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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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Borneo Day 2: Saturday, July 22, 2017

Colorful jewelry

Colorful jewelry in the souvenir shops of Martapura, a center for jewelry manufacture and diamond polishing.

After visiting the diamond pits of Cempaka, we were all hungry. We dropped off Nazar’s friend at the Indomaret store and drove further along the road to Martapura. Nazar pulled off at a roadside open-air restaurant specializing in soto lambongan, a type of soup that has various types of meat, boiled eggs, rice, noodles, and other ingredients in a tasty broth. It was interesting that they only had one food item on the menu with two choices – a large bowl or a medium bowl of soto, and then 15 drink choices. Each area of the country has its own variety of soto, as we were to find out the next day.

Soto lamongan

The sign of the Soto Lamongan restaurant we stopped at for lunch. Soto is an Indonesian soup that is made differently in each province. Soto Lamongan was the only food menu item, but there were 15 different drink choices. It was very good!

We drove on to Martapura, which is the diamond cutting, polishing, and jewelry-making center near the diamond mines. We stopped at a central plaza and walked through a market where they were making jewelry. Since there aren’t very many large diamonds coming out of the mines, this jewelry uses various types of semi-precious gemstones and colored glass to make rings, necklaces, bracelets, and other forms. It was interesting to watch them making the settings.

Colored stones

Semi-precious stones and glass beads for mounting into jewelry.

We then walked downstairs where there is an open-air bazaar with cross streets and stalls and shops selling all kinds of souvenirs and other items. There were more jewelry stores with many types of colored beads hanging up. There were stores selling sasirangan clothing, the Borneo style tie dye cloth, stores selling hats and T-shirts, stores with electronics, wood carvings, and even Banjarnese style miniature boats.

Brooches

Beadwork and brooches in the Martapura jewelry district.

I found several woven reed hats that actually fit my big head (figuratively and literally), which were inexpensive and in the style that devout Muslim men wear. There were some bark hats that were very cheap, but they didn’t fit. I also found a beaded Dayak style hat for my son, Jonathan. They had Dayak breadfruit bark hats, but I didn’t buy one because none were big enough to fit my head.

Bark hats

Hats made from the inner bark of the breadfruit tree, I couldn’t find one that fit, or I would have bought one.

As it was Saturday, and Nazar and his family had missed Friday prayers to pick us up at the airport, we stopped next door at the largest mosque in Martapura, the Masjid Agung Al Karomah, brightly colored with yellow walls and blue domes. Nazar and his wife went inside for prayers as Craig, I, and his daughter waited outside and took photos.

Beads and jewelry store

Beadwork and jewelry at a shop in the Martapura souvenir district.

As I had expressed interest in buying a Javanese black hat similar to the one President Widodo wears (and most officials in the government), Nazar asked around and found a stall at the open-air bazaar next door (next to the souvenir market and bling bling stores). With a little trial and error, we found one that fit my large head for a good price. My hat collection is continuing to improve. Some people collect spoons or stamps or thimbles of a country. I collect hats that symbolize the culture of the places I visit, and I have them hanging up in my den at home.

Borneo batik

Sasirangan hanging up in a store in Martapura’s open air bazaar.

My hat collection started when I was 13 and bought a large black ten-gallon hat at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. I have hats from around the world including some my sister has bought for me on her own travels. They include a Tyrolean cap from Bavaria, a Palestinian kafia that I bought in Nazareth, a fez from Jerusalem, banana hats from Taiwan, a cowboy hat from Phoenix, a sombrero from Chichen Itza, a huaso hat from Chile, an embroidered hat from Istanbul, a tri-corn hat from Colonial Williamsburg, a wizard’s hat from the Shakespeare festival in Cedar City, a Greek fisherman’s cap from San Francisco, a goat skin cap from Ghana, and various hats from JPL and other NASA facilities. One of my favorite hats is a dark blue leather cap I bought in a gift shop near Disneyland on a band trip when I was a senior in high school. I wore this frequently as a freshman in college, along with a brown leather jacket, tan pants, and a black turtle neck shirt. Yep, I was stylin’.

Stone beads

More stones and beads for jewelry making.

On our way out of town, we stopped at a roadside stall to get a snack that is famous here, consisting of small lumps of fried dough with a coconut and sugar coating. They were a bit sweet for my taste and the texture was interesting, but I enjoyed the flavor. It had been a long day and I dozed off as we drove back to Banjarmasin. Nazar dropped us off at the Swiss Belhotel and I took a shower and a nap in my room.

David by Martapura mosque

David Black by the main mosque in Martapura, called the Masjid Agung Al Karomah.

I was running short of clothes and attempted to launder some underwear, shirts, and pants in my room’s sink using some Tide liquid detergent I had brought, but despite lots of scrubbing I couldn’t entirely get the smell of sweat out of my clothes. I hung them up to dry around the bathroom. I will have to bite the bullet and send out my clothes to be laundered by the hotel, despite the high cost.

Martapura mosque

The Masjid Agung Al Karomah in Martapura, South Kalimantan.

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Borneo Day 2: Saturday, July 22, 2017

Panning for diamonds

Panning for diamonds at the Cempaka diamond mine. The pans are very similar to panning for gold in California, but instead of flat bottoms they have conical bottoms.

After visiting the haunted house on the hill, we drove further toward Martapura on the Trans Kalimantan Highway. We needed to meet up with a colleague of Nazar’s, whose father works in the diamond mines, so we stopped at a convenience store called Indomaret. There are many of these throughout the country. I was getting hungry and thirsty, so I bought some Minute Maid Pulpy tropical punch and a Hungry Cow ice cream bar, which was really good.

Trisakti monument

A monument to the famous (and lost) Trisakti Diamond, found near this location.

Nazar’s friend arrived and he climbed into the car with us. We traveled a short distance further on the road, then turned off onto a smaller road leading into an open area with rice fields and swampy ground. On one side of the road was a monument in the shape of a large diamond: the famous Trisakti diamond discovered near here. Its whereabouts is not known.

Digging mud

Digging in the mud. The first step is to dig out the mud and stones at the proper level where the diamonds are located, about 30 feet down from the mean ground level. This area has been reworked so many times that it has all been mixed up.

Spraying mud

The first step is to dig mud and rocks from the side of the hill and shovel down to the bottom of the pit, where water is pumped and sprayed to remove the larger stones. The smaller stones and mud are sucked up a pipe to a sluice box above.

We parked by the side of the road and I took a few moments to spray myself with insect repellent, figuring I would need it here if anywhere. We walked along a narrow path through small hillocks to where the ground opened up into a large pit. Like everywhere in Indonesia, bright green vegetation grows everywhere, but underneath the soil is an orangish tan color. A group of men were working at the edge of this depression in a freshly dug pit. One man at the top was shoveling muddy soil down to the bottom and two men at the bottom were spraying the soil with water to wash out the larger rocks, then sucking it all up into a pipe under pressure. This pipe delivered the mud and gravel to a large wooden sluice box, where a man removes medium sized pieces.

Leaky sluices

Sluice boxes. The mud slurry is pumped from the pit and washing down the rills where the larger stones are separated.

The smaller stuff and mud is carried by hand in a conical washing pan (just like the gold pans in California except with a pointed instead of flat bottom) to a walled-in area filled with water. Several men inside the water pit were sloshing the water around in the pans, gradually separating out the small gravel from the mud and searching through it for any diamonds.

Sluice

A sluice box. Larger stones are separated out by hand in the sluice and the mud and smallest stones are dropped into a filter box.

An older gentleman showed us a plastic bag with several small diamonds in it, about 1/10 carat each. He said they find quite a few of these each day, but larger diamonds are much more rare.

Looking for diamonds in pan

Searching for diamonds in the pan. The small stones, still with some mud mixed in, are carried to this walled pit filled with water where the slurry is swished around with water and the smaller stones settle to the bottom. The panner searches for a glint of light that indicates a diamond. The remaining pebbles are placed to the side and eventually worked again to look for gold and platinum.

In my research on this area, I found out that it has been worked and reworked for almost a thousand years; certainly the pits and hummocks look like they have been dug through many times. In years past, the pits had to be dug about 30 feet down to reach the diamond bearing gravels, and they would flood because this is a swamp, so wood was used to barricade the pits, tamped with grass to prevent the water from oozing in. Even so, they would often collapse. Now they have created a dam to wall off the swamp water so that the large pit doesn’t flood, but the soil is still very muddy.

Small diamonds

A bag with small diamonds found at the Cempaka mine. Although very small, at bout 1/10 carat, these diamonds are discovered fairly frequently here. Most of the larger stones have been discovered after a thousand years of digging.

It took some jumping over streams and hoses and climbing around to get to the panning pit. I was worried about getting mud on my new camera, but I did manage to get good photos and video of the whole process. Nazar’s friend told us that the miners are superstitious and that we should avoid doing certain things, or we would scare away the diamonds. One was to swear or use bad language. Another was to stand with our hands on our hips like a boss. I was trying not to do this, but in the photos taken of me, there I am with my hands on my hips. I hope I didn’t scare away the diamonds.

David at diamond mine

David Black standing like a boss at the Cempaka diamond mine. This is supposed to be bad luck to stand like this, with hands on hips, and will scare the diamonds away. Oops!

Before coming to Indonesia I researched this mine and discovered that the diamonds came from kimberlite deposits in the Meratus Mountains. They were washed here in rivers during the Cretaceous Period, when sea levels were higher. This area was at sea level and formed a delta into the ocean. In the over 66 million years since then, there hasn’t been much tectonic change in Borneo (unlike Java and Sumatra) and this area has remained largely intact, except that as sea levels dropped during the ice ages, the delta was subsequently buried under further sediment washed from the mountains. So now the miners have to dig down through 30 feet of mud. The gravel layer also has small deposits of gold and platinum in it. We could see the foothills of the Meratus Mountains in the distance. I wondered if there were any diamonds still in them thar hills. I don’t think the mother lode was ever found, just as the mother lode in California was never found.

Diamond geology-Kalimantan

The source of the Cempaka diamonds is the Bobaris Ophiolite, which contains kimberlite deposits. Kimberlite is a volcanic vent that lifts the diamonds from deep in the earth (where pressure and heat are great enough to form them) to the surface. The diamonds were then eroded out of the kimberlite and deposited in a Cretaceous delta in what is now the Barito River basin.

There were several groups of men digging in separate locations along the walls in the larger pit, using diesel powered pumps belching smoke to pump the water and mud from the holes onto the wooden sluices. Other than diesel power, their techniques have remained largely unchanged over a thousand years. This mine may be the second oldest diamond mine in the world, after the famous Golconda mines in India. It hasn’t produced as many famous stones, but from time to time larger stones are still found. About ten years ago, a rare three-carat blue diamond was discovered here. This is just one pit of many in the general area, and they still find small diamonds. I know some commercial groups have studied areas near here and say there is quite a bit of potential even now.

Diamond and kimberlite diagram

The geology of Borneo during the Cretaceous Period was just right for diamond formation and uplift. Subduction along the proto-Indonesian margins carried graphite deep, where it formed into diamond. The volcanic activity produced large cratons and calderas with mantle plumes that lifted the diamonds toward the surface. Now Borneo is stable without volcanoes, compared with the rest of Indonesia.

From here the diamonds are sold to buyers in Martapura who polish and set the stones into jewelry. We were to visit that part of the process next.

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