The Headman’s New Chainsaw

A noisy, sputtering gas generator keeps the village’s satellite TV blaring until midnight, teenagers wearing “I don’t give a F*#k” t-shirts chain smoke cigarettes, and the purr of chainsaws are the first sign of morning. Clearly the Wana villages of Morowali Nature Reserve are a far cry from the traditional hunter gatherer communities our guidebook promised. Then again, there’s the bushy haired man sitting quietly in the shade underneath his stilted hut sewing pandanus leaves for the shingles of a new roof, the ageless quality of the sarong wrapped women, their bodies slender and taut with skin glowing from a lean yet nutritious vegetarian based diet, and there’s the village’s elder headman, whose shrunken body crouches near the kitchen fire as he rolls homegrown cigarettes from large green tobacco leaves.

A Villager Weaves Together Pandanus Leaves for his Roof

A villager weaves together pandanus leaves for his roof

In retrospect, our six day trip to Morowali has come to embody the essence of travel in Indonesia. The landscape is wild, yet you wouldn’t call it pristine. The lifestyle is largely traditional though the pressures of modernity and globalism are impossible to ignore. It is beautiful but abused, impossibly perplexing yet completely understandable, maddeningly chaotic yet tranquilly simple. In the most general sense, it is absolutely nothing like you would imagine it to be, but its realities make it impossible to be disappointed in what it is not. Morowali, like the country which contains it, is a conundrum wrapped in a riddle.

The gateway to Morowali is the sleepy port town of Kolonedale. The town itself has a rather ramshackle appearance which much to its benefit is offset by its dramatic location. The town is pinched tightly between steep verdant hills and the narrow tooth comprising the farthest reaches of the Tolo Gulf. Along the port tankers and cargo ships with laughably ignored slogans like “Safety First” and “Don’t Litter” bob idly among the swathes of floating trash and wait to be loaded with petrol, palm oil, or nickel from nearby mines. Just down the waterfront, young boys dive from a decrepit rusting tugboat into the polluted water below. Westerners are clearly a rarity here and everyone is eager to try out their one token English phrase “Hello mister!” and ask for a photograph. Pisang Goreng, or fried bananas, is readily available from stands lining the streets that are always packed with shoppers and passerby’s until the call to prayer reverberates melodically through the Indonesian sunshine.

An Older Wiser Captain Gets us Back on Track at the Kolendale Port

An older wiser captain gets us back on track at the Kolonedale port

The first morning of our trek, after a simple breakfast of sticky rice and kopi susu (coffee with condensed milk), we walked to the port to await our boat to Morowali. It was only nine in the morning yet the equatorial sun was already scorching. Our captain was expectedly late, but that gave the local men plenty of time to snicker at Laura’s Morowali school hat, the only one available for purchase in Kolonedale. Once embarked on our journey, our boat, the typical narrow, wood variety, swayed abruptly from side to side and sat only centimeters above the water’s surface with all our gear loaded inside. Our young captain’s confounded expression didn’t exude much confidence and after puttering several hundred yards out into the bay, the rope which connected the boat’s rudder to its steering wheel snapped and required a short return and fix back at port. Back at the helm our captain regained composure just in time to run the vessel onto a rocky ledge.

Finally making progress, the tranquil waters continued to be dotted with floating trash. Earth’s consumptive value and disposability is also on display throughout the hills overhead. All across the bay, green peaks are being leveled, their steep forest bulldozed and replaced by massive flat yellow-earth wounds as over a hundred different mining corporations scramble to extract Morowali’s nickel so desperately needed for cell phones, computers, and televisions.

Further from Kolendale the evidence of human involvement waned. The peaks became more rugged while the calm water cleared and took a turquoise hue. Here Sulawesi splits, its north coast wrapping upward past the Morowali reserve and westward toward Luwuk and the Banggai Islands and its southern shore meanders southeast to form Sulawesi’s southeastern leg. The shores of Tolo Gulf are wild, unpopulated regions consisting of the occasional fisherman’s hut, coconut plantations, golden beaches, sheer limestone cliffs, and thick jungle- the wilderness around Kolendale holds untold adventure and begs for exploration. For now, we look towards Morowali. With the exception of a short blurb in our guidebook making brief references to jungle wilderness and hunter gatherer tribes, we have few expectations. The internet is seemingly devoid of information, our guide had been far from explicative about what we might experience and the staff of Friends of Morowali, a local NGO set up to promote the park, has received lucrative government jobs, disbanded and apparently ceased being friends with the Wana villagers.

Approaching the reserve, the steep coastal mountains give way to a broad expanse of flatlands. Reaching this plain, our boat veered from the gulf and began a short journey up river. The river’s banks are thick with mangrove and despite the droning roar of our boat’s motor, ceaseless squawks of hundreds of birds filtered out of the dense foliage. These dense thickets of mangrove which thrive in brackish coastal waters across the globe not only provide habitat for incredibly dense numbers of waterfowl, they also protect rivers and shoreline from erosion. Unfortunately, as the value of coastal property continues to rise and mangrove wood burns very well, continue to be earth’s most threatened.

Entering Morowali by Boat

Entering Morowali by boat

Moving further into the Morowali Reserve, the mangrove forest gives way to a maze of fern, pandamus, linea, and palm which is magnificently reflected off the still water below. From a few kilometers up river, we disembarked the boat and proceeded by foot. The dry forest floor enabled faster walking than we had expected though our pace was checked by the mass of overhanging vegetation which could fall into two general categories – sharp and pokey. The grasses resembled razor blades which inflicted small nicks and cuts as we passed. The most treacherous fauna displayed thorns over a centimeter long. However, the jungle was not entirely unkind. Beneath the unwelcoming foliage innumerable sweet snacks known as monkey fruit covered the ground.

Cassava Grows Outside a Hut in the Village of Wawosolo

Cassava grows outside a hut in the village of Wawosolo

An hour’s walk brought us to the first Wana village of Wawosolo. Half dozen stilted open-air wooden huts stood scattered across several acres of recently burnt forest. At midday Wawosolo was suffocating hot and the villagers sprawled languidly in their huts. The cold water of the village’s stream and shade from the overhanging trees on its banks offered a refreshing respite from the harsh exposed village. Once cooled, we enjoyed a simple lunch of chicken, rice and vegetables underneath a thatched roof. A child ran playfully among the tapiocas, a woman carried water from one hut to the next, and an old man with a large, gentle smile placard across his wrinkled face played lovingly with his young chickens. While the primitive structures and barren landscape seemed to allow for only the most meager existence, its inhabitants appeared both healthy and content.

After many generations of slash and burn agriculture, the forest, although dense, lacks the size and maturity of typical primary lowland forest. The trees are much smaller and dense undergrowth crowds their bases – our one hour trek to the next village was particularly hazardous.

A much more welcoming site than Wawasolo, the village of Marisa’s larger walled wooden homes are spread across well tended gardens of mature cassava and banana trees and bordered by neat hedges of brightly flowering hibiscus. The village is bisected by a meandering stream and a massive tree trunk serving as a bridge which children scamper laughingly across as the women bring laundry to wash in the water below.

A  Log Serves as the Village Bridge in Marisa

A log serves as the village bridge in Marisa

We laid down our gear in the headman’s home and welcomed the approaching rain as we rested on the porch. With a mixture of amusement, fear, and wonder the village’s children peered at us through slated windows and around doors. Their eyes wide with astonishment, they shyly whispered and giggled to one another; quickly fleeing or hiding their faces if we looked in their direction. Even some of the adults shared in sneaking curious glances from around corners or while quickly rushing by. The voyeurs were now on display which actually seemed just reward for coming all this way to view traditional village life.

A Young Girl in the Village of Marisa

A young girl in the village of Marisa

Feeling like outsiders, we enjoyed a surprisingly simple dinner considering the complications of the cooking process while sitting on the porch. When the mosquitoes became too annoying to continue to enjoy the fresh outside air we joined the headman and several of his family members in the house’s main room, now the smoking room and what we came to realize was also our bedroom. They crouched around a candle smoking and chatting. The younger men smoked modern Indonesian cigarettes, gifts we had brought them, and the Headman rolled tobacco leaves grown in the village. Our guide translated our questions for him and his eyes were brightly animated as he told us more about the Wana people. Puffing away at the long thick cigarettes dwarfed his small age-worn face.

Our Guide Prepares Dinner in Marisa

Our guide prepares dinner in Marisa

The Wana had never been a strictly hunting and gathering society. Instead, they primarily relied on slash and burn agriculture for survival. Until Indonesian government intervened, villages, which are composed of extended families, were perpetually in a state of geographical flux. Traditionally, after a death in the village the entire settlement would move to a new section of forest requiring a fresh cut and burn. In 2007 the Indonesian government declared Morowali a Nature Reserve and required the Wana to develop permanent settlements purportedly for forest conservation. Currently, villages maintain permanent locations but it is very evident slash and burn agriculture continues rampantly.

Land is cleared and cultivated mostly for cassava (also known as tapioca), but also for pineapple, banana and other fruiting trees. Cassava, their dietary staple, is grown both for its roots and its leaves. Its roots are ground into a doughy ball that can be fried into a starch resembling potato wedges, mixed with ground tapioca leaves to create a mixture that resembles porridge or smoked for preservation. For protein, the Wana traditionally hunted birds with blow darts (now pellet guns) and fished and trapped eels in jungle streams.

Distance and geographical isolation kept the Wana untouched by modern society until the late seventies when one villager recalled that the first “tourist” (likely an anthropologist) came to spend a year in his village. Missionaries have also made sporadic appearances, though despite various attempts neither Christianity nor Islam has taken hold here and the Wana maintain their animist beliefs.

The headman does believe that the development of permanent settlements has had an overall positive impact on the Wana’s well-being. Situated closer to waterways connecting to the coast, they have steady contact with the outside world giving them access to consumer goods, medical supplies, electric generators, education and monetary income through the sale of rattan, used for furniture, and harst, a tree sap used to manufacture glass. The villagers also earned money through the occasional passing of tourists but since the disbanding of Friends of Morowali tourism has slowed to two or three small groups a year.

As night crept in our conversation gradually waned and villagers began preparing for sleep. The headman, his family and now his guests, ten people total, spread out pandamus mats below mosquito nets on the wooden floor. While tossing and turning, praying for a moment of sleep, we began to smell gasoline. Minutes later, loud rumbling from a gas generator cursed the still night air and a blaring television in the hut next door drowned out the silence of the jungle night. Even in remote Morowali, the non-existence of Indonesian quiet time was quickly reinforced. The TV continued well past midnight along with smoking, heated conversations, cooking and game playing. Waking up shortly after dawn, we realized the only thing we are sure to have slept through were the others waking and putting up their sleeping quarters for the day.

The Headman Enjoys an Early Morning Smoke in the Village of Marisa. There is no Evidence of the Ten Other People Who Slept There the Previous Night.

The headman enjoys an early morning smoke in the village of Marisa. There is no evidence of the ten other people who slept there the previous night.

After a breakfast of coffee and fried cassava root, we gathered our things and began the day’s hike to Kiupoli the furthest Wana village we would reach. The morning hours’ serenade was not pleasant calls of forest birds, but a symphony of chainsaws humming in the distance. Minutes later the trail opened to a large expanse of burned forest. Hundreds of felled trees lay discarded and smoldering on the charred ground. Spread among the ashen floor were small cuttings of cassava plants. It is obvious the government’s efforts to settle the Wana are not slowing deforestation.

A Clear Cut in Morowali

A clear cut in Morowali

View of Morowali and the Tolo Gulf on our Second Day of Hiking

View of Morowali and the Tolo Gulf on our second day of hiking

Out of earshot of the chainsaws and back into the forest, a steep climb up to the crest of a large ridgeline offered scenic panoramas of the forest below and the Tolo Gulf in the far distance. From this view, the forest had the appearance of a checkerboard as each section seemed to be in a different stage of re-growth.

After a short rest, we began navigating the narrow switchbacks downhill until the trail flattened and the forest dissipated. Before us savanna stretched far into the distance. Only a far-off mountain range blurred by the heat broke up the sea of waist high grass. Gazing across the hot savanna and recalling the checkered forest visible from the vista, the true legacy of Wana culture became clear. With the exception of the steep hillsides too difficult to cultivate, nearly every section of the supposed wilderness we encountered showed signs of previous clearing.

Savanna extends Across the Lowlands; A Former Clear Cut

Savanna extends across the lowlands; a former clear cut

Our trek across the savanna was a testament to how inhospitable equatorial climates can be without their natural trees and vegetation. The grass which at times rose to head level was razor sharp and left cuts while camouflaging the many trees stumps and limbs which were a constant trip hazard. The beating sun and hot, suffocating air instantly began usurping our energy and within an hour we stumbled deliriously, dripping with sweat and yearned for the cool river which always seemed just out of reach. Settled in a stark, unshaded area like the villages before, Kiupoli’s proximity to the river was its sole saving grace.

River Near the Village of Kiupoli

River near the village of Kiupoli

Children in the Village of Kiupoli play a hybrid version of soccer and volleyball

Children in the village of Kiupoli play a hybrid version of soccer and volleyball

After an afternoon of feeling like zoo animals and another sleepless night, the next morning’s trek led us to muddy Moon Lake. The steep terrain around the lake made clearing impractical and therefore much larger trees shaded its banks. A ride across the lake in a dugout canoe brought us to camp at a fisherman’s hut. Home to an old fisherman and his nephew, this would be the most peaceful of our stays and we would dine on fresh caught fish and smoked eel for dinner. Moon Lake provides a food source for several Wana villages but recently it has seen the encroachment of outside fisherman and their large nets. The Wana have repeatedly reported the poaching to the Kolendale police, but suspiciously each time the poachers leave moments before the authorities arrive. In Asia’s most corrupt country, the Wana have good reason to believe the police are sharing in the poachers’ profits.

Moon Lake Morowali

Moon Lake Morowali

A Fisherman on Moon Lake

A fisherman on Moon Lake

Our final day was solely of boating. We began early in a small dugout canoe and wound our way through thick marsh which the Wana occasionally burn back to maintain their connection to the sea. By mid-morning the waterway had widened into the river from which we had originally arrived. Overhead a large raptor guided our path. Perching on a low limb the bird would take off just before we reached it, gliding low over the water for several dozen meters before perching once again. A stunningly colorful kingfisher perched on a low hanging vine next to the water. These were our first encounters with wildlife during our trip.

Travelling by Canoe Through Morowali's Narrow Waterways

Travelling by canoe through Morowali’s narrow waterways

Arriving where we had been dropped off four days previous we found our boat to Kolonedale tied up empty along the riverside. After several minutes our non-Wana boatmen appeared on the trail carrying a chainsaw and several sections of a tree. They had made the most of the ride we chartered by squeezing in some illegal logging. It was a bright sunny day on the sea and after long hot days in Morowali we took much enjoyment in stopping at secluded beaches, a dolphin spotting, and a fresh coconut and mango lunch along the way to Kolendale.

A Swimming Break in the Gulf of Tolo

A swimming break in the Gulf of Tolo

The first evening back in Kolonedale the air took on the smell of burnt charcoal. Rounding a corner we encountered the smoldering shell that the pervious day had been over half a city block. A kitchen fire at a small warung had set the complex ablaze. Once a maze of apartments and small businesses, dozens of people had lost everything they owned and some their livelihood as well. With no insurance they would have to completely start anew. There was little evidence of the emotional toll the blaze may have taken. A man calmly sifted through the charred rubble of his home looking for anything that could be salvaged, two uniformed men smoked cigarettes looking bored and a young boy standing in the ashes shouted “Hello Mister!” with a smiling beaming across his face.

Across the street life was going on exactly as before; people scan the shelf of a cluttered shop, motorbikes cruise around honking and waving as they pass and a satay vendor pushes his rickety cart down the street. In the distance the call to prayer echoes through the sticky twilight. This too was Indonesia in its stark, indefinable complexity; a place of tragedy, destruction, and indifference and also a land of continuity, re-growth, and enduring faith all with a smiling good nature.

We arranged this 5 night/6 day trek with Simon Songgo in Tentena for 6,300,000.00 Rp for two people. For having guided since 1991, Simon had little knowledge if the Wana history, culture or the ecology of the reserve. We don’t think very much of our fee was paid out to the Wana villagers including the porter who seemed to do equal work. Generally we weren’t very happy with the services he provided. As far as we know there are no longer English speaking guides available in Kolonedale. If you would like to trek Morowali, Sutan Tours pre-books treks (we don’t know their quality) or there are two other guides available for hire in Tentena. The friendly staff of Tentena’s Visitors Center next to the cement bridge on the side of the river with the warungs should be able to help you find them.  If you would like to book with Simon he can be reached at +62081245273438

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