|The strange orchid-shaped island of Sulawesi, can be recognised at
first glance on any map of Indonesia. No other island is quite like it. The result of
ancient geological upheavals, Sulawesi's twisted, elongated limbs have given rise to
unique landscapes and an abundance of nature. Home to diverse and fascinating cultures, it
is a land of exciting travel experiences.
The scenic seacoasts, rugged mountains and verdant rice-growing plains of South Sulawesi have their own unique fascination. With few sites of historical or artistic importance, the charm of the region lies in well-kept towns, and the extensive seacoasts where master shipbuilders construct massive wooden schooners, essentially Portuguese galleons, using only simple hand-tools and designs passed down by rote through the centuries.
The road leading up the west coast from Ujung Pandang to Pare-Pare is filled with awe-inspiring scenery and glimpses of Sulawesi's venerable traditions. A limestone range dominates this area, marked by intricate patterns of ridges and sheer cliffs honeycombed with caves.
The South Coast is the homeland of the Makassarese, the proud, indefatigable master seafarers who once regarded piracy as an honourable profession. The beaches are a forest of masts from the hundreds of fishing boats drawn up on the sand. The fortunate may witness exciting boat races and festivals to mark the departure of the fishing fleet. The sense of lost time is still felt in the rows of sturdy pinisi hulls being erected on the beaches.
Remnants of the great Bugis kingdoms of the pre-European era are found in Sulawesi's central fertile plain. Scattered throughout the region are reconstructed wooden palaces and gravesites, but the greatest attraction is the area itself, with verdant fields, attractive, colorful towns and glimpses of net fishing, buffalo-powered field preparation, hand threshing and other ageless activities of rural life.
Hanging like a teardrop off the southern tip of the peninsula, Selayar Island offers fine beaches and a glimpse of colonial life in the preserved Dutch architecture and general preindustrial ambiance of the towns and villages. A splendid 2000-year-old Vietnamese DongSon drum, perhaps washed up from a nearby shipwreck, is kept in a wooden shed near a former royal palace.
Luwu, the horseshoe-shaped region capping the Gulf of Bone, is at once the most ancient and most modern region in South Sulawesi. Believed the site of the first Bugis kingdom, Luwu became an open frontier. with Javanese and Balinese transmigrants mixing with long-isolated local tribes to generate _ fascinating mixture of peoples and cultures. The most incongruous addition to the region is a relocated Canadian mining town at Soroako, built for expatriate mining experts but now populated mostly by Indonesian managers and professionals. The nickel mine and associated facilities have brought good roads and other modern facilities to Luwu, but the air of an untamed land, reinforced by the looming presence of the Central Sulawesi mountain range, remains.
The gateway to Sulawesi is the historic port of Ujung Pandang. Long known as Makassar, Ujung Pandang is one of the few Indonesian cities to embrace the sea. The focus of the town is a long esplanade curling along the bay, with swaying palms, wide sidewalks and colourful shophouses their second-storey terraces offering a commanding view of the beach, bay and tropical sunsets. While this growing city has sprawled into the surrounding hills during recent decades, commercial and social activity remains centered within a few blocks of the waterfront. In the late afternoon and early evening hours most of the population seems to gather along the esplanade, strolling and chatting, snacking at any of the scores of teashops and roving food stalls, or simply enjoying the fresh sea breeze as the setting sun touches the horizon, silhouetting the masts and billowing sails of the schooners cruising the bay.
In modern Indonesia, Ujung Pandang has become the primary port and airline hub of the eastern archipelago, the thousands of remote islands being developed and incorporated into the mainstream of Indonesian society and economy. As in previous centuries, when Makassar was the commercial heart of Southeast Asian trade, Indonesians, other Asians and Europeans rub shoulders in the narrow alleys and jostle in the shops and markets. A trained ear will pick out dozens of languages on the streets, and a casual browse through the shops on Jalan Sumba Opu will reveal goods, handicrafts and antiques from all corners of the archipelago. More than any other Indonesian city, Ujung Pandang evokes the great age of maritime discovery, trade and adventure.
Makassar was for centuries the main port of call for spice carrying ships. This harbour town most famous in the 15th century, has lost none of its allure. Today renamed as Ujung Pandang, this colourful now modern city is the capital of the Province of South Sulawesi, has first class hotels and is the entrance to many attractions in its hinterland.
For centuries the name Makassar has conjured up images of all that is exotic, of sailing ships and spice traders, and fortunes made and lost, of gold and bloody wars. It is home to the buccaneering Bugis, master shipbuilders whose elegant pinisi schooners can be seen in many harbours of Indonesia. These navigators and fearless sailors roamed as far as Australia and Madagascar long before their history was recorded.
Hidden away in verdant mountains is the fabled Tana Toraja, or Torajaland, where phenomenal funeral ceremonies draw visitors from around the world. While further south. where the hospitable and staunch Muslim Bugis are the largest population group, older pre-lslamic Hindu traditions surface in elaborate wedding rituals and their customs. Around the Bugis heartland of Bone, Soppeng and Sengkang, women sit at handlooms fashioning hand-processed silk into dramatic checked textiles of iridescent pinks, luminous greens, golds, yellows startling combination that seems to work magnificently well together.
The long drive from the lowlands to the mountain stronghold of Tana Toraja opens up a breath-taking new world. The rugged mountains and verdant valleys are home to a people whose love of religious spectacle is equaled only by their hospitality. With majestic panoramas, captivating villages and dramatic ceremonies, Tana Toraja is the undisputed highlight of any journey to Sulawesi.
Upgraded roads, an airport and several star-rated hotels have opened the Toraja highlands to visitors of all interests, budgets and schedules. The essence of the Toraja beliefs and way of life can be experienced without undue effort, as many interesting sites are clustered around the town of Rantepao, easily accessible by road.
A few minutes from Rantepao, artisans at Kete Kusu, a model Toraja settlement, produce bamboo carvings and other traditional handicrafts. The village itself has several well maintained tongkonan houses and rice barns.
Visitors unsure about the propriety of tramping around someone's village will be relieved to know that Kete Kusu has been converted into a living museum with the express purpose of displaying Toraja architecture and daily life. Other villages within sight of the roads, often sitting in an emerald sea of ricefields, display the Toraja penchant for baroque architectural adornment.
If the Toraja way of life is interesting, the way of death is a fascinating mix of ritual custom and spectacle. For the Toraja, the dead are as much a part of society as the living. At Lemo, cliffs rise precipitously from the ricefields like stonework condominiums. Crypts carved with prodigious manual labor high into the solid rock house the mortal remains of Toraja nobility. Set amongst the crypts, the striking tau-tau, wooden effigies representing the deceased, look impassively on the world below.
At Londa, a network of coffin-filled caves reaches deep into the limestone hills. Visitors expecting a solemn, well-kept grotto are often shocked and disturbed by skeletons tumbling out of rotten coffins, skulls and bones arranged, to Western eyes, according to some gruesome aesthetic. But the Toraja feel that since their ancestor's souls are residing in heaven, ensuring continued fertility in farm and field, it is appropriate that their earthly remains be on display for the pleasure of honored foreign guests.
While the valley between Rantepao and Makale provides a glimpse of Toraja life, the real Toraja lies in the surrounding mountains, accessible only on foot. In treks ranging from an easy day to a strenuous week, those with a moderate capacity for adventure can experience authentic Toraja village life in charming mountain hamlets. Even in the most remote mountain villages, visitors are welcomed openly. Long accustomed to foreigners stumbling unannounced into their settlements, village leaders will generally arrange overnight accommodation with a local family for a modest contribution.
South Sulawesi's natural beauty is a paradise of white sand beaches and undisturbed coral reefs, cool highlands and rushing waterfalls flecked with the technicolour yellows and shimmering blues of wild butterflies. The upland lush forests, filled with endemic species are made for trekking and thrilling white water rafting expeditions along the Sa'dan or the Lore Lindu rivers. Deep in the interior of the island are mist-swathed primeval mountains where clear and placid lakes are concealed within majestic highland forests
South Sulawesi is part of a huge island with so much to discover While two or three days is enough to see some amazing sights, here, more time is definitely advised.