Mahakam: Into the Heart of Borneo (1 of 4)

The rain, which poured down ceaselessly in sheets all night and then most of the morning, shouldn’t have surprised us. After all, we were in the inland heart of Indonesia’s East Kalimantan province on the island of Borneo, in what had once been a vast tract of tropical rainforest. The rainforest has all been hacked down, but the rain has remained.

We – a chef from California, a pair of German anthropology students, myself and Junaid, our Indonesian guide – were staying at Tolong longhouse, one of dozens of huge structures that still dot the Bornean interior as centres of the traditional lifestyle of the indigenous Dayak people. We were in the midst of a seven-day trip up the Mahakam River and its tributaries from the provincial capital of Samarinda, and the rain was interfering with our schedule. The rain finally stopped around 9:30 though, and we set off in search of rainforest.

Growing up with a huge map of the world on my bedroom wall, the island of Borneo, one of the largest islands in the world, had always been a place of mystery and romance for me: vast, unexplored tracts of rainforest, full of orangutans and head-hunters, was the image that I had. The reality proved quite different: orangutans are restricted to a handful of national parks, the Dayak are being numerically swamped by immigrants from overpopulated Java and Sulawesi, head-hunting is no more and, after three days of travel, we had yet to see a single stand of primary rainforest.

The timber companies have extended their operations far into the interior, building roads away from the rivers through the swampy lowlands and floating their bounty of enormous logs downstream to Samarinda. On every boat trip we had made, we had had to avoid the huge log booms and bargeloads of dense ironwood being towed downstream, occupying much of the width of the river.

We left the longhouse and set off in a motorized canoe, with a long shallow-draft propeller shaft projecting far behind the stern; these noisy but fast vessels are the standard means of transport in the shallow waters of East Kalimantan’s rivers. The Pahu River was in flood from the rain, and it was slow-going upstream.

After an hour we turned up an ever more flooded tributary, and laboured to overcome the strong current as we dodged driftwood and ducked our heads under dangerously low-hanging branches. The river had burst its banks and extended over the flat, scrubby secondary-growth forest floor for a long way in both directions. The atmosphere was reminiscent of the bayous of Louisiana. There was less animal life to be seen than on previous days, but there was still the occasional fish eagle soaring overhead, and iridescent blue kingfishers in the trees.

When we got to the end of the boat trip at noon, we got a taste of conditions to come as the wooden plank joining the floating pier to solid ground was under a metre of water. After lunch we set off on foot through fields and clearcuts along a logging road, crossing long flooded sections and tricky flooded footbridges: the narrow planks were a metre below swirling waters opaque with silt, and the upward buoyant force on the wood was threatening to pull the planks right off the bridge.

If one of us had fallen off carrying full backpack, the water was several metres deep, and it would have been tough to swim to safety. Long stretches of trail were knee-deep in water and resembled rivers more than paths. When we had survived the last bridge and climbed to slightly higher ground, we had to pick the leeches off our feet and legs.

The trail led through large rubber plantations, fallow fields and new clearcuts. The Dayak practice slash-and-burn "swidden" agriculture, farming a field for a few seasons and then moving on to clear a new field, returning after 10 or 20 years to cultivate the old one again. The atmosphere of utter desolation in the clearcuts was the same as I had experienced when tree-planting in northwestern Ontario. Most of the clearcuts were the work of the local villagers: it was the season for cutting new fields. The primary rainforest, with its valuable huge hardwood trees, had been lost here long ago.

As the afternoon wore on, though, we finally reached the one stand of primary rainforest, maybe 100 hectares in extent, that the local Dayak had been able to save from the timber companies by staking a timber claim of their own, and then not cutting the trees.

The atmosphere in virgin tropical rainforest is somewhat akin to that found in a poorly-lit cathedral: the thick, tremendously tall tree trunks draw the gaze upwards, the dense foliage of the canopy layer makes it dark and gloomy, and occasional patches of light illuminate strangler figs and thorny rattan vines hanging from the trees. As dusk fell and we foraged for reasonably dry deadwood for a fire, unseen gibbons gooted around us, and swallows and swifts swooped down the stream where we went to rinse our sweaty bodies. The undergrowth was dense; the rattan tore at our clothes as we walked, while the fallen tree trunks everywhere made walking difficult. Often, these trunks themselves were the only practical paths through the rainforest.

We spent the night in considerable discomfort on an excruciating log platform used by rattan cutters, listening to the weird noises of the gibbons and to the rain, which fell all night. The next morning we walked the sadly sort distance to the edge of the rainforest to the straggling scrubby bush of the secondary forest, and then through fields of aromatic lemon grass to another longhouse, Eheng, where we were fortunate enough to find a traditional healing ceremony scheduled for that evening. Sitting in the longhouse, we caught up on our diaries and reflected on the last few days’ travels.

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