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Mark Moxon's Travel Writing

Indonesia: Bada Valley

Peter leaning against a jeep
Peter with the jeep that rattled us along the dirt roads into the Bada Valley

By the following afternoon, Peter and I had arrived in Tentena, a small village in Central Sulawesi that took a bus journey from hell to reach, not just because of the normal problems of awful music and cramped seats, but also because the roads in Sulawesi are shocking. We settled in for a relaxing evening in a good but pricey losmen, and made our plans for the morrow. Our mission: to discover the megaliths of the Bada Valley.

The Bada Valley follows the Lariang River along the southern border of the forested Lore Lindu National Park, and it's world famous for its ancient and mysterious statues, or megaliths; megaliths are large stone carvings along the lines of those on Easter Island. Our options were many, but we decided we'd go it alone and try to find the megaliths ourselves; guides from Tentena came in at 50,000rp per day per person, which sounded like a right royal waste of money, so we bought a seat on a jeep heading east into the valley the next day, and tried to glean as much information as we could from local tour guides and other travellers. It wasn't the most successful fact finding mission; all we got was a photocopy of a dodgy-looking map and some vague walking times, but at least it confirmed that we were in the right area. And besides, a walk with a proper map just wouldn't be right in Indonesia, would it?

The Bada Valley
The beauty of the Bada Valley

We took off from Tentena the next morning, crammed onto the back of a shoddy old jeep that had seven other occupants, along with boxes of smelly fish and peanuts, a blindingly loud sound system and a radiator that overheated every twenty minutes and guzzled water faster than a hot westerner in the middle of the tropical forest. The trip along the terrible dirt road to Bomba at the eastern end of the valley took some seven hours, and although it was pretty tiring, perched on the back of the jeep with legs dangling and arse bruising, it was kind of entertaining, and we experienced the pinnacle of Indonesian pop music for most of the trip; Deddy Dorres, an overweight crooner who looks like an Indonesian Fat Elvis, graced the jeep's stereo, adding a flavour of big shades and bigger sideburns to the whole exercise. His music was terrible, his image embarrassing, but he is, by all accounts, one of the most successful artistes in Indonesia today. Ye gods.

The losmen in Bomba was expensive, but it did have a map of the area on the wall, which I hurriedly copied down, giving us a totally different version from the map we'd obtained in Tentena. Still, we were determined not to waste money on a guide, and the next morning we set out for the valley itself, home to the megaliths and a slice of human history that's as mysterious as Stonehenge.

The Megaliths of Bada

Mark crossing the Sungai Leriang
Crossing the Sungai Leriang at Bomba

Nobody really knows how old the Bada megaliths are, or who made them, or even why they're there. They probably date from the first millennium AD, but this figure is fairly debatable, depending on which scientist you consult. The locals don't have a clue – 'They've always been here,' is the most common response if you ask someone where the statues came from – and all this adds to a wonderful sense of mystery. Even more interestingly, all the objects in the area are made from a type of grey stone of which there are no deposits in the near vicinity, so work that one out; these megaliths are huge, heavy, and in the middle of nowhere, a long way from where they should be.

There are 14 statues in total, plus many large stone vats scattered along the 15km valley. In 1984 the government persuaded the locals to build some wooden houses next to some of the megaliths, which appear to serve no purpose, and some concrete walkways around some of the more famous statues. You would assume that this makes the megaliths easy to find – it's almost set up as a tourist destination, after all, just without the tourists – but it's never that easy.

A hand-copied map
Our somewhat primitive map

Talk about finding a needle in a haystack. The Bada Valley is a farming area, smothered in paddy fields and little streams, and there's just no way you're going to find megaliths in something like that, especially with a map that looked great when I copied it down, but which proved to be pretty useless in the field. But where there's a will there's a way, and we just kept asking the local farmers where the megaliths were until, eventually, we realised that they were sending us in totally the wrong direction. And that's when we saw the house, complete with little kid and grandmother, who turned themselves into our guides for the morning.

Our guides and Kalamba
Our guides showing us the stone cisterns known as Kalamba

Following this odd couple through the fields, we soon realised that finding megaliths was fine if you know where to look, but not so good if you don't. Luckily our guides managed the job fairly successfully, guiding us to all sorts of statues and large stone pots, and only getting lost a couple of times, and before you knew it we'd seen standing megaliths, sleeping megaliths, large pots, small pots and all sorts of odd stone shapes, all of which we would never have found alone. Returning to their house we gently knocked their initial demands for huge sums down to a more reasonable 3000rp, and then persuaded the old man of the house to take us to another megalith on our way out of the valley, all for another 2000rp and half a packet of cigarettes; this one turned out to be hidden inside a paddy field, along a network of paths that nobody could navigate without help. It all felt rather satisfying to have found the megaliths, but without resorting to the tourist trap of hiring an expensive guide for the day.

The megaliths we saw were among the best of the bunch, and trekking round the whole valley to find them all is a long and difficult process, only suited to those who live, breathe and eat megalith mythology. We got to see the following:


We could have seen more, but the rest of the walk beckoned, and after this many megaliths, we'd seen plenty. To be honest, it was a thrill just to find them, especially under our own steam.

That night we camped in the forest, just for the jungle experience, walking in the dark until we found a suitable spot to drop everything, set up the mozzie nets and sleep. It most definitely was an experience...

Leaving the Valley

The rice paddies of Bada
The rice paddies of Bada

The second day of our walk was comparatively uneventful. The path cut through tropical forest, following the huge Lariang River north towards the town of Moa. At 225km long, the Lariang is Sulawesi's longest river and it's an impressively powerful beast, strewn with rocks and the detritus of rainforest. The walking was easy enough, which was lucky as our map didn't stretch beyond the valley of the megaliths, and soon after lunch we arrived in the small riverside village of Moa.

Here we spent the night in a basic losmen and sat there watching the entire village using the river as a bathroom, toilet, clothes washer, water source and village meeting place. I'm sure that Peter, ever the adventurous sort, was keen on the idea of spending this night in the forest too, but to be honest I wasn't feeling too ecstatic after the heavy walking. I had blisters on my feet and aches and pains everywhere, and I wanted a bed; for this reason alone, Moa was a pleasant surprise.

Mark washing in a river
Washing off the rainforest

The last half a day from Moa to Gimpu was, unfortunately, rather depressing, with little to recommend it. After the archaeologically interesting Bada Valley and the beautiful tropical rainforest along the Lariang, the final stretch to Gimpu showed signs of being pretty much destroyed by man, with plenty of logging, farming and environmental destruction littering a flat, boring road that insisted on staying at a slight incline that wore me down, bit by bit.

The rain didn't help either, and as we arrived in Gimpu after the three-day slog, the tropical sky exploded in a torrent of rain that soaked us to the skin and made the little losmen down the road look doubly inviting; thankfully the rain held off until we arrived, or we'd have been thoroughly miserable, it came down so heavily. As it was we found some beds and greedily launched into supper, drank loads of tea, and settled into a good night's sleep, extremely happy to have discovered the elusive megaliths of the Bada Valley.

Bada Belly

A local Bada man
A local Bada man

I thought it was all over, but it was not to be. A couple of hours after retiring at the ridiculously early hour of 6pm, I was back up again, rushing to the toilet for my first bout of Indonesian food poisoning. I threw up every couple of hours until about 6am, and I won't debase this travelogue by talking about my other orifices. There was no way I was going anywhere when Friday finally arrived; not only was I suffering from the intestinal equivalent of the levee breaking, but I had the associated total lack of energy and interest. I wasn't going anywhere.

Peter, however, had to head off as his itinerary was far less flexible than mine, and Gimpu isn't exactly an interesting place to spend your holiday, so I bade him goodbye through a haze of illness, promising to keep in touch and let him know how the rest of my trip went. All of a sudden I was on my own, frighteningly ill, and alternating between the toilet, my bed and the little shop down the road where they sold bottled water, as I didn't even have enough energy to operate my water filter.

Crossing a river
There are lots of rivers in Bada

By lunchtime on Friday I was no better, so the concerned losmen owner took me along the main road to visit the doctor, who worked from a basic-looking room that I wouldn't have identified as a doctor's surgery if it hadn't been for the discoloured white coat she was wearing. After filling in the paperwork and explaining the problem, I had myself weighed, had my blood pressure taken, and after refusing an injection – just as much to do with my needle phobia as for fear of contaminated needles – I was given a selection of pills, tipped by the nurse from a collection of bottles that looked extensive enough to cater for every illness from malaria to mumps. I had to take the little white one, the big white one and the big black one three times a day, and that was that.

A meal of prawns and rice in a banana leaf
My last meal before getting ill - I have a sneaking suspicion it was the prawns

Goodness only knows what the pills were, but they worked. Within an hour I was bunged up, able to keep my rehydration mixture down, and although I still felt bloody awful, I was no longer exploding quite so badly. My temperature, which had fleetingly gone up, came back down and stayed down, and I managed a few bananas to start the digestive process working again. I had survived my first case of Asian food poisoning, though quite what had caused it remains a mystery. Suffice to say it was pretty unpleasant, but inevitable too. It hasn't stop me trying the food, though; the best meals are often to be found in the dodgy warung stalls in the city roads, and some of the snacks are simply great – almost worth the risk. The result? This is almost certainly not going to be my last batch of food poisoning in Asia...

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