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A Good Place to Die

We’d been waiting for some time, standing on cobbles that were glossy with the blood of a recently sacrificed buffalo when the body finally appeared.

Carefully, it was lowered down the stairs and placed on an elaborately tented litter. Then, with an entourage of a hundred that included the wailing widow, friends, relatives and the odd curious tourist, the deceased was paraded around the village. As we watched the procession, the bloke next to me gave me a nudge: ‘This guy,’ he said, shrugging, ‘he is not so important. You should have been here last week – we killed 30 buffalo!’

For many visitors to Sulawesi, the highlight of their stay is going to the funeral of a complete stranger. But this is not as ghoulish as it may at first sound – the peoples of the south eastern Tana Toraja region have fused missionary Christianity and ancient animist beliefs to produce one of the most elaborate and stylish death cultures in the world. The most visible manifestations of this are the belief that you can take it all with you and an all-pervading veneration of the buffalo. Thus, any half decent funeral involves feasting, dancing, hundreds of guests – tourists are usually welcome – and a big old buffalo bloodbath, with the number of beasts sacrificed dependent on the deceased’s wealth.

Before heading off to a funeral though, it’s not a bad idea to pop down to the market to get an idea of the place of the buffalo in Torajan society. Here, in the central paddock, hundreds of animals are paraded around in front of potential buyers. That these beasts look unusually sleek and pampered should come as no surprise – a suitably swish buffalo (the piebald ones find particular favour) will fetch thousands of pounds, far more than most people earn in a year. Indeed, in the way that Americans save to put their kids through college and Brits save for weddings, the Torajans save their whole lives for death. And Indonesians on neigbouring islands have cottoned onto this fact: a Javanese man explained to us that, every two months, he shipped his buffalo over to Sulawesi: ‘Here,’ he said, with an incredulous grin, ‘they pay me twice as much as they do back home.’

Over the next few days – continuing with our funereal theme – we explored the morbidly charming villages south of the main town of Rantepao. It is here that the grateful dead are laid to rest, but, this being Toraja, they’re not buried anywhere obvious, like the ground. The problem, explained one villager, is that if you bury a man with half his worldly goods, it won’t be long before the grave robbers get to him.

So, the Torajans have come up with a variety of offbeat resting places to deter would-be plunderers. Down in the village of Lemo, for instance, the dead are interred in narrow slots hacked high into a cliff face. And just in case the living forget who’s ‘buried’ thirty feet up, below the graves there’s a manically grinning gallery of Tau-taus – effigies of the dead.

Later, at neighbouring Londa a local guide took us through the spooky, sepulchral caverns where his ancestors’ bones were stored before showing us a remarkable hanging coffin. This – complete with once corporeal contents – was suspended from a limestone overhang, some 25 feet above our heads. ‘He was a very rich man’ explained the guide, adding, that, if we fancied it, he could take us to a village where they buried babies in trees. But we decided we’d done death to death, declined politely, and headed back into town for some of the peculiarly good local cuisine.

Up Through the Centre

Although the Toraja region is Sulawesi’s is best-known attraction, there’s plenty more. Formed by the collision of two islands millions of years ago Sulawesi resembles a letter ‘K’ and its four mountainous peninsulas have something for everyone – the problem is getting there. After Toraja most people opt to fly from Makassar in the southwest to Manado in the northeast. But a small minority takes the ‘Trans Sulawesi Highway.’ Don’t be fooled. The name may conjure up images of sinuous six lane ribbons of concrete but this is a road that would be considered atrocious in rural Scotland.

That said, rugged topography does have its upside and our journey took us through vast stretches of uninhabited land – all soaring peaks and lush valleys, covered in felty green rainforest. Higher still and you are in the strange tropical cloudforest zone, cold and misty despite being on an island which straddles the equator, cool and I had just about got used to the precipitous drops and was beginning to enjoy the surrounding biodiversity when our bus gave a funny little jolt; looking back, I saw that we’d clipped a motorcyclist who was now wobbling ominously. Then, just like they do on TV, bike and rider executed a graceful somersault off the side of this high mountain road.

The bus stopped and we all prepared for the worst. But amazingly – and also uncannily like TV – both bike and rider had landed three meters down the hillside in a bed of ferns. So we pulled the lucky fellow back onto the road, dusted him down, then fixed a rope around his bike and hauled that back up too. Back home, of course, this would be the starting point for a lengthy lawsuit. But Sulawesi has yet to discover litigation as a sport so after we’d ascertained that there was no harm done and the bus driver had apologised, the pair shook hands – apparently these things happen all the time.

From the central highlands you meander down to Lake Poso, the second largest and deepest (though nobody seems quite sure) lake in Indonesia. It is a beautiful place with forest, beaches and sparkling waterfalls. But it is also somewhere to exercise caution. Nearby Poso (40 km) has played host to some of the worst clashes between Christians and Muslims of recent years and with its burnt out churches, it looks a little as if the Klan has just left town. This is a place where those foreign office website warnings mean what they say.

Masochism aside, the main reason to ‘experience’ central Sulawesi’s road system is to go to the Togean islands. These comprise a beautiful and surprisingly sizeable archipelago which, anywhere else, would support a huge tourist industry. But this is Indonesia and they have 17,000 islands to choose from, so the Togeans remain an idyllic backwater. In fact, so undeveloped are these islands, that they are chock full of exactly the kind of deserted beaches that everybody in Thailand (as fictionalised in The Beach) seems to be looking for. They also offer some good diving, including a terrific sunken World War II Bomber.

North Sulawesi

Up on the northern peninsula and it feels like you’re in a different country. The regional capital, Manado, was an important trading hub under the Dutch and the area has a cosmopolitan feel, good Chinese food and (unusually for Indonesia) a Christian majority. But it is Manado’s hinterland that visitors come to see. Across the broad, Neapolitan sweep of Manado bay you can see Pulau Bunaken, a beautiful island and marine reserve with great diving. And, up in the Minahasa Highlands above the city are numerous hot springs and a pair of impressive volcanoes, one of which is currently too restless to climb.

The Highlands also boast one of the world’s most extreme cuisines. Indonesian food usually verges on the dull but in these parts, there’s not much they won’t eat. Wandering around the highland capital Tomohon, we espied a cage full of odd-looking creatures which, on closer inspection turned out to be fruit bats. The owner looked at me, grinned and asked: ‘You want to try?’ Like most Indonesians he was being genuinely friendly – how could I refuse?

So I followed him into a nearby warung (local restaurant) while he extolled the virtues of bat – it would, he assured me, make me stronger for football, fighting andyes, that too. Although I cannot vouch for its aphrodisiac qualities curried bat is delicious, with a pleasing, gamey flavour rather like pigeon. Pronouncing it ‘bagus’ – and to general astonishment – I then ordered a man sized portion, which I polished off to cries of ‘Batman!’ and slaps on the back from my fellow diners. Rather touchingly, when I came to pay, the owner charged me next to nothing, saying that I was good for business. Indeed, looking around his warung was now packed with curious customers who’d come to watch the tourist eat bat.

But to experience Minahasa’s meaty menagerie in all its gory glory, you really have to go to Tomohon market. From the outside it looks pretty normal – the usual photogenic tropical fruit and veg – but penetrate this vegetarian veneer and you enter a world of medieval gore. As we walked the blood splattered aisles pigs’ heads stared sightlessly, eviscerated forest rats swung by their tails and great piles of innards glistened nauseatingly.

Most westerners come here hoping to be grossed out and few leave disappointed. It is probably a vegetarian’s idea of hell on earth. The market saved its best for last. Just past the man selling oven-ready bats and cook-chill rats was a stall with half a dozen strange looking animals. It took a moment before I realised that this is what man’s best friend looks like when you singe all his fur off with a blowtorch. Still, despite his grisly trade, the dog butcher was a cheerful chap, happy to pose for snaps with his scorched puppies. And, when a little disturbed by all this, I turned away, the beef butcher opposite was pretending to be a Viking for the benefit of a couple of Danish tourists. A resourceful fellow, he was using the props at hand and wearing the bloody top of a cow’s skull, hair and horns still attached, on his head.

But life in Highlands isn’t just about eating all God’s creatures. Head towards Sulawesi’s northeast tip and there are strikingly sepulchral black volcanic beaches and a small but perfectly formed nature reserve. With a few days to spare we booked ourselves onto a an early morning jungle walk and, at 5am (why, you wonder, can’t nature ever do cool stuff in the middle of the day?) our guide led us deep into the forest, where quickly he spotted a pair of rare hornbills.

Half an hour later, he stopped, his nose twitching and announced: ‘I smell monkeys.’ Of course, we thought this was all an act, but 30 seconds later we were in the midst of a troupe of 60 black tipped macaques. As the group – ranging a stern alpha male to mischievous infants – gamboled around us, our guide described their lifestyle in an impressive level of detail, his knowledge borne out of a genuine enthusiasm. In Sulawesi, this probably made him unique. For here, at last, was a man who liked his wildlife swinging through the trees, rather than simmering in a rich chilli sauce.

Practicals: Getting There: Singapore Airlines (in conjunction with its subsidiary Silk Air) flies to both Makassar (sometimes called Ujung Pandang) and Manado. Flights usually connect in Singapore. Garuda Indonesia (Indonesia’s national carrier) flies from Gatwick to both Makassar and Manado; Connect in Jakarta/ Bali. Garuda also flies between Makassar and Manado. Many people who fly Garuda opt to spend a few days on the beach in Bali before heading home. When to go: The dry season runs from August until October in the North and from June until October in the South. But Sulawesi’s extraordinary shape makes for a highly complex climate and at the island boasts not only Indonesia’s driest spot, but also some of its wettest. Health: While not exactly rife malaria does exist in some areas, especially the province of Central Sulawesi and the Togean islands. Your doctor or a travel clinic will be able to advise you on appropriate precautions. Safety: Sulawesi is generally safe, but there have been outbreaks of violence between Christians and Muslims in the town of Poso in Central Sulawesi. Check the foreign office website before visiting this province.

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