This day was one of the highlights of our trip, beginning with Dr John especially excited. This was perhaps due to the fact that Maros is one of the places that showed the earliest signs of human inhabitants, where the world's oldest cave paintings are preserved today. Maros was home to Rammaung Rammaung Village, Leang Petta Kere Cave, and Bantimurung National Park. Prior to the trip, I had read online reviews about them, and with Pak Nagiran's comments on the beauty of Bantimurung, I was very much looking forward to them. On the bus, we also heard first hand accounts from Dr John about how beautiful these sites were. Excitement was certainly in the air, as we headed out of the city, towards our destination for the day
As our "party bus" headed straight for Maros, the view outside the window changed dramatically. As we left the city, the busy roads and densely packed buildings, were abruptly replaced with traditional houses on stilts, in true Bugis fashion. Subsequently, towering karst formations in the distance and wide fields and domestic cows gently grazing the grass came into view -- a tranquil sight. As far as I could see, paddy fields lined both sides of the roads, and our bus headed straight for the limestone hills that jutted out in the horizon like huge walls. It was like a scene out of a Studio Ghibli film.
We soon arrived at a jetty, built on a meandering river bank, where boats would ferry us to Rammaung Rammaung Village. Dr John pointed out that the boats were likely custom-made, as each one was unique in design, just slightly different from the last. They also had raw, unpolished look to them, which gave each boat a unique character. We split the group into two and hopped onto separate boats for a ride about 20 minutes long. Through the entire boat ride, the view was simply stunning. Just along the path was dense vegetation of mangroves and Nypa palm trees. A little further in the distance, the great karst landforms provided a pretty backdrop, with vertical cliffs.
One part of the boat ride also went right under some limestone formations, allowing us a close up view of how the weathering and erosion had resulted in the undercutting of the rock face. It looked somewhat like the inside of an english muffin. I’d have to say I wish my eyes could capture everything I saw – every turn we made brought about fresh and beautiful sights. Once again, I’m amazed by the beauty of what Sulawesi has to offer.
Before I knew it, we arrived at our destination. The village was a patchwork of paddy fields, and fish ponds were neatly organised in the centre, with a handful of tributaries flowing intricately throughout the basin. The houses were built on stilts, like the ones we saw on our bus ride here. The entire village was surrounded by towering karsts, but it did not keep out the natural light, which very brightly lit the entire village. Melvin commented that it was almost as if we were looking at a picture and someone had turned the saturation all the way up. I think I've run out of synonyms for picturesque at this point, but the view was indeed scenic. I found myself somewhat envious of these villagers, for being able to soak up these beautiful views everyday.
After a stop to photograph the stunning sights before us, we made our way to toward the limestone caves, following the narrow paths that connected the village. There were some cows tied to trees near the sides of the small village, and butterflies which fluttered alongside us while we walked. The early afternoon heat was beating down on us, and we were glad to finally reach the entrance of the caves which provided some much-needed shelter. There were also more trees around this area, cooling us down pretty quickly. There was a sign that said "Diamond Cave", but we highly suspected it was just a mistranslation - and we were right, since the "diamonds" were really limestone crystals.
When we got to the cave, a quite skinny, tan local man stopped us at the mouth of the entrance, to charge us a small fee before we could proceed. He then took my phone to show me through the camera, that the limestone naturally formed sculptures like an elephant, and a tiger, and Mother Mary holding Jesus. He spoke very little english, though, only enough to name those sculptures. While Dr John thought that this was a waste of time, some of us found it rather amusing. He then led us deeper into the cave, where we could climb up a ladder, and then up a rope, before squeezing through a tiny gap to get to a platform hidden from before. This gap was no wider than half a metre – not to mention, we have no idea how big the chamber was, and if we could all fit inside. However, we pressed on, and made our way up the steps one by one. I volunteered to be last and decided to poke around the back of the cave and see if I could spot anything with my torchlight. I could. I saw a huge spider as large as the palm of my hand, just half a meter away from me. Immediately, I turned around ,blurting out "nope" multiple times in succession, and made my way up the ladder to join the rest of thr group. Somehow ,all13 of us managed to fit in the chamber.
When our eyes adjusted to the brightness, we saw that surrounding us were speleothems with tiny crystals which shimmered as we shone the light on them. Hence the name of Diamond Cave. The cavern was damp and ester dripped from the many stalactites. The surface of the limestone was cold compared to the hot baked limestone rocks outside the cave. The experience was unlike any other cave expeditions that I had when I visited other caves with tour packages from other travel agencies. The caves that I previously entered were all properly lit up with colourful lighting and the routes to those caves were properly paved. I felt a closer touch to the natural formations of Mother Earth as I trekked my way through this cave. Although this place was beautiful, I felt a surge of guilt as our short visit to such a beautiful place was actually damaging to the formation which took millions of years to form. The natural oils and dirt from our bodies and clothes coming into contact with the crystals prevent them from growing further. By visiting this place as tourists, we were enabling the locals to profit off tourism that was, albeit minimally, damaging to nature. Nonetheless, I was still grateful for having been able to see those formations first hand and up close.
We then made our way over to Batu Hill. On our way there, we found an injured butterfly among the rocks. The butterfly was black and yellow, and looked like a common breed of butterfly, but was still very beautiful. Joel decided to bring the butterfly to our next location, Bantimurung’s Butterfly Kingdom for it to rest in a paradise full of butterflies. Joel named the butterfly Timothy. Timothy seemed to be at the end of its life, though, as it had lost 2 legs so couldn't fly, and it rested in Joel's palm, barely moving. Batu Hill looks exactly as described by its name - a hill made of coarse and huge limestone rocks. Some villagers beckoned us over to take a rest at a shelter at the top of the hill, and sold us a few drinks. It was indeed a nice spot to rest, with the shelter shading us from the heat, and the breeze cooling us down, while we gazed out at the sight, overlooking the village.
At some point on our bus journey, Dr John had asked about some prehistoric paintings, and Herman suggested we stop at Leang Leang to visit the Leang Petta Kere. Being the ignorant children we were, we did not think much of the site at first, as we were unaware of its historical significance.
We were charged an entrance fee of 10,000 rp each, then a ranger brought us down the path, explaining things to us in bahasa. We were able to understand most of it, thanks to the translations by the 2 malaysian students in our group. We first entered a park with towers of black rocks which the ranger claimed to be granite that used to be underwater. However, Dr John the naturalist said that it was more likely to be limestone. I also thought it looked more like limestone, as the exposed fresh rock within shows no large crystals the way granite would, but instead was compacted creamy powder. After a short 10-minute walk along the path, we arrived at the cave entrance.
We got to the end of the path, where the ranger opened the door of a barb-wired fence to lead us up some weathered metal steps up to look at the ancient paintings. There was a platform that we could climb up to view some ancient paintings hidden on the underside of limestone caves. Dr John was the first to climb up onto the platform, and he explained to us how and when these paintings appeared. They are more accurately referred to as stencils, early humans would chew up red mud, put their hand on the wall of the caves, and blow the mud over their hand, thus creating the handprint using the negative space.
There was also a larger painting of the Babirusa, an animal that was hunted as food back when these humans inhabited the area. Upon closer inspection, the handprints appear to have been stenciled on the wall intermittently, often with long period between them. This was inferred from the way that some handprints were stenciled over others that seemed to have been washed away, due to rainwater seeping in through cracks in the cave formations. The Babirusa can also be seen to be painted over some handprints, and a few hands were stenciled over the pig. Some parts of the painted wall had fallen off in chunks, leaving behind a fresh limestone surface.
There are a few theories as to why the Babirusa and handprints were painted and stenciled on. The ranger explained to us that it was because those humans believed that if they were to paint their hands on a babirusa painting, then they would be able to literally get their hands on one. However, our resident skeptic Dr John told us an alternative theory. He said some researchers believed that these handprints could be used to illustrate hunting strategies to successfully capture a babirusa. Each print was illustrating the direction that a hunting group member should approach the babirusa.
While waiting for all 13 of us to observe this piece of history, we explored a small cave beside the metal platform we were standing on. It was interesting to see this particular cave, as there still remained evidence that this was once underwater - this was bizzare to me, as we had to climb pretty high up to get here. There were dried out corals along the crevices, and even what used to be a sea star! The underside of the cave ceiling also showed signs of thousands of years of being licked by the water surface.
Having filled our phones with pictures of such beautiful sights today, we had almost forgotten to fill our stomachs with food! Honestly, we had been so distracted with the amazing sights we had seen thus far, I didn't realise I was hungry until lunch was mentioned. Unfortunately, Ramadhan meant we had to scavenge for food again. We made a quick stop at the local minimart to grab snacks to fill up, and headed off to our next stop, Bantimurung National Park!
Outside the park, there were countless stalls, each entirely covered with frames that held pinned butterflies. During our dinner with Pak Najiran, he told us that these stalls were licensed, and could only sell dead butterflies which were collected and sold by rangers. However, I was highly doubtful, since the sheer amount of butterflies probably meant that that was not a very profitable business model. Herman told us that during non-Ramadhan periods, there were far more stalls. We were stopped at the entrance, and asked for a ridiculously high admission fee of over than 50 SGD. We were prepared for this, however, since we read online that in Indonesian tourist sites, there were often no clear signs that told the price of tickets, and foreigners are usually asked for a price much higher than the supposed one. Our malay-speaking friends managed to haggle the price down to about 155,000 rp per person, however. Initially, we thought that this was just tourist spots taking advantage of tourists, but we realised that this might not have been the full story. We learned later that entrance fees in foreign countries might be well worth the money, in the accident that was to come...
We followed the brick path into the park, admiring some butterflies as they fluttered by us. To our right across river, there were small puddles of water formed from the splashing waterfall and rain. We walked across to a bridge to get a closer look - it was a scene straight out of a Disney movie. The late afternoon sun illuminated the park, spilling in through the leaves in the trees in komorebi fashion. Beautiful blue iridescent butterflies gathered around the puddles of water, flying up in clouds as we got too close. Smaller, yellow ones also fluttered nearby. We even spotted larger, fully black butterflies higher up in the trees. Unfortunately, we did not manage to get many photos, as our camera phones could not capture the beauty of this scene. That was an experience and a half. Joel left Timothy in this area to rest.
We we walked further into the park, we saw the main attraction of this place, the waterfall. There were children playing in the waterfall, sliding down it while sitting in rubber tyres. We continued walking deeper into the park, which meant climbing up a staircase beside the waterfall. When we got to the top of the waterfall, we saw a turquoise river that looked like liquid jade. The water was almost stagnant, a wild contrast from the waterfall just a few meters down.
Walking further in, we came to the mouth of a limestone cave, and followed the path in. Once again using our phones as flashlights, we treaded carefully into the cave, admiring the formations. For a minute, we all switched off our lights and stayed silent, experiencing the complete darkness of the cave. The only sound we heard was the breathing of our neighbours and the dripping of water, along with its echo. The cave formations within were beautiful, and we had to squeeze through a small hole at some point to enter another chamber. Unfortunately, with all beautiful things, humans always find a way to make their mark on it, or possess it as their own. Some walls were vandalised, and some stalactites broken off. It was such a shame, as the cave was so beautiful without those unnecessary addditions. Hopefully the security at Batimurung is strengthened, to prevent further damage to the nature's creation, so that others can continue to appreciate what nature has to offer.
It seems the cave was at the end of the path in the park, thus we headed back toward the entrance, having had our share of limestone cave exploration for the day. Before we headed back, we decided to take a dip in the waterfall and splash around for a bit. This was a first for many of us, and we were very much looking forward to it. After enjoying a "waterfall massage", I saw some kids sitting around rubber tyres and sliding down the river. Wanting to join in on the fun, I found that the path they were sliding on was slick enough with moss, and smooth enough for us to slide down. Thus, I took the lead and sat at the top of the slope, slowly edging myself forward until I slipped and slid down. This, I assure you, is much more fun than any Singapore water park you've been to. Unbeknownst to the horror that awaited us, everyone else thought this seemed fun, too, and followed. Unfortunately, our fun was short-lived. Those kids from before followed close behind us, and did not wait for Xue Min to get out of the way before they slid down with the tyre, carrying four or five children. They slid down faster than I could react and pull her out of the way. The tyre striking Xue Min in the back of her thighs, knocking her face first into some sharp rocks. As I stood, watching in horror, the irresponsible kids scattered off with their tails between their legs, with not so much as the intention to apologise. As we pulled Xue Min out of the water, she held her hand over her chin, covering a deep gash. From the side, I could see her chin and split open, and thick blood was dripping out. As she had dropped her spectacles, she could not see much further in front of her. We carefully but hurriedly manoeuvred our way back across the waterfall, where a stranger pointed us towards the entrance of the park, saying that someone there would help us. I held my palm against Xue Min's back, guiding her in that direction.
One of the staff working at the guard house, who did not speak english, saw and quicky evaluated the situation, then told us to hop onto a buggy. At this point, I thought it was just the two of us. I was barefoot, and had not even had the sense to grab my phone - my first instinct was just to get Xue Min stitched up. Luckily, Wei Jian and Ernest were thinking straight, and came close behind us, joining us in the buggy. The staff member drove us to a nearby clinic, where we waited for what seemed like an eternity, before they got to stitching Xue Min's wound. I spent a lot of time stroking her hair and calming her down as she was really scared of pain, and was panicking about anaesthetic. What made the situation worse was that there was not a single person who spoke english. Luckily, we had Google Translate to aid us. The clinic had run out of thread, so they sent the park ranger out to get some, before they could stitch the wound. The entire time, I stayed by her side, and got to see the inside of her chin while it got stitched up. It was truly an intimate experience. There were a few local women and children who were curious about us foreigners, and they stood around the ward to watch her too. Luckily, there were no further complications, and we were able to continue the rest of our trip. They gave her some dressing and medication, telling us that the medical insurance was included in the entrance ticket.
We headed back to the hotel in Makassar after this truly eventful day, and had dinner at a nearby restaurant