You haven’t seen Indonesia until you have been to South Sulawesi.
Our group of 14 intrepid ANMM members set off on 2nd June with our leader Jeffrey Mellefont, five Indonesian guides and a driver for a two week adventure tracking the history of the Makassan/Bugi forays to Northern Australia in search of the Trepang, the building of the pinisi wooden boats and the magic culture of South Sulawesi.
Arriving in the bustling and vibrant capital city of Makassar delightedly we explored our 5 Star grand hotel which overlooked the modern and imposing harbour with its new mosque built out over the water, bustling market and quaint shops and food carts. This city held great delights; Fort Rotterdam with its La Galigo Museum where we were greeted personally by the museum’s director (eager to make us welcome), a variety of local cuisine, a palace, a boat trip to Samalona Island, a visit to a working harbor at Makassar which employed many methods hardly changed in centuries and then, an amazing unexpected find…
Through the tenacity of our chief guide and information from his local grapevine we were somehow invited to enjoy a special place in the coronation of the first Raja of the Kingdom of Gowa since 1934 – an unforeseen and amazing spectacle not ever viewed before by non-Indonesians. Unprepared and totally blown away by the generosity and good humour of radiantly bedecked Indonesian gentlewomen, their princely men and families we sat, stood and gawked at this most unusual procession of colour, sound and excitement. Eager to be included with us in photographs, the special guests and local school children and families of the community laughed and played and treated us as warmly as family at an event never to be repeated, at least in my lifetime.
This was just the beginning.
Travelling along the west coast we stopped at Pare Pare where we visited the night markets at which we seemed to be curiosity scattered amongst the vibrant stalls, clatter and shy but excited children keen to touch our pale skin and exercise their smattering of English. On through swathes of fish farms (with a special tour just for us), rice fields, butterfly spectacles and an amazing waterfall, sacred buffalo and shanty style houses propped on stilts, we headed for Toraja high in the mountains and not too far from the equator. Though supposedly the dry season, I relished a swim in the hotel’s pool in the late evening, with warm rain pouring down and clouds cascading precariously from a rugged mountain face. Bliss!
In this nickel-rich central Sulawesi feudal society with its mix of Christian, Buddhist, Islamic and Ancestor Worship, we explored Torajan houses and, as in several places during our trip were guests of local families enjoying traditional food and being acquainted with their daily activities of weaving, boat building and farming including a visit to a rubber plantation and a tasting of pure palm sugar roasted in a hut over bare coals. Delicious! Our visit to Sangalla Orphanage where we were treated to a performance of traditional music and dance by clever, bright and friendly children was memorable in a way I find impossible to explain. You just had to be there. There was something at every turn to hold us transfixed.
South to Singkang for a Wajo Bugi feast with delightful traditional dancers and hypnotic drummers. The next day I had an experience to rival Katharine Hepburn in the African Queen (sadly no Humphrey Bogart.) We marveled at our hour long trek in traditional craft out along a muddy river lined with houses built on stilts over the water, teaming with human life and being poured down on from above as the clouds burst open, to a floating village where we were treated to traditional fare. Here on the enormous Lake Tempe we were mystified as two houses were ‘moved’. Unhitched, these floating homes were pushed by two traditional craft; one man and a small motor, a tiny paddle for a rudder, from one spot to another. A very different take on moving house!
Heading out through the Kingdom of Bone we stopped by chance to see a small museum only to be greeted by the young prince of the area (a Wajo Bugi) who, to our amazement invited us to coffee. Seated cross legged on the floor amongst his family’s treasures we enjoyed also the company of his beautiful wife and, lucky me, a cuddle of his young son. This was a very royal and once again, surprising treat as it also was the first time such an event has taken place for non-Indonesian visitors. As it turned out this young prince’s grandfather had visited Australian waters on an official visit traveling in a pinisi, one of the very boats we were here to inspect.
Our adventure just kept on unfolding from a bustling cattle market to the first mosque in Indonesia dating to 1603 where, as all mosques, the call to prayer is still heard broadcast out over the busy town of Palopo. Bronze Buddhas and drums from 200BC, magnificent scenery, warm and smiling people there for us at every turn.
Our final destination before heading back to Makassar and home was Bira Beach where we spent 3 glorious nights basking in the most extraordinary full moon I have ever seen, eating well, powering out to a tiny, beautiful island to swim, snorkel, and soak up the tropical atmosphere. While at all points along our path we were well educated in the variety of boats and marine history. This was perhaps the point of the trip where we learned the most about the tradition of the boat building of South Sulawesi, the pinisi that travelled to Australia’s shores often returning home with Aborigines of our north and leaving us their own practices of fishing, boating, house building and survival in vast and treacherous coastal areas.
This Indonesian island north of Java is a delightful basket of rich and fascinating contrast. I was left with an admiration for the land and its people, always aware of the juxtaposition of poverty and prosperity in a place of communities bound by an energetic hope for an educated future and of course, a determination to retain the wonderful traditions such as boat building and their rich maritime heritage.
I will leave the glowing details to be outlined in coming editions of Signals quarterly magazine (free with membership) by Jeffrey Mellefont our esteemed leader on this exciting, invigorating tour of the less-traveled Indonesia.