From Kuching to Sentarum into the Heart of Borneo

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May 25th 2011
Published: May 25th 2011
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Kuching attracts its fair share of visitors looking for a Borneo adventure. But I wonder how many go home disappointed. It's not that the city isn't attractive - it is and it appeals to a lot of people with its historic waterfront (somewhat now dominated by the new Dun), its array of restaurants and bars along Padungan. luxury and boutique hotels like Pullman, Basaga and Limetree and the general friendly ambiance of a small, purring city. Yet the name Sarawak conjures up a jungle and wildlife experience - an adventure holiday. Apart from short day trips out of town to see the orangutan feeding at Semenggoh or the proboscis monkeys at Bako National Park, where do visitors to Kuching go for that wildlife, jungle experience. They are offered Batang Ai and a longboat trip on the Lemanak River - but is this really adventure? Batang Ai is an artificial hydro lake and the Hilton managed resort on its banks is basically a deteriorating, overpriced accommodation complex in a longhouse style. There is no nearby jungle and the animals have long ago emigrated to Kalimantan. As for the Lemanak River, been there and done that and have no lasting memory - just another fast flowing stream with longhouses on its banks touting for the tourist $$$$.

No if you really want to see Borneo as it was some 30 years ago, there is only one alternative and that is to cross the border into Indonesia's Kalimantan Barat province. There you are stepping back in time (30 years) into a Borneo that does offer that elusive wildlife, jungle experience. Come with me as I take you into the real heart of Borneo - up the magnificent Kapuas River into Danau Sentarum National Park. When you reach Sentarum, you are not 30 years back in time, but closer to 100 years - life just simply revolves around the daily activities of fishing and surviving within an unspoilt, natural wonderland.

We drive by SUV up the dual carriageway out of Kuching and turn right at Serian to the border at Tebedu. Visa on Arrival is now available (US$25 for one month) as you cross into Indonesia at Entikong and then drive down to the T intersection of main north south road of the province. South goes to the capital Pontianak but we turn left and drive to meet the Kapuas River at the largish, bustling town of Sanggau. The time it takes us to reach Sanggau is not that much more than a drive to Batang Ai, but here we are in a different world - we are on the Kapuas.

The Kapuas River is the longest in Borneo - a veritable mini Amazon. Surprise surprise, the water is bluish - well not really blue but definitely a better complexion than the rivers of Sarawak. Sanggau is our first night, in a hotel on the river, enjoying the sunset and the riverside life. Dinner at Edelweiss Restaurant - yet to find out how this place got its name but the food and ambiance is jusy perfect for the beginning of an adventure trip. next morning we travel by speedboat up the river to Sintang. Journeying by boat on the Kapuas is pure delight. This vast river is traversed by a kaleidoscope of wooden vessels in all shapes, sizes and colours. Seeing the array of river craft on the Kapuas never ceases to amaze me - I am especially fond of the serenely moving bandungs - cargo houseboats; how I would love to convert one of these into a 4 cabin cruise boat to potter around Sentarum. The vegetation on the riverbank will surprise - its virtually pristine with tumbling greenery down into the water and birdlife. Of course, behind the verdant banks, the trees have been felled and a lot of the land lies barren. But Indonesia stopped logging over 3 years ago so you do not encounter rusting hulks laden to the gills with logs or tugboats hauling overladen barges. There are settlements all the way, mostly timbered houses and as the road follows the river to Sintang, the towns you pass have cars and motorbikes. An interesting, though no doubt environmentally degrading activity on this stretch of the river is goldmining. Not a highly industrialized extraction, just a motley collection of diesel powered sluices making a cacophony of noise and fumes - an interesting sight. We stop for morning kopi at Sekadau - the town is in 2, even 3 parts. The section on the road north is dusty and totally uninspiring. The main commercial hub is on the right bank of the river with a large kampong settlement across on the left bank. To sit in a cafe on the Sekadau riverside and watch the morning activity of to-ing and fro-ing across the river is a pleasant leg stretch from the speedboat.

There is always a mountain or range in sight, the topography is never dull but as you near Sintang, a spectacular shape looms into view and dominates the landscape from all angles. This is Bukit Kelam, the 2nd largest rock monolith in the world after Uluru in Australia. We arrive in Sintang around lunchtime and check into the best value hotel in town, a short walk from the river. The Sintang riverscape is a sight to behold - the river is vast here as it is also the confluence of a large river running in from the east - the Melawai. A string of cheap bars and restaurants line the Sintang waterfront - all offering a superb view across the river to the Kraton (Sultans Palace) and the old mosque with Bukit Kelam as the ever present backdrop. On sunset, the scene is splendid. But before the sun sets, we drive out to Bukit Kelam to view it close up - the SUV has been driven up from Sanggau as you traveled by boat. The rock is only 20 kms out of town but the road is rough. Up close, the rock becomes more impressive - there is a climbing trail on ladders to the top but I haven't had the inclination or energy to do that just yet. Photographing the shadows on the rock face as the sun descends is enough for me. We spend the night in Sintang, catching the sunset, maybe observing a bit of "cultural" activity by visiting Marino kampong ayam in the evening - will explain in person ha.

Next morning, the journey begins in earnest as we take the boat again, upriver to Selimbau. We are now in the Kapuas Hulu, upper Kapuas and the river subtly changes to a narrower and even more scenic river. The villages on the riverbank have no car or motorbike access at all so the river above Sintang is virtually unblemished by modern transport and development activity. As we near the lakes of Sentarum, we approach two delightful towns - Suai and Selimbau. In a recent traveler's blog, I was impressed to read that the writer referred to Selimbau "with its miles of boardwalks, pastel coloured, stilted houses and waterfront activity; Selimbau is one of the most beautiful towns in Borneo". The place is a definite favourite of mine and I liken it to a Marco Polo experience - stepping back in time. Lunch is in Cafe Bunda, observing the timeless scene, followed by a ramble along the boardwalks and over swinging suspension bridges.

From Selimbau, the river takes a few wide arcs which necessitate a rather unique left, left course through connecting channels, crossing the river a bit upstream and then following a smallish outflow arm into the lake. We trip through what can only be described as a flooded landscape of tree lined channels - you look through the trees and see yet more water before passing through a break into Danau Sentarum itself. No matter how many superlatives you use to describe your first impression of Sentarum, you will not be exaggerating. There must be numerous lakes in the world that are surrounded by an ampitheatre of mountains but you tend to forget when on Sentarum that you are in the middle of Borneo and the surrounding mountains are jungles. Its not just a lake though, but a natural reservoir that is interspersed with a flooded waterscape of tree islands with only one dominant hill of firm soil which is situated right in the middle - Bukit Tekanang. This is where the Ranger Station is located and the only spot where you can get a 360 degree view of this sublime vista.

The park is 132,000 hectares and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992. However ot only attained Indonesian National Park status in 1999 when a 65,000 hectare buffer zone was proposed to extend the boundaries to include peat swamp forests (orangutan habitats) and several hill ranges. The diversity of fish, reptiles, birds and mammals in the park is vast. There are more fish species here than in all of Europe; the rarest being the endangered and expensive red variety aquarium fish, Asian Arowana. There are 3 species of crocodile in Sentarum and over half the recorded species of birdlife found in Borneo, including Storm's Stork which is the world's rarest stork. Sentarum also has the largest inland population of proboscis monkeys, but they are elusive and not known to frequent the waterways. A very recent study suggests the Sentarum peat forests may harbour Borneo's largest population of orangutans.

We spend the night at the Ranger Station before embarking next morning on a full days exploration of Sentarum and surrounds. My recces on numerous trips to Sentarum, meeting the locals and gleaning information from research analysts has enabled me to map locations for wildlife spotting - where to see hornbills, look for orangutan, go fishing and keep an eye out for crocodiles.

Apart from the wildlife though, there is a large indigenous population in and around the park. The local people were originally Dayak with strong animist beliefs, but have been assimilated into a Malay Islamic culture. Instead of living in longhouses, they now live in single dwellings in the numerous kampong settlements along the rivers and lake shores. There are 39 settlements in the lake and population is about 6,500. Fishing and smoking the fish caught is the major activity, but also in the Semanggit area, there is distinctive honey cultivation. Some farming also occurs in the dry season with the cattle penned in floating stables when unable to graze. The largest town on the lake is Marjang. located on the north western perimeter. It's a delightful place with a very well maintained plank circular walkway that is bisected in both directions by plank "streets". It has a large floating mosque and to wander around this water-locked town is an experience like none other. The walkways and timber stilted houses are almost bleached white by the sun. The only dry land beside the town is the playing field for the school. In our day on the lake we cover as much of all this activity as is possible, but in reality one really needs to spend more time to fully explore Sentarum and appreciate the wealth of nature and habitat that is available here. The second night on the lake is optional at either the Ranger Station or in a small lodging house at Lanjak village on northern shore.

Travelling back downriver from the lake we take the Tawang River, the main artery from the lake which releases the water to the Kapuas during the dry season. A side trip of this downstream leg takes us into the Tengkidap River - a smaller waterway that is picture perfect for a cruise into nature - flowering water lilies in the stream and close banks of pure pristine jungle growth. It is possible to navigate from this waterway by an intricate winding route onto the Kapuas near Selimbau and speed back downstream with the current to Sintang. On arrival in Sintang, transfer to the waiting SUV and drive back to Sanggau for the evening and dinner again at Edelweiss, reminiscing on a Borneo adventure par excellence. Next day, drive back across the border to Kuching.

There is an expression around Kuching when one comes back from Kalimantan. Apparently its obvious from a person's face. Whether its the exhaustion of real adventure travel or just the delight of having found adventure, but the expression goes like this - "you look like you have just come out of Kalimantan".

What can you do in reply but smile knowingly. Where to from here? you may ask - I'm checking on two locations in Gunung Palung National Park - one of the very few places in the world where its highly likely to sight wild orangutan in their natural habitat. If I feel there is a reasonable chance to see orangutan on a visit to this park, I intend to provide details in this blog.

But in the meantime, if you wish to contact me about Sentarum, please do:

Email me on or phone +6013 576 6397

I am available for small guided tours of 2 - 4 persons to Sentarum

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