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One of the world's ten deepest lakes,* Lake Matano on the island of Sulawesi, Indonesia is also one of the most unique. The picturesque, spring-fed lake covers 44,500 acres with some of the clearest water ever experienced. Headwaters of the Malili Lakes system, Lake Matano is fed by the Penten River and lies in a tectonic fault. The lake is estimated to be between one and four million years old and has been virtually isolated from other lakes as it lies a full 236 feet above water bodies lower in the chain. This long period of separation has created endemic fish and plants that have taken evolutionary forms seen nowhere else. Of the 30 types of fish in the lake, it is believed all evolved from one type of fish. The only imported species is an eel. The fish have evolved to be highly dependent on sight for feeding and breeding purposes in the pristine waters. Their unusual development, and the unusual high-iron content of the lower non-oxygenated layer of the lake, make Lake Matano a regular subject of scientific study. Although nestled between towering, green hills at 1257 feet above sea level, the bottom of the lake actually reaches down to 1937 feet- 700 feet below sea level.
Lake Matano is a major highway for local villagers who row from village to village across the pristine waters. A commercial cruise boat travels regularly between Sorowako and Nuhu. Ever enterprising, locals rent home-produced rafts to visitors with which they can tour the lake and enjoy the lush scenery of the surrounding hills. A yacht club exists but is membership only and reserved to the employees of the local businesses such as the nickel mines. Those lucky enough to wangle an invitation can enjoy water skiing, jet skiing, sail-boarding and sailing. There are public swimming beaches, often with generous over-water decks, and swimming and scuba diving in the shallow waters around the perimeter of the lake. Several underwater caves invite divers to explore. Less than an hour away by car, a spectacular waterfall tumbles down the rocks between Lake Matano and Lake Mahalona. Scenery in the area is a lush, green rainforest with plentiful wildlife and birds, but it is unknown if there are publicly-available hiking trails.
One detail prevents Lake Matano from becoming a regular tourist destination: it is a twelve-hour car or bus ride or a very expensive flight from the nearest larger city. Renting a car to get there is likely the best option as there is no form of public transportation in the area. The lone internationally-advertised hotel in Sorowako is often filled with business travelers who are making business calls on the local mining industry. There may be other lodgings but only an experienced tour operator or local resident could arrange a stay. The local government has not yet tried to facilitate tourism. Until there is investment in the tourist infrastructure, Lake Matano is likely to stay an isolated, pristine and little-known tropical paradise.
Lake Matano is named for Matano Village along the shore. Matano means 'wellspring' in the native tongue. A well or fountain in the village flows continually into the lake, giving rise to local lore that the fountain is the source of the lake's water. Fish from the lake comprise a large part of local diets, as it has for hundreds of years. Recently, life has changed for many in the local villages as the PT Inco Corporation operates one of the world's leading nickel mines near Sorowako. The mining company operates a large strip mine in the rainforest near the lake and has built several smelters. The mine has been both a blessing and a curse as the company has attracted laborers from far-distant villages and built a dam and hydro-electric generating plant downstream between Lake Mahalona and Lake Towuti which provides some electricity to local villages.
Villagers have benefited from the electricity, jobs, and the infusion of cash from mine employees. Although the mining company is considered a responsible user of the land and replants the lands stripped for mining, knowledgeable ecologists worry that the replanting monoculture destroys the balance of native trees in the area. And, although the company has been very responsible with the waste water used in mining, scientists are concerned it or sediments carried by it may someday make its way into Lake Matano, clouding the clear waters and upsetting the delicate natural balance. The Indonesian government is also encouraging people to move from the overcrowded northern parts of the island to the less populous southern portion. An influx of new inhabitants will further disrupt what is already an uncertain situation.
If you're ever in the market for the ultimate adventure destination, Lake Matano should hold a prominent spot in the itinerary.
* Although some lists show Lake Matano as the tenth deepest lake in the world, other lists give it a higher ranking for depth. Because several of these lakes are in undeveloped countries where little study has been completed, exact rankings are probably impossible.
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