Sulawesi, Indonesia

I was in Sulawesi twice during my time in Indonesia and to back up a bit, I had flown to Bali, Indonesia in October of 1991 during the lead up to the first Gulf War. I had been hired to refine a Class III whitewater rafting trip on the island. The company, Sobek Expeditions was considered one of the most elite companies to work for at the time and normally, it was very difficult to get a job with them. But most of their guide staff were experienced in multi-day expeditions into remote 3rd world countries and this was a 2 hour tourist trip on Bali’s Ayung river, easily accessible to thousands of tourist and they had no experience in McDonalds style rafting. I had come up through the ranks on some of the most intensively run whitewater rivers in the U.S. beginning with the Ocoee in Tennessee which epitomizes McDonald’s, moving masses down the river as efficiently as possible style rafting.

However, shortly after arriving in Bali, the Gulf war broke out and travel to Muslim countries was discouraged. As a result, I was sitting in paradise twiddling my thumbs.

Sobek had spent a lot of money getting me to Indonesia and in an effort to best utilize my skills, they shifted into exploration mode and my new task was to go to the Island of Sulawesi, explore access roads and trails into the Sadang river which Sobek had did a first decent of the previous year and do a first decent of one of the Sadang’s tributaries, the Maiting river.

For exploratory expeditions we utilized a group of oil rig workers to finance and participate in the adventure. They typically worked 30 days straight on a rig and then had 30 days off, had plenty of money and were based out of Singapore. These guys were great because they were experienced and enjoyed the adventure of unexpected snafus. Taking your average tourist down a river like this was another matter all together and one of our goals was find suitable access to and from the river and arrange for porters to carry multiple rafts and equipment around a 9 miles section that had been deemed unrunnable. The tourist would hike or trek, as they call it in the adventure travel tourism industry, around this 9 mile section and their rafts and equipment would conveniently be waiting for them at the other end… If we could manage to coordinate all the logistics.

This is a promotional video of the Toraja area of Sulawesi. The first part shows the famous cliff effigies that Toraja is famous for. At 00:47 in the video, you see the Maiting river which is now being run commercially. This was my first and only first decent of a river. It looks like typical white water rafting but at the time, not knowing what was below each rapid, it was pretty asshole puckering stuff. We camped just above the Canyon the night before after 4 days of non-spectacular floating and you could hear the roar below all night & no one slept. The canyon is only about 5 miles but it took us a good 12 hours to run it because we had to get out and scout every rapid from the banks. We’d walk down the bank (which was a task in itself) & wouldn’t stop until we could clearly see a recovery point. Sometimes we’d have to get out 3 or 4 times in a single rapid. The banks & jungle was so hard to get through that often we’d just scout far enough down stream to see a safe eddy we thought we could get to and then scout again from there. The river stuff is from 00:47 to 01:35. At 1:35 in the video, there is a waterfall & it’s hard to tell at this point, but you’re clearly out of the Canyon and you know it’s going to mellow out from there. We ate lunch on that gravel bar & everyone was so chilled out because we knew we were through the worst of it. I took a picture from that same viewpoint of that waterfall. after that it was 6 days of flat water in blazing hot sun in croc infested waters. you’d get so hot you had to jump in but then you’d see the crocs sunning on the banks and it encouraged you to not linger.

The big boulders in the river at the beginning had giant lizards called sailfin dragons sunning all over them & you’d be going through those rapids and soon as they saw you, they’d leap from the rocks with all their fins spread out. Some were 4’ long and there would be several going in all directions. It was like a weird Jurassic adventure trip.


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