As we headed out of Raha on rutted roads and made our way into the interior of Muna Island, I peered out of the car window, passing villages and hoping for a glimpse of a stallion. Latugo Village on Muna Island is where, word has it, most of the island’s horse tamers live, and it followed that where there were trainers, there would be stallions.
The ritual practice of stallion fighting has been part of life on Muna since ancient times. My guide Fernandes explained, “Stallion fighting maintains the culture of the tribal ancestors. We have a history and culture which goes back over 30,000 years. A horse fight represents a show of masculine virility in a fight over a woman. The winner acquires prestige and higher stratification. It is seen as a symbol of Government, regarding toughness and authority along with good governance,” he continued, “Muna culture is a proud one, and stallion fighting means more to us than meets the eye. We pay homage to the tribal ancestors, and besides, everyone loves a good horse fight,” he said with a wide grin.
After talking to a local policeman and stopping at several houses in the village, we grew weary and disillusioned in our search. At one house we sat waiting for one official to finish his breakfast, which took an extraordinarily long time, only to be told that all horse tamers had disappeared into the jungle to round up the wild horses.
Once captured, the horses are brought into town for some horse whispering and primed for their fight. However, the problem with wild horses and scheduled events (which draw huge crowds) is that the horses must first be captured. Muna horses live in groups isolated from each other, so the horse tamer must track down his particular group, not someone else’s. After an exhaustive morning looking for horses and horse tamers, Fernandes sincerely apologized, “I am sorry you cannot meet a horse tamer today, but I can fill you in on stallion fighting rituals which take place all over Muna”. “Once the horses are brought into the fighting ring, the two stallions face each other for the first time. When the female horse is brought into the ring, she belongs to one of the opposing horse-clans. The two stallions rise on their hind legs in a show of manhood. The hoof-hoof combat is all about jealously,” he went on to explain, “There is no cruelty involved and a supervisor is present at all times – the horse tamer. The interesting thing is these two stallions have never met before, but the filly belongs to one of the group, so it’s a standoff of sorts. The horses never fight to the death or anything as dramatic as that. One overpowers the other, and the loser runs off, a little rejected,” he continued, “It’s very exciting to watch, and there is a fair bit of enthusiastic horse kicking that goes on and a bit of biting too, and if the males get too hot-headed they are separated by the horse tamer. A fight can last up to one hour. Stallion fighting has been going on since pre-Islamic times,” he said.
Muna is an island steeped in horse history, and evidence of this can be seen in some of the caves just 1.5 hours out of Raha, the main town, at a small village called Bolo. The caves are 39,500 years old and house some of the oldest cave drawings in the world. The first cave is an overhang, and the well-preserved red stick-like drawings depict domestic life from time immemorial including scenes of horses, people, pigs, dogs and some hand stencils. The second cave is much larger with a 20-metre chamber full of stalactites and stalagmites covered in a dark green stain. Again, there are many beautifully preserved cave drawings of dogs and pigs in here as well as many depictions of the sun and large horse-like creatures with riders on top.
Mr La Hada was waiting for us at the mouth of the first large cave. “Thank you for coming,” he said in a welcoming tone, “I am the cave keeper, and we have 19 caves in total here. There are only nine caves opened to the public, though”. As he spoke he rummaged through his bag and brought out a dog-eared visitors book. “Please sign this,” he said.
On inspection, I noted in the last five years there had only been ten foreign visitors. Most had stated their occupation as teacher. Muna gets very few tourists which was obvious from the fact that we were booked into the best hotel in Raha, at a price of USD 35. Tourism is yet to hit this place.
As a consequence, the locals were intrigued to see us and made a big fuss. Exchanging with the locals was a total delight. We seemed to gather an instant crowd everywhere we went. We were always asked a string of questions and of course, our newfound friends needed at least five different photos of us, with different angles. They jostled for position and took turns standing next to us. A tirade of jokes was released in succession to ease a bit of nervousness, but soon enough we were all like happy families and hugging them all like long lost friends and doing a “sad face” when we had to go. Out of the main town, it was a little different. Not all the people we met were bold and outspoken. At one remote village, the locals were so shy, they giggled and ran and hid behind their houses. Moments like these remain etched in my soul and is the reason why I love to travel to lesser-known places in Indonesia.
Mr La Hada explained more about the caves. A team of archeologists first came to Muna from Jakarta around 1844. Before this, it was prohibited to show the caves to anyone. The caves are fascinating not only for the 316 drawings and hand stencils but also for the fact that Mr La Hada, keeper of the cave since 1992, told me about the unexpected small people that visit most afternoons. “We call them Jins,” he said, “They are mischievous spirit entities and usually make trouble. They throw stones and larger rocks and cause me quite a bother,” he continued with a completely straight face. “There are several of them, and I have to be very patient with them because a Jin can jump inside you, you know.” I was fascinated by this and asked if one had ever got inside him, “Oh no, they are afraid of me. I put them in their place. I do not fear them at all,” he said in a matter-of-fact tone.
When Mr La Hada is not tending to the lowly spirit entities or greeting visitors at the caves, he is farming his sago, cashew and corn crops. I left the caves around 4.pm and casually asked as I was leaving what time the Jins show up, “Oh, about now. Always in the afternoon around 4 pm, ” he said, “But they don’t like people, and they won’t make an appearance if there is too much noise or lots of people here”. I was pleased to be on my way, as I glanced at my watch and quickened my pace, passing by an offering pyre of food with a tall pole and white flag on top to attract the attention of resident spirits.
We continued our journey, following a series of large billboards announcing the Muna Island Festival. The posters promoted stallion fighting, but alas, the horses were not to be found. We did manage to attend day one of the festival and arrived in time for the official opening, which comprised a huge line up of Government officials including legislative committee members, the Chief of Police, the Bupati (head of Regency) and other dignities of Muna. Since the horses could not be found, a traditional boat race was scheduled that afternoon.
On arrival, we were given VIP seats in the front row, and once the dignitaries had arrived, we were invited to come up to the microphone and sing Karaoke. We politely declined (because neither of us can sing) and sat through about 45 minutes of speeches. During this string of speeches, free lunch boxes came shuffling down the line. The whole time the speeches were rolling out, we became the front line of the Muna paparazzi. All the officials whipped out their mobiles and snapped away, like we held some kind of celebrity status, which I guess we did, judging by the last visitor’s book entry attesting to the fact that very few tourists come to Muna. After lunch and a few lengthy ballads and folk songs, sung by Government officials in starch-pressed uniforms with shiny buttons, we ended up with 20-odd Facebook friends in about ten minutes. We spent the rest of the afternoon merrily mingling with the locals while watching the boat races and being entertained by a few candy-floss bearing locals and a group of punk-rockers with mohawks and studded leathers.
Driving on the way back from the festival we passed a wild horse, in the thickets of the jungle nonchalantly munching on some roadside grass. The highlight of the day, one Muna stallion! Now, if only I had a rope and some horse whispering talent. It was apparent that the wild stallions of Muna do not acquiesce to a date scheduled on a calendar. We would have to return to catch the horse fighting another day.