Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Toraja 2007

In June 2007 I decided to combine a diving trip to Lembeh Strait in North Sulawesi with some topside culture. My first 2 visits to Indonesia had been on exclusively dive oriented excursions, exploring some of the best the region had to offer, staying on luxury liveaboard boats and at purpose built dive resorts. But with 2 visits under my belt it became bleedingly obvious that there was a vibrant cultural landscape above the water that I was missing out on.

Now when one is into dive tourism the concept of travelling light is akin to purple pigs flying, particularly when also packing underwater photography gear (in my case video). You develop cunning schemes to avoid paying excess luggage costs, and pretend that your three bags of cabin luggage are feather light (yes I have been known to balance a 10kg full pelican case on my little finger as if it really was!) and not at all capable of knocking out a fellow passenger if it happened to fall out of the overhead locker! I'm sure my travel insurance includes public liability cover...

Anyway, with all that gear it is just not practical to negotiate public transport, not to mention the security risks involved. So for my first topside cultural experience I headed off to Tana Toraja in South Sulawesi on a one week trip I had organised through a friend. My package included a car and driver, as well as an English speaking guide, who turned out to be the best guide I have ever used anywhere. They picked me up from Makassar airport (yes me and all that clobber) and we headed north.

Here is how it went:


Early wake up call in Bali, cup of Balinese coffee, taxi to the airport, nasi goreng and more coffee before boarding the one hour flight with Garuda to Makassar. Coming in to land I am thinking “slow down” and am hoping the runway is long enough for the plane to brake in time. Is it just my imagination or are Garuda pilots rev heads?
Safely landed, I pick up my gear and emerge to meet Andre, my guide for the next 7 days, and Udin our driver. Luggage stowed we set out on the 7 hour drive to Toraja. We stop for lunch at a beachside restaurant in Pare Pare - seafood and yes more coffee - before heading inland. This is the last I will see of the ocean for the next 6 days as I immerse myself in mountain culture.
Soon it begins to rain, despite Andre assuring me that it is now dry season and he expects no rain. Within minutes it is pouring, as in full on tropical monsoon weather, water flowing in huge streams down and across the road. Udin is not hindered by mere rivers flowing across our path, as he drives on with gay abandon. I have always remained fairly immune to the reckless overtaking and heavy use of the carhorn that is a hallmark of travel in Asia, figuring that Udin’s experience is what matters. Udin does not disappoint and we arrive safe and sound.
Along the way we stop for some sightseeing at a spot rather euphemistically named “erotic mountains” due to the ridges on a nearby mountain bearing a strikingly accurate resemblance to female genitalia. But mostly the mountains are obscured by clouds; there is a “Lord of the Rings” feel to the place and I use my new camera to take some mood shots. We enter the gateway to Toraja land and soon it is too dark to see anything.
I arrive at my hotel rather tired, but ready for a day of sightseeing tomorrow.


I am staying at Hotel Indra, a rather downbeat hotel in Rantepao with a nice restaurant overlooking the River Sadan. Unfortunately it also comes with an electric organ player who sings woeful songs. Or worse, a female singer who is completely out of tune! Thank goodness for earplugs.
After breakfast I meet up with Andre and Udin for a full day touring Toraja land. We start with a quick walk around the local Rantepao market, a small affair compared to the big market held every six days. Then we head off in the minibus for Lemo, to view the Tau Tau in galleries on the rockface in front of their burial holes. Torajans believe that the burial site is a sacred resting place for their dead, so often bury valuables with them. Unfortunately this has led to looting, and to the stealing of the tau tau as well, forcing some communities to put iron gates up to guard against theft. After Lemo, we head through scenic valleys and rice fields towards a site where babies are buried in a tree in a bamboo forest. We detour to view a site where a new Tongkonan is being built. Tongkonan are the large wooden houses in which Torajans traditionally lived. They are on stilts with a huge roof in the shape of buffalo horns. The lower structure of this new tongkonan was mostly finished but the roof construction had only just begun. The roof is the heaviest part of the structure, and must be built very carefully in order that it doesn’t collapse. Bamboo is used for scaffolding as is so common throughout Asia. The baby burial tree was in a serene setting within a bamboo thicket. These trees are for babies less than 6 months old, who are buried in a vertical position so they can climb the tree’s ladder to get to paradise. So as not to cry, a bamboo “nipple” is placed in the baby’s mouth. The burial holes are covered with a fibre matting to prevent water or rodents entering, or odours escaping. The tree we visit has had many recent burials, due to an outbreak of diarrhoeal illness in the village. It is an incredibly moving experience, not only of sadness, but also of complete safety and tranquility within the gently bowing bamboo forest. Following a large lunch consisting of local specialties including hot Torajan chillies, Kalua pork, Bamboo chicken and red sticky rice, we head to Kete Kesu where there is a village which is very traditional, with its Tongkonan and rice barns all aligned north to south and still with the original interwoven bamboo roofs. Many villagers have replaced their roofs with corrugated iron so it isn’t often that you see a whole village intact. Of course they are also wired for electricity and satellite TV, so one has to get creative when composing photo shots. Kete Kesu has a number of talented woodcarvers, I buy 2 wood carvings here but could easily have purchased the whole shop. We also enter one of the houses, where an old man is living alone in very spartan conditions. Behind the village is a cemetery, with both new concrete mausoleums, and traditional hanging graves, consisting of wooden coffins perched on terraces constructed out from the cliff face. Here, tau taus have been locked away behind an iron gate due to problems with looting.The morning had been fine sunny weather, but by afternoon it has begun to rain, so we head to a valley where the sun is still shining. Our final stop for the day is at Marante, to view more Tau taus on a cliff face, and to chat with local children who enjoy mugging for my camera. One youngster even obliges by jumping from a suspension bridge into the river, and happily repeats the effort for a second set of photos. Local women are returning from the fields with their rice harvest, which they carry in bundles on their backs.
Returning to Hotel Indra, I get to endure a second night of appalling singing on a par with really bad Karaoke.


A change of plan as today is market day, so instead of heading off on an all day trek, we go to the huge market at Rantepao, in particular to see the buffalo market. People proudly parade their buffalo and the buyers wander around bargaining a good price. The white and black cows are the most valuable, and can cost more than 10,000 USD! The reason buffalo are worth so much is because of the creation legend of Torajan culture. The story goes that "God" asked man to go down to earth from heaven and man agreed. But to get there he needed to ride on the back of an animal. Man asked many of the animals if they would take him, but all refused, until he asked the buffalo. The buffalo agreed, but only on the proviso that when the man died he would take the buffalo back with him to heaven. So in Torajan culture buffalo are revered, they are not used for labour in the fields but are pampered "pets". The more buffalos that are sacrificed at a funeral then the more auspicious it is. And interestingly, until the christian missionaries came to the region and began converting the populace, the buffalo meat was left for carrion, and wasn't eaten by the people. Unable to convince the Torajans to discard their animist ways, the missionaries did convince them that the meat should be eaten, no doubt improving the overall nutrition of the community in the process.

Now back to the market.
The pig market is rather barbaric, with the pigs trussed to bamboo poles for easy carriage home. But there is lots of colour to be seen, not just amongst the cattle and pigs. We taste some local foods, I meet some members of a local leper community who make exquisite straw hats to supplement their income, pay a lady chewing an enormous wad of betel 1000Rp to take her portrait and buy some vegetables for our dinner.After the market we go to see some megaliths, standing stones erected to tie the buffalo to for sacrifice. We see another baby tree grave, and some more burial tombs. We then head to the village of Sa’dan, known for its weaving of Ikats, where we have lunch overlooking the river. I experiment with my camera taking photos of the rushing water with longer and longer shutter times. The learning curve with the new camera is enormous. After lunch Udin drives us up into the hills where we walk to a village which is beginning a funeral ceremony. The first day involves buffalo fighting, quite a spectacle to watch, both the fighting and the crowd reaction. And also to keep out of the way of wayward buffalos. After a very enjoyable spectacle, we head up into the village, to view the preparations being made for the funeral, and to visit the dead person. The dead person is wrapped in a kapok mattress and lies in the Tongkonan until the funeral ceremony takes place, which can take many years, until families have the finances to afford it. We walk down the mountain, along small tracks to meet up with Udin, who then drives us up another mountain to Batutumonga, where we will stay overnight. My room is a Tongkonan, looking out over the valley down to Rantepao. I am particularly looking forward to waking up to the view, as it is dark when we arrive.
After a hearty dinner, watching a very funny soap opera on Indonesian TV, I head to bed.


Breakfast over, Andre and I walk further up the mountain to Batutumonga village to take in more beautiful views. There is low cloud so very atmospheric. We chat to local people, pass some people processing coffee beans for market, and see a blacksmith’s shop. The best steel for the knives is made from recycled car leaf springs!After an hour or so we head back to our hotel, grab our rucksacks and head off down the mountain and across onto another ridge and slowly down the mountain. We are heading for Palawa but our morning walk leaves us somewhat behind so Udin meets us further up the mountain (with lunch) and we head down the final 4km by minibus, on roads I would have been happier to walk on! Palawa has a Tongkonan with a huge amount of buffalo horns on it, but there is also a funeral preparation going on so the front of the Tongkonan is obscured by the house for the coffin. The wife of the dead person invites me in to view the body and decorations and allows me to take a photo of both her and him. She then tries to sell me some interesting knickknacks that would look more at home at a car boot sale! I buy a trinket for an exorbitant price but I figure I am also paying for invading what is a very personal time for this lady.We then drive back to Rantepao, and check in at Hotel Indra again, where I enjoy a very welcome hot shower. I have managed to convince Andre that I am not averse to eating in local establishments so Andre takes me for dinner at a local warung. The food is far more tasty than that at the hotel. I am becoming quite addicted to rice and fresh sambal, quite to the surprise of both Andre and Udin, who have never seen a westerner eat chili with such enthusiasm!


A long day spent traveling. We leave Rantepao just after 8 o’clock and drive back down the mountains to the lowland areas. We take a shortcut across to Polewali, where we have lunch in the only restaurant in town. Apparently there are a few warungs but no proper restaurants besides the rather characterless one we eat at. I am told that the predominantly Moslem people of the area prefer to eat at home. Our meal is so bland and tasteless I don’t blame them.
Andre continues to order far too much food for me. I have told him I am perfectly happy with one normal Indonesian serving of food, but I am often confronted with 3 – 4 plates of different food, plus rice plus soup. It reminds me of our trip to China many years ago. I am sampling everything, but am still eating far too much. At lunch he tries to order me a second dish and I have to insist he doesn’t.
After lunch it’s a right hand turn and off into the mountains again. The clouds are very low, so few views are available. The road is unbelievably rough, with numerous mud holes, landslides and village people perched in tiny shacks on precipices along the narrow valleys and ridges. Udin’s driving is fantastic, and we arrive at the hotel a little before dusk, all in a trip lasting 10 hours!
The cottages I am staying in are known for their hot springs, with the water in the rooms coming from this source. The pressure however is very poor, so the alternative is a dip in the hotel pool. By now it is dark, and the mossies are out in force, so I decide against this option and instead just wait for dinner.
Dinner is again a massive effort, with four or five different dishes, including soup, then fruit and a Chinese sweetbread for dessert. Andre explains that anything I don’t eat the staff will have, so I feel a lot better about the huge display of food on offer. I was looking forward to a cold beer, but only warm ones are available. After putting some in the kitchen freezer I at last get to sample a slightly cool beer, which I share with Udin. Andre doesn’t drink, and is quite a devout Christian, saying grace before each meal, sometimes twice if there is a delay between soup and mains!
A group of 10 Japanese tourists arrive tomorrow, so as a result there will be a local exhibition of dance tomorrow night at the hotel. I think I will crank out the video for this.
I head off to bed, armed with mosquito coils and Udin’s lighter borrowed for the night. They stink awfully, but I feel a lot happier about reducing my risk of malaria.


Wake up with the sun, read for a while then have a very mediocre shower before heading down to breakfast. Although I had requested nasi goreng for breakfast.....… nasi goreng it is, plus toast and all accompaniments, plus 2 fried eggs, plus mie goreng, plus pisang goreng. The display of food is ridiculous. I eat the nasi goreng (though not all the rice) have an extra egg, but don’t touch the toast or mie goreng. I can’t resist trying one piece of the fried bananas which turn out to be spectacularly tasty. As usual I am stuffed – or sama sama as they say here. Hopefully me not touching half the food will give either the staff or Andre a clear message that I do not need the breakfast of three people. After breakfast, Andre and I head off on a walk through some of the villages and down to Mamasa town. We see some of the old Tongkonan as well as some new ones. The Christian missionaries successfully managed to suppress most of the traditional culture here in Mamasa, which is similar to Torajan culture but also includes a few celebratory festivals – like harvest, house raising and wedding ceremonies - as well as funeral ceremonies. There is also a heavy use of horses here, so the figurehead on the front of the houses is not a buffalo head, as in Toraja, but a horses head. The house carvings are more elaborate, depicting stories rather than just abstract designs as seen in Toraja. We happen upon women dehusking and winnowing rice, so I too have a go. Everyone is very friendly in Mamasa, more so than in Toraja where people are a little more used to tourists. In Mamasa town we visit the markets and sample a couple of the local sweets, before buying a packet of “gula gula” (small sweets for the kids), have a quick lunch in a local warung, and head off on an afternoon trek. We visit Tedong Tedong, where a number of wooden coffins have been preserved under a roof to present some culture for the tourists. The visitors book is woeful, showing a huge drop off in tourism since the late 90’s. The last visitor before me was 6 months ago! Off into the hills for a lovely trek along ridges, overlooking rice fields, through small villages and across a suspension bridge back to the main road and Udin. We stop to watch a lady weaving an Ikat, which takes her a week to do if she does little else. The Ikat cloth is 5 metres long and she will get 150,000 rupiah for it. Materials cost 60,000, so that’s a profit of 90,000 rupiah, or $12.50 for a weeks’ work. The lady’s family offer us coffee so we sit for a while with the family, talking about various things. One of the men is a local school teacher, they have 117 kids in six classes. Not sure how many teachers they have though!I notice some bamboo in a palm tree, and just after we walk past we meet the man who is about to work the sap for the day. The sap in the palm is collected to make palm wine, but requires preparation where the palm frond is swung from side to side and tapped quite hard with a wooden tapper to get the sap flowing. Apparently they also sing a mantra as well. They do this twice a day for a week before cutting the frond and inserting a bamboo gourd to collect the sap. We end up taking a short cut as I am taking a long time with lots of photographing, including some of the flowers and orchids. A local suggests a shorter route as it will probably be dark if we continue our original route back to the main road. Of course shorter routes mean steeper hills, straight up the side of the mountain!! There is a nice village at the top with a rice barn to sit on and rest while I get my breath back. The rest of the way is downhill, past one more village where I offload the last of my gula gula.
Exhausted, we return to the hotel where I have a hot bath in the hot springs. Couldn’t care less about mosquitoes now. Nice and relaxed I join Andre for dinner. The traditional dance is scheduled for tonight and I can hear them practicing nearby. But the Japanese tourists have not arrived and it is a 12 hour drive from Makassar airport, where they arrived from Bali this morning. Some French tourists have arrived however, and after dinner and further waiting, the dance commences. It is a mixture of local and regional songs, performed by school students, so you can imagine how tired they are! It is very entertaining, and after they finish I head off to bed. The Japanese tourists arrive about 11:30 pm, but I don’t hear a thing, sleeping like a baby.


Udin is sick with a fever, he missed dinner last night, but says he feels OK today. Today is a long drive down to the coast then another 4 - 5 hours to Makassar. First we stop at an Ikat shop, where I buy two of the local sarongs for 130,000 Rp each, that’s less than 20 AUD!!
Then off down that horrid bumpy road to Polewale, but at least it is sunny today and the views spectacular. After a bush toilet stop, Andre and I walk for a while just to stretch the legs and take in some fresh air, before jumping in the van for more pummeling.
We continue on from Polewali to Pare Pare for a late lunch at the Kibu Beach Restaurant, before the rest of the drive down to Makassar. Udin is driving like a man possessed, I figure he desperately wants to get home as he is still feverish and unwell. Luckily I have a view that local drivers know what they’re doing and I just sit back and enjoy the mayhem of overtaking and squeezing in and honking horns etc that goes with the territory. Anyone else would have been scared shitless!! When we get to my hotel, Udin apologises profusely for his daredevil driving and for the fact that he now feels so unwell he is physically incapable of getting out of the car to help me with my luggage. I assume he either has Dengue or Malaria and suggest he go straight to see a doctor (I also make sure he has enough money to do so). I am, afterall, quite capable of balancing my luggage on my little finger, so I'm sure I can make it to my room without mishap!!

The hotel in Makassar is 5 star, on stilts over the water. I enjoy a lovely hot shower before meeting Andre and accompanying him on his motorbike to meet his sisters and mother. Andre had been asking about New York (the home of our mutual friend), and since I was carrying a DVD of a video I had made in New York last year, I show him and his family. I also show them last year’s Lembeh video, and they are blown away by the amazing critters to be found in their oceans. here's a link to the videos.

for more photos click here

The next morning I flew to Manado for more critter diving in Lembeh Strait.