Tangkoko National Park is probably the most famous park in North Sulawesi. The primary rainforest is host to a large array of wildlife, including tarsiers and black macaques. Much of the wildlife here is endemic to Sulawesi, and many species are critically endangered. The park is also famous for its black sand beaches – a result of historical volcanic eruptions.
Location: near Bitung, North Sulawesi
Time: 1 – 4 days
Guidebook: A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Indonesia
Guides are mandatory to visit the park and are essential to help you spot all but the most obvious animals. My guide was Iwan, whom I found through online recommendations. He was absolutely excellent – friendly, knowledgeable, able to spot wildlife from crazy distances, and so enthusiastic. Watching him shriek with delight as we spotted a gliding gecko or a tarsier was incredible. He also understands photography and the needs of photographers. One of the first questions he asked me was what focal lengths I was shooting (70-300mm and 100m macro), and he made sure we got into appropriate positions to get the best photos with my gear. I’d highly recommend him.
Most guides will organise two walks into the park per day – one at sunrise (6am – 10am) and one at dusk (4pm – 6.30pm). Outside of these times the wildlife is less active and the jungle’s humidity is stifling anyway.
This means the minimum practical time to visit Tangkoko National Park – certainly from Manado – is 2 days / 1 night. This will give you an evening walk on the first day and a morning walk on the second. As wildlife doesn’t keep to a timetable, longer visits obviously increase the chances of sightings. I stayed for 4D/3N, which gave me two full days in the park. I was also able to take a boat trip to nearby mangroves on the morning of the last day before driving back.
Most visitors to Tangkoko National Park stay in small homestays in Tangkoko village. I stayed in Tangkoko Lodge – a nice, clean place with three excellent meals per day. Iwan arranged all of this and the transport for me – an excellent deal.
I had an incredibly lucky first day in Tangkoko National Park– as we entered the park on our early morning walk, we immediately crossed paths with a troop of Black Macaques. Tangkoko is famous for these critically endangered animals. Thankfully they are less habituated – and therefore less of an aggressive nuisance – than macaques found at tourist sites all over Asia. Provided we kept a sensible distance the troop continued to look for food and play around us with disturbance. Black Macaques are just one of the many species endemic to Sulawesi.
Also on our first morning we were able to view the park’s famous tarsiers. These small animals are generally noctournal but also make an appearance during the day sometimes. We passed by a tree where they might be nesting on an off-chance and sure enough, one tarsier was there keeping an eye on proceedings. As we waiting quietly he was joined by another, and then another.
The other big sighting on our first morning was the Red Knobbed Hornbill. Its nest – almost at the top of a very high tree – was known to the guides, so we were able to watch quietly from below. The ‘whooosh’ of the hornbill’s wings as it approaches is unmistakable, and we were able to spot both the male and female taking care of their chicks. In quiet moments we could even hear the call of the hungry chicks from within the tree where the nest was located.
Having seen a lot of the large animals in Tangkoko, I wanted to spot some less common or less sought after species on our second day. Iwan was ever flexible, and suggested searching for birds in the morning and doing some macro work with insects on the evening walk. I would have also liked to spot some snakes – particularly the beautiful pit vipers that inhabit this region. Unfortunately Iwan said that snakes were not particularly common in Tangkoko these days – a result, he said, of a recent fire.
Nevertheless we did manage to spot a lot of birds, including the lilac cheeked kingfisher (Cittura cyanotis), the green backed kingfisher (Actenoides monachus), and the Ochre bellied boobook (Ninox ochracea). It seemed that almost all the species we spotted were endemic to Sulawesi, making their sighting even more of a privilege.
On the final morning before returning to Manado I asked Iwan to arrange a mangrove trip for me (at extra cost). He arranged to hire his friend’s boat at 6am the next morning and we headed out of the bay and around the headland. Even without wildlife spotting this was the perfect photography moment – beautiful dawn light, calm ocean, and the local fisherman bringing in their catches. The calm waters of the mangrove caused perfect reflections of the quiet environment – a really peaceful way to spend a few hours. As with Iwan, the boatman was very aware of tourists needs and would cut the engine and paddle towards birds to avoid scaring them and reduce vibration for photography. Our main sightings were common sand pipers and the great-billed kingfisher or black-billed kingfisher (Pelargopsis melanorhyncha).
Overall, Tangkoko National Park was my favourite destination in North Sulawesi. The quality of the environment and the guiding was second to none, and vastly superior to the awful guides I had in Manembo Nembo. I found my guide Iwan through his blog. I highly recommend him, and I am not alone.