It had been quite a long time ago, still during the planning stages of this trip, that two cycle travelers friends' of mine told me that Sulawesi was without a doubt, among the best islands of Indonesia for cycling, so we got there with the greatest of the expectations. Even though I tried to imagine it, I didn't actually have a very defined idea of what the island would be like. After a full month and more than 1500 km cycled there, an epic journey across the jungle and having turned 35 there, I can confirm that Sulawesi is one of the most spectacular places I cycled in, in the almost 35.000 km I have cycled until today.
Land of buffalos
We got to Pare Pare after our first long-haul trip on board of the Bukit Raya, one of the several ships of PELNI, the national ferry company of Indonesia that connects most of the islands of the country. 19 hours of quiet navigation on an almost empty ferry with a capacity for thousands of passengers.
It was then quite easy to find a place for the bikes and mattresses to sleep in the massive communal dormitories of the ship. A friendly member of the crew that spoke some English described us terrifying images of PELNIs overloaded with thousands of passengers during peak seasons. He adviced us to enjoy our trip because it was going to be comfortable and quiet (we would much later prove how wise the advice of this kind man had been). Although the four days we had spent in Samarinda had served us well to repair our muscles, eat abundantly and get in shape to continue our trip, a part of me was hoping that the days to come wouldn't be as tough as Kalimantan had been, at least not in the beginning. With that discreet wish in mind, we started riding straight to the heart of the island as soon as we got off the ferry.
One of the very positive aspects of very tough roads is that they prepare you for everything and they make any other relatively normal day a very easy one. That's exactly how the first 200 km of mountains that lead us to Tana Toraja felt. After 45 km of flat roads along small villages filled with traditional bugis houses sitting at the edge of fertile valleys and rice plantations, we started cycling uphill along the Trans-Sulawesi road. Due to its gentler slopes it was actually hard to believe that we were indeed going uphill. It is true that the trade off was an endless series of bends, 90 to 180 degrees turns very often, so many that you could feel dizzy after a while, but still, after those damned evil climbs of Kalimantan, this road uphill felt almost like a blessing. And the good didn't end there, by climbing up to the valleys of Tana Toraja, we were coming into a micro-climate within the tropics. It was less humid and noticeably less hot once above 800 m of altitude and this is what made these valleys such a pleasant place. Extremely green, exuberant, mountainous, with vast rice terraces all around and simple people still leading traditional lives.
Unlike Kalimantan, which was sparsely populated, Sulawesi felt notoriously more inhabited and developed, but far from being overwhelming, it was actually quite pleasant to be surrounded by people who filled the place with life and were great company while riding. Rice terraces and water buffaloes rapidly became the defining feature of the region, the latter being what defines the status of a Toraja family. They use them for both, working the land and as offering for the sacrifices involved in their famous and complex funerals. It took us only a couple of days to reach Rantepao, the small town that serves as a base to explore the Toraja culture. Despite being quite touristic, it hasn't yet lost all of its charm, well, not the town's charm which is basically non-existant but the charm of the region around it. We were lucky to get there just in time for the weekly livestock market, in a village some 8 km from Rantepao, where farmers from all over the region attend to sell their precious water buffaloes.
They come in all price ranges and the most coveted is the albino buffalo, which can cost up to 10,000 usd. The place is a true swamp of excrement where you have to sink your feet in slippery shit up to your ankles to walk around pushing your way through the buffaloes lazilyrubbing against each other. They are not only unwilling to move but they also seem to enjoy shitting on you as you pass through.
Their owners proudly crouched next to them waiting for potential customers to stop by.
They showed them with pride, talked about their special qualities and debated the price while the buyer examined the animals. Despite their peasant nature, the elegant style and refined attitude of these men made quite an impression on me.
The market also had a pig's section, marked by the squeals of despair of the animals there, lying down, tied to some kind of bamboo stretchers, like in a concentration camp fashion. This was yet another experience that encouraged me to eventually quite meat and become a vegetarian.
The livestock market and its characters were quite an entertaining experience but the strongest impact would come later. Generally speaking, when one is invited to participate in some sort of local or traditional celebration, one is invited to weddings, dinners, birthday parties etc, but here, people invite you to the funerals. It was a really bizarre experience to arrive in Rantepao and hear people telling us that we had arrived at the right time because there were a few funerals planned for that week. I was like wondering ...... "ehmm am I supposed to be happy or what?". The truth is that the Toraja celebrate their funerals in a colossal way. They usually take place several months after the relative died. Depending on the social status of the family, tens, if not hundreds of people from all the surrounding villages (and casual guests like foreigners) will attend bringing offerings of sugar, coffee and money. They last anywhere from 3 to 7 days and during that time people just gather to socialize, eat, carry out ceremonial rituals and the family itself will make the greatest offering. In the case of the funeral that we had the chance to participate in, the family sacrificed the unbelievable sum of 33 pigs and 66 buffaloes, so the bustle of the people was sometimes blocked by the squealing and screaming of those poor animals being brutally slaughtered right there in the open air. Personally, the experience of participating in one of these funerals while intense, it didn't leave a feeling of participating in something unique. I do understand that the Toraja have been performing these rituals genuinely since the dawn of time in the same way they do it today, however, the fact that at least today, they would invite anyone around just for the mere fact of that anyone being there, or even worse, letting package tour tourists loaded with cameras come by, look at the mess and leave like if it was just a show to talk about when going back home, left me with the feeling of not having taken part of an intimate event to which I was personally invited for some special motive, but rather being in some kind of circus experience where anybody who wished it could just simply pop in and watch. I didn't even take a photo during the whole thing and my camera stayed inside the bag from the beginning until the end. Funerals aside, the are some other attractions, like those of the tongkonan, the traditional Toraja houses found in every villages all over the valleys. They are quite a fine example of vernacular architecture and among the best and most unique that I've seen in Asia. They are built for dwelling and also for rice storage. As it is the case with most of the tourist places I pass through with my bicycle though, instead of spending time out visiting their attractions, I just end up lying on bed or sitting in the garden or courtyard of the guest house I would stay in, resting, drinking coffee, which is by the way certainly addictive around here, writing this blog and replying emails. The more I cycle the world the more I realize that the fun is somewhere else, far from the tourist spots.
On the way to an extreme adventure
It was right there in Rantepao, during those rainy days, when in our cozy little guest house, we made a very important decision. We would renounce to continue our trip cycling along a pretty nice and easy road that would eventually take us to some supposedly idyllic islands (the Togean) and we would opt to pursue an extreme adventure across the jungle. Sometimes, the thirst for adrenaline is just simply impossible to hold. So after leaving Toraja we continued along the Trans-Sulawesi on the way to lake Poso (Danau Poso). Initially, we had planned to get there on time for my birthday but we ran a little late. After coming down from the valley, we were back at the full heat of the coast, it felt painful. However, it took only two days to reach Mangkutana, already on my birthday, where a new climb was waiting for us. I had estimated this climb to be anywhere between 20 and 30 km and I think I had never ever been so off reading a map. Despite being a gentle climb, it wasn't 20 but 62 km and we had to climb as high as 1300 m before starting the 700 m descend to the lake. What a nice birthday gift I gave to myself, it was 4.30 pm and we were still cycling uphill turn after turn, and not only the day was reaching the end but a massive storm was rapidly coming in our direction, it looked really scary.
We finally got to the ephemeral 20 km long way downhill at the very end of the day, we were very tired and as we moved towards the storm, we had less and less chances to reach Pendolo, the small village at the southernmost edge of the lake. 9 km before the village and just before the downpour unleashed, we stopped in a very smalldesa. Desa is to Indonesia what I already wrote that the barangay is to the Philippines, the smallest kind of urban and social settlement, a village, a community. And like in the barangays of the Philippines where we would look for the barangay captain, in Indonesia we would look for the kepala desa (literally: head of the village) in order to ask for permission and for a place to stay there. Even though in the Philippines, they had always been very hospitable and have always given us a place to sleep at the barangay hall, most of the time the help ended there. On the other hand, in Indonesia, they take hospitality much further. The kepala desa, no matter whether they were Muslims or Christians, they would always prepare a room in their own house for us to sleep and they would take us in like if we were their own family, they would welcome us with a cup of coffee or tea, they would prepare the bathroom, followed by dinner and finally, early next day, they would prepare a very robust breakfast before we leave. Needless to say, they never ever asked us for anything in return, this was 100% hospitality. It is important to clarify that the fact that they are the head of the village doesn't mean they are rich, far from that, although they are probably a step above the rest in terms of wealth, they still remain very modest people. So by the end of day, extremely tired and a little disappointed that we hadn't been able to reach the lake, we got to this smalldesa where Alfons, its harming and charismatic kepala received us together with his wonderful family. Alfons is a straight Protestant, he is one of those persons that you can tell he believes in God, not because he says he belongs to this or that religion but because you can tell he has a God inside. When Alfons learned that it was my birthday, he immediately informed his wife who proceeded to prepare the most delicious dinner we had had until that day, a treat that filled my heart with joy. Despite the fact that nobody speaks English in the small villages, our bahasa Indonesia (official language) was getting better very every day and it allowed us to communicate with the locals more and more. I couldn't have imagined a nicer way to end my 35th birthday.
The next day the storm had gone and the day was radiant, we had a delicious breakfast with Alfons and his family and we left for Pendolo, where we finally left the Trans-Sulawesi. We started cycling along the western shore of the lake along a very narrow road in very bad condition, but we were passing through these amazing fairy-tale villages. In times of the colony, the dutch had got hold of these area and with them they had brought the Protestant church and each village has its own little church. The houses are all painted in bright colors, they have a front garden and a nice white and blue picket fence. Part of their facades are covered in bright pink, orange and white bougainvillea. The whole road was incredibly quiet and peaceful, and after passing some yellow rice fields we finally reached the lake itself. At 600 m high, Danau Poso is so spectacular and solitary along its remote western shore that it was extremely hard for us to cycle a lot of kilometers without stopping at any of its empty, white sand beaches to go for a swim in its crystal clear turquoise waters. Getting off the bicycle to swim under the sun in its peaceful waters was pretty much a moral duty! It's a fresh water lake, and you can see your own feet when you have water up to your neck, it has just the right temperature and coupled with the pleasant dry weather it made it extremely hard for us to leave.
The road wasn't easy at all, flat stretches aside, we had very steep climbs on rocky trails, but with every climb, the views of the lake became more and more memorable. By the end of the afternoon, we got to a fabulous slope downhill through thick forest that lead us to a very small desa of 300 people sitting right at the shore of the lake. The late afternoon brought its golden light and the sun filtered its magical beams through the mountains that enclosed this stunning paradise that even seemed so foreign to the tropics.
From there, it was only a few tens of kilometers until reaching what it would be the detour to the extreme!