The intrepid journey by speedboat, bus, and 4×4 continues from Kendawangan to Kuala Jelai then Sukumara and onto Kota Waringin, before arriving in remote Central Kalimantan’s Pangkalan Bun.
Travelling in 1998 through the Kalimantan region of Borneo is both tough and slow…
…but we persist as the one-month visa is running out fast before having to head back to Australia, via Singapore.
Awoken very early as usual by the wailing from a nearby mosque, decide to collect some Telur Rebus (boiled eggs) for the journey and head for the rustic wharf. Hoping to take yet another speedboat for the next leg of this very long journey to nowhere, it seems.
Leaving at 8 am, the journey from Kendawangan to Kuala Jelai is scheduled to take only 2 hours.
With only 2 boats going each day, we make the mistake of taking the much slower boat. But, this being Kalimantan, something always goes amiss.
Leaving the wharf we head down the Sungai Membuluh (river) before making our way out to the Java Sea once more to follow the coastline south. As many tributaries in this area empty out to the sea, the water is murky and dirty.
Wild boat journey
Typically for anywhere in Indonesia, the boat is dangerously overloaded with passengers and goods. Passengers are practically sitting on top of each other. It appears that safety is low on the priority list in this country and making more money by cramming people onto any type of transport, is the norm. The worst part is that not many of these locals can swim, which is scary when heading into open waters.
The wind picks up making the sea choppy and with every swell, we come crashing down on the hard timber bench that serves as a makeshift seat. The boat ploughs ahead making the journey unbelievably uncomfortable. To make things worse, locals start throwing up everywhere. The swell increases making the journey even rougher until one of the crew pulls down the awning so seawater doesn’t swamp the speedboat. Still, the skipper keeps the boat crashing through the continual waves at an alarming speed until finally turning into the calmness of another river. Dropping a few passengers off, the skipper pushes the boat up and down the river for ages, scouting for more customers.
Finally, we stop and are ordered to get off while the boat is refuelled, which takes an hour and a half. A local mentions the name of this tiny village but sadly, it’s promptly purged from my mind as nervousness about the next leg of this journey is at the forefront of my mind.
Finally, head down the river once more and out to the sea’s surrounding muddy waters for the final hour of this awful journey. The skipper drives the boat through quite rough and a very turbulent sea, while we crash down on our bench until the boat finally moves over calmer waters, to everyone’s relief. A deluge of fishing boats anchor along this coastline, including the traditional Pinisi sailing boats.
Turning into the calm waters of the Sungai Jelai, we finally reach the town of Kuala Jelai and are offloaded from the speedboat just like cattle. Relieved to be on land again, kissing the ground seems like a good idea.
Kuala Jelai to Sukumara
Not realising we need to keep going to get back to the road, the next challenge is to find another speedboat to continue to Sukumara an hour away. This time the boat is smaller.
Waiting for the new skipper to fuel up, take a peek around and spot loads of fishing boats. Some arrive from Pankalabun, which is many hours away loaded with sea prawns. The river prawns are massive and delicious in Kalimantan but no indulgence this time as rushing between transport. Late in the afternoon and without any idea of how long the remainder of this journey will take, push onto the next leg.
In 1998, the mode of transport in this area was mainly by crisscrossing picturesque rivers, which is also calmer and a little safer than heading out to sea. With no information at hand, destinations are a stab in the dark.
The skipper is another leadfoot and doesn’t slow down when passing boats. Loads of boats cross our bow so the boat crashes down onto the water before continuing.
Sadly, this area sees heavy logging. Passing smaller vessels floating logs down the Bila River but also larger Pinisi boats waiting to be loaded or already laden to the gunnels and overflowing with newly felled timber. Luckily, huge old trees too close to the water still remain untouched although the felled trees are ancient and massive – so sad to witness this disregard for nature, especially knowing the future consequences, even in 1998.
A plethora of traffic continuously ploughs up and down the river like a superhighway. There’s always some form of available transport whether bus, 4×4, speedboat, sampan, canoe – anything to make a dollar. With so many locals living in isolated Kalimantan, understandably there are many modes of transport available, especially as some villages are only accessible by boat – an efficient network.
Sukamara to Kota Waringin – Central Kalimantan
Finally making it to Sukamara, taxi drivers in 4x4s swamp us, hassling for a quick fare – spot the only tourists around…
Picking one for the hour’s trip to Kota Waringin, the road isn’t too bad and doesn’t resemble a moonscape for once. A careful driver on this ride, which is a rarity.
Waringin is the next spot to catch yet another speedboat further east to Pangkalan Bun. Feels as though we’re zig-zagging while edging ever so slowly in an easterly direction across southern Borneo.
Kota Waringin to Pangkalan Bun
This perpetual day continues on a never-ending journey as we catch another speedboat for Pangkalan Bun (Pangkalanbuun). There are no foreigners in this area, actually, no foreigners around all day or for the past several days. And, this is the reason we’re told a bunch of lies in broken English from a boat owner advising that no boats are leaving because it’s too late in the day, except, of course, his boat. So the owner charges a higher price for the one-and-a-half-hour trip.
Less than an hour into the trip, the speedboat’s outboard starts to cough and play up until it finally stops. So, we transfer to another boat that pulled up alongside, to continue the journey. Karma for being too greedy and ripping us off.
A steady procession of boats plies the river as this is the most popular mode of transport in this region. Aside from the breakdown, gliding down the Lamond River is very pleasant and then finally crossing over to the Karuganyar. With an overflow of river traffic, the scenery becomes even more picturesque and every bend is a picture book of photos.
Finally, after the 1.5-hour trip taking 3.5-hours, arrive at almost 4pm at the small village of Pangkalan Bun. An exhausting travel day starting at 8am this morning, negotiating 3 speedboats and a 4×4 through southwest and southern central Kalimantan – while being ushered by locals in Broken English from transport to transport. Still edging our way slowly towards Banjarmasin, but stopping the night in Pangkalan Bun as too exhausted to continue.
Looking back over today’s travel day, the difference in total cost to fly from Kendawangan to Pangkalan Bun is a mere AUD$8 and would take only 1.5 hours. In comparison, today has taken over 8 hours by water and road. But, for all the stress and demanding travel, it has been worth it as the experience is both amazing and the local life in this remote region is fascinating! You miss too much when you fly from place to place.
Leaving Pangkalan Bun
Tomorrow it’s onto Palangkaraya, hopefully by bus on a 10 to 12-hour journey, but this is Kalimantan in 1998 and not everything goes to plan…