The journey from Makassar to Rantepao for Tana Toraja is among the most boring and arduous that any backpacker must do. In fact, regardless of your budget of travel, you SIMPLY HAVE TO take the road between the two cities, as Sulawesi does not have a rail network, nor is there a commercial airport in central regions of the island. This means that you are faced with a 10 hour road trip from Makassar to Rantepao, with most people doing the return journey after a few days in Torajaland (heading north from Rantepao to, say, Manado takes even longer and is considered unsafe).
Many buses ply the arduous route from Makassar to Rantepao, and most of these buses are safe European-style coaches (albeit with dodgy suspensions fitted) with air-conditioning. The most reliable bus operator to Rantepao is Litha & Co (who are the ONLY bus company to depart from Makassar Bus Terminal), but other companies are available, such as New Liman or Bintang Prima, though these companies depart for Rantepao from elsewhere in the city. Whoever you travel with, you can expect to pay at least 80,000 Rupiah per person each way, and for a slightly higher standard of comfort (think “Executif Class”), 130,000 Rupiah is the going rate (a difference of maybe £4). However, be warned that some coaches operating with cheaper fares DO NOT HAVE TOILETS ONBOARD, so to be on the safe side I would recommend against drinking any water during the journey. Some drivers may stop for a toilet break in the daytime, but if you’re travelling on an overnight bus, then I wouldn’t bet on it! Night buses generally leave Makassar around 10pm and you should be in Rantepao for breakfast.
After departing Makassar Bus Terminal (and it’s never too early to leave Makassar, after all!), it should take around 2 hours to get to what is effectively the “half-way point” known as Pare-Pare town, which seems straight forward enough, though from here on in the road narrows and it becomes twisty and bumpy. The second half of the journey will take nigh on 8 hours, and this is the perfect time to sleep (though be wary of your belongings, as theft is occasionally reported, especially on night buses). In the daytime, however, you will perhaps not even want to sleep, as throughout much of the route you can see the epic scenery for which Sulawesi is known: beautiful green rice paddies and [usually] clear blue skies. Some drivers will stop in the mountainous scenery for a coffee break and this is a good opportunity to whip out your camera!
Upon arrival in Rantepao, the first thing you will want to do is stretch your legs. I found Rantepao to be a charming little town, but this is probably not your final stop, as you want to visit the communities of Tana Toraja, which are nearly an hour further west. There are plenty of bemos (they are like tuktuks) on the roadside for your to flag down (or wake up the driver!). As long as you don’t have too much luggage, the bemos will be perfect for your onwards trip. Some people may prefer to hire a local taxi, but this will be more expensive. The main villages and burial sites of Tana Toraja are at least 12 miles from ‘downtown’ Rantepao, yet the price you pay for the journey will depend on the driver (6,000 Rupiah each way is a good estimate).
When you are in Tana Toraja, please be advised that using a guide is very helpful (not to mention expected by your hosts), and this will set you back around 250,000 Rupiah each day. As long as you get your money’s worth, then consider it money well spent. Many guides will use mopeds, and you may be expected to hop on the back of the moped with him as you travel between sites – if you are not happy with this, then let the guide know at the outset, and something else can be arranged. However, if you really want to explore all the communities in Tana Toraja by yourself, and save yourself money in the process, then this is doable. Funerals sometimes charge for tourist admission (10,000 Rupiah), and the prime ‘funeral season’ is between July and October. The most amazing thing for me was seeing the splendid Tongkonan houses of the Toraja People. Some villages in the area (such as Ke’te Kesu’, Kande Api, and Pallawa) have large collections of Tongkonan houses, as well as plenty of traditional burial sites for the more macabre tourists! You cannot walk in between sites regardless of whether you have a guide or not, so be prepared to travel from one site to another by bemo (2,000 Rupiah each way between most of the major sites).
Before you even book your flights to Makassar and bus journeys to Rantepao, you should have sorted out your accommodation in the area for the duration of your stay. Hotels are few and far between (they are really only 3.5 star hotels here anyway) and they get booked up pretty fast, especially during funeral season. The rest of the accommodation in these parts is in the form of guesthouses and homestays, which are interesting ways of doing things (especially for backpackers), but if you want to treat yourself and give yourself the best possible chance of avoiding the majority of leeches and mosquitoes in your free time, then the Toraja Misiliana Hotel is my recommendation. I stayed here for a few nights having booked online for £28 per night, and I had a great time – I even made use of the swimming pool one afternoon! As you may expect, there are more accommodation options in Rantepao rather than more westward in Tana Toraja, but you would have to travel back and forth every day, which can be more expensive than it really needs to be.
Like I said, the journey from Makassar to Rantepao is bloody annoying, but at the moment there is no realistic alternative (there is a small airstrip near Tana Toraja, but no safe airline operates there, and flights are not regular anyway). Just make sure you enjoy everything there is on offer in the fabled Torajaland and prepare yourself for the return journey!