Renown as one of the most sparsely populated regions in Indonesia, some of West Kalimantan has not yet been explored…
All the more reason to start travelling in the west instead of the more traversed east of Kalimantan.
The downside? Information is scarce in 1998 and discovery is by word of mouth from locals – that is of course if you can speak Bahasa Indonesian! With only a month left of travel on this 4-month jaunt, time is of the essence.
The quality of the 35mm film photo in this article is not great as all photos and original negatives from 1998 are no longer in good condition. I am not a big fan of post-production.
Island-hop from Bintan to Batam Islands
How to kill a few days before our flight to Pontianak, West Kalimantan?
Island-hop between islands of course, to spend a little time exploring.
Continue the island-hop to Bintan Island and the tiny island of Pulau Penyengat, just off Bintan Island, before another ferry back to Batam Island.
While combing the streets of Batam, bump into a local from the nightmare ‘Teralaga Express’ ferry trip and he leads us back to his in-laws’ home for some coffee.
Unfolding his story, he has one child and is reluctant to have another unless the child is born in Australia or USA. Desperate to leave Indonesia, he wants us to take him back to Australia to find labouring work as work in Indonesia is scarce – a dire situation.
After transiting between Batam and Bintan islands several times now over the past few months, familiarity is seeping in so time for another intrepid adventure exploring the unknown…
Getting to West Kalimantan
The Asian Financial Crisis is still lingering in 1998 and is the reason for closed airline offices in Singapore and Batam Island, and severely reduced flights. But, after spending 3 days of hell on a ferry trip that was scheduled to last only taken 20 hours, decide to try our luck on a flight. Can things be any worse?
A taxi ride later to Hang Nadim International Airport and arrive two hours early for the flight to Pontianak.
After all the hassle with the lack of seats on ferries over the past month, I want to make sure our flight’s seats are still free as it is a free-for-all on Indonesian transport.
Taking off half an hour late – not bad for Indonesian time – the Fokker F28 is infested with a zillion baby cockroaches. Hard to believe, but not surprising!
Only around 1.5-hours later and the excitement of flying into a new destination grows, especially one reputed to be as wild as West Kalimantan.
Lush jungle below soon clears and is replaced with ordered rows of Palm Oil trees, deeply scarring the land like a jigsaw – hope some jungle is left to explore. Later discover that logging companies are hastily exploiting the rich timber resources. Palm oil companies also purposely burn down forests and jungle, to create plantations – tragic.
Landing in quiet Pulau Supadio International Airport, take a minibus for the 17-kilometres to Pontianak to explore around the wharf area. Renown for its prostitution and gambling, decide not to stick around too long as we are still carrying all our gear. Head for the city before checking out the Hotel Orient, which is basic and nothing to rave about, but surprisingly, is still operating in 2021.
The majority of locals greet us with surprised faces and as though they have never seen tourists in their city. Heavy rain decides to wash the city clean and keep us indoors for the evening.
A little background on Kalimantan
Maybe some of you have heard of Kalimantan but probably most have heard of Borneo, so it is a good time to share some information about Kalimantan.
Predominantly, marshy coastal plains, mountainous jungle, and large wilderness cover Kalimantan – home of lush rain forests where orangutans in the wild are still found.
Occupying the southern two-thirds of Borneo, Kalimantan is an Indonesian region.
The northern part of Borneo – Sabah and Sarawak – belong to Malaysia, although also share the north with the tiny independent country of Brunei.
West Kalimantan’s 100-plus rivers crisscross the swampy coastal plains that descend from the interior’s mountains. And, one of the reasons for coming to Kalimantan – to traverse its riverways and witness authentic local life.
As the longest waterway in Indonesia, the Sungai Kapuas extends to 1,143 kilometres, most of which is navigable; and a major artery for transport vehicles but also for logs that are floated down from the interior.
Kalimantan’s ceramics and stone carvings have been traced back to the 5th-century. Dayak, Kapuas, Kayan, and Puna indigenous villages grace the mountainous eastern parts of Kalimantan. West Kalimantan is a melting pot of nationalities with Malays, Javanese, Dayaks, Bugis, Chinese, and migrants from Madura.
Although not on the tourist milk-run especially in 1998, Pontianak is a bustling city and the capital of West Kalimantan, so this should make it easy to organise transport across Kalimantan, right?
Pontianak’s outskirt is home to a longhouse extending 168-metres long (550 feet) but only 6-metres (20 feet) wide and houses around 270 people. Longhouses are very communal.
Spending a couple of days in Pontianak trying to find transport to Putussibau without luck, decide on an 8-hour bus to Sintang. This is almost the halfway mark and then hope to hitch some sort of transport from Sintang to continue heading north.
Leaving Pontianak bound for Sintang
The arduous overnight night bus bouncing around in the cramped back seats was the wrong choice. But, in 1998, there is no other option, especially during the current Asian Financial Crisis.
Only a couple of hours out from Pontianak, the roads become horrendous. Pouring with rain, the road’s potholes are so deep that the bus crawls ever so slowly down and back out again, for fear of getting stuck. The bus driver suffers from ‘lead foot’, so a little surprised on the rare occasion that he slows down.
Such a shame that this is a night bus as the scenery would be spectacular but a day bus for this journey wasn’t available. Lightning creates a backdrop illuminating lush dense jungle along the way, with the occasional piercing red eye emerging from trees. The sodden road narrows to a lane until our windows touch the forest jungle on both sides of the bus.
After the difficult and long 8-hour journey, arrive in Sintang at 4am, to a swollen Sungai Kapuas with roads and houses underwater…
Trudge around on makeshift planks only to find Losmens are closed or full, so decide to sleep on a bench for a couple of hours with our gear, until more hotels open – we hope…