Our speedboat glides so fast it bounces off the water on the Makassar Strait. The clouds roll above us and drops of light rain touch our skin.
We are on our way to Sekatak, a remote area in the newly anointed capital of North Kalimantan. For curious travelers, the key to a thrilling trip is to go where not many people (i.e., tourists) have gone before. I was sure that traveling to remote areas of Kalimantan, the second-largest island in the world, would undoubtedly bring on the thrills. But, I got more than what I asked for when my travel partner disclosed her secret expertise of driving a speedboat.
Not to worry for those whose friends are less than a secret speedboat driver. The new province of North Kalimantan has more than its share of excitement. It holds natural beauty untouched by mass tourism. Its large and meandering rivers evokes the charm of the Mekong Delta of Indochina when river trips there were not too much like a theme park. And unlike as in North Kalimantan’s southern counterpart, its forests have yet to be transformed into swaths of palm oil plantations, its hills have yet been run down and the land is yet to be covered by pits made by mining companies.
My travel partner and I found our little speedboat in Tarakan, an island-city in North Kalimantan, the stepping-off point from Balikpapan in East Kalimantan. We fly out of the mainland Kalimantan to Tarakan to reenter through its water ways. Airlines Lion Air and Sriwijaya Air are some of the carriers operating the Balikpapan-Tarakan route. Another route would be to take the small twin-otter planes operated by Susy Air, straight to Tanjung Selor in North Kalimantan from Balikpapan.
Tarakan holds a historical part in the World War II. In 1941, Japanese troops first entered what became Indonesia through Tarakan. Some relics such as cannons and bunkers have become a testament to the war.
We passed the war sights, however, and headed straight for Sekatak. From asking around, we found that chartered speedboats to Sekatak were moored at a pier in Beringin, a dense area where the houses are built on stilts and stand above the water. Under the houses, trash floats on the water, disgusting and strangely serene at the same time. There is another port in Tarakan, which is the official one and bigger than Beringin.
Boats head to Tanjung Selor, the capital of Bulungan regency and North Kalimantan’s center of administration, depart from Tengkayu port. This port also serves Bunyu Island, Nunukan regency, Malinau and other northern territories.
We chose Beringin as the chartered boats there can go straight to Sekatak via Sekatak river. It costs us Rp 100,000 (US$10) per person to take the two-hour ride to Sekatak. It’s a bit of a gamble with the speedboat’s reliability. Ours broke down in the middle of the Makassar Strait. We were lucky that another speedboat departed Beringin with us. So, after some unsuccessful meddling with the motor, we transferred to the other boat.
Kalimantan is home to hundreds of indigenous groups. In Sekatak, some seven indigenous groups – Punan, Kenyah, Tidung, Belusu and Bulungan live in that district, after they were relocated closer to the river by the Soeharto government in the 1970s to make way for timber company Intraca.
Traveling to the isloated communities, one can see the tension between business and local communities for control of resources.
We stayed in a lodging house by the river in Sekatak Buji as the only guests. The houses overlooking the river are made of wood planks. School children jump into the deep water from an iron bridge. You can rent a long boat and glide along the meandering Sekatak River. Interesting sights pop up, such as a little toy boat adorned with decorations. Our boat driver said that the boat was filled with offerings intended for a white crocodile. He said that there must be a family around the area who holds the traditional belief that they are descendants of the creature.
From Sekatak to Tanjung Selor, we took overland route using an unofficial taxi. We sat for four hours for the bumpy ride. A lack of infrastructure made the 120-kilometer journey bumpy. But the sight of the forest, with the tall Mengaris tree made the journey worth it.
We left at noon and arrived before sunset in Tanjung Selor. The town that is intended to be North Kalimantan’s capital is a hilly laid-back town with low-rise buildings and large parks. A statue of the Lemlai Suri Princess or more popularly known as the broken egg princess stands in the intersection of Sengkawit and Jelarai Selor.
The story of the broken egg princess tells the legend of the Bulungan sultanate that reigned between the 18th and 20th centuries. A childless Kayan tribal leader found an egg and a bamboo and brought home the two. The egg and bamboo turned into a baby girl and a baby boy, who would start the Bulungan Kingdom, the legend goes.
The Kayan River passes through the town, adding a relaxing vibe to Tanjung Selor. As with many rivers in Kalimantan, the Kayan River is a wide river with strong current, which makes it good for white water rafting. For those interested in rafting in North Kalimantan, a number of trekking companies provide white-water rafting trips along the Kayan River.
If you don’t have the chance to raft, the river is as enjoyable to see as to ride on. As the sun sets in Tanjung Selor, we sat on the concrete nook along the Kayan River. The dusk-time ray illuminates the trees on the other side of the river, while the water glimmer with a golden hue. My travel partner and I agreed, in a land of mighty rivers, devouring the last light by the river is most appropriate to end the day.
Prodita Sabarini, The Jakarta Post, Bulungan | Feature | Tue, June 25 2013
— Photos by JP/Prodita Sabarini