Up River in Kalimantan

A Search for a Blowpipe (1989)

I’m sitting near the wharf at Muarah Muntai, talking to a couple of Benuaq Dayaks from up-river. The taller fellow with the almost Bugis countenance declares unabashed that he’d like to sleep with me — I never do work out exactly what he meant. Changing the subject to the cost of a meal in Australia, his mate, a shorter stockier version of the same, said that at that price he would certainly die. A full moon, hot and sticky and the boat isn”t due for another two or so hours.

Author on the River 500
The author on the Mahakam River

Up river in Kal-Tim (Kalimantan East), you get to know the boats. From the outboard, motorised, canoe-shaped ‘longbots‘ to the huge diesel Kapal Sungai – ferry boats made on the banks of the massive, muddy Mahakam river. From speedboats of the mining or timber companies down to coffin-shaped tin lids for young kids at play. Carting generations up and down sleepy wood or mineral towns that aren’t content to merely sit on the land but which encroach, floating, onto the river itself. Crocodiles and currents underneath, malaria, mosquitoes and bears in the forests behind. Frontier province, Indonesia.

So, two more hours on the wharf with the Dayak pair who haven’t much money or food and by the look of them would gladly cut my throat for the rp 100,000 I have in my pockets. But they catch an earlier boat and leave genially enough. My boat, the ‘Bersama’ arrives and I fall straight to sleep on a raised plank bed, replete with flock pillow, dreaming of floating restaurants, giant water pythons and wild natives.

Meet another Dayak guy over a floating kopi and cake breakfast, his fine light-tan skin and Inca-like features an exotic splash of colour. In the magic of the moment, he talks me into hopping off at Melak, instead of continuing further upriver to Long Iram. Disembarking, I am immediately attached to by two young Bugis guys, selling accommodation and motor bike charters. My Dayak friend disappears down the road and the magic goes with him and I once again wonder on these spur of the moment decisions.

Lots of Bugis from nearby South Sulawesi here in Melak. Also a couple of Finnish tourists, which the very friendly locals tell me after I book into the other hotel – no collusion among the tourists wanted here. Wandering through the markets I see a mix of all the Indonesian races with the odd Dayak strolling around like a character out of an old South American documentary — weird hats, outlandish coats and angular, fine-boned faces.

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