I remember in my youth buying my first Beatles record, a double anthology of their music from 1966-1970, putting it on the turntable and “discovering” extraordinary song after extraordinary song for the first time – Sulawesi this last month has been something like that.
It’s been on my radar for a long time. In fact when I was 8 or 9 and had a map of the world above my bed what caught my interest was this extravagantly-shaped island, all flailing limbs like a freaky life form, straddling the equator. That, I thought, must be an interesting place.
So finally this year we made the decision, and flew into Sulawesi from Bali on Nov. 21. If you haven’t been already, I would say you must go, so here are some of the practicalities, and our recommendations. The photos can give you a better idea of the beauty of the place than words can, and you can run your cursor over them if you want to see what they are.
Also known as Ujung Pandang (an important point when you are trolling the web for flights), this is the big steamy capital where it is probable that you will arrive. It has a new and well-organized airport from where you can catch a bus from the ground level downtown, or take a taxi for a standard fare of 85,000 rupiah (the exchange is 9,600/C$, so it’s easy to divide by 10,000) plus 15,000 for the toll way. We decided to go to the Suada Indah Hotel, a good but very quirky choice. For 250,000 you get AC, breakfast, and a big room full of furniture heavily carved is what can only be described as Chinese rococo. Wifi can be picked up in the lobby. We took a walk down to our second choice, the Lestari, which is a similar price, maybe more comfortable, but no windows. There’s little reason to spend more than a day in Makassar; the best thing about it is its name.
Several ultra-comfortable private companies do the (theoretically) 8 hr. trip up into the mountains, and we chose Litha, leaving at 10 a.m. Tickets are 115,000 each, and we paid the hotel clerk a well-earned 25,000 to go get them in a rainstorm. Each company has their own station, and we got to Litha with a half hour, 30,000 taxi ride. Roomy as the buses are, they don’t have toilets, but make food stops every 3 hours or so. The scenery kept getting more and more spectacular until night fell, the rain started, and we were still a good hour away at our supposed arrival time. By a huge stroke of luck the rain stopped just as we arrived in Rantepao. We liked the sound of Duta 88 Cottages, and a “guide” (there are many in this town) met the bus and took us there. They were full, but Daoud, the owner of a small homestay was there to scoop up the overflow, and led us to his place, the Riana, which was 120,000. Nice, if you don’t mind toddlers underfoot, and no wifi. We rented a motorbike the next morning from Alex at the internet cafe across the street from the Wisma Maria II for 60,000/day, and went hotel hunting. The place we were hoping for, the Rantepao Lodge, was closed, and we ended up with a great room with wifi and balcony looking out over mountains and rice fields at the Pison Hotel (I know!) for 150,000. We stayed there for 8 days, and loved every minute. Typically, the clouds gathered and the rain poured at about 3 p.m., so we took the bike out into the countryside and tried to be back by then. Anywhere you go is spectacular, so if you can try to be a the big sites – Kete Kesu, Lemo and Londa – when there aren’t crowds of tour buses outside. All of those are cliff-face burial sites, with old carved suspended coffins, piles of skulls and bones, and staring tau-tau effigies arranged in hollowed out balconies. Kete Kesu has an avenue of tongkanan, the beautiful Torajan crescent-roofed houses and rice barns, but as you drive around the area you see that they are everywhere. A gorgeous excursion is on a rough road up to the ridge top of Batutumonga, which has a few bad-value hotels.
There are numerous bus company offices in “downtown” Rantepao, and we chose one leaving at 9 a.m. for Pendolo, on the shores of Poso Lake, a couple of hours south of Tentena. 100,000 rupiah, and they pick you up from your hotel. Not quite the luxury of the Litha liner, but not bad. It was supposed to be a 7 hour trip, but it took 10, partly due to a massive rainstorm which caused the one windshield wiper on the bus to pack it in on the steepest, roughest part of the road. The driver soldiered on, but it was like looking out through a waterfall at an impressionist painting of a road, and we were glad to arrive in Pendolo as night fell. A German couple on the bus, Inge and Klaus, decided they’d had enough and packed it in at Pendolo as well, and joined us when the rain stopped to find the Mulia Lake Hotel. A little bit of bargaining got the price down to a more reasonable 225,000, although there was no way we were going anywhere else that night. All the power was out after the storm, and we shared a meal and some un-chilled Bintang beer in a street-side warung by candlelight as the curtains blew in the window.
From Pendolo we flagged down a Kijang – a Toyota Pathfinder – and hired the whole thing to take the 4 of us to Tentena for 200,000. Like everywhere in Sulawesi, at least a basic knowledge of Bahasa Indonesia is necessary to get around. Katheryn had been doing some lessons on line in Bali, and was now able to joke with our young driver dude, and translate some of the sappy love songs he was playing. “I love you!” he said, was the only English he knew. We found rooms in Tentena at a lovely spot, the Tropicana, for 120,000, and stayed for 2 days. It’s a great place to break up a trip between Toraja and the Togeans. The second day we rented a bike for 80,000, and went out to a gorgeous waterfall where you can swim in cool clear pools. On the north end of Poso Lake there is a small resort with an OK beach, but I would rather stay in the delightful town of Tentena.
A bemo from Tentena to Poso cost 20,000 each, and we arrived at its sad and empty bus station at 11 a.m. The only buses from Poso to Ampana go at 9 a.m. and 2 p.m., so instead of waiting at least 3 hours at the sweltering and depressing station we hired a car for 420,000, which got us to Ampana in 3.5 hours, instead of the scheduled 5.
At Ampana we found a good AC room at the Oasis Hotel for 180,000, but you have to live with their karaoke until they shut it down at 11. We fought through the flame-thrower afternoon heat to get some snacks and looked for boat tickets for the next day’s sailing on the good ship Lumba Lumba to Malenge in the the Togeans. But for that un-missable story, dear readers, you will have to wait until next blog.
Salamat malam and good night,
Your Foreign Devil Correspondents