Borneo: Riding Down the River Rungan

Spirit of Kalimantan on the river Rungan in Borneo. Lawrence Brazier photos.
Spirit of Kalimantan on the river Rungan in Borneo. Lawrence Brazier photos.

Cruising a jungle river in rugged, lightly populated Borneo

By Lawrence Brazier

Relaxing on the deck of the boat.
Relaxing on the deck of the boat.

There are 17,508 islands in Indonesia, and only 6,000 of them are inhabited. It still means, of course, lots of possiblities.

One will consider the cultures of Java and Sumatra, the long-discovered Bali and all the rest depending on temperament.

But one should not forget Borneo, which is easily accessible from Jakarta by boat and daily flights to Palangkaraya in Central Kalimantan, which is the southern part of Borneo. Among other things, Kalimantan is the home of the orangutan.

Getting Back to Nature in Borneo

After the beach suntan has been won, the temple visited or the volcano is seen, Borneo is where one can get back to nature at its arguably most natural and easily find one’s simian ancestry simply staring you in the face.

Kalimantan to the west, middle and the east largely comprises jungle that is subject to an extensive river network. This green and watery density is also the home of the Dyaks who still maintain their traditions, their longhouses, and, despite all, their culture. Alongside the Dyaks, of course, live the orangutans. One can trek the jungles to meet any and all of Kalimantan’s inhabitants, but a rather more practical way is to explore and meet them by boat.

Enter Gaye Thavisin and Lorna Dowson-Collins, two ladies who have long been determined to make tourism more than, well, just tourism. It has been reasoned that people will be fascinated by jungle travel because time would appear to be running out and the remote spots of our planet must be seen soon or perhaps never.

The River Rungan

The operation run by Gaye and Lorna comprises three riverboats suitable for exploration of as much as 100 kilometers to the upper reaches of the River Rungan. Three Dyak villages are visited and local guides will take one through them, giving explanations in commendable English.

Excursions can be booked for one to four days. A river trip includes a transfer to canoes to explore the tributary oxbow lake system. This will bring one even closer to your already accelerating heartbeat and to hear the eerie silence suddenly shattered by a horrifying screech as a creature unseen gives vent to some jungle frustration.

Also to be seen are the spectacularly marked clouded leopard and the sun bear, both of which are classified “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

In residence are members of the Tarsiidae family, which are any of the several nocturnal arboreal prosimian primates of Indonesia and the Philippines, having huge eyes, long hind legs, and digits ending in pads to facilitate climbing. Long-tailed macaques and forest squirrels are also at home there.

The watery channels through the jungle enable one to undertake some spectacular bird-watching – above all several varieties of hornbills – one of them the oriental pied hornbill (most likely to have emitted the screech), Brahminy kites, stork-billed kingfishers, ibises and coucals.

Orangutan in Borneo.
Orangutan in Borneo.

The native proboscis monkey is, of course, all about its prominent nose. A male nose can be up to six inches in length and is said to be attractive to the female of the species. The nose also engenders the unique vocal range that may be part of its mating technique.

Gaye Thavisin and Lorna Dowson-Collins of WOWBorneo, who operate three boats in the River Rungan in Borneo.
Gaye Thavisin and Lorna Dowson-Collins of WOWBorneo, who operate three boats in the River Rungan in Borneo.

There are snakes, cobras, and lots of others, but they slither away from humans rather than attacking them. Ladies should be circumspect, however, and send their menfolk ahead wielding big sticks. The large monitor lizard is also to be seen as well as long-tailed macaque monkeys.

Alas, the orangutan is yet another of our endangered species and the ones hereabouts are cared for by the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation, which undertakes rehabilitation.

Three islands in the River Rungan accommodate the orangutans that have been saved from an early death and are now being trained for a subsequent life of independence.

These animals would hardly have been able to survive without being given some of the basic skills – and perhaps awakened instincts – that the Survival Foundation gives so well.

The orangutans are ultimately released into the wilds of a conservation reserve in the northern part of Central Kalimantan. Depending on sensibility, one will be delighted, or perturbed, by the orangutan’s distinctly human behavior.

Meeting the Dyak People

Meeting the Dyak people and visiting their villages, observing the orangutans and all the rest of the animal life in Kalimantan and enjoying the tranquillity of the river in an exotic jungle setting is a marvelous approach to acquaintanceship with a part of Indonesian culture that may soon be lost.

Experienced travelers in Asia all agree that evening time may engender a period of immense charm, but a safe and comfortable refuge is of the essence after a day spent encountering the jungle! “WOW Borneo”, the enterprise run by the aforementioned pioneering ladies, has it all.

The first boat built was named Rahai’i Pangun and is 19 meters long and offers fan cooling. Up to 11 persons can be accommodated. The Spirit of Borneo is a boat that has been newly modified and is a full 20 meters from bow to stern and there is accommodation for up to eight persons. This is the air-conditioned luxury experience.

A third vessel, the Ruhui Rahayu, is 16 meters long and is brand new. For private charter only, this vessel can accommodate up to six persons and is ideal for families. The boat features a double cabin coupled with an open-plan sleeping arrangement with convertible lounge beds.

Superb Local Cuisine on Board

Mealtimes afloat are wonderful experiences. Superb cuisine includes local Indonesian and Thai dishes served on deck with not a wobble in the grandiose sweep of such a boat on the river. Dietary needs can be covered with advance notice. One can only say that each meal is a festive occasion, and naturally included in the overall costs. Spice is of the essence, but since too much sambal can bring about a digestive samba all meals can be attuned to taste and personal requirements.

It should be added that this enterprise reckons on channeling 25% of all profits into micro-credits – possibly the most viable of all aid – for local inhabitants. This is a serious effort at what today has been dubbed ‘eco-tourism that both partners in the enterprise subscribe to.

All information of costs and contact details are at

Palangkaraya, the nearby capital of Central Kalimantan, offers an extensive selection of accommodation, which can be found through any search engine.

Entering Indonesia is astonishingly simple. You book a flight to Jakarta, arrive and walk to the visa office at the airport, pay the equivalent of about $ 25 on the spot for a “visa on entry” – and you are in. Moreover, the visa is good for one month and can be extended for a further month. Indonesia is well-served, twice daily, by Emirates Airline. A very reasonably priced internal flight (with Garuda, Lion Air, and one or two others) can be taken from Jakarta Airport to Borneo.

Lawrence Brazier is a writer on (mostly) religious affairs but is also a widely published travel writer (humor writ large). He has written humor for Bavarian TV and translated, from German, for the likes of Heinrich Harrer. He now lives in rural Austria with his wife and a family of refugees from Afghanistan.

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