Pontianak in West Kalimantan is the starting point for a trip to the Karimata Islands. The bustling harbour is alive with activity and home to a myriad of traditional boats. After stepping down from the pier, I had to scramble across a number of unseasworthy looking boats and was delighted to spot mine—a very smart looking, fast speedboat bound for Sukadana.
As I clambered on board, I was greeted by a neat row of six empty seats, reserved for our small group, and behind this row, every seat was taken with towers of fresh produce, large sacks of rice resting precariously on knees and what seemed like weeks worth of shopping supplies, stuffed to the brim of old weathered sacks, woven baskets and large plastic containers. The odd head appeared amongst the mass of items, each face sporting a welcoming smile.
It was a four-hour speedboat ride south to Sukadana. We shared the Kapuas River with many local boats (all going a lot slower than ours).
Nipa palms and mangroves hugged the muddy banks of the river as we ventured towards the Kubu Estuary. Tall strategically placed swiftlet or swallow houses would occasionally come into view. These tower-like grey concrete structures with tiny swiftlet-size windows are the source of bird nests for bird’s nest soup.
Four hours later we entered the Sukadana Estuary and bid farewell to our local passengers and to our very capable captain, who had negotiated random driftwood, flotsam and jetsam with great dexterity. We all agreed to a “thumbs up” for the efficient, fast ferry speedboat transfer. We stepped out into a blistering 32-degree heat.
The next day we would not be sharing the waterways with anyone, as the Karimata group of islands is not yet on the tourist radar and in fact, we were the first group of tourists to visit the island. As yet, there are no hotels or homestays established, so we were all invited to sleep in the Bupati’s (Regency Head) house. What an honour! A first for all of us.
The main island, Pulau Karimata, has been settled by the Melayu people, since the 7th century. The Karimata group forms a chain of islands, which link this historic trading route between Sumatra, Banka Island, Belitung and the West Coast of Kalimantan.
Today Karimata Island (the main habited island) comprises of a mix of Melayu and Bugis people. Life revolves around fishing by the Melayu communities that spread out across the Indo Malay archipelago. The lively fishing trade runs to a limited seasonal calendar with high seas presenting dangers in these waters from November to March.
Our next adventure involved a four-hour smooth cruise out from Sukadana to the main island of Pulau Karimata by private charter. We passed idyllic, deserted islands on the way, fringed with perfect white sandy beaches. As we pulled into our island home for the night, palm tree lined beaches greeted us and there was excitement in the air, as this island community was expecting our visit.
In the evening we were treated to a beautiful feast of local seafood, rice, spicy chicken and a variety of local vegetable dishes. The food was spread out on eating mats and we were invited to sit and eat together with the village head and notable people from the village.
Pak Al Fauzi, the Kepala Desa explained to me “My main responsibility is to secure the rice supply for the island. We do not grow rice here. We have over 403 households on the island and 89 percent of our income comes from fishing. We have plentiful fish supplies but we are restricted to the calmer months of April to October to create our income. We sell our fish to Belitung, Sumatra and Ketapang, Kalimantan.”
Al Fauzi went on to explain about the culture, “You should come back in April and see the Tari Laut (sea dance). It is performed by 15 men and women. We dance to the Kendung drum and a lone male dancer appears in an elaborate mask. He represents evil. The ritual dance cleanses the village. We believe that. This dance comes from a long, long time ago, before we were ruled by the Sultanate.”
The oldest and largest sultanate in Borneo was based in Sukadana. Dates are scant and there is little recorded history, but there is reference to Arabic people living in West Kalimantan before the Melayu people. The Sukadana Sultanate was called Matan. The Matan Sultanate spread across Borneo with skirmishes and border wars taking place, as well as pirate attacks. The Matan Sultanate from Sukadana spread as far as Brunei. The Karimata Islands historically did not have a Melayu Sultanate but a Buginese Sultanate.
“Treasures lay buried on this island,” one of the elders told me, “To prevent pirate attacks and stay one step ahead, the Matan Sultan had a strategy to move across every island in the Karimata chain, in order to trick the pirates. The pirates were in search of the Sultan and his treasure,” he continued, “When they attacked they couldn’t find the Sultan and the treasure. You know, there are many treasures buried here in Karimata,” he said with a twinkle in his eye, “and you know, many local people have found the treasures.”With that, he shuffled off into the dark of the night.
The next day our small group ventured off on motorbikes (the only way to see the island). We stopped to see the home of the previous Sultan. A pair of rusted old cannons greeted us at the dusty entrance to the windswept, weathered, wooden house. These two cannons represented the only evidence of the historic significance of this residence.
A very proud, elderly grandmother slowly made her way to the front door to greet us. A lovely smile spread across her lined face that held the ancestral wisdom of many generations. I wished we had time to talk to this lady about the history and village legends of the Buginese Sultanate that once existed here, but that would have to wait for another time, because we were getting the “hurry up” from our trusty motorbike escorts.
As the afternoon light was fading, we were on a mission to catch the sunset. We took the one and only road, a small even-paved laneway, cutting through small clusters of houses, family garden plots, small warungs and some impressive shiny mosques. We pulled into sunset point right on time, and rode all the way to the end of the long wooden pier. We shared the space with a few local Melayu sailors sporting rippling muscles and taut sinewy bodies. There
was plenty of space for everyone to spread out and soak in the last remaining rays of light, as dusk settled over the island and the “magic hour” folded around us with warm hues and a gentle sunset.
The next day we enjoyed some “beach time” and indulged in a relaxing ocean swim in the warm, clear blue waters. With an extra day or two it would have been interesting to discover more of the island, the forested mountains and waterfalls. So, we all agreed, we would be back.
On our departure day, we could not sign the visitor’s book because one simply did not exist. We were the first, pioneer “visitors”. Travelling to places like this in Indonesia, where your impact is low, your exchange in cultural value is high, and your tourist dollar goes directly to the local village brings great benefits to both parties. To dabble in delights of exploring this country of 17,000 islands is indeed a pleasure. Karimata Island is a place of undiscovered beauty and charm. It’s remote and rustic and will be sure to satisfy the soul of the conscious traveller and the bonus is, you will be welcomed with open arms.
“Desa Betok Jaya is one of the neighbouring islands. It’s a day trip from Pulau Karimata. A sumptuous seafood feast was arranged for us at the Kepala Desa’s home, dining on the cool veranda, overlooking the cobalt blue waters from his lovely waterfront wooden house. This small, remote, traditional, stilted Melayu village has a new school built by a block grant in conjunction with The Australian Indonesia Partnership Programme (2008).”
KKU District Government Tourism–Eco Tours
Rachel +6285252555678 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Canopy Indonesia can organise side trips from the Karimata islands, including trekking in the Gunung Palung National Park, which has a significant wild orangutan population, an overnight stay in a forest cabin, a tree-planting activity with the local forest rangers and a visit to ASRI, a health and conservation clinic, which runs programs promoting sustainable organic farming practices, volunteer education programmes and has been instrumental in reducing illegal logging by 68 percent through innovative village-led programmes.
Photos by David Metcalf
David also supports an education project and health program and a Dayak dance academy in Kalimantan. For more information on these please contact email@example.com
Please visit his website :