Paradise found in the Spice Islands

Sulawesi and the Spice Islands. Never heard of them? These Indonesian idylls have been off-grid — until now, thanks to new flights. Alex Robinson heads off in pursuit of paradise

I blame David Attenborough — swimming over reefs teeming with fish, trekking through an Indonesian paradise and sharing it all those years ago in whispered intimacy. And explorer-filmmaker Lawrence Blair, whose encounters with mysterious shamans enthralled me as a boy. I can still picture him in one episode of his Ring of Fire series, hitch-hiking on black-sailed pirate rigs to places right out of Sinbad stories: Sulawesi, the Spice Islands… Mouthwatering names, so exotic you could almost taste them. They obsessed me.

Growing up, I read about cliffs filled with mummies, hornbills as big as eagles and nutmeg-scented forests. And I longed to get to Sulawesi and the Spice Islands, far away on the edge of Indonesia in a preternatural tropical Eden. As a backpacker I made it as far as Bali and found busy bars and beaches and a local travel agent who laughed in my face. Sulawesi and the Spice Islands were weeks away, he said. On boats that never sailed.

But those boyhood images endured. And now, decades later, they were about to become real. The Pacific Ocean below the plane wing was lightening from blue to Treasure Island turquoise. There were ribbons of white beach, inky-green forest, rippling mountains. I was about to land in Sulawesi. My heart was thumping.

Tana Toraja Traditional House, Sulawesi Indonesia
A row of traditional houses in Sulawesi

What had changed? Prosperity. Indonesians now travel. And cheap internal flights with Garuda, the national airline, meant Sulawesi and the Spice Islands were easily accessed. I chose my destinations carefully – maximum exoticism with easy access. I’d visit Toraja, an ancient mountain kingdom in the Sulawesi highlands, for tribal villages and shamans à la Lawrence Blair. Then I’d fly to Seram, one of the largest and, I’d heard, most pristine of the Spice Islands, for Attenborough-style clove-scented forests and coral reefs.

On arrival in Sulawesi, heady with excitement, I was met by a crisply dressed young local Torajan with designer jeans and a white-toothed smile.

‘Henrik,’ he said with a firm handshake.

That’s a Swedish name, I thought, as we drove away from the airport on a highway whizzing with motorbikes and lined with toothpaste ads. It looked very urban. Then Henrik asked me which Premier League football team I supported. And I felt my boyhood dreams crushed.

I was like a Chinese tourist coming to Britain in search of gents in bowler hats. The exotic, I thought, as I checked into my chain hotel, is long gone from Sulawesi.

But I was wrong. The next morning we left urbanity for tiny roads and hairpin bends that wound into thick forest. We reached a ridge top, unloaded our bags, and waved goodbye to the driver.

‘Welcome to the real Toraja,’ said Henrik.

This is it, I thought, my Lawrence Blair moment, my mountain hike to those magical villages in search of shamans and hanging coffins. But before we set off, Henrik gave me a moment to take in the view. Brilliant-green rice paddies dropped in shimmering, water-filled pools to valleys wispy with morning mist. Hamlets sprinkled the slopes. Dutch-style churches sat at their heart and, clustered around their belltowers, were the oddest houses I’ve ever seen — long wooden rectangles topped with concave roofs that dipped low before curving steeply upwards to high gables. They looked like sail-less junks abandoned in the hills by a retreating flood.

Torajan funeral celebration, women in trad dress
 Women in traditional dress at funeral celebration

A three-hour walk on a sinuous, scenic path brought us into the heart of a village. And the houses looked even stranger up close. Under the curved eaves, the buildings were covered in intricate red, white and black carvings: wheel-like mandalas, swirling spirals and stylised horned cattle masks. In front were five-metre-tall totem poles, stacked high with the skulls of buffaloes. A little boy waved to us and grinned from a window.

The day thickened into golden afternoon as we walked on. An eagle soared overhead, and a group of women in conical hats called us down to a rice paddy, giggling as they posed for photographs. We reached another village. At its entrance was a cliff face as tall as a block of flats, just like I’d seen on TV as a boy. It was pocked with gouged-out holes, sealed with round hobbit-like doors. Some were fronted with painted wooden mannequins – models of the dead within, wearing their old clothes. And there were more buffalo skulls. 

‘The Spice Islands and Sulawesi were as mouthwatering as they had seemed in my childhood’

That night I slept in a village longhouse scented with wood smoke, under a dome of stars. And I dreamt of the spirits of the dead. When I woke, the village was busy with people arriving on foot and in little minivans. Henrik was smiling. ‘You wanted Torajan magic,’ he said, winking. ‘So I found you a funeral.’ 

The arriving guests were all in high spirits, laughing, slapping each other on the back, embracing. It felt more like a wedding feast than a wake. Many were carrying squealing pigs trussed to bamboo poles. There were tourists, too — a small group of French and some intrepid Italian backpackers. We converged on a grassy square lined with more longhouses. A brightly painted cylindrical coffin sat in front of the largest, on a carved dais. Villagers packed the square. Henrik handed me a sarong and a peaked temple headband. I should change; this was a sacred event. I did so and sat with the other visitors on bamboo mats, among smiling Torajans.

A splutter, a crackle and a DJ-deep voice boomed over loudspeakers. I traced it to a man in glittering sunglasses with slicked-back hair. He was sitting at the front of the biggest house, facing the coffin.

‘He’s half shaman, half compere,’ Henrik told me. ‘And he’s speaking ceremonial Torajan, telling us about the life of the lady in the coffin.’ The shaman cooed into the microphone, and then his timbre changed, becoming more reverential, priestly.

‘Now he’s making spells, asking us to pray for her spirit in its journey into the afterlife. And to pray for her guide.’ Henrik pointed to a buffalo tied to a wooden post. ‘The buffalo’s spirit will accompany her.’

Toraja landscape
Tana Toraja, Sulawesi’s landscape

A young man with a long knife walked out in front of the crowds. The shamanic master of ceremonies bellowed out his name, as if he were a wrestler or champion toreador. Then the knifeman danced before the buffalo. The animal lurched away. He danced again, swerved past the swinging horns, swooped and struck with one sweeping, surgical cut to the throat. I flinched and looked away. By the time I turned back, the animal was dead.

The French were open-mouthed. The Italians white. And before we had time to reconcile our emotions, the carcass was gone. Carried away to be butchered.

‘Everyone will eat – the rich family who bought the buffalo and the poorest members of the village. And us, too,’ smiled Henrik. Steaming plates would arrive less than an hour later – the meat barbecued with flame-throwers. ‘At the funeral feast nothing goes to waste.’

It was extraordinary: the kitschy compere DJ, the modern booming sound system, the village fete hubbub and flame-throwers and, at its heart, something as ancient and primordial as the wicker man. It wasn’t what I’d expected from my boyhood Lawrence Blair dreams, but it was every bit as exotic.

And the David Attenborough forests, the limpid reefs – would I find them in Seram, or something different again? What, in fact, would Seram bring?

‘The jungle steamed with rising clouds that melted into the rainbow- curved air in the sunlight’

Beauty, was my answer. Sheer beauty. From the minute I landed and began the drive to the north coast with my new guide, Victor. In much of Asia, forests have been logged, re-growing in tangles of vines. But here there were giant trees, pinked with wild gingers and dripping with bromeliads. Critically endangered, night-black crested macaque monkeys crouched grinning by the road. We climbed high over the island’s central spine and hit a rain storm that pummelled like a power shower, diminishing into jelly-bean-sized splats as we dropped down the other side. Victor suddenly stopped, rushed off and came back laden with apricot-like fruit. He split one open revealing a dark seed surrounded by pink mesh. The car filled with a sweet, spicy perfume. Nutmeg.

An old speedboat took us towards a stretch of Seram’s coast only accessible by sea. The turquoise rapidly darkened into deep-blue Pacific. As we left the shore I could see the nutmeg mountains we’d climbed over – a jagged wall dropping almost sheer into the sea. The jungle steamed with rising clouds that melted into the rainbow-curved air in the sunlight. We rounded a cape to find another breathtaking scene: limestone cliffs falling to a honey beach. I could make out a tiny figure flip-flopping across the sand to a palm-thatch cabin set on stilts over aquamarine coral sea. The Ora resort. My destination.

I passed the afternoon lazing on my cabin’s deck, watching fish playing at my feet. Turtles surfaced for air. Fishermen cast nets. One threw a spear – to catch a blue marlin, I learnt later. In the far distance, a long canoe carried schoolchildren back to their fishing village, past the dome of a distant mosque surrounded by palm trees.

Labengki Island, Southeast Sulawesi, Indonesia
Coconut trees look like reaching out to the crystal blue sea at Labengki Island

I spent days eating, reading and swimming over reefs every bit as pristine, I was sure, as the one that had filled me with wonder and envy when I watched David Attenborough all those years ago. Nemo clownfish guarded anemones, big shoals of military-looking jacks cruised beyond the drop-off, and a gang of pink and ultramarine hump-head parrotfish, each as big as a mastiff, chewed and scraped the coral, spitting out mouthfuls of sand from their beak-like mouths.

On my final day, Victor took me along the Salawai river a bit further up the coast from the resort. We passed small settlements where families dried cloves in the baking sun, filling the air with heavy scent. Children pummelled cut palm trees, washing them to leave a demerara-brown paste: sago, the semolina-like stuff of school-pudding legend. Then we were back in the wild forest. And there were the hornbills, eagle-large and floating from tree to tree, and a cuscus – a little marsupial bear, curled round an upper branch.

The air was scented with forest flowers, sea salt and a hint of sun-dried cloves. It was bliss. The Spice Islands and Sulawesi were as mouthwatering as they had seemed in my childhood. And yet they were exotic in a way I never could have imagined: that fabulous fusion of the ancient and kitschy contemporary in Toraja, the sago-palm river and nutmeg forests of Seram. And I’d only skimmed through: Sulawesi is nearly as big as Britain, and there are more than a thousand Spice Islands. Were my dreams fulfilled? Not at all. I dreamt of more.

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Credit: The Sunday Times Travel Magazine/New Licensing