News: Traveling in remote Indonesia

Posted: 12 August 2016

Having developed a great affection for Indonesia while travelling previously in several of its islands, I was delighted to renew my acquaintance with the country, by joining our group tour to little visited Sulawesi.

I arrived several days after the tour began and left Makassar at once, heading north to the town of Sengkang, to meet up with the others. The beauty of the island was soon revealed as the road coils its way through mountains and vivid green fields which earned its name, “The Python”, as it is known locally. It ascends through emerald green jungle with towering rock outcrops and orange butterflies dancing by the side of the road. 

The dates of our visit coincided with Ramadan, and the town was alive in the evening with people heading for places to dine after their day of fasting. The Walennea River flows through Sengkang and the following morning we boarded local motorised boats and were transported along it to Lake Tempe. The banks are lined with wooden houses and we were able to glimpse the daily routines of the people who live there. Danau Tempe is large and very picturesque dotted as it is with trees, small huts, lily fields and many small islets with views to the distant mountains. It is home to a number of species of birds which share its waters with the local fishermen, most of whom live in the floating fishing villages. It was totally exhilarating to travel across its otherwise still surface, with reflections of the sky and clouds creating an impression of endless water. The whole morning was enhanced by a visit to one of the floating houses where we were served some very moreish fried bananas and tea/coffee.

From here we began our drive further north stopping first at a silk weaving factory where many gorgeously decorative garments were being produced.  The road passed by lovely wooden houses, rice fields, distant mountains and jungle taking us to the home of a local Bugis family, where it had been arranged that we would stop for lunch. They had prepared a veritable banquet of a meal for us comprising a number of delectable local dishes, which we ate sitting on the floor as per local tradition, while chatting with the head of the family who is an English teacher.

Climbing through the mountains into Toraja we reached the town of Rantepao and checked into the lovely Heritage Hotel. Built largely in the traditional style with spacious wooden rooms it is set in lovely gardens and was to be our base for the next several days. During this time we hoped to gain an insight into the unique culture of the Torajan people.

The first day in the region was busy and began with a visit to the twice weekly cattle market to which people travel from all across the Indonesian islands to trade. Set against a beautiful backdrop of mountains and trees the whole occasion was fascinating. The main focus is on buffalo and pigs, and the buffalo are the darlings of these gatherings, being highly valued in Torajan society. They were all sizes, with some enormous specimens, and included a surprising number of albino animals with blue eyes, which look amazing and are particularly prized. Their owners love them and are constantly grooming them and generally fussing over them. Alas the poor pigs do not fare so well. It was also a great opportunity for people watching.

Our next stop was a Torajan village of incredible houses (tongkonan) with the distinctive boat shaped roofs, all beautifully decorated, but still bearing individual touches. Many have buffalo horns to the front of them, and as the number displayed are an indication of status, they are plentiful. Our guide had heard of a funeral ceremony nearby, and to attend one  is considered a highlight of any visit to the region, and they can last for days. Once a family member dies the focus of the remaining family becomes their funeral arrangements and people travel from miles around to attend. It can be years before the burial takes place, if the money has to be saved first, and on this occasion the man had died three years previously. It was a compelling scene with buildings grouped around a central courtyard. A room had been provided for each family that had travelled and lunch was being served; we had bought a gift and were invited to join the family. Pride of place in the courtyard was the very ornate coffin, in a house built specially to display it, and in addition there was a constant parade of buffalo.There are complicated negotiations around the number of pigs and buffalo which are slaughtered to mark the occasion, and it is based on a quid pro quo basis between the different families; there was a great deal of bargaining and money changing hands, which was very  protracted in this instance. Much to my personal relief, we were one day too late to observe the pigs being killed, and left before the buffalo were later that day.

This may suggest that this is a gloomy and depressing environment but this is definitely not the case.It is such an ingrained part of the cultural lives of people, that they keep their relatives in their homes until they are able to provide the funeral they wish for them. It is a demonstration of love and the “lost” family are still part of their everyday lives. This is apparent in the graves that dot the landscape with photos or “tau-tau” displayed outside. During our visit we encountered hanging graves, stone graves, mausoleums, tree graves, rock graves…..

By now we were ready for lunch and headed to a small village where an array of intriguing and beautifully cooked Torajan dishes had been prepared for us, served on the platform of a raised shelter in idyllic surroundings, by the ladies of the house. We made our back to our hotel passing fields and small villages, with many children waving and shouting, as the schools were on holiday.

The next day, Sunday, was a wonderful day. We began with a visit to the Hero’s Statue in town to the accompaniment of church bells. Continuing on we visited a small very scenic village and were invited into the house of an elderly lady which was full of photos and memorabilia of her and her family. From here we drove and walked through gorgeous valleys, carpeted in dazzling hues of green, with ever present buffalo, egrets, kingfishers, and high flying kites. One spectacular view gave onto the next with the unmistakable Torajan houses all around. We ended the day at the Stonehenge of Sulawesi which was very atmospheric set among trees.

Monday saw an early start for the long drive back to Makassar. Our first stop was Lemo with its poignant cliff face balconies of “tau-tau” looking out across the rice fields. Before moving on we visited the workshop of a carver of tau tau which contained some interesting examples of his work. Our journey took us to the coast through the centre of rice production on the island; with 3 harvests a year there are some beautiful houses, which bear testimony to the wealth of the area. We stopped for lunch in Pare Pare which is the second largest port in the region and watched the passenger ferries ply back and forth. We arrived into Makassar in the evening and spent the night in the very comfortable Aston Hotel.

The following day we took a flight to Manado in the north of the island and discovered another side of Sulawesi. The speed limits of 40/50 kms per hour make everything necessarily slower and the surroundings are very tropical, with none of the rice fields that occupy so much of the south. The other noticeable feature is the number of churches in even small villages; belonging to many denominations, it is hard to imagine how they all attract a congregation.

Our destination was the lovely Tangkoko Batuangas Reserve and having checked into the lodge in the afternoon we set out to walk through the forest. It was strangely quiet as the sun dappled through the trees and the nearby sea lapped the shore. Our keen sighted ranger spotted a green backed kingfisher, and further along 3 “Bubok”, small pretty owls with very forbidding eyebrows. At one point we found ourselves surrounded by “Rambo 1” which is a large group of Crested Black Macaques, one of six which live in the reserve. There are over a hundred in this troupe with a number of babies among them and they seemed totally unconcerned by us as they played and prowled the forest floor in search of food. As dusk began to fall we started back, and on pausing beside the tree which is home to a family of four Tarsiers, they appeared one by one above us. With perfect tiny feet, enormous eyes and ears and long tails they sat peering down at us as we stood staring up at them.

We spent the night in the basic but adequate Tongkoko Lodge and were up and ready to return to the reserve the next morning. Starting at 5.30am we were only a short way along the path when we were lucky enough to see a pair of “Cuscus Bears” close to the ground. They actually look like chunky monkeys with thick tails but have lovely bear like faces. They mate for life and are very affectionate with each other.  On something of a high we left the path in search of a nesting pair of Red Knot Hornbills with two chicks. The male is known to leave the nest early in search of food for the chicks and our aim was to see him. Our ranger soon picked him out high up on the branch of a tree looking magnificent; some three feet in height he was very colourful with the red crest and a golden “scarf” of plumage around his neck, with the unmistakable bill. Both adults flew off simultaneously sounding like a pair of low flying helicopters. On the way back down we were again joined by “Rambo 1” making their way through the trees.

On leaving Tongkoko we drove into the Minahasa Highlands passing a small one man operation processing coconuts into palm oil. We watched as he deftly handled the husks hot from the fire and swiftly separated the flesh and finished his demonstration by climbing one of the coconut trees. Our next stop was a housing estate where people view the properties, and having chosen one, remove it in flat pack form to rebuild where they live. We arrived at the Mountain View Hotel late afternoon to spend the night, and in the evening went for dinner in the home of a local family; the lady of the house turned out to be the priest, and she was also a very good cook.

Thursday’s challenge was to climb the column of steps (about 250), to reach the rim of the sleeping volcano of Mount Mahawu, from where it is easy to see into the crater lake. It takes about thirty minutes to walk round the perimeter accompanied by a pungent smell of sulphur, but the view from the top is panoramic, and includes Pulah Bunaken close by. On descending we made our way to the market in town which includes some, to western sensibilities, gruesome displays and is really not for the faint hearted.

It was at this point that I left the group members to begin my return to the office with my mind spinning at the diversity, beauty, cultures, hospitality and warmth of Sulwesi and its people.

Linda Maguire.

Undiscovered Destinations offer a 15 day guided tour of Sulawesi


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