Batutumonga, Tana Toraja: On Top of the World

Our sturdy rental motorbike puttered its way up the steep, twisting road, carrying us up and down the steps created by broken asphalt. We were heading for Batutumonga, north of Rantepao, and not quite at the top of a mountain. We passed Torajan villages with traditional pointed roofed houses, graves in large rocks and acres of paddy fields. As we climbed further, the view became more and more spectacular.

Journey to BatutumongaBatutumonga by Bike

Batutumonga had been recommended to me by a friend as a great day out, and although the journey was tiring, it was worth it. Our rented motorbike turned out to be stronger than it looked, carrying us up steep, bumpy roads, and we were relieved we had chosen this older semi-automatic model rather than the new shiny automatic bikes that would not cope driving up these roads with two passengers.

Petrol is available at many small shops on the way up and even right at the top, which is just as well because driving in first gear up the slopes used a lot of gas. We passed many scenic points on the way up, sometimes stopping to take a photo and give our backsides a rest from the motorbike saddle.

View from BatutumongaBreathtaking Vista of Tana Toraja

At the top we were awestruck by the distance that is visible, covering pretty much the whole Toraja valley, with the town of Rantepao spread out beneath us. Paddy fields were dotted with villages and hamlets, the reddish pointed roofs of the traditional Torajan houses poking out between the trees.

The air was fresh and the breeze brisk, and there was a conveniently positioned restaurant where we had a well-deserved lunch of buffalo meat called kerbau pamarassan. We soaked up the amazing view, spotting more and more details as we sat at our table overlooking the valley.

Buffalo meat dishBack Down into the Toraja Valley

There are places to stay at Batutumonga, but we were just there for a short visit. So, after lunch and a break, we hopped back on our bike to start the journey down.

The way up had taken around two hours, with stops, but the journey down took only half this time, and we were thankful the motorcycle brakes were in good condition.

If you visit Tana Toraja, it is worth going up to Batutumonga; it’s nice to get out into the countryside for a day and the view from the top is simply breathtaking.


Wawo Muda: The New Crater Lakes of Flores

In 2001 a volcanic eruption in Central Flores created a massive crater, changing the skyline of the local area forever and turning a vast swathe of land into volcanic ash dotted with dead, branchless tree trunks defiantly pointing upwards to the sky. Water that entered this gigantic crater formed five lakes.

Bajawa and MountainsLike the more famous Kelimutu crater lakes, the Wawo Muda lakes change colour according to the mineral content of the water. Unlike Kelimutu, however, the Wawo Muda lakes sometimes dry up, particularly during the dry season. When I visited in mid-April only two lakes were visible.

Trekking to the Crater

After driving for a short distance up through the town of Bajawa with my guide, Johannes, we paused at the entrance gate to the Wawo Muda area. There was nobody around so we continued on without being able to pay an entrance fee. Parking our motorbike at someone’s house, we continued on foot, uphill and along, and uphill some more. We passed coffee plantations; coffee from this area is exported as far as the US. Some brave locals rode their motorbikes up the steep and narrow country footpath, while others walked up the hill towards their plantations. Many vegetables and fruits are grown here, in addition to coffee, often in mixed plantations.

Johannes pointed out interesting trees and plants along the way. I smelt the crushed up leaves of the eucalyptus tree which, here in Indonesia, is used to make an oil called minyak kayu putih, applied to the skin to relieve numerous ailments. I saw coffee beans before the roasting process, all wet and white, and I learnt how in Flores they plant a particular type of tree before planting the coffee plants; these trees, spread throughout the plantation, improve the quality of the coffee. I smelt the roots of a plant used to make tiger balm, and saw enormous bamboo growing by the side of the path.

Tiger Balm Plant

This root is used to make tiger balm

As we climbed higher I looked out across a breathtaking vista of the whole town of Bajawa with Mount Inerie in the background and many large hills surrounding it.

Wawo Muda Lakes

It was scorching hot as we climbed the final stretch up to the crater rim. Then, between the trees, I glimpsed Wawo Muda. The large crater area was almost completely bare of vegetation, with only a few brave trees that had grown since the eruption. Dead, blackened tree trunks dotted the area. I could see two light brown lakes.

It is possible to climb down into the crater and get closer to the lakes, but it is a long way back up. Local people sometimes gather sulphur there, which I was told is used to reduce itchiness of the skin.

We walked around the crater edge to see the lakes from several angles. Since Wawo Muda is not a developed tourist destination, there are no handrails and I was careful not to slip on the little stones that line the ground. The view across the volcanic landscape and the two lakes was eerie and other-worldly.

Wawo MudaHow to Visit Wawo Muda

If you like a short trek through some interesting countryside, visit Wawo Muda before it dries up. The entrance to the area is a short drive from Bajawa, and you face a trek of one to two hours depending on where you start walking. Motorbikes can drive up the footpath so you have less walking, but the hike up through the plantations is pleasant.

Johannes was an excellent guide, extremely knowledgeable about the flora and fauna of the local area, as well as the development of Wawo Muda crater and the surrounding mountains. He also offers tours to other attractions in the Bajawa region, such as to Soa hot springs, climbing Mount Inerie and visiting traditional Ngada villages, and he regularly runs tours across the whole island of Flores. He can be contacted by email at and by telephone on +62 (0)81 353 061310.

Sumatra: Berastagi

To get from Bukit Lawang to Berastagi by public bus (much cheaper than the Rp.100,000 tourist bus) involves going via Medan. I walked to the bus terminal at Bukit Lawang, once again seeing many oil palm plantations, and boarded the Medan bus. This cost Rp.15,000. I got off near Pinang Baris bus terminal in North Medan and caught an angkot (minibus) towards Amplas terminal in the south of the city. Getting off at a junction near the terminal I was able to board a bus for Berastagi, a smaller and more crowded vehicle. The journey, which took several hours and cost Rp.8000, ended by climbing up into the mountains and I got off in Berastagi, a small mountain town. I was starving by this time so I immediately found a warung (small eatery). It was a relief to be eating normal food at a more reasonable price after the tourist world of Bukit Lawang. Then I walked up the main road to Losmen Sibayak, recommended by a traveller I met in Bukit Lawang. They have three cheap rooms up on the roof, with excellent views across the town. I rented one of these, with shared bathroom and no hot water (it is cold in Berastagi due to the high altitude) for Rp.55,000 per night.

Berastagi is a lovely little town perched up near Mt. Sibayak and Mt. Sinabung. The majority of the population is of the Karo Batak ethnicity and, according to a friend, is 80% Christian. Nevertheless the Muslim call to prayer boomed loudly across the hills from the nearby mosque.

After a freezing cold shower, surprisingly refreshing after my long journey, and a short rest, I ventured out into town. Warungs (food stalls) had opened for the evening trade along the main road. I decided to have mieso, which in Central Java is meatballs in stock with noodles and chicken. In Berastagi, however, mieso turned out not to involve meatballs, but had an ample serving of chicken, and small krupuk (rice crackers) mixed into the stock. Then I tried bandrek, the local name for hot ginger drink, with condensed milk. All very tasty and set me back Rp.14,000. There is not much to do in Berastagi at night so I retired to my hotel.

Buildings in Berastagi with mountain background

Buildings in Berastagi with mountain background

The next day a friend of a friend who lives in the area wanted to meet up. We ate corn on the cob and watched the Sunday market. Many people come to Berastagi from Medan on Sundays to have a refreshing break in the mountains. Horses with and without carts ply the streets near the market, offering rides. We headed to my friend’s house to relax and have lunch, before going to a wedding reception later on.

My friend’s father is a farmer, so I was taken on a little tour of his land. He grows many types of flowers and vegetables, and even coffee. We ate some tirung jepang, a fruit, crushed with sugar. I remarked that it tasted a lot like blackberry, which made my friend’s wife laugh, because blackberry is a phone here, not a fruit!

That afternoon we jumped into a minibus with various friends and went to a Padang-style wedding reception in Kabanjahe, a nearby town. The marriage had already taken place that morning and throughout the day and evening friends and well-wishers would come and go as they pleased, eating a buffet-style meal and listening to the pop singer with keyboard backing that were providing the entertainment. After we had eaten, the bride and groom came out and sat in their special chair with flowers and decorations behind them, and we had a photo taken. It was interesting for me that guests just came and went whenever, without being invited at a specific time or having to sit through any speeches. After the photos we left, and I returned to Berastagi for the night. After the touristic nature of Bukit Lawang I had enjoyed having a more normal day, accompanying local people in their activities and making some new friends along the way.