Spilling into the South China Sea via a vast swampy delta just south of Pontianak, the 1,143km Kapuas River is Indonesia’s longest and one of the world’s longest island rivers. From its source in the Muller Mountains in the deep interior of Borneo, the Kapuas churns through dense mountainous jungle, dropping elevation and feeding into a vast basin of interconnecting lakes now encompassed in the Danau Sentarum National Park, then snakes its way lazily across the lowlands towards to the coast.
The river is a major route connecting the coast with the interior, busy river ports, Dayak villages and remote logging camps. It is constantly busy with passenger and cargo boats plying most of its length, the boats becoming progressively smaller upstream until eventually only longboats and canoes are able to navigate the waterway. Journeying along the river provides a fabulous opportunity to witness everyday river life, exploring canal cities, floating communities and Dayak villages along the way. If you have the time, take a side trip into the fascinating lakes of the Danau Sentarum National Park.
It’s the upper regions of the Kapuas River that offers the best chances to witness the rich traditions of the Dayak culture; well preserved longhouses, traditional medicines, intricate body tattoos and astounding ear adornments. Many villages welcome guests to stay overnight in their traditional longhouses and get a taste of Dayak village life for themselves.
Depending on whether you choose a leisurely riverboat or a speed boat and how many stops you make along the way, allow 4-10 days to explore the Kapuas River and surrounds. For a short duration Dayak longhouse experience, you can skip the lower reaches of the river and head straight to the small town of Putussibau nearly 600km’s upstream. A public bus and ferry departs most days from Pontianak, both trips taking a rather arduous 2 days. Travelling by private car or chartering a speedboat cuts the time in half. Alternatively, Putussibau is serviced several times weekly by regional flights from Pontianak.
From Putussibau, you can take a longboat all the way to Tanjung Lokan, the last village on the river. This section of the river hosts some of the last remaining traditional Dayak villages in Borneo. Those with plenty of time can continue on foot from Tanjung Lokan, trekking through the jungle into the Muller Mountains, dropping into some truly remote Dayak villages along the way. If you have an appetite for river travel, rather than returning to Tanjung Lokan and Putussibau, consider trekking over the ranges to the upper reaches of the Mahakam River (5-7 days) and travelling downstream all the way to Samarinda on the East Kalimantan coast, thereby completing a true cross Borneo expedition.
Depending on your journey duration and route, accommodation along the way varies from local inn (losman) style, homestays, longhouses and jungle camping. If you take a slow boat all the way from Pontianak you may even have a night or two on deck. The message here is to be flexible and bring a sleeping bag and sleeping mat with you.
Sandals or thongs that can handle being wet are a must and be sure to waterproof your luggage as there’s a high likelihood it will get wet. If you’re trekking, you need to be self-sufficient in every way from Putussibau onwards. Private bathroom facilities are non-existent in most Dayak villages and in the jungle; you’ll be washing in the river so woman should bring a sarong to wear for modesty.
As with anywhere in Kalimantan, the easiest way to organise boat rides is to head down to the wharf and ask around. Alternatively, Pontianak has several travel agencies that can help you out with boats and guides. There are several companies (some on-line) that run tours into this part of the world so if your budget extends to it, this is a nice easy option.