Near the small town of Bira is another small town known as Tanah Biru. Both towns are the homes of the Konjo people, a group belonging to the Bugis, natives to the south of Sulawesi. They are estimated to have settled on Sulawesi around 2500 B.C. and there is historical linguistic evidence that they might have their roots in Taiwain and South China. They are well known around these parts and in the maritime world for the construction of the pinisi boat. The first pinisi boats are said to have been built around 1600 after the example of the Dutch pinnace boats they encountered at that time.
The boats are built using Borneo ironwood, a particularly durable wood sort with up to twenty years lifespan for marine work in tropical waters. Part of this is due to the excellent resistance of the wood to bacterial, fungal, insect and marine borer attack. This ironwood however, is getting more scarce and takes up to a hundred years to grow in order for it to be suitable for use in boat building. Some of the builders have migrated to Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) due to, at the moment, a better availability of the ironwood trees. The trees themselves are endangered now however and illegal logging in Kalimantan is becoming a serious problem. The wood is popular with the Chinese who are willing to pay a high price for the wood to use as coffins for their dead, due to it’s natural resistance to insects and rot.
Tanah Biru’s beaches are filled with boats under construction and their builders. One of the people I met in Bira, Stuart, is having a boat constructed here. He invites me to have a look around on the boat, it is one of the most beautiful boats I have ever set foot on and it isn’t even finished, nor in the water for that matter. The construction looks and feels solid and a lot attention has clearly gone into it’s construction. The boat as it is seen by me, has cost a total of about 65.000 euros, including the construction and the wood. Around another 200.000 euros will be spend on the engines, sanitation, wiring, modern marine equipment, (GPS, radio, etc) and the furnishing and compressor for dive tanks. Once complete, the boat can be rented out for about 2000 euros a day for about eight to twelve passengers. Some quick math shows that if rented out for only 9 months a year, within two years the investment will have paid itself back, every year after that it’s making a profit.
Stuart already has one boat, a smaller one, operating around Malaysia with about 98% occupancy. This one, which he is building with about 9 others to spread the investment risk, is the next step in pursuing his dreams.