Lake Tempe, Sulawesi

Danau (Lake) Tempe is the second biggest on the island of Sulawesi, and one of the biggest in all Indonesia, spanning 350km2 during the wet season when much of the surrounding landscape floods. While travelers don’t tend to spend a lot of time here, it’s a popular stopover on the route between Makassar and the Tana Torajah region because of the opportunity to visit the famous floating fishing village on the lake.
With more than 20 rivers flowing into it, this vast, shallow lake is teeming with freshwater fish, which has enabled a small community to live and work on it for generations. Some 30 families make their homes on the lake itself, in simple wooden houses that seldom benefit from electricity or running water. The houses are built over bamboo rafts, anchored in place for stability by poles that are driven into the lake bed. When the water level falls, the houses on the edge move closer to the center, and as each raft gradually rots away every couple of years, another is simply built on top of it.
The lake is fringed with maze-like villages built on stilts to cope with the fluctuating water level, and dotted with pretty hyacinths and lilies. There are over 20 species of water bird to be seen here as well as migratory species. Tall, slender trees jut strikingly out of the water.

Lives on the lake

Just as all of the houses rotate in the same direction with the wind, so the lives of these families revolve entirely around the lake. The fishermen ply their trade, casting nets and rods, pulling traps, setting up bamboo fences, drying the fish in the sunshine, and then selling their catch at the markets in the historic lakeside town of Sengkang. The women wash clothes in and draw water for cooking from the lake. The children go to a floating school in the daytime, then when they return they swim in the lake, or play football on a floating pitch. It’s a lifestyle where families are rooted to their communities but not so rooted that they can’t simply tow their house somewhere else if they get tired of their neighbours.

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Visiting Lake Tempe

Sengkang, on the eastern shore of Lake Tempe, is a bustling market town, once capital of a Bugis kingdom, with a booming silk industry. The clacking of the looms is constant, and it’s a great place to pick up some beautiful souvenirs. It’s from Sengkang that most boat trips depart to explore the floating village – motorised wooden canoes, quite nippy boats, take an hour or so to reach the village, which gives you some idea of just how large the lake is.
On arriving in the village, you’ll climb ashore and be welcomed with tea and plates of fried banana, then be invited to explore a little. It’s a very interesting way to learn about a quite fascinating and eminently practical lifestyle. Why commute to work every day when you can make your home right next to the catch?
Photographers will love the light here in the early mornings and late afternoons. The best time to visit Lake Tempe is in August. This is when the annual Maccera Tappareng festival is held to ‘purify’ the lake. Beside the traditional slaughtering of cows there are exciting dragon boat races, kite-flying competitions and music and dance performances.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Jorge Franganillo] [Top box: Jorge Franganillo] [Lives on the lake: Jorge Franganillo] [Visiting the lake: Jorge Franganillo]
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