15th July    Pantai Bira

As soon as we leave the port, there are numerous calls of ‘Hello Mister!’ as we pass people on the roadside, and we wonder if we will be given even more attention here than everywhere else. We pay a 5000Rp fee at the toll booth before being allowed into town.   A lot of places are full due to the festival taking place tomorrow, but eventually we find a basic but clean and rustic room at Salassa guesthouse.

We go down to the cosy restaurant area, within a few minutes all the tables are filled.  It seems to be just the lady owner tonight and her small children catering to everyone.  A young boy from the family sitting across from us decides to volunteer his skills and becomes a makeshift waiter for the night to help her out, even asking Martin if his beer is cold enough for him!

As we are both shattered from the long journey, we fall straight asleep as soon as dinner is hurriedly eaten.

16th July

After an unusual breakfast of spicy vegetable pastries and sweet dim sum, we take a drive along the coast road near Bira village where traditional wooden boats have been made for hundreds of years.  Some are huge, reminiscent of Noah’s Ark and others dinkier and more humble, but all meticulously manufactured by hand with skills passed down from one generation to the next, using centuries-old techniques.  We speak to a boat builder working on the keel, the first part of the boat which is built.  He tells us this particular boat will take six months to build and will be sold for 500,000,000Rp (£36,000).

Carrying on down, there are many more boats lined up in various stages of building; we pull up near a man who looks as though he is in his 80’s measuring and clambering up narrow pieces of wood.  Not an easy job under a blistering hot sun!

The Bugis make up two thirds of southern Sulawesi’s population and are Indonesia’s most famous seafarers.

We follow the quiet and deserted coastal road all the way down, chancing on a beautiful secluded beach, a stretch of white sand complete with swaying palm trees and blue water, and take a walk down to the small wooden pier.

Further along and we pass through a quiet area which is full of karaoke bars and a few locals sitting around outside them, we can imagine it gets noisy in the evening!

Arriving back at Bira’s main beach, Martin goes for a dip whilst I grab a snack, but he’s not in for very long as the water is freezing!  There is a band and stage at the far end of the beach gearing up for later and tens of stalls with sitting areas under bamboo roofs all preparing for the festival.

We head back to the guest house for a rest and dinner, but end up tidying out the car and having a quick snack before walking into town.  The venue is packed with locals along with a few foreigners too, police on the road overlooking the events.

The girl on the main stage seems to be a popular Indonesian singer, the crowd singing back the lyrics to her, but the atmosphere is quite reserved, no screaming fans or wild antics!

Next up is a rocky guitar band, with an enthusiastic male singer.  His first song doesn’t start too well though as the microphone is not working, at which point he is given a replacement which also doesn’t work!  He then somehow manages to pull out a loudspeaker and attempts to sing through it!  It’s finally on but now he can’t get his skin tight leather jacket off.   It’s all quite entertaining but once the romantic Indonesian ballads start playing, we decide to call it a night!

17th July  Tana Toraja

We leave at 6am for the 240 mile journey to Tana Toraja, along a severely deep pot-holed road which reduces our speed to less than 20miles/hour at times.  There are also quite a lot of locals already up and working.  Before long, we pass fields and fields of lush green rice paddies and with the sun beginning to break through, the temperature slowly creeps up to a sweltering 34 degrees.

After an hour the road condition improves, and we are able to pick up speed.

By 4pm we are in the mountains and up at 1200m, passing elaborate traditional houses with boat shaped roofs decorated in reds and golds and held up with stilts.  There are stunning views of green paddy fields, with buffalo everywhere, grazing along the roadside.  Reaching Rantepao, a small town, there are a few deserted hotels just outside of town, but we opt for one in the centre with hot water and satellite TV!

Venturing out for dinner, we eat at an empty restaurant with surprisingly good food, which also has karaoke rooms upstairs. Deciding karaoke should only be reserved for weekends, we make the most of the sat TV back in our hotel!

18th July

After being approached by a guide the night before who would offer his services for a fee of 300,000Rp, we opt to go it alone as we guessed we wouldn’t really need one.  The hotel informs us that a funeral ceremony, a highlight of the area, is taking place today at Madandan, a few kilometeres away, and it starts at ten, so we head there straight after breakfast.

Not sure if we are going the right way, we pass mini buses coming the opposite way down the narrow road and assume we’re on track.  A couple of policemen on the road tell us we are in the right place for the ceremony, we park up down a muddy side road.

We walk into the open courtyard, traditional houses on one side, covered seating areas on another, and many numbered huts on the slopes of the hill above which also includes a large PA system.

We are seated in a small hut with other tourists overlooking locals dressed in black from head to foot, a waxwork effigy of the deceased sitting in a chair overseeing the proceedings.  The ceremony starts off with some singing in between readings, a traditional dance where money is placed in the dancers hair, a group of women banging the inside of a canoe in perfect rhythmic harmony, a band of children playing wind instruments and a quartet of young girls taking to the stage to sing a song.  We had half imagined the whole affair to be quite morbid, but find it’s actually more celebratory of the Torajan’s life.

Buffalo and tied up squealing pigs are led into the courtyard for sacrifice later on.  The buffalo hold great significance for the Torajan people and are a sign of wealth and power, some can even reach up to the same price as a small car, as much as $8000!

The piece de resistance is the sacrificing of the buffalo; the huge horned buffalo is led up the hill whilst everyone also scrambles up to get a good view.  It is soon surrounded by hundreds of locals and tourists.

It is tied to a small tree with a piece of rope whilst the music below is building up to a crescendo.  The man cuts the jugular and blood goes everywhere, but it doesn’t go to plan, the bull makes a run for it, breaking the rope and tearing down the hill pushing people out of its path, amidst screams and people running to get out of the way of the 100kilo beast!  It’s mayhem, but a few steps down the hill, the bull collapses to the ground, with red splattered down the hill side.  Luckily, it doesn’t look like anyone has been hurt, there could have easily been a few casualties!

Soon after the sacrificing, the coffin is carried along the streets in a procession, the local men cheering and pulling it up and down in unison.  At least ten buffalo are led up behind it.

A mere four hours later, it is all over later taking a walk out for dinner to Mambo’s restaurant.  Deciding to give the buffalo burrito a miss, we stick to nasi goreng and fries!

19th July

We take a drive to Ke’te Kesu, a small village renowned for its tongkonan, the traditional ancestral house and the focus of family identity.  Here the houses are reputed to be 500 years old, constantly maintained and renewed over the years. The interiors are far less extravagant than the exterior, used mainly for sleeping, and storage.

We park up and pay a 20,000Rp entrance fee.  Inside is a row of houses within a neat garden.  Each has a buffalo head on the front of each, with rows of horns and teeth and a set of steps leading up the hill behind them.  Along the sides of the cliff face are hanging graves, age-old coffins filled with skulls and bones.  Some coffins are even laid alongside the steps, skulls close enough to touch; there is an eerie atmosphere, we are the only ones up here, who knows what’s around the corner!

Next we head to Lemo down a narrow deserted road to a sheer rock face with balconies containing tau tau, wooden effigies to the people buried here with their arms outstretched.  A path leading through some jungle takes us past more graves carved into the rock and around a path leading through paddy fields and local people in huts working on wooden carvings.

We walk into town for dinner, passing fresh fish stalls and the market area, aiming for an LP recommended restaurant.

20th July   Ampana

Leaving at 5am on the dot for the 330 mile journey to Ampana, we are unsure of what the road conditions will be like heading north, so decide to play it by ear and have a stop-over if , needed.

The morning is cold and the mountain roads really misty as we make our way down in the darkness, passing locals wrapped in thick blankets preparing for the day ahead.

As we reach Wotu, we come to a police checkpoint with an armed guard who speaks no English but with a huge assault rifle on him.  As we point to the map to let them know we are going to Ampana, another man tells us it’s a one day drive from here.  They lift the barrier and we carry through, up the winding mountain road.  The road deteriorates after a few miles; it is covered with pot holes and there are parts which have fallen away completely. We come to one part which is just a mud pool for about 100m; a few locals trying to cross it in their two wheel drive cars get stuck, which then requires all of the passengers to jump out into the mud to push it through!  We manage to get through with no problems.

We suddenly remember this is the area which saw violent clashes between Christians and Muslims over a period of eight years, resulting in over 1000 deaths, houses burnt down and children beheaded.   The Malino Peace treaty was signed by both sides in 2002 bringing a decline to the violence but not completely stopping it.  All has been quiet since 2006, never the less as we drive up the mountain roads towards Danau Paso we see countless men with huge rifles casually strolling along.

70 miles later, we are in Tentana, stopping to refuel before Poso, a port town.  The next 160 miles through the mountains are slow-going, the track winding and curving all the way to Ampana.

Arriving in Ampana ten hours later, we take a room at Oasis hotel; staff inform us there are no restaurants here, just warungs, small local food stalls, so we take a walk and get some nasi and chicken sate which is cooking on a tiny grill outside on the street.

21st July

We run through torrential rain and a thunderstorm to get to a restaurant across the street, and wonder why the hotel staff didn’t tell us about it yesterday.  We order some nasi and an ayam tepung (crispy chicken) which are good.

We discover that no boats are leaving for the Togeans tomorrow and because of the festival on the 23rd all the accommodation is full for the next few days, it seems we have arrived in festival season.

Given that the next boat is not till Sunday we decide to head north and return once the festival is over.

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Martin & Nicole