Borneo: Traversing Northern Kalimantan

With a broken-down boat deep in Borneo’s northern Kalimantan jungle and abandoning the romantic idea of peacefully gliding along the snakelike Kapuas River…

…the only option of escaping this situation is to push forward and hitch a ride on a rustic local bus, as the visa time is running out.

Please excuse the quality of the 35mm film photos in this article. Photos and original negatives from this decade are no longer in good condition, and post-production is not ideal.

Information about Kalimantan is hard to come by or non-existent in 1998. Travelling through the expansive island of Borneo is both intrepid and at a snail’s pace while inching ever so slowly across the jungle, only by word of mouth from locals. But this authentic experience is amazing, as tourists are nowhere to be found – scarce – and this is the way I like to travel. Have I mentioned that before?

-West Kalimantan, Indonesia, SE Asia
Exotic Kalimantan

One drawback is that of course, not much English is spoken and my Bahasa Indonesian is not yet at a conversational level – they say that this is an easy language to learn but we’ll see…

Sungai Kapuas, Sintang, West Kalimantan, Indonesia, SE Asia
Bathing in the swollen Kapuas River

This makes sign language the next best alternative for gleaning any valuable or available information on transport or what to see at the next destination. That is of course if you know where that next destination is…

Sungai Kapuas, Sintang, West Kalimantan, Indonesia, SE Asia
Kapuas vessels


The local boat from Sintang to Putussibau breaks down at the halfway mark, in tiny Semitau – in the middle of nowhere.

Sintang, Semitau, Putussibau, West Kalimantan, Indonesia, SE Asia

This is after spending the last 12 hours snaking along tight bends on the tanned-stained Kapuas River, one of the world’s longest island rivers.

Without any available boats to continue the journey and no word on how long before our boat will be fixed again, the captain advises this is Jam Karet (rubber time). So, give up all hope of continuing on the mystical Kapuas River…for now.

boat, Sungai Kapuas, Sintang, West Kalimantan, Indonesia, SE Asia
First-class boat – stake out a piece of linoleum, inside, on deck or on the roof!

With only a one-month stay in Kalimantan at the end of a three-month jaunt through Indonesia, or is that intrepid travelling, time is dissolving much too quickly and we need to keep moving. Reluctantly, the boat tickets are forfeited to instead take an Opelet (local tiny minibus) to the crossroad town of Simpang. Only an hour away, the hope is to flag down a waiting bus on arriving at Simpang to continue the journey to Putussibau.

Stuck in Simpang

Landing in the small town of Simpang, a considerable amount of sweet tea containing heaped scoops of sugar and laden with condensed milk is consumed. This ritual passes the time away while waiting 3 hours for a rustic local bus to finally pull up for the 3-hour journey to Putussibau.

Semitau, Simpang Sejiram, Putussibau, West Kalimantan, Indonesia, SE Asia

Washed away roads from the flooding over the past month, make for an exhilarating and hairy ride.

Floodwaters are still rising and a reason why transport has been quite erratic and still is, although I understand this is the norm in Kalimantan.

Choked with bodies and passenger goods, the bus is crammed with locals that don’t travel well and instead, throw up everywhere. The windows are shut tight and the stench is nauseating.

Ancient thick jungle gracing the Kapuas River rapidly thins out and is replaced with smouldering hills raped of all flora and fauna. Only sporadic jagged and blackened tree stumps jutting out of the earth is what remain as a testament, to the stunning jungle that once graced this region. Bulldozers and chainsaws destroyed much of the jungle along the way but for all the clearing, no farms are occupying this barren moonscape. Later we learn that the clearing is connected to bush fires earlier in the year and believed to be deliberately lit to make way for palm oil plantations – tragic.


Arriving anywhere in Indonesia on a Friday is never a good thing as barely anything is open in a predominantly Muslim country and Putussibau is no different. So, check into the first accommodation we bump into on the hunt – Marisa Hotel (still operating in 2022). The hotel at least includes air-conditioning to stave off the sultry jungle evening and a TV, as there isn’t much to do yet in this town on the Kapua River. Set about wandering the streets of this small almost out-post town, which is really the size of a village.

After two days of travel and frustration, decide that catching up on a little sleep is the only way to kill more time. Children’s Karaoke grates the ears and seems to be all the rage on TV, so sleep is the better option.

Without a real plan for the next leg of the journey as everywhere is either flooded or not accessible, try to find information on how to travel to Samarinda in East Kalimantan, as hear that travel is easier on the eastern side of Borneo. Travelling from the west to the east of Borneo is slow and tough in 1998. Not sure if this has improved over the decades?

Sungai Kapuas, Sintang, West Kalimantan, Indonesia, SE Asia
Life along the Kapuas

Chartering a Cessna for an hour’s flight to Datah Dawai is too expensive for just two of us and with no visible tourists in Putussibau to share the cost, give this option a miss. Also, even after reaching Datah Dawai, rapids await while on a longboat journey, which takes another week to reach Samarinda, so need a Plan B…or any plan!

Jungle stirring

The oppressive heat gives way to wild winds and a thunderous electrical storm electrifying the deep night sky to day, and possibly starting a fire in town as several houses burn ferociously.

The whole town is out watching but no one can save the wooden houses embellished with timber shingled rooves, which forces the fire to jump across to the Christain church next door. Violent flames leap high around the steeple, licking its adorned cross until it slowly lolls over, breaking off and crashing down to the earth below. The church is consumed in an engulfing dramatic twenty minutes – a movie set in the making, but reality. The town’s sole fire hose was never going to be adequate for this mammoth blazing fire – instead, everyone watches the spectacle in awe.

Sungai Kapuas, Sintang, West Kalimantan, Indonesia, SE Asia
Jungle home

Another plan…

Need another plan (although plans are non-existent or fluid), as time is running out on the one-month visa and Kalimantan is a hard region of Borneo to travel in during 1998.

Check out my article next week for part 2 of this intrepid and tough journey of changing plans, returning to Sintang only to start once again, bound for a different destination this time…

Visit Nilla’s Photography for more global images. More posts at Image Earth Travel.

27 responses to “Borneo: Traversing Northern Kalimantan”

  1. equinoxio21 Avatar

    You are an adventurer. Borneo/Kalimantan were childhood dreams of mine. Probably read too much Somerset Maugham.

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Not enough though…;-)
      Think I saw Kalimantan at the right time although, in 1998, the jungle was being cleared for Palm Oil plantations. Read an article on the BBC last night and it looks as though 20 years of Palm Oil and not much jungle is left now on the island of Borneo.
      This crop produces a staggering $50 billion each year for Indonesia…I wonder where all that money is going. The other takeaway from the article is that this corporation has been robbing the local tribes, which live in makeshift huts on the plantations – tragic and heart-wrenching! Of course, the government doesn’t care as long as the dollars keep rolling in…

      1. equinoxio21 Avatar

        Jungle gone in Borneo? (tears falling). What a shame. Of course not all the money goes to the people right? Hopping to the article…

      2. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Yes, it’s so tragic!

      3. equinoxio21 Avatar

        Read the article. “Salim” sounded like an Indonesian name. Big rich guys in Indonesia keeping all the money. Here, Carlos Slim (variation on the name Salim or Sélim) is the richest man in Mexico. was the richest in the world for a while… tsss.

      4. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        That’s exactly how it works there and the old saying, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
        It’s obscene how these corporations and super-rich rape countries, typically leave things in ruin and return nothing to the country.

      5. equinoxio21 Avatar

        I have to look up Indonesia’s GDP re capita evolution. Will let you know.

      6. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Great and thank you!
        TOo much corruption in that country.

      7. equinoxio21 Avatar

        Indonesia has done “well” GDP per capita (PPP, constant InIt`l $) of 4,553 in 1990, now $11,445. Pretty good growth.
        I need to update my Amnesty International data on corruption.

      8. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Yes, but sadly, not much filters down unless you’re one of Indonesia’s elite and involved with corruption. It seems that where there’s a lot of corruption, there’s poverty.

      9. equinoxio21 Avatar

        I would need to check the Gini coefficient. it’s probably high, which means high inequality.
        I may have mentioned it before, I ran a large analysis of world data a few years back. The correlation between corruption (Amnesty) and poverty (as measured by GDP x cap PPP) is extremely high, with an R2 of 0.72. I’ve seldom found such high R2’s…

      10. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Rescued you from my Trash folder again. And so it begins…
        I can put money on that it’s high. From what I saw in 1998, but then again maybe things have improved. One would hope but typically, they only improve for the corrupt in these countries. Am I being cynical?

      11. equinoxio21 Avatar

        One needs to hope… 😉

      12. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Always, without hope, we have nothing much left. 😉

      13. equinoxio21 Avatar

        Kill a (wo)man’s dreams, might as well kill him/her… 😉

      14. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Absolutely or stopping a woman/man from fulfilling their dreams is just as bad!

      15. equinoxio21 Avatar

        Same thing. And a lot of that happens…

      16. Image Earth Travel Avatar


      17. equinoxio21 Avatar

        About the trash folder, should I file a complaint to WP?

      18. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Definitely! I’m not sure why you’ve been thrown in there again – frustrating!

      19. equinoxio21 Avatar

        Sorry about that. That reminds me I need to check my spam folder…

  2. gillmorris Avatar

    Thank you for the trip through Borneo Nilla, it certainly is an interesting place. I know I’ve said this before, but you have had some adventures! Love it xx

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Thank you, Gill! Yes, it was a very interesting place and Kalimantan was quite different to other regions of Indonesia. x

  3. Dave Ply Avatar

    After all that, do you ever find “normal” life boring?

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Ha, ha, what’s normal? 😉
      But, nope, I don’t have time to be bored as I’m always doing something. If I’m not travelling then I’m working hard to save for the next adventure…have to keep dreaming but also be careful not to miss the present.

  4. Yetismith Avatar

    Borneo always fascinated me and I was lucky enough to see just a little but not the intrepid way you did. I was on an “adventure cruise”. We were taken on a small boat up a river, name long forgotten. The jungle was so exciting and the storms. The people were so interesting. We also got to Sepilok, the orangutan sanctuary. That trip was wonderful. 1984-5. I read a great book by Redmond O’hanlon “To the Heart of Borneo”. As I recall it had a lot of very amusing tales! He too was intrepid.

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Just the name manifests an exoticness – maybe it’s from past stories or history…
      I’m not surprised you’ve forgotten the river and the reason I keep so many travel journals – my memory isn’t great for place names. I had to look up Sepilok, in Sarawak?
      Haven’t read that book but it sounds like a good read and will have to keep my eye out for it – thank you for your feedback and stories, as always.

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