It was still dark when Nona Kandola (30), Lisnadenani (23) and DhimasRizky (37), left their hotel in North Toraja on December 27 at around 4 a.m. Central Indonesian Time. The travelers from Jakarta and Makassar were heading to Lolai.
Lolai is a highland in To'tombi, Mamullu village, Kapala Pitu district, some 20 kilometers away from North Toraja capital Rantepao in South Sulawesi. That dawn, their vehicle joined other cars and motors on a narrow and twisty road toward the Lolai highland. Some stopped in To'tombi, others continued their journey to Lempe, still in Lolai. The travelers came to witness the thick rolling white fog that looks like clouds.
The travelers coming from North Toraja that morning, or others who stayed in To'tombi or Lempe, were cloud hunters. Almost every morning between 5:30 a.m. and 9 a.m., the valley in Lolai is filled with thick white fog covering the entire valley. Travelers feel as if they are standing on clouds. This is why Lolai holds the famous nickname of "A Land above the Clouds".
Toraja remains a major tourist destination in South Sulawesi. South Sulawesi tourism agency's 2016 data show that the province received eight million domestic travelers and 250,000 foreign travelers. A majority of them visited Toraja.
Since last year, Lolai became a new tourist magnet in Toraja. The villages that used to be quiet and overlooked by travelers are now bustling with visitors coming in day in and day out.
At first, the locals were shocked and unprepared. However, they then saw this change as an opportunity. Many chose to open their doors and their arms to greet the increasingly large number of travelers.
The Tongkonan Lempe region, which used to be a quiet place, is now filed with lines of food and beverage stalls. A few tongkonan (traditional Toraja houses) are converted into homestays for travelers. The yards are now filled with tents and camping equipment for rent.
Tabitha Sattu (30) is among the locals who saw the opportunity the clouds of Lolai had to offer. At first, she established a simple four-square-meter food stall. She then built a simple stilt house with a few rooms to rent. "It is good that I have additional income. Previously, my husband was the only one with a source of income in the family. We used to rely only on our garden's produce. Nowadays, I can make banana fritters out of our unsold bananas. Better than letting them go bad," she said.
The local government facilitates the locals' involvement in managing local tourism facilities in Tongkonan Lempe, including kiosks, rented rooms, parking areas and entrance tickets. Other than for locals' income, the tourism revenue is also used to repair village facilities, including roads.
Residents of other areas also take advantage of this opportunity. To'tombi resident Aviv Tallulembang (50), who had resided in Makassar since his college days, for instance, chose to bring his wife and children home to his village. He said that he was called to guide the locals in developing the local tourism.
"There are many simple things, including preserving the environment and maintaining cleanliness, being polite and wearing a smile and managing existing resources that we could work on to increase our added value. Sustainability is also important. In the future, I want people to come here not only to enjoy the clouds but also to enjoy the sunset and the village as a whole," he said.
Aviv asked the locals to manage To'tombi. Locals are asked to build gazebos and food and beverage stalls on a two-hectare area of land. The land, owned by Aviv's parents, was opened as a paragliding location.
Six-square-meter gazebos with roofs made of sago leaves were constructed. They are rented at Rp 300,000 (US$22.5) per night. Local youths then joined in by purchasing dozens of tents that are rented at Rp 100,000 per night.
Other locals are asked to sell their gardens' produce, including bananas, cassava, rice and coffee, at the food and beverage stalls. Together with community leaders and elders, Aviv counseled the locals to improve their community and make it a proper tourist destination.
"I asked them to repair their homes and to have at least one room to rent during peak season. It was difficult to add more gazebos as the land area is limited and we do not want to convert the forest or farms into accommodation areas," he said.
Aviv then asked the locals to process their gardens' produce into snacks that could be sold as souvenirs. He also taught organic farming to the locals, in the hope that the results could provide a new commodity to give the farms added value. The response thus far has been positive. Village and farm improvement efforts are ongoing.
Rantepao subdistrict head Marthen Panggalo said that Lolai's economic impact goes beyond the region. "Rantepao is packed nowadays. Public minivans and motorcycle taxis travel between Rantepao and Lolai many times a day these days. Before, local transportation was only for children going to school and people going to the market. This is all because of the clouds. Hotels in Rantepao are often fully-booked these days as the clouds become increasingly famed," he said.
The fog, which used to be seen as ordinary, is now a major selling point for Lolai. Upon the clouds, the people place their hopes for better lives. (Reny Sri Ayu)