Somewhat unexpected, and adventurous journey across the mountains from Mamasa to Tana Toraja.
Moving on from Mamasa, we had hoped to find transport directly to Tana Toraja, tantalizingly close as the crow flies. Ponding, the first village of any proportion in Tanah Toraja, is only some 40 km away, and there had been some reports on a new road being built, and jeep transport between Mamasa and Ponding. But everybody we spoke to in Mamasa – the tourist office, our guide, our hotel owner – assured us that there was no such thing: the jeep had broken down 6 months ago, and a new road, that was still a faraway dream.
So we had already resigned to back tracking to Polewali and Pare Pare, to catch a bus there to Rantapao, the cultural center – read: tourist capital – of Tanah Toradja, when we met Pak Agussilam, who spoke quite good English, and assured us that on Mondays, market day in Mamasa, there was a Jeep going to Ponding. He could arrange that, and indeed, Monday morning a little past 10 am a Jeep pulled up in front of our hotel. So far only four people inside, two women and with a small child each, and plenty of space for us. Suitcases on the roof, with a range of other bags, we in the back, which was covered but for the rest open, no windows. Still close enough to the promised departure time, of 10 am, and with a three hour drive ahead of us, allowing us plenty of daylight on the other end to find ongoing transport to Rantapao – and a nice hotel again, hot shower and good food, something we had missed a bit, in Mamasa.
But first we needed to pick up somebody else, and 10 minutes later we arrived at a house in Mamasa’s outskirts. We understood that we would be seven people; not counting the children, that looked about alright. Wrong. There were seven more people boarding the Jeep here. Now we were eleven, still not counting the children. We returned to Mamasa, to the local football pitch that also serves as bus terminal, near the market, where we stopped for another 15 minutes, took in some more people, and some more goods, before we finally set off for Ponding, now close to 11.30. I counted: 18 we were, including driver and four children. Women and children inside. And me. And the other men outside, one on the bonnet and three on the loading plank for the back, which was left down to fit a few sacks of something, on which the three stood, sat, hung – literally, hangers-on.
Inside you cannot imagine the situation. Somehow, everybody had found a place to sit, but in between was far too little space for everybody’s feet, which were thus stacked on top of each other. The open Jeep has its advantages, some fresh air whenever there is a breeze, but for most of the time there was no breeze, and we were inhaling diesel engine fumes. Combined with the smell of dried fish – what is it with Indonesians and dried fish? There is always dried fish somewhere, and its smell. It turned out that one of the passengers was transporting two sacks of it, tied to the front bumper.
The road to Mamasa had been bad, but this was bad road from a different order. Steep, with deep ruts, and pretty wet in places. Everybody got badly shaken, and we were glad that we were packed so close to each other, at least nobody could fall out, or get hurt from sudden moves – apart from the ones outside, of course, but they managed to hold on.
After half an hour, emergency stop. The bags on the roof, including our suitcases, started moving and needed to be tied down again. Fifteen minutes later, another stop. It transpired that we had lost the two sacks of dried fish from the front bumper. Obviously, nobody noticed, but we must have driven over them, just another bump in the road; more amazingly, nobody had noticed the lack of fish stank, either. It took 45 minutes to find them back, to the extent that the driver made everybody get out – a welcome opportunity to pee, and for some to throw up. Also good for the bonding process, something inevitable amongst passengers on this type of transport.
By one, we were on our way again. I did start to get a little worried about onward transport; after all, Ponding to Rantapao is another three hours. Half an hour later we reached the pass, between the Mamasa Valley and the Toraja area, with sweeping views in both directions. And plenty of time to enjoy them, because we stopped for lunch here. Well, instant noodles was all there was on the menu, but never mind. And when we were about to leave again, the Jeep broke down. Right. I started to get less worried about ongoing transport, and more worried about reaching Ponding at all.
Did I mention the cock? People here are very keen on cock fights, and the betting associated with it. One of our fellow passengers, the one on the bonnet, was taking a cock to Ponding, which had been put in a large sack and tied to the side of the Jeep. Every so once in a while he decided it was time to assert his presence, which he would do so loudly. Next to my ear. At the lunch place he was let out of the bag, for a stroll around, which upset all the other cocks here. Entertainment of the first order, which helped passing the time.
How he managed I don’t know, but our driver fixed the problem, and by 3.30 we finally left the pass. One worry less. We hadn’t had torrential rain yet, but the skies were getting darker and darker, and if the previous days were anything to go by, it would not take long anymore. And with our suitcases on the roof. But with so many motorbikes every shop along the road sells ponchos, rain capes, and they proved a good fit to our suitcases in. Another worry less.
And without more incidents – or it must be that one of the hangers-on lost his slippers – we arrived in Ponding, close to five in the afternoon. Far too late to arrange onward transport, but definitely an experience richer.
And this is when the trouble started, really. Our driver offered to put us up for the night, he conveniently also operates a homestay. For, initially, an exorbitant price. And he explained that the next morning, he could bring us to Rantepao. Again, for an exorbitant price. Feeling a little uncomfortable with being entirely dependent on our driver, and the rather skewed demand and supply situation, we decided to continue, together with most of the other passengers, to a village called Bilau (?), from which it was only a kilometer to Paku, a larger village, with more transport opportunities. Well, a kilometer was underestimating it, and the demand and supply situation hadn’t changed much, but to cut a long story short, we ultimately managed to arrive in Paku on the back of a motorcycle driven by a 15-year old who hadn’t done this before. Where we found a very nice homestay – never mind that homestays are even more basic than anything we have experienced so far this trip. And much more reasonable onward transport to Rantepao, the next day.
By the way, I know I am the luckiest man in the world, to have a wife who puts up with this (and who actually enjoys it, or at least some of it).
next: Rantepao itself