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Chasing Dreams in Sulawesi

Karst rock formations jut out of the rice paddies

The child, teetering on the cusp of adulthood, scrambles up the rocks. Ahead, the elder who knows the caves well; behind, three other youths from the tribe. The journey isn’t too easy, the rocks are loose and filled with bits of shells.

As the elder reaches the precipice of the cave, she holds out her hand, downwards, to pull up the kids. The knapsack at her side is filled with everything they will need for a night surrounded by the cool rocks. Powders were ground down under the full moon, charcoal burned too.

The four teens gather inside the chamber. Led by the lady, they dream their way through their ancestors, learning the history of their people. The cave takes them in and teaches them of their destiny. Once they have understood their journey, they are led to the cave entrance.

The night sky is laced with clouds, the stars are not there to witness the proceedings this evening. She brings out the coconut shell with the colours, these children will use the ochre. She builds the saliva in her mouth, takes in a small amount of powder, and mixes it up with her tongue. The first child approaches the cave wall, places his hand on the cool, moist rocks, fingers pointing towards the village outside, and the lady jets out the ochre colour.

I heard about old cave art when I first backpacked in Asia, about eight years ago. I read my “South East Asia on a Shoestring” and decided Sulawesi looked cool, so it landed on my list of places to get to. That time, I never quite made it, but years of picking up bits of information, getting interested in culture and the ancient history of this part of the world, kept the island floating somewhere near the top of that list. I remember seeing an article about the new dating for the art being 39,900 years old and this only spurred me to get myself over to Makassar, somehow.

In February this year, I finally made it. I went chasing my dreams and stumbled, headlong into them. It wasn’t too easy to find someone to just take me to the Maros caves on a motorbike, it was too far to book a Grab or Go-Jek and my broken Bahasa couldn’t get me as far as booking an ojek for the day. After trawling the travel agents, and finding only one who knew what I was on about and asking for Rp1.3 million for a load of stuff I didn’t want to do, I finally found an agency that would send me a guy on a bike for Rp300,000 return.

Taman Leang Leang was very quiet, down concreted country roads that are dotted with kampung. Karst rock formations jut out of the rice paddies. Geologists relate these formations to the rocks at Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, and if you’ve been to both you can definitely see the similarities, just with the green of the paddies rather than the blue of the waters.

The first cave I was shown hit me in the guts. After climbing up the metal steps, I was rewarded with a babirusa mural at the entrance. I had to climb up some rocks, after being assured by the guide that it was alright, and I came face to face with what I had been thinking about for so long. Was this animal there to ward off spirits? To welcome them in even? Could it have been something to do with feeding the spirits of the cave? I was intrigued and could only ruminate; the stone would offer me no answers.

Stepping deeper into the cave, I was instructed to crouch down and walk ahead, with no idea what was to come. We entered a chamber, only the torch of a phone for light. The air was cool and damp and somehow serene. A couple of niches, around head height, would definitely be big enough for a human to fit in. There were a couple of levels of flat surface around the walls, and what could possibly have been worn down steps, cut into the wall leading up to one of the niches.

My mind raced. For thousands of years, people with the same wants, desires, dreams, and hopes as me came to these caves because they believed them to be special. If I stood there long enough could I feel what they felt? I breathed deep, shushed my thoughts, and closed my eyes. Nothing came to me, but maybe nothing was OK.

Cave number two of my discovery had the handprints. I had seen a dramatisation of this process in a documentary years before, and I had spent time puzzling over why they would do this. It feels primal, that need to leave a mark, to declare our presence, to think that we can belong somewhere and leave something of ourselves with our hands.

Seashells break off from the grey rocks at the cave’s entrance. These were formed probably millions of years ago and a seismic occurrence lifted the bottom of the ocean up to form the island of Sulawesi. Had the people using the caves figured these sea shells out?

Heading back to my patient driver, I stopped by the river for a few moments. It still runs gentle and clear, almost certainly the reason why humans chose to settle here. Flat land, fresh water, and caves are always useful to us, even now. I pondered if the caves drew them to this spot, or they found them once they’d settled.

The rocks that are scattered around the base of the caves look rather haphazard. They have been studied though, and archaeologists believe their placement is deliberate. When they tried to move some to see if there were maybe burials underneath, locals told them not to disturb the spirits. It seems cultural memory can hold fast through eras we can barely comprehend.

I’d done a lot of reading into these caves, and human history in general, over the years. What separates us from our animal cousins is a fascinating question, the answer gets smaller the more I learn. I believe it is art. Art and creating for the sake of it, decorating and sculpting our territory to how we need it, these are truly human traits. To have walked on the land, and dreamed in the same caves that some of the first humans did, was truly an honour.

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