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