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Published on November 29, 2017

Tongkonan in Tana Toraja, South Sulawesi. Pierre Doyen / Creative Commons

The regency of South Sulawesi contains the ancestral land of the Bugis people who are now scattered across Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. Another distinctive culture remains, and still flourishes in the highlands: the Toraja, a mountain people who were only “rediscovered” in the 19th century.

Fly in via East Indonesia’s biggest city and main air gateway: Makassar. You can plan a whole excursion around the city, from diving around the islands off the coast; admiring the fishing prahu and phinisi schooners coming and going from Paotere port; visiting Fort Rotterdam and the Museum La Galigo within; and spending a romantic evening along Makassar’s Pantai Losari esplanade.

About 50 kilometres from the city centre, the Bantimurung Bulusaraung National Park provides an accessible outlet for nature/adventure fans: a 43,000-plus hectare reserve with three ecosystems that shelter rare species of birds and butterflies. The 15-metre-high Bantimurung Waterfall is the Park’s most scenic spot.

From Makassar, you’ll take an eight- to ten-hour ride to the Tana Toraja heartlands, past Buginese villages and scenic coastal roads, until you reach the terminus at Rantepao.
The Toraja have a unique cultural mindset that celebrates both life and death with equal splendor. At the 400-year-old village of Kete Kesu, eight tongkonan (Toraja houses) with their distinctive upturned roofs stand at the centre of a vibrant rice-farming community. A menhir-lined path leads from the tongkonan to the hill of Bukit Buntu Ke’su, a 700-year-old burial area with crypts dug into the cliff faces above.

The Toraja believe that the road to Paradise is easier for souls whose bodies are interred higher above the ground; they also construct tau-tau – effigies of the dead – to stand guard outside the tomb. Finally, the creative Toraja hang intricately carved, animal-shaped coffins from the cliff faces.

The Toraja dead are interred in elaborate funerary celebrations that occur after the last rice harvest between July and September: travelers who come during the funeral season get to see Tana Toraja at its most festive.
If Toraja funerals don’t float your boat, then whitewater rafting down the Sa’Dan River certainly will – literally!

Tongkonan windows in Tana Toraja, South Sulawesi. Image courtesy of the Indonesia Ministry of Tourism.

Pantai Losari, Makassar, South Sulawesi. Image courtesy of the Indonesia Ministry of Tourism.

Tau-tau overlooking Tana Toraja, South Sulawesi. Evarista2012 / Creative Commons.

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If you’re interested in mountain treks and welcoming encounters with local tribes, try these other experiences: visiting the scenic Rice Terraces of the Philippines; hiking through Sarawak and Sabah in East Malaysia; visiting Laos’ mysterious Plain of Jars; and Brunei’s Tutong cultural and ethnic experience.
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