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  • Writer's pictureGuy Needham

The Toraja Land

As I left the room, I respectfully bowed my head and thanked my host, Tanjkeara. His wife, Francisca, who I had met at a cock fight had invited me into their home, impressing upon me that her husband spoke English, Dutch and Bahasa. As it was Tanjkeara didn’t say much - he hadn’t since he had died three years ago.

For the Toraja of southern Sulawesi, death is very much a part of life and their elaborate funeral rites are renowned throughout Indonesia. As per custom, Tanjkeara was being kept in the southern end of the house until he could be buried. Until then, he was considered ‘ill’ and was still talked to, brought water and tobacco, and received visitors like me.

Itos, my local guide, explained more. “For us, it is important to honour those who will pass to puja, the afterlife, and to connect between the living and the dead. And here that is very expensive.”

Although the Toraja are predominantly Christian – a highlands enclave in the most populous Islamic country in the world – they marry this with Alukta, the ‘old religion’, where they believe that without a traditional tomatefuneral ceremony misfortune will come to the family of the deceased. For the high caste that means constructing temporary seating and housing for hundreds of expected guests, feeding and watering the helpers in the months leading up to the funeral, and the bloody sacrifice of at least 24 buffalo to follow the deceased to the afterlife. Until then, like Tanjkeara, they rest at home in a coffin.

Itos continued. “After burial, once every three years we remove them to clean them and change their clothes, and polish their necklaces, and clean their glasses. This is ma’nene, how we look after them.” The exhumed are then returned to their graves which may be in the form of crypts carved into solid rock, coffins hanging from cliffs, or natural ledges in caves.

After burial, once every three years we remove them to clean them and change their clothes, and polish their necklaces, and clean their glasses.

He nodded upward. High above us tau tau effigies of the dead looked down with outreached wooden hands. “It is OK, I know, it is different for you, but think of it as a celebration not a sad time.” I must have been silent for a while, as Itos sensed my wonder (or unease) and offered to take me to see his family’s tongkonan as a change of scenery.

The drive from the town of Rantepao into the countryside was a pretty one, full of rice paddies and giant bamboo, punctuated only by swerving to avoid sleeping dogs on the road.

As we approached his family’s tongkonan my jaw dropped. Intricate carved, elaborately painted, saddleback-roofed houses stood before me, reaching to the sky. That is, until I was corrected.

“No no, not those,” laughed Itos. “They are only alang, our rice barns. There are our tongkonan”. Facing north stood three giant houses, their distinctive shape representing the prows of ships that brought the original Toraja across the Java Sea and up the Sa'dan river.

Itos kindly beckoned me closer. The architectural beauty was only surpassed by the extraordinary number of buffalo horns adorning the front of the house. When it comes to tongkonan size does count, with social status measured by the age and size of the house and the buffalo horns selling out how many sacrifices have been made in the grounds in front of the house.

The next s=day as we were walking through the rice paddies we saw one under construction with the painting being undertaken by a young man overseen by a master.

Bolu market – held every 6 days so ask a local when the next one is

Buffalo market for a small one going for USD1000

Back in rantepo Itos treated me to a local delicacy on my last night. Pa’piong Ayam, chicken grilled in bamboo mixed with vegetables and Toraja spices. Motorbikes beeped past escorting an ambulance on the way to one of the surrounding villages. Even at dinner, the dead were never far away in Toraja land.


· Where: Toraja land, South Sulawesi, Indonesia

· When: July and August are the drier months when ma’nene cleaning is held

· How: Fly into new Buntu Kunik airport, 1 hour’s drive from Rantepao

Ngawi, the nearest township to Cape Palliser, is known for two things: crayfish and bulldozers.

First lit in 1897 the Cape Palliser Lighthouse today is unmanned and automated, standing sentry over a foreshore that has claimed scores of ships and dozens of lives. “Right, let’s do this”, said my partner as I eyed up the Led Zeppelin-esque stairway. 7 minutes and 250-odd steps later we were next to the giant cast iron lamp. Its double white flash started beaming not long before we were treated to an ethereal light show as the most fiery of sunsets painted the Kaikouras pink.

The following day we were off to visit another landmark, the Putangirua Pinnacles. Thousands of years old, Lord of the Rings fans will recognise them as the backdrop for the Dimholt Road. While they’re not ‘You Shall Not Pass’ territory, you will need a decent pair of shoes to do the 1½ hour walk across an irregularly marked trail of loose rocks, shingle, riverbed and scrub.

Standing in the gorge of these badlands (an actual geological name) it’s hard not to be mesmerised by the light clay hoodoos (another actual geological name) throwing long shadows down the valley.

The Pinnacles are popular with day trippers and campers alike; in fact, the whole of Palliser Bay is dotted with campervans, converted buses, house trailers and tents. ‘Those who know’ make the most of the freedom camping, surf casting and left hand point break. The ability to just pitch up is ideal for an overnight stay, especially since it’s not easy to find accommodation for a single night as most places require a two night minimum.

Many of those campers had followed the same journey we had: leaving Wellington on State Highway 2, crossing the Remutaka Range, before sliding into Featherston. Often ignored on the way to bigger towns, it’s worth stopping in Featherston for C’est Cheese alone - an award-winning cheesemonger (with their own brewery!) who have such treats as Blue Monkey and Chilli Cheddar. Through the window you can see cheeses being made, and samples are there for the tasting.

For me though the highlight was the shop next door, a collection of “oddities & delights, art & bibelots” housed in the quirky Mr Feather’s Den. Featuring everything from local crafts to mid-century furniture to taxidermy, it was the surprise find of the weekend.

Onward to Pirinoa (and the last petrol pumps before Cape Palliser), we came across an Aladdin’s Cave in the form of The Land Girl which opens up to be a fully-fledged clothing, upholstery and gift store. To find that they do good coffees in this former blacksmith’s shop was a godsend. Don’t tell anyone, but the freshly toasted pulled beef sandwich is by far the best I have tasted in a long time.

Once you hit the rugged coastline the scenery is so spectacular that it’s hard to keep your eyes on the road – but believe me, you need to. Beyond the curved one-land bridges, river fords, cliff hugging lanes and road cones separating you from the sea, lies a ‘sealed’ road of a different kind. Cape Palliser is home to New Zealand’s largest fur seal colony and they’re not afraid to wander into your path.

The best place to see them in their natural habitat is Matakitaki-a-kupe Reserve, sharing the Māori name for Cape Palliser meaning “The gazing place of Kupe”. Now it was shiny, wet, googly eyes that were gazing – seal pups only a few months old taking a break from a wave swept rock pond.

Now it was shiny, wet, googly eyes that were gazing – seal pups only a few months old

Conscious of not wanting to get between the sucklings and their protective mothers we didn’t venture too close, but sure enough, the inquisitive ones bounced and flipped towards us. Too cute to look away from, we spent a good couple of hours watching the seals roll, flop, hide and bark, honk and grunt the afternoon away.

It was getting late and time to head back to Ngawi where we had a hankering for some of the local cuisine. It was hard to go past Captain’s Table, Ngawi’s original food caravan. “What’s good” I asked the kid serving, whose head barely reached over the top of the counter. “Fish ‘n’ Chips!” came a slightly familiar voice. Alison beamed out from behind the fryer – it was only fitting that we ended the day with one of the 38 locals.


  • Getting there: Self-drive from Wellington 1.5 hour

  • See: Cape Palliser lighthouse, fur seal colony, Ngawi, Putangirua Pinnacles

  • Eat: Captain’s Table, The Land Girl

  • Stay: Freedom camping, local Air B’n’B, Lake Ferry Hotel

Original publication: New Zealand Herald

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