Bicycle Network: Ride On magazine
Island less travelled
Waterfalls, beautiful mountains and valleys, quiet back roads and friendly people are just some of the reasons one might visit Sulawesi. Colin Freestone reports.
Sulawesi is that spidery shaped island east of Borneo, north of Bali. It is not part of mainstream Indonesia. Four centuries ago it was a magnet for European fleets that braved unknown weather patterns, sketchy maps, disease, sickness and unfriendly local sultanates on their 24,000 kms voyage in their quest to control the lucrative spice trade. Relics of this era are found in forts in Makassar and Gorontalo.
Sulawesi not being part of mainstream Indonesian commerce makes it attractive to cyclists seeking quiet back routes. In contrast to densely populated countries such as Vietnam and Thailand, much of Sulawesi is thinly populated with consequent low traffic volumes. Makassar and Manado are the only two centres that could be called ‘cities’. Few foreigners go to Sulawesi. Those on bikes are rarities.
The people in Sulawesi are incredibly friendly, greeting riders with ‘Halo mister’ or ‘I love you’. They will wave you down, invite you into their homes, offer you coconut water or sugar palm juice, mangoes, rambutans, durian, salak and half a dozen different types of banana and delicious village cakes made from sticky rice, palm sugar and coconut flesh all wrapped in banana leaves.
There is very little commercial tourism in Sulawesi. Very few American fast food outlets. Much work is done manually. The cash economy still dominates with credit cards and travellers’ cheques being of little use but ATMs abound. Most villagers have not been much beyond their birthplace giving people an old world charm, courtesy and tolerance which extends to drivers who are thoughtful, courteous and helpful, especially to international cyclists.
The four religious groups in Sulawesi (Muslim, Christian, Buddhist and Hindu) pursue their faiths harmoniously. This is seen in Toraja Land where inter-marriage is common and where the dictates of Islam and Christianity have been interwoven with the animistic traditions of the Torajan people. At Torajan funerals, where gifts of animals are critical for the success of the event, Muslims will make gifts of (tabooed) pigs to Christians with the animals being handled by Christian family members, and there’ll always be meat other than pork for the Muslims.
For cycling purposes Sulawesi can be divided into North, Central, South and Toraja Land. All regions are mountainous and they’re all serviced by provincial roads which are surfaced and mostly in a state of repair unless there’s been a recent landslide.
Each region has its own characteristics. In South Sulawesi there are tea plantations, pine forests, numerous waterfalls, traditional boat building, white sand beaches, paradisiacal tropical islands, silk weaving, floating villages, a living museum, thermal pools and salt making.
In Toraja Land there is magnificent rice terraced mountains and valleys where traditional villages nestle where the prows of boat shaped houses and church spires stretch to the sky. Apart from the cycling there’s mountain trekking, white water rafting or exploring the distinctive animistic culture of the Torajans where the funeral ceremony is central to the fabric of the society. Here people who die are embalmed and ‘looked after’ at home until such time as the family can afford a funeral, sometimes years later. Visitors are often introduced to these dead ancestors. Funerals are huge social occasions where temporary shelters - that in fact last for years - are built, ritual donations of water buffaloes and pigs are made, and traditional entertainment is provided. Quite often the proceedings will go on for several days with thousands of people attending. Tourists are welcome. All they need do is wear a ritual sarong and make a gift, a case of beer, a carton of cigarettes or a sack of sugar. For these occasions the locals dress up in their best and the ambience is festive.
Central Sulawesi offers fabulous riding. The provincial roads are generally good and the scenery is spectacular: either the mountainous jungles, along the shores of Lake Poso, through the distinctive villages of Balinese transmigrants, past chocolate plantations or following a coconut palm fringed coast. When cycling in Central Sulawesi you’re never far from crystal clear water either lake or ocean. Waterfalls abound too. Central Sulawesi is blessed with world-class diving at Palu and Togian.
North Sulawesi provides some first class cycling opportunities. The road from Manado to Gorontalo is in good shape and the traffic is light. Just outside of Manado, on a side route to Gorontalo, there’s an active volcano, thermal pools, a megalithic tombsite and an intensively farmed lake. The route from Manado to Gorontalo runs along the beach – headland - beach north coast. It is mountainous and sparsely populated. A scenic deviation is via Kotamobagu with its rich upland agricultural valleys where European type vegetables, such as cauliflower are grown, along with coffee and pineapples. At both ends of the Manado - Gorontalo route there are dive resorts.
For cyclists good food is mandatory. Wherever you are in Sulawesi the main menu is rice, grilled fish or fried chicken, fresh salad vegetables and vegetable broth. Fruits and village cakes can be bought at village markets and roadside stalls. Bottled water is available most everywhere. Cold beer is generally obtainable.
There’s a wide range of accommodation. In major centers there are modern international class hotels with swimming pools, swish bathrooms, express laundry and lavish buffet breakfasts. In Toraja Land there’s a good range of tourist accommodation, some of it in Torajan style but with modern plumbing and air conditioning. At the dive resorts there are comfortable wood ‘n’ thatch beach cottages.
Outside the main urban centers and dive resorts there are family run guesthouses called wismas which are usually big houses that have been converted into commercial accommodation. They’re typically run by an ‘ibu’ assisted by a coterie of youngish nieces and nephews. The rooms in wismas usually boast AC, hot water, sit down flush toilets. Wisma breakfasts are usually very tasty fried or yellow rice, coffee or tea.
People thinking about cycling in Sulawesi are often worried by the heat. The reality is that Sulawesi is on the equator, so compared with Europe and North America, it is hot. However if one starts at dawn, takes frequent drink breaks in shady spots with an extended stop for lunch, the heat, for riders who’ve physically prepared themselves for the trip, is not a problem.
Cycle Sulawesi (http://www.cycleindonesia.com.au/) has been running trips to all the regions of Sulawesi since 2009.