Think of and images of impenetrable jungle, man-eating snakes, orangutans, headhunters, and intolerable heat and humidity probably spring to mind. But as I discovered on a recent motorcycle tour deep into its not-so-dark-anymore interior, the actual situation is very much different, except for the heat and humidity, which the local tribespeople say is worse then ever.
My plan was simple: to circumnavigate the world’s 3rd largest island. It wouldn’t be the first time has been circumnavigated by a vehicle–others have done it in 4WD-s?but I would certainly be the first to do it on a motorbike. seemed like an interesting place to leave some rubber in my quest to explore as much of Asia as possible from the saddle of a motorcycle.
is about the size of the U.K. and Spain combined, larger than Texas and half the size of Alaska, so we are talking about a big chunk of land. It straddles the equator, is surrounded by the South China, Celebes, Java Seas, and its closest foreign neighbor outside its borders is The Philippines.
Island is split up politically into three countries. One of those countries is Brunei, but it is so tiny it is almost inconsequential. The Malaysian sector is the smaller of the remaining two main divisions. It hugs the north coast, and is divided into the provinces of Sarawak and Sabah, both of which together are much larger than the entire rest of motherland East Malaysia, way across on the opposite side of the South China Sea. Indonesia owns the remaining two-thirds of Island and they divided their holding into four provinces, unimaginatively called West, Central, East, and South Kalimantan.
What makes unique, besides their indigenous people, are their rainforests, which are the oldest in the world. When sea levels rose and fell during different ice ages, drowning out vast tracks of our globe, was never completely covered by water, and those ecosystem survived intact. Additionally, was never directly effected by glaciation, so their flora and fauna was never traumatized by abrupt climate shifts. ‘s biodiversity has been able to flourish uninterrupted from prehistoric time right up till the present day.
Despite ‘s fecundity, it is not the safest environments for humans, even with the demise of headhunters who would use your skull for a marriage present and your scrotum as a tobacco pouch. Leeches are abundant?my personal record is seven leech bites during one outing. Mosquitoes have an aggressive drink-or-die attitude. There are 1,700 known species of parasitic worms. One hundred and sixty-six species of serpents call home, and this includes the largest poisonous and non-poisonous snake in the world, and man is most definitely on their diet. Then there are the things that you can’t see like malaria, dysentery, yellow and dengue fever, cholera, typhoid, rabies, and hepatitis, to mention a few. Nick yourself shaving and a few days later your jaw may fall off.
Maybe worst of all is a tiny fish that can’t resist swimming up a warm urine stream if you empty your bladder while bathing in a river. It is one of life’s more unpleasant experiences to have this pest removed with their backwards pointing fins.
Kuching, in Sarawak, was my starting point. It is a lovely city, sparkling clean and green, old-fashioned and modern at the same time, with fast food franchises, movie theaters, and shopping malls. I set off on a fine morning on a counter-clockwise journey around the island.
Within the first hour I was deep in rural countryside, motoring through hilly terrain on a good asphalt road and sharing it with hardly any other vehicles. All the surrounding land was either under cultivation or allowed to go fallow. There was no sign of any jungle. Ninety-four kilometers out of Kuching my road ended abruptly at the cocoa-colored Kayan River. A large, lazy ferry was the link both sides.
This being my first stop, it was the local citizen’s first, close-up sight of my fully kitted-out enduro in action, armor plated to the max and loaded for bear. Everyone on the ferry gives me the thumbs up sign?they can sense I’m off on some grand adventure.
The asphalt finally runs out completely late during my first afternoon in the westernmost town in Sarawak, in Sematan. I bounce along a Burma track running parallel to a beach, very much alone, enjoying the scenery, and I stop to take photos of a picturesque wooden bridge built over a verdant rice field. An old man and his grandson, in curiosity, stop plucking weeds and mosey over to me. They immediately invite me to spend the night in their longhouse in Kampong Pueh, a bit up the road, as there are no hotels or guesthouses for several hours around.
The longhouse is the traditional housing arrangement used by ‘s indigenous people?twenty-four separate tribes live in Sarawak and even more in Indonesian Kalimantan. A longhouse is a sort of row house that is connected by a common area and built on stilts. The original purpose of a longhouse was for protection from other tribes, wild animals, and floods. Today, it is simply the preferred style of living.
This particular longhouse, occupied by Selekos who are a branch of the Bedayaks, consists of sixteen family compartments. It is a prosperous one, with electricity, indoor plumbing, remote control color TVs hooked up to a satellite dish, and many motorbikes and trucks were parked outside. The headman’s apartment is particularly opulent, with huge, ancient, Chinese ceramic urns lining one wall, and equally old brass gongs and platters hanging over them. These old-fashioned signs of wealth are still cherished. The trappings are modern but socializing goes on to a more ancient beat. That evening a circle of adults lounge on woven, bamboo mats, picking kernels off ears of dried maize, while chatting away. Their future sits next to them?children watching Disney cartoons on a VCR.
Semetan is the westernmost town in East Malaysia and there is a border crossing here into Indonesia, but this border crossing can only be used by Malaysian and Indonesian nationals. No foreigners are permitted to use it. This means I have to turn around the next day and drive all the way back to Kuching, amd then from there it is another full-day’s drive south to the official international border crossing at Tebedu / Entikong.
When I arrive at Tebedu / Entikong two days later, the Malaysian side warns me that I won’t be allowed through. “Buses, trucks, cars, taxis, bicycles, horses, and pedestrians are all permitted to enter into Kalimantan, everything and everybody but motorcycles.”
“Why not?” I ask incredulously.
“Personally, we don’t care,” the Malay official answers. “It is strictly an Indonesian law. But if you want to waste your time, go ahead and try.”
The Malaysians stamp me through. As soon as I enter the Indonesian side, a uniformed official who looks like the Turkish prison warden in Midnight Express, leads me into his office. The only two words he can seem to speak in English are “No motorcycles!” I plead, cajole, and beg with no success. I even throw a fistful of rupiahs (Indonesian cash) onto his table, but he turns his nose up at it like a hungry cat offered an onion. This is totally unexpected. I thought I would zip right through on my bike, the same way I cruise hassle-free into Malaysia’s three other land neighbors; Thailand, Singapore, and Brunei. Igor keeps grumbling “Indonesian Consulate, Kuching. Indonesian Consulate, Kuching.”
Defeated, I turn around once again to Kuching to petition assistance for my journey through diplomatic channels.
Rather than bore you with all the sordid, but quite often, comical (if it was happening to somebody else) details, I became entangled in a game of bureaucratic bingo between the two countries of Malaysia and Indonesia, and I was the ball. Bottom line was, I was finally granted a two-month Kalimantan visa, but my bike was only given a two-week vehicle permit. Try figuring out the logic in this?
Plus, I was only allowed to enter and exit only through the same Entikong border crossing, thus effectively cutting my possible two-week cruising range in half.
Even though my plan to drive around was now shattered, I still grabbed the proffered fortnight permit and proceeded to explore as much of the province of West Kalimantan as possible within my allotted window.
While in was in Kuching, I met some members of the Kuching City Riders Motorcycle Club, and they told me that from Entikong, the 330 kilometer ride into the Kalimantan capital city of Pontianak is over a two-lane, sealed road that is for the most part in good condition. This was all they could tell me about the West Kalimantan road system because no one from their club, or anyone else they knew, ever traveled to anywhere else in the province. How boring, I thought.
As soon as I crossed the Indonesian border, the energy level subsided from sleepy to lethargic. Other road users dwindled to a trickle. My only hazards were the express buses who are the undisputed “kings of the road”. Thankfully there weren’t too many of them to contend with.
It is brutally hot and sticky. While driving you don’t really feel it, but as soon as I stop, my pores open full bore, plastering my clothes to my skin. The sun is so strong that I dress like a mummy, and the only exposed skin is my face, which is slathered under a three-digit sunscreen and acts as a magnet for road dirt and squished insects. At my first rest stop, I attract a lot of attention and was soon surrounded by a sea of Indonesians, and I ate under the gaze of a hundred eyeballs. A huge lunch cost Rp3,700, or just about USD1.
Four hundred thousand people live in Pontianak, ‘s largest metropolis, and it has the same frantic energy, dirt, and noise as that of a mainland Chinese city. Its main industry is rubber processing and the air reeks with a smell akin to severely stinky feet.
I check into the first hotel I see because it was too hot to drive around a city looking for any another. My deluxe room in the riverfront Siantan Indah Hotel had enough cigarette burns in the threadbare carpet to look like part of the design. At RP23,000 a night, decor is not a major consideration. Dinner was a huge bowl of noodle soup and a few ice teas costing RP2,500. Petrol is Rp700/liter. Even if you try really hard there is just no way you can spend a lot of money in Kalimantan.
The equator runs smack through Pontianak. Twice a year at noon, for three consecutive days during the Vernal and Autumnal equinoxes, no vertical object in Pontianak will cast a shadow. An Equator Monument, built right on top of the equator line, is the city’s number one and only tourist attraction. When I visited it, it was deserted.
From Pontianak I decide to checkout ‘s north-westernmost point. This ride was across low, swampy land, with the main crops being rice and coconuts. In the afternoon, wherever you look, scores of kites mambo across the sky and many more hang dead and tattered from the phone lines. I watch a bunch of brown, naked boys playing soccer on a brown, muddy field, and wonder how they can tell the teams apart.
Still no sign of jungle, but everything is covered in a thick blanket of foliage. Where there is no green, there is water. Rivers, streams and canals snake everywhere. Every single town is built on the banks of a river and this is how the majority of commerce and people move?roads are a relatively new phenomena in West Kalimantan.
That evening in Sambas, after unpacking my bike at a losman, a cheap local hotel, I am surrounded by another crowd of gawkers. I retire to a coffee shop and sip thick, strong coffee a quarter full of grounds. A familiar occurrence occurs, one that is repeated in nearly every stop on my trip?someone in the crowd adopts me, usually to practice their English on.
Aji, my new friend, asked me if I wanted to visit the king, whose yellowing photo was tacked to a wall. “Sure, I’d love to.” I never knew there was a king in Kalimantan.
We drive a short distance to a river confluence where a big, old, wooden mansion sits on spacious, but neglected grounds. Aji parks and points to it.
“Where is the king,” I ask?
“King dead,” he says, “killed by Japanese in 1942.”
“Too bad,” I say, “Nice house. Is there a son of the king?”
“No. Now only government.”
Too much government, I think, remembering my border crossing tribulations.
The next morning, which was just as fine as all the previous ones, I head to the northernmost town in West Kalimantan, Liku. This lovely drive was lined the whole way with wild roses, yellow allemandes, hibiscus, and the heavenly-smelling frangipani. Lots of bridges over lots of rivers, and when the river was a major one, like the Tanjungkolat, a ferry would be in service.
Liku is a sleepy little town and way too hot for any one to venture outside while the sun is overhead. After a few cloyingly sweet ice tea–which seem to be the national drink, and a bargain at only Rp300, I return south to Sambas.
My new adopter for this evening, Ismet, helps me draw on my map all the area roads that never made it to the printer’s press. There were a dozen of them, a couple brand new, and these opened up whole new driving possibilities for my tour. The next morning I travel southeast on one of my new map squiggles. It turns out to be a great motorcycle road cutting across a hilly, lowland forest. The majority of this road was brand new and I passed about one vehicle about every fifteen minutes.
For the first time the sky is heavily overcast, and this made for a much cooler drive. A hundred kilometers later I arrive in Ledo and draw another large crowd at breakfast. The locals are fascinated by everything I do and touch, and they examine in detail and with wonder and awe what I consider mundane gear. I am constantly asked the time so they see my exrtravgant Casio G-Shock. They ask me if I can give them stuff or trade with them, which I can’t, I explain, because I need and use every item I brought along with me.
I reach Sungau on the banks of the Kapuas River, ’s longest, in the early afternoon and call it a day. The next morning was hazy and the sun was a white-hot disc trying to bore a hole into the earth and my head. It was shaping up as a scorcher.
A giant sandstone monolith, Mt Kelum, soars up out of a flat plan like an Ayers Rock, and probably offers world-class rock climbing if anyone knew about it. I stop for a photo and start gasping for air and actually feel faint from the heat. Remounting holds little appeal.
At lunch in Sintang the police investigate a big crowd and find me in the center. They warn me to wear my helmet. “In the restaurant”, I ask? They leave in a huff.
Indonesians have this thing about helmets and even the citizens get on my case about it. This is laughable because the ones they all wear are flimsy toys. I bought a brand new Arai in Kuching but it is just too hot and heavy to wear all day long and it stays strapped to my luggage box. I feel naked without one, but I am much cooler bare-headed.
As I enter the foothills of the Schwarmer Mountain Range I am finally surrounded by the towering rainforest. The road I am on is like a roller coaster as I cut across the grain of a ridgy mountain system. Impossibly steep uphill sections make me feel as if I’m launching myself into the sky as my engine screams towards each summit. Which direction the road will go after the apex is always a surprise as I dive-bomb almost straight down the other side, often into a tight, uneven radius corkscrew. Many of the downhill slopes are gravel covered from rain wash-out, making downshifting a risky proposition and braking suicidal. But you better shed speed somehow because at the bottom of every loop-de-loop is a flat wooden bridge without any gradient or ramp, and pointing in a direction completely different from the curve you are exiting. At the front of each bridge is always a nasty lip that is usually surrounded by potholes the way sand traps protect a golf green.
You have a nanosecond to decide which of the two planked tire tracks of the bridge to ride over. Some of the planks are missing or have pieces broken off and grab and tear at my tires. Waiting at the end of the bridge, which you haven’t had time to look at yet, will be a few more nasties like big jumps and deep holes, followed by another immediate near vertical climb. The road continues like this, ad infinitum, for the next seventy-five kilometers.
I need to drive three or four kilometers for every one that brings me closer to my destination and the sun circles me like a buzzard. This road is an engineer’s nightmare, but a bike designer’s wet dream, as every single component of my scooter is put to a severe test, including the pilot.
Whoever built this road, I would love to shake their hands. It was fabulous, maybe the most exciting, and beautiful road (when I dared grab a glance) I ever experienced. Not one other vehicle, just me and two hours of pure motorcycling nirvana.
Uttering a prayer of thanks for surviving this 408-kilometer day, I arrive in Putussibau with the sinking sun and a bright arcing rainbow in my rearview mirrors.
Putussibau is built completely on stilts above the marshlands of the Kapuas River and is the largest town in the region. The odors of dried fish and mud permiate the town in the languid air. This is the easternmost interior settlement of any size. This is where civilization’s reach ends and the rainforest takes over.
Indigenous people come here to trade the things they grow, pick, and catch for supplies like kerosene and clothes, and luxuries like sugar, tea, and batteries. Many are Ibans and are easily identifiable by their intricate, lampblack tattoos and their elongated earlobes hanging down nearly to their shoulder blades.
In my losman I meet a German biologist, the first foreigner I’ve encountered since leaving Kuching. He is popping with excitement because he has just heard that a farmer captured a lizard with white spots on its head. If this proves true it will be a brand new species, the ultimate discovery in his profession. Patrick Mausfeld invites me to join him to check this out. Alas, the white spots weren’t really white, just lighter than the surrounding skin, and it was only a common Varanus Dumerelii, or monitor lizard.
Later that afternoon, using a dugout canoe, we check his trapline of twenty-four monitor lizard traps scattered around this riverine environment. One of the traps had sprung, but the inmate escaped. For such a large wilderness area, I have seen no wild animals at all in . Very few birds as well. Maybe they are deeper in the interior, far away from roads and people and roaring motorbikes.
On my map is a series of large lakes which look mighty interesting. Everyone I asked knew nothing specific about the lakes. But in Putussibau I was told that from Semitau, a riverbus cruises through those lakes to Lanjak on the far northern shore. There was also a connecting dirt road to Lanjak from Putussibau. I was curious to see how a riverbus would handle freighting a motorcycle.
Semitau was halfway back along yesterday’s stupendous road again and I didn’t mind in the least driving it again. A glaze of morning dew on the wooden bridges made it an even a trickier drive this time around.
At the Semitau boat dock, I had to push my Suzuki from the riverbank onto the boat over warped and scum-coated half submerged planks. I was positive either I or my bike was going for a swim. I managed this successfully and then the crew lashed it down securely to the front deck of the riverbus and charged the bike and me Rp. 8,000 apiece.
The eight o’clock boat left promptly at 10:57, and immediately the twenty-three passengers—all young men—went right to sleep.
This was the real , the of rivers and jungle, jungle so thick that the boat’s engine echoed cleanly off of the riverbank’s thick wall of foliage. Jungle was exploding up, out, down, and sideways and every shade of green was present.
Our river pace was a fat man’s trot. Every ten kilometers or so we would chug past a small village. Some of the settlements were simply floating houseboats and fish traps lashed together with no connection to land at all. A trio of hornbills, Kalimantan’s state bird, glided lazily across the river. Many monkey troops were up in the tree tops abutting the banks.
A few hours pass by and we exit the river and enter the lakes. The water surface is perfectly smooth, not one ripple, as reflective as a mirror and looking as solid as ice, almost as if one could walk on it. Clusters of trees and bushes grow directly out of the water forming landless islands of vegetation.
We arrive in Lanjak at eight p.m., and in the pitch dark I can’t start my bike. This arouses the police department, an eight man force, six men larger than necessary, and they tell me to push it to their office a half kilometer away. They are elated to have someone they can ask to see papers from. The chief opens up a huge, black ledger that overhangs all four sides of his desktop and proceeds to fill in all the columns. I notice that I am the first foreigner to visit Lanjak in eight months.
I check into a losman and beneith it is a general store. The old man of that family is a traditional Iban and is covered with tattoos, including the most painful of all, a throat tattoo which signifies a warrior. He is squatting down, not sitting, on the seat of a plastic chair, hugging his ankles, his chin on his knees, earlobes dangling, and watching a M.C. Hammer video on MTV. After that, The Wheel Of Fortune game show comes on and gives away more money in a spin then he has probably earned in his entire lifetime. I wonder what the old man makes of it all. Our world is surely shrinking if this is entertainment in the geographic center of .
I am running out of days and start preparing for my exit from West Kalimantan. The local police tell me I can re-enter Malaysia, including my bike, from the town of Badau, forty-eight kilometers to the west. Badau is not marked on my map, and at this point I am dubious of any information coming from a government employee. I decide to give it a try, because if I can leave Indonesia from there, it will save me several days of additional traveling.
The next morning is a Friday, and the thirteenth of sorts, the thirteenth day of my journey. A string of bad luck starts when my indespensible four-armed bungee strap goes missing, and the day goes progressively downhill from there. The ride to Badau is over the worst road of the trip, all dirt, mud, and ruts, and the only road so far that a street bike couldn’t handle, but it posed no problem for my fully loaded Suzuki DR350.
I had a feeling they weren’t going to let me through Badau, and I was right. So instead of a three kilometer ride into Sarawak, I am now forced to back-track over seven-hundred kilometers to Entikong. I decide to drive all the way back to Puttussibau on the road I skipped in lieu of the boat ride.
After about ninety minutes on the road, I look behind me and notice my brand new US$300. helmet fell off because I wasn’t using my missing bungee as its security cord. Strings of expletive deletives ring across the rainforest. But I figure there is an excellent chance the helmet is still laying where it fell since the road is deserted with only a handful of vehicles and people using it.
Back I head over this terrible road again, scanning both sides instead of paying attention where needed–on the rutted surface. More curses rain into the jungle because I do not find my helmet.
I continue onwards in a foul mood, and hit a truly horrid road section of mud, covered with parallel-placed tree limbs for traction and flimsy wooden bridges erected over the streams. At one point my bike gets stuck in ooze up to the engine, and I drop the bike in another spot when my supporting leg sinks into slime up to my knee. Then it starts to rain, hard, and I no longer have a helmet to shield my face from the stinging drops. I pull into a farm house to wait out the thunderstorm. After it lets up a bit, I restart hoping the road will improve, but it only gets worse. With one more hour of daylight left, I realize I won’t be making it to any town. I come to a longhouse and ask if I can sleep there, which is OK with the headman. They see how filthy I am and using sign language, point me to the river to have a bath. On the way to the river, I brush up against a plant and ugly red welts immediatly start creeping up my legs. This was not one of my better days.
The Ibans were very hospitable and the headman invites me to eat in his compartment. His wife is topless, which is the way most of the older Iban women go about. She made a dinner of rice, bananas, river fish, a jungle vegetable that was slimy feeling in the mouth and had no flavor, and a type of bitter mango. I filled up on the rice and bananas and politely pick at the other offerings.
My hosts prepared a sleeping nook for me–four mattresses piled on top of one another and ten pillows strewed around–all of which was covered by a mosquito net. It was my most comfortable bed on the entire trip.
To continue solo on the present road would probably prove too treacherous when I positively had to be back in Entikong in two more days. So I return instead again to Lanjak to take the same boat back down through the lakes.
I dallied a bit in the morning taking some photos of the Ibans, and timed my arrival at the docks to catch the 8:00 a.m. boat. I hit the dock at exactly 8:02 to be told the boat just left! This had to be the only boat in all of Kalimantan that ever left on schedule. They said there is another boat at 10:00 a.m., and that one left promptly at 11:44.
It was another lovely cruise, but a lousy night at the landing point in Semitau, which I spent in a windowless, ramshackle losman, on a lumpy Donald Duck mattress spotted with gecko droppings. Up at the crack of dawn, I’m at the Entikong crossing at 1:30 p.m., and passed though immigration in a few minutes, compared to the hours of bureaucratic wrangling on my two previous visits when they were breaking my chops. I arrive safe and sound in Kuching at 3:15. This was my longest ride ever on my Suzuki, 508 kilometers with only two stops for petrol. This is equal to about a zillion miles on a GoldWing.
All my thoughts turn to cooling off, and I lay under the air-conditioner of my Kuching hotel until my lips turn blue. Then I think about my brand new helmet in the middle of and hope that the Iban who finds it knows how to ride a motorbike.
Words and photos COPYRIGHT of Reed Resnikoff. NO UNAUTHORIZED USE IS PERMITTED. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED, 2009.