A Travellerspoint blog

Sulawesi - Indonesia

sunny 30 °C



Growing up in England, we've become particularly accustomed to banal small talk with strangers - it did not take us long to realize that the Indonesian people appear to be much more to the point. We sat next to a lovely Indonesian lady called Poppy on the plane to Makassar, whose first question to us was: "So when do you plan on getting married?". This seems to be a perfectly acceptable question that results in Shaun breaking into a cold sweat and squirming uncomfortably in his chair. The next question was: "How much do you earn?" and the conversation gets no less invasive as time goes on. When we landed, Poppy and her family insisted on driving us into Makassar, to our hostel and then arranging to take us out for lunch the next day.

Makassar is a big chaotic city of minimal appeal. Actually if I'm being completely honest it's about as appealing as a hole in the head. The only redeeming factor was being taken out by Poppy and her daughter for a delicious Makassarian lunch followed by traditional cakes and desserts. We then met the whole family including her two adorable grandchildren, before she left us with a big bag of pastries for the bus journey that night! We kept waiting for the catch but it never materialized (although they did make us try durian fruit - which to us had the smell, taste and consistency of what can only be described as cheesy sick).P3070681.jpg

The rest of our time in Makassar was quite tiring, with people following us round for hours asking to practice their English, take our picture, record us speaking or just shouting 'hello mister!' and staring at us so intensely that we had to check we hadn't suddenly sprouted another head. So we were glad to settle onto the bus that night and head up to Tana Toraja (even if we didn't get a minute of sleep as the driver insisted on playing hard core dance music the whole night).

Tana Toraja

After a sleepless night on a cockroach infested rave bus, we arrived in Rantepo to an onslaught of hostel owners, ojek drivers and guides, which we did not have the patience to deal with as 6am. So after checking into our hostel we hid away in our room for a few hours to catch up on some sleep. One guide had sat waiting for us for hours outside our room, and in the in end his persistence paid off and we hired him for the next day.

Although around 90% of Torajans are Christian, they still retain many of their traditional beliefs and ceremonies - especially when it comes to their funerals and attitudes towards death, which remain an integral part the Torajan life style and culture. In fact, many people spend their whole lives saving up for their own elaborate funeral ceremony. When a family member dies they are injected with formaldehyde and kept in the family home, and are not regarded as deceased until their funeral up to a year later. Buffalo sacrifices are of utmost importance n Torajan Funeral ceremonies, as they believe that the spirit of the animal caries the deceased into the afterlife, and as buffaloes are such a symbol of status and wealth, over 40 Buffalo can be sacrificed at an upper class funeral - each costing the price of a small car!

Whilst we were in Toraja, we were lucky enough to attend two funerals. The first ceremony was only small, but as it was the 3rd day it was the day when the buffaloes were sacrificed. We had not been there long when the massacre began with a squealing pig being dragged by it's back legs into the clearing where it was stabbed in the heart and gutted before having it's hair singed off with a kerosene torch.
This however in no way prepared us for what was to happen next. Five placid yet proud buffalo were led into the clearing, and one by one their throats were slit in one swift motion. A crimson fountain exploded from the giant red wound, as they reared up and threw back their huge heads before falling silent and dignified to the floor. All this taking place in front of an incongruous Christian pulpit and crucifix, made it seem like a scene from a bizarre macabre nightmare.

The next funeral was much bigger, and as it was the 2nd day; the receiving of the guests, it had much less blood and death and seemed much more like a party! There must have been around a thousand guests for the funeral of a 90 year old man. The beautiful Grandchildren of the deceased wore colorful traditional Torajan dress, and were so welcoming. They thanked us for coming and asked if they could take pictures with us before seating us with the family for tea and cakes. A few of the smaller Grandchildren followed Shaun round like little shadows, and an old woman chewing bettel nuts and who had the most infectious laugh, sat with us and tried to teach us some Torajan phrases. The guests were lead in by the Grandchildren in groups of around fifty, preceded by their donations of live pigs strapped to bamboo or huge barrels of palm wine. A big circle of people all dressed in black sang traditional songs as each group of guests was seated and presented with cigarettes and betel nuts. It couldn't have been further from the funerals we have back home, it felt more like a celebration of the life of the deceased and a time when family and friends come from all over the country (some even as far as Papua and Australia) to get together and essentially have a big three day party. There was even a videographer their to record the entire event!

After the funerals we went for a lunch of palm wine and pork cooked in bamboo. I was still feeling a little queasy, but Shaun polished off all of his and the majority of mine... it takes more than a couple of animal sacrifices to put him off his food! We then went to see some rock graves, where detailed wooden effigies of the deceased, with blank eyes and outstretched arms, guard the grave from a little balcony.
We also went to an ancient cave grave, which although was set amid tranquil, glistening rice fields, was a little unnerving once we'd clambered into the dark, dank cave to find it littered with skulls and watched over by more eerie wooden effigies.
After that, the rain came like we'd never seen rain before and cut our unexpectedly enjoyable day short. So after Shaun had a crash course in off-road scootering - tackling roads that a 4X4 would struggle with, we arrived back at the hostel completely exhausted and soaked to the bone.

The next day we decided to go exploring the region without a guide. We started the day at the livestock market. We wondered between old men selling little squealing piglets from sacks, and huge fully grown pigs strapped down to bamboo, their guttural, child-like squeals filling the air.
The next stop were the stars of the show; the hundreds of great, docile buffaloes tied up by the rings through their noses as potential buyers deliberated over which would look best at the upcoming funerals. As we were leaving we saw the highly sort after white buffalo - with black spots and wild blue eyes - being paraded round by their proud owners. They can be sold for up to $10,000!
We then jumped back onto the scooter and headed into the hills. Toraja is beautiful, littered with towering, Tongkahon houses crowned by sweeping boat-shaped roofs, set amid cascading rice paddies to a backdrop of misty, jungle-clad hills. Soaring Megaliths,ornate hanging graves and picturesque villages dot the landscape. Friendly old women bent double from a life time working in the fields stop to chat, kids run out of their houses to shout hello, huge buffalo wallow in the mud or cool off in the streams whilst families work away in the fields. The people we met were so passionate about their culture, and were more than happy to tell us stories and answer our questions. Despite such a heavy emphasis on death, it really is one of the most beautiful and unique places we have ever been.

Togean Islands

We had been told that getting to the Togean Islands was an adventure in itself, but despite it taking us a whole three days to get there, it was a lot easier than expected. We took a painfully slow but scenic ten hour bus journey to Tentenna, which at one point came to a complete standstill when a fallen tree blocked the road and so Shaun, along with the driver and a few other passengers, had to saw it in half and heave it out of the way. We had to stay the night in Tentenna, where no one really spoke much English and we consequently had to pick up some Indonesian phrases pretty quickly. We eventually found someone to drive us to Ampanna the next day, where we had to stay another night before getting a boat to the islands. On the boat over, we were asleep on the deck when the captain ('Captain Nine' he proudly told us, as he was missing a thumb!) woke us up to show us a huge pod of dolphins jumping right by our boat. I think it was at that point that we realized that the three day journey was definitely going to be worth it.

We arrived on Poyalisa island, and stepped off the boat onto complete paradise. It was a tiny island holding one resort with just eight other people staying there. For just ten pounds a day we had our own private bungalow, plus three meals a day (invariably fresh fish and rice with spicy tomato salsa - but still delicious!). All the guests ate together on one long table so there was a really sociable atmosphere where everyone got to know each other pretty quickly. The island had two pristine white sand beaches, and the sea was so unbelievably calm and clear that we didn't even need a snorkel - we could just hang off the jetty and see the colourful aquarium below like we were looking through glass. The best time of the day was always sunset, where everyone gathered with a couple of beers to watch the sun sink slowly beyond the horizon, as burnt orange brush stokes appeared across the sky. One night a huge ray lurched about two meters out of the water to the spectacular sunset backdrop, another night we saw huge marlin and hundreds of flying fish skimming across the water. At night, the phosphoresence left twinkling footprints in the sand and there were more stars in the sky than I even thought possible - we could even make out the milky way. If you don't mind bucket showers and the occasional enormous spider... this is paradise!
Some of the staff took us all out on the boat one morning, where we went to an amazing snorkaling spot followed by lunch on a perfect deserted beach. After lunch we cracked open a couple of coconuts that we'd found lying on the sand for dessert before heading back to the island through a Bajo stilt village.
Our next stop on the Togeans was Kadidiri, which although wasn't quite as beautiful and homely as Poyalisa, it was still pretty close to perfect. We spent a few long lazy days sat reading in the hammock on the long sun-bleached wooden jetty that reached out into the sea, punctuated only by a quick snorkel or a few games of badminton.

We went on a day trip to the memorizing jelly fish lake. A completely isolated salt water lake on a neighboring island, where the thousands of jelly fish that inhabit it have lived so isolated for so long without any predators, that they have completely lost the ability to sting. It was so surreal swimming through the swarms if pulsating alien creatures, gently nudging them out of the way, or - if you are Shaun - putting them on your head. We then stopped at yet another perfect beach for a snorkel before heading back to the island.

Much to our disappointment the time eventually came for us to catch the 12 hour night ferry from the neighboring island of Wakai, to Gorantalo back on the mainland. A highlight of the country so far had been the unbelievably friendly locals, especially the kids, who want to constantly try and talk to us. Unfortunately our Indonesian is very poor, but Shaun figured out that magic tricks transcend language barriers. And so waiting for the ferry in Wakai, he was surrounded by a huge group of kids, laughing and dragging their friends over and trying to get him to show them how to make things disapear, or showing us some of their own magic tricks with elastic bands.


After a 12 hour sleepless night ferry, a 10 hour car ride with 7 people people crammed into a car that could really only hold 5 (with a chain smoking driver just to make the journey that little more comfortable!), and a 30 minute speedboat ride, we finally arrived on Bunaken; a small island renound for having some of the best diving in the world. We started diving the very next morning, and our first dive was the best we'd ever done. We saw a white tip reef shark and two green turtles within the first 10 minutes! The next dive spot was spectacular, a huge wall of coral that looked as if a toddler had been let lose with Plasticine and stuck unnaturally bright and colourful, bizarrely shaped blobs haphazardly between the barrel sponges, neon nudibranches and sleeping turtles. The only problem was that the currents were much stronger than we were used to, and we were both finding the dive really difficult. At one point towards the end of the dive, I got caught in a strong up current and dragged up and over the top of the coral wall. The dive master saw me and swam into the current, rescued me and took me back up and onto the boat. Because I was feeling a bit shuck up he gave me a free dive the next day so I could get my confidence back. He took us to a really easy dive site with no currents, where we saw giant clams and a huge sea snake, and I felt much better afterwards.

The main reason people come to Bunaken is for the spectacular world that lies beneath the surface of the sea. But it's also a great a place to relax after a full day of diving and snorkeling. At night we sat on the beach round a big camp fire whilst Lorenzo, the big friendly resort owner, sat and played songs for everyone on his home made ukulele!

Tangkoko national park

After getting the boat back to the mainland, we set off on yet another not so straight forward journey up to Tangkoko national park; the home of the rare nocturnal tarsier and the endangered black crested Macaque. This involved a mikrolet (a small taxi/bus which is really just a mini bus with the doors cut off!), a public bus, another mikrolet and finally a pickup truck crammed with 22 people! We honestly looked like a group of Chinese contortionists! We eventually reached Tangkoko and found a homestay and a guide, who arranged to pick us up at 4:30am the next morning to begin our trek.

The next morning we set off into the dark jungle, and after about an hour we arrived at an enormous knotted banyan tree that was home to the tiny tarsiers. We sat in the dark in front of the tree, and then as the jungle around us began to get lighter, we heard a distant high-pitch singing. The guide turned to me and whispered: 'They're coming!' and a few seconds later we started to see around six of these little fluffy tarsiers, each about the size of your hand, their huge saucer eyes glinting in the light from our torches, their ungainly long legs and arms propelling them through the trees. They stopped a few feet away from us in their banyan tree, staring at us inquisitively with their impossibly big eyes and every now and then jumping close to us to catch an unfortunate cricket from a near by tree. It was amazing to see. After the sun had risen and they had dissapeard within the tree, we set off to search for the endangered black crested Macaques that inhabit the forest. We saw the great hornbill, and poked our heads into another Banyan tree to see yet more sleeping tarsiers, but the Macaques continued to evade us. By 10am we were exhausted, hot and ready for breakfast, but the guide was determined. We'd almost given up hope when we saw a huge macaque stride through the forest floor in front of us. As we followed him more and more macaques began to appear, swinging down from trees, clutching tiny white faced babies, munching on fruit or sat grooming each other on nearby fallen trees. There must have been about 50 of them, going about their daily lives without giving us a second glance as we walked among them.It was definitely a David Attenbourgh moment! At one point I was even sat on a log where 3 macaques were sat grooming each other on the other end. That is until a rather large member of the group strutted up and bared his teeth and I made a swift exit! It was unbelievable, and the only other people we saw in the whole jungle were two BBC documentary cameramen - which kind of gives an indication of how amazing this place was!

So whilst we were still on a high after the best trek of our lives, I decided to leave my bag in a mikrolet on the way back to Monado. That included my camera along with the last weeks worth of pictures (hence the lack of pictures towards the end of this entry!), my kindle, the guide book and my purse... all donated to an Indonesian mikrolet driver. So that was an unfortunate end to the best 3 weeks of our trip so far! But even with the mammoth journeys and occasional unfortunate incidents, this lesser known island of Indonesia has never stopped surprising us and has been the most beautiful, unique and diverse place we've ever been.

Posted by ShaunYardley 03:54 Archived in Indonesia

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