Into the Heart of Borneo

  • The early fog lifts slowly off the waters of the Rungan River in Central Kalimantan.

    The early fog lifts slowly off the waters of the Rungan River in Central Kalimantan.

  • Village boys paddle on the Rungan's waters.

    Village boys paddle on the Rungan's waters.

  • A painted ornament marks a sandung, or bone house, in a Dayak village.

    A painted ornament marks a sandung, or bone house, in a Dayak village.

  • The captain of the Rahai'i Pangun.

    The captain of the Rahai'i Pangun.

  • A route map and bird-watching binoculars are compulsory accessories.

    A route map and bird-watching binoculars are compulsory accessories.

  • An Indonesian lunch aboard the boat.

    An Indonesian lunch aboard the boat.

  • Canoeing on the still waters.

    Canoeing on the still waters.

  • One of the BOS Foundation's rehabilitated orangutans on Banalas Island.

    One of the BOS Foundation's rehabilitated orangutans on Banalas Island.

  • The 22-meter-long Rahai'i Pangun, a former water-bus refurbished into a cruise vessel.

    The 22-meter-long Rahai'i Pangun, a former water-bus refurbished into a cruise vessel.

  • A young dancer in Bukitrawi village sports a hornbill-inspired headdress.

    A young dancer in Bukitrawi village sports a hornbill-inspired headdress.

  • Looking for wildlife in the glassy backwaters.

    Looking for wildlife in the glassy backwaters.

  • Fresh-caght river fish and homegrown produce in Kanarakan village.

    Fresh-caght river fish and homegrown produce in Kanarakan village.

  • Relaxing on deck as the sun sets over the Central Kalimantan jungle.

    Relaxing on deck as the sun sets over the Central Kalimantan jungle.

  • Wooden cottages line the sunbaked streets of Bukitrawi.

    Wooden cottages line the sunbaked streets of Bukitrawi.

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A languid cruise up Central Kalimantan’s Rungan River provides plenty of rewards, from visits to Dayak villages and orangutan sightings to the pleasures that come with being on a slow boat.

By Gabrielle Lipton
Photographs by Yoppy Pieter

In the gray steam of the early morning, the black water we’re snaking through on a small krotok boat is so narrow and still that its surface is completely filled with reflections of the jungle on its banks. Above us, trees lean so far toward one another that the sky is all but invisible. It’s an evolving kaleidoscope in which the beads are leaves of rattan, palm, and iron trees; or perhaps, in my half-asleep state, without a ripple to rock the boat and the morning birdcalls lulling me further into a trance, it’s just a dream.

The main flow of the Rungan River—which we’ve been cruising on through Central Kalimantan —has been stirred up by gold miners into the color of milk chocolate like in Willy Wonka’s factory; but the backwaters of this morning ride are dark licorice from the peat that’s seeped in from the jungle floor. As we motor on, the kaleidoscope begins to fill with streams of long, grass-like leaves, then the branches of rasao plants, whose fruits are eaten by the orangutans that inhabit this jungle. But there’s no sign of them, so we bank our boat on a shore of white sand and take a cool morning swim. The water is mesmerizing, filtering the light so that my hand looks yellow near the surface, burnishes into a red below, then disappears into blackness. Gibbons coo in the distance as I close my eyes and float.

***

There’s a gleaming white yacht docked at a harbor in Palangkaraya, the capital of Central Kalimantan and a city so sleepy that it’s hard to believe it was once meant to be the capital of Indonesia. In the late 1950s, President Soekarno invested heavily in its infrastructure, even hiring Soviet engineers to transform the original Dayak village into a proper metropolis. But a number of reasons saw Jakarta remain the capital instead, and so Palangkaraya went back to being its languid self, dressed up with a well-planned road system centered on a roundabout that was grandly meant to symbolize the unity of Indonesia’s islands, but now rarely sees more than five cars at once. The population lingers around 300,000, spread over more than 2,600 square kilometers, much of it covered in jungle. In the Dayak language, Palangkaraya means “a vast sacred site.” Along the riverbanks near the center of town, strings of five or six slatted-wood shacks painted in ice-cream colors jut out into the Kahayan River, with fish farms as front yards and silvery domes of mosques glistening behind.

The yacht looks comical here and would be flatly embarrassing farther out in its range of travel. My cruise’s guide Indra, an endearing 27-year-old from the neighboring province of North Kalimantan, says that it was purchased by the local government to be a tour boat, but was a total miss of predicting what tourists want. Its two gas-guzzling speed engines make it exorbitantly—and needlessly—expensive, as there’s a growing road system that shaves hours, sometimes days, off travel time compared to river routes. The entire point of river cruising here is to move slowly. And so the yacht sits in the harbor, its rows of rigid blue chairs wrapped in plastic.

What I’m on instead is the Rahai’i Pangun. It was a water-bus shuttling between cities in its former life, then in 2008 was adopted by a pair of friends—Londoner Lorna Dowson-Collins, who was working here for an NGO, and Australian Gaye Thavisin, who was involved in local hospitality—as the biggest of the three boats owned by the duo’s company, Kalimantan Tour Destinations, which runs the only cruises on this part of the river. I found it through Secret Retreats, a collection of small, luxurious accommodations, often in remote places—which is to say that luckily, this sole option happens to be quite nice too.

Like a horse-drawn carriage in a snow-covered park, the Rahai’i Pangun is one of those vehicles that completes the look of its landscape. Its former, worn shell was ripped up and reconfigured with ironwood into a two-deck, amber-colored craft with shuttered windows and bannisters carved with motifs. In Dayak, its name means “destroy, rebuild.” After boarding the boat in Tangkiling—a village on the Kahayan’s tributary Rungan River—I find my home for three days to be a simple, clean cabin with an en-suite bathroom and a private door out onto the foredeck, where I sit in solitude during the breezy nights until I’m ready to fall asleep. By day, my throne is a sun lounger on the top deck, and with legs outstretched I stare for hours as we meander up the chocolate waters. At just a few degrees from the equator, little moves—not the stagnant collage of strange, low trees on the banks; not whatever leopards, deer, macaques, and proboscis monkeys are watching us from their shady depths. Hardly even us, plodding along at six kilometers an hour. The perpetual view is hypnotic, and when I occasionally drift off to sleep, the image carries into my dreams.

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