Indonesia: Sailing into the heart of Borneo

[words and photograph © Mark Eveleigh]

“Kopi! Kopi panas!”

The welcoming invitation to hot coffee brought an end to what had been a fitful night’s sleep. I gratefully rolled out of my hammock and staggered into the wheelhouse where Akim, the skipper, greeted me with only the most fleeting glance away from the shadowy threats of the river.

I wrapped my hands around an enamel mug of coffee – sweetened with great quantities of condensed milk – and ducked out onto the dew-dampened bow. The jungle-clad riverbanks swirled here and there with heavy mist and the equatorial sun was just bleaching the sky dead-ahead. During the night we had zigzagged once again back into the southern hemisphere, but the sun was rising on a landscape that seemed identical in every way to the one upon which it had set precisely 12 hours earlier. For three days and nights the old cargo boat had been steadily puttering into the heart of Borneo.

In the scale of Indonesia’s longest river, three days travel is not a great deal and we were still only halfway through our voyage. It seemed that the giant trees had crept almost imperceptibly closer during the night and, if anything, the current was running slightly faster. Akim was guiding the spotlight in its last sweeping searches of the swirling current now, straining his eyes for the telltale swirls of current around half-hidden logs. A lantern, glowing faintly on a floating platform, showed the position of a jungle village. In an hour or so the first of the villagers would come down to the river to wash. But for now there was just the yap of some kampong mongrel and the muffled splash of a dugout being pushed away from its moorings, bound no doubt for a quick dawn patrol around the fish-traps.

It was a scene that can have changed little since Joseph Conrad cruised the inland waterways of Borneo. The old timber cargo boat herself was part of a tradition that went back even before that time. Bandung trading boats – very much like the 28-metre Jongkung Utama – have been moored on the mighty Kapuas for hundreds of years. There was a time, not so very long ago, when they were the preferred form of business establishment here; Malay traders and shrewd Chinese entrepreneurs alike appreciated the advantage of being able to cut loose from the bank in the event of a surprise attack from an Iban headhunting party.

Fanico Lorensius, the boat’s owner, came out of the wheelhouse, scratching a chubby paunch under his vest.

“Selamat pagi pak,” – good morning, mister.

He hitched his sarong around his knees and squatted meditatively on a roll of rope on the bow, nursing his own steaming mug.

The Jongkong Utama has been plying these waters for over thirty years but Fanico bought her seven years ago and he and his crew of eight have spent the majority of those years living on-board as they trade goods between the coast and the farthest navigable reaches of the interior. These days the upriver trade is often in plastic and electronic goods but, on the return journey, the hold is filled with raw rubber. Even today the cargo boat skippers will often return from the interior with the bird’s nests and camphor and extravagant medicinal cure-alls – ranging from bear bile to monkey’s gall-stones to deer foetus – that continue to fetch a high price from Chinese traders.

Today there are almost 300 large trading boats constantly making the 600-mile, six-day voyage between the coastal port of Pontianak and the jungle frontier-town of Putussibau. Thousands of people spend almost their entire lives travelling endlessly from one end of the river to the other.

Twenty-three-year-old Ida works as a cook onboard the cargo boats. Three times a day she would prepare rice and fish – occasionally with a fried egg, or some fiery chillies by way of variety. At the last port, rather than wait while fresh cargo is loaded, Ida would jump ship and find a new berth for the return trip. There are of course riverside bawdyhouses and working girls strategically located along the river, but this was not Ida’s scene and she made most of her living wage by selling imported baby clothes to upriver communities.

The arrival of Ida and the crew was an important event in the riverside communities and they are welcomed at every stop as long-lost friends. They passed on news and gossip of happenings on other stretches of the river and the villagers regaled them with tales of momentous happenings since the boat last docked here.

A minor crewman on one of these boats might make $100 per trip to send to his family. Their pleasures are simple. In the Muslim town of Sintang there are often other boats moored and a chance for some innocent socialising. In Jongkong the rules are slightly more lax and there is often an illegal gambling session in a kolok-kolok dice-den and a bottle or two of fiery arak on the wharf. You’re a long way from refrigerators here and the local Anker beer is invariably served warm; ask for cold beer and you get it with a glass of ice.

“What’d you expect?” quipped Akim, “this is Jongkong, not Hong Kong.”

In Pontianak and Putussibau, between voyages, there might be the chance for some more boisterous partying. I had already seen the effect that a few bottles of arak and a guitar can have on a gathering of wharfies and crew during a long and rowdy night at Pontianak dock. The ubiquitous concession to onboard entertainment is the powerful hi-fi karaoke system that seems designed specifically to facilitate the exportation of bleating Javanese pop-music to the unsuspecting upriver population. Most of the boats have these systems and the crews and captains are inordinately proud of them. Just as they display the power of their engines with good-hearted racing upriver, so two static cargo-boats, moored in an otherwise peaceful riverside hamlet, will frequently embark on a mind-reeling duel to see who can boast the baddest base.

Fanico, as befits the owner, had his own cabin – furnished with a mattress, a heap of comics and an old TV – and the crew slept on rattan mats in a small room just behind the wheelhouse. Virtually all the remaining areas of the boat are reserved for the cargo of furniture, stacks of eggs, sacks of sugar, electronics and mountains of plastic buckets. There were also the satellite dishes that are steadily blossoming like huge flowers in every riverside village and barrels of gasoline and tyres for the logging vehicles that are intent on working the headwaters even of many of Borneo’s remotest rivers. I had strung my hammock in the lower hold, among sacks of Javanese rice (apparently considered superior to locally-grown jungle-rice). On stormy days when the shutters were swung down the hold was stuffy and smelled thickly of rubber and rice dust. But it was comfortable enough and the hammock neutralised much of the shuddering of the boat’s engine.

The stilted town of Selimbau must be one of the most beautiful kampongs in all Borneo. We arrived in early morning when the delicate pastel paintwork of the houses and mosques were reflected in the gently rippling surface of the inlet upon which the town is built. There are many miles of stilted walkways here and different quarters are linked with quaint humpback bridges. The waterfront is bedecked with floating pontoons upon which women in coolie hats beat their washing and naked children splash and play.

“The water from here onwards is perfectly clean,” Fanico told me as we puttered back into the main stream. “There’s an old lady called Nenek Moyang who has drunk it all her life. She’s over a hundred years old.”

As Akim threaded the Jongkong Utama between the curves and currents he had to hug the bank to avoid what must be one of the bizarrest river vehicles in the world. Hundreds of logs had been lashed together with rattan cord and the resulting island (about 500 square metres) was being shunted all the way downriver to Pontianak by five small trading boats. What was most incredible – and appallingly dangerous it seemed – was that several plastic-sheet tents had been erected on the logs. In these tents lived the men whose job it was to inspect the rattan ties. They seemed to stroll confidently over the floating platform but it was easy to imagine that, should the huge floating logs buckle unexpectedly, a crushed ankle would feel like a lucky escape. The men would live like that for the entire weeklong voyage.

We arrived at Semitau late that afternoon and prepared for a night moored to the riverbank. The clouds of flying ants that had plagued us from dusk eventually convinced most of the crew to abandon attempts at sleep in favour of an impromptu karaoke session in the moonlight. At 3am I realised the folly of trying to sleep and joined them. For some reason there are always flying ants in Semitau but the boats dare not sail onwards at night because this is the most treacherous stretch on the Kapuas. The river switches and swerves continuously and at every turn there are vicious sideswiping currents that, if approached wrongly, can spin a cargo boat in mid-current.

Akim, like the best of the riverboat captains, knew that disaster can come in a heartbeat. This was actually the second time that I had made this trip. My first, ill-fated, voyage remains a part of Kapuas river-lore to this day; at dawn on the second day out of Pontianak the Sinar Bulan hit a submerged log, and within less than 10 minutes she had cracked in half and sunk. Luckily the accident happened within sight of a small village and the crew and 40 passengers were rescued by canoes. We were shipwrecked in the village for two days. The site of the sinking of the Sinar Bulan still stands as a warning to skippers but I was relieved that a reputation as a Jonas had not preceded me among the frequently superstitious Kapuas sailors.

Just as western seafarers did in earlier ages, the rivermen of the Kapuas still make offerings and prayers before a voyage. The crews represent the broad spectrum of religious and ethnic diversity of the island and the wheelhouses might be decorated with text from the Koran, a Christian crucifix, a statue of the lord Buddha, the odd animist amulet of a Dayak religion.

Even the most reckless of Borneo’s riverboat captains is aware that you can never be too careful on Indonesia’s longest river.

Getting there:

There are no passenger boats into the interior but the Kalimantan-based organisation Kompakh can arrange flight connections to Pontianak (about US$160 return) and help with plans for onward travel to anywhere in West Kalimantan.


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