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Morowali: People of The Forest

Deep in the heart of Central Sulawesi, the Morowali Nature Reserve is home to the indigenous Wana tribe, a people devoted to living life in harmony with the environment.

Words by Stephanie Brookes, Photography by David Metcalf

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I watched with fascination as the Wana elder, a woman of about 80, deftly rolled tree bark into an intricate traditional pipe. I sat on a hand-woven leaf floor mat and listened to her husband, a jovial, talkative character, explain about life in the forest.

“We are forest dwellers. In the old days we were nomadic, but now we settle in an area for three to four years. We clear a patch of land and grow our crops. When the soil is depleted, we pack up our plank houses and move. We have the deepest respect for the earth. We take only what we need,” he explained.

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The Wana people are true conservationists and practise sustainable agricultural methods that have enabled them to live in balance with nature for thousands of years. Yonatan, the national park ranger who guided us into the Morowali Nature Reserve, explained how this practice of forest management is called ‘swidden’ and is a shifting agricultural system that has served the Wana people well and preserved their forests for centuries.

“Here, have a look,” the chief said, handing me a blowpipe. “We are great hunters.” He showed me his range of darts, some loaded with poison, some not.

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There is only one way to meet the Wana – you must trek into their territory. We entered by boat, and Yonatan had come on board our traditional phinisi-style schooner, the Ombak Putih, the day before and helped guide us into the bay where we anchored overnight. We left early in the morning by zodiac and entered the national park via the Rano River. We had a six-kilometre jungle walk ahead of us. Most of our Ombak Putih crew came with us. None of us, including the ship’s captain, Feri (who was from Gorontalo in North Sulawesi), had ever been on the Wano River or met the tribal forest dwellers, so suffice to say, there was a lot of excitement and curious anticipation as we entered the river inlet and made our way to the trailhead. The morning was charged with a little Indiana Jones vibe,and we were up for the adventure.

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After alighting from the zodiac, we entered the forest. The park ranger went ahead, slashing back the thorny rattan that ambushed the trail. It was a humid, hot day and we were lucky to stay under the cover of primary rainforest for the first hour. Just before lunch, we forded a cool stream, which was a welcome relief. We criss-crossed our way through patches of savannah as the trail cut through swamps, and somehow I managed to walk right past a huge green tree snake hanging over my head on a low branch. Our eagle-eyed photographer spotted it and got a great shot, and it
made me wonder how many other creatures great and small live camouflaged in these ancient forests. I made a short, sharp shuffle past our crewmates and caught up with Yonatan, to make sure that if there were any more surprises in store, I would be at his side.

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After five kilometres of trekking, we found an idyllic forest clearing and ate a nutritious pre-packed picnic lunch and took a rest. Thirty minutes later, out of nowhere we came upon a long, neat-looking fence. After hopping the fence, we came to some cornfields and then a series of dry rice fields. Next, we caught sight of our first wooden tribal Wana house. The village comprised a series
of very functional one- and two-storeyed planked houses. The settlement was very neat and tidy and, by comparison, we felt and looked very untidy and slightly bedraggled after our forest trek. We were greeted with big warm smiles from a group of tribal elders who were gathered at the main house. They seemed to be just as fascinated by us as we were by them.

We were invited into their home, which included several sleeping rooms and a traditional fireplace. In a corner their water was stored in long bamboo tubes. We could smell grilled fish. “We are great fishermen,” said one of the elders. “Only one hour from here there is a lake where we catch snapper and eel.”

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An assortment of fish traps, nets, and wooden spear guns were stacked up neatly in the small storage room. Their tools and hunting gear were rudimentary but highly functional. One of the elders came out of a back room with a sacred gong and proudly showed it to us. After we had all inspected it and marvelled at it, it went back in its spot. It lived next to a chainsaw. The chainsaw and one satellite dish (that was positioned next to the main house) were the only signs of modern life.

“We get our medicine from the forest. Every Wana village has a dukun, who knows the ancient ways. This knowledge is very old, and we follow our shamanist ways and practise ancestral worship,” the elder told us. “Our dukun is wise and knowing. We live by this creed and always have.” He continued to tell us how the government leaves them alone to practise their old ways.

The village comprised 19 families. We felt so incredibly honoured to sit with the elders and exchange stories with them. When it was time to take our leave, no one wanted to go. Our visit to the Wana seemed timeless, as they live a life largely unchanged since time immemorial. The luxury of our ship anchored out in the Maluku Sea seemed very distant, and with some hesitation and
many repeated goodbyes, we took our leave. We walked silently back to the boat along the trail, lost in contemplation and reflection and feeling very otherworldly.

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On our 12-day sailing trip on the Ombak Putih, we had a lecturer on board from the Australian Maritime Museum who entertained us every night with fascinating maritime tales of shipbuilding and stories from the seafaring tribes of the Malukus. On this particular evening, we opted to watch the famous, historic Lawrence and Lorne Blair Ring of Fire DVD. Somehow the experience of meeting a unique forest tribe seemed to match the adventures of the Blair brothers. We all agreed this day had been the highlight of our 12-day Spice Islands sailing trip. I drifted off to sleep that night reflecting on the traditional people of Morowali and how they have retained their customs and tribal ways of roaming the forests of Sulawesi.

At its core, I think the Wana tribe is about knowing when it’s time to pack up and move on in life, and doing so responsibly. They are a people that understand that life is a journey. And in that sense, I don’t think we’re all that different from each other after all.

Jakarta to Palu


Flight Time 2 hours 55 minutes

Frequency 7 flights per week

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From Colours April 2016

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5 Senses – Taste
JUNGLE FRESH

It seems all you need is a blowgun and some Wana expertise, and you can bring home a haul of protein-rich mammals from a day’s hunt. Morowali is home to wild boar, anoa, babirusa, monkey, bear, deer, grey fox, and a variety of bat families. For 36 years now, these protected forests have preserved the wildlife, birdlife and flora and have provided protection for the Wana people to continue to live with all the meat, fish and crops they need.