Traveling with Threads of Life to Remote Sulawesi

A young boy flies a kite on the streets of Mamuju.

The long, arduous trip up to the remote villages of Toraja Karataun is made shorter by a flight into Mamuju, the capital of West Sulawesi. Mamuju is a new city, with a large population of transmigrants from Java, and very little character of its own. The growth of cities like Mamuju drives home the importance of preserving the diversity of traditional cultures.

The journey into the mountains is becoming slightly easier, but progress is erratic. Between Mamuju and Saluleke, the most inaccessible of the villages we visit, there are some 44 streams and rivers that must be forded, more than a dozen bridges and culverts that are too damaged to cross, and fifteen stretches where the road runs along the bed of a river or stream. Landslides and mud pits were too many to count.

One of the better bridges on the road to Kalumpang.

Kalumpang at dawn.

The journey into the mountains has to be made in stages. Kalumpang, the sleepy sub- district capital, has no cell-phone signal. The town’s one guesthouse has a satellite phone, which is available to guests for the price of about US $5 per minute. In the last two years the first few miles of the road beyond Kalumpang were paved for the first time, but the work is of such low quality that the asphalt is already buckled and pitted.

Crossing the pass above Kalumpang feels like stepping through the looking glass. The valley home of the Karataun people is like a bowl, ringed on all sides by a solid wall of mountains, with a few clouded peaks rising from the valley floor. Rivers rush through narrow canyons, smoothing over huge granite boulders. The mountainsides are covered by broadleaf forests, the home of monkeys, wild oxen, and butterflies of impossible color and size.

The view from the pass. Our car broke down five times getting here.

Motorbike drivers, Batuisi. Only experts can navigate these roads with loads of cargo.

The people of Batuisi cannot say how long their village has stood there, but the town has the feel of an industrious frontier settlement. All day long, motorbikes carry people and goods back and forth along the rutted, treacherous roads. Some intrepid riders make the journey overnight, carrying coolers full of fish on ice to the far mountain towns.

We awoke before dawn for the walk from Batuisi to Saluleke, some ten kilometers upriver from Batuisi. We decided the trip was too dangerous to attempt by motorbike, and started before sun-up to avoid the heat of midday. Up here, villages are clusters of only a few houses, often linked together by narrow, swaying footbridges of bamboo tied with rattan or hand-twisted metal wire.

Ian tests a footbridge near Saluleke.

The house of Pak Juna.

Pak Juna, our host in Saluleke, had a son who had just graduated from junior high school. There is an elementary school in Saluleke, but the closest junior high is in Bu’allo, downriver near Batuisi, and the closest senior high school is in Kalumpang, a journey of several hours more by motorbike and pickup. Many children lucky enough to attend school are forced to live away from their parents.

Last year, a talented young weaver from Saluleke named Herlina felt sharp pains in her abdomen, and her family decided to carry her for two days, by motorbike and pickup truck, down from the mountains to see a doctor in the provincial capital of Mamuju. She didn’t survive the journey. We speculated with her friends and relatives on the cause of her death-appendicitis? Complications of a pregnancy? The truth will never be known.

A framed photo of Herlina in the house of her aunt Lilis, another weaver from Batuisi.