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The Dave Adair Memorial (Almost) Newsletter
Borneo Edition, (July 24, 1991)
When I was traveling in Indonesia I read a travel book about Borneo, where it said the island could be crossed overland by traveling by boat, hiking for six days over the mountains in the center, and taking boats down the other side. It said it was difficult and a little expensive, but if you did it you would be one of few Westerners who had completed the trip. That didnít sound too bad, so I got it in my head that Iíd do it. When I later read some different opinions as to its difficulty it was too late to be sensible. The next book I read a few weeks later said the crossing is rarely done, then goes on to say "it takes two weeks of hiking to get to the halfway point. If your guides decide to continue on (what does that mean?) have them build a bamboo raft. After days of poling the shallow stream youíll reach Long Apari." We also read some particularly choice quotes from other books, like: "The coast reaches 97 degrees with high humidity. It can get as uncomfortable here as any place in the world." "Drowning is a very real occupational hazard for a boatsmen on the Mahakam River." (What about their passengers?) "Seasonal flooding can be lethal. Rivers can double in size in an hour."
I was originally planning the trip alone, which would have been difficult, but was joined by Bill, a Canadian guy Iíd met in Singapore. A third guy had to pull out at the last minute, so it was just the two of us.
Borneo is the third largest island in the world, after Greenland and New Guinea. It is made up of Kalimantan, the Indonesian state that claims about three-fourths of the island, the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak, the tiny sultanate of Brunei, which has the highest per-capita income in the world.
The island has a fascinating and violent history, including a long history of headhunting, which was widespread until the turn of the century and flared up in World War II (with encouragement from the government.) The Japanese invaded the island, and one of the successful campaigns of resistance was a British plan of "ten-bob-a-knob," ten British pounds paid for each Japanese soldierís head taken.
The night before we were to leave Singapore, we read in the newspaper that flash floods in Borneo had drowned 25 people, with 70 people missing. We were unable to find out any more about it, and didnít know to what extent it affected the areas we were going to.
We started our trip by flying from Singapore to the west coast of Borneo, a city named Pontianak, population 300,000. Our guidebook says that Pontianak means "vampire ghosts of women who died in childbirth." Why couldnít it mean something like "big happy green trees?" Even "vampire ghosts" wouldnít be so bad; that childbirth thing is a little much. Our hotel room was about two miles away from the equator, and yes, it was hot. We talked to a travel agent our book recommended, about traveling from west to east overland, and he said "no one, not one human being, has ever done it, but if you want to try, go ahead!" We knew people had, but it wasnít very encouraging to hear what he had to say. He also told us that the upper reaches of the Kapuas River, where we were headed, were flooded, and it was impossible to go through now. An employee of his had just talked to his family there the day before. He suggested going in the dry season a few weeks later, which we considered but rejected.
At our hotel we met a guy who had heard through a friend about some Germans that had done what we planned. He said they were just completely exhausted when the completed the jungle trek, and one guy got dengue fever (pretty serious, I guess) and had to be almost carried out. Isnít everyone just full of good news?
We took a bus from Pontianak to Sintang. In the first hour we saw a motorcycle rider being carried down the road unconscious and another bus on the side of the road with all the windows on one side blown out by the truck that sideswiped it. In Sintang we finally got some good news. We met a local who spoke good English, and he gave us some information about making the hike, people to talk in the next town who spoke English, and the costs we could expect. Because we had no way of knowing that most of what he said was inaccurate, we were pretty excited. The whole trip was that way. One day weíd thing it could be done, the next day it looked impossible.
From Sintang we took a fast public boat up to Putusibau, which is where public boat service ends. On the way up, while pulling away from a dock, the boat careened out of control and almost ran into a dock. Turns out it was a broken steering cable.
With great excitement, we looked up the three people in Putusibau who spoke English. The first, a travel agent, spoke less English than I do Indonesian. The second, a government official, was on vacation, and the third, a priest, was out of town. So much for that spurt of enthusiasm.
Everyone started telling us about the rapids upstream. They said "banyak riam" (many rapids), and "bahaya" (dangerous). It didnít seem like anyone could talk to us without telling us that, and I didnít particularly want to hear it anymore. I said the next guy who tells me the rapids are bahaya, Iím gonna punch in the nose. I went into a store, and the shopkeeper asked where I was going next. I told him, and he says, "ah, banyak riam." (Youíre pushing it, pal, itís gonna be a knuckle booger for you.) The he says "bisa berenang?" (Can you swim?) I said yes, and he gives me a big grin, a thumbs up, and says "Bagus!!" (Good!!) I guess I should be glad he didnít say they were bahaya, but I didnít feel much like swimming.
After much aggravation and confusion about who we should hire and how much we should pay, we finally settled on a boat and crew of two to take us first to Bungan, then Tanjung Lokan. It would take two to three days. We also met an Israeli guy named Eran, and he joined us. The boat was about 25 feet long, a narrow wooden canoe with a 25 horsepower motor. The first day was uneventful, no rapids, and we slept in a gold minerís shack along the river. The second day was a little more exciting. We stopped along the river and talked to some locals, who told me, when my driver wasnít there, that my driver and his boat werenít capable of going all the way to Tanjung Lokan, and the next set of rapids were dangerous. My spirits having been buoyed by this assessment, we set off. Going through the rapids, the canoe smashed into a rock, lost power, and whipped around dangerously before almost sinking from the gaping hole in the front of the boat. Fortunately I was standing on the bank watching all this happen.
As we climbed over the rocks to where the boat was, we found it half full of water and our packs, soaking wet, up on the rocks. It was obvious that this boat wasnít going any further. When the guys who warned us about our driver and boat showed up an hour later, they offered to take us to Tanjung Lokan, but for twice the price we were going to pay the others. Itís not exactly a position of bargaining strength to be stranded on the side of a rive in the middle of nowhere, so we reluctantly agreed. Fortunately, these guys were incredibly competent, and we felt much safer with them. None spoke any English, which was the case for the next two and a half weeks. We spent that night in Bungan. We ate wild boar, which they keep preserved (without refrigeration) by cooking, then storing in a large ceramic pot filled with oil. They can keep it a year like that.
The next day we went to Tanjung Lokan. In one set of rapids we were pulling the canoe over rocks by long ropes, and the back end got too low and started filling with water. Besides my pack getting wet(ter) it wasnít a big problem. Tanjung Lokan is the last village up this river, and from here you have to hike through the jungle, over the mountains, to the other side, where the rivers flow to the east. We were told it would take seven days if we were fast, ten days if we were slow. They also said that two years ago a guy broke his leg and had to be flown out by helicopter. The people here were interesting. Both men and women had extensive tattoos, the women on their hands and feet, and the men on their arms, and occasionally on their throats. The women have elongated earlobes, some six inches long, with heavy hoops in them. We met and took pictures of two people who were pictured in a book on Borneo that weíd purchased in Singapore.
Two days later we started our overland trek. We hired four guides to carry our packs, cook, and build shelters at night. Two were about 19 and had never been on the trail, one was an older man who brought his family with him, and one man, maybe 28, who was named Loren. Loren was about five feet two inches tall, 125 pounds, and just amazing. He always walked with a metal-tipped spear that was about eight feet long. We needed a spoon for the rice, and he chopped down a tree about six inches in diameter and fashioned a spoon with his machete in just a couple of minutes. One thing I could never get over was that the guides went on this hike in their bare feet. Their packs were incredibly heavy. We bought, at their insistence, an amazing 75 pounds of rice, along with noodles, canned fish, coffee, sugar and salt. The older man had a pack that I literally could barely lift off the ground. I am sure it weighed 80 pounds or more.
The first day we waded pretty slowly, mostly because their packs were so heavy, but succeeding days were faster. On the second day, the guides built a shelter from trees they cut down and covered with plastic tarp. It started to rain, and as I entered the shelter, II saw a little caterpillar on my mat. I started to pick it up, and a guide said, donít, itís dangerous! I gotta sleep here? A little while later everyone started yelling and jumping around and getting out of the shelter. We were saying "What! What!" and flashing our lights around, and they finally said "Ulan!" (Snake!) Quick, somebody throw the poisonous caterpillar on him! I guess that wouldnít work, I said, "is it big?" They said no, "kecil" (small). I didnít get a very good look at it because I close my eyes when I scream, but it was about four feet long. Kecil, my butt. After we changed our underwear we all just laughed at this ridiculous thing we were doing. Somehow we managed to sleep the rest of the night, and pretty well.
The walking was not terribly strenuous, but the footing was really treacherous, and as soon as you lost your concentration, you were bound to trip or slip. Probably 60% of the walking was along stream beds, with numerous stream crossings, some rather deep, all slippery. We didnít see a lot of wildlife, but we did see lots of leeches. They are really amazing little creatures. They are surprisingly fast, and are hard to get off. They start off quite thin, and about an inch long, but get pretty fat after they lunch on you. If you squash them after pulling one off, they pop like a zit, and the blood squirts about a foot. One day was particularly bad, and I counted 23 leeches in an hour and a half. I had 14 in my shoes at one time.
On the fourth day of walking Loren told everyone to be quiet, and we heard a wild boar snorting nearby. These boars get up to 450 pounds. Loren put down his pack, and starting sneaking up on it. When it heard him, we saw the boar run away, and this little fart Loren goes streaking after him, full speed, running barefoot over the rocks, with his eight foot spear over his head. It was an amazing sight. He didnít catch the boar, though, and normally they are hunted with dogs.
On our fifth day we reached the Mahakam River, the end of our hike. We spent the night on the banks of the river, and the next day went to Long Apari, the last village on the Mahakam. Our next boat ride, to Tiong Ohang, was notable because the driver, who owned the boat, was quite drunk, and wouldnít let the other guys drive. It took a loud voice and the threat of physical violence to resolve it.
From Tiong Ohang we were approaching the most dangerous of the rapids, much more so than on the other side of the mountains. We got a ride on a boat that was going to the market in Long Bagun, and took passengers. About 10 people were in the boat. The boat was maybe 35 feet long, 7 feet wide, and was powered by two 40 horsepower outboard motors. The motors were independent of each other, and the driver drove with one hand on each motor, one between his legs and the other to the side. The rapids were pretty exciting, and the water was so powerful, with swirling currents and whirlpools, the it didnít look like it would be likely that youíd survive swimming. After we got to Long Bagun we were told that 20 people a year drown in those rapids, including recently a family of 5 and one entire boat of 12.
Along the rivers in Borneo, as well as in many other third world locales, the people use the river for everything. They drink it, cook with it, brush their teeth in it, wash their clothes and bodies in it, and go to the bathroom in it. But not necessarily in that order. Itís not al all uncommon to see a floating wood platform with someone going to the bathroom in the outhouse at one end and someone brushing their teeth not 15 feet away at the other end. Of course, all the water we are drinking comes from the same source. When you are upstream, and the water is clear, itís easier to handle, but the further downstream you go, the more mucky it gets. Drinking the water (boiled or chemically treated), which was getting so murky, was increasingly more difficult to do.
In Long Bagun, our host was a very nice man and would ask questions about America. He said that they are dogs but not cats, and said you eat cats in America, donít you? I said, no, we donít even eat dogs! Boy, was he surprised.
Eran decided to take a taxi boat downstream, while Bill and I bought a canoe and paddled downstream. I had this idea of sort of floating downstream mostly, and paddling a little just for show, but I was surprised to find that it took more effort than that. The first night we stopped at a little village and asked around for a place to stay, and we stayed with a teacher. The next day as we were getting a little tired of paddling a huge log raft, pulled by a tugboat, came by and motioned us to come over. We paddled up to the logs, where we tied up our canoe and got a lift for the rest of the day. After the lumber companies cut the logs, they are stripped of branches and bark, tied together with cables. And floated down the river to the coast. The raft was huge, probably 75 yards long and 25 yards wide. The crew was very friendly, and invited us to sleep on the boat that night and have dinner with them, which we did.
The next morning we paddled across the equator to Long Iram, where we managed to sell the boat for a fourth of what we paid for it. I think we got taken. We caught a public boat from there to Samarinda on the east coast, an interesting 24 hour ride. It was a two-decker boat with just vinyl on the floor, where you sit during the day and sleep at night. It was really relaxing. It was on this day that we saw only the second tourist we had seen since leaving Pontianak about three weeks prior.
Although it is only about 240 miles in a straight line from Pontianak on the west coast to Samarinda on the east, we had traveled just about 1000miles, 800 miles by boat.
Just to make our adventure complete, in Samarinda we were accosted by the ugliest group of prostitutes I could imagine, all men in drag, but I canít believe they were fooling anyone. The next day we flew back to Singapore, which felt like coming home. We had eaten essentially rice, noodles and fish for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for one month, and the variety of food in Singapore was heaven.
A couple of days later Bill and I took a ferry to Tioman Island in Malaysia, where the movie "South Pacific" was filmed. We went scuba diving, relaxed on the beach, and read. Not one leech.
Iím off to Malaysia again next week, then on to Thailand. I hope this letter didnít put anyone to sleep; itís longer than I intended. AS USUAL, I would appreciate any letters youíd like to send. Hope everything is well. See you soon!
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