Venturing deep into Borneo and bordering Malaysia, the northern region of Central Kalimantan is foreign to tourism…
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 – not a fan of post-production.
Information on Kalimantan is almost non-existent in 1998 and feeling your way across the expansive island of Borneo is by word of mouth from locals. But, the problem is that not much English is spoken and my Bahasa Indonesian isn’t great…
Following the arduous overnight bus from Pontianak, bouncing around in the cramped back seats, finally arrive in Sintang at 4 am.
After no luck trudging around looking for open accommodation, decide to sleep on a bench under shelter for a couple of hours waiting for Losmens to open. The rain is not abating.
The longest waterway in Indonesia, the Sungai Kapuas is swollen, pushing roads and houses underwater. A myriad of makeshift narrow wooden planks connected by 44-gallon drums makes walking over water possible.
Laden with our gear, bounce along the flexing plankway waiting to fall in the murky floodwaters until arriving at the Losmen Setia.
The tiny almost village-like Sintang is lacking tourists, so we’re the centre of attention wherever we venture.
Regardless of the flooding, the river life is bustling with motorised boats and wooden canoes ferrying locals up and across to surrounding smaller villages. Travel is on the Kapuas river by whatever boat is going.
From Sintang, the next destination is Putussibau, north-central Kalimantan. This trip can be done in a chartered 6-hour ‘speedboat’ or the 24-hour ‘slow boat’.
Having tasted Indonesia’s ‘speedboat’ enduring a 3-day ferry trip scheduled to take only 20 hours, settle on the slow boat this time. Hope to secure a piece of the deck with every man and his chicken!
Bump into many university students studying difficult subjects – engineering, political science, medicine – and most hope to procure only factory jobs once matriculated. So sad discussing their aspirations of government jobs, although the reality of much lower paid unskilled positions is the expectation.
Leaving for Putussibau
Arriving a couple of hours early, we grab a piece of the deck inside the rickety wooden boat.
At least the timber is covered with linoleum to minimise splinters on this 24-hour journey.
Leaving the wharf on time, the boat crosses the river only to fuel up, then crisscrosses back again from where we started to pick up more passengers!
Another hour later and finally, we leave Sintang.
The hardened timber is fast forgotten as untouched and fascinating slower-paced river life…
…emerges, while steaming up the stained brown Kapuas.
Timber houses float calmly on massive aged logs tied to the riverbank while others sit on wooden stilts.
Everywhere seems flooded right now.
Numerous stops along the way to drop off and pick up more passengers, and the boat sinks further into the tanned tea tree-coloured water, laden with cargo and bodies.
Stopping at a trading boat and peeking inside, discover congestion of groceries, bags of salted fish, and a plethora of produce crammed in every corner of the boat.
These heavy timber boats plough up and down the river laden with goods and supply villages that are not accessible, where roads are non-existent.
Predominantly, Chinese and Chinese/Indonesians run businesses in Indonesia and this is the same with the river trading boats.
The beautiful expansive Kapuas river extends some 1,143 kilometres snaking its way in twists and bends from West Kalimantan to Borneo’s deep interior.
Most of the river is navigable and a major artery for transport vehicles, but also for felled logs that are floated down from the interior.
Thick heavy jungle lines the riverbank with starving mosquitoes and ferocious sandflies never too far from feeding on exposed flesh, or the occasional jungle clearing.
The further the boat ventures up the picturesque river, the poorer the locals.
A sleepless night on the boat’s hard timber floor sees new river canvases with the breaking dawn.
Everyday life is soon forgotten when the inevitable happens…
…the boat breaks down in Semitau only 12 hours after leaving Sintang!
Semitau is only around the halfway mark to Putussibau.
This is becoming a habit in Indonesia – boats always seem to break down at the halfway mark.
Definitely much smaller than Sintang, inquisitive locals stare at us with fascination and…
…as though they have never seen tourists. I doubt that many have…
Advised the boat would leave again for Putussibau this morning, the story is rapidly changing. The situation is not looking good – visions of being marooned in the jungle and over-staying visas are becoming very real.
There seems to be a hole or rapid leak in the timber boat as, throughout the night, the crew continuously pumped out water. Sad to leave this old boat that served up 2 good cooked meals a day plus free tea and coffee – a far cry from the Jakarta to Singapore fast boat – but we need to look for another boat to continue the journey. With only one month of travel for Kalimantan, time is quickly running out.
Try to hire a speedboat for the rest of the journey but all the opportunists and touts are out, charging unforgiving prices. As the only tourists around for miles, locals believe our pockets are laden with cash.
Walking into the village of Semitau, meet a lovely local. Ida helps us to get on an Opelet to Simpang only an hour away, which is the crossroads for buses going east and west in Kalimantan.
Crossing many flooded bridges and scraps of road, the picturesque thick jungle once again overhangs the narrow road’s path, brushing against the tiny Opelet until reaching Simpang.
Abandoning the romantic idea of continuing on a boat to Putussibau as boats are not operating right now and time is running out, we wait in Simpang for a bus instead. Taking some tea, then more tea, until 3 hours later, the shonky bus to Putussibau finally arrives to whisk us away…