Village trekking in Tana Toraja
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After a few days in Rantepao, in the South Sulawesi uplands of Tana Toraja, we asked a trekking guide to come by the guesthouse to discuss an overnight trip. Under five feet, barrel-chested, chain-smoking, and pushing 50, our prospective guide extended his hand and said in a deep baritone, “My name is Yatim.” Fatherless. He wrote out a string of villages he wanted to take us to, and told us to bring water, rain gear, good shoes, a flashlight.
The next morning we stopped at the vast market held near Rantepao every six days. Men in batik shirts hand-fed their buffalo. Pigs lay bound in rows, or were carried on bamboo poles. We had a lunch packed, and bought some snacks and kreteks to share along the way.
From there we drove northwest to Kepe, and continued on foot, leaving the road at the sign for the Obama copy shop and heading through bamboo stands and coffee trees into the hills. The trip through the woods, valleys, and rice terraces was remarkably beautiful, as well as a reminder of how densely populated much of Indonesia is. You might not see another person for hours, and go for two days without seeing a road, but you’re never far from the sound of an axe or a rooster’s crow. Even in remote areas, you stumble across coffee, clove, and cacao trees, or rows of spindly cassava plants. Even an old tree may have been planted decades before by a villager who knew his children would be rebuilding their traditional house about now.
In Perangian we unwrapped our chicken, rice, and eel in black sauce in the shade of a rice barn. After lunch, we passed through a wilder area with views of the river coursing through the valley far below (it’s possible to raft part of the way back). Yatim pointed out an edible fern shoot called pakis, and the miana leaves cooked with pork in bamboo.
Due to a recent traffic accident — but not, he said, to smoking — Yatim sometimes tells clients to go ahead and wait for him at the top of a hill. He definitely never had to do that with us. The paths wet by the current monsoon slowed us down, and we arrived at Limbong behind schedule, just after dark. Our hosts brought tea to a table under their raised house. Light from a generator came and went, while the work of the house went on around us, cooking, cleaning, and weaving mats to sell at market.
A chicken was dispatched for our dinner, appearing on the table some time later with vegetables from the garden. Someone handed Yatim an ancient guitar, and he coaxed out a Torajan song followed by a version of “Sailing” far more soulful than Rod Stewart’s. It was raining too hard to walk to the traditional house as planned, so we slept comfortably upstairs on the floor, nestled in stacks of blankets.
The next morning we had lightly fried cassava and strong, sweet coffee before climbing the last bit of mountain to a hilltop school and the sound of lessons chanted. Below us the rice terraces carved their way up the mountain in countless levels: bright green seedlings, amber stalks ready for harvest, or filled with water that reflected the bright sky. Buffalo wallowed or grazed, tolerating white birds to stand on their backs, the result, Yatim explained, of a long-ago drinking contest (the bird cheated).
We left the terraces, walking downhill on forest paths. In one village, a family with newborn twins waved from their porch. Under the house, two plants marked where the placentas had been buried, forever linking the children to their home. In the next village, two families shared a feast to celebrate an engagement.
Much of Indonesia’s character comes from village life. Getting a glimpse of that life, as much as the improbable rice terrace views, is what made this trek so remarkable.
Several possible treks start near Batutumonga, which is accessible by public bemo, and where you can take a beautiful half-day hike if you don’t have time for an overnight. You can arrange a drop-off by a hired car or motorcycle at locations not reachable by bemo.
While not too strenuous, our hike required navigating narrow, slippery paths, and we all fell at least once (well, not Yatim). Think twice if there has been heavy rain.