Recently nominated for UNESCO world heritage listing, the Sangkulirang-Mangkatihat Karst area in East Kalimantan is an extraordinary wonderland of towering karst nodules, caves and lakes. As word spreads, the region is bound to receive worldwide acclaim but until then only a privileged few will experience the wonders of the Sangkulirang-Mangkalihat Karsts.
Once a solid basin of dissolvable rocks, primarily limestone, a millennia of weathering, tectonic movement and water erosion from rainfall and snowmelt, carved out a vast and intricate limestone labyrinth of jungle draped karst domes, narrow chasms, tunnels and caves. Isolated rock pools and small lakes team with fish, turtles and crocodiles and in the jungle canopy, orangutan and other exotic species have found refuge. And deep in the heart of the mostly unexplored karsts, local rumour tells of the existence of a small nomadic tribe of Dayak Punan.
Certainly, the region has long been inhabited by humans. Rock paintings including hand outlines, dot and line drawings and images of humans and animals (some unknown to us today)have been recorded in more than a hundred caves. Human remains and other archeological evidence suggest human occupation going back more than 35,000 years. Due to their location high on cave walls, is some cases 100-200 metres above the ground, many of the paintings are extremely well preserved.
Located on the Sangkulirang Peninsula about 250km north of Samarinda as the crow flies, the karst area is vast, covering approximately 1.5 million hectares. Getting there requires some effort. Long road trips from Samarinda in the south or Berau to the north, hired four wheel drive vehicle to the edge of the formation then a combination of canoe and trekking into the heart of the formation.
Depending on how much and what you want to see, you’ll need to allow 4-10 days in your itinerary. Expect lodge (losman) style or homestay style accommodation in any of the surrounding villages or jungle camping within the karsts themselves.
In theory, a trip to the karsts can be achieved independently. You’ll need to hire a four wheel drive out of Samarinda or Berau and get yourself to one or some of the nearby villages such as Perondongan, Pengadan, Merapun and Takat Manubar where local guides and porters can be hired to access various parts of the karsts. However, this is probably one expedition best done with the help of an experienced local tour company. Check online or visit some of the tour and travel agencies in Balikpapan or Samarinda.