Sulawesi sprawls in the centre of the Indonesian archipelago, a tortuous outline resembling a one-thousand–kilometre letter “K”, and one of the country’s most compelling regions. Nowhere in Sulawesi is much more than 100km from the sea, though an almost complete covering of mountains isolates its four separate peninsulas from one another and from the outside world. Invaders were hard pushed to colonize beyond the coast, and a unique blend of cultures and habitats developed. The south is split between the highland Torajans and the lowland Bugis, there are various isolated tribes in the central highlands, and the Filipino-descended Minahasans reside in the far north.
The most settled part of the island, the south, is home to most of Sulawesi’s fifteen million inhabitants. This is also where you’ll find the capital, the busy port of Makassar. The southern plains rise to the mountains of Tanah Toraja, whose beautiful scenery, unusual architecture and vibrant festivals are the island’s chief tourist attractions. Those after a more languid experience can soak up tropical sunshine on the Togian Islands, and there’s fabulous diving at Pulau Bunaken, out from the northern city of Manado. In most areas, Sulawesi’s roads are well covered by public transport, though freelance kijang (shared taxis) and minibuses are often faster and better value than public buses. Where these fail you’ll find ferries, even if services are unreliable.
The Togian Islands form a fragmented, 120-kilometre-long crescent across the shallow blue waters of Tomini Bay, their steep grey sides weathered into sharp ridges capped by coconut palms and hardwoods. The exceptional snorkelling and diving around the islands features turtles, sharks, octopus, garden eels, and a mixed bag of reef and pelagic fish species. On the down side, there are also nine depots in the Togians dealing in the live export of seafood to restaurants in Asia; many of these operations employ cyanide sprays, which stun large fish but kill everything else – including coral.
From west to east, Batu Daka, Togian and Talata Koh are the Togians’ three main islands, with Walea Kodi and Walea Bahi further east. The main settlements are Bomba and Wakai on Batu Daka, and Katupat on Togian. Wakai is something of a regional hub, with transport out to smaller islands. There are no vehicle roads or widespread electricity in the Togians and you’ll find it pays not to be on too tight a schedule; most accommodation places offer day-trips and shared transfers. Tourism in the islands is budget-oriented but good, and prices usually include meals. July through to September are the coolest months, when winds can interrupt ferries. Diving is usually good all year round, though visibility in December can be variable.
Four hours from Ampana and at the western end of Batu Daka, Bomba comprises two dozen houses and a mosque facing north across a pleasant bay. There’s a long beach 5km west of town, but it’s the sea that warrants a visit here, with the Togians’ best snorkelling an hour away at Catherine reef. The coast near here is interesting, too, offering the possibility of seeing crocodiles in remote inlets; some islets east of Bomba are completely covered by villages, their boundaries reinforced with hand-cut coral ramparts.
At Sulawesi’s southwestern corner, facing Java and Kalimantan, Makassar (also known as Ujung Pandang) is a large, hot and crowded port city with good transport links between eastern and western Indonesia. More than anything, Makassar offers an introduction to Sulawesi’s largest ethnic group, the Bugis, who continue to export their goods well beyond Sulawesi in prahu, distinctive vessels with steep, upcurved prows. The city has a long and distinguished history as a crucial trading port and coastal defence.
A monument to Sulawesi’s colonial era, Fort Rotterdam on Jalan Ujung Pandang was established as a defensive position in 1545 and enlarged a century later when the Dutch commander Cornelius Speelman rechristened it in memory of his home town. A wander round the thick stone walls lets you peer out to sea on one side and down onto backstreets on the other. Located on the northwest side is Speelman’s House, the oldest surviving building, standing next to one half of La Galigo Museum, which houses a fairly interesting collection of ethnographic and historic items, including models of local boat types.
Pasar Sentral (Central Market) was once the city’s main shopping district, and although the mega malls now steal much of its custom, it remains a thriving place and the best spot to find pete-petes (local bemos). From here you can pick up a becak or an ojek to take you 3km north up Jalan Sudarso to Paotere harbour, where Bugis prahu from all over Indonesia unload and embark cargo; it’s quite a spectacle when the harbour is crowded, the red, white and green prahu lined up along the dock.
Gorontalo is a quiet but well-equipped town, not an unpleasant place to get stranded should you be unlucky with Togian boat schedules. Its streets are laid out on a grid system, making it easy to navigate. The main north–south road is Jalan A Yani, where you’ll find ATMs at the BNI and Danamon banks. Crossing it east–west is Jalan 23 Januari, with the post office at the junction and the Pelni office a short way further along.
Capital of Sulawesi Utara, Manado is mainly used by travellers as a stopping-off point for spectacular diving and snorkelling in the Bunaken Marine Reserve. You can either base yourself in Manado and do day-trips to the reefs, or stay on the island itself, where you’ll find plenty of accommodation and dive operators to choose from.
Manado is busy, noisy, hot and in a permanent state of near-gridlock, but it also exudes a bustling energy, which can be refreshing if you’re feeling deprived of civilization after a trip to the Togians. The town’s hub lies in the north, where you’ll find the harbour and its neighbouring fresh-produce market, Pasar Bersehati. The main Jalan Sam Ratulangi runs south from here, parallel to the endless malls on Jalan Pierre Tendean. Microlets swarm along both roads, with many turning into mobile discos at night, complete with flashing lights and thumping bass.
Manado was flattened in 1844 by a devastating earthquake, and tremors measuring up to 5.0 on the Richter scale continue to rattle the town for a few seconds every three months or so.
A popular trip from Manado is to the Tangkoko National Park, home of the world’s smallest primate, the tarsier. These nocturnal tree-dwelling creatures resemble bush babies or aye-ayes with their large saucer eyes and long, thin fingers. The beach side forest of Tangkoko is also home to troops of black macaque, hornbills and cuscus, all of which you should be able to spot.
Getting to Tangkoko by public transport requires a lot of changes, but they’re all straightforward. Take a microlet from town to Paal Dua, then a bus to Bitung. Another microlet will get you to Girian, where you need to find a kijang or pick-up to Tangkoko – ask them to stop at Mama Roos. Alternatively, you can take a charter from Manado. There are a handful of basic homestays at Tangkoko. Guides are compulsory to visit the park; however, your entrance fee includes the services of a ranger, so rather than paying twice, walk down the path beside the tourist office till you find the rangers’ post.
Indonesia’s official scuba centre is Bunaken Marine Reserve, a 75-square-kilometre patch of sea northwest of Manado. Coral reefs around the reserve’s four major islands drop to a forty-metre shelf before plunging to depths of 200m and more, creating stupendous reef walls abounding with Napoleon (maori) wrasse, barracuda, trevally, tuna, turtles, manta rays, whales and dolphin. Set aside concerns about snakes and sharks and avoid instead the metre-long Titan triggerfish, sharp beaked and notoriously pugnacious when guarding its nest; and small, fluorescent-red anemone fish, which are apt to give divers a painful nip.
Diving is well established in Bunaken, with high-quality operators both in Manado and within the reserve on Pulau Bunaken. The island makes for an infinitely more pleasant base, with a wide range of accommodation. Experienced divers will also find plenty of budget operators on the island, though you must check the reliability of rental gear and air quality, the two biggest causes for concern here.
Off the island’s west beach between Bunaken village and Liang beach, are Lekuan 1, 2 and 3, exceptionally steep deep walls, where you’ll find everything from gobies and moray eels to black-tip reef sharks. There are giant clams and stingrays at Fukui, on the far western end of the island, while Mandolin is good for turtles and occasional mantas, and Mike’s Point attracts sharks and sea snakes. Non-divers can snorkel straight from the beach, or ask to join a diving boat. The best weather conditions are between June and November, with light breezes, calm seas and visibility underwater averaging 25m and peaking beyond 50m. Try to avoid the westerly storms between December and February and less severe, easterly winds from March until June.
About an hour by ferry out from Manado, Pulau Bunaken is a low-backed, five-kilometre-long comma covered in coconut trees and ringed by sand and mangroves. If you book in advance your homestay will usually arrange your transport. The main alternative is to take a public ferry to Bunaken village from the river behind the warungs at Pasar Bersehati in Manado. A wander round the main harbour will also get you a plethora of offers, usually from homestays.
Between 1998 and 2001, violent unrest and bloody fighting between Christians and Muslims in and around the town of Poso claimed more than two thousand lives. A peace deal signed in 2001 helped to stabilize the region, though tensions still occasionally boil over in sporadic attacks, including bombings and beheadings. Poso’s location means it is almost impossible to avoid at least passing through, and tourism is slowly growing in the area, but caution is still highly recommended. Check with your governement advisory website for up-to date-information about the safety of the area.
Some 250km north of Makassar, a steep wall of mountains marks the limits of Bugis territory and the start of Tanah Toraja’s highlands, a beautiful spread of hills and valleys where sleek buffalo wallow in lush green paddy fields. With easy access and one of Indonesia’s most confident and vivid cultures, Tanah Toraja is planted firmly on the agenda of every visitor to Sulawesi. Tour groups tend to concentrate on key sites, so it’s not hard to find more secluded corners.
Tanah Toraja’s main town, at least as far as tourists are concerned, is Rantepao, 18km north of the regional capital, Makale. It’s a popular base for travellers, most of whom descend for the major festival season between July and September. Expect hot days and cool nights; there is a “dry” season between April and October, but this is relative only to the amount of rain at other times, so bring non-slip walking boots and rainwear.
Tanah Toraja is known as Tator in the local idiom, and you should look for this on transport timetables. There are buses to Rantepao from points all over Sulawesi, including night buses from Makassar.
Rantepao is a prosperous market town on the rocky banks of Sungai Sadan Valley, home to the Sadan Toraja. A number of key sites lie within walking distance.
Rantepao stretches for 1km along the eastern bank of the Sadan. The central crossroads is marked by a miniature tongkonan on a pedestal: north from here is Jalan Mappanyuki, a short run of souvenir shops, bus agents and restaurants; Jalan Ahmad Yani points south towards Makale before becoming Jalan Pong Tiku; east is Jalan Diponegoro and the Palopo road; while westerly Jalan Landorundun leads to the riverside past a small fresh-produce market.
Rantepao’s main market – the biggest in Tanah Toraja, 2.5km northeast of the centre at Terminal Bolu – is a must: where else could you pick up a bargain buffalo then celebrate your purchase with a litre or two of palm wine? Large markets are held every six days, though you’ll find some traders in the marketplace every day of the week. You can walk there in half an hour by following Jalan Mappanyuki over the river, passing a few impressive tongkonan before crossing the river again to the market.
Anthropologists place Torajan origins as part of the Bronze Age exodus from Vietnam; Torajans say that their ancestors descended from heaven by way of a stone staircase, which was later angrily smashed by the creator Puang Matua after his laws were broken. These laws became the root of aluk todolo, the way of the ancestors. Only a fraction of Torajans now follow the old religion, the strict practice of which was prohibited after head-hunting and raunchy life-rites proved unacceptable to colonial and nationalist administrations. But its trappings remain: everywhere you’ll see extraordinary tongkonan and alang, traditional houses and rice-barns, and the Torajan social calendar remains ringed with exuberant ceremonies involving pig and buffalo sacrifices. Torajans are masters at promoting their culture, positively encouraging outsiders to experience their way of life.
Ceremonies are divided into rambu tuka, or smoke ascending (associated with the east and life), and rambu solo, smoke descending (west and death). A typical rambu tuka ceremony is the dedication of a new tongkonan.
The biggest of all Torajan ceremonies are funerals, the epitome of a rambu solo occasion. Held over several days, it starts with the parading of the oval coffin. At the end of the first afternoon you’ll see buffalo fights. The following day – or days, if it’s a big funeral – is spent welcoming guests, who troop village by village into the ceremonial field, led by a noblewoman dressed in orange and gold, bearing gifts of balok (palm wine), pigs trussed on poles and buffalo. The next day, the major sacrifice takes place: the nobility must sacrifice at least 24 buffalo, with one hundred needed to see a high-ranking chieftain on his way. Their horns decorated with gold braid and ribbons, the buffalo are tied to posts and their throats slit, the blood caught in bamboo tubes and used in cooking. Finally, the coffin is laid to rest in a west-oriented house-grave or rock-face mausoleum, with a tau-tau, a life-sized wooden effigy of the deceased, positioned in a nearby gallery facing outwards, and – for the highest-ranking nobles – a megalith raised in the village ground.
Witnessing a traditional ceremony is what draws most visitors to Tanah Toraja, particularly during the “peak festival season” in the agriculturally quiet period from June to September. To visit a ceremony outsiders should really have an invitation, via a guide. As more participants means greater honour, however, it’s also possible to turn up at an event and hang around the sidelines until somebody offers to act as your host. You are highly unlikely to be the only foreigner attending; snap-happy tourists are part of the scenery, with each sacrifice a photographic feeding-frenzy. Make sure you take a gift for your hosts – a carton of cigarettes, or a jerry can of balok – and hand it over when they invite you to sit down with them. Do not sit down uninvited; dress modestly and wear dark clothing for funerals – a black T-shirt with blue jeans is perfectly acceptable, as are thong sandals.