I had arrived in Indonesia on 10th February 1997, fresh of my TEFL course and keen to start my new career as an English teacher. A friend of mine had a contact in a school in Bandung so that’s where I headed. I had spent two months travelling through Indonesia in 1989 so knew the country a bit and liked it. Pre-internet days though and so no chance of organising work in advance so I just had to arrive and start knocking on doors. However, I had already made my first mistake. I had arrived near the end of Ramadan and everyone was on holiday. One school where I had a good chance of getting a job told me there was nothing on until mid March so I made the decision to go travelling for a month, come back and try again.
I opted for Sulawesi and got the overnight train to Surabaya. At the end of Ramadan is Idul Fitri – holiday time and all transport was fully booked up. However I was fortunate (at least I thought so) to get a deck class ticket on the boat to Ujung Pandang (now renamed Makassar). I arrived at the harbour in plenty of time but the pier was ram packed and there was no boat. When the boat did appear I was sure there would be people trampled underfoot. As one of the tallest people there it wasn’t too bad for me but I still had my glasses knocked off and they were lost in the seething mass. Then once on board the entire boat was cram packed to the gills. Every space covered, people even crammed into the few available lifeboats.
I was later to learn that there were 5,000 on board and the boat was licensed to carry 2,000. However, everyone was in good spirits. I found a friendly family who were sharing bunk beds and I slept underneath. They also agreed to look after my backpack when I went for the occasional wander or visit the serving hatch which gave out food rations. This consisted of a metal plate onto which was dolloped some white rice, a small fish and a small clod of green beans. Amazingly, after 24 hours and on time I spotted the lights of our destination, Ujung Pandang. Although I was near the doors, it took me an hour to get off the boat while I sweated profusely in the seething mass. I did manage to find a becak which provided a bit of cover from the rain which was now coming down in stair-rods and he took me to a cheap losmen – rather optimistically called Hotel Richardson as it was in fact just a room in a small house run by an elderly Christian couple.
Sat 22nd Feb 1997
By the morning the rain had turned into a fully fledged storm but I managed to walk to the bus station and got on a minibus to Sengkang. I noted that we stuck to the coast for the main part with vistas of an angry muddy sea with reefs offshore. Inland there was karst scenery topped with ominous black clouds. As we climbed above the town of Pare Pare I could see rusted red galvanised roofs and the occasional silver topped mosque. The bay was full of outrigger canoes. We turned inland and climbed. It became much drier and we passed pretty villages of stilt houses. Before I knew it we had arrived in a ramshackle half built wild west town. Not quite as the guide book description: “Sengkang is situated in one of the most beautiful settings of South Sulawesi, capital of the Bugis Kingdom – the original Bogeymen.” I wandered to the hotel, Pondok Ata and met a couple of Dutch girls who introduced themselves as Mar and Tini! I get a big room for 15000 Rs. Not a bad place with a pleasant communal veranda. We were joined by a couple of Aussie girls and had supper – nasi goreng and a beer (my diary says Beer!! so it must have been a special treat – I think the beer was more expensive than the food). That night we all went to a local karaoke bar which was a bit of fun, the Indonesian men of course round the girls like bees to a honeypot.
The following morning I was awoken to rain on the tin roof – this became a common theme of travelling in Sulawesi. However by 10.30 it had stopped, replaced by unremitting sun boring down on my head. I went for a wander through muddied streets. I joined the French couple for a boat trip. The lake was quite shallow and the locals had created floating gardens. Basically rafts of floating plants so the fish can be caught underneath. Then the rain approached with the wind so we almost surfed back to the harbour and arrived at the same time as the rain.
The following day I was off again, this time with the dutch girls, basically in a large jeep to the town of Palopo. I described it as a pleasant trip – lots of ramshackle houses but with satellite dishes, also plantations of cacao. Surprisingly Indonesia used to be one of the world’s largest suppliers of cacao. At Palopo bus station we had a lunch of Ikan Bakar (bbq fish) and rice and then got into a minibus to take us up into the mountains and our final destination – Rantepau. The road climbed and climbed through thick forest until we reached the central Sulawesi plateau and started to see the distinctive houses of the Toraja people. First impressions of Rantepau weren’t great – quite ramshackle (a theme developing here?). I was surprised I wasn’t besieged by hotel owners and I didn’t see any foreigners on the streets – it is supposed to be the biggest tourist destination in Sulawesi, but I let one bloke show me to his guest house, Wisma Rosa. He asked for 20,000Rs but I heard the old lady in the back say 12, so I took it. Only four rooms in the place but I was the only guest. I went for a wander and my opinion of the place improved. I had some chicken and rice. If you wanted “proper Toraja food” you had to wait 2 hours??! Later the Aussie girls showed up. They told me they had been to a funeral that day which was quite special. In fact the guy that had followed me to the hotel, was, of course a guide and said he could take me to a funeral the following day. Tradition has it that when someone dies his body is kept in the house until the family can afford the funeral at which loads of buffaloes and pigs are slaughtered. Rituals can sometimes last 4 days.
The guide shows up and we negotiate a fee of 25,000Rs, 2,000Rs for a bemo (shared micro-bus) and 9,000Rs for sugar and cigarettes as a present for the grieving family. We got the bemo into the countryside and then had to walk the rest of the way across some rice paddies. There was a house and rice barn and on an open flat area they had built some temporary enclosures for the guests of which there were maybe a hundred, perhaps more. There was also a constant stream of attendants, dressed in purple tops and black sarongs delivering glasses of tea to the guests. The grieving family were all in black and visible on a balcony in the house next to a brightly coloured coffin. In a covered area between the house and the rice barn were laid palm fronds upon which were the butchered remains of buffaloes. Three or four men were slicing off meat and giving them to guests. It seemed quite a small ceremony, like a village fair in some bizarre way. I was the only foreigner there but I was completely ignored. Apparently the deceased was not an important man so tomorrow the family will put his body in a little “house” – so no hanging grave or Tau Tau effigy for him. I walked back to the main road to get a bemo and could see people leaving the scene with plastic bags of meat.
After the funeral I went to Ke’te Kesu which is a small village which is supposed to be a good example of a traditional village with a row of six or seven traditional houses facing their rice barns. However, it was more like a living museum. There was a small office which took my 1750Rs entrance fee and there were a couple of shops selling souvenirs. I don’t think anyone lived there now – picturesque but dead. Behind the village was a limestone cliff with hanging coffins very close to the path and also human bones liberally spread about, fallen out of the rotting coffins.
Today after breakfasting on toast and marmalade (treat!) fried eggs and kopi I headed off to see Lemo. Here was the picture postcard Tau Tau in the cliff face. A very peaceful and atmospheric place and the Tau-Taus themselves get a great view over the rice fields.
From here I went back into town to do one of my favourite things – wander around the market.
I actually bumped into the Aussie girls again. I suppose everyone is going in the same direction, the length of Sulawesi so you meet the same travellers again. However, I was surprised at how few tourists there were given that this was such a fantastic and unique place to visit (I’m sure it’s different now – in 2023!). I went back to the hotel, picked up my gear as I was off again, this time for a bit of off the beaten track tourism. I got a Bemo to Batutomonga. The driver was determined to pack the little bemo so I was soon sweating profusely. Fortunately once we got moving although it was up, up, up we got there in a little over 30 mins and as luck would have it I was sitting next to “Mama Sisko” who had a homestay in the village. And it was a really local place – Tonkonan (house) with rice barn and a small tin roofed house for guests of which I was the only one. 15000Rs for full board with outside mandi.
That evening Mama Sisko cooked me a decent meal over the open fire in the house. A great soup to start – I think with coconut and ginger and then for a main course I think cassava with onion bajis, strange but quite tasty. That night I read by candlelight for a bit before falling asleep listening to my little transistor radio.
The following morning after a cold shower and banana pancakes I was off for a wander through the rice paddies to Pangli. Although there was nowhere to have lunch I managed to snack on some fruit before getting a bemo back to the homestay.
The following day I got a bemo back to Rantapao and from there off the central plateau to the coast at Palopo. I stayed at the Hotel Buana (15000Rs) and can’t believe it is still in business (2023). I went for a wander around town which I noted as being very quiet but I was followed by hordes of kids all crying out “Hello Mister” as they did. Even the adults came out to see me, laughing and joking.
Sat. 1st March 1997
The following morning I was off again. This time in a really big bus, full of luggage but with few people. I managed to avert my eyes from the Kung Fu movie playing to watch us climb once again through forested mountains to arrive pretty much in the centre of Sulawesi at Pindolo on the shore of Lake Poso. It was even more quiet and soporific than other Sulawesi towns as most of the shops were all closed up – presumably for the holidays. At the lake shore I booked into Hotel Masambo (10,000Rs + breakfast) right next to the jetty. It was pretty run down in my day, but I noted that it was very pleasant with cool tiled floors, and a decent restaurant on stilts out on the lake. But there is nothing there now.
Not long after I was at Lake Poso there was terrible ethnic conflict, with over 1,000 people killed over a 4 year period and of course tourism died off completely. Very sad. At the time though I met up with the same crowd from before – the Aussie girls, the German bloke and the two Dutch girls. We seemed to be the only travellers in Sulawesi at the time! It was a bit breezy and the lake a little rough but I had a pleasant swim. The water was fresh but quite warm. Me and the German guy, Tom had a dinner of fish and rice in the stilt restaurant. It was interesting in that he was cycling the length of Sulawesi but admitted he was getting not just tired – but tired of cycling! That night I fell asleep to the sound of gently lapping waves.
I suppose it was no surprise that I woke up with the cockerels at 4.30am having gone to bed at 8pm but I didn’t get up until 6 to see a magnificent sunrise over the dead calm waters of Poso.
That day we all piled onto the ferry for the two hour journey across the lake to Tentana.
It was so calm, peaceful, beautiful, surrounded on all sides by virgin forest.
If anything Tentena was even more lifeless – Sunday afternoon torpor had gripped the town. On the ferry the captain had given me a flyer for the government cottages which were the venue for the annual Lake Poso festival. I had a huge cottage to myself next to a pleasant beach. All for 5000Rs. As it happens the 1997 festival was to be the last and the cottages then fell into ruin. My diary notes I went to a local waterfall with the hotel staff. One of them was called Marten. An unusual name for an Indonesian until he told me it was because his birthday was March 10th. His brother, Decali was born in December and his sister, Jun, in June. His parents obviously had a sense of humour. That evening I wandered into town. The most action was a card game in the middle of the street. I retreated to bed and listened to CDs.
The following morning I was up bright and early as ever to get the bus to Poso. As is usual, a number of the passengers were sick out the window. It is a common sight on Indonesian buses to see trails from every window of crusty vomit. I never understood why the Indonesians were such bad travellers. I did note they they never liked the windows open. “Masuk Angin” they said as they closed the windows. It means to feel ill, but literally it means enter the wind. The wind was evil and they needed to keep it out. But the closed windows seemed to make them more sick??!
At Poso, I did something else I now never do – I changed travellers cheques at the bank and decried the paltry rate (2300Rps per $). I noted that it was stiflingly hot, not a breath of breeze despite being on the coast. No stopping though. I got another bus up the coast to Ampana. The trip was fine although I noticed a number of places where they had had landslides. I could see rivers of rocks and boulders coming through the jungle. We stopped for lunch along the way – fish and rice of course, before arriving in Ampana after 4 hours on the bus. I bumped into the Dutch girls again and we got rooms in an unnamed hotel. We were to get the ferry the next day to the Togian Islands. We were told that there was only fish to eat on the islands so were determined to find chicken that night.
After the usual misinformation about when the ferry was due to leave and where to get it from, we managed to get a small boat to take us to the ferry which was anchored a little offshore. We climbed aboard to find Tom the German already there. He had caught it in Poso and had stayed the night on board. The boat itself was extremely basic and cramped – hardly a spot free of people or goods and just bare decks. Fortunately it was only a 6 hour crossing to Wakai.
Wakai itself looked a bit like a wild west town – admittedly in the centre of virgin rainforest. Just so remote from civilisation. We were met by the owners of the two hotels in town and decided to go with the guy from the Togian Islands Hotel just because he was a bit less pushy than the other guy. Wakai really was just a one horse town, or rather one bullock cart town which we saw rolling down the one street. Tini, one of the dutch girls said to me, “I wouldn’t really recommend Sulawesi as a place to come”. I knew what she meant. Most of the places we had been to were really in the middle of no where, surrounded by impenetrable rain forest. But isn’t that what travel is all about? That night wasn’t great. A hard bed and no breeze meant it was stifling and the constant buzzing of mosquitoes. Thankfully my sleeping sheet was just a bit too thick for them but meant it was boiling hot.
The following day everything changes. My diary reads, “Now I’m in paradise. I take back all I said about Sulawesi and this place suddenly enters the world’s top ten beaches”. At the hotel we met a bloke who thrust his business card into my hand. It read, “Mr. Big Ampana, Kadidiri Paradise Bungalows” He convinced us to stay in his beach “resort” a few kilometres away from Wakai and we were soon arriving by outrigger canoe onto a wonderful picture perfect white sand beach.
I was to spend a week at Kadidiri Paradise bungalows (There was only one ferry a week to my next destination north to Gorontalo) and it was a beachy paradise. No doubt due to a really good group of people – a mix of European backpackers including Karin and Kim from Denmark who ran the card school. We had endless games of “asshole” most nights. The days were spent on the beach, either just reading, hanging out, taking a dugout canoe to local sea gypsy villages or scuba diving. I noted that the visibility was the best since I had dived on the Great Barrier Reef with the added excitement of diving on a world war two American bomber. I think it’s a bit more upmarket these days.
So a week later I was off again.I got an outrigger to Wakai and from there got the weekly ferry north to Gorontalo. It was an overnight trip and my diary simply notes that during the night we hit a reef and stopped but I carried on sleeping! In the morning I realised that we were near dry land in the middle of nowhere but by a small jetty near a village. Apparently the steering had broken. My diary notes the place as called Dulong but I can’t find it on any map. The crew had told me the boat was new with all the modern conveniences such as a compass, wheel and fairy lights. The captain directed orders from his high chair with a megaphone. By mid morning we were off again following the coast. No one really seemed to know where we were but by 9.30 in the evening we spotted lights. The port of Gorontalo.
We headed for the Melati Hotel (no longer running I think) and I had a welcome fresh water shower. I went for a bite to eat that night with the Dutch girls, bought a ticket for the following morning to Manado and then straight to sleep!
I noted we had bought tickets for the Aircon bus to Manado, due to take 10-12 hours leaving at 9am. We were actually picked up at 10 and then left at 11. Jam Karet (rubber time as they say in Indinesian). It was a small bus but quite comfy. We stopped for one meal stop for which my arse was very thankful and by 9.30 pm we arrived in Manado. We got a microlet to the Smiling Hostel (6000Rs for a bunk bed).
Fri 14th March. My 33rd birthday. Off to the Tangkoko Reserve. I got the bus to Girian and then another on to Tangoko. The road was terrible – just volcanic sand. Then it started pouring with rain and as the steering broke the bus veered off the road into a small ravine. Fortunately no one was injured and we were pulled out by a passing truck. While we were getting completely soaked some blokes managed to patch the steering up with a rope. Amazingly we were actually back on our way an hour or two later. It was very strange how happy everyone was through all this, laughing and joking. Of course I got chatting to a bloke on the bus and he told me his mum had a homestay in Tangkoko. I can’t believe it is still in business: Mama Roos Homestay. In those days it was a rickety bamboo house overlooking a very turgid brown river. I paid 15000Rs ($6) full board. Google maps reckon they are still open but their website was last updated in 2015 and then they quoted a room rate of $20 but it looks as if it’s been much improved. Anyway, back in 1997 I had a look around town. There was a small village with a couple of churches, a black sand beach and big surf. I also hooked up with the only other foreigners in the village, an Australian woman and British man and we arranged to go on a walk the following morning with one of the park rangers into the Tangkoko Batuangus Nature Reserve which was right on the doorstop of the village. We were up at 4.45am as the best time to see the wildlife was at dawn and dusk. The Sulawesi Bear Cuscus is endemic to Sulawesi and we were lucky to see three or four but way up in trees (hence my pretty crappy photograph below)
Also high up in the trees we could see the famed Black Crested Macaques It sounded like the forest was alive with them but again they were high in the trees. Our guide said if we followed them they would eventually come down out of the trees. It was a bit of a scramble tearing through the jungle and it was also still pretty early and so dark. However they did come down and soon we were surrounded by monkeys – an amazing sight.
We also managed to see some Yellow Billed Hornbills and tree snakes but not the probably even more famous Tarsiers. In all we were out for five hours and I was exhausted and also quite scratched from the scramble though the jungle. An amazing experience. The guide said we should try again at sunset to see if we could see a Tarsier. So we assembled again as the sun was setting and set out into the darker and darker jungle. We had been walking for an hour or so, I could hardly see my feet in front of me and was glad we had the guide as we were completely lost. Eventually he told us to stop and be silent and he flicked on his torch. There, clinging to a branch was a baby Tarsier. I couldn’t believe he had spotted it in the darkness. It was the highlight of my trip to Sulawesi. Amazing.
The following morning I was up early and heading back to Manado. I needed to change money and also get a ticket back to Bandung. Back in the day, of course, it was a matter of finding a decent travel agent. The only fairly cheap deal I could get was a flight to Surabaya for 120,000Rs ($52) leaving in a week’s time. I decided to go to Bunaken Island, one of the most famous beachy, dive sites in Indonesia. I got a taxi to the harbour and was quickly assailed by a bloke who ushered me to another man who was Papa Boa’s boatman. He then led me through a shop to a small jetty and a boat which already had a couple of people waiting to go including an Australian who said he had been waiting there for two hours. Anyway, we were soon off to the island.
We disembarked from the boat and I was met by Mar and Tini the Dutch girls. The beach was a bit dirty I noticed, lined with a few homestays and some more cottages being built but the water was crystal clear. Presumably I stayed at Papa Boa’s Homestay but it’s not there now. I had a small cottage on the beach near the restaurant with an outside Mandi (unfortunately in the days before I took photos of all the places I stayed!) and was soon off snorkelling. I saw a turtle and followed it for a number of metres in the cool clear shallows and then I was completely blown away as it headed off the coral into the ocean – there was a HUGE drop off. Way more than the 30 metres visibility. So much more in fact I got vertigo. The following day I went on a dive with NDC (they are still going) – $50 for two tanks. To be honest I didn’t see anything that great. I thought the snorkelling was much better as all the action was round the shallow reefs. Overall though the experience wasn’t as good as the Togians – I think because a lot of the tourists there were a bit miserable.
20th March. Said my goodbyes to Mar and Tini. It was sad to go as we had had some great times in the short time we had spent together.
I still had a few days left. I had considered going up Mt Lokon but it was steaming and trekking was forbidden as they thought it might blow at any time. Instead I headed to Tomohon and checked into the Happy Flower Guesthouse where I was met by Tommy and his mother (9,000Rs). He told me they were full yesterday but now everyone has left. I notice on Google maps there is a Happy Flower Resort there now but not sure if it’s the one I stayed in. Anyway, it was very comfortable and I had a large bed with mossie net and my room overlooked the”pond” which was a flooded paddy field which obviously housed hundreds of frogs given the noise. Once settled in, I headed for the market and noticed a number of charred dog carcasses which I avoided but for lunch I had babi rica, very spicy pork. It is pleasantly cool here as we are at some altitude. Tomohon was also said to have the best proportioned bendi horses in Indonesia! There were certainly plenty of these horse drawn carriages around town.
Friday 21st March 1997
The sky is clear and sun shining brightly as I set off on a full day’s walking. Well actually I got a microlet first up to Lahendong and from there started walking to Lake Linow. On the way I passed a vent by the side of the road gushing clouds of steam and sulphur. Given the place was surrounded by volcanoes this was no surprise. I headed up a path in the general direction of Lake Tondano. At the village of Tondagnow?? friendly locals point me in the direction of Remboken. The villages are not especially pretty but the houses and gardens are. There are lots of coloured bushes and flowers. By now it’s getting hot but I am soon rewarded with a great view of Remboken and the lake and from here it’s a pleasant walk through paddy fields to the village.
I managed to find a small warung in the village and had some fish and rice. The people in the market are very friendly and I had to take a selfie with a stallholder. From here I took a microlet to Sawangan to see the waruga – the ancient sarcophagi of the Minahasans. Now the rain came bucketing down but I found shelter in the tiny museum and chatted to the old curator. The rain stopped and I managed to get a lift back to my guesthouse which now has a few more guests including a couple more Dutch girls, this time doing a bicycle tour of the area.
Sat 22nd March 1997
Market day! Along with the dogs I also see other Minhasan delicacies including bat, rat, monkey and pig.
Then I climbed Mount Mahawu. 40 minutes through wet jungle on a very narrow path. As the path got steeper and steeper I thought I would never make it. Then the jungle thinned out to be replaced by tall grass and then I was at the rim of the crater. There were a few steaming vents and a yellow green crater lake. There were also great views on the other side as far as Manado, I could even make out Bunaken. Mt Lokok and Manado Tua were both obscured by cloud.
I came down off the mountain into Tomohon. In those days I was game on to try anything once so I lunched on dog. It was very tender, almost melted in the mouth, but like a lot of food here, really spicy. Then back to the hotel to find Tommy and his mum shelling snails, presumably for tonight’s meal. They certainly like their various meats in these parts!
So, my Sulawesi trip was almost over. A good night’s sleep before a bemo to Manado and then the flight to Surabaya and then the overnight train to Bandung. After the holiday it was back to pounding the pavements and looking for a job!