Mahakam: Into the Heart of Borneo (2 of 4)

The four of us travellers had met while searching for a guide to take us upriver from Samarinda. While it’s perfectly feasible to go on your own, having someone to point the way to the best things to see is a good idea, especially as Tolong and Eheng longhouses, and the patch of rainforest, are all off the main tourist track, and the government tourist office does not direct travellers toward them.

Also, since a lot of destinations require chartered private boats to reach them, it helps to split the costs with others, and to have a local guide to negotiate a better price on your behalf. Samarinda’s hotels see a steady stream of would-be guides selling their services, although a lot of them are real rip-off merchants. We had all independently rejected a couple of offers from various people before we met Junaid Nawawi, who offered a trip for 7 full days for Rp 450,000 (about US$200 at that time) each for all transport, meals and accommodation. Keeping track of approximate costs as we went along, it seemed to us that it was a fair price, with not much profit margin for Junaid.

We set off by bus from Samarinda to the farthest point reachable upstream by road, since the daily, public river ferry was out of action that day. We passed through clearcuts and open grasslands with a few forlorn stumps; hardly a full-grown tree was to be seen. After three hours we transferred to a couple of motorized canoes and roared off up the Mahakam River.

With our heads barely above water level, we peered out at the passing landscape: a wide brown muddy river, lined by massive trees with farm fields and clearcuts behind them. The importance of the river as a transport route was emphasized by the highway signs and distance boards on the banks, and by the floating gas stations in the towns.

Occasional hornbills and fish eagles sailed overhead; we passed villages, clusters of wooden houses on stilts with a line of floating toilet shacks along the riverbank, and eventually ended up in Muara Muntai, where the Muntain River joins the Mahakam. It was a prosperous-looking town, mostly populated by "transmigrants" from Sulawesi. The houses were neatly built of tropical hardwood, again on stilts, with piles of garbage on the riverside. A neat boardwalk on the other side ran the length of the town – as a main street. The cluster of satellite dishes on the skyline was one of the few pieces of evidence that we were in the late 20th century.

The next day we set off by motorized canoe up the Muntai River and into extraordinary Lake Jempang, a large but exceptionally shallow body of water that produces vast quantities of fish. Nearly the entire lake is under one metre in depth, and several times when we lost the main channel, we ran aground and had to get out and push the boat, with fish bumping into our legs in the opaque grey water and our feet sinking into the soft clay on the lake bottom.

It was a strange feeling to be several kilometres from shore, and yet only ankle-deep in water. Both the lake and the river were mazes of wiers and fish traps and huge fishing nets; it took lots of local knowledge to navigate through them. The water around the villages we passed were literally boiling with jumping fish, perhaps attracted by the nutrients from the outhouses. We passed through an entire village floating on rafts anchored in the middle of the lake, complete with chickens, dogs, cats and even several tame marabou storks. Even here, with no electricity, two satellite dishes attested to the importance attached to television: the TVs ran on huge batteries that were recharged weekly in Muara Muntai.

We visited two "longhouses" on the other side of the lake. One, Mancong, was rebuilt in 1987 as a luxury hotel, an experiment that failed. It sits almost empty, except for one family who sell blowpipes, wicker baskets and knick-knacks to tourists; this is one of the destinations popular with tour operators and the tourist office in Samarinda.

The building is physically impressive, 70 metres long with two wooden storeys rising above a foundation of stilts, with balconies running the length of the building on each storey. There are Dayak carvings on the brackets supporting the roof and Easter Island-like statures outside. Without an active community living there, however, it seemed artificial and sad. In compensation, the river trip to Mancong from Lake Jempang was a wildlife highlight, with herons in the water, fish eagles and kingfishers in the air, and grey leaf monkeys and proboscis monkeys in the trees beside the narrow stream.

Tanjung Isuy, on the southern shore of Lake Jampang, is the most visited longhouse in East Kalimantan because of its proximity to Samarinda; many three-day tours offered in Samarinda are little more than a visit to Tanjung Isuy.

It is also not inhabited anymore: it has become a "cultural museum". In practice, this means that whenever a white face appears in the village, a dozen women run to the longhouse to sell souvenirs insistently to the tourists. We sped back to Muara Muntai in the gathering darkness and because, in true Indonesian style, the boat had no running lights. Junaid flicked his cigarette lighter occasionally to warn others of our approach. I eventually gave him my pocket flashlight to use instead, and we were mightily relieved when we returned, without a head-on collision.