Maros Pangkep Karst Forest in Sulawesi

Stencil artist Banksy might sell his work for millions, but the craft is nothing new. In fact, it’s about the oldest form of human expression there is. And in the spectacular Maros Pangkep Karst Forest in Indonesia, you can see what is thought to be some of the earliest stencil art ever created, pre-dating even that of the famous Chauvet cave in France.
The Maros Pangkep Karst Forest is spread across a vast area of land around 50km north of the city of Makassar in south Sulawesi – making it a convenient daytrip. It’s referred to as a ‘forest’ because of the clusters of gigantic limestone cliffs jutting dramatically up from the rice paddies at 90 degrees, some of them up to 100m in height. This is the second largest karst area in the world (the largest is in China), and incredibly photogenic. Visitors can explore the landscape either on foot, often from the village of Rammang-Rammang, or in a canoe along the river, which is perhaps the best way to appreciate the immense scale of the rocks at a languid pace.
Much of the karst falls within the Bantimurung–Bulusaraung National Park, a popular weekend getaway for local people. The park is famed for a gorgeous waterfall and the number of butterflies that live there – over 250 species have been recorded. There are also nearly 300 caves in the park, many of them prehistoric, and in a handful you can go tubing on an underground river.

Maros Pangkep cave art

The Leang Leang caves of Maros Pangkep are on UNESCO’s prospective list of World Heritage Sites. As late as 1950, a Dutch archaeologist discovered artwork on the walls here that is thought to date back around 40,000 years, making it some of the oldest ever found.

Access to the Leang Leang caves is by ladder up from the rice fields. Inside, it can get as hot as 27°C. The primitive art takes the form of a number of hand prints, and images of animals such as fruit-eating babirusas – Indonesian pig-deer with fearsome tusks – most likely a popular prey species of the artists. One theory is that the creators of the rock art were hunter gatherers, taking shelter in the caves during the rainy season. As some of the hand prints are found at the cave entrances, they may represent a mark of occupancy.
There are around 12 images in total across seven caves among the stalagmites and stalactites. The red and white images were made by people blowing out red pigment around their hands which were placed on the rock surface. Some of the hands have a missing finger or thumb – some Indonesian tribes, particularly the Dani, have a tradition of lopping off the top of a woman’s finger whenever an elder dies.
Making art is one of the traits that separate humans from the other animals, but the early figurative rock art of Sulawesi is more than that. It’s a statement: ‘I was here’, a high five across the centuries.

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Kate from our Indonesia travel experts Selective Asia on exploring the Maros Pangkep karst forest: “On arrival at the village of Rammang-Rammang we begin our exploration of the area on foot, keeping cameras close at hand to capture shots of the incredible scenery. During the walk there will also be an opportunity to view some of the ancient cave drawings, and we stop in a local village too, where a family hosts us for a traditional lunch. Afterwards, we often take a local canoe ride along the river back to where the car is waiting, for another take on this dramatic karst landscape.”
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Anhar Karim] [Top box: Midori] [Cave art: Australian Embassy Jakarta] [Bantimurung cave: 22Kartika]