Maros-Pangkep Karsts (Leang-Leang Karsts)
If there’s one thing you shouldn’t miss in Sulwesi it’s the Leang-Leang karsts in the Maros Regency of South Sulawesi. The karsts form part of the 45,000 hectare Maros-Pangkep karst mountain range, officially the world’s third largest karst area after Tsingy in Madagascar and Shilin in China.
Lying amid the rice growing basin of the Maros River, they tower like limestone sentinels lording over the watery riverscape and vast emerald green rice paddy’s. The approach by canoe (optional) along one of the river tributaries is simply breathtaking, but these ancient formations also hide an archaeological treasure trove of prehistoric art.
Archaeologists have recorded five caves (Pettae, Petta Kere, Pasaung, Saripa and Karrasa) containing prehistoric rock art galleries but there are hundreds more scattered around the region that are yet to be formally examined. Using isotopic dating methods, archaeologists have estimated the age of the paintings at between 35,000 – 40,000 years old, placing them in the same era as some of Europe’s oldest cave paintings and those of the Australian Aborigines.
The best known of the galleries is found in Petta Kere Cave, which has around 30 well preserved red and white hand prints just inside the cave entrance, strategically placed to ward off evil spirits. Some of the hand prints are missing a thumb, indicating the practise of cutting off a finger when an important tribal elders dies; a rather gruesome tradition that is still practised today among some West Papuan tribes. In addition to the hand prints there’s a red ochre painting of a boar, several small niches off the main chamber presumed to have been sleeping places for the cave’s prehistoric residents and some interesting stalactite and stalagmite formations. During excavations of the cave, archaeologists have recovered flint blades and arrow heads and middens containing shells and animal bones, the remains of thousands of meals but the hunter-gatherer tribes.
In addition to the caves and rock art, closer examination of scattered limestone and andesite volcanic rocks around the Leang-Leang area reveals that they appear to have been deliberately arranged, presumably for ritualistic purposes. Local villages claim they’ve never dared to move them for fear of upsetting whatever sacred spirit or ancestor the rocks pay homage to.
There are two access points for the Leang-Leang karsts, both very close together. To visit Petta Kere and Pettae caves and see the sacred stone arrangements, head to the Leang-Leang Prehistoric Park on the outskirts of Maros town. There’s an entrance fee of 10.000Rp per person and a parking fee of 3.000Rp but you will be assigned a knowledgeable guide to accompany you around the site. Note, the entrance to Pettakere Cave is 30m above the rice field using a bamboo ladder; not something for the faint hearted.
The second access point is only 20min drive away at Rammang Rammang village (confusingly it’s listed as Salenrang village on most maps). To reach the karsts in this region, you need to head down the small river dock and charter a motorised canoe to take you 15-20min along the Penuh River to Desa Berua, a tiny hamlet of traditional wooden houses called “rumah panggung,” surrounded by water, karsts and rice paddies.
A short 20min trek from the boat landing into the karst area follows a narrow, sometimes muddy path through the rice fields and some scrambling and stooping is required once you’re inside the karsts and to access Pasaung Cave, so good, sturdy footwear is essential. There aren’t as many cave paintings in this section of the Leang-Leang karsts but the scenery along the river and walking into the karsts is fabulous.
Fixed price return boat charters to/from Desa Berua cost 250.000Rp and carry a maximum of 5 passengers. A caretaker at the dock will collect a 10.000Rp entrance fee and assign a guide who will likely expect a tip after your tour.