Friday, 25 April 2008

South Sulawesi: Entering Tana Toraja via the 'back door'

Trekking from Mamasa to Tana Toraja, Sulawesi, Indonesia

Originally published in The Jakarta Post, 22/07/07

The straps of my backpack cut into my shoulders and my legs ached as I struggled up the last steep rise through the pine trees.
Ahead of me lay another two days of walking along 50 kilometers of mountain track, and I began to wonder if this was a good idea. As the ground levelled and a cooling breeze ran in, a heartening view opened in both directions.
Behind me the long green curve of the Mamasa Valley ran away to the west, and ahead, beyond an army of interlocking spurs and ridges, lay my destination: Tana Toraja.


The highland fastness of Tana Toraja in Sulawesi is famed for its traditional culture. Most visitors arrive by bus or air from Makassar, the capital and main gateway of Sulawesi, but I had decided to slip in through the back door, a route that meant three days of hard walking through remote mountain villages.
From Makassar I travelled north by bus, following the coast road. The blue water of the Makassar Strait shone in the sunlight; inland, knobbly limestone hills rose from the plain.
In the town of Polewali I transferred to a passenger jeep. Soon I was peering out through the mist at high forested hills.
The journey from Polewali to Mamasa is less than 100 kilometers, but the road is a wild one, doubling back and forth up sheer hillsides and dipping into sodden valleys. It took more than five hours, and I reached Mamasa long after dark.
Mamasa town is the capital of the region of the same name, a bustling little place beside a shining river, hemmed in by green hills.
Mamasa is sometimes known as West Toraja, and it shares many characteristics with its famous neighbor across the mountains. There is beautiful upland scenery, a host of traditional villages, and some remarkable architecture.
But Mamasa has no air transport and the road from the coast is terrible. It is far more remote than Toraja, and almost untouched by tourism.

Reaching the summit

The next morning I took an ojek (motorcycle taxi) east along the valley. The mountain air was clear. Horses and buffalo grazed on the cropped pastures between the pine trees. The road deteriorated the further we went, and at the tiny hamlet of Pa'kassasan the driver left me. I shouldered my backpack and started walking.
The track wound gently though villages, some with beautiful traditional houses. The houses of Mamasa are known as banua sura, and are similar to the famed tongkonan of Toraja, decorated in blacks, reds and golds.
Beyond the last village the road began to climb steeply through the creaking forest. I sweated and my pack felt terribly heavy, but eventually I reached a tiny cluster of wooden houses called Pasapa.
The name means ""summit"" in the local language, and that's just what it was. I could see Mamasa far behind me, gray cloud now rolling in, and ahead was the road to Toraja.
After a cup of sweet, dark coffee in a little shack by the roadside I set out downhill through the forest to the hamlet of Timbaan where Ibu Maria, a kindly middle-aged lady, runs a simple homestay for passing trekkers.
Timbaan was a peaceful place at the head of a long valley. I sat outside the rickety wooden house resting my tired feet in the afternoon listening to the sounds of the village: children's voices, the crowing of roosters and the lowing of buffalo from the terraces below the road.
A century ago all the people of the Mamasa area followed their own ancestor-worshipping religion. The first Dutch missionaries did not reach the valley until the 1920s, but as in Toraja the majority are Christian now.
As well as a simple church, Timbaan had a tiny mosque with a rusted steel dome. But there was no electricity here, and no loudspeaker to amplify the muezzin's call to evening prayer in the purple light of dusk.

'It could have been Scotland'

In the morning I set out downhill. The highland landscape was surreally beautiful, wisps of damp cloud smoking off the hillsides and layers of thin mist clinging to the pine trees.
This was a strange place where tropical and alpine worlds met. I passed through hamlets with palms and banana trees, then entered tall stands of sweet-scented spruce.
At lunchtime, after crossing the Masuppu River and climbing steeply through rice terraces I reached the village of Ponding, the last in Mamasa district. I stopped to chat for a while with Dr Teddy, a charming young Jakarta native. He and another doctor run the little clinic that serves the valley.
I plodded onward uphill. The sun was shining brightly now and the water glittered in the rice fields. The road was in a terrible state, surfaced with jagged, football-sized boulders.
I was astonished that vehicles ever managed to pass this way, and I was happy to be on foot, not bouncing in the back of a jeep. Even so, I was glad when I reached the village of Paku where I stopped for the night in a family home.
Somewhere after Ponding I had crossed the invisible boundary from the new province of West Sulawesi, and I was now on the fringes of Tana Toraja.
Paku was another perfect mountain village, full of gentle sound, and after a simple dinner of rice and fried fish I fell asleep listening to the rain pattering on the tin roof.
It was uphill again in the morning through cool shade. An hour out of Paku I reached a pass where the track was a mess of yellow mud. Here I felt far from the tropics. There were no houses or rice terraces; only mist, pines and a cool breeze. It could have been Scotland.
Indonesia reappeared a couple of hours later as I shambled into the big village of Bittuang. Suddenly after three days walking along a rough track the road surface changed to asphalt, and soon I was sitting in a passenger jeep, racing through the hills towards the Torajan heartland.

Sheer cliffs, epic funerals

Tana Toraja needs little introduction. Sprawling over the mountainous hinterland of South Sulawesi, it stands out even in Indonesia's spectacular myriad of traditional cultures. Stunning scenery and tumbling rice terraces, villages of remarkable tongkonan houses, sheer cliff faces where mysterious effigies stare out from carved niches, and wild funerals when buffalo are sacrificed combine to make Tana Toraja one of the most fabled destinations in the archipelago.
Arriving on foot through seemingly endless mountains, it was easy for me to see why strong traditions had survived here, cut off from the outside world.
Apart from a brief and unhappy occupation by Bugis warriors from the coast in the 17th Century, Toraja remained utterly isolated until last century.
It was only in the early 1900s that the Dutch colonial authorities fought their way in and took control.
Enthusiastic Protestant missionaries arrived in 1913, but they met with scant success: Two decades later there were fewer than 2000 Torajan Christians, and even at Indonesian Independence the majority still clung to their traditional Aluk Todolo religion, a blend of animism and ancestor worship.
Now the majority in Toraja are Christian, but the new faith has accommodated many old ways. The dead are still buried in caves; effigies, known as tau tau, are still carved and placed in cliff face niches and, most importantly, epic funerals of bloody sacrifice are held every year in the dry months of July and August.


After resting my blistered feet for a night in the busy little market town of Rantepao I hired a motorbike and set out to explore.
Some of the traditional sites around Toraja have been geared up for tourists. At the village of Ke'te Kesu there are souvenir stalls and a ticket booth, and likewise at the cave graves of Londa and Lemo.
But these are no mummified vestiges of a culture. Head out on the network of winding lanes that lead into the hills and you will find that almost every village has a rank of spectacular tongkonan houses.
The buildings are said to represent a boat, with an arched roofline and a high decorated prow and are often adorned with tall columns of buffalo horns, a symbol of status, and protection from evil spirits.
They are always aligned north-south, and are faced by a row of rice barns, carved and roofed in similar style.
I spent a night sleeping in a tongkonan in the cool air of Batu Tumonga, a tiny village high on a mountainside. The views were spectacular, and in the silent darkness the lights of Rantepao glittered far below and a yellow moon rose behind the hills.
In the morning I rode on, often losing my way among the rice fields and stopping in nameless hamlets to admire the buildings and chat with the friendly villagers.
I could have spent weeks exploring the area, but my time was running out. That evening I rode back to Rantepao, and left Toraja, heading back to Makassar the usual way -- by bus!

© Tim Hannigan 2007

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