The night bus was as comfortable as any hotel we had previously stayed in, and we were given seats 1 and 2, the ones with the most space. (What can I say, its a good country to be white!) Needless to say, I pleasantly slept most of the way, and woke up rather dazed and confused at 5am upon arrival in Rantepao. As usual, there was a crowd ready to welcome us and offer us transport to wherever we wanted to go. A friendly looking local engaged Tim in conversation, offering to take us to a home stay. Tim asked for my opinion, which at that time of the day is mostly “mumble mumble, yeah, whatever, where is the bed?” so we climbed in a car and were taken to Riana guest house. The room was spacious, clean and tidy. We were immediately pleased with the deal, and were greeted with a cup of tea/coffee.
Soon we discovered that the reason they offered us a ride, was this man could try to sell us his services as a tour guide. He talked to us about all the available sites in the area, some of which make it famous to the rest of Indonesia and the world. In short, Tana Toraja is famous for its crazy burial traditions and funny constructions. He explained a lot about the customs and was overall very nice. Unfortunately his price was way beyond our capabilities to afford, so after much talking we had to decline his offer, though we said we would consider it. To be honest, there was not much to consider… Hiring his services would have blown our budget for about a week, so instead, we took his advice and decided to rent a bike the following day and try it on our own. We used the rest of that day for resting and exploring the vicinity. The highlight was the local market, with its live fish and fresh looking vegies
Next morning we woke up early, and after having complementary breakfast (egg on toast), we set off south to check out the mysteries of the region. First stop was a town called Lemo. I spotted some crazy constructions and asked Tim to turn into a small side street so we could look at it from up close. However, it was Tim’s first time on a motorbike, and he realized, a bit too late, that turning and braking at the same time was not an easy chore. Luckily my reflexes kicked in and I jumped off the motorbike just in time to avoid getting into the ditch, which meant he was able to stabilize the bike and neither got hurt. We laughed about it, and kept going up this small path. Some dogs alerted a house owner to our presence. She seemed puzzled as to why we were there, so excited and taking so many pictures. Later on we would find out where her surprise lay: most houses in the area have similar buildings within the property, so there was nothing uncommon about that particular spot. For us, however, it was the first time we were experiencing it, and felt compelled to document it.
After Lemo, we turned into a side road on our way to the Baby Graves in Kambira. Up until 1950, when a kid died before it started teething, they would make a hole on a big tree, put the tiny body inside and close it. The belief was that the baby (or its soul) would then keep growing as the tree did. We rode for quite a while, unsure of where we were going, with a very generic map as our only guide. At one point we saw some people parking on the side of the road, crossing a cool bamboo bridge and heading inland. Our guess was as good as any, so we parked the bike and followed the path, across the crumbling bridge, along some rice fields, and into a pretty neighborhood (lets agree to call it that for convenience sake). Soon we realized this was not the place we were after, but it was a nice walk regardless. When we returned to the bike, we found out we had… left the keys in the ignition! Thankfully the vehicle was still there, or our day would have turned to shit really fast..
After another 4km or so and much asking around, I spotted a sign that said Kambira – Baby Graves. Imagine how excited I was with the discovery, given it was potentially the only sign I had ever found that actually guided you somewhere useful in all my time in Indonesia! We arrived at the designated place, paid our entrance fee, and walked down a short path towards the stunning tree. There was only one, with over 20 graves carved into it. The tree had managed to close around some and was growing healthy despite the holes made in it. It was quite a mixture of creepy and astonishing, and definitely worth our time. There were many mosquitoes roaming around the place for some reason, so they ended up chasing us away. Back on the road side, there were a few stalls selling souvenirs. We chatted with some of the ladies, and one of them invited us inside one of these amazing structures we had by now seen all over the place; a pretty awesome experience.
Next goal was Tampangallo. One of the ladies told us it was only 2km away from where we were. We hopped back into our 125cc transport and headed towards the direction she had pointed at. We stopped a few times to ask for directions, and people kept pointing us straight ahead. It seemed much further than the advised distance, and we reached a big town. We stopped to buy some water, and asked again. The lady at the store spoke some English, and assured us we were on track and just needed to keep going. The landscape soon became more and more agrarian, and we figured we must have gone past our mark. We stopped at a funeral and asked for directions. They pointed back the way we had come. Fortunately we found a man a few km down the road who spoke great English and pointed in our map where we were. The big town we had gone past was Makale, which meant we had missed our target by far. We thanked him truly and back we went, up and down the same roads.
Long story short, after asking a million times and driving the same strip of road about 5 times, I finally spotted a tiny side street I had missed before, near the southern end of Suaya, and next to it, an empty ticket booth. Hope was sparking on our tired hearts. Down this path we went, and I soon made Tim stop as I had noticed there were some graves on the side of the cliff. We walked towards them and did find the royal family burial site. It was most impressive how they managed to carve the face of this massive cliff with the rudimentary tools they must have had back then. But there they were, standing proud, looking at us from above. There also were some narrow steps on the side of the rock we decided to climb. The ascension itself was quite challenging and exciting, and the view from the top rather breathtaking. There were two girls sitting down looking at the graves and we started chatting to them. They had also managed to get there on their own, so we exchanged information on what we had found and how. Thanks to them, we were able to find the next site.
After a steep descend downhill, we came towards an open area with rice fields. Right at the beginning, there was a path made of flat stones, a bamboo ‘bridge’ (two strips across the small stream), and the rocks took you to an amazing cave, full of skulls. The cave was a wonderful sight on its own; the skulls gave it personality and a sense of thrill. We explored the place leisurely, using the torches we had brought to guide us through some of the darker corridors. Happy and contend, we were finally in peace to return to Rantepao. We tried to find another way back, but after getting a bit lost we ended up going in a big circle and returning to the place we had originally forked from the main road. At least we were back to known territory, and able to get back to our temporary home without trouble.
Next morning, we had the same simple breakfast and started walking north this time. Our goal was Parinding. We walked for about two hours, taking our time to take pictures and chat to some locals. On our way we went past some newly constructed bamboo structures. Upon inquiring, we were told the whole lot had been erected for a funeral, and would be destined to contain the animals they would sacrifice. I have no idea who died.. But he must have been very important, rich and loved for all the trouble this people were going through!
We eventually reached our destination, and had to find the entrance to the caves. As usual, this was no easy chore. We passed a pretty church and asked a lady there; she had no idea what we were asking. We walked across the whole village without a hint of where to go. Tim wanted to keep heading north, but I refused. It was getting really hot and the sun was scorching. So we turned around, back to the church, and this time we noticed… A sign! So we decided to go up this road and into the mountains, hoping the next path would become apparent. The sign said 800mts, so when we had walked way past that, we again retraced our steps. Luckily our intuition told us this other road was a possibility, as there was a rest area in the junction, and indeed, down this path, we found the entrance keepers (and fee takers). A short hike later, we were in the space we had been seeking. The caves itself were really beautiful, with lots of green growing inside them. They were covered in human bones, too many to count. It was all in all a very impressive place, well worth the 2$ we spent to get in. When our curiosity was satisfied, we left the spot and started towards town.
We had a Skype date with Tim’s family to come back to, so we started hitch hiking. The cars on the road were very sparse, but after about 15 minutes of walking, right when we were starting to lose hope, a truck stopped and signalled us to hop in the back. They had obviously transported sand before , as some of it still remained but other than that, we had the whole place to ourselves. It was quite exciting to travel like this, and we waved our hands to anyone on our path with big grins on our faces. Back in Rantepao, we offered to pay them but they would not accept our money. Second and last free hitch in Indonesia! We picked up some local baked goodies and headed back to Riana to Skype with the family…
That afternoon we organized to eat a local dish you have to order at least 3 hours before dinner. The meat (we chose chicken) is slow cooked inside a bamboo cover, with a ginger coconut sauce. The result is it coming off the bone if you stare at it hard enough 😛 It’s tender, spicy and delicious. We were very happy with our order, that we complemented with boiled veggies and chips.
Tana Toraja is possibly the most interesting place we have seen so far, with the weirdest culture…