Kalimantan is one of Indonesia’s greatest adventures. Tales of fierce headhunters moving stealthily through the rainforest, poison blow darts speeding through the air from apparently invisible sources, dangerous bears, giant snakes and enormous leeches deterred many early explorers. The mystic practices of the Dayaks, known for their silent stalking through the deepest darkest jungle terrain, intrigued me. The “wild man of Borneo” was calling and in my quest for a real adventure, I decided to explore Kalimantan by houseboat, with the purpose of meeting the Dayaks.
Kalimantan lies in the southern area of the island of Borneo and is the third-largest island in the world (after Greenland and New Guinea).
The indigenous Dayak people (inland or upriver people) of today number about 1 million. They no longer officially hunt heads, although in 2002 there was one incident reported, involving an ethnic clash when a few heads were lopped off for old times sake.
On the River
The houseboat pulled out of its mooring, at Tengarong and I soon adapted to the rhythm of the boat and slowed down to a speed of around 5 mph. In the first few hours I was treated to a spectacle of relatively small tug boats pulling enormous barges full of coal and wood down river to the large city of Samarinda. The massive size of some of these barges was astounding and I wondered how the skipper of these oversized, overloaded vessels would manage to avoid other large vessels when the sun set and we continued on up the river in the dark. I was told that boats do sink with some regularity!
Basically this part of the river is the main highway, and once we were “out of town” so to speak, the scenery changed and became more rural. We passed a series of small villages with lots of activity taking place at the riverbank, including people fishing in canoes, women beating clothes on river stones along the banks and once in a while a floating toilet would pass us by.
The next morning the houseboat pulled into the town of Muara Muntai. This is one of the many towns built on the river with the “main road” full of boats of all shapes and sizes zipping up and down transporting people as well as animals, produce, wood, engines and virtually anything that can fit on a boat.
At 12 noon our group (3 ex pat families from Jakarta) headed off in 6 rented canoes with very loud engines in the direction of Mancong. We were in search of freshwater pink dolphins and other wildlife, and that night we stayed in a traditional longhouse in the Dayak village of Tanjung Isuy.
Over the next 5 hours by canoe, we passed through a diversity of terrain. First, we crossed a huge lake (at low tide), which was stark and devoid of any sign of life, apart from the odd heron. Dry rotting trees and lifelessness made this place quite eerie. In no time, we entered a totally new environment and found ourselves cruising through an area of green lush everglade-type wetlands. Powering along in these canoes, at rather a high speed, squeezing through skinny paths of rushes and reeds was quite an exhilarating experience.
We passed through more towns built on the river and stopped for lunch at a local shop which moved along with the tide. Of course getting in and out of the canoes was fraught with danger but we managed to complete this task without anyone taking a bath in the muddy brown water.
In the mid afternoon we entered the rainforest and spotted a variety of wildlife including the colorful hornbill bird native to these parts and the unique proboscis monkey with their strange noses that grow up to 6 inches long. They are one of the largest species of monkey and, although very shy, one did however, pose for us briefly.
About 5 pm we arrived at a small village for our overnight stay in a traditional longhouse. We were welcomed by a traditional dance ceremony, which had been organized by our guide in advance. After dinner on the long table in the longhouse, we were escorted by our guide to see an authentic witch doctor ceremony. We crammed into this small private house, which was already full of local villagers, most with babies in their arms. The witchdoctor we met was one of seven local healers.
In no time he started his witchdoctor routine. He shimmied and he shook as he called up the spirits. There was a lot of hopping, with ankle bells clanging and wrists bells clinking and now and again he would do huge leaps into the air to call upon the healing spirits. We did not stay till the end, but usually this dancing, prancing and eventual trancing goes on until 2.00am.
The local people of this small village are from the Benuaq tribe of Dayaks and they still practice traditional healing methods, hold elaborate funeral processions, and conduct many ritualistic ceremonies.
In the morning we were greeted by a beautiful sunrise as the village slowly came to life. The early morning light in this part of the world is incredibly rich and creates a great photographic opportunity to witness the activities of the local people. Images of people bathing in the river, children making their way to school, and women trading in the dusty streets – anything from dried fish and vegetables to children’s toys – was a real spectacle. As the boat engines roared into life it served as a reminder that daily village life revolves around the water. Canoes and motor boats are the only means of transport in these parts.
After another ride on the small canoes, we boarded the luxury of our houseboat and headed back down the river for our 2 day cruise back to Samarinda.
Around 5 pm we made it to the village of Likak Kidau to meet the Kenyah Dayaks. Another amazing scene unfolded in front of us, with local village life in full swing down at the riverbank – fishing, bathing, building as well as washing clothes in the river. This village has around 149 families. They relocated to this area about two years ago from an isolated village which was a two day boat ride away from any medical facilities.
We were told (via our guide) that the village chief decided to move closer to medical facilities, after an unfortunate death. He was transporting a woman (by boat) to hospital when, she died enroute due to the long journey.
The villagers reluctantly moved to the present location where their livelihood now depends on rice cultivation of which they are somewhat inexperienced. In the previous location they relied more on the river and adjoining jungle for food and nourishment.
We were to discover that this community does not produce enough rice to feed the village and relies on a yearly donation from a US Aid agency of 50 kgs of rice per person. This expires at the end of the year and there are no plans to continue.
The village chief was naturally concerned for the future of his people. There is virtually no employment in the area and some of the young people have left in search of work in the nearby towns and cities. Maintaining their culture and survival are the main concerns of this Christian Dayak village.
That night a very colorful ceremonial dance was staged for us by the entire village. We had the opportunity that evening to meet some of the “long eared” people.
The long ear tradition involves men and woman weighting their ears with heavy objects when they are very young. We felt very fortunate to meet some genuine long eared people, and realized that this is something that will die out in the very near future as the young Dayaks of today have mostly given up this practice.
The dance performance involved stories of valor and history with shields, feathers and other tribal props and we were all spellbound for the duration of the performance. I could not resist the opportunity to respond to the Dayak dance with a “haka” in front of the village. The haka is a traditional Maori welcoming (and war) dance from my native country, New Zealand. The Dayak audience was speechless at first but soon warmed to this crazy white man jumping around spitting out a rather strange language! I am sure they have never seen anything like this before and probably never will again.
Later that night we continued south and made it back in time to catch the afternoon Garuda flight to Jakarta.
I have nothing but wonderful memories of the Mahakam River; the only regret was that the trip was too short. When traveling in this part of Indonesia you get a true feeling for the history of the area and whilst a lot has changed with the advent of technology and modern commerce, one can still witness a very proud culture that still practises a lifestyle little changed in centuries.
We saw no other westerners on the Mahakam River, so we were able to experience what we did rather independently and untainted by commercial tourism.
The Dayaks have a very rich and diverse culture with very strong spiritual beliefs, and I am sure if we were able to travel further into the interior we would see more of the traditional way of life. Such is the lure and enticement of travel. Always more to see and you never know what is around the corner.
Story by David Metcalf
Photos by David Metcalf
Daily Garuda flights from Jakarta to Balikpapan, Kalimantan Hotel:Dusit Balikpapan Tel: (0542) 20155
H. Rusniah Fadly PT Duta Miramar Phone: (0541) 737878 Pick up point Tenggarong, East Kalimantan
Martin Surya Putra Phone: (O541) 744494, Handphone: 0815-2051487
We ordered our choice of bread, juice, milk, cereal and dietary preferences in advance. All meals were cooked on board by order.
What to Take:
Mosquito spray, sunscreen, hat, fan, small daypack, ear plugs for the loud canoe engines, sarong, long sleeved shirt for evening.