The challenge for river enthusiasts in Borneo, after experimentally testing themselves on the minor rivers, is the Mahakam, the country’s longest river. Rising some one thousand kms in the central mountains it wanders down to the coast near Samarinda where it empties its self into the the Makassar Straights by way of a large delta. The immediate problem is finding a way onto it as the first two hundred kms are heavily trafficked with vast mineral barges and coastal craft while the banks are crowded with stilted villages, shacks, shops, restaurants, cafes and of course mines. Not too edifying. Coal is loaded onto barges from huge conveyor belts crossing high above the dwellings and poured down into the waiting barges, with of course, the resulting dust and stink. There are bottlenecks on the road along this part of the river where a bridge crossing has been built, unfortunately said bridges tend to collapse periodically leading to sad loss of life. To avoid this hive of activity requires either a car rental or a bus ride, I chose the latter and up ready and waiting at 5am my guide, the excellent Abdullah, showed up and immediately hailed a passing scooter coaxing me onto the back for the ride to the bus terminal. I got the idea early on that this was not going to be any type of luxury cruise! The bus turned out to be a short, thirty seater, raggedy seats, cargo down the center aisle, doors and windows open for ventilation, every seat taken, crowded with Moms and children, farmers, miners and me. Sure got some interested looks. Off we wheezed casting clouds of fumes through the aforementioned hive of activity. Two hours and we were through and into the countryside, the hills loomed, no jungle, just palm oil plantations, the road twisted and turned, rose and fell, and the passengers started throwing up. Like I said, no luxury cruise this one.
Five hours of that and we reached the river, broad and brown, wide and lazy, and there was my boat. A ces, a glorified canoe with a lawn mower engine, the propellor attached to a long pole sticking out the back. The propellor sits quite high in the water and throws up a spectacular curved wash high in the air as we race along, it’s pretty impressive. In some parts of Asia this is known as a ‘long tail’. Settled into the one seat and roared off upstream where we promptly stopped. Propellor jammed. This has happened before here and there so I wasn’t really perturbed, just take it as it comes. We slowly made our way to the first village, tied up, unjammed the prop’ and set off again, noisily. Many, many villages along the river and judging by the number of satellite dishes these fisherfolk were doing just fine. Floating shops, floating gas (petrol) stations, floating houses, stilted walkways, tons to see. Different too, a Muslim majority village, a Dayak majority village, a Catholic majority village, a village of immigrants from Sulawesi, another with people from Banjarmasin in South Kalimantan, totally fascinating, each with different languages but they all speak Dayak as well.
We crossed some big lakes, negotiated reed beds and huge banks of weed, almost impenetrable and of course we got stuck periodically. Harry, the driver, didn’t seem too concerned and bashed the cloying weeds with his paddle, freeing us. The problem was that as soon as we stopped clouds of mosquitos descended on us, out with the bug spray which helped a little. Eventually to our village for the night and the accommodation turned out to be a Dayak communal tribal longhouse. We wandered around the lanes and paths, watched the children fishing off a bridge, tried to find a replacement charger for Abdullah’s phone and ate some very good food for dinner.Then it was time to attend a Dayak Tribal Ritual featuring five drummers, a very large Shaman (medicine man?), wearing bells on his feet and a long skirt who danced and chanted, many female attendants and two chickens. There were maybe fifty people gathered in the big hut, mainly women with some sleeping children plus a smattering of men, everyone was Dayak, and me. People have written books about what I observed, suffice it to say I accepted that I was no longer in Hertford, Hereford or Hampshire any more, not even in Marin. It was all very strange and got stranger when two chickens became part of the Ritual. Oh no, I thought, but no, it was ok, they lived another day. I would love to have the words to describe it, the Ritual, but I don’t, probably because I had no idea what was going on, everyone seemed very happy though, much smiling. I think Abdullah told me we were communing with the ancestors, certainly offerings were made to someone/something, stuff was set alight and burned smokily, fruits were placed around in bowls and on plates clearly not to be eaten by me. I took some video on my tiny ipod, maybe it will make it home and I can find someone to shed some light on it. Again, it was all very strange.
Next morning it was back out onto the lakes and rivers, more getting stuck in the reed and weed beds, more mosquitos, lots of bug spray. We traversed big lakes, made our way down narrow waterways, enjoyed the wildlife, failed to take photos of kingfishers, again, and passed by many, many more floating villages. There were more Bird Hotels. Did I mention these before? Can’t remember. All the villages had their bird hotels, big concrete or wooden structures, quite ugly with small holes in the walls and amplified bird song emanating from speakers on the roof. The birdsong attracts the swiftlets who build their nests within using their saliva, thousands and thousands of them. Their situation, beside the river, provides an abundance of food, mozzies etc. The nests are then harvested with the price at source being $100 per kilo, the nests are then exported to China where they are the basis for Bird Nest Soup, at vast expense. I became quite obsessed with Bird Hotels, eagerly pointing them out to the long suffering Abdullah who would smile, indulgently.
All day on the river, thundering along on the wide open parts, creeping along to observe the banks, more getting stuck in the reeds, it was a fabulous day, exhausting but far, far away from the humdrum. We eventually tied up in a village for the night, a village with no dogs. No dogs? No, no dogs. This I noticed quite soon as it is the sign of a 100% Muslim village. Apparently The Prophet, when on the run from the authorities had his hiding place betrayed by dogs, so no dogs in Muslim villages. Also, no beer. We passed the evening pleasantly enough at the house of one of his friends, the wife made local delicacies, the kids watched cartoons on tv, the menfolk chatted away while I rested on the sofa wondering what to do. It wasn’t as if I could read a book or play music on the headphones, that would be impolite just about anywhere. But I drank lots of tea, enjoyed the delicacies except perhaps the stewed bananas in, I think, rancid condensed milk, whatever it was it was horrid, truly awful. After a couple of hours it was time to go, back on the scooter, back to my concrete box to sleep. Ten o’clock came and there was a great wailing, up and down the street wailing. That’s new thinks I, turned over and tried to sleep again, my concrete box was very hot on account of no window or a fan.
Dawn came, eventually and peering over the edge of the upper floor there was a huge canvas covering the street outside the accommodation, chairs everywhere, people gathering, food being prepared and much sawing of wood and hammering. Odd, it wasn’t there when I went to bed. Abdullah appeared, what is happening says I. “oh didn’t you hear the Morning Prayers, the owner died last night”. Of course I had heard the Morning Prayers but as for understanding them, not a chance. The hammering and sawing came from the local carpenters, building the elderly Gent’s coffin, right there, on the street, he was quite elderly and his demise was not unexpected, but still!
I’m going on a bit sorry, lets wind it up.
Off back downstream in the ces to the jetty, found the car to take us back to Samarinda with a young woman already in the back. Turned out she was the one and only local midwife who delivers babies up and down the river and we were giving her a ride to town. Very charming, no English, but wherever we stopped she would find children she had brought into the world and chat chat chat. Nice. Abdullah insisted that I go to his home and meet his family, oh no, not another social situation where I do not understand a word spoken, all I wanted to do was take a nap. It seemed churlish to refuse so we arrive at his house, slip and slide up the steep path with no steps, fall in through the door and collapse on the sofa. I heard singing and from the back of the house comes Mrs Abdullah, Diana, bearing a cake, with candles all lit followed by many children of all ages singing Happy Birthday, in English. Oh my goodness. I had to blink seriously. It was quite lovely. There were presents. More tea. We always had Birthday Tea back in Marin but I didn’t make a big deal out of my birthday, I just mentioned it when Abdullah, at some point, asked me how old I was. There I was in far away Samarinda, having Birthday Tea, it was all a bit much and I was quite overcome. What could I do in return, fix the family computer of course, hahaha, they were all thrilled.
I have been off the Internet for over ten days hence the lack of communication. I was a plane, car and boat ride away on a coral island, an atoll, complete with reef and lagoon and little to no connectivity. It was a miracle to find in these days of mass tourism, only a handful of other wanderers were there, less actually.
It was called Maratua.
I seem to have mislaid the Birthday photos. I will upload a couple when I find them.
Great post Tim. Well done on surviving all the awkward house visits in a foreign language – very stressful. The coral island sounds perfect!
Thank you Ben, yes the house visits were a bit stressful, there is a limit on smiling and saying thank you it seems.
Coral island was just perfect, I felt like Robinson Crusoe!
Am envious of your continued adventures! Sounds amazing!
It certainly has its ups and downs Laura as I am sure you know.
But whenever there is a bit of a down I just turn round and see something that is, as you say, amazing.
Wow, the birthday tea was a bit lump in the throat making. Well done for surviving the last few days, was beginning to wonder if you’d dropped off the edge of the world xx
Sorry about the dropping off there.
In fact there was a cell tower on the island under which I could sit and Skype successfully but email didn’t work nor much else in fact.
Big lump in throat at birthday tea, I was very touched.
What an incredible journey. So glad to hear you had a birthday party but a pity about the funeral just outside your window.
A most descriptive account of your river trip. Well done.
It was a very interesting trip, thank you for the comment.
I seem to remember your comment about my affection for walls in Central Asia, well, I seem to have transferred that affection to rivers!
Geographically speaking I find it quite remarkable that Borneo produces all these enormous rivers on what is in fact an island.
A large island indeed but there must be an phenomenal amount of rain falling somewhere.
So pleased to read such a brilliant and descriptive account of your adventure on the river. Yes, the Birthday Tea was very moving and how wonderful to have the family tradition with such lovely people. Look forward to reading about Maratua.x
Thank you Victoria, glad you enjoyed it, there is so much to tell.
The birthday tea was entirely spontaneous, I hadn’t given any clues to the tradition.
Maybe the family read about birthday parties in the West on the Internet.
I have no idea how they came up with the idea.
I did find the photos but they won’t upload.
I will try again later.
You have certainly made up for the absence of recent blogs – this one is fascinating! Really, Tim, you must compile all these and publish your book. I was with you all the way down that river, felt the familiar feeling of being with a lovely, welcoming family and not being able to communicate! So much I could mention – the coffin-making, the birthday surprise (bless!), the bird hotels, the eagle photo… thank you Tim for sharing these experiences with us. Your last sentence is a ‘hanging in the air’ sentence, which leads me to believe there will shortly be a blog on Maratua? Can’t wait!!!
Is a ‘hanging in the air sentence’ a real grammar thing? If not, it should be.
Interesting you should mention a book as I have been working, in my mind, on a lengthy blog titled ‘From Samarkand to Samarinda”.
Maybe when I sit down for long enough I can develop the idea.
As for the sharing, actually the pleasure is all mine, it is such a treat to scribble down all the things that happen and then read the great comments I receive in return. Thanks.
The Maratua blog is coming along but I realized that I am up to over six hundred words and I haven’t even arrived yet!
I have a few days on Sulawesi starting tomorrow morning, maybe I can finish it there.
Sorry to keep you waiting just a wee bit longer…..
We literally laughed, cried, cringed, ooohed and aaahed. What an adventure reading that was. It still blows me away that this isn’t just a super well written and engaging story, but its your actual life! I’m so impressed you can handle all the little things that take one second to read but involve days and weeks and MONTHS of backally (or is it backstream) Borneo boonie hardcore living. Love it. And then to top it off you throw in that you have been away from THE INTERNET for 10 days. I mean, how are you alive? What do you do without the Internet? As Annie said, Cant wait for the next one…
As I said to your Mother ‘ROTFALMFAO”!
Such a great comment, thanks Bud.
I think its possible that if i was doing all this in company I would have similar feelings/emotions but on my own I can’t (well not too much anyway) or I would be a wreck.
Just have to keep on keeping on.
We did have pangs of digital detox I have to admit.
The friendly Polish couple run their own creative business and for some reason their email worked, mine didn’t.
Maybe it is something to do with the latest update for my phone as it is acting very strangely, some things work, others don’t.
I must run that update but it keeps failing.
Thanks again for the comment, much appreciated.
So love that in the midst of this adventure I get a call at United Market on my cell from you, showing up as Tim Stratton-Clarke, that was so crystal clear all the way from Borneo! I am so happy that you continue to be able to enjoy this
whole adventure, with windy roads, rough seas, mosquitoes, concrete boxes to sleep in and it seems the more remote and challenging the better. “Keep on trucking” and stay well. xx
It is pretty amazing isn’t it, even more so because I felt bad calling you while you were in the line at the checkout!
I do actually love the remote and challenging, it just seems more like an adventure.
But ok, no more walking across borders, promise.
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