Tuesday, 15 November 2011


Central Sulawesi

Even paradise can become predictable after three weeks, especially when Richard and I had been alone on Poyalisa Island for the last week, and we decided to drag ourselves away. There are not many places where the staff has cried on our departure- we were also very sad to leave them, and the beautiful place.

Sal with the Poyalisa staff

We took a comfortable ride on a rough road to Poso, a big town, where we spent three days catching up on internet and eating ice-cream (we really missed that on the island!) From there we headed down the “highway” to Tentena, a small town on Danau Poso, the third largest lake in Indonesia (the largest is Lake Toba in Sumatra- any takers on the second biggest?) The country side is lovely here, much cleaner than the southern areas we had travelled in, with plenty of fresh air, and the scenery around the lake is hilly, very lush and green. A big industry here is fishing on the lake, with traps set up to catch the catfish, goldfish and GIANT eels they enjoy eating in the area. We had now hit the start of the monsoon, with rain coming in torrents for an hour or two in the evening. We mostly walked to nearby villages, but hired a motorbike for one day, and went further afield to some beautiful waterfalls, churches (this area is VERY Christian), lake views and watched the locals harvesting their cocoa plants- an important crop in these parts.

Little boys fishing on the lake, Tentena

Fish trap on the lake, Tentena

School kids going wild, Tentena
Processing the cocoa plant

Cocoa growing

Tentena waterfalls

Tentena waterfalls

Tentena church

We were lucky enough to catch the last day of the Poso Lake Festival, where the undisputed highlight of the day was the greasy pole race, where local lads tried to climb to the top of the pole and fetch tickets attached to the top. Their prizes were assorted plastic kitchen tools.

Starting out on the greasy pole....
Getting there....

Made it to the top!

Weird coconut man

The Tentena to Palopo bus was amazing in terms of leg room (double that of a normal bus), and comfort (the seats folded out into beds, the AC actually worked, and for the first time NO-ONE smoked on the bus!), and the scenery down through the mountains was lovely. Unfortunately Sally was a sick as a dog, as were most of the other passengers, so the sounds and smells of vomit were in the air for the first part of the trip. Of course Richard was completely unaffected and sat there stuffing his face with buns and cakes! We unknowingly timed our arrival in Palopo with the Muslim holiday of Idul Adha, where everyone that can afford it will kill a cow or goat, and distribute the bits and pieces to people less fortunate. So our visit to the port to see the Bugis ships was interrupted by friendly families encouraging us into their courtyards to see the animals being cut up, and to have drinks and snacks in their “parlours”. We were relieved when the gracious owner of our hotel invited us to join half the town for a buffet dinner she was providing as part of the celebration, as literally nothing else was open anywhere.

Cutting up meat, Palopo

Another, even more picturesque trip up the mountains again to Rantepao, the centre of the Toraja region, was waiting for us from Palopo. This time we were in a kijang (shared 4-wheel drive) with plenty of fresh air, and were able to take pleasure in the waterfalls galore, little enclaves with their distinctive architecture, and greenness of the rice fields. The rains had caused quite a big slide on the road, and at one point there were buses and kijangs lined up to take it in turns to slip-slide through the mud and try to avoid the humongous gaping hole down to the valley below.

Road to Rantepao
This was scary

Rantepao is probably as touristy as it gets in Sulawesi, and true to form, we saw about eight other bule during our time there (Bali it’s not!!) . It is the off season, after all- apparently in July and August the place is chock-a-block, but it’s hard to imagine now. The people of Tanah Toraja are Christian, but with a twist so wild, it's almost unrecognizable. Before those missionaries got to them, Toraja people believed very strongly in a "Family God", and even now, that tradition has endured. A big part of that belief is honouring family when they die. For them, death is the most important part of life (does that make sense?!), and all their savings are spent on hugely lavish ceremonies. The biggest expense is the ritual slaughtering of sometimes dozens of buffalo, and other animals. The buffalo are especially sacred, and families will spend up to $8000 on one beast!! It's hard to imagine where they could possible come up with that money- over half the population in Sulawesi lives on $2 a day or less. It has also created a problem of not enough buffaloes, and they now imported from other countries, specifically for the funerals!

Huge horns
Taking good card of them while they are alive
Building up the shoulder muscles in an part albino buffalo

These funerals have become somewhat of a macabre tourist attraction. We had met other travelers who had attended them, and although they sounded fascinating, the "big event" of sacrificing large animals didn't appeal to either of us. Apparently the buffalo is especially important connection with humans and the spirits, but we didn't like the voyeuristic sound of paying to watch animals dying in agony with blood flying everywhere, even if it is to pay respect to the departed. So we declined any invitations, and focused on the many other enthralling aspects of Toraja life and culture.

There are dozens of  small villages in the area around Rantepao, and each day we took a bemo (minibus), or other local transport out to see a different one. The first day we vastly underestimated the distances, and got caught out far away in the hills, many miles from town, but made it back with very sore bodies from walking so far, and hanging onto our ojeks for dear life speeding down the very steep and atrociously broken roads!
The local ancient architectural style is one of the most distinctive we've ever seen, with villages still being built in the traditional tongkonan way, many with standing stones nearby. Some places we were free to walk around a look, while others had an entrance fee of about AU$1, which we thought was fair enough. When Toraja people die, the body stays in the family home until the family have saved enough for the expensive funeral. After this time, the burial place will be in a coffin, often elaborately carved, in a cliff face nearby the village. Sometimes the graves are carved into a cave out of the rock, where the dead a placed inside, or "hanging" graves, up high on the outside of the cliffs, with tau tau (effigies) protecting them from plunderers (they are buried with all their wealth). It makes for an eerie scene, especially when there are bones and sculls scattered around, as is often the case.

We apologize for the bad quality of some of these photos- some weird curse thing came over our camera in some of the burial site shots!

Cave grave, Toraja

Coffin carvers at work, Toraja
Coffin with window!

Burial site

Standing stone

Tongkonan houses, Toraja

Buffalo jaws, Toraja

The more horns, the higher status of the owners

Burial site, Toraja

Burial site, Toraja

Elaborate pig coffin

Coffin, Toraja region

"Hanging" graves, Toraja

Tau tau, or effigies

Tau tau, Toraja

Tau Tau, Toraja region

Burial site, Toraja

Burial site, Toraja

Tau Tau, Tanah Toraja area

The scenery around Toraja is simply stunning, and the monsoon season with it's mist, and dark, brooding clouds, only seemed to add to the beauty. Although most of the locals were quite friendly, we missed that exuberance with which people greeted us in the more remote areas! People in the areas around Rantepao are much more used to bule (foreigners) and their strange ways, and for the first time in Sulawesi, we felt an apathy and indifference towards us. We couldn't believe the little kids up in the hills who didn't want to say hello, but held their hands out for lollies, and when we didn't have any gave us the middle finger! No idea where they get that from!

Toraja scenery

View from the hills around Tanah Toraja

Walking around Toraja region

We stayed in the area about one week, before the teeming rain drove us out, and we took another plush overnight bus to Makassar, every bit as spacious as our bus to Palopo . Here we spent two luxurious (for us!) days eating fast food, going to the cinema, window shopping in air conditioned shopping centers, catching up on WIFI Internet at our guesthouse- all things we haven't had the opportunity to do for the 2 months we've been in Sulawesi.

I have to admit, I felt emotional upon leaving Sulawesi, thinking back over all the places we've seen, and especially all the helpful and kind people we have met. We really felt a connection with the locals here- partly because other tourists are so rare, partly because it's a bit easier to speak a bit of their language than some other places we have visited, but mostly just because of the wonderful people that they are.

Just a few more notes about travel in Sulawesi:                                                                                                    
  • Transportation- We took a combination of buses, kijangs, minibuses, ojeks (motorbike taxis),  becak (motorized rickshaw), and of course, plenty of boats. Apart from the two luxury long distance buses we took, which were fantastic (and, of course, more pricey), public transport is uncomfortable, hot, cramped and ALWAYS late! It was also the cheapest way to see Sulawesi (although not as cheap as we’d expected, considering petrol here is about 53 cents a litre), and we were always the star attraction on any mode of transport we took. Distances are huge and slow, and we were glad we had plenty of time. 

Our fanciest kijang

Togean island transport

Rantepao becak
Old fashioned rickshaws, Banggai

  • Food- We were looking forward to fantastic, cheap seafood in Sulawesi, and that is exactly what we got. The local’s basic meal is freshly caught BBQ fish, with white rice, soup, a spicy sambal sauce, and sometimes some kind of vegetable dish. Heaven! We paid between $1 and $2 each for this feast. Other street food was not quite as appealing to us, with instant noodles being a predominate ingredient, but when got sick of fish (believe it or not, it did happen!), we ate fried rice, gado-gado (vegetables and rice with peanut sauce), noodle soup, sate, and stir fry veggies- all usually between $1 and $2 a meal. Sulawesi produces its own coffee, and it’s great- very strong, and usually comes with copious amount of condensed milk in it. To satisfy our considerable sweet teeth, we discovered a Sulawesi specialty called tetu, which tasted like crème caramel, but with rice flour and palm sugar. Yum!

    Typical fish meal

    • Accommodation- Room standards in Sulawesi are generally very low. Sometimes the price is also low, but usually they are not particularly good value for money. We tried not to compare what we were paying for some of our basic hovels to what we would pay in other parts of South-east Asia - a pointless exercise, but it was hard not to! We paid an average of 100,000 rupiah a night (about $11), for our rooms, sometimes with share bathroom and sometimes with breakfast included.

    We passed our two year anniversary of “The Journey” whilst in Sulawesi, and are thoroughly enjoying ourselves seeing new places, visiting old favorites and meeting up with interesting people, and we are happy to keep going wherever our adventures take us.

    Sunday, 30 October 2011


    Banggai Island 

    Our first sailing on Indonesia’s famous ferry line, Pelni, was an eye-opener to say the least. It almost goes without saying, that when we turned up at 7am to board our ship to Banggai, we discovered it was late, and didn’t end up leaving until 1.30 pm. We expect these things, but what we didn’t expect was the ridiculous scrum to board the ship. Instead of letting everybody who was getting off in Bau Bau disembark first, someone decided it would be a good idea to open all the gates, so hundreds of people were getting on and off at the same time through a opening big enough only for single file. The situation was made worse by porters shoving their way through the thick crowds to nab a job carrying someone’s luggage and cargo.

    Chaos at Bau Bau port

    Bau Bau port (a quiet moment)

    Bau Bau port

    We finally made it on, and set off to find our seats. Sea travel isn’t quite as cheap as we expected here, so we opted for deck class (the cheapest). We had a deck number and a seat number, but as the ship was coming from Java, a trip of several days away, everyone was well and truly settled into their bunks. It was pretty grotty down there, and extremely hot, so we found a quiet-ish space on the deck, spread out our rice sacks that Richard has been carrying around since India, and enjoyed the first part of the journey, with sunny weather and views of uninhabited islands, as well as fishing villages. The night was not so enjoyable, as we tried to sleep on the rock hard deck, and we were happy to arrive in Banggai in the wee hours of the morning. 

    Pelni ferry, deck

    Pelni ferry, inside

    Not having any idea about Banggai, we decided for a couple more hours of hard semi-sleep in the ferry terminal, to wait for the sun to rise. When it did, we found a ramshackle, busy and tiny town, with the same welcoming and responsive people we have found everywhere so far on our Sulawesi trip. It seems Banggai is another place rarely visited by foreigners, and everyone immediately wanted to be friendly and say hello and talk to us as much as possible. We were amazed to find one hotel (and not too bad, either), and collapsed into bed without even a shower, for a deep catch up sleep for several hours. 

    Hotel room, Banggai

    Our hotel welcome

    Cloves drying

    Banggai girls

    After attempting to hire a motor bike for the day to look around the island (a concept not understood at all), we opted for a combination of walking and minibuses, and explored some of the area for the next couple of days. We did have visions of beautiful isolated beaches, but what we got was small villages with bamboo huts, some on stilts over the sea, people making a living from fishing, a lot of rubbish, markets and lots and lots of smiling faces everywhere. 

    Banggai chooks

    Starting early

    Banggai village

    Banggai village

    Banggai village

    Banggai village

    Crab traps

    Banggai village

    One highlight was a visit to the local market, where the stall owners, especially in the fish section, were outrageously happy to see us, and all wanted their pictures taken- we had a fun time there!

    Fish market, Banggai

    Big fish (on the left)

    Fish market, Banggai

    Fish market, Banggai

    Market colour

    Yet another boat ride awaited us from Banggai. We were becoming naturals (of course, Richard is very experienced on boats, but Sally’s annoying habit of sea-sickness seemed to have been cured!), and knew this time to show up super early at the port on the other side of the island for the 9am boat to Luwuk. Although we had visited the harbour the previous day and checked (in Indonesian) about the day and time of the boat, when we arrived we were told it wasn’t leaving today, but there was another boat leaving from the port five minutes from where we had been staying! So we rushed back to find it actually wasn’t leaving until 1 pm (in other words, between 2pm and 3pm). We had a few reservations upon seeing the rickety old ferry, but when we boarded we found a great boat with mattresses all set out to sleep on, plenty of fresh air (it was entirely open at the sides), and the ticket lady had given us the best bunks right at the back, so we could lie down and still see the view! As usual, everyone else rushed on at the last minute, were curious about us, and to the strains of the theme from Titanic on someone’s mobile phone, we set sail!  We spent the next eight hours, snoozing and watching out for sea mammals, which are supposed to be common in that area. Right near the end of the trip, we were lucky enough to see a pod of dolphins very close by following the boat. The scenery was beautiful, and similar to our other trips by sea along the east coast.

    Banggai to Luwuk ferry

    Banggai to Luwuk ferry

    View from Banggai to Luwuk ferry

    We had an unfortunately terrible hotel in Luwuk, and decided, because of that mainly, to leave immediately the next morning. Again, confusion with where we caught the bus, but we finally sorted it out, and found ourselves on a swanky kijang (share 4-wheel drive taxi) heading to Ampana. The trip along this peninsula was one of the most stunning of our travels, with us driving through secluded beaches, mangroves and jungle. We had advice to stay in a village just outside of Ampana for the night to be near the ferry for the Togean Islands the next morning, and we headed straight there. A good thing about the kijangs is they will generally drop passengers where-ever they want to go within the town, often saving another trip from an inevitably far flung bus terminal.

    Togean Islands
    We were now to find out where all the other travellers we hadn’t seen for nearly three weeks had been hiding! On our little ferry from Ampana to Poyalisa Island (part of the Togean Island group), four other tourists all going to the same resort. It was a shock, but nice for us to chat with English speakers again.  Typically, half way into the three hour trip, our ferry lost half its power, and we limped into dock at Poyalisa Island, much to the relief of the crew, who were having to hand pump the water out of the boat (the pump had stopped working!).

    Nearly there, Poyalisa Island

    Togean ferries

    The Togeans, along with Rantepao and Pulau Bunaken in the north, are the most popular destinations on Sulawesi, and when we arrived at the island, we found out why! Poyalisa is a true tropical paradise, and everything looks absolutely perfect, as it would on a postcard. It is about one acre of gleaming white sand, crystal clear water, surrounded by coral, with eight simple, pretty, wooden huts, no running water or electricity (only a generator at night), and a basic restaurant. We were surprised at the tiny size of the place, and also that it was full! As we stayed here, people came and went- sometimes there were 20 people, and at other times just the two of us. We scored a hut with sweeping views of both side of the island, as well as a bird’s eye view of who was coming and going! Good for sticky beaks like us! The deal with most places in the Togeans is a package, where all food is included in the price of the hut (most places are remote and there are no restaurants). At Poyalisa, the amazing food was cooked in Bomba, a small village five minutes away by boat, and brought over four times a day. Yes, four times a day! For us, who usually only eat once or twice a day, it was a struggle, but the food was so delicious, we ate everything put in front of us! The snorkeling we were doing every day off the island did help us to work up an appetite. It was like being inside a tropical aquarium in those waters, definitely the best underwater sights we have seen- hundreds of different sorts of brightly colored fish, and some colorful coral, although dynamite fishing has been rampant around here in the not too distant past, and destroyed a lot of it. We aren’t the best snorkelers in the world, but we practiced a lot around the island, and eventually went out of a few of the free snorkeling trips organized with other guests. We were very happy, and decided to stay a while. We grew used to being pampered, with the women who worked on the island so welcoming and hospitable, and always making sure we had enough to eat and drink, bringing us afternoon tea on our verandah, and doing an amazing job of cleaning up around the place- they swept the entire island every day! Being away from all noise (except the put-put of the small boat engines), and the pollution of the towns was wonderful.

    Short video of the entire island, including our bungalow, the ladies sweeping the beach, and the restaurant:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z3neQLx4-bs

    View from verandah

    Our bungalow


    "Our" beach

    Gorgeous trip to mangroves