What comes to mind when you think about Indonesia? Most likely beaches, surfing, diving, cocktails and so on? That’s pretty much what I though before I visited Sulawesi in autumn of 2016.
I was looking for some place “new” to go kayaking, and somehow became interested in taking a closer look at Indonesia. On the website of the German foreign office, I was looking over the travel advisories and read something about religious revolts in the region around Poso in Central Sulawesi a couple years ago. Sulawesi? Never heard of it before, so I decided to take a closer look at the Island.
High mountains up to almost 3,500m, a lot of rain in the rainy season and the satellite images showed a bunch of rivers which look runnable. The idea was born, so we put together a team of five and started to use online search engines to gather some information to our questions. Has anyone been there so far? If so, how is the whitewater? Is it worth going? What’s the best time of year for paddling? Soon we made a contact with Tim from the UK, who had been there two years ago and explored many cool rivers. We were very thankful to get his travel notes which we used as a base for our plans.
The time ran faster than we thought and we found ourselves fully loaded on the 22nd of October at the Munich Airport, boarding our plane via Doha and Jakarta to Makassar on the very south peninsular of the Island of Sulawesi. Everything worked out perfectly and the two drivers we arranged in advance picked us up at the airport to start our long drive north into the mountains of Sulawesi to Rantepao, in the middle of the region of Tana Toraja. This was to be our home base for the next three weeks. From here you can reach most of the rivers we planned to paddle within one day.
On our fist two rivers, the lower Mai’ting and the Sa’dan, we were a bit surprised about the quality of whitewater we found here. We ran perfectly shaped class 4 big water with 35°C air temperature and around 20°C water temperature. This had only one disadvantage; It gets dark at 6 pm but it is still very warm outside, so on a multiday trip you have to wait for a couple hours in the darkness before slipping in your bivi bag, which protects you from rain and insects.
While running a couple of already known rivers in the area of Tana Toraja, we started to look for something new. A few days later we found a pretty cool river which to our knowledge had not yet been paddled, and after some scouting from the road and climbing down through the jungle to have a closer look at the river, we decided to give it a try. Unfortunately there hadn’t been much water here so it was a bit bony, but still steep and challenging. We still don’t know the correct name of this river. The map says “Rembon River”, some locals call it “Bittuang River” because it flows next to the road leading to the Bittuang area, and some others gave it a totally different name I cannot remember.
Next our plan was to drive north and paddle the Lariang river, which is a pretty challenging multiday in a totally remote area. But some of our teammates got a typical tropical illness, so we shortened this trip north and paddled the Lamasi and Rongkong River at really high flows. These rivers are normally class 3-4 at normal flows. The high flows in the rainy season gave them a pretty challenging character with a solid class 4.
Since we decided not to go to the Lariang River, we had some days left to further explore the area of Tana Toraja. Upstream of the lower Mai’ting river, there are two huge gorges waiting to be explored. After some scouting on maps and satellite images, we decided to give the upper gorge a try. The lower gorge, which leads directly into the lower part of the Mai’ting, didn’t look like a good option for us, with very long portages that would definitely take more than one day.
After putting on the upper gorge, we paddled fun class 3 for half an hour and thought this could be an easy run all day long… until we reached the first portage. There we reached a point where the gradient steepens significantly, and becomes a paddlers’ paradise. Steep boulder garden rapids that were non-stop, with drops up to 12ft.
It took us 4 hours to run 6km. Besides the whitewater, we found stunning landscape in a mix of deep steep sided gorges and rice fields in an amazing surrounding of high mountains. This was definitely the highlight of this trip to Sulawesi, and worth a second run. Unfortunately we ran out of time and had to get back to Makassar for our flight back home.
The Island of Sulawesi is definitely worth visiting with your whitewater kayak, but you need to know that everything takes time. Paddling a river there is a lot more “work” than doing “fast food kayaking” in well known areas with good infrastructure and maps. Nine days of kayaking in three weeks of travel was pretty much the maximum we could do here.