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.