Idealistic students want to take eco-travelers up remote mountains in Sulawesi.
While working in Southeast Sulawesi I was lucky to be invited by some university students to join them on a hike to the peak of Mekongga Mountain. The students belonged to two ‘nature lover’ and adventure organisations on their campus. Yayasan Cinta Alam is for undergraduates, while Mahacala is for more senior students. Both were established in the early 1990s in Kendari, the capital of Southeast Sulawesi. They have decided they want to take eco-travelers on organised hikes of Mekongga and other adventures. This trip was to be an exploratory one. I was in it for the adventure and unpredictability of it all. The students are experienced climbers and cavers who can take you to some interesting places and educate you at the same time.
Mekongga (or Mengkoka) is at 2799m the tallest mountain in Southeast Sulawesi. It lies to the northwest of Kendari. It is also the name of the traditional owners of the region. The Mekongga people still inhabit the forests and mountains here, making a living from collecting rattan to pay debts they owe to middle businesspersons. They now also sell the scraps left behind by the logging company Hasil Bumi Indonesia (HBI), which started operations in Southeast Sulawesi in 1979. The Mekongga people have been losing their land to the logging company, and before that to Buginese and Makassar migrants from South Sulawesi, who plant cocoa, clove, banana and coconut (for copra).
My two companions were Ancu and Ardin. Ancu is a senior student with Mahacala who has hiked Mekongga several times. Ardin had never been to this area before and this was one of his first adventures with Yayasan Cinta Alam. Ardin set up camp each night, made the fire, and collected the water - like a scout being tested by his senior. They were a really good combination to hike with: Ancu little bodied, a healthy ego and talker, and Ardin tall, lanky, humble and a good listener.
Listening to the stories of their lives helped explain their different characters. Ancu was the first boy in the family. He had been able to get away with almost anything, enjoyed a lot of freedom and privilege. Ardin was the youngest boy and is now the main carer for his aging parents. He grew up with a lot of responsibility.
Students from Yayasan Cinta Alam and Mahacala say they were the first student organisation to climb the peak of Mekongga: in 1995 as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations of Indonesian independence. It took 12 students 13 days to reach the peak using a compass, basic map and knives to make their path through the forest. This time it took three of us three days to reach the peak, helped by the logging roads that have made scars throughout a once pristine forest. Ancu hiked Mekongga in 1995 and was devastated to see the damage to the forest in such a short period. I saw photos the students took of places in 1995 that you cannot recognise now.
It took us a whole day to get from Kendari to the logging base camp via Kolaka, a little fishing port on the west coast. We traveled in public minibuses and 4WDs. The roads were bad from continual rains. As hesitant as the students were to deal with HBI staff, we arranged to get a lift in a logging truck to the middle camp that first night. The students are angry with the effect logging has had on these forests they have come to love. They are planning to work with Walhi, a major environmental justice non-government organisation, on an anti-logging campaign. Ironically, we were welcomed by the company managers with beer and karaoke. They were eager for some new interaction. They gave us a meal, a few rounds of really bad karaoke and then showed us to comfortable beds of our own.
We started early the next morning and were dropped at the bottom of an old logging road. We walked up and up along a monotonous dirt road, following fresh morning footprints of the anoa - this is a small buffalo-like animal endemic to Sulawesi - and wild pig. A beautiful rainforest valley lay on the east side, while forest sloped up steeply on the other. Now and again we would hear and see pairs of horn bills, as well as other birds. We also came across some major landslides that were a challenge to climb around.
The first night we camped in a cleared logging coupe and had a big fire from logging scraps to keep us warm in the cool higher altitude air. We had a great sunset view over the western mountain ranges.
The next day we kept climbing, past Coca-Cola lake (red tannin stained water) and past the extreme point of logging operations, into the untouched high altitude forests at about 2400m. It was so good to walk under a forest canopy and be encompassed by the cool, fern-dominated rainforest instead of a harsh open logging road. The path from previous student expeditions was quite easy to find with trees marked by small cuts. We hiked along fairy like valleys and cloudy ridges that took us up to a springy peat moss clearing, where we set up camp for two nights. It was raining when we arrived and it took much effort to start a fire. As night crept in we got colder and wetter. That night we all slept huddled close under the open tarp.
Early the next morning we walked to a point where we could view the peak of Mekongga, and look across mountains that stretched into Central Sulawesi. We then set out on a stunning day walk to the peak, through mossy rainforest declines, around boulder formations and amazing on-top-of-the-world views. The forest at this altitude has a spooky character. Brown moss draped off trees in an often clouded, rocky fern forest with lots of epiphytes. Now and again we came across trees, little herbs or orchids in flower; sometimes a little skink sunning itself or little birds being busy. I really appreciated the silence and space after months of living in urban Indonesia.
The peak came after climbing a loose rocky slope, where we saw yellow daisy and flannel everlasting flowers. We reached the top before too much cloud had set in and found a banner left by students from a South Sulawesi university. We took photos, breathed in the head-clearing mountain peak views, admired a predator bird enjoy its territory, put a record of the climb in a permanent jar the students keep there, and returned to camp.
We walked back to where the logging truck dropped us in one rainy day that led to a good blister collection and sore bodies. On our way back we were lucky to see a glimpse of an anoa as it retreated into the forest.
Our first sign of human activity was smoke from a camp of Mekongga people. They were sheltering from the rain under a blue tarp. As we got closer we could hear a guitar and singing. We stared at each other curiously for a while, said a few words and kept moving. They looked like indigenous forest dwellers, with long hair and mostly naked strong bodies. They had set up camp on this abandoned road as a base to collect the logging leftovers.
That night we stayed again at the luxurious logging karaoke camp, and the next morning caught a lift down to the coast and back to Kendari.
Afterwards, the students of Yayasan Cinta Alam and Mahacala talked with me about their futures. Some are lucky to have family with the right connections to land a job where they want. Others fear ending up tied for life to an Indonesian bureaucracy. Many are unsure - especially in the current climate. In a society that puts a lot of emphasis on marriage, these students face pressure to make money so they are acceptable to their bride’s family. One student turned down a job as an agriculture officer for a cocoa plantation company that planned to clear vast areas of rainforest: his ethics took the better of him. Student eco-tourism ventures will hopefully be one way for these students to make an ethical and enjoyable living. It is ecologically sustainable, generates income, and could help protect the forest from destructive logging practices.
To organise adventures with the students you can contact them directly: Mahacala & Yayasan Cinta Alam, Kompleks Unhalu D/1, Kendari 93121, Indonesia, tel +62-401-24991, email: Yascita@kendari.wasantara.net.id. Or contact Foko, a Dutchman with long connections in Southeast Sulawesi who recently opened an eco-travel business in Kendari called PT Pengembangan Ekowisata Indonesia (PT PEI). He works jointlywith the students on travel packages to Mekongga and elsewhere: Jalan Bunga Kamboja No. 60, Kendari 93121, Indonesia, tel/fax +62-401-327995, email: PEI@kendari.wasantara.net.id.
Ally Lankester recently completed an Overseas Service Bureau placement as marine conservation officer for Yayasan SAMA, a local community self help development organisation based in Kendari, Southeast Sulawesi.