Most visitors to eastern Indonesia will at some point pass through the airport at Makassar in southern Sulawesi. Flights to destinations like Raja Ampat can be broken up by arranging a stop-over via either Denpasar or Jakarta.
A mere hour from the airport are the precipitous limestone karst hills of Rammang Rammang, lush picnic spots, cascading rivers and the prehistoric Leang-Leang caves with their 40,000 year-old cave paintings.
Millions of years ago continental plates collided, lifting ancient coral reefs skyward to create these breath-taking scenes. Rammang Rammang, which means 'cloud' or 'mist', is the third-largest karst landscape in the world after after Tsingy in Madagascar and Shilin in China. These are the the stepping stone to the mighty Toraja Highlands with its rich cultural history, monoliths and unique architecture of boats built like upside-down boats.
Picked up by car from the airport, we were met by our guides and driven through the tapestry of rice paddies to the river where we take a small wooden vessel to a village nestled deep among the mountains. The fertile flat plains enroute are dotted with stilted houses among verdant rice paddies where workers toil, shielded from the harsh sun by conical hats. There's a cool sea breeze and in the distance, clouds are looming over the mountain tops.
The boats are colourfully painted. The river's dark water flows around bounders decorated by blue rockmaster dragonflies. Halfway up the river we spot a Moor Macaque clambering in the trees opposite an elegant local guesthouse and restaurant perched on the riverside.
Moor Macaques are an endangered species. There are estimated to be as few as 1,000 left in the wild. They have a dark shaggy pelt and are one of six species of Macaque in Sulawesi, one of the world's most diverse places for endemic mammals and birds.
Rammang Rammang is a favourite spot for visitors from Makassar and represents a traditional way of life. The main reason people come here though is to bask in the natural beauty. We wade, shoes off, through cool shallow water in the mangroves, flushing Javan Pond Herons and reach the base of a limestone cliff. Australians would be familiar with the prehistoric shell middens piled up here beneath a cave overhang - signs of the human society that lived here tens of thousands of years before. Nearby there is a rock that looks genuinely like a gorilla's face.
Flooded paddies form a mirror for the mountain scape and blue sky above. Comically, flocks of Indian Runner Ducks parade past, spilling into the lakes, momentarily breaking the image. We stop for a coffee before embarking on the next leg of our journey back to the vehicle and onto Leang Leang.
Arriving, there is a beautiful grassy parkland strewn with black limestone protrusions, scattered like monuments throughout. A perfect place to throw down a picnic rug and sit in the shade for afternoon tea.
Fig trees and rainforest grows along the edge of a torrential river where a small group of hysterical kids are playing rafting on an inflated inner tubes. The short walk to the cliffs takes us up a ladder and steps onto a ledge where up high, we can view the paintings.
Hand stencils have been dated to at least 39,900 years old. There is a picture of a Babirusa - the famous ‘pig deer’ endemic to Sulawesi. Hunted close to extinction now, this famed animal has tusks that curl up and back, eventually piercing the skull. Just one of the many weird and wonderful creatures of Sulawesi.
If you’re just passing through, a visit to Rammang Rammang is a wonderful way to break up a journey. Sulawesi itself is an incredible destination and there are extended tours both into the Toraja Highlands as well as the opportunity to join a dedicated wildlife specialist guide to see some of the islands mysterious creatures and birds.
Contact Wildiaries for more information about how to explore Sulawesi.
Thank you to Ricky Leo and Panorama Destinations for hosting us.