From its watershed in the Muller Mountains deep in the heart of Borneo, the Mahakam River flows 980km to Samarinda on the East Kalimantan coast where it disgorges into the Makassar Strait. Along its course, it is met by the Kedang Pahu River before diverging into a series of low marshy lakes, then reforming and bolstered by three significant tributaries it feeds alluvial rich farmlands before eventually flowing into a massive delta system.
Since ancient times, the river has been relied on for transportation, freshwater, fishing and cultivation. The oldest kingdom in Indonesia, the Kutai Martadipura kingdom, evolved in the Mahakam River basin. For centuries, indigenous Dayak longhouse communities thrived all along its length.
A journey along the Mahakam is an ecological and cultural treasure trove. Travelling by riverboat is an experience in itself. The lower reaches of the Mahakam can be navigated by large public ferry’s (kapal biasa) which run daily between Samarinda and Long Bangun, 2 days and 2 nights sailing away. A 380.000Rp ticket buys you a mattress and pillow on the open-sided sleeping deck, a chance to mingle with initially shy locals and a window into the fascinating and contrasting world of the river dwellers.
The first days cruising is mix of industry, huge barges hauling precious rain forest timbers and brown coal, against a backdrop of simple, stilted houses, women washing in the river, children playing and men trying the catch the evening meal in the muddy brown waters. By day two, the river narrows and the scenery changes. Gone are the large barges, replace by local cargo boats, longboats, small riverside Dayak villages, floating homes, giant limestone cliffs filled with graves and even some rapids.
As the Samarinda-Long Bangun ferry runs daily, it’s possible to jump on and off at various points along the way although you’ll have to buy a ticket for each section as you go. Each village offers endless opportunities to explore along or away from the river. At Muara Pahu, where Lake Jempang exits and Pahu River joins the Mahakam there’s a river side row of food stalls. The stilted town of Muara Muntai near Lake Melintang is connected almost entirely by vast boardwalk complex and has reasonably good accommodation.
Long Bangun is as far as the kapal biasa goes and it’s as good a spot as any to break your river journey. The village has one of the few surviving longhouses along the Mahakam, boarding house (penginapan) accommodation and friendly locals.
Travelling further upriver requires switching to a smaller boat, either a longboat or a narrow wooden canoe called a “ces” (pronounced chess), to negotiate the remaining 100km’s of river as far a Long Apari. In between there are dozens of small Dayak villages either along the river or dotted around the surrounding uplands. It is among these villages, that the Dayak culture is best preserved and you can witness locals weaving rattan baskets, collecting prized swiflet birds nests to feed the thriving Chinese birds nest soup market or panning the rivers and creeks for gold.
Travellers this deep into the heart of Borneo are rare but always welcomed and many villagers enjoy the opportunity to share something of their way of life. Accommodation in these remote villages is a mix of village homestays or overnighting in a traditional longhouse. Keep in mind private bathroom facilities are non-existent in most Dayak villages; you’ll be washing in the river so woman should bring a sarong to wear for modesty.
Beyond Long Apari, the really adventurous and can trek over the Muller Mountain range to the upper reaches of the Kapuas River and venture downstream all the way to Pontianak way over on the West Kalimantan coast, thereby completing a cross Borneo traverse.
If you don’t have time for the leisurely public ferry from Samarinda to Long Bangun you can charter a speed boat which can make the journey inside a day. Beware it’s a bumpy, noisy ride though so take some earplugs, padding for you backside and make sure your luggage is wrapped to keep it dry. Small boats into the upper reaches of the Mahakam can easily be chartered from Long Apari by asking around. Alternatively, Samarinda 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.