Tana (land) Toraja (People of the uplands) is still one of those unforgettable places where (albeit for now) life, tradition and ceremony lives and thrives as it has done for hundreds of years alongside modernity. The culture is unique to this region of Sulawesi, rich in ceremony and steeped in heritage and tradition.
For now age old monuments withstand the test of time, hanging graves suspended from the rock faces of caves, Tau Tau or wooden effigies of the dead gesturing to be remembered, marriage ceremonies (Rambu Tuka), funerals or death ceremonies (Rambu Solok) and new house build ceremonies continue with the pomp and vigour they have done since the torajans became established here.
All this set amidst lush green and mountainous highland landscape with stunning vistas invites the visitor to contemplate the power of mother nature and a thriving culture that is found only in this part of the world..
Viewpoint near Deri
Terraced rice paddies and towering mountain views adorn this rugged landscape of Toraja land. Traditional villages consisting of Tongkonan houses adorned with Caribao (buffalo) horns and a customary church are the norm here and brimming with an aesthetic quality from another world.
Tongkonan in the misty highlands
The peoples are gentle yet tough, friendly, hospitable, welcoming and extremely helpful, full of character they have a big heart and love for life and their high spirits are infectious.
That said now onto the travelling...
Using Rantepao as a base you can see a wide variety of Torajan sights venturing in any direction of the four main points of the compass. To the south on the main road back to Makele town is Lemo, easily accessible at a mere 11km's from Rantepao, a road branches off of the highway it's then a couple of km's down a small road which leads you to lush green rice paddies (depending on the time of year of course) and the traditional Torajan Tau Tau or lifelike wooden effigies of the deceased standing on ledges that have been carved into a cliff face. An incredible and somewhat bizarre sight to behold in it's uniqueness.
Lemo Cliff Face
These Tau Tau are generally for the rich who can afford a lifelike copy of their deceased to be carved exquisitely out of wood. If you fancy taking home some souvenir Tao Tao there are a couple of wood handicraft shops where you can purchase some mini effigies for your rememberance.
Effigies of the deceased at Lemo
On the same road but travelling back to Rantepao and 6km from the capital is Londa, located a couple of km off the main road again here you have the chance to view Indiana Jones style environment, hanging coffins suspended at the opening to a cave along with the lifelike seated Tau Tau looking down on visitors who dare to enter! Within the cave itself you will find a somewhat eerie subterranean environment.
Hanging Coffins at Londa
Coffins in a rotting state of disrepair, some stacked several high in an erratic fashion and yet others open revealing bones and what not along with many skulls straddling the uneven cave walls of the dark damp interior.
Venturing further inside this small cave system requires the use of a flashlight if you don't use a guide who if needed comes equipped with a lamp to light the way. About 20,000 INR for their sevices.
Skulls at Londa
11km southeast of Rantepao is Ke'te Kesu famous for wood carving and more hanging coffins and graves but beware, an extremely busy place at the weekend which I discovered to my dismay after a memory lapse, forgetting how busy tourist sights in Indonesia are these days with local Indonesians.
Travelling in the opposite direction to the north of Rantepao is where you will find the vast majority of traditional Tongkonan villages with house roofs similar to Batak houses in Sumatra but more in the shape of Buffalo horns a facet unique to Toraja. Many villages here dot the roadside and can also be found deeper off the beaten track if you side trip into the scenic countryside.
Tongkonan at a village in Toraja
Some of the more memorable spots within this mountainous region are to be found at Lokomata where there are baby graves and Tao Tao in a cliff face and along the way mini Tongkonan. Lokomata isn't as far from Rantepao as it once was, not that the place has moved closer but there is now a more direct cut through road from Tikala which at times is, as with many other roads throughout this area rough and terribly broken and that's putting it lightly but the upside of this is you will find traffic at a minimum.
North of Lokomata you can travel via Pulio to the mighty Sarambu falls which consist of four tiers which cascade for more than a thousand metres, taking the road from Pulio gives you a view of the whole shabang otherwise at the foot of the falls you will only be looking at the fourth and final tier, very impressive nonetheless. An alternate northwesterly route can be taken from Tikala to Kepe and on towards Pingala, just before pingala there is a turn off to the right with a narrow road that meanders upwards through idyllic scenery.
Landscape near Sarambu Falls
From Lokomata there is a road to the east this takes you to Batutumonga where there are breathtaking views over the picturesque terraced rice paddies to the plains below and you even get a cracking aerial like view of Rantepao in the distance. Accommodation is also available if you want to stay a day or two and soak up the atmosphere and a few hours trek will have you back in Rantepao hiking through traditional villages and lush green surroundings.
View from Batutumonga
Continuing along this road eastwards takes you past the beautiful villages of Lempo and Deri and from there you can take the road back down to Rantepao which twists and turns through more traditional villages as you descend and is tree lined for much of the way. There is also a superb viewpoint from which to take in a magnificent panorama as you begin the descent. If you decide to take the road northeast rather than take the road back to Rantepao at this point it will lead you to Sa'dan, needless to say another stunning traditional village nearby the Sa'dan river.
My mode of transport in the area was hired motorbike from Rantepao and if like me you are lucky you may find yourself amidst a ceremony or three, thanks to the kind hospitality of some local peoples. (I'm sure reading this they know who they are and I am deeply indebted to them for my experiences and can't thank them enough).
Torajan Villages in Sulawesi
Rambu Solok is a death ceremony and Rambu Tuka is a marriage ceremony, there are also ceremonies for new house builds as I discovered in an out of the way village. Upto 200 pigs and quite a number of buffalo can be sacrificed at these ceremonies and at huge expense.
Traditional Ceremony in Toraja
Awaiting their fate
The meat after it has been butchered is freely distributed amongst the local village populace, drink of the alcholic variety such as the natural Tuac is traditionally consumed from huge lengths of Bamboo and a veritable food feast which includes the freshly slaughtered beasts satiates all appetites. Chanting and dancing can also be part of the event.
Sharing the booty out
The buffalo horns which decorate the Tongkonan houses are a sign of prestige like a status symbol if you will.
Buffalo horns and head decorate the Tongkonan
Tongkonan at Lempo Village in the highlands
On a trip to Toraja land these Ceremonies are a must see. If you need a guide to locate a ceremony for you they charge around 250,000 INR for the day and you don't need to search them out in Rantepao, they will find you!
Traditional Torajan Dress
There are a number of ways to reach Tana Toraja, by international flight from Singapore or Kuala Lumpur being the closest to Makassar (Ujung Pandang airport) or direct domestically from Jakarta or Surabaya in Java Denpasar in Bali or Labuan Bajo in Flores. An alternate route over the seas is possible with Pelni Ferries the national shipping service of Indonesia with a 24hr sailing from Surabaya or Labuan bajo to name but a few departure points, check out the shipping timetable @ http://www.pelni.co.id/
Rice stores being using for a ceremonial feast at Sa' Dan
Map of Tana Toraja
Map of Rantepao