EAST AND SOUTH KALIMANTAN
EAST AND SOUTH KALIMANTAN
Stay close to the earth, where white water rapids, montane forests and wildlife rule. Overnight stays in longhouses allow glimpses of a simple existence led by Borneo’s myriad river-fed villages
Kalimantan Timur (East Kalimantan), or Kaltim for short, is one of the two most popular destinations in Indonesia Borneo. The province is huge, embracing the Mahakam river and its various tributaries as well as several river basins to the north. With over 200,000 sq km (77,000 sq miles), the district covers an area the size of England and Scotland combined. Yet it holds only 1½ million people, many of whom are farmers from Java who arrived during the government’s transmigration scheme.
Much of the land is uninhabited jungle, and the population is primarily concentrated in the coastal areas. In addition to oil, Kaltim also produces natural gas, processed into methanol at Bontang. However, most jobs are in the timber industry, which has been booming since the early 1970s. The province also exports gold, coal, shrimp, pepper and other agricultural products.
Balikpapan is the usual port of entry to Kaltim. This busy oil and timber town, with a population of nearly 500,000, holds little interest for travelers unless they are on business. One can take in the hilltop view of Pertamina’s sprawling oil installations, do some souvenir shopping and sample local nightlife in the company of burly oil workers. But that is all. Independent travelers head straight to Samarinda by air or via the 115-km (70-mile) paved road to begin their journeys up the great Sungai Mahakam.
Samarinda, with about 300,000 people, is the jumping-off point for visits to Dayak country and the capital of Kaltim province. There is not much to see here. To soak in local culture, an interesting activity is to hire a boat and observe activity along the water front: freighters loading or discharging, coal barges being shoved around, rafts of logs under tow to nearby lumber mills. Early morning or late afternoon hours are best for these jaunts. Half a day is enough in Samarinda, giving you enough time to check out schedules for planes or boats heading inland.
Sungai Mahakam trips
Tour packages, which can be arranged in Balikpapan or Samarinda, are the easiest way to traverse the Mahakam in search of Dayak folk, with some offering overnight stays either on houseboats outfitted for tourists or in longhouses set up for such visitors. The houseboats are large and comfortable. Some of them provide amenities such as air-conditioning, fresh water showers, modern toilets and satellite television.
For all river boats, the first major stop out of Samarinda is Tenggarong, the former sultan’s capital about 2-2½ hours away. Along the way, look out for sawmills and barges laden with coal – evidence of two of Kaltim’s major industries – and daily activities in riverside villages. There is a museum housing Ming dynasty ceramics and Dayak handicrafts that is worth a visit.
Alternatively, a new toll road links Samarinda to Tenggarong. The drive takes about 30 minutes, and the tour allows travelers to visit Tenggarong’s museum and then join a cruise boat for short trips on the Mahakam or longer cruisers upriver. One of the Mahakam islands, Pulau Kumala, is also under development. A resort, a sky tower and lift are already operating on the island. Dayak longhouses, other cultural attractions and a lake containing freshwater dolphins will open soon on the island.
Tenggarong is also home to the Erau festival, held every 22-28 September, which celebrates the founding of the town and honours former royalty. Dayak come from miles away to perform traditional dances and recreate pagan rituals such as funeral ceremonies, contrasting greatly to the more sedate dances of the moslem from Kutai who don their best ceremonial costumes for the occasion.
The next major stop, Kota Bangun, lies 6 hours upstream from Tenggarong and is the last chance to experience accommodation with modern conveniences. It is also the last place that can be reached by road. From here, travelers can hire a motorized canoe into the hinterland of Kalimantan upstream.
The riverside town Muara Muntai, 2-3 hours from Kota Bangun, is home to both Kubai Dayak and transmigrants from Java and other places in the archipelago. It is also the point of departure for exploring the mid-Mahakam lakes region, the beginning of Dayak country. Small motorized canoes for the 2-hour run to Tanjung Isuy, a Dayak village on Danau Jempang, often called Green Lake due to massive amounts of a rampant water weed. Welcome rituals and dances are often put on for tourists here by the locals, the most popular destination in the Kaltim area. At the village of Mancong, a rebuilt lamin (longhouse) with 24 doors – the only two-storey longhouse in Kalimantan – gives an idea of past splendours. There has been a communal house on this site for more than 300 years.
Melak, 3 hours away, either by air, foot or motorized canoe, marks the first stop within Dayak-dominated areas. Travellers to the village are served by several losmen and foodstalls which offer simple meals.
There is a local road system out of Melak with transport (usually jeeps or motorcycles) for visiting the Kersik Luwai orchid reserve, and its 100-plus species or orchids, including the famous “black” variety, as well a nearby Dayak villages with lived-in longhouses. Ask around if you wish to witness a funeral ceremony in progress; the rituals feature the sacrifice of a water buffalo performed with spears.
Upriver from Melak is Barong Tongkok, where the nearest authentic longhouses are located. Beneath the T-shirts and shorts worn by most villagers in the area beat the hearts of followers of the traditional religion, Kaharingan. Influenced by Hinduism, Kaharingan focuses on the supernatural world of spirits. There is a losmen in Barong Tongkok, or ask the kepala desa (village chief) for permission to stay in a longhouse.
Six hours upstream from Melak, year-round river navigation stops at Long Iram, a week or so out of Samarinda and more than 400 km (250 miles) from the coast. Some of the larger passenger boats make the Samarinda-Long Iram run in about 36 hours, have bunks and mattresses for a small surcharge, and kitchens serving simple meals. Several larger riverside towns offer basic accommodation and their restaurants serve rice-based meals. Beyond Long Iram, there is only the hospitality of the Dayak or government officials. Many of the Dayak in this area, and also further upstream, belong to the Roman Catholic church, which tolerates and even encourages some traditional rituals.
If the river level is not too low – or too high, in the event of a flood – cargo and passenger boats can reach Long Bagun in a matter of 4-6 hours from Long Iram. Several Dayak groups are settled along this stretch of the Mahakam, including the Kenyah, who are known for their huge sculptures and painting in communal buildings.
Beyond Long Bagun, logistics may be a problem because a series of rapids choke off most river travel, with only an occasional powerful twin-outboard longboat roaring through. Chartering a boat may entail a long wait. It is a great experience, but unless one has plenty of time, the best way to reach the upper most area of the Mahakam is to fly from Samarinda to Data Dawai, a landing strip near Long Lunuk village. From Data Dawai, to go upriver to Long Ampari, the last village on the Mahakam.
For Kaltim’s Apokayan region, near the border of Sarawak and homeland of the Kenyah Dayak, air travel is the only means of access, other than weeks of trekking. Be warned that flights are often delayed or cancelled, and it is advisable to avoid this scenario if time schedules are tight.
Located on the uppermost reaches of the Sungai Kayan, a dozen villages are strung out on either side of the landing strip at Long Ampung. Due to its isolation and difficulty in obtaining essentials (soap, medicines, cooking oil), most of the Apokayan’s inhabitants have migrated to more accessible locations. Those who remain usually live in longhouses, and the prolific artwork of the Kenyah is still in evidence. There are good trails for trekking and distances between villages can be covered in a few hours.
Among the highlights are Long Uro, a 2-hour walk from Long Ampung, where there are Dayak carvings in front of the village and a cemetery. An easy hour’s walk away is Long Lindung Payau with its ancient stone relics.
The last human settlement on the Sungai Kenyah, Long Sungai Barang, is a demanding 4-hour walk over hills and through jungles. On a lake surrounded by mountains, Long Sungai Barang is an excellent place to rest for a few days and gather new strength for the trip back to “civilization”.
Although the chances of spotting wildlife are fairly good on bikes in the Apokayan and the upper Mahakam areas, your best option is the Kutai National Park on the east coast.
To get there, travel either by road from Samarinda, or fly from Balikpapan to Bontang, a natural gas plant on the coast. At Bontang, contact the park office so that they will radio ahead to the rangers. From Bontang, take a motorized canoe to Sangatta for the best wildlife viewing, which is along the river. The principal attraction there is the orangutan, but there are also 60 species of mammals and 300 species of birds, including proboscis monkeys, deer and hornbills – a symbol of the upperworld to the Dayak people – as well as monitor lizards, crocodiles, pythons, mangroves and orchids. The park offers only the most basic and essential of facilities.
Kalimantan Selatan (South Kalimantan), or Kalsel, often called the “Land of A Thousand Rivers”, is a small, swampy province on the south-east coast. There are frequent flights to the capital city, Banjarmasin, famous, for its colourful floating markets and bustling canals. The majority of Kalsel’s people are banjarese. Largely moslem, with a sprinkling of Protestants and Catholics, the banjarese are strict adherents to their religion, with thousands making the pilgrimage to Mecca each year. Modest dress is required while traveling in the region.
Kalsel grows a surplus of rice, which is exported to other areas of Indonesia, but its timber is the major export. It also produces rubber and rattan, which is processed into furniture and lampit (hand-plaited carpets) and exported overseas. Kalsel also produces and exports diamonds, gold, coal, granite and oil, along with resins and birds’ nests – the latter of which is prized by the Chinese.
Crisscrossed by rivers and tributaries, Banjarmasin teeters and the brink of sea level, dipping below that when the tide is in. Perched on the banks of the intersection of the Martapura and Barito rivers, lanting (floating houses) line the waterways, water taxis ply the riverine “highways” and jukung (dugout canoes) replace streetside shops.
There are a couple of places (under the Yani bridge and at Kuin Pertamina) where travelers can rent klotok (motorized canoes) to tour Banjarmasin and the Sungai Barito. Start early for one of the floating markets. Pasar Terapung, 30 minutes from town, is the most famous and has been bobbing along the Sungai Kuin for 400 years. It gets underway before dawn and the activity peters out a couple of hours after sunrise. Produce is brought from villages in small boats and sold to female vendors paddling canoes. The women then glide through the canals to sell fruit, vegetables and fish to housewives whose front (or back) doors open onto the water. There are also little boats serving light refreshments, such as coffee, tea and snacks for those who require a quick breakfast.
Worth a look further upstream on Sungai Barito are traditional lumber mills; the modern mills are located downstream. On the mighty Barito, which is navigable 500 km (310 miles) inland and is more than a kilometer (¾ -mile) wide in places, is Kembang island, 10 minutes away by klotok. It houses a chinese shrine believed to have the ability to bring good health and prosperity, as well as scores of sacred long-tailed macaques.
Closer to town, the Martapura or the Barito are good places to experience riverside life at its bustling best. Take a klotok or a bis air (water bus) up a branch of the Sungai Martapura just beyond the Trisakti docks – which are for large ships – to see a modern lumber mill, where cranes lift enormous felled trees out of the river.
A short way up the Martapura, open-fronted stores sell brightly – coloured plastic items to water – borne shoppers. Housewives gossip and exchange pleasantries as they handle laundry chores, while naked children bathe. Such scenes are part of the daily comings and goings of the banjarese.
A bit further, graceful bugis-style schooners are constructed from sturdy ironwood along the riverbank. Just beyond, there is an all-night fish market and a red-light district. Sunsets on the rivers can be bewitching.
The ultra-modern Mesjid Raya Sabilal Muhtadin (Grand Mosque) rests on land formerly occupied by a Dutch fortress and is one of Asia’s largest places of worship. Its metallic flying saucer-shaped dome is clearly visible from the river, and a visit inside is very rewarding. Beautifully-finished stone panels with copper inlaid inscriptions from the Koran line an open space for praying. Doors and windows are decorated with reliefs taken from traditional banjarese designs. As when visiting any mosque, dress modestly (women should have their knees and arms covered) and remove footwear before entering.
Gemstones and gold panning
At Cempaka, about 45 km (28 miles) from Banjarmasin, workers dig shafts 10-15 metres (33-49 ft) deep, shored up with bamboo scaffolding outfitted with steps where men – usually family members – wait down-hole to pass baskets of soil, clay and gravel to the surface. The search is for precious and semi precious gems, and they hope to duplicate the 1965 find of the 100-plus carat trisakti diamond. Attentive women puddle the dirt, sift it through a screen, then pan it, watching with experienced eyes for even the smallest diamonds, sapphires, amethysts, garnets and gold. In the nearby town of Martapura, the gems, called galuh (princess), are cut and polished. Some stones purchased in this area have been appraised in the west at a higher value than what was paid, but nevertheless, prospective buyers should shop with reputable dealers, paying particular attention to quality.
For another look at mining, 65 km (40 miles) south-east of Banjarmasin in Pelaihari is a gold mining region started by chinese settlers at the request of the king of Banjar six centuries ago.
While Banjarmasin may be the only city in Kalimantan worth visiting for its own merits, adventure is another reason for stopping over in kalsel. Unless relatively fluent in Bahasa Indonesia, the national language, an organized tour with an english-speaking guide is recommended.
Travel agents in Banjarmasin have some outstanding itineraries. Ranging from two-day trips to 10-day expeditions, participants can build their own traditional bamboo rafts (under experienced supervision, of course) and pole downriver from Loksado through white-water rapids past scenic mountains on the Sungai Amandit, which originates in Gunung Meratus, flows through Loksado and meets the Barito further downstream.
The Amandit can be navigated in two segments: from Loksado to Muara Hatip, near Kandagan (Class 1-2.5 rapids), including a night’s stay at a simple lodge at Muara Hatip. Stage two is from Muara Hatip to Batu Laki, where the rapids increase to Class 3 at the mouth of the Sungai Muara Harang.
Getting to Loksado – a small village on the slopes of Gunung Meratus – and Dayak country, involves long, hard jungle trekking for 8 hours or more on trails through forests overlooking valleys, crossing hanging bamboo bridges, and reveling in cool mountain air. Starting from Pagat or Batu Tangga, the journey to Loksado can take several days.
The longhouses in the area do not have the long verandas seen in other parts of Kalimantan. Nevertheless the idea is the same, with one particular balai housing more than 150 residents under its roof. En route, visit Miulan Dayak and Kedayang Dayak longhouses, stay overnight in one owned by the Papangkaan Dayak, and return to Banjarmasin via bamboo raft, passing fishermen plying their craft and riverside villages. Shorter treks to the Kentawan Nature Reserve can also be arranged.