Setulang – A Stay in the Forest, North Kalimantan

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When I arrived at Setulang Village, I noticed there were no supermarkets to be seen anywhere. The village is located miles from any major town.  It is nestled along the edge of a forest which dates back 130 million years. This was the original Kalimantan – the one I longed to connect with.

I was greeted by my lovely homestay family and dinner was already waiting for me on the table. This consisted of grilled fish, tropical fruit and a variety of fresh green vegetable dishes, plus boiled cassava and steaming hot rice, all grown locally. My host, Benyamin, explained, “I am from the Omah Long tribe. We are mostly farmers here in Setulang and my family has fruit trees, a vegetable plot and chickens. The boys go out hunting at night for game.”

“We practice sustainable slash and burn and rotate our crops. If you want to go and visit a farm, I can take you. In fact, you can pitch in and work on the land for a bit if you like.”

Tempting as this offer was, I said I would have to save it for another day. I had another plan. A boatman was going to take me in his traditional longboat to a place called Tana Olen, a jungle camp located deep in the forest where I planned to stay for two nights.

The next morning, I gathered my backpack, clambered into a long wooden boat with a single outboard, and set out for Tana Olen. I was surprised to see that there was only one sack of rice on board and no other supplies.

The journey was exciting as we sped along the river, negotiating small rapids and going deeper and deeper into the forest. Long looping vines hung low and, just as my mind had begun to drift into the jungle vibe, we pulled over onto the river bank. After about five minutes an elderly lady with a heavily laden woven basket of root vegetables and greens popped out of the jungle, “This is for you,” she said and handed the basket to our boatman, “Nice to meet you,” she beamed at me, “but I must go back to work now.” And just like that, she was gone.

A little further downriver, we stopped at another jungle fast-food pickup point, this time for a basket of cassava.  “Great,” said the boatman, “that’s our last pick-up, but we still need our main course for tonight. We will set fish nets as soon as we arrive at camp.  Plus, I have a gun, and I will go out hunting tonight.  If we get lucky, I will get a deer or wild boar for dinner as well.  Is that OK?” I replied very enthusiastically, “Of course, yes, that would be wonderful”, trying to sound as casual as possible, like this was an ordinary conversation for me.

In around 45 minutes we arrived at the jungle camp, which consisted of a bunkhouse, a kitchen, and the common outdoor area.  We got settled in no time and relaxed for the afternoon down at the river.  In the evening we sat around talking by the fire, as our freshly caught fish grilled on the open fire. The Sape, a traditional Dayak lute which is hand-made from local trees, came out and Philius, the leader of our Dayak forest crew, played for us.

Sitting under the stars, and surrounded by nature, I sensed the power of the forest and fell effortlessly into its rhythm, feeling at one with my surroundings. The age-old music, sung in the Omah Long language, took me on a peaceful journey, and I was transported to another time.  “Kalimantan,” I said quietly to myself, “at last I am really here.”

The next day we trekked to a place deep in the forest where there were some very old giant trees.  As we rested, I asked Philius to again play the Sape for me. He promptly shimmied up a tree, crawled along a huge branch and played the instrument from his perch high up in one of the trees.  What a delight!  At 67 years old, he climbed that tree like a teenager.

We returned to Setulang Village after a wonderful stay in the forest.  It happened to be a Sunday. There is a Christian church service every Sunday, and it seemed like the whole village was in attendance.  I loved sitting on one of the wooden pews with all the locals dressed in their Sunday hats and other finery.  After the service, there was a lovely event in one of the houses in the village.  Every week the elders meet there. The elders gather in a circle, sing songs and share stories about the old days.

These often centre on Long Song, the old village where the Dayak Omah Long had originally hailed from. The elders love to have visitors join them, and I readily made many friends among the elders, even though most of them only spoke their native tongue. We all seemed to communicate through that universal language which finds commonality without words.

If Kalimantan has ever called to you, or the name Borneo evokes a special feeling for you, then head to North Kalimantan where you can sit in an ancient forest, spend time with Dayak people and experience something extraordinary.

FACT FILE

Flight:  Jakarta to Tarakan (or via Balikpapan) and then take a three-hour boat journey up the vast Sesayap River to Malinau.  Transfer by private car and the trip to Setulang village, North Kalimantan is around one hour.

Setulang Borneo Eco Jungle camp: Open dates to suit small group or individuals.

www.davidmetcalfphotography.com/package/borneo-eco-jungle-camp

MORE ON SETULANG

Setulang Village is a living-breathing example of a successful eco-tourism program operating in a remote village and is a truly original, pure travel experience.  The village consists of 800 Dayak Kenyah and Omah Long people.

Setulang has a fascinating history, and in fact, people only settled in this area and built the village 40 years ago. Before that, the original Dayak people of Setulang, the Omah Long people, lived much deeper in the Borneo jungle in a place called Long Saan. While they were very happy living in the original forest for over 80 generations, the village council made a decision to leave in 1969, in pursuit of better health facilities and education for their young people. The journey took one month on foot through the jungle, to the present-day village of Setulang.

Long Saan documentary film: www.youtube.com/watch?v=LmmUU9pTox0

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Stephanie is a professional travel writer and co-author of 'Indonesia Hidden Heritage'. To catch Stephanie's journey please visit www.travelwriter.ws.