Take the kids zombie hunting in Tana Toraja, Indonesia

By Katrina Griffiths

When I told my husband that I had booked for us to go to Tana Toraja, in the central south of Sulawesi, he googled it (of course), immediately downloaded a picture of a walking zombie and said “do you really think that is a good idea?” Our children are complete wusses, scared of everything. They can’t even watch an episode of Scooby Doo without freaking out, my eldest hides on Halloween, so how are they going to cope in a place where the culture revolves around death?  We considered this for about… a minute, and thought, oh well, we’re going anyway, lets throw em in the deep end and see how it goes.

Rather than fly to Rantepao, the main town in Tana Toraja, we decided to take the overnight bus from Makassar.  The bus was super comfortable with pillows and blankets provided and only cost RP 120,000 ($13).  The children slept the whole way, and so did I (hello Valium!).  The driver seemed to be going VERY fast and I kept waking up in the middle of dreams that we were flying, only to find that we actually were so I crossed my fingers and went straight back to sleep.  Seriously, what I don’t know won’t hurt!

The Lonely Planet description of Tana Toraja goes like this “A trip to Tana Toraja is like a cultural documentary brought to life.  Sweeping and elaborately painted houses with boat shaped roofs dot terraced rice paddies where farmers work in the fields alongside their doe eyed buffalo. It’s an island hemmed in by mountains on all sides and rich with traditional culture”. Well that’s it in a nutshell, but without mentioning how utterly spectacular the scenery is.

I was completely taken aback by how the traditional culture is carried through in our modern times; I didn’t expect people to be following the old customs as diligently as they do.  I kind of expected to see a couple of restored buildings in a few old villages that still farm coffee and rice, selling the usual souvenirs, but it is SO much more than that.  The traditional house, the tongkonan, is a fantastic and decorative looking building with an amazing roof and a stack of buffalo horns (from sacrifices) outside which represent the households status. The Torajan people are really into their buffalos too, especially the albino ones with black markings and blue eyes, which cost a small fortune.  About RP275,000,000 according to our guide.  Not everyone can afford a buffalo but those that can take very good care of them. They are taken for swims in the river and we even watched a man tenderly washing his buffalo in the rice paddy, using shampoo. However, not many of them will live particularly long lives, as they are used in animal sacrifice or for meat.

It’s not like the people are not a part of modern society, there are plenty of plasmas, Blackberrys and iPhones and I can only admire and marvel at their traditional farming lifestyle.  I can’t help but wonder though, about the kind of conversation that MIGHT go on between a groom and his bride…

“Honey, about the buffalo, lets not splash out on one of the blue-eyed ones since we will only be slaughtering it at the next funeral anyway, shall we just go with a regular one and use the money we save on our children’s university education? Oh and about the house, you know how much I LOVE the Tongkonan but have you considered something simpler? Easy to clean? With a nice frangipani out front? What do you think honey huh?”

Believe me, I truly mean no disrespect, but with such a merging of tradition and modern-day I only wonder that’s all…

Most tourists will come to witness a Torajan funeral, which is an incredible spectacle, not for the faint hearted.  The funeral is the most important ceremony of all as without a decent funeral rite, the soul of the dead will come back and cause big problems for the family.  We thought it prudent not to attend a funeral even though we could have gone to 2 during the 4 days we were in the area.  We visited many gravesites; all fascinating, one of which was the site of a large funeral ceremony that had taken place 2 weeks before.  The stench was ghastly and our guide told me that 48 buffalos and about 100 pigs had been sacrificed there on that day.  The smell was from all the blood and I tried to imagine the scene, what with about 1000 spectators, the noise, the heat and the panic in the animals and knew it was a very good move not to go with the kids. There is no way I would have been able to handle it anyhow.

The girls were fine with the graves. I was bracing myself for nightmares, but to their credit, they were very interested and inquisitive.  I suppose it was all so amazing for them, seeing bones and skulls in caves and the Tau Tau which are wooden effigies of the dead, placed outside the graves carved into the rock face. Even the baby graves in the trees had them fascinated. There was nothing creepy or ghoulish about our experience in Tana Toraja. So much for the walking Zombies!

The bus companies I recommend are firstly Bintang Prima and then Litha. Only go for the super luxurious buses, it’s well worth the extra $3! But book early as they fill up quickly and double check that you are getting exactly what you ask for, as so much can be lost in translation.

Bintang Prima (0411) 465 355

Litha (0411) 442 263

Makassar, Sulewesi.