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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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Borneo Day 8: Friday, July 28, 2017

Snacks on motorcycle

On our way to the Meratus Mountains, we traveled along the Jalan Achmed Yani through Martapura and on to Rantau and Kandangan. The road was busy, and we passed people on their way to market. This person is carrying an entire snack stand on his motorcycle.

Today was the most amazing experience we have had so far, and that is saying something. We traveled to Loksado, a four-hour journey into the Meratus Mountains, floated down the Amandit River through a tropical rain forest on a bamboo raft, walked to a Dayak village and a waterfall, saw rubber plantations and cinnamon trees, and ate some great Indonesian dishes.

Banjarmasin combo-s

A satellite image of the Banjarmasin area of southern Borneo overlaid on a 3D model using data from the USGS Earth Explorer website. The route to Loksado took us through Banjarbaru and Martapura and turned to the northeast, paralleling the Meratus Mountains through Rentau and Kandangan, where we turned into the mountains to Loksado.

When I first sent a list of possible things we’d like to do to Nazar back in May, I asked rather timidly if it were possible to visit the Dayak people and Meratus Mountains. He responded that it would take two days to do and would not work in our schedule. I knew that was likely to be the case, so I accepted his reasons.

But when we landed at the airport, he told us that he had made a change in the schedule and got permission from the headmaster for us to miss school on Friday to go to Loksado after all. He had to still work out some details and negotiate a cost with a friend who would be our guide, and he would have us pay for the trip, which we willingly agreed to.

Loksado area

The area around Loksado, showing the main road (in white) and the path of the Amandit River, which we rafted along. Loksado does’t even show up as a village.

After a few days here, he told us he had worked out the details and the total cost, for three people on the raft, and gas, meals, and guides for six people would be $150 U.S. An incredible deal! I still can’t believe it was only that much. Craig and I divided the cost so it only came to $75 each, which is about one million rupiah.

Main highway

This is the main highway from Martapura through Rantau and Kandangan. Sometimes it is wider (about three lanes worth) and usually it had much more traffic than at this spot.

Here is what the Swiss Belhotel website has to say about Loksado:

Isolated area located in South Kalimantan is popular by the name Loksado, a sub-district in Regency of headwater of South River which became a Dayak Tribe’s house where they can live everlasting with the splendid landscape. To reach out this place, you will explore the heart of Meratus highlands about two and a half hours from Banjarmasin, the capital of South Kalimantan. Next, be ready to get drift with the magnificence panorama of tropical forest which decorated with waterfall and rivers that split the forest.

Despite some English problems, you can get the idea that this is an amazing place. Loksado is located in the Hulu Sungai Selatan Regency. Indonesia is divided into provinces, which are somewhat equivalent to our states but not as independent from the federal government. Each province is divided into regencies, which are like counties. Banjarmasin is the largest city in its regency. The school in Mandastana is in Kuala Barito regency.

Mother and daughter

A mother and daughter on their way to market in Rentau.

Nazar’s friend and our driver, Budi, picked us all up at the hotel at 8:30. There were six of us in a small minivan: Budi and Nazar in the front seats, Craig and I in the middle, and Nazar’s wife and oldest daughter in the back. We headed southeast out of Banjarmasin on the main road past the airport, east through Banjarbaru and Martapura, and onward. The road turned toward the northeast as we got closer to the southern hills of the Meratus Mountains. It was cramped, and my right leg started to hurt, but with some isotonic exercises I was able to endure. The road had two full lanes with just enough room for two cars to pass each other, but often there were motorcycles zooming in and out, or we were passing one, or trying to pass a slower truck or car. Budi would announce his intent to pass with a beep of the car’s horn, as if to say “On your right!” or “Get over!” Sometimes there were close calls as motorcycles (or us) narrowly escaped being caught by oncoming traffic. Yet somehow it all worked and we saw no accidents, or even crumpled fenders.

Rantau marketplace

The marketplace in Rentau. You can always tell a market because the motorcycles are packed together and it is the busiest part of any town in the mornings.

The road was elevated above the countryside and houses had been built along it on stilts to keep them above the low-lying swampy ground. I tried to take some photos through the window, but most of them turned out blurry. We passed through the larger town of Rantau, with busy marketplaces and mosques, then continued on. I was longing to stretch my leg, but by changing positions frequently was able to make do.

Rubber plantation

A plantation of rubber trees. These are too small to start harvesting the latex sap, but will be large enough in a few years. As we got to more hilly ground, these plantations became numerous.

The surrounding countryside became more hilly and I started to see we were passing groves of thin trees with mottled trunks of grey, tan, and green, planted in even rows. Nazar told me that they were rubber trees. A bonus! I’d wanted to see a rubber plantation, and here we were driving through them. They don’t like to grow in the low lying areas, which are more wet and used for rice cultivation, so they became more frequent as we approached the hills. There were also palm tree groves, used for making palm oil.

Coal boss house

Guarded gateway for one of the coal boss houses. This is one of the mansions we saw on our way to Loksado.

In some of the small towns along the way we saw enormous, ornate houses. Budi told us that these were the houses of the coal bosses, who own and run the large coal mines in the area. The coal deposits are in the foothills of the Meratus Mountains and a series of unpaved private roads has been built to transport the coal to the Barito River or to the sea for loading on barges, like the ones we’d seen on the river. Green trucks could be seen driving along these roads as we passed over them on bridges. Before these roads were built, the trucks used the highway we were on (the only one in the area) and it had caused bad congestion and many accidents.

Coal road

One of the roads built specifically to transport coal from the mines in the mountains to the Barito River, where it can be shipped by barge to ports. I had seen the barges, now I saw the trucks.

We crossed into Hula Sungai Selatan Regency and the main city of Kangangan. It started to rain heavily as we reached the city, but let up enough for us to leave the car. We stopped at a restaurant in the marketplace and ate ayam goreng (fried chicken) with green chili sauce, rice, seaweed (I think), cucumber slices, and a sprig of a mint plant served on a banana leaf. We ate it with our right hands. It was very tasty and I quite liked the green chili sambal. It was good to stretch my leg.

Buka-open

Kandangan after the rain. We stopped for ayam goreng (fried chicken) at a restaurant here.

Beyond Kandangan we turned into an even narrower road toward the east. Before long, it wound up into the foothills and wound through small villages. We rolled down the windows and enjoyed the cooler, freshly washed air. The call to noonday prayer was beginning, and Budi wanted to stop since this is the most important Friday prayer. After passing several mosques we stopped in a small village along the road at a mosque Budi was familiar with. Nazar, his wife, and Budi went into the mosque to pray while we walked around the village and took photos. I found it incongruous that the somewhat primitive looking houses had satellite dishes on their roofs. Chickens and baby chicks wandered around, roosters crowed, and we took photos of the houses and children. Then I heard a strange call coming from behind us, of some exotic bird (I thought). I walked back and discovered it was coming from a wooden cage we had passed. It was a dark grey monkey with lighter fur around its eyes. I also saw what looked like a cacao tree nearby.

Pausing for prayer

We paused in a small mountain village for noontime prayers at a small mosque. While the others were praying, Craig, Nazar’s daughter, and I explored the town.

After prayer, we continued into the mountains. The road became steep in places, taxing the power of the small minivan. The forest grew more lush and green, and we passed mountains and streams, crossed wooden bridges that I wouldn’t have dared to walk across, let alone drive a car, and finally arrived at Loksado, a small village at the headwaters of the Amandit River.

Incongruity

Houses in a village in the Meratus Mountains. The houses here were of different design and construction than the Banjarese houses along the rivers in the south. The satellite dish is a bit of an incongruity.

It had been a fascinating drive, seeing more of the countryside and everyday life of villages and towns in the hills. Now it was time for yet another adventure.

Village in mountains

Houses in a mountain village where we paused for noontime prayers. Notice the satellite dish – these remote towns are not without their modern conveniences.

Mountain village shy kids

Shy kids in a village in the Meratus Mountains.

Small town mosque

Small mosque in a village in the Meratus Mountains. The noontime prayer was being called as we traveled through these villages, so we stopped for prayers and explored the village.

Banana trees

Banana trees in a village in the Meratus Mountains of south east Borneo.

Bend in the road

Past the village where we stopped for prayers, the road became more twisting and the scenery more lush and green

Approaching mountains

Pathway into the rain forest. As we drove further into the mountains, the lush greenery rose on hillsides around us and small paths like this one beckoned us to explore.

Bridge to cross

One more bridge to cross before we reach Loksado. And this is the main highway . . .

 

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