Tanjung Bira: beaches, views & traditional schooners

Mark Levitin | Live the World

November 23, 2022

Even dedicated explorers and backpackers sometimes feel like kicking back on some quiet beach with a comfortable bungalow nearby. But the popular resort areas are likely to wear them down even more, while camping in some wild cove does not satisfy that craving for the nearly forgotten commodities of civilization. Places that fit in between, not too crowded or over-developed, but already equipped with basic amenities, are rare. In Sulawesi, Togean islands are probably the best such spot, but if you do not have the time to get there, Tanjung Bira is your reliable plan B. In addition to beaches, coffee and fresh coconuts, you can enjoy a boat trip to a couple of small islands, visit a crazy jumble of gnarled coral rocks at Apparalang for great sunset views and observe large traditional schooners being constructed by hand.

Bira, Bara, and other beaches

© Mark Levitin

This is the place to stay, swim, and relax. A surprisingly large and well-equipped resort village, Bira caters almost exclusively to domestic tourists since foreigners have largely never heard of it. Prices reflect it nicely. Do not expect luxury, accommodation is quite simple but mostly comfortable. If you are in dire need of a beach party, stick to Bali, or learn to enjoy it the Indonesian way: with coffee instead of booze and guitars in place of blaring disco. Otherwise, there is more white sand here than you can mark with your footprints and an eternally warm ocean without big waves. If Bira gets too crowded - on weekends, or worse, national holidays - head to one of the wilder beaches nearby: Bara, Lemo-Lemo, or Mandala Ria, all within hiking/cycling distance. Boat trips can be arranged to Luikang and Kambing islands for even better swimming and snorkeling. Marine wildlife is plentiful, typical for Sulawesi.

Apparalang cliffs

© Mark Levitin

Set a short distance from Bira, Apparalang is an area of sharp coral cliffs and sea rocks framing the tide. Rickety walkways and ladders have been built to connect the escarpments and protrusions, making the whole thing look like a border crossing post between our world and the kingdom of Aquaman. Views are good, and the setting is great for a picnic or a photoshoot. If you need more adventures, there are two caves in the vicinity: Passohara and Leang Passea. Both can be explored without caving equipment but with care and a bit of skill.

Tanah Lemo: boat-building village

© Mark Levitin

Aside from hanging out on the beach and enjoying marine views, this is the primary reason to visit Tanjung Bira. Tanah Lemo is the largest pinisi-making center in Indonesia. Huge, two- to three-decked traditional wooden schooners, pinisi, are constructed here manually, the old way (although portable electric tools, such as disk saws, are already used). The entire coastline is dotted with pinisi in various stages of completion. On most days, you can see men climbing the hulls and cutting, nailing, patching or painting the vessels. The best time to arrive here would be September or October when Pinisi Festival is staged by the regional authorities (the tourist information bureau in Makassar might help with exact dates). The festivities include folk dances of the local Bugis ethnicity, puncak silat (martial art) performances, culminating with a freshly built pinisi being pulled into the sea by hand - hundreds of people grab the ropes to tow the massive ship, and guests are welcome to join. 

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