Long Boating Up the Mahakam River- East Kalimantan

by Captain Su -

‘It is great fun;you pull up in your boat and go shopping. “One watermelon and a dragon fruit, please,”says I, at a fruit shop, somewhere along the river.’Captain Su.

Sometimes is a good idea to take a break from cruising and get off the boat for a while. Go inland and explore a different environment. One with trees, rivers, lakes and people. Get away from the sun, wind and the constant motion of the boat. Indonesia has real potential here. The most obvious shore trip that comes to mind is a visit to Komodo Island to see real live dragons.

Climb a mountain like Kinabalu in Sabah, Rinjani in Lombok or Agung here in Bali. Or just head inland somewhere and hook up with the locals for a while and see a different culture for a few days. Eat some nice fresh green veggies and take a long fresh water shower. Do things that you can’t do on a yacht at sea.

The Mighty Mahakam River

I recently went on an expedisi up the mighty Mahakam River in East Kalimantan. Its headwaters are in the misty and rain soaked mountains of central Kalimantan. It’s jungle country up there, remote and empty of people. The Mahakam flows in a south easterly direction for over 1000km and when it hits the flat tropical lowlands many freshwater lakes are formed along the banks of the river. Some of these lakes like the Melitang, Semayang and Jempang are big indeed, a fascinating blend of wilderness and river people culture. The mouth of the river is a huge delta that flows into the Makassar Straits 30 odd km down from the town of Samarinda.

The river is an enormous economic resource for the fisherman and a constant source of freshwater for the farmers that live on or near it. More importantly it is a waterway that connects people. Many of the villages don’t have roads going to or from them so the river is vital for trade, commerce and social activities. No cars, none at all. It is great fun; you pull up in your boat at the fruit stall and go shopping. “One watermelon and a dragon fruit, please. “Says I, somewhere along the river. There is a lot of activity on the river with many long boats whizzing up and down the waters.

“Tourist Office!! What’s That?”

There isn’t a lot of tourist information around about travelling in East Kalimantan especially if you want to get out of the big towns of Balikpapan and Samarinda. The internet is some help but it is even worse when you get there. Of course you can book a tour with a big tour company but for independent travellers it is a bit hard. My idea was simple: head to Samarinda which is the jump off point for longboating up the Mahakam and when I get there go to the government run tourist office. Ask them about hiring boats and a list of places to sleep the night and head up the river as far as I could go, then hike over the central mountains to join up with another river, the Kapuas and this time travel downstream to Putubissau and then onto Kuching, Malaysia. A sort of cross Borneo trek if you like.

The plan didn’t start of well,  as when I finally managed to find a taxi and ask the driver to take me to the Tourist Office, in Indo of course,he said, “Tourist Office!! What’s that?” He had to radio into base to find out where it was that I wanted to go. While the driver was talking on the radio I had slight panic attack of the, “What the F#$%k am I doing here?” kind. Happens quite often so Ihad to wait till it wore off to get back in focus.

At the tourist office I met a man named Dennis, who turns out to be a famous tour guide in Kalimantan.  A fairly direct sort of fella with a great sense of humour. First thing he says is, “Relax Pak,” obviously noticing the tail end of my anxiety after the taxi driver incident. When I got down to business and starting talking about my plans he straight up said that a 4 to 5 day jungle trek over the mountains would be too difficult for me and the cost for the whole trip was about 4 times my budget. I certainly appreciated his candour because I didn’t want to do the jungle trek anyway. There are no tracks or paths because the locals are not that dumb to go wandering through the malarial jungles. They use the rivers to get around. I hadfantasies of hiring a plane and flying over the mountains. SoI got me a guide and I settled on a shorter and less ambitious expedisi.

The Ghost Cave

We left next day choosing to go by car in order to get upstream fast and avoid the industrial looking and less pleasant landscape of the lower reaches of the river. Dennis said, “You will only see plywood houses, Pak.” We did take a side excursion to a huge and relatively unknown cave complex called the Ghost Cave at Lebaho. The Kepala Desa from Lebaho, Pak Agus and the head of traditional magic, Pak Sabri Ansak were keen to show me their cave so they and a few other locals gave us a guided tour. The cave or I should say caves are huge and impressive inside and go on for over 4km.

The caves were discovered in 1965 by Pak Sabri when he was hunting for birds’ nest that are used in traditional medicines. He spent the whole day exploring deep into the network of caves and at times he admits got a little scared by the enormity of the whole complex. Even when I was stumbling deep in the belly of the earth there were spiders (big), lots of bats and the odd green snake. “Don’tworry Pak,”I was told,” they won’t kill they only bite. Work that logic out and you are much smarter than I am. Both Pak Agus and Pak Sabri want the Ghost Cave developed not only for the revenue it will bring into the banjar but also as an example to the locals of how tourism could directly benefit them and encourage them to think about tourism and how they can participate in any growth. Things like building simple homestays or a small warung selling local foods or even making and selling handicrafts. It wouldn’t take a great deal of money to get the project up and running and outside investors are encouraged to contact Pak Agus if you are interested.

The Mahakam River

When we finally got to the Mahakam River we were met by a captain and his long boat. This was to be our only form of transport for the next week, other than walking of course and we did a lot of that in various villages along the way. There was no set itinerary other than to travel up the river and alsoexplore some of the big lakes nearby. Dennis, who I gave the nickname of the“number one tour guide in East Kalimantan”decided it would be good for me the visit some of the lake people. As mentioned before he has agreat sense of humour and I honestly thought he was joking when after longboating from late morning until sunset we came upon our first nights’ accommodation. It was a humpy, floating on the lake and was the most basic accommodation I have ever seen. Don’t worry about bringing your own toilet paper because there was no toilet. Yep, you guessed it; it’s over the side you go.

The family that lived in the humpy were lovely people and made us welcome. Anjeli, the mum explained that they catch fish every day and store them live in big cages under their home. When they get big they take them to the local market and sell them. They are poor and don’t have much but are very happy with their freedom. No boss, no bills or taxes and no government sticking their big nose into their lives. They eat fish, rice and buy fresh veggies when they drop the eldest child off at school at the nearby kampung and even have chickens on board.  Plenty of friends stop by for a chat as everyone around has a boat.

Rather than take the family bed which was a mat on the floor I decided to sleep on the boat. What could be more normal for a sailor? I had images of being rocked to sleep by the lapping waves moving slowly over the surface of the lake. Not to be. A big squall, I was watching at sunset, came over with a bang. Followed by a tropical downpour that almost sank the open boat. Don’t mention the mosquitoes, millions of them, so many in fact, you couldn’t sleep.


The Dayaks

The second and subsequent nights were spent with the Dayak people staying in longhouses.   Pure luxury, a bed, a shower and yes a WC. At Tanjung Isul the longhouse name was Taman Jamrud and run by a delightful woman called Siska. She was the local kindergarten teacherby day. During the day we would take trips around the lake or up the river through the jungle. Snakes and monkeys were hanging from the trees and the birdlife was very colorful. I gave up trying to spot any of the wildlife. I just waited until Dennisshouted, “monkey monkey or snake snake”.

It was all good, great fun and I loved all the people I met and could have gone on and on. But you can’t beat the ocean for its pure majesty and raw power. There is a call from the ocean and it isa very powerful, emotional pull. It’s one emotion I am happy to go with and is better than any panic attack.

Happy Sailing!!


Contact Information:

Dennis          https://www.facebook.com/DennisJungleMan/

Pak Agus      Kantor Kepala Desa, Lebaho Ulak, Kec. Muara Kaman

Written by: Captain Su