Tana Toraja Mountain Walks, Sulawesi, Indonesia

Introduction

Tana Toraja, located in the steep mountains of south Sulawesi is best known for its fascinating culture surrounding their funeral ceremonies and life after death.  Although they are Christian today, their Christianity is blended with ancient traditions. For example they do not believe in hell. After death the soul goes to a secondary life where mistakes are atoned for before returning to God. Funeral ceremonies follow specific traditions and may include animal sacrifices.

I hired a guide for 3 days to visit the local sights and do some trekking in the mountains near Rantepao, the gateway to the area and where you find most accommodations and restaurants. While the region does see some tourism, tourism is not a big industry here. Most tourist come in August, during the dry season, when they bring out the dead bodies to clean and redress them.

I cover my time here in 4 posts. The first post talks about visits to cemeteries, the second visits to 2 funerals, the third walks in the mountains and the forth sleeping and dining in Rantepao and a review of my guide, Otto.

Mountain Walks

First Walk

Otto parked the vehicle at a village that offers home stays and we walked a loop around the villages. The route started through rice paddies to a cement road. Otto explained that tourists are often disappointed when walking roads rather than trails. More and more roads are being built to aid the local people to get between villages. Roads are good for the local community even if they are less appealing to the tourists.

October is normally the end of the dry season and should see an increase in rain. This year it hasn’t rained much for the last 3 months and many of the fields were dry with cracked ground, yellowing rice paddies and the surrounding vegetation browning. Other parts of the mountain near the end of the walk still had water and thus green rice paddies. October is generally not a month that has much rice planted. They generally plant rice in the rainy season starting in November and December. According to Otto the fields are the prettiest green in June and July.

Walking the road the small villages of traditional homes are frequent, usually a combination of traditional boat shaped structures, tongkonan, and more ordinary looking structures, often made of wood but sometimes masonry or brick. There are also a number of small churches, both protestant and catholic.

The Torajan people were friendly, said “hello” and comment or ask where I was from when we passed. None spoke much English.

We stopped in one village for a lunch of instant ramen soup. Otto had also purchased some small bananas on the drive up. We were invited into the family’s home where we purchased the soup. It was a basic room with a bare concrete floor, dark wood walls and a wooden bench along the walls on two sides. They had a wood fire in the corner and a small table with a hot plate on it and a small cupboard pantry next to it. An older woman sat on the floor grating coconut. As I sat on the bench eating my soup, I asked what they were making. They were making a “cake”. Looking around the room for an oven, I asked how they cook the cake. “You will see”, Otto replied.

After the coconut was grated a younger woman got a wok hot over the hot plate and heated some palm meal (dried ground palm pulp). She then added shavings of palm sugar and the grated coconut and stirred it as it heated through. That was it. They gave me some to try. It tasted exactly like you would expect, somewhat sweet coconut flavored dry course meal.

During the making of the cake and after, Otto chatted with the family. Every once in while Otto stopped to explain to me the general topic, but generally I just watched the family looking at Otto as they nodded and added comments. Even the young girl, about 10 years old, watched Otto with wide eyes.

We continued our walk to the wetter side of the mountain. Here there were some pretty green rice paddies and the surrounding jungle vegetation was also much greener.

The rice paddies have a small pond in the middle for carp. When the paddies are full of water the fish swim into the paddy. The carp’s red color is supposed to scare away the mice. When the rice is harvested and the paddy dries out the fish follow a channel back into the pond. This is also an extra food supply for the family.

Back at the village where we parked the car, the proprietor offered us something to drink. Sitting on a mat at the base of one of the rice bans we had mint tea and a sweetened sesame rice flour cookie of sorts. As Otto chatted with the couple I watched a young boy take a buffalo down to a narrow waterway for a drink. When the buffalo bent down to drink the boy climbed on his back.

Second Walk

After the second funeral ceremony we drove up the mountain to a resort area near Batutumonga for a shorter walk. This area is known for its views over Rantepao and its terraced rice paddies. I can see where on the right day in the right season it would be a beautiful area, but because in mid-October there was little rice in the paddies and the weather was hazy the views were not great. Otto says that in June and July you have a better chance of green rice paddies with clear views.

Conclusion

I came to Tana Toraja to hike in the mountains and see the beautiful landscape. The landscape for the most part was disappointing. I’ve seen much prettier mountains, partly because it was dry at the time of my visit and thus the vegetation and rice paddies were not as green as they could be, but also the skies were hazy obscuring the mountain views. Under the right conditions, these mountains would be much more picturesque.

Despite my disappointment in the views, from a cultural perspective this is a fascinating area to visit and a worthwhile walk. The area does not have a fully developed tourism industry and does not see many tourists. Thus it retains an authenticity, but it also means conditions are a bit rough and not as clean as most tourists would like. For those willing to accept it as it is it’s a worthwhile cultural experience and a glimpse into the daily life of the Torajan people.

October 11-16, 2023