Daily life on the Sungai Mahakam, Kalimantan

Posted: June 8, 2011 in Indonesia
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The mighty Mahakam River (Sungai) flows 980km from the centre of Indonesian Borneo in the district of Long Apari to its mouth at the Makassar Strait, where it embraces the Celebes Sea. The sprawling, rapacious city of Samarinda, a longtime backpacker magnet, lies 48km from the river mouth. Its equatorial climate makes for a swift transit and its from here that we started our 3 day Sungai Mahakam adventure having taken an early morning bus from Balikpapan with Kiswono, our local guide originally from Jakarta, Java.

A popular starting point amongst the guides for river exploration is Kota Bangan, a disheveled riverside town some 4hrs by bus north-west of Samarinda. For the supply chain of East Kalimantan this daily trip is a battle of whit and nerves. Like many provincial roads in Borneo (both Malaysian and Indonesian), the road has been ravaged by the burden of overloaded lorries ferrying the spoils from man’s rape of the land. Trucks laden with coal and timber splutter along the shredded tarmac, increasing the strain on the already creaking infrastructure. During the day sporadic police presence curbs excessive loading but at night, with the authorities safely tucked up in bed, conniving truck operators plough the roads with cumbersome loads. The net result is a road that resembles war torn towns where the sight of flat tarmac is a welcome respite from potholes and crumbled rock. In places the road has collapsed entirely into the ravines at the side, reducing the width to a barely passable dimension. Along this road travel the masses; school children, farmers, housewives, fishermen, businessmen, middlemen and your everyday traveler. It’s 4 hours of mental torture; if the incessant thump of bus on rocks doesn’t break your spine, the cacophony of stressed engine noises and creaking chassis will split your mind. One journey tested our nerves; imagine what it’s like to rely on this route for your livelihood. The local people have to accept poor standards from a government that isn’t too bothered.

From Kota Bangan, public ferries provide easy and cheap access to the upstream villages. The inner river is littered with Dayak Villages, the homes of the indigenous people whose ancestral land has long since been invaded by the modern prospectors. The Dayak people have their own language, customs, law and territory. They are animist in belief though some have recently converted to Christianity and Islam, the dominant religion on Borneo.

Instead of bedding down in the large ferry, Kiswono employed a local boatman called Adi to whisk us upriver at a quicker pace. Our boat was better than anticipated for a motorised canoe; it had its own canopy to shield us from the unrelenting sun and cushions with back rests acting as makeshift seats. From the crumbling wooden jetty of Bangan we headed across the immense Lake Sanayang (apparently 40,000 hectares) towards Muara Muntai village. White people are rare commodities in these parts, so the children of the village are excited to see you and come running out to the wooden boardwalks to wave and cheer. It’s a beautiful welcome.

Dayak Village, Sungai Mahakam, East Kalimantan

The local villages are built along the riverbank. Work is exclusively as fishermen and the men, sometimes accompanied by their wives, plough the waterways every day from dawn to dusk and often beyond. The houses are made from wood and sit adjacent to the river with wooden boardwalks providing a path between the houses and down to makeshift jetties. Most of the jetties are simple planks or wooden logs meshed together. It’s basic and rustic but it works. Occasionally a bright shiny house leaps out from amongst the ageing timber. Interestingly, in every village, no matter how small or poor, the mosque (Masjid) is built from quality materials and looks in far better condition that any of the houses. The villagers obviously take great pride in their religion and its edifices. I can’t help wonder what is more important though, a nice shiny mosque or better buildings for the people?

A lake of many colours

In the morning of our second day we headed out past Jantur Village into the impressive Lake Jampang, even larger than Sanayang. It’s quite a journey just to reach the far end.

The lake provides an array of beautiful sights and colours. The deep brown water of the river and its tributaries gives way to a shimmering blue as you reach the depths of the lake. Above the intense blue of the sky glistens in the sun. Occasionally wisps of fluffy cloud break the monotony of the sunshine. Every now and then a floating tuft of forest debris drifts by, either clumps of vegetation and reeds or large logs broken away from fallen trees. On either side, floating forests emerge from the horizon’s mirage. There are large groups of trees whose base is submerged in water at high tides. These trees give the appearance of old forests suddenly flooded. They provide a wonderful reflection that makes for excellent photos. Tucked amongst these floating trees is a myriad of fauna and the sight of a hawk or eagle is not uncommon overhead.

The stunning scenery can easily transfix you. The gentle lull of the boat quickly becomes soporific and only the regular shout of “Selamat pagi” from the fishermen wakes you from the slumber. It has to be one of the most relaxing ways to spend your time. However, after 7 hours in one position, your spine may well send a different message.

A step back in time at a traditional Longhouse

In Mancong Village, tucked neatly away down a small tributary of the Mahakam, you will find something truly unique. Behind the small wooden jetty, visible through a patch of trees, is a well-preserved traditional Longhouse. The Longhouse, some 60m in length based on a crude measurement, dates back several centuries. Before the 1950s the Dayak people lived in such communal houses with up to 4 families in each room. Today these longhouses are rare in Kalimantan, reflecting the pressure to preserve the unique social and cultural heritage of these tribes.

Dayak Longhouse, Mancong Village, Kalimantan

Kiswono lamented the lack of concern shown by central Government for cultural preservation in Kalimantan; their financial efforts remain focused on the established tourist destinations like Bali. The issue is compounded by the march of consumerism and capitalism amongst the young generations of the Dayak people; the teenagers are migrating to Indonesian cities in search of bright lights and better opportunities. It all leads to an impoverishment of cultural heritage and the likelihood that traditional village life could well die-out within 20 years.

Though the local government distills its rule through irregular communication, it’s still the Dayak tribal leader that the people turn to for guidance and governance. Old habits die hard. It would appear that the central administration is more concerned with extracting financial value from the Dayak’s ancestral lands, mainly through coal mining, than maintaining effective rule by direct government.

From Mancong, Adi expertly steered us along the Baroh, a shortcut that intersects the main artery of the Mahakam and takes you east towards the famous triangle at Muara Pahu where Irrawaddy Dolphins are often spotted. It had been one of the main objectives of our trip to seek out these creatures as they can only be found here and in parts of Thailand. Although we had seen one, briefly, in the morning, we hoped for more time observing their behaviour and beholding their beauty. Alas it was not to be. One hour of patience revealed nothing and with darkness drawing in, we had to head south and back to our base at Muara Muntai.

The incessant march of human greed

Since the 1970s, the Dayak people have faced an insidious threat; human greed. Their ancestral lands are rich in natural resources and the rape of the land is evident. As you pass by bus between villages, coal mining and logging projects leap out from the forest. Vast swathes of primary rainforest have been destroyed to make a quick buck.

To appease the locals, the Central Government insists on the big companies making concessions to the villages; this usually involves a token effort, perhaps a small cash investment in the community but nothing lasting. The state of the homes and buildings is lamentable; outdoor toilets that float on wooden logs over the river are ramshackle and seemingly held together by nothing more than goodwill. We passed one toilet hut that had broken free and was tilted at an impossible angle into the river. Downstream children were playing, oblivious to the human waste flowing towards them. There is innocence and there is low quality of life; here the two mix worryingly.

The big companies and Central Government are making the most from the Dayak land whilst the villagers continue their lives seemingly unaware. Kiswono believes that they will eventually wake-up to this exploitation as their patience and good nature has a limit; however, this epiphany may well be too late to preserve their culture and economic future.

It’s another tragic human story. The people are wonderful, their treatment by others more sinister. As we walked around Mancong village, children and adults greeted us warmly. Though the Dayak people are far more laid back than their city counterparts, the warmth of their kindness is no less glowing. Their smiles reflect an inner peace, a sense of synergy with the natural world. We can highly recommend taking a trip up the Sungai Mahakam and exploring the local villages. The scenery is spectacular, the pace of life soothing and the people incredibly endearing. But I wouldn’t want to live this way.

Love jamer & bro senior x

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