Bugis house in the rice fields outside Makassar.

Tana Toraja, Sulawesi

Tana Toraja, that remarkably beautiful series of river valleys in Central Sulawesi, is the tropic’s answer to Bhutan.
It is well worth the 9 hour drive from Makassar (regular flights to Rantepao resume this August). One can do this in a leisurely fashion, as I did — taking in the coastal scenery, the Bugis villages and the cavalcade of local snacks for sale at the roadside — or one can take the luxury night bus and be there in time for down.
I left Makassar at 5.30. a.m. I was rewarded, just out of town, with a dramatic sunrise over the southern mountains. 

Early morning light   bathed the rice padis in an ethereal smokey light.
In Pare-Pare on the coast, I had breakfast at the kitschy Lucky Café and then started the climb to the central tablelands.

Star street busker in Pare-Pare, South Sulawesi.

(see my video:  Bugis Road Trip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vqx-SaIDPvU , for a full report on Pare-Pare)

Just outside Enrekang we stopped at Lina’s Café for a mie kering noodle.  The karaoke café is perched on the banks of the raging Sa’dan river. In Enrekang we sampled the local cottage cheese, called Danke, which is served fried and salted with rice.

Mie kering noodle & Karaoke

Bugis basket-seller on the Makassar – Pare Pare road.

We arrived at the rather dramatic “Gateway to Tana Toraja” at 3 p.m. and  spent the next two hours with our eyes on sticks so beautiful were the rice padi-strewn valleys wrapped around bamboo-forested hillocks and bamboo draped rivers. Liberally interspersed amongst all the natural beauty were clusters of the tongkonan stilt-houses for which Toraja is famous.

Makale town, Tana Toraja — municipally robust.

The Sa’dan river which follows the roads as one travels up from Makale to Rantepao is the lifeblood of the people of Toraja, as the Sa’dan irrigates the surrounding fertile ricefields and provides water for both humans and cattle in this largely agricultural land.
I wanted to stay in a village in Northern Toraja where most of the attractions are, and had the fortune to stumble on-line onto a “village stay” run by a young Toraja fire-brand lady named Manaek Londe (website: layuklion.web.com).
Tana Toraja is actually a trekkers’ and mountain bikers’ paradise, but I just wanted to pot  around in an Innova discovering things.

Hostess with the mostess Manaek Lande of “Village Stay” homestay near  Siguntu, Rantepao, Tana Toraja.

On day one I discovered a warung at the water buffalo market — an amazing ‘happening’ in a vast arena involving hundreds of the stately beasts — which had an atmosphere like the saloon in a Hollywood western but with bucket-loads of chicken and pork curries on the tables. It was all male and high testosterone but with Jesus Christ posters on the walls.

Starboy buffalo-herd at the Rantepao Buffalo market.

The chicken curry had banana trunk vegetables mixed in and the pork had been cooked in bamboo. Big water-buffalo washing men sat on the veranda platforms entwined. (Same sex affection is the sign of a civilized society I always say).
The whole scene reminded me of the Lake Toba district of North Sumatra but without all the macho-agro that comes with the tuwak-swilling Batak men-folk. The Torajan men and women are hard-working, surprisingly artistic (like the Balinese) and humble. They have a spring in their step and their zest for life is infectious: I just wanted to wash every dappled water buffalo I saw.
After the Rantepao market we went to the heritage village of Pallawa with its “architectural chorus” (Tim Street-Porter) of Tongkonan houses (see photo opposite page). The Torajan ‘attractions’ don’t disappoint: one always gets a sense of discovering something unique and unspoiled. There are no greedy  artshop vendors to break the spell of enchantment: Mass tourism has yet to arrive!

Rustic charm decorations on a tongkonan rice loft, Tanah Toraja.

On the way home we visited Lamo, one of the royal graveyards for which Tana Toraja is famous. One first enters a verdant secret valley with backdrops of limestone cliffs. High up into the cliffs are cave-like tombs for the internment of coffins. Wooden human effigies in day dress, called Tao-tao, form dress circles of eternal audience in verandah-like perches also hewn into the cliff.
Night life in a village in the cool mountain air consists of lots of heavy sleep and dogs barking, rather like Bali before the advent of the café cewek and super highways.

Megaliths at the royal tombs at Bori, Tana Toraja, Central Sulawesi.

On Day Two we took in the megaliths at Bori — many anthropologists believe that the Tana Toraja culture descends from the megalithic cultures of Palu and Poso valleys to the north, the roots of whose populations can be traced to Southern Taiwan — and the village of Perunding where we stumbled across a Toraja wedding. The village square had become a giant party space and benign drunkards were hanging out on the platforms below the rice lofts. There was some exotic line-dancing and loose talking and masses of pork meat.
The Torajans are all devout Christians but, like the Bataks, have managed to keep most of their ancient tribal customs. Unlike the Bataks, they are not great singers, so the roofs stay on the churches at Sunday Service, the girls do, however, wear the same 1950s party frocks to mass, which does look  incongruous amongst all the water buffalo macho of the local menswear (black on black with plaid accents. (See photos above).

Idyllic entrance to a rural house near Bori, Tana Toraja.

The columnist on heat.

I visited downtown Rantepao one 60-room hotel — the tantalizingly named Missileane — where the sun has not set on the Soviet Era. Bus-loads of Dutch tourists listened to the Best of Henry Mancini tunes piped through the heavenly maintained municipal gardens. Texts from the bible were painted on big rocks in the garden.
The old Novotel (now the Heritage) in Rantepao is another well-run blast from the past. 
For my money (50 Euros a night including 2 meals) Manaek’s “Village Stay” allows one to enjoy the best of Toraja without being in an assisted-suicide facility.

View of the Central Sulawesi highlands near Gunung Nona, Enrekang, on the road to Tana Toraja.

For a fuller coverage see my video:
TanaToraja: http://www.youtube/com/watch?v=L0wJheejD8U, and Around Rantapao: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zKflfXkpwZs

6 May 2013: To Amsterdam to visit the newly opened Riyksmuseum
KLM’s new one stop 777300ER service from Denpasar to Amsterdam is fabulous. Arrival at the well-designed,  light-filled Schipol airport is  a dream after the chaos of Ngurah Rai airport, Denpasar. Less euphoric-making is the Euro 50 I had to shell out to a taxi driver to go ten minutes into town on a Sunday.

Early-19th century paintings of Javanese court officials in the Riyksmuseum.

The new Asian Pavilion is a gem with some rare Ja­vanese treasures (more next month). One exhibition of early 19th century paintings of Javanese court officials intrigued me: the post-Majapahit court dress looks remarkably ‘louche’ and like 19th century Balinese dress (see photo above).
A book on Javanese and Balinese fashion through the ages is long overdue.


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