A Travellerspoint blog

March 2009

Tana Toraja 2

View Asia 2008 on Wardsan's travel map.

After the funeral, Rudi, Marta, Daniele and I visited Sankompong Sadan, a village that specialised in selling ikat cloth to tourists, and no doubt to making it too. A couple of women sat weaving at back looms. As in Flores, it seems that women spend almost all their times weaving.


It is slow progress. As Wallace found in Makassar:

The time of the women was almost wholly occupied in pounding and cleaning rice for daily use, in bringing home firewood and water, and in cleaning, dyeing, spinning, and weaving the native cotton into sarongs. The weaving is done in the simplest kind of frame stretched on the floor; and is a very slow and tedious process. To form the checked pattern in common use, each patch of coloured threads has to be pulled up separately by hand and the shuttle passed between them; so that about an inch a day is the usual progress in stuff a yard and a half wide.

Inevitably technology and the tourist market have changed the nature of the textiles used. Cloth was made of cotton or banana, both grown locally. Now many ikat weaves are of rayon or polyester. Modern dyes predominate too, and understandably so: they are brighter and easier to handle. Traditional dyes are indigo (for dark blue); chilli (red); saffron (yellow) and clay (brown). It is only tourists who see the old dyes as more authentic. But the very concept of authenticity is problematic, even inauthentic. Are our cars less authentic than they used to be? If local people use cloth dyed with modern dyes, are they less authentic?


The village is laid out in two parallel lines. On the left are the houses, all with horned roofs. The oldest are four hundred years old or more, and they are built without nails. All the wooden panels are carved and decorated, but the paint has faded. The roofs are thatched with bamboo, which lasts a very long time; it only has to be changed once a century. Vegetable matter grows freely in it.


Many of the houses boast columns of buffalo horns on the verandah. (Some of the houses in Flores have just the same decoration.) A pair of horns must be added each time a family member dies.


Opposite the line of houses are smaller buildings in a similar style, the rice barns. Modern Torajan houses and barns are still built in the same style. The only difference is that they are now roofed with corrugated iron.



The following day I went for a walk with Rudi. He was wearing white plimsolls and carrying nothing, which I correctly took as a signal that the walking would not be too hard.

From Lempo we again pass a lot of rice barns. They are in good condition: one states that it was built in 1905, restored (‘renopasi’) in 2006.

Each barn has a door with a buffalo design on it.



Each panel around the barn is decorated in swirly patterns, which look abstract but convey meaning; apparently they tell the story of the owner and the family.



Even in this remote village in the middle of Sulawesi flags and posters promoting the local political wannabes proliferate. A general election is approaching. Rudi, an educated man, is favourably disposed to the rule of Suharto and other generals. He says Indonesia needs a strong man to run it, and better security. SBY is too weak, so it is time to return to the family of Suharto; there will be no terrorism and plenty of jobs. [The most famous relative of Suharto is his son Tommy, who ran the state-owned car firm, Timur Putra Nasional and diverted its funds to his own companies. In 2002 he was finally convicted for the murder of a supreme court judge, but was released after only four years in 2006. Thankfully he is not running for office.]

We walk from Lempo to Berurang, where there is a church, then across the padi fields and up towards Batutumonga (‘stone look upwards’). Rantepao is surrounded by hills. The view on the walk to Batutumonga is lovely. Walking down from Batutumonga towards Pana we walk down the slopes of the highest mountain in the region, Sesean.



Every now and then we passed palms with notches cut into the trunk to enable the nimble to climb them. You see these everywhere in the region, as coconut trees are carved in the same way. Under the crown, where branches have been lopped, are bags for stoppering the flow of sap, or collecting it. These are sugar palms, Arenga saccharifera, from which palm wine and palm sugar are made. I have seen them before in Java and elsewhere. A little to the south of Tana Toraja, near Bantimurung, Wallace used to hang around the dripping sugar palms, collecting flies.

Ascending to Batutumonga Rudi’s bronchioles start whistling like a harmonica. He is asthmatic, but as an Indonesian man it is his moral duty to smoke. He talks about giving up, but with little conviction.


Heading down was quite a scramble. If there was a path, it lay elsewhere. We walked and hopped down the terrace walls, as I had done eight months before in Sapa.



At Pana there are some ancient cliff graves. The graves are carved into cliffs, perhaps to deter robbery. The doors covering the graves are very simple and very old. Each door has a buffalo design, which means that the person entombed had sacrificed 25 buffalo. Some have a human being on the front; this means that the buried person had, in life, fought bravely.


Some of the graves are so old that the doors have fallen off. Inside the niches you can see rolled up blankets. Inside the blankets are bones.


Most of the graves are about 500 years old, says Rudi; 1,000 years, says the village head. In those days, and indeed until recently, Torajans were animist. Every year the family would come and open up the door for a ceremony with the ancestors. When the time came that the hole needed to be reused by a younger occupant, the old bones would be moved to coffins, lying on the ground at the bottom of the cliff. And they would sacrifice a pig or dog or two.

Near the graves we took coffee with the kepala desa, the village chief. He has six children. Inside his house he showed me old wooden beams, and doors with carvings of people. The human figures are similar to the tau figures on the banana scarf I bought in Sankompong Sadan. They are made of jackfruit wood. They were taken inside to prevent them being stolen.


Naturally the conversation moves into Torajan language and my attention wanders towards a butterfly the size of a bat, black and white with an orange patch: a Troides species, probably. When we speak in English, they tell me that my accent is difficult to understand. It is easier for them to understand French or Italian people who speak English. I have a strong accent, they say.

A lot of antique grave doors are offered to tourists in Rantepao. They have been covered in fats and oils, and buried for a few months to antiquate them. The real antique doors are very valuable, and are kept in the houses of families or village chiefs; they are probably not for sale. And if they were, you would need an export licence.

In mid-afternoon the heavens opened and we stopped in a pavilion for Rudi have a much-needed cigarette or two. Rudi tells me that Torajans eat monkey and dog in order to get wood.


After the Bali bombing, tourism in Toraja stopped. There was also a civil war in central Sulawesi, a little to the north, which cannot have helped. The tourists have not come back in anything like their old numbers. Hotels have closed and people have lost jobs. Tourists used to visit all year round; now there is a strong peak in July and August and not much at other times.

Rudi has a degree in economics, and his wife has one in management. Yet he is a rice farmer and doesn’t like it. He wants to move his wife and children to Makassar when the two children are a little older; then he and his wife can try to get government jobs and send the children to good schools. (You would have the same aspiration in France. Not in the UK.)

The following day I go to see the livestock market at Bolu, just a few miles from Rantepao. Approaching the livestock market you pass lots of people selling vegetables on blankets by the side of the road: courgettes, spring onions, garlic, all sorts of chillis, cacao beans, aubergines, cabbage, long beans, bananas, avocado, sweet potato, carrots, ginger, tomatoes, mint, rocket, dried pigs’ fat, potatoes, taro, eggs, peanuts, squashes, limes, oranges, coconut, tobacco, Torajan coffee, betel and lime, rice (black, red and white). And that’s just what I can recognise.

Was once the beauty Abishag:


Many of them sell tuak in hollowed out bamboo cups. And most have a chicken or two on sale too.


After the groceries, you get to the market proper: pigs, trussed funereally, and cattle, washed and shining.




Each buffalo has a ring through its nose, and an attendant dressed like a cowboy.



We are only a few degrees south of the equator, and well above sea level. The white cattle suffer from sunburn.


From Bolu I took an ojek to Nanggala, where once again I saw traditional houses and rice barns. This village was more touristy than others, in that several houses were set up to sell knick-knacks. One thing the Torajans are very good at is carving wood, and I would happily have bought several of the carvings.





They were planting rice on the day I was there. Knee-deep in mud, a line of adults swept slowly up the field planting green bundles.



In another part of the field, children collected snails. It is hard work.


Afterwards, I think, I walked to Marante, where I saw a lot of well-dressed funeral figures, pretty much life sized.


These predate Christianity and are made with more seriousness than the tau tau at the funeral.


The bones go into communal coffins, and these have rotted and split to reveal gruesome piles. Sometimes a large tree trunk, carved on the outside, will be used to contain bones.



Skulls and long bones lie everywhere.



Too necromaniac: let's have some more cowboys.




Posted by Wardsan 07:59 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)

Tana Toraja

A cock and bull story

View Asia 2008 on Wardsan's travel map.

In November the Papua trip ended and we returned to Bali. As ever, I had no particular plans, but soon decided to head to Sulawesi – where we had landed on our way back from Biak.

Incidentally - and obviously irrelevantly, but I am the editor here – the most famous of all ‘living fossils’ is of course… the coelacanth. (Perhaps ‘the fern’ is perhaps a better answer. Half a point for the crocodile, the shark or the ratfish, a point for a lamprey or hagfish.) The youngest fossil coelacanth is 80 million years old, and they were thought to be long extinct, but a coelacanth was caught off South Africa in 1938. (A beautiful example of how a single data point can sometimes disprove a theory.) The same J L B Smith who described the experience of being stung by a stonefish in one of my previous posts spent much of his career studying the coelacanth. Understandably, it was thought to be very rare, but at the turn of the millennium a coelacanth was found in a market in Sulawesi; and it turns out that coelacanth is present in large numbers off the coast of northern Sulawesi. Since the Indian Ocean and most of the Indo-Malay archipelago lie between these coelacanths and South Africa, the Sulawesi version may well be a different species; it is certainly a different colour.

Unlike most modern fish, coelacanths are lobe-finned fish. They are related to lungfish. It was an ancestor of the lungfish that first went walkabout on land.

Makassar was not particularly interesting, and so I soon decided to head north to Tana Toraja, where the Torajan people live. In the province of South Sulawesi (SulSel, as it is known locally), there are Buginese, Makassarese and Torajan people, and they all think they are the best, naturally. Buginese and Makassarese are Muslim; the Torajans are Christian, but not very.

While in Lombok, Alfred Russel Wallace heard about a man running amok, and the gates of the compound in which he was staying were closed. It turned out to be a false alarm. Wallace described it as a form of honourable suicide.

Macassar is the most celebrated place in the East for "running a muck." There are said to be one or two a month on the average, and five, ten, or twenty persons are sometimes killed or wounded at one of them. It is the national, and therefore the honourable, mode of committing suicide among the natives of Celebes, and is the fashionable way of escaping from their difficulties. A Roman fell upon his sword, a Japanese rips up his stomach, and an Englishman blows out his brains with a pistol. The Bugis mode has many advantages to one suicidally inclined. A man thinks himself wronged by society--he is in debt and cannot pay--he is taken for a slave or has gambled away his wife or child into slavery--he sees no way of recovering what he has lost, and becomes desperate. He will not put up with such cruel wrongs, but will be revenged on mankind and die like a hero. He grasps his kris-handle, and the next moment draws out the weapon and stabs a man to the heart. He runs on, with bloody kris in his hand, stabbing at everyone he meets. "Amok! Amok!" then resounds through the streets. Spears, krisses, knives and guns are brought out against him. He rushes madly forward, kills all he can--men, women, and children--and dies overwhelmed by numbers amid all the excitement of a battle. And what that excitement is those who have been in one best know, but all who have ever given way to violent passions, or even indulged in violent and exciting exercises, may form a very good idea. It is a delirious intoxication, a temporary madness that absorbs every thought and every energy. And can we wonder at the kris-bearing, untaught, brooding Malay preferring such a death, looked upon as almost honourable to the cold-blooded details of suicide, if he wishes to escape from overwhelming troubles, or the merciless of the hangman and the disgrace of a public execution, when he has taken the law into his own hands and too hastily revenged himself upon his enemy? In either case he chooses rather to "amok."

Emil, the fixer at the hotel in Makassar – spoke reasonable English, arranged tours and taxis for a sizable fee, offered repeatedly to pimp for me – offered to do a tour of Tana Toraja for me, driving me around in the hotel’s SUV. Emil was Torajan and he knew what he was talking about. But I didn’t have the budget to be driven around in a car on my own for several days, and it was no surprise that his fee was too high. Emil would have charged about $500. In the end I think the entire trip, including return transport and hotels, cost $100 or so.

So I took a bus to Rantepao: a twelve-hour ride, perfectly comfortable except for the aircon. If the bus has aircon, the ticket is more expensive and the aircon must therefore be used – even when you are in the hills and the sun has set.

The first part of the journey led up the west coast. Not far to the east, fantastic limestone outcrops burst from the earth. I had seen them from an aeroplane and they were even better at ground level.


To the west of the outcrops, the landscape is flat, and covered in paddies, egrets and buffalo, just like most of Vietnam.

The primary crop is rice. Tana Toraja is hilly country, and so the rice is cultivated in terraces. Indeed, the landscape closely resembles the countryside around Sapa in northern Vietnam.


But Toraja’s most famous crop is kopi, coffee. Indeed, if there is anything that Sulawesi is famous for it is coffee, and that coffee comes from Toraja. Most of the exported stuff is arabica, but robusta is drunk in Indonesia. In Indonesia it is ground into the finest powder, added to piping hot water and simply stirred. If the water is hot enough the grounds sink. I am constantly invited to find Torajan coffee the best in Indonesia, although in reality that in Java and Bali seems just as good to me.

I stayed in a little compound of wooden buildings run by Martin, and through him I arranged to go walking with his friend Rudi. I refused the offer of a driver and demanded an ojek – a taxi-motorcycle – which kept the cost down. I think it cost about $8 a day to hire an ojek. It is a better way to get around anyway, unless it is raining.

The most common form of public transport in Indonesia is the becak, a tricycle rickshaw. In Rantepao they are attached to a moped and are called sitor.

On the eve, I was approached by an Italian couple who asked whether they could tag along. Certo, as we shared the price of the guide. Marta works in an ethnological museum in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, not far from Milan, and Daniele works in a hotel in Rimini. Both take very good photos.


Rudi took us first to a field of megaliths and grave houses at Kalimbung Bori. Torajan graveyards are a little different. The dead stay in their own houses. A grave house is called ‘a house with no smoke’ in the Torajan language.


A traditional Torajan house is extraordinarily handsome. The roof is convex, with a saddle point in the middle, the highest points reminiscent of buffalo horns – given the buffalo fetish, this seems to me the likely source – and the gables at each end are very steeply pitched, perhaps 70 degrees.


The roof, traditionally, is covered with thick grass shoots, and replaced every few years. It is a form of thatching. The grave house is a miniature version of the same thing.

There are some Torajan objects in Marta’s museum, and so she quizzed Rudy on the symbology. I wandered off and chased butterflies at this point.



However, from what I remember, the chicken and circle symbol – which you see on every building – is called a katik. The cockerel is a symbol of liberty for the Torajan people. The circle is the moon.


The quantity of kupu kupu – butterflies – does not match those at Bantimurung to the south (qv), but they’re still impressive. Rudi tells me that kupu kupu malam – ‘night butterflies’ – does not mean ‘moths’ as you would expect, but ‘prostitutes’.

Other remains are stored in caves hollowed out of the rock. It takes weeks and many dollars to chisel out a cave from the hard rock. The bones are buried with belongings. At the entrance to the cave, to deter robbery, is a carved door. These doors are wonderful objects. More often than not, they depict a buffalo, but sometimes they have human figures.


If I ever get a grave door I want Spiderman on it.

After visiting the graveyard we attended a funeral at Malakiri. The Torajans are famous for their funerals, and it is easy to understand why anthropologists find them so interesting. A funeral is not merely a big event. Expenditure on funerals dominates everything else. A family that has to choose between a lavish funeral and the education of a child has no choice but to spend the money on the funeral. Torajans travel in large numbers, especially to Makassar, in order to earn and save lots of money – to pay for funerals.

The largest funerals last for three days. The big party is held on the second day, and this is what we visited.

Rudi taught me a few words in Torajan but I have forgotten most of them, along with about half of my Indonesian. But “thank you very much” sounds like kuré sumanga. A big house is a tongkonan. A funeral ceremony is tomate.

As in the Baliem Valley, although to a far lesser degree, pigs are important. They are sacrificed by the dozen at funerals. A tax is paid on every pig killed; 70% goes to local government, 30% to central government. The price of a pig depends, of course, on the size, and also on colour. An adult black pig costs Rp 2 million or more: over £1,000.

But buffaloes are the Torajan obsession. They are perhaps the main store of wealth. Torajan men famously take much better care of their buffaloes than their wives. You see people washing their buffaloes. Swap cow for car and it’s like walking around Surrey of a Sunday afternoon.

A buffalo, if black, will fetch Rp 40 million. A black and white buffalo is much more valuable: it is worth Rp 150-170 million: £10,000. That is, of course, a vast amount of money in the rich world. In Toraja it buys tracts of land; but the cow is more important. A black and white cow is a symbol of nobility. If a black and white cow is sacrificed, it means a high-caste person has died.


The conspicuous consumption of the obsequy challenges belief. It is as if the members and guests drove cars to the funeral and set fire to them.

We heard the funeral well before we saw it. Around a clearing, which contains old and holy stones, is arranged a set of temporary buildings shaped like an eye. In the middle of the clearing is a wooden tower. This used to contain offerings to the spirits; now, in the Christian era, it houses an enormous speaker system.

Opposite the reception area is a man in traditional gear – most guests are formally dressed, as you would expect at a funeral - and he yells into a microphone. His commentary issues from the loudspeakers at a volume sufficient to melt your entrails, and he never stops. He is like a salesman on a cable shopping channel. It is quite an art; I assume he is a funeral professional.


As we arrive he is reading out names. Each family attending brings livestock as presents. The animals must be registered for tax purposes before they can enter, and there is a large queue outside the funeral area. He announced when the formalities are over and a family can enter.


A queue: o wonder! I have not seen one all trip. It brings a nostalgic tear to the eye. Later on, the guests also queue with admirable discipline to pay their respects.

Most of the gift-animals are pigs. A buffalo is one thing: you can lead it around by the nose.


But pigs don’t cooperate, so they are trussed, so tightly that they cannot move a muscle, and carried by bamboo rods over the shoulders.

All are trussed by the same recipe. Two poles are laid down parallel to the pig’s spine, one above and one below the trunk. Bamboo planks are strung between the poles to support the pig. Then the pig is tied, very tightly, with bamboo strips. A strip goes along the body, and other strips restrict the neck, chest and waist.

The restrained pigs lie still with their eyes closed, on the whole. Every now and then a pig begins to kick and scream at great volume, and then many of the others join in. It is a piercing and distressing sound. The combination of the amplified commentary and the screaming pigs amounts to an oppressive aural siege.

Around the enclosure are the temporary buildings. There are perhaps a thousand guests in sixty or more numbered enclosures. An extended family occupies each enclosure. They have brought along their own food and booze; it is a long day. Pigs are seared in the clearing; much of the food eaten is pork.


We are invited into one of the pavilions. We are fed items prepared by the women of the party: ikan mas (‘gold fish’, probably a carp), eel, pork and vegetables, accompanied by an utterly delicious red rice. The drink of choice is tuak: rice wine. The tuak is egg-white in colour and tastes a little sour, like wine on the turn. But you get used to it.


The family of the deceased – greatly extended – are dressed in black, dripping with gold jewellery. Others are not; they are dressed in finery woven with gold.

They queue – again – and parade past the tau tau, which is dressed in a red jacket.


These days, the Torajans, being Christian, the tau tau is a crude effigy, the sort of thing they burn in Patna when slightly cross about someone. In the past it would have been a fine statue.


The queue continues past the tau tau, past the area where the animals are sacrificed – all is caked in blood and excrement – to be received in the pavilion opposite.


First, the women. Each wears a red necklace and a hat like a Vietnamese limpet hat.


But these are special funeral hats, very finely made; indeed, they are beautiful objects.


In the pavilion are hostesses – family members? paid hostesses? – dressed in gold. They receive the guests, at which point the women remove their hats. As an offering, they carry betel nuts in rather nice velvet bags.



Then come the men. They are dressed with less formality on average, although most are in sarongs. In place of betel nuts they carry cigarettes.


The name tau tau is interesting. Tau refers to the human figure in ikat woven in Sumba. The figure represents ancestors. It is a common and ancient motif in Austronesian art, and appears elsewhere in the region. The Torajan tau tau is the same thing in three dimensional form.


After the long queues pass by the pavilion, like mRNA at a ribosome, a group of women from the village offer coffee, tea and cake. Afterwards, the bereaved family moves to the second resting place. Before that, the family read out the names of all those who have donated pigs.


Traditional Torajan society is caste-based. There are three castes: high, middle and low. The low used to be slaves - no surprise there. Even low-caste families with wealth cannot have funerals like this. That’s what a caste system means, after all.


People invariably used to marry endogamously, within the caste. Nowadays Romeo and Juliet can marry between castes – although it is difficult. Such marriages raise questions. To which caste to the offspring belong? What do you do if your father supports Liverpool and your mother Everton?


Alliance between high and low is particularly frowned upon by the noble in-laws. “Don’t shove shit in my face,” they say, nobly. Their own status is reduced, they feel, if they must attend the funeral of a low-class person. I’m not completely bewildered in such society: it’s like visiting Harrogate.

Low-caste funerals last a day, and take place the day after the death. Later on, a single buffalo will be sacrificed. At a middle-class funeral, at least fifteen buffalo will be sacrificed, if I have got it right.


In Tana Toraja, as in old England, a churl can pay to become a thane. In the north you must pay 7,777 objects to the local nobles. (Objects are – you guessed it – pigs, buffaloes, etc.) In the south the magic number is 100. So the vulgar rich subsidise the impoverished nobility, like everywhere else.

We leave. It is odd that we can shut our eyes but not our ears or nostrils; so most claims in nuisance relate to noise or smell. Many other mammals are better equipped. As we leave, we pass the place where the pigs are being butchered. Blood and tripes are everywhere.



Posted by Wardsan 10:42 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)


View Asia 2008 on Wardsan's travel map.

Happy New Year.

In England, until 1752, New Year’s Day was celebrated on 25 March. It is surely a much better time of year to celebrate it than circumcision day.

  • ***

On the tour of Papua, after walking in the Baliem Valley, we spent a few days on the island of Biak (the ‘k’ is hard), a little north of New Guinea. At 45 miles long and 20 miles wide it is the largest of the islands of Cenderawasih Bay, in northwest Papua.


Upon arrival we were met by Filip, a rotund, voluble Christian. He is our fixer on Biak. Filip, it turned, out, was obsessed with Israel. His dream was to promote Biak as a tourist destination for Israeli tourists. On the wall of his house there fluttered an Israeli flag. He was planning to change the name of his company to the Zion something or other.

Our trip to Biak turns out to be a bit of a farce. Filip lies more easily than he walks. The prices we are quoted are quite absurd. He tells us, for example, that it costs $120 to hire a minibus for the day, for example; $30 would be fair. Another example: I have been looking forward to diving in Biak, but Filip quotes a price, through the only dive operation, of $180 ($50-$70 is normal for two dives). And all the while he preaches evangelical Christianity at us.

We are taken by minibus from Biak Town to the beach at Bosnik, at the southeast point of the island. The south coast is dominated, a few hundred yards inland, by raised coral cliffs. People visit Bosnik from Biak Town at weekends, and the beach is covered in broken glass. Behind the beach looms the skeleton of a resort hotel, abandoned during the economic crisis of 1997. Two people sit in a cabin by the beach. They try to charge us $5 each for the privilege of using the glassy beach – OK for the Riviera, perhaps, but not here. If the locals pay anything, it is not $5. It is just an ad hoc attempt to fleece us; it happens every time you try to pay for anything in Biak. We decline to pay anything. By this stage, we are as a group in effect refusing to deal with Filip, and were generally inclined to be cynical in dealing with any of his associates.


Some of us went snorkelling at the beach. I was expecting great things: Biak is in the middle of Cenderawasih Bay, north of New Guinea, and there is little reason for the marine life to be much disturbed. As it was I was very disappointed. Perhaps the marine fauna were affected by a tsunami, which hit in 1996. The whole experience is lame.

On the way back we visit a bird park, which is better than expected. Cassowaries wander freely throughout the park. I am very wary of them: they have strong legs and long claws, and can disembowel people quite easily. Cassowaries are native to New Guinea as well as to Australia; indeed they are the largest indigenous animal in New Guinea. Most of us give them a wide berth.



We see hornbills, cockatoos, lories and parrots, crowned pigeons and pheasant pigeons. We’re east of the Wallace Line: the cockatoos, parrots and lories would be considered Australasian birds by Wallace.


Plenty of butterflies fly around. I go chasing them and lose contact with the rest of the group.



We also stopped at a Japanese war memorial. A concrete crescent is the memorial itself. Inside it is a corridor, containing half a dozen large, shiny steel boxes. Until recently each contained the ashes of a fallen Japanese soldier; last year the ashes were taken back to Japan by the families. In front of each container are photographs of the soldiers and of their families, and prayer papers. Some of the photos are fairly new; they must be children and grandchildren.


Biak was an early stage in Macarthur’s plan to roll up the Pacific from New Guinea. Biak was strategically important, as there three airfields on the south coast. One of the airfields is now the civil airport, the transport hub of the region. The main airport, and the objective of the US operations, was the airfield at Mokmer.

Allied reconnaissance estimated that there were 2,000 Japanese soldiers on the island. In fact there were over 10,000 defenders, with tanks, and field and antiaircraft artillery. But on 9 May Japanese Imperial Command in effect abandoned it strategically, withdrawing the perimeter defence line to Sorong and Halmahera; Biak was left to its fate and the orders were to defend it to the last man. (Two days after the invasion the imperial command changed its mind and drew up plans to reinforce Biak. A few reinforcements got through.)

After three days of heavy bombing, Allied forces landed at Bosnik on 27 May 1944 with 12,000 troops and 12 tanks and 28 artillery pieces. They were allowed to land unopposed, but it was a trap. Most of the defences were concentrated around Mokmer. Once the invaders got to Mokmer they were attacked hard, and some units were forced to withdraw by sea.

(The strip was only captured on 7 June and Japanese mortar attacks kept it unusable for another week, so that the invasions of Palau and Yap did not use Biak as an airbase as originally planned. It was, however, used in the invasion of the Philippines.)

Unknown to the Allies, the island is woodwormed by coral caves and tunnels. There are tunnels to the west and north of Mokmer. Japanese forces based themselves in the caves, stockpiling food, ammunition and water, and carried out hit and run attacks. As at Iwo Jima, the fighting was slow and grim. American forces used heavy bombs and flamethrowers to capture or bury the caves.

The battle for Biak lasted from 27 May to 20 June 1944. Six thousand Japanese died, and only a few hundred prisoners were taken. The US forces lost 474 killed and 2,400 wounded, with 3,500 cases of fever.

We also visited Gua Binsari, now known as Gua Jepang, which was home to several thousand Japanese soldiers.
Between three thousand and five thousand (surely an overestimate) were killed by bombs in the cave. The hecatomb is a dismal, cold, dripping place.


Near the entrance to the cave are a few burned-out planes and guns, and a jeep.


Across the road is a room-museum where the relics have been collected: grenades, mortars, machine guns, pottery, glass bottles. Dirk recognised the helmets of Japanese officers.

As everywhere else in Indonesia, much of the land is off limits and occupied by the military. On Biak there is a large naval base.

The following day we charter a crowded minibus to Wandos, where we stay in a small stilt house for a couple of nights. Filip does not accompany us, of which we are glad.


Wandos is a nice location. The owners of the house charge us a lot of money to cook for us, but they do well by us, as we dine royally on fresh grilled snapper.

It turns out to be not worth snorkelling, as the barrier reef is too far away to reach and the intervening lagoon too shallow to swim in. We spend the time walking down the beach, on the lookout for murderous falling coconuts. They land every now and then nearby with a great thump.


Amanda walks on water at dawn.


Maurits meditates.


There are tens of thousands of hermit crabs on the beach. Every shell on the beach has a tenant. The shells are those of sea snails, and the crabs behave much like snails. They congregate wherever there is corruption, organic matter or excrement. They congregate especially on logs. They run away or retreat into their shells as you approach.


Duncan, who was nearly as keen on the crabs as I was, recently informed me that they make popular pets. There are hermit crab owners' clubs in the UK and US. Owners write tributes to their deceased hermies.

Inland is a jungle-covered hill, from which emanate raucous noises. The hill is home to cockatoos, parrots and crows.


A pair of (perhaps) sulphur-crested cockatoos patrols above the hill, squawking loudly.

Especially at dawn and dusk, red and blue parrots collect in the coconut palms by the shore and argue noisily. It is difficult to see, but there is one in this tree.


As everywhere on the coast of southeast Asia, an eagle patrols.


One morning we walk up the hill. After an hour we have seen nothing and are not at the top but the guides decide that they want to go back. But three of us press on with two guides, and I am left by default as the makeshift interpreter, without being asked. I am not happy. It is very hard walking through dense forest. You cannot see a thing; there is no chance of seeing the birds that we can see from the foot of the hill. We can only see butterflies.


There are also spiders. This an orb-weaver, Argiope species.


In Biak Town I dropped a bog roll in the mandi by mistake and abandoned it. Dirk, amazingly, retrieves it and dries it in Wandos. After his years in a prison camp he does not waste anything.


Just behind the house is a cage in which a booby sits forlornly. Every now and then it is allowed out to catch fish for its owner.


On the way back from Wandos we stop at some waterfalls. Again, it takes some negotiation to fix a price that is not ludicrous.


Some locals jump from the top for our amusement. I am not especially amused.


Our stay in Wandos is pleasant enough, without being special. It seems a strange use of our time after our trip to Baliem. The tour blurb says that there is a botanical garden near the beach, and that we can walk up the hill to see the birds. Neither is really true. Indeed the blurb on Biak as a whole is perhaps sufficiently inaccurate to found a case for misrepresentation. Kate, our tour leader, has to work absurdly hard to make anything happen, and all the prices are hyperinflated. We feel as though the locals want to strip us of cash instantly, without regard for the future. It is such a sad contrast to Bali and the rest of Indonesia, where tourism is more developed and tourists are warmly welcomed and treated well.


Biak would benefit from tourism, but at this rate it will not get much. We advised the tour company not to take any more tours there.


Posted by Wardsan 08:32 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)


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In July I spent a few days in the Kinabatangan valley. I have written about this in a previous entry, but my account contained an elephantine omission.

On our first daytime walk in the Kinabatangan valley, the guides were nervous. They knew that a group of wild elephants was nearby; in the group were two young elephants, and the mothers were apt to be protective. The guides were not nervous on their own behalf, since they knew how to avoid elephants, but on behalf of the clumsy unpredictable tourists, liable to do exactly the wrong thing at the wrong time.

In the middle of the walk we duly hear a trumpeting coming from about twenty or thirty yards away. You can’t see twenty yards in the forest, so all we know is that we have met the elephants. The fanfare is very loud, very high and very sudden, and the overwhelming instinct of the majority of the group is to run. We have been clearly told not to, so the runners manage to stop after two or three strides when their forebrains regain control.

We soon hear a very deep, leonine growling, with Dolby surround sound and big subwoofers. There is also a strong smell of elephant. The other sound is the cracking of branches. Indeed, sounds come from three directions.

We walk on slowly and very cautiously. Every so often we catch a glimpse of elephant grey on our left; an elephant is walking parallel to our path. Then we see an elephant up ahead. It sees us too and walks away. Then we spot an elephant on our right; it too walks off when it sees us, so the path is clear and we continue walking.

Seeing wild elephants at a distance is far more thrilling than seeing domesticated elephants up close. The guides’ patent fear adds to the thrill; they know that the elephants are dangerous and their fear communicates itself to us.

The Bornean pygmy elephant is a distinct sub-species, Elephas maximus borneensis, of the Asian elephant. It was confirmed as a sub-species in a study conducted at Columbia University, before which it was thought that the elephants had been transported to Borneo by man in recent times; actually it arrived tens of thousands of years ago. The pygmy elephant has larger ears than other Asian elephants. It is smaller, as its name suggests, but the epithet is harsh: adults stand 1.7-2.6m tall, and other Asian elephants 2.5-3m. When you see a Bornean elephant it does not strike you as lacking stature.


Males reach full size at around 25, and they can weigh three tonnes. They stay with the family group until they reach sexual maturity at around ten or twelve, at which point they are kicked out. The others live in family groups of five to ten.

A couple of days after that meeting we took a sunset boat trip, and Luis parked the boat at a part of the bank that looked much like any other. He told us to stay in the boat and disappeared for at least ten minutes. Then he returned, and motioned us to climb silently up the muddy bank. Using trees for cover, we peered out into a clearing and saw an adult feeding.

Then a juvenile elephant walks straight past us. That is interesting, but not good. We are between the baby and its mother and aunts; they won’t be happy. Sure enough, mama walks up the path and trumpets, and we retreat as fast as we can. The mother sees us, trumpets again, and runs back. It is well known that elephants cannot jump, but she changes direction very quickly, pushing off with her forelegs like a deer. Then she walks very tentatively up the path and stares at us for a long time. We are all pretty tense, and ready to jump.

Elephants do not understand sign language.


The female very deliberately walked twenty yards away and started eating tall ferns while watching us.


She kept up a low growling. Unfortunately, at this point two other boatloads of tourists arrived, attracted by the empty boat on the bank. They made a lot of noise and blocked our view. Three adult elephants arrived on the scene, with a tiny infant between them, and began to growl and trumpet. They made it very clear that they desired us to leave; it was a menacing moment. The guides told us to clear out and get on to the boat, and so we did.

Then the first adult simply walked past us, and the baby followed.


The two guides, free of worry about their defenceless charges, stayed on the bank and took photos of the baby, which the adults had left. The baby was thoroughly interested in the two guides. At one point it decided to charge – they can move very quickly – and Luis had to run down the bank. Mostly it turned its backside on Luis and walked backwards, hoping to run him down in reverse.


This was the closest encounter we had, and it was I suppose inevitable that I managed to go out that afternoon without a memory card. These photos are, therefore, courtesy of Anna Östman and Rachel Seys. Luis took the close-ups.


On my final evening in the lodge, I thought someone was breaking into the bathroom. There were loud cracks outside the hut.

The lodge was surrounded by a fence, energetically electrified to keep the elephants out. My hut was right by the perimeter, and the elephants were just beyond the fence, so they were just a few yards away. I went out to check. I could not see a thing. I just heard spooky noises of breaking branches, five metres away.

After supper we all walked to another part of the perimeter, where we could see a group feeding by the light of the moon. The most amazing thing: the violent cracking of large branches, which makes you realise the power at their disposal; and the loud growling, very deep indeed, which sounds like a large ferry engine. Indeed, it can be felt as much as heard, like the subsonic notes that precede an earthquake.

Posted by Wardsan 09:49 Archived in Malaysia Tagged animal Comments (0)

Ethnology Museum


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The Grant Museum of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy, University College of London, is more or less on the site where Darwin lived after he married Emma. It is where his first two children were born. Later they moved to Down House near Bromley, where they had eight more children.

The collection was founded by Robert Grant in 1827. (Grant later taught Darwin when Darwin was studying medicine at Edinburgh.) At that time the university had no collection for teaching purposes, so Grant created one. By the time he died, in 1874, the collection had 10,000 specimens. More were added by later curators, and sadly the Museum also holds the collection of T H Huxley, which resided at Imperial College until Imperial closed its zoology department in the 1980s. The collection is now the only one in London still used for the teaching of comparative anatomy.

It is largely a collection of bones and specimens in spirit jars. You don’t go there to learn a lot about zoology. It is in some ways more interesting to the connoisseur of museums: as an exhibit in its own right. It is the epitome of the Victorian Museum. It is small, and packed with skeletons in glass cases. The exhibits are of probably limited didactic value for schoolchildren. Most specimens are anciently and illegibly labelled. Few extraneous facts are given. The cast of an Archaeopteryx specimen refers to the original specimen as being in the "British Museum". Yet it is many years since the large Victorian cathedral of science in South Kensington has been referred to as the British Museum (Natural History) rather than the Natural History Museum, although formally its name changed only in 1993.

Some of the labels in the Zoology Museum in Cambridge are equally old: one of the stuffed birds of paradise – Prince Rudolf’s bird of paradise - is labelled as coming from British Central New Guinea.

There are ten known specimens of Archaeopteryx, all from the Solnhofen limestones in Bavaria. The first, a single feather, is now in the Humboldt Museum, Berlin. It may not be from Archaeopteryx at all. The first skeleton was found in 1861 and sold to the Natural History Museum. Both the slab and the counterslab are in display, in different rooms. The counterslab has a jaw with teeth.

Most of the other specimens remain in Germany. One has gone missing. They may not all be the same species.

Some of the specimens are of extinct animals.

    There are a couple of central rock rats in a jar. These Australian rodents have not been seen alive for years and are probably extinct.

    There are some long bones and vertebrae from a dodo. The dodo, Raphus cucullatus, became extinct in the 1680s, well before the museum was founded, and there is no museum with a complete dodo skeleton.

    There are also a couple of examples of the quagga, Equus quagga quagga, an animal like a zebra. Darwin writes about them in The Origin of Species (1859) in the same way he discusses the zebra and the ass; they were still alive. They were hunted to extinction, the last quagga dying in captivity nine years after Grant was extinguished. The only quagga photographed was at London Zoo in 1870. One of the skeletons was part of Grant’s collection; the specimen in a few pieces in a spirit jar was dissected by T H Huxley.

    And there is a skull of a thylacine, also known as a Tasmanian tiger (but actually a marsupial predator closely resembling a dog) which became extinct in 1936.

And there are some other interesting exhibits:

Quite a few sea mice, with what looks like iridescent fur. They are actually marine polychaete bristleworms, Aphrodite aculeata.

An elephant heart, which weighs between 20 and 30 kilos.

A bell jar full of moles.

An egg of an elephant bird. These went extinct, in Madagascar, in the 1700s. I would estimate it to be eight times the size of an ostrich egg.

  • **

In Hanoi, a few miles from the city centre, is the Ethnology Museum. It is well worth a trip. It is popular with Vietnamese, some of whom to have wedding photos taken.


Vietnam has fifty-odd peoples within its borders – although one of these, the Kinh (or Việt), is top dog. The Kinh make up 86% of the population of the country, and are in the majority everywhere except in the highlands of the north, where there are more Tay, Hmong and Dao.

At the museum, people are defined linguistically and split into Austroasiatic; Austronesian; Thai-Kadai; Hmong-Yao; and Sino-Tibetan. I met plenty of all of these on my trip.

The Austroasiatics include speakers of Viet-Muon and Mon-Khmer languages, and there are about 80 million of them in all. There are two national languages in the group: Vietnamese and Khmer. Twenty-five ethnic groups speak these languages in Vietnam. There are nearly a million Khmer in Vietnam, largely in the Mekong delta (which is just downstream from Cambodia).

Austronesian languages are spoken in Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, Micronesia, New Guinea, Polynesia and Taiwan (the last being where they radiated from). There are about 200 million speakers, but only 9 million on the mainland of Asia. Most Austronesian speakers in Vietnam live in the central highlands. The language of Champa was Austronesian, as are the Ê Ðê and Gia Rai languages.

In all there are about 75 million speakers of Thai-Kadai languages, mainly in Vietnam, China, Laos, Burma, India and Thailand (look at a map and you can see that none of these countries is far from the others). Originally the language group came from China. The group includes Thai and Lao. They are said to be distantly related to Mon-Khmer and Vietnamese languages. In Vietnam its languages are spoken by eight ethnic groups, mainly in the northern hills.

Hmong-Yao languages are spoken by about 8 million people in Vietnam, China, Burma, Laos and Thailand. The Hmong, with 6.5 million people, are the largest group in the family. They are also largely in the north.
Finally, the Sino-Tibetan group is, not surprisingly, the world’s largest, with 1.2 bn native speakers. There is not much point trying to say where it is spoken; perhaps it is not widely spoken in Antarctica. Most within the group speak Han (Sinitic) languages. The Tibeto-Burmese branch has only 56 million speakers. In Vietnam the Chinese are known as Hoa; there are nearly a million of them, half of whom live in Saigon.

It is confusing enough – as my blog on Sapa showed – but without visiting the museum I would not have had a clue.

Within the grounds are quite a number of authentic buildings.

One highlight was a longhouse built by the Bahnar. (I saw several very similar on my trip down the Ho Chi Minh Trail.) Around the buildings swarmed schoolchildren: “hello!”.



Another was a huge communal longhouse built on site by Ê Ðê people. It is over forty metres long. It is modelled on a longhouse in the region of Buôn Ma Thuột. Some longhouses were 200 metres long in the past. Sadly, the longhouse tradition has disintegrated since the 1980s.


Like most tradition buildings in southeast Asia, the building is supported on stilts. You enter by climbing up a tree trunk with notches in it. There is a verandah at each end, and the main entrance faces north.


When people sleep in it, they have to keep their feet pointing west. The main utensils and stores of value seem to be the large pottery jars, in which wicked rice wine is kept – and gongs.


Another interesting building was the Giaray funeral house, built by five Giarai Arap villagers in 1968. Around the sides are wildly pornographic sculptures carved from tree trunks with adzes and cutlasses. They symbolise fertility and birth, of course. It is built for just one funeral, and abandoned afterwards. I like the expression on this guy’s face.


The Cotu tomb was built in 2005. It is built for the second funeral of a high-ranking dead person. The coffin is exhumed and placed on a carved tree trunk. On the top of the tomb and elsewhere are handsome carvings of buffalo heads, blackened with dye made from charcoal, brown tubers and sugarcane juice.


Posted by Wardsan 10:52 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

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