Friday, 14 May 2010

On Foot Through Sulawesi's Traditional Heartland

Walking from Mamasa to Toraja,

Originally published in Bali and Beyond Magazine, April 2010

The mountain village was full of sound: running water, the voices of children, buffalo lowing in the rice terraces, and goats bleating in the pine trees on the higher slopes. But there was no traffic noise; the nearest surfaced road was a full day’s walk back across the mountains.
I was sitting in the shade outside Ibu Maria’s house in the hamlet of Timbaan, enjoying the cool of the evening, and watching the first stars appearing in the pale sky above the pine-studded ridges. I had begun my solo trek that morning. There were two days of walking ahead of me, but if the landscapes I had seen already were anything to go by, the aches and blisters would all be worth it.


Sulawesi, the great, spidery, four-legged island that lies northeast of Bali, is one of Indonesia’s most intriguing destinations. It has a hinterland of green mountains, and clear coral seas offshore. Sulawesi’s most famous attraction is Tana Toraja, an upland fastness in the centre of the island’s southwest “leg”. Home to mountains, tumbling rice terraces, and traditional culture, it stands out even amongst Indonesia’s myriad wonders.
Most visitors to Toraja make their way directly from Sulawesi’s capital Makassar by bus or air, but I had chosen an off-beat route, one that would entail three days of walking through the mountains from the remote neighbouring region of Mamasa. I was slipping into Tana Toraja through the back door.


Like Toraja, Mamasa is mountainous. But while Toraja is now well connected to the outside world, Mamasa remains spectacularly remote and virtually untouched by tourism. There are no air links, and the 100-kilometre journey up from the main coastal highway took five hours along a narrow, potholed road.
Mamasa Town is a small place with a bustling market beside a shining river. I spent a night there, before shouldering my backpack, and setting out, along the track to Toraja.
Mamasa shares many cultural links with its more famous counterpart across the mountains. Most people adopted Christianity during the last century, but pre-Christian traditions are strong, especially in the rites that accompany funerals. As I plodded along the track, I passed open pastures where horses and slate-blue buffalo grazed, and village houses of elaborately carved wood, painted in interlocking patterns of black, red and gold. These houses are known in Mamasa as banua sura.

The trail led into rising forest, and I sweated uphill to reach a high pass, topped with a cluster of banua sura. Behind me I could see the long, mist-cut sweep of the Mamasa Valley; ahead, hidden behind ranks of interlocking ridges, lay my destination – the Toraja heartlands.
It was all downhill to Ibu Maria’s house in Timbaan. This kindly, middle-aged lady keeps a few rooms in her home free for any trekkers who pass. For a modest fee I slept on a lumpy mattress, and dined on rice, stewed vegetables and fried river fish. Ibu Maria even managed to dig out a dusty bottle of Bintang beer from a cupboard. There was no electricity and no fridge, but the cool mountain air had chilled the beer perfectly.
The following days led me through more beautiful landscapes. Villages of wooden houses stood beside bubbling streams and mist smoked over pine-covered hillsides. Gangs of village children chased after me, begging to have their photos taken. The route was easy to find, running along an unsurfaced track above a swift-flowing river, and there was no need for a map. On the second night I slept in a family home in another peaceful mountain village. I had now reached the fringes of Tana Toraja. The houses here had enormous, soaring roofs, and were decorated with buffalo horns. The third day’s walking took me over another high pass and down to Bittuang where I shambled, a little footsore, onto a surfaced road and caught a bus along green valleys to the heart of Tana Toraja.

Tana Toraja is beautiful. Rugged limestone peaks rise above forested valleys, with spectacular terraced rice fields on the lower slopes. Given the landscape it’s easy to see how the area stayed free from outside interference for centuries, and it is this that has made Toraja so special. Traditional ways are remarkably strong here.
Toraja’s villages are famous, and display some of the most spectacular traditional architecture in the world. The houses, known as tongkonan, have huge arched roofs, rising to high peaks. They are said to represent the boats that carried the ancestors of the Toraja people to Sulawesi. A typical Toraja village has a rank of these tongkonan, faced by another row of smaller buildings, designed for storing rice – the staple food.
A few villages, such as Ke’te Kesu near Rantepao, have been developed for tourists with car parks and gift shops. But from the high hillsides of Toraja you can pick out the arched roofs of countless villages, poking out from stands of trees; few of them have ever been visited by sightseers.

The people of Toraja kept invaders at bay for centuries, and they kept foreign religion at arm’s length too. Long after other parts of Sulawesi had converted to Islam and Christianity, Toraja was still a bastion of ancestor worship, known here as Aluk Todolo. Despite the efforts of Dutch missionaries in the early 20th Century, when Indonesia gained its independence in 1949 there were only a handful of Torajan Christians. These days most Torajans are nominal Catholics, but old ways are still maintained, especially when it comes to funerals. In Toraja people are buried in caves and cliff faces. Lifelike effigies of the dead are placed in niches close to the tomb, looking out with blank eyes across ricefields. These are known as tau tau, and some of the most striking can be seen at Lemo, south of Rantepao.
Death is taken seriously in Toraja, and huge investment is made to ensure that the deceased receive a good –and bloody – send off. During funerals dozens of buffalo are sacrificed to ensure a successful journey to the afterlife. Tourists are welcome to attend, and wandering around Rantepao you’re sure to hear of forthcoming ceremonies.


After resting my blistered feet in the little town of Rantepao, I hired a 100cc motorbike and headed for the hills. From the mountain eyrie of Batu Tumonga I looked out over spectacular vistas of rice terrace and forest and spent a night up there, sleeping in a traditional house. In the morning a sea of white mist had filled the valley and the sun rose pink over the distant ranges.
Tana Toraja, and it’s remote neighbour Mamasa, were some of the most beautiful and fascinating parts of Indonesia I had visited, and the route I had taken to get there was a perfect way to reach deeply traditional communities. But my feet were still sore, so when it was time to leave I took the easy option – I caught an air-conditioned bus back out of the mountains and down to Makassar.

© Tim Hannigan 2010


a_tham said...

Thank you for the sharing! I will be there in May and planning to trek from Mamasa to Toraja, wondering if I could easily find the route/path if I dont have a guide/ motobike driver? Also, read that those guides always keep the location of the ceremony a "secret", wonder how could I find out the ceremony myself..


Tim Hannigan said...

Hi Tham.
The route is very easy to follow. It's a few years since I did it, and more recent reports suggest that the road has been improved. But it certainly seems to be nice walking still.
I would suggest getting a ride with a motorbike at least a few kilometres out of Mamasa town, and then starting the walk.
It's a motorable track the whole way, and not really possible to get lost.

As for the funerals, if you went at peak funeral season (a bit later in the year) you could probably find a funeral yourself just by riding around on a motorbike. There are funerals going on at all times of year, however.
It's not so much that guides keep them secret, than that guides actively seek them out in advance, and so always know when there's a funeral taking place, through their networks of informants in the villages.

A regular shopkeeper, waiter, or bus driver in Rantepao is unlikely to know about a funeral taking place 10kms away unless it's a particularly big one, or he has a personal connection there.
A guide, however, will know about it...

For this reason, a guide is likely to be your quickest and easiest way to get access to a funeral...