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Adventure: Indonesia : Lost in Sulawesi : Midget buffalo, disco drums and a guide who can't use a compass--somehow it all equates

February 25, 1996|PHIL BARBER | Barber is a Calistoga, Calif.-based freelance writer

PALU, Indonesia — Darkness had fallen in the jungle, and from beneath my worn blanket I heard the rhythmic beat of drums.

The drums were in the taped Indonesian dance mixes emanating from a minibus curbed in front of my host's house. The minibus, which held a dozen high school biology students from Palu, had overshot the trail head to remote Lindu Lake. Now the chaperones were asking for directions and weighing the virtues of a 10-mile hike on a damp, uneven, steep-sided trail in the pitch black of a cloudy equatorial night. And who was I to question their wisdom?

After all, here I was 7,500 miles from home, tramping along on a trek that fell somewhere between Kurtz's expedition into the Heart of Darkness and Hope and Crosby's Road to Bali.

I was in the midst of coming to terms with getting exactly what I wanted. After four months of cautious steps through bewildering lands, fretful about overtaxing my travel companion--my pregnant wife, who had just flown home--I had desperately hoped for a final adventure before following her back to Los Angeles. I envisioned hacking through jungle vines with machetes and sampling mysterious stews. I had not envisioned pulsating disco versions of the Flintstones' theme.

But that's Sulawesi, outpost of the weird. Formerly known as the Celebes, Sulawesi ranks 11th among the world's islands in surface area. In terms of oddities, it might be unmatched. If starfish could fly, and if you flattened one while doing 65 mph in your Jeep Cherokee, the resulting splatter on your windshield might approximate the shape of Sulawesi. It is a series of bent and tortured peninsulas separated by deep gulfs. The fauna of the island are utterly unique, as represented by the babirusa, which translates to "pig-deer" and looks the part.

Outside the tourist-friendly region of Tana Toraja (a beautiful region also known as "Torajaland"), exploring Sulawesi is guaranteed to be arduous, complicated and exhilarating. I chose Palu, the provincial capital of Central Sulawesi, as my base of operations. Palu is a pleasant enough town, dominated by the Muslim Bugis people. It occupies a scenic spot on Palu Bay, though the soaring tropical clouds usually back up against the surrounding horseshoe of mountains, making the streets brutally hot in the midday sun.

I had planned to hire guides to lead me into the jungle, but I soon realized I had little idea of where to find them. Fortunately, they found me.

Of the five registered guides in Palu in mid-January of last year, I met three. Average height for the three ran about 5 feet 2 inches; average pulse rate was about equal to a hummingbird's. The guides of Palu were compact bundles of energy and enthusiasm, proud of their ties to the outside world and fearless in their bravado. For $20-$25 a day, they fed me, transported me, sheltered me and kept me thoroughly amused and constantly agitated.

Darwin Sumang, a long-limbed chain-smoker with nerdy glasses, took me across the equator on a 2 1/2-day trek along the coast to a stretch of villages that even my Lonely Planet guidebook didn't acknowledge. Fahrul Fahl, the tiniest and the most fluent English speaker of the three, provided valuable advice and translation in exchange for fruit juice. And Excel, my primary guide, a daffy former soccer star with a son named Stalin, led me into Lore Lindu National Park, a 600,000-acre wonderland of dense rain forest and butterflies the size of kites.

It was Excel who had brought me to the village of Sidaunta, where I listened to the wayward students in the darkness. Before our early departure into the jungle the next morning, I remembered the one necessity I had neglected to stuff into my small bag: the big one, toilet paper.

Luckily, there was something of a market across the road from our homestay. But how to express my need? I thought I remembered the appropriate Indonesian phrase, but was greeted with blank stares. Spying a small box of something called Softex, I became convinced it was a foreign cousin of Kleenex. When I demanded to see the box, the proprietor sheepishly handed it to me. Inside were red women's panties. I think they're still talking about that one in Sidaunta. (And, yes, I did find my paper.)

The treacherous trail through the forest is, amazingly, the primary access route for the thousands of people living around Lindu Lake. Along the path we made room for teams of ponies heading to Sidaunta, laden with huge bags of coffee and rice. In the afternoon, the beasts would make the return trip, equally weighed down with vital supplies from Palu. Two Dutch travelers I met had heard that the ponies occasionally topple into the steep ravines.

The jungle itself was mildly warm, misty and completely overgrown with an inconceivable variety of vegetation, all interlocking and overlapping.

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