The Rivers Wild: Touring Borneos Liquid Lifelines

Proboscis monkey
Macaque monkey
Macaque monkey

Once cave dwelling went out of style, the peoples of Borneo looked towards the liquid highways of this giant island to establish settlements and make contact with the outside world. Having a reputation for being blood-thirsty headhunters roaming jungles infested with equally blood-thirsty wild creatures probably wasn’t the best idea for a public relations campaign, but they held out and scored big time with intrepid adventurers, curious researchers and enterprising traders, putting Borneo on the worlds ‘must-visit-before-I-die’ list.

A great way to explore Borneo’s history, culture and nature is on river journeys. Three major navigable rivers in Borneo are the Mahakam in Kalimantan, the Rajang in Sawarak and the Kinabatangan in Sabah. Each highlights something special, representing the unique character of Borneo’s people and natural attractions.

The Mahakam River is the longest river in Kalimantan, Indonesia flowing 980km from the Müller Range in central Borneo to the Sulawesi Sea. The coastal city of Samarinda is the port of entry up the Mahakam. Be prepared to rough it on a standard 4-day river boat cruise with air-conditioned or non-air conditioned rooms, mattresses and simple meals.

Highlights of the cruise include a visit to a Benuaq Dayak longhouse at Tanjung Isuy. The Benuaq Dayak are the largest indigenous tribe in the hinterland of Kalimantan, known for their artistry producing beautiful cloth and ornaments for their houses.This is one of the best examples of a traditional Benuaq Dayak longhouse. Traditional cures are still in vogue and keep resident witch doctors or belian in business. Further upriver is Tenggarong, seat of the ancient Kutai Kertanegara kingdom that ruled upper Mahakam 200 years ago. A museum details the kingdom’s glorious past with displays of royal paraphernalia, Chinese ceramics and Dayak statues. Scenic views of floating villages, rainforest and wildlife (including sightings of the Irrawaddy river dolphin) complete this four day immersion into an extraordinarily vivid facet of Borneo life.

A more celebrated river journey in Borneo is the Kinabatangan River in Sabah. This 560km river carves its way from the rugged central mountain ranges and empties into the Sulu Sea on the east coast. Logging and land clearing in the lower reaches of the river have decimated large chunks of rainforest but it still supports one of the richest concentrations of wildlife species on Borneo.

Long boats depart from Sandakan town over a short expanse of open sea before entering the river mouth. The boats hug the mangrove lined riverbank to make way for barges laden with oil, palm, timber and heavy equipment from upriver. As the landscape slowly changes from mangrove to riverine forest, the wildlife start to make their appearance – crocodiles sunning themselves on the hot river bank, pot-bellied Proboscis monkey hollering and scampering through the treetops, orangutans swaying languidly from tree to tree and, if you’re really lucky, herds of Pygmy Borneo elephants ambling along the riverbank while extravagant hornbills, Brahminy kites and serpent eagles soar above.

Start your 4-day cruise with a 2-hour cruise pass the village of Abai at the river mouth before settling in at either Sukau or Bilit. Sukau and Bilit are accessible by road and many tourists opt to travel overland to make a stop at Gomantong Caves on the way out. These caves were the main reason traders from China and the Malay Archipelago made a beeline up the Kinabatangan River. Here, millions of swiftlets cling for dear life in the darkest corners of this massive cave system while their nests are collected to satisfy the desire for birds’ nest soup, a Chinese delicacy.

And lastly, the Rajang River in Sarawak – at 563km, it is the longest river in Malaysia. This is an important traffic route to get to Kapit, the last major town on the river. ‘River buses’ were the normal mode of transport but a new player is churning up the muddy waters of the Rajang.

Pandaw Cruises resurrected a vestige of the colonial Irrawaddy Flotilla Company in Myanmar in 1995 and have now introduced it to the Rajang. Into the Heart of Borneo is an 8-night cruise in an absolutely stunning vessel which is far and beyond what you would call a ‘river boat’, with luxurious accommodations, superb local and western cuisine, and activities providing a glimpse of Sarawak’s culture and nature. Longhouse and village visits, nature walks and the occasional picnic or two by the riverbank, breaks up the 250 km cruise up the Rajang. Each Pandaw ship is hand finished in brass and teak giving a sense of sophistication and elegance. Local opinion is a resounding “Wow! Cool boat!”