Deeper Into the Heart – West Kalimantan Part 4

When we were in Sintang, just before my Dengue Fever really kicked in, we followed our Couchsurfing host Eko to his old workplace, a hospital, and had lunch with some of the staff. One of the GPs could speak English well and asked us what our plans were for the rest of our trip in Kalimantan. We said we had no idea. He spoke of a place called Bukit Raya, a supposedly haunted peak in a national park. “But not many people really go there, especially not foreigners. It’s really hard to get to.”

Tantalising! Two weeks later we were there.

Caroline and I talked about this, and we decided that we wouldn’t give accurate instructions on how to get to Bukit Raya. If it’s somewhere that you ever want to go then half the fun is working out the insane logistics of getting there, and sometimes it’s nice not to have readily available information on the internet. However, because it was quite an interesting trip, here is a brief summary of how we arrived (without revealing too much):

– 1 hour motorcycle ride
– 2 hour bus ride
– 6 hour speedboat ride
– 1 night in Serawai, a small fishing town by the river
– 1 lengthy visit to the Serawai police station, for bureaucracy and cake
– 3 hour speedboat ride through small river channels (adrenaline pumping)
– 2 nights in an Utdanum village preparing for the trek

Waiting for a bus

Waiting for a bus

Traveling on a bus

Traveling on a bus

Our first speedboat

Our first speedboat

Us and Budi

Us and Budi, the boat driver, sitting in a floating cafe after eating rendang

Boat ride

One of our other passengers gets a gale-force view


Getting shown around Serawai. Quite a loud place, due to the generators and roosters everywhere

The Serawai police station

The Serawai police station

The Serawai police

The Serawai police

A mermaid statue at the Serawai police station

A mermaid statue at the Serawai police station. For ‘protection’.

The Utdanum village we stayed in was called Rantau Malam, and had one dirt road running through it, inhabited by cows, plenty of dogs and puppies, many ducks and chickens of various ages, and a generous sprinkling of curious children. Occasionally a motorcycle would roll down the road containing (almost exclusively) a man, usually in bare feet, and carrying either a gun, a carcass of some sort, large containers of petrol, crates of various supplies, or all of the above. Because this is a functioning village that isn’t frequented by tourists, there were no elaborate costumes, mask dances, fire twirling or any of that kind of thing. Just normal (albeit incredibly strong and muscular) people wearing shorts and t-shirts who contributed to village life in various ways. The people were welcoming and accommodating when we spoke to them, but mostly people remained indifferent to our presence and carried on as normal. We were a mild curiosity, but we weren’t pandered to and we weren’t treated as wallets with legs. Bliss.

The school field in Rantau Malam

The school field in Rantau Malam

A feast

One of the several feasts we were invited to

Caroline with Habik

Caroline with Habik, a woman who took us on a little walking adventure to the next village to buy meat

Me and the kids

And me with the kids. Unfortunately they couldn’t refrain from making normal faces.

The venison we purchased (head not included)

Some of the venison we purchased (head not included)

A rainy late afternoon from the safety of a covered balcony

A rainy late afternoon from the safety of a covered balcony

Our guide for the jungle trek was a man called Pak Pius. He worked for the national park institution (Taman Nasional Bukit Baka Bukit Raya) and we stayed at his home in the village – probably one of the nicer houses since it had a generator and a satellite, therefore electricity and television in the evening. With him we worked out the logistics for the trip. We found a porter named Pak Hatta who would carry our borrowed tent as well as most of the food (five days worth for four people), plus three tarpaulin sheets and bedrolls for him and our guide. We had brought 24 packets of instant noodles, tea bags, a dozen cereal sachets, and some mixed nut snacks. In the village we were asked to also purchase a kilo of rice, coffee and sugar.

Due to our visa time restrictions we were forced to make the journey in five days rather than the usual seven – the fastest it can possibly be done (even by the most experienced porters). Lastly, we were told that we would need to hire ojeks (motorcycles) to get from the village to the start of the trek, but we only had enough money for a one way ride – the return ride. This meant we would add three hours of extra walking to the first day just to get to the start. In our own packs we carried sleeping bags, inflatable mattresses, spare warm clothes and sandals for the camps, rain gear, eating and drinking utensils, head torches, toiletries and first aid (though not enough plasters, it turned out). We also carried enough water for one day which could be replenished at the many clear rivers along the journey.

Before we set off we were required to undergo an adat, a ritual which is performed to protect travelers during their journey into the jungle. We had been told to expect this, and we knew that it involved sacrificing a chicken.

We were sitting in Pak Pius’ house the evening before setting off when a pair of shamans (a man and a woman, possibly married?) walked in and sat down with us. We barely noticed – this was one of the few houses with a TV, which meant there were constantly people walking in and out. But all of a sudden a rattan mat was laid before us and we were instructed to sit on it. A live chicken was brought from the kitchen. The male shaman grabbed the chicken and started waving it over our heads and muttering in Tampun (the local dialect) while the bird squawked. A ceremonial knife, some dry rice, and an empty glass bowl were set in front of us. Eventually the waving of the chicken subsided and the knife was offered to one of us, presumably to perform the sacrifice ourselves. My heart was already fluttering at this stage and both Caroline and I said that we couldn’t do it. Pak Pius took the blade instead and slowly cut the chicken’s throat over the glass bowl. Blood dripped into the bowl and then the dead bird was taken back to the kitchen to be butchered. Caroline and I sat in a kind of awkward silence. The TV was still on, and it was playing a very poorly made Indonesian werewolf drama. Kids were sitting around, half watching the TV and half watching our peculiar proceedings.

Adat ritual

That feeling you get when a chicken is waved over your head…

The female shaman started muttering in Tampun while dabbing her fingers in the bowl of fresh blood. She proceeded to press her bloodied fingers onto various parts of our bodies – head, chest, right hand palm, neck and right foot. She then rubbed blood on the ceremonial blade and we were instructed to bite down on it. After biting, the flat edge was pressed on our foreheads. This was repeated three times. After that she took some rice from the bowl and scattered it into our hair, all the time murmuring in Tampun. Finally, a green bead on a piece of string was tied to each of our right wrists and chicken blood was wiped on these too.

Chicken blood

Blood and rice

Arm bands from Adat

Our protective wrist bands

And that was it. The werewolf drama continued to play, and half of the butchered chicken was brought out and given to the shaman pair. They gave us friendly handshakes, wished us well, and left the house. We ate the other half of the chicken for dinner with vegetables. It was chewy.

With everything organised and completed we could begin our trek. And I can say without exaggeration that it was the most difficult thing that I’ve ever done.

Click here for the conclusion


Just an ordinary train