are homemade cakes and cookies and fruit, hot tea made to order and, joy of joy, warming face cloths to greet you when you ascend, chilled after 70 + minutes underwater. For the record I am wearing not only a 3mm wetsuit, but a rash vest, a 3 mm waistcoat AND a hood! Armed with my newly purchased magnifying glass, I look every inch a granny (58 this week!). My prescription mask, ordered from the Scuba Doctor in Australia, failed to materialise, and they spectacularly took no responsibility for it, so I arrived blind but was saved by the resort dive shop – hence the magnifier which is a great success. Shame about the $200 that went south.
And the reefs are magnificent – gorgeous soft corals in every shade ranging from oranges through to blues, purples, greens and browns; our sharp-eyed guide Muji is expert at finding those pesky tiny seahorses that disguise themselves so perfectly, the bubble shrimps and orangutan crabs, crocodile and stonefish, octopuses and ghost pipefish…not many big fish it is true, apart from a few shoals of bumphead parrots, and on our first day a massive pod of dolphins, which gambol about the boat, leaping in perfect arches in front of the prow as we slice through the water.
Our only slight niggle is that we never see the resident owners, who are Swiss. They have taken the art of delegation to a new height, and not necessarily in a good way, although the staff makes up for it by being the most attentive and helpful of anywhere I have stayed – every single one of them calls you by name from day one. Quite a feat! We did notice the owners seemed to fraternise with the German and Swiss guests while ignoring us, however…what it is to be English!
On our last afternoon we visit the local village: what a contrast to the resort: rubbish strewn-waterways and many run-down houses on stilts, inhabited by the sea gypsies who, apparently were brought here from Irian Jaya in the 1990s. The local kids are great, though, and we buy a hand woven sarong (expensive!) to appease our consciences.
Encouragingly the leg stood up to 17 dives, despite an excruciatingly painful first dive. Dosed myself up with Tramadol and never looked back. As the next 12 months are full of exciting diving this is something of a relief.
PS the good underwater shots are courtesy of Ross. For loads more professional diving pics on his website, click here