In an excerpt from his latest travel book Kopi Dulu: Caffeine-fuelled Travels through Indonesia, published by Penguin Random House SEA, Bali-based British writer Mark Eveleigh explores the mighty Kapuas River — Indonesia’s longest waterway — on a slow boat from Pontianak.
Illustrations by Naomi Cassyane
From the crowded riverbank in Pontianak, I watched tattooed Iban deckhands loading a rainbow assortment of plastic buckets and tableware into narrow vessels designed for penetrating the inland communities of West Kalimantan, a vast Indonesian province on the island of Borneo. Farther along the dock, I came across gangs of dusty laborers, balancing like tightrope walkers on sagging gangplanks as they offloaded sacks of rice and sheets of raw rubber from hulking timber cargo boats known as bandung. While this offloading interested me, it was the boats that were being loaded that I focused on. For I had a particular reason to be here: I was scouting for potential transport to Putussibau, a jungle frontier town located 700 kilometers up the Kapuas River. It was safe to assume that at least one of these boats would be heading there within the next day or so.
Back in 1996, when I first visited Putussibau, the town was still accessible only by cargo boat or via a landing strip that served the planes of missionaries and mining surveyors. We’d found sleeping space in the hold of a bandung among 40 or so other travelers who were either returning from work in the city or heading upriver with trade goods of their own. By the time I returned on an assignment for CNN about a decade later, a road had been built between Pontianak and Putussibau and the trip could now be made in around 10 hours by bus. Still, I opted for the six-day river journey, and on that second voyage, I was — predictably — the only passenger below decks. I spent my days either sitting on the roof, or on the bow in the company of the skipper or the crew.
After those first two trips up the Kapuas, I was already deeply hooked by the romance and fascination of a voyage up what I’d come to think of as the Indonesian Amazon. I now hoped that if I was prepared to spend a few days asking around Pontianak’s wharves, I could convince a skipper to take me to Putussibau. I peered into the dark hold of one of the larger boats — nearly 30 meters long — and guessed that it must be close to fully loaded: mountains of electronics (flat-screen TVs, air-con units, satellite dishes) sat on stacks of cement bags and sacks of sugar. At the stern, two sweating laborers were manhandling a big hardwood dining table onboard, while others were ferrying towers of eggs in their cardboard trays. The name emblazoned on the boat’s sky-blue hull was Jongkung Utama.
I called up into the wheelhouse. Fanico Lorensius, the boat’s owner, looked startled when he heard my request, but then gave a good-natured shrug. After a moment’s discussion, he suggested that I pay the equivalent of about US$40 for the journey, meals included. I didn’t haggle. After all, at that price, I’d probably just negotiated what might be the world’s best-value cruise. Lorensius then introduced me to his skipper, Akim, who estimated that they should be ready to leave around mid-morning the next day. “Maybe earlier, if these boys decide to put their backs into the work,” he shouted over his shoulder, in the general direction of the hold.
For most of the first afternoon after leaving Pontianak, we cruised between the built-up riverbanks of the suburbs. I later clambered up onto the roof, tentatively testing handholds from which I could swing myself out over the churning bow wave. It was only then that I began to realize how much the buildings had thinned and how greenery — in this case, rice paddies and rows of oil palms — were becoming dominant in the landscape. For the next two days, we traveled between riverbanks that barely changed. It was as if we were standing still in one place, locked in time, with the river merely slipping below and behind us.
As the boat’s owner, Lorensius had a cabin of his own, one furnished with a mattress, a heap of comics, and an old television. The crew took turns sleeping on rattan mats in a low-ceilinged storage space behind the wheelhouse. Virtually all the remaining areas of the boat were reserved for cargo. There was a section dedicated to the satellite dishes that had, since I’d last traveled here, blossomed along the river like a crop of huge flowers.
The cargo was stacked throughout the hold almost to the ceiling and I’d had to form a burrow among sacks of Javanese rice so that there was room to hang my hammock from the roof beams. I slept well since the hammock neutralized much of the shuddering of the boat’s engine and a breeze blew in through the openings all along the hold. I dreaded the occasional squalls when the shutters would come down, however. Then, I’d have to fight claustrophobia and burgeoning seasickness (which, fortunately, never quite materialized) in a dark hold that was musky with the stink of raw rubber and clammy with rice dust.
At dawn on the third morning, I sat at in my customary place on the dew-dampened bow and watched as the equatorial sun began to bleach the sky. The banks of the Kapuas — over half a kilometer wide in the river’s lower stretches — had constricted upon us noticeably during the night, like a great green python that, infinitely patient, was nevertheless intent upon swallowing the oblivious boat. It appeared also that the current was running faster than it had been the previous evening.
Through the cracked glass of the wheelhouse window, I could see Akim straining his eyes for the telltale swirls of current around half-hidden logs. Like any good skipper, he wouldn’t sleep until the sun was above the horizon and he could hand the helm over to his second mate. A lantern, glowing faintly on a floating platform, showed the position of a fishing hamlet up ahead. Soon the first of the villagers would come down to the river to wash. But for now, there was just the yap of some kampong mongrel and the muffled splash of a dugout being pushed away from its moorings, bound perhaps for a dawn patrol around the fish traps.
Lorensius came out of the wheelhouse, scratching a chubby paunch under his vest: “Selamat pagi, pak.” He hitched his sarong around his knees and squatted meditatively on a roll of rope on the bow. The hypnotic wisps of mustache at each side of his mouth seemed to adjust themselves like obliging wings as he sipped from his steaming mug.
The Jongkung Utama had been plying these waters for over 30 years and, since Lorensius bought her, he and his crew of eight had spent almost a decade living onboard. He estimated that there were still around 200 of these big bandung on the river. Quite apart from the businesses that were directly empowered by this distribution network, an entire support industry had been established to maintain this fleet and its workforce. There were chandlers and marine mechanics to maintain the boats, and warung and bars (in towns where Muslim restrictions were sufficiently relaxed) to sustain the crews. A minor crewman on one of these boats would make around US$100 for a two-week return trip.
Naturally, a nomadic workforce of several thousand relatively well-paid sailors had given rise to a series of riverside bawdyhouses and working girls strategically located along the river. In Jongkong, it was known that the rules were slightly laxer than in other towns. The crew were given a few hours’ leave to take advantage of an opportunity for an illegal gambling session in a kolok-kolok dice den and a bottle or two of fiery arak on the wharf. I ordered some beers to share. We were a long way from refrigerators now, however, and the local Anker beer was invariably served warm.
“What did you expect?” Akim laughed. “This is Jongkong, not Hong Kong!”
We arrived in the village of Semitau late one afternoon and prepared for a night moored to the riverbank. The clouds of flying ants that had plagued us from dusk eventually convinced most of the crew to abandon attempts at sleep in favor of a midnight karaoke session on the boat’s relatively breezy roof. At 3.00 a.m., I finally realized the folly of trying to sleep in that din and went up to join them. The crew told me that, for some reason, there are always flying ants in Semitau, but the boats dare not sail onward at night because this was the most treacherous stretch on the Kapuas.
I was woken from a siesta the next day by a call from Akim for all hands to get on deck. As he threaded the boat around a particularly tight dogleg in the river, he had to hug the bank to avoid a gigantic raft of hundreds of logs that was being shunted downriver by five small tugboats. What was most incredible — and appallingly dangerous, I imagined — was that several plastic-sheet tents had been erected on this logjam island. Akim explained that the men whose job it was to inspect the rattan cords holding the raft together would live in these tents for the entire weeklong voyage to Pontianak.
As the Jongkung Utama puttered steadily upriver, we began to see troops of monkeys and small herds of deer and wild pig drinking at the water’s edge. I began at last to imagine that we were making serious headway into the heart of Borneo. But when, after six days of traveling, we arrived in Putussibau, I knew that I was still only at the gateway to the real jungle.
Get the book here: penguin.sg/book/kopi-dulu/
This article originally appeared in the September/November 2022 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Into the Heart of Borneo”).