We recently returned from a week touring the Regencies (Kabupaten) of East Luwu, North Luwu, Luwu and the city of Palopo (collectively called “Luwu Raya”, greater Luwu) and the Kabupaten of North Toraja. Situated in the northeast of South Sulawesi, these areas are not easy to get to, although access is improving fast. But they are extremely beautiful and diverse, and form part of the ancient kingdom of Kedatuan Luwu. These districts are also rich in cocoa, cloves, coffee, rice and other agricultural products; shrimp, seaweed and fish; and minerals such as nickel and gold. Toraja is also famous as a tourist destination, located in the cool mountains to the west of Palopo. The majority of the people of Luwu Raya are Moslems, and in Toraja the majority are Christians.
We began our adventure with a one-hour flight on the PT Vale charter plane from Makassar to Sorowako, the town run by the global nickel giant and Brazilian multinational, Vale. In 2006 Vale bought the Sorowako nickel mine from the Canadian company Inco. This mine has provided revenue to the governments of East Luwu and Indonesia, and local employment, since the 1960s.
Our driver/photographer and Mister Fixit, Pak Rahmat, met us at Sorowako airport and took us on a 90 minute drive south through the Verbeek mountains to the little coastal town of Malili, which is the capital of the regency of East Luwu. My first appointment was a call on the Bupati, Pak Thorig Hussler, whom I had met at an investment seminar he presented about East Luwu in Makassar, a few weeks previously.
East Luwu was established as a new Kabupaten in 2003 and Malili became its capital. As a result Malili gained a smart, new Bupati’s office and residence on the outskirts of town. We met Pak Thorig in his residence in a well-decorated audience chamber, and we also met an Australian alumnus who works in his office – Pak Amran Aminuddin, graduate of Flinders University. My discussion with Pak Thorig covered education (Australian Awards scholarships and short courses), and a Renewable Energy Seminar we are organising in March in Makassar. Pak Thorig was interested in renewable energy options for providing electricity to isolated parts of his kabupaten, so I invited him to attend our seminar. Our visit to the Bupati’s official residence subsequently gained a lot of positive media coverage – always a good outcome for a Consul-General!
We returned to Sorowako and a good rest in our hotel, the lavishly named Grand Mulia. It was OK, and at least we had windows which looked out to a somewhat murky hotel swimming pool. Hotels in little towns across eastern Indonesia tend to be dismal concrete blocks with little atmosphere or pleasing ambience. Frequently the facilities are broken or in need of repair, the bedsheets are grey and carpets worn. As the majority of Indonesian men smoke, the rooms and public areas generally smell of clove-tobacco smoke. Increasingly though, we are discovering homestays on the outskirts of these towns, or small “resorts” where rooms have views, or pleasing balconies, and the air is free from cigarette smoke. And of course in the tourist areas (Toraja, Raja Ampat, Labuhan Bajo, Wakatobi, Manado, etc) there are very lovely places to stay on beaches, or in the mountains. I hope our recently organised short course on Sustainable Tourism for Regional Development will help tourism planners to develop improved facilities across the eastern islands (see https://twitter.com/KonJenMakassar/status/856705702550585344 - we will be holding this course again in 2018).
Saturday morning we were up bright and early to join the Chief Operating Officer of PT Vale nickel mine in Sorowako, Lovro Paulic and his wife Tony, and around 1,000 mine and contractor employees on a morning safety walk around the town. This entailed a warm-up Indonesian line dance on the town football field: a young woman in a hijab jumped around on a stage and to very loud music enjoined us to move right, right, right, then move left, left, left. We were also loudly informed about the importance of mine safety practices. Sufficiently warmed up, we then followed Lovro and the mine’s senior executive on an escorted walk around Sorowako on the shores of the crystal-clear Lake Matano.
Lake Matano is Southeast Asia’s deepest lake at around 600 meters, and has a fascinating biota. The water of this ancient lake has a visibility of over 20 meters and a constant temperature of around 26 degrees C, and is surrounded by a pleasing aspect of forest-covered hills.
After our walk Lovro and Tony invited us to their home which was a north Australian-style house on stilts, on a hill looking out over the lake. It was quaint walking into this typical Australian house with its polished red-gum floors, shutter-windows and shady verandas, set in Indonesia’s “outback” near the equator. We even found an old Hills-hoist in the back-yard: proof positive that Australians once lived there!
Lovro and Tony are from Canada, and said they felt they had landed in paradise in coming to Sorowako. Lovro enjoys speeding around Lake Matano in his boat, teaching locals water-skiing and other water sports. We joined them for a few hours of swimming off their jetty, and I and my Adelaide-born intern Mira, went with Lovro to explore The Cave. This is an amazing sink-hole-cum-cave which you can enter by swimming from the lake through a small hole in a cliff. Inside you float in semi-darkness, looking up past stalagtites to an opening overgrown with forest, roots trailing into an untouched and awesome chamber.
Back at the jetty I tried diving down to the lake bottom which appeared to me to be only 3 meters deep. The clarity of the water however, confused my depth perception. I took several attempts to reach the bottom, succeeding only after realising that it was more like 6 or 7 meters deep.
Back at our hotel we enjoyed lunch with the senior mine management staff. Bernardus Irmanto, a graduate of UNSW, is the Vice President Director of PT Vale Indonesia and was my guest; as was Lovro (he is also a board member). Among the senior staff there are a few expatriates: most are being replaced over time by experienced and talented younger Indonesians. At one time during its construction phase in the 1970s the Sorowako mine employed some 10,000 Indonesians, and 1,000 expatriates. Many Australians have worked at this mine, and Australian mining, engineering and technical services firms still provide considerable support to Pt Vale in Sorowako.
That afternoon we spent touring the PT Vale Indonesia nickel mine. Nickel is a fascinating material – I discovered it is also a key component of the earth’s solid core. It is present in surface rocks as a result of bombardment of the earth by meteorites millions of years ago. Sulawesi is a “nickel island”, and other major sources of nickel are found in Australia (which has the world’s largest reserves), Canada, Philippines and Russia.
We were guided around the mine by Yusran, another Australian alumni working for PT Vale Indonesia. Yusran gave us a detailed explanation of the mine’s workings, but I cannot say that I fully understood how the mining and ore refinement process works. I know though that the end product is a nickel matte exported mainly to Japan, and nickel is used in stainless steel, many metal alloys, electroplating and in rechargeable batteries.
An impressive part of the tour was visiting the mine’s nursery where thousands of trees and shrubs are being cultivated for use in the revegetation and re-greening program. As areas of the mine are exhausted of their nickel laterite ores, the company rehabilitates these areas with local species such as the local version of ebony and mahogany. PT Vale Indonesia has been recognised by the Indonesian government for its model re-greening program.
 For the uninitiated, a Hills Hoist is a height-adjustable rotary clothes line. These have been made in Adelaide since 1945, and rotary clothes hoists remain a common fixture in many backyards in Australia.