An October 1997 trip
to Sulawesi by Richard Cain
Quote: Sulawesi, a little bit off the well-beaten path, is one of Indonesia’s hidden jewels - world-famous, cliff-face cemetries and funeral rituals, unique collections of fauna, and volcanoes, and one of the top dive sites in the world. Three weeks was not enough.
I picked the worst possible time for a trip to Sulawesi. It was Idul Fitri - the end of Ramadan where people all over Indonesia are on the move. I had managed to get a ticket on the Pelni ferry from Java. According to the literature, the boat The Kerinci was more like a cruise liner - I was very impressed with the pictures of the well laid-out and clean cabins. As it happened, I wasn't even to see a cabin. The only ticket I had managed to secure was deck class - a euphemism akin to standing room on a bus - only this trip lasted 24 hours. Every last inch of space of the entire ship was occupied. The lifeboats, the stairs, everywhere. One family, who had sequestered a few chairs, allowed me the rare privilege of sleeping under them. The one (and only one) bonus of the trip was that everyone was very friendly - as is usual I find under the most trying of circumstances. It didn't, however, assuage my fears that if we met any sort of rough sea, all of the hundreds of people piled on this heap of scrap metal would surely die. As it happened, we arrived not too late in Ujung Pandang, and I said my good-byes to my surrogate family and headed down the gangplank, happy to have arrived despite the torrential downpour that had heralded our arrival.
Ujung Pandang is a dreary place and I, like most other tourists, quickly left for more interesting pastures and the highlight of Sulawesi - Toraja land.
The Toraja people are famous throughout Indonesia for their elaborate funeral rituals. The dead person is dressed up and later cocooned in multiple layers of funeral shroud. The body then remains in the house until the family can afford the funeral. There are many rites including the ritual slaughter of the buffalo. The one I went to was already awash with blood when I arrived, but, meanwhile, ladies gently stepped over the blood and gore delivering tea to the guests. There has to be many guests for an important man and everyone leaves with a plastic bag full of meat - and that's why it gets so expensive. After the funeral, the deceased is interned in a cliff face cemetery and his effigy (tau tau) placed in a gallery .
After Toraja Land, the road (if you can call it that) wound its way through some of the most beautiful and unspoiled rainforests in Indonesia until finally arriving on the shores of Lake Poso. The lake area is very sparsely populated and is home to some very rare fauna and beautiful sights.
After Poso, and a number of inauspicious little towns, I arrived at Ampana and embarked on the ferry to the Togian Islands. It must be said it would have been rickety for a 2- or 3-hour journey, but this one was overnight. There was a bridge occupied by the captain and the first mate, but, otherwise, the passengers had to either find a piece of deck space or go in the hold and sit on the sacks of produce that were accompanying us. The following morning we arrived at Wakai -the only town of the Togians - and a Wild West town it was. As there were four foreigners on board, we were soon found by Mr. Big (that's what his business card said), and he convinced us to go on his outrigger canoe and stay at his Paradise bungalows on a nearby island. As it happens, it wasn't misnamed - there were seven bungalows on a pristine white beach on a small island miles away from civilization.
I spent a week on Kadidiri Island (there was only one ferry a week) - but I had a great time. I went diving - which despite the rudimentary safety conditions, was absolutely amazing – in pristine waters and by coral untouched by humans. Added to that there was a complete W.W.II bomber in 20m of water, which looked fabulous. I also went exploring around the tiny island in a dugout canoe and visited the local sea gypsy village. We had one unwelcome visitor - a crocodile, which was fortunately captured and surprisingly, or so I thought, it was taken away to be released on a more outlying island.
After a week in paradise, I was back on the ferry. This time I got to chat to the captain - a rather comical fellow who doesn't direct things from the bridge, but sits in a high chair on the deck and directs things through a megaphone. But he is professional - after all he does have a captain's hat with an anchor on the front. He is very proud of his boat of course, as it has all the modern requirements - compass, steering wheel, and fairy lights strung around the bridge. I thought it best not to ask about a radio or life jacket, never mind lifeboats. Anyway, it was another overnight journey and we headed off into the sunset with a pleasant breeze, and, soon, I drifted off to sleep. I was rudely awakened however by a dangerous lurching of the boat. Fortunately, we seemed to be close to the shore, and, in actual fact, we had hit a reef coming into a small port. By morning, it had become apparent that our steering was broken. I went ashore and left the matter in the capable hands of the captain and his team. It took a surprisingly short amount of time to get things fixed, and we were once again off into the open sea. Later on in the afternoon I was greatly relieved to spot land, but this was short lived, as it became apparent that, without any navigation instruments, the captain really had no idea where we were. We therefore spent another 4 hours following the coast until we reached our final destination - the port of Gorontalo.
Four hours on, after the rest of Sulawesi, Manado comes as a bit of a shock. It is noisy and brash, as if influenced by the Philippines, a few hundred miles to the north. It is in fact, by Indonesian standards, quite wealthy; a result of its agricultural products: cloves, nutmeg, coconuts, and coffee, but also has increasingly tourism - attracted by the world famous coral gardens of Bunaken, an island just offshore. Northern Sulawesi is also famous for its animals, not only in the Tangkoko Batu Angus National Park, but also on offer in its restaurants and markets.
Rats, bats, and dogs are all local delicacies. (It is a fact that dogs are eaten in many places in Indonesia, Philippines, and Vietnam, as well as China and Korea).
The Tangkoko Batu Angus National Park is quite small, but is home to many endemic species. I hired the services of a local park warden and was very pleased I did. I've often walked in jungles and not seen a thing. But every few minutes he would stop and then point into the forest. I would see nothing until he guided me further and then reveal to me a snake, toucans, the quite rare bear cuscus, and all sorts of insects. However it was the monkeys for which the place was famous. We could hear them in the trees when, after cutting through the dense jungle, my guide suddenly broke into a run. I followed. "There," he whispered. Of course I saw nothing. But as we waited, the leaves started rustling all around us, and before long it became apparent that a whole troop of the rare, crested, black macaques had come down out of the trees and were now walking right past us as if we weren't there. By now it was getting dark and we hadn't seen the main prize - the large eyed jumping Tarsier. In the darkness I wasn't even sure that my guide could lead us back to civilization. But then, suddenly, he stood stock still and pointed out into the gloom. I switched on my torch where he had pointed and less than four feet away, I saw the startled face of our quarry, paralyzed in the torch beam and smaller than the palm of my hand.
One of the most famous dive sites in the world is Bunaken island, just off Manado. Here you can stay in a beach hut for a few dollars and then snorkel a few metres offshore to one of the most diverse coral ecosystems in the world. It was here over a few beers and while watching some amazing sunsets that I recalled my time in one of the hidden jewels of Indonesia