The Mahakam River Against The Wind

October 2010

We travel upriver, leaving behind us the Makassar Strait, as we make our way against the currents towards the mountains of central Kalimantan (Borneo). We are fortunate to have caught the tail end of the east monsoons winds that prolong our evenings by scattering the local dive-bombing insects.

Barges carrying coal and timber cross our paths. Navigation on this mighty river – the largest in East Kalimantan – requires an understanding of its shallow regions, narrow channels, and swampy lakes that isolate one village from the next.


Banjar houses are perched on stilts that encroach upon the river. The Banjar are mostly farmers. Evenings, they gather along the river where they swim, fish, bathe, wash their laundry, and dispose of their waste. Children standing in the muddy waters wave as we pass.

Nights, the call to prayers echoes from village to village. The Banjar’s ethnic identity is inseparable from Islam. Regardless, animist traditions prevail. Technology is shunned and nature is embraced for its inherent supernatural powers. Development in education, health care, sanitation and water purification is limited. There is no exchange of resources. The Banjar prefer their insularity.


The same can be said for the Dayak, Borneo’s indigenous people. These notorious headhunters only recently declared peace among the tribes. Still, they battle with the river, the source of epidemic dysentery and malaria. In all the villages we visit, we ask about available medical resources. There is never enough fresh water or medicine to eradicate health problems. Nor, do we learn, is there faith in modern medicine that is preventative.


Rats are a problem. As are the crocodiles, rated the second deadliest in the world. We witness a ten-foot specimen stalk a cow and her calf along the bank. We are warned to beware of even stealthier hazards, such as the irritable Vipera Russellii, responsible for more human fatalities than any other venomous snake in the world. Yet, we are fascinated by regional wildlife: orangutans, the comically long-nosed proboscis monkey, freshwater dolphins, and spectacular birds such as the hornbill and kingfisher.


Oil drilling along the river began over a century ago, and adds to the ecological challenges presented by climate change and the rising sea level. Regardless, this dirt-colored tributary remains profoundly beautiful, especially at night when the sun squats on folds of burnt reds and metallic gold. Life and death. We are humbled by this surreal river that gives and takes without restraints.


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