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New Year's day of the dead

A strange, haunting culture; a boldly beautiful island - but, writes Harriet O'Brien, these were not the only ingredients that made New Year in Sulawesi so striking.

Death and renewal: that New Year the neat symbolism was almost faultless. The old year went out with the slaughter of pigs and buffaloes. By chance the new one came in with a resounding dance of regeneration. And in the midst of it all we became the bearers of great good fortune.

It was at the tail end of one December that we arrived in Tanah Toraja, a stunningly pretty region more or less in the middle of Sulawesi. This extraordinary, spider-shaped island lies north-east of Java in the huge, straggling archipelago that is Indonesia. Among the many ethnic groups on the island are the Torajans, or "men of the mountains", who occupy a large area that for centuries remained isolated because of its hilly, rugged landscape.

It was largely due to Tanah Toraja's remoteness that the arrival of Islam in the rest of Indonesia made little headway here. For the most part the people remained cheerful, pork-eating, palm-wine-drinking animists, although they acquired a thin coating of Christianity courtesy of Dutch missionaries around the end of the last century.

Very thin, you'd be forgiven for thinking. As foreigners living in Indonesia's capital, Jakarta, we had heard a great deal about the Torajans' elaborate funeral rites and eerie-looking effigies of the dead that stand, life size, looking out over ancestral lands. A decade or so ago the area was still pretty much unvisited by tourists, so it was with a sense of pioneering zeal that two of us set out to explore.

At Ujung Pandang, the main gateway to Sulawesi, we hired a car and twisted our way through lush, jungly country of gigantic creepers and up sculpted hillsides of rice terraces to Rantepao, the Torajan capital and a convenient base from which to visit some of the villages and grave sites of the area.

Traditionally, Torajans live in groups of longhouses. Perched on stilts, these look appealingly ethnic; the outside walls are finely carved and painted; the striking, neatly thatched roofs slope up to a gable at each end - symbolising, so we were told, buffalo horns. And this, you quickly discover, is definitely buffalo country: such farm animals represent not just wealth but also enormous prestige. In each village it is easy to identify the headman's house from the large number of buffalo horns that are festooned along a central, outside pillar. The overall effect looks almost voodoo-ish - in total contrast to the people who, when we visited, seemed genuinely delighted to welcome strangers.

You get a similar feeling at the Torajan graves, where on balconies, often set high up on limestone cliffs, models of the noble dead silently stare out at you. From a distance they look hauntingly sinister. On closer inspection you realise that far from being grim, many look touchingly human. Some may seem a little haughty - but then these were rich people; it is only the wealthy who can afford the huge cost of commemorating their relatives like this.

Funerals, too, are expensive. Back at Rantepao, arrangements were well under way for the burial of a local nobleman. A long procession of people snaked up the roadsides, some bearing great bamboo cylinders containing palm wine, others leading large, compliant-looking buffaloes, and yet more carrying fat little pigs strung up between bamboo poles. Would we like to attend a day of the ceremonies, we were asked. No, no, we were told, you mustn't feel intrusive: this would be a big, public occasion.

And so it turned out: after all it wasn't as though we were bursting in on recent, private grief. The man had died some time before and a quiet ceremony had been performed, as is local custom. He had then been embalmed, his body preserved until his family could amass sufficient funds to give him a splendid send-off lasting several days.

It was quite some event. We joined several hundred guests in the large funeral enclosure which was presided over by the dead man himself, lying in a pavilion topped with a Torajan thatched roof. Several other pavilions had also been erected for the close family and honoured guests - of whom, it transpired, we were two. Feeling bemused by the sheer scale of the occasion, we were ushered into the women's pavilion where we sat on bamboo mats among other quietly chatting guests, and were offered betel nut and clove cigarettes presented in silver boxes. Meanwhile long lines of people were arriving with their gifts: the wine, the pigs, the buffaloes.

Then we were taken to meet the chief mourners, an event that remains a blur in my mind since shortly afterwards we were doubly honoured by witnessing the sacrifice of the first buffalo. The great grey creature was swiftly dispatched, his head held back as a large machete was plunged into his throat. In the background we could hear squeals as several of the pigs met a similar fate. We smiled as bravely as we could and tried to feel duly grateful.

That evening, my head swirling with visions of slaughtered beasts and images of effigies, I crawled into bed at 9.30pm. It was New Year's Eve.

The next morning our driver announced that he would take us "somewhere special". It was a day out that, in typically sociable, Indonesian style, first involved driving around town scooping up assorted friends and relations. Where exactly were we going, we asked, once the car was cheerfully crowded with jolly day-trippers? To see the most spectacular, panoramic view in the whole of Indonesia, we were told enthusiastically.

This seemed optimistic. The overcast sky was darkening with rain clouds, and as we headed up the hills the mist got denser. The friends and relations chatted while we glumly tried to imagine the sight of magnificently terraced hills that undoubtedly lay out there. Then the car screeched to a halt and the friends and relations tumbled out, excitedly crying "quickly, quickly, we're in luck".

We followed them across the road, past a village, and found ourselves in a grassy expanse surrounded by an arcade cleverly constructed out of palm leaves. In the middle of it were three poles decorated with coils of cloth, a sort of maypole arrangement around which women wearing chaplets of limes and fantastic, heavy jewellery were dancing to drums. This, one of the friends whispered tremulously, was a rare Torajan "white" ceremony. Two headmen, we later discovered, had recently recovered from severe illness and so a thanksgiving celebration was in full swing.

We had only minutes to enjoy the ebullient scene before the skies opened. As large drops of rain started falling, the poles were whipped out of the ground and everyone scarpered en masse. We were swept along in the hurry and fetched up at the village schoolroom, where the assembled, smiling crowd carefully began disrobing the poles.

We were crestfallen: what a pity, we said, that the celebrations had to end. Not at all, one of the lime ladies replied. This is most auspicious. Strangers are lucky, the rain is good - and, after all, you brought it with you.

We never did see the view that day, but it turned out to be a hell of a good year.

Getting there: there no direct flights between the UK and Sulawesi; the quickest route is via Jakarta. Return Heathrow-Jakarta flights on Gulf Air are currently available for pounds 495 through Bridge the World (0171- 911 0900). The Jakarta-Ujung Pandang fare on Merpati is pounds 252 return.

Red tape: no visas are required for short-term visits by British passport holders, although passports do need to be valid for at least six months.

Further information: Indonesian Tourist Promotion Office, 3/4 Hanover Street, London W1R 9HH (0171-493 0030).