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Borneo Day 8: Friday, July 28, 2017

Bamboo raft on Amandit River

Amli, our guide, poling the raft through the rapids on the Amandit River in Meratus Mountains of southeast Borneo near Loksado.

This post describes one of the most incredible adventures of my life: a journey on a bamboo raft down a whitewater river through the rain forest in the mountains of southeast Borneo. We began in the village of Loksado high in the Meratus Mountains.

Walking to raft

Walking through the village of Loksado on our way to the starting point of our rafting trip.

Upon arrival at Loksado in Hulu Sengai Selatan Regency, we were greeted by our local guide named Amat. He had lived in the area for several years and knew the rafters well. He in turn introduced us to Amli, who would be our rafter and guide down the Amandit River.

David-Craig-Nazar-wife ready to raft

Myself, Craig Hendrick, Nazar and his wife at the headwaters of the Amandit River in Loksado, Borneo.

Loksado is a small village situated in the rain forest near the headwaters of the river, which is fairly shallow but runs over many small rapids on its way down through the hills. The local people have developed a style of raft that is ideally suited to these conditions. They take local bamboo, which is plentiful, and dry it for several months on the banks of the river. They then take strips of bamboo bark and use it like rawhide to bind the poles together in a flat bundle about 20 poles wide and maybe 25 feet long, slightly upturned at the front end. In the middle they build a seat that is large enough for three people although not very tall or comfortable. They then use a bamboo pole about ten feet long to push and steer the raft down the river.

Amli and organizer preparing

Amat and Amli preparing our raft for departure.

We climbed over the drying bamboo to reach our raft. I brought a plastic bag to wrap my camera bag inside, knowing it was likely to get wet, and kept my camera strap around my neck as we set off. Craig sat in front, I in the middle, and Nazar behind as Amli pushed off from the bank.

Starting out

Amli uses a bamboo pole to push us off from the bank as we begin our journey down the Amandit River in southeast Borneo.

The raft is not designed to stay dry, merely to skim the top of the water, staying shallow in draft and supporting the weight of 3-4 people. Water flowed over the bamboo logs and between them freely, and the whole raft was as flexible as a bundle of drinking straws. In fact, I think I will have my students use drinking straws to build models of the raft and use them to race down “rivers” we will make. This could be a nice engineering project: design a raft from wooden skewers or drinking straws that is flexible, able to handle a shallow river and run between the rocks in rapids, yet capable of supporting quite a bit of weight. No inflatable rubber rafts allowed. I couldn’t help but think how much my brother in law, Levi, who was a recreation major in college, an expert river rafter, and a professional photographer would enjoy this experience.

Raft construction

After 20 minutes on the river, we pulled over to transfer to a larger raft. I was able to get some close-up views of how the rafts are constructed. Bamboo logs about 20 feet long are tied together with strips of green bark tied to crosspieces, with a slight inward curve at each end. The seat is built as a piece and strapped onto the deck and will hold three people, although not very comfortably. A bamboo pole about eight feet long is used to push the raft along. The river is fairly shallow, with frequent rapids, and this style of construction allows the rafts to hold a great deal of weight while maintaining flexibility and a shallow draft. This is the only type of boat that can navigate this river.

We traveled down through several small rapids and calm spots for about 20 minutes. There were developed areas, built up embankments, and a few resorts along the river. We stopped at one of these, and I thought the trip was done. But we were only changing rafts for a bigger model. Once we had moved to the new raft, we set out again.

Amli poling raft

Amli poles the raft ahead through a calm area. He plants the bamboo pole into the riverbed, then pushes on the pole while walking backward on the long front section of the raft, thus propelling the raft forward.

We left all signs of civilization behind. There were no more villages or signs of people except for an occasional wooden or bamboo bridge across the river and a few huts where people had tried to farm. Most of the time, we saw nothing to mark the wilderness. This was the rain forest that I had come to see, and each bend in the river brought more incredible views with such rich shades of green that my eyes could hardly take them in. Usually we could not see beyond the plants growing along the river, but from time to time views of mountains and clouds and tall jungle canopies presented themselves. The sky had been overcast from the morning rain, but soon cleared to a brilliant blue broken by fluffy cumulous.

Amandit River view

View along the Amandit River in the Meratus Mountains of southeast Borneo. There were frequent rapids interspersed by short sections of calm water. No photos can adequately capture the intense greens of the rain forest canopy as we rode deeper into the wilderness.

Most of the plants we saw were bananas, coconuts, rubber trees, and a plant that looked very much like sugar cane but wasn’t. There were thick trees with tangled roots hanging over the river, and thick bundles of bamboo growing very tall. Some trees with whitish trunks grew up over 70 feet, competing with the coconut trees for the top of the canopy. There were ferns and cycads and many other plants I couldn’t identify.

Loksado area-s

A map of the Amandit River and our route through the rainforest. We started at Loksado and floated down the river past several small bridges (marked here where the paths intersect the river). It took us two hours to reach the take-out point. The Dayak village we visited (see the next post) was across the river from Loksado in Malaris.

At one point I heard a small sound and spied a large, black lizard climbing out of the water. I took some photos of it but none of them turned out to where you could tell what it was.

Approaching rapids

Amli guides the raft expertly between the rocks as we approach a series of rapids. He knew every rock and bend in the river and how to navigate the large raft along the main currents.

Amli navigated the raft expertly between the rocks of each rapid we traversed. He obviously knew this river well, and steered us through the main channel. When we reached a calm spot, he would push the raft by sticking his pole into the sand below, then walking backward on the raft, pushing the pole to propel us forward. Where the water was too deep (he showed us this by pushing the pole deep into the water and having it float back up) he used the pole like a paddle. In the rapids and along the banks, he used the pole to push off rocks.

Meratus mountain view

A view of the Meratus Mountains as seen from the Amandit River in southeast Borneo. This was an unusual gap in the canopy; in most areas, the coconut, bamboo, and banana trees crowded the banks.

I wish I could adequately use words to describe the beauty and vibrant sense of life along the river. It was a two-hour trip that I will never forget. We were the only ones rafting today, and Amli said it varies from day to day how many people come. The governor of the province has built one of the resorts in Loksado, but it seems under utilized or advertised as no one seemed to be there. There are very few professional tour guides and no public transportation that reaches here; you have to know someone who is a friend of the local people such as Amat to arrange this and who can drive you from Banjarmasin, which has the closest airport and major hotels. I have to hand it to Nazar for having these connections and setting this up. This is a major potential tourist destination that is virtually unknown. This is the first time he has ever done rafting before. This should not surprise me; there are many people in Utah who have never rafted the Green River either, and it takes about the same amount of time to get there. You also need connections to rent the rafts and get the gear.

Around the river bend

The rain forest canopy leans over the Amandit River as we round a bend.

As we traveled further down the river another hour we began to see more signs of human activity. There were occasional cleared areas with small huts along the hillsides. Amli explained that local people use slash and burn methods to clear the rain forest, then plant cassava in the clearings. Since the jungle is gone which holds in the soil, rain will wash down into the river along with any nutrients the soil holds, and the cassava fields will only grow for a few years before new areas must be cleared.

Cassava slash and burn

Slash and burn agriculture along the Amandit River in the rain forest of southeast Borneo. The green plants behind the hut are cassava, which quickly deplete the soil so that new swathes must be cleared by burning down the trees. The bare area to the left is ready for planting more cassava. Much of Borneo’s rainforest is quickly disappearing due to slash and burn agriculture or for the planting of palm oil plantations.

We saw more frequent bridges and a few small villages. A man and his wife passed us pushing their raft up the river. These people may seem lost in a remote wilderness, but they want the same comforts as us all. One hopeful point is that they are using solar voltaic cells to power their homes. They are about as far off the grid as it gets.

The old bridge

As we traveled further down the river, the signs of civilization became more frequent, such as this old bridge leading to a few huts along the river. It reminds me of the bridge in Emperor’s New Groove.

We asked if we could pose with the bamboo pole, and Amli told us to wait until we reached a long calm spot, then we traded places on the raft to pose. It is like trying to stand up in a kayak, but a bit more stable. I was beginning to get sunburned – I brought sunscreen to Kalimantan with me, but forgot to apply it today even though I did put on a thick coat of bug spray. The sun was hot but the air was cool and refreshing, much nicer than the humidity down in the lowlands and I didn’t realize I was getting sunburned until it was too late.

Craig with pole

Craig Hendrick posing on the raft. We asked Amli if we could take a turn at pushing the raft. He waited until a quiet spot and let us pose. It is trickier than it looks to keep your balance on the flexible raft. Notice how the water comes up through the bamboo poles.

After two hours on the river we reached a group of houses and another bridge and Amli pushed us to the shore, where Amat and Budi waited for us. We clambered off the raft and climbed up to the waiting minivan. I had kept my black shoes on, and they and the bottom part of my pants and my butt were soaked from the water splashing onto the raft as we ran the rapids. But I didn’t care if I was a bit squishy.

We're in trouble now

We’re in trouble now! It’s harder than you might think to balance on these flexible rafts. Sitting on the central seat, water would often splash up as we shot down the rapids and I got a bit wet. Looks like I had an accident. These shoes were already worn out, so I threw them away after this journey.

I would recommend this rafting trip to anyone with the means to arrange it. We paid a very small price for an unforgettable experience. I will treasure the hundreds of photos and video clips I took. I had to keep mentally pinching myself all the way down the river because I thought I must be dreaming, and in my dreams will frequently return to this voyage through the rainforest on a bamboo raft. When I think that someone from a small town in the desert of western Utah could ever be in a tropical rainforest, doing what I’ve done today; I would never have believed it.

Rocks in river

Rocks and rapids along the Amandit River in southeast Borneo. I still cannot believe I had the opportunity to do this!

David with pole

I don’t think I’m doing this quite right. It takes practice and balance to pole the raft along. I got a bit sunburnt but the air was refreshingly cool as we traveled along the river.

Rain forest

Another view of the rainforest along the Amandit River. As nice as these photos are, they cannot convey the sense of brilliant green life surrounding the river.

Poling up the river

A husband and wife team poling their raft up the river. These were the only people we saw going upstream, and this only at the lower end of the river.

Poling raft in rain forest

The plants along the river here look very similar to sugarcane but are not. In some areas the banks were relatively flat, in others steep and overhung with trees.

Kids with raft

Children playing with their own raft at a village along the Amandit River.

Coconut canopy

Coconut palms form a major part of the rainforest canopy along the Amandit River in southeast Borneo.

Bamboo canopy

Bamboo grows profusely along the river, along with wild coconut and banana trees. There is a plant that also looks like sugarcane but isn’t, and tall, thin trees such as this one with tannish gray trunks.

Bridge at take out point

As we traveled down the river, villages and bridges became more numerous as the river curved back toward the main road. Once we reached this point, after two hours on the river, we pushed to the side of the stream and climbed out

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