Kalimantan is the Indonesian part of Borneo island. While most of the Malaysian part is well listed in many guidebooks, Kalimantan remains widely ignored by international tourists.
It is regularly in the spotlight for their massive forest and peatland fires started by palm oil and mining industries and the ecological disaster happening there. Unfortunately, as a tourist you can see this first hand when you visit this region, yet there is some pocket of jungle left and truly welcoming people, the Dayak, to meet.
The hub for tourism is Samarinda, where you can easily cruise along the main river in overnight boats & visit orang-outang sanctuary – it seems fun, but we wanted a mix between jungle trekking and diving so we opted to explore and prepare this 1 week itinerary in north Kalimantan starting from Berau airport. Because from Berau you have access to the Lesan national park and it’s the closest airport to the Derawan archipelago.
The lack of infrastructures really limits your options when it comes to independent travels and since we were going to stay with locals, a guide was a must. During this particular holiday, we also travelled with my parents ( 55+ old ). All these made us consider De Gigant Tour company – and we are so glad we did, our guide Rema was fantastic, all was perfectly organized and moderately priced.
While booking De Gigant tour, I did send first an email via their website to no avail – however as everywhere in Indonesia whats’app is THE way to get in touch. A few messages later and we were all set and booked. We booked a 4 days 3 nights tour called “the ancient orang outang of Lesan” with homestay at local villages.
After being picked up at the airport, we loaded up on the way at the local market with fresh fruits and crispy banana snacks for the 3 hours car journey to our first village stay.
On the way we made a stop to see a beautifully decorated long house of a new Dayak village. We were then explained the symbolic behind the traditional decorations & patterns adorning the houses in the village. We got lucky to see preparation for a feast for a wedding happening a few days later and could discuss with the cooks ! We were served a very simple and delicious lunch in a local’s house, we were then treated with our very own private traditional dance from the village girls. It was absolutely beautiful and so unexpected ! The guide and chieftain of the village explained that with modern time, a lot of the dances are being lost and many villagers now move to the city or work for the mining industry. They explained that they try to get the children to learn the music and the dance and perform for the tourists so they have a reason to keep continuing.
It is true that on this part of the trip from Berau to our first Dayak village, along the road were huge mining holes visible. The landscape was also sometimes bare and you could see smoldering blackened earth. The guide explained and showed us veins of charcoal in the rocks along the road. She said that the soil is rich in charcoal and when a fire starts, it’s not flames that can be extinguished but constant smoke and ambers. We did see firefighters watching some patches and I must say how impossible stopping such fires looked like. And in between all that, rows and rows of Palm oil plantations.
In our first Dayak village stop, we arrived middle of the afternoon and were introduced to our lodging. One of the villagers had left it for us, sleeping at one of her relative. The village is located along the river and the atmosphere very serene and simple. At the end of the day, our guide brought us upstream to a small outpost of a local NGO Orangutan academy. They have an agreement with the village to freely use a sizeable island in the middle of the river for rehabilitation of Orangutans into wild life. This exchange was possible for the trickle to tourist that would stay at the village thanks to this, would bring additional revenue to the villagers. At the time we were there, one female orangutan was in the island. The volunteers feed her few times per day and monitor her from an outpost on the river bank. They check her habits and behavior to see if it would make her suitable for a release into the wild. We got to see her during the feeding time from the boat. On our way back, we saw a few hornbills flying by !
Back in the village, we had a few hours to kill and it was time to meet the locals! What best than a dip with the local women and children into the river. My mother did, I skipped (still a little shy). We were already the attraction of the village with the children following us around.
The river is at the center of many daily activities – from fishing, to washing ( yes many just bath in there or bring the water back to the houses into the mandi showers ) and clothe washing too !
Diner was a simple and delicious affair along with succulent durian ( that I admit only me and the guide truly enjoyed ).
On our second day, we woke up early and walked through the village where the guide explained the different buildings and symbols. We also discussed the different religions and ceremony of the Dayak people. She showed us the old long house which was in disarray explaining that less and less village now maintained them and preferred the church as a meeting place.
We continued on via boat to our next village. This boat trip took us most of the day and along beautiful jungle, we also stopped for a little trekking to a nearby cave which contained remains of sarcophagus. In the past the tribes would not burry their dead but put them in the cliffs along the river – we saw one more from the boat. Not much was left but it was a good walk. Rema also explained that some villages still existed far in the jungle and high in the cliff in grottos. She has a longer tour bringing tourist to stay with such villagers upon requests. She showed us the way to the grottos that are now empty and the lianas used as ladders – we didn’t make the climb. Along the river bank, we saw birds as well as funny rock formations and limestones formations. It was a nice couple of hours.
We arrived to our other village greeted by a horde of children happy to see us. This was quite an isolated place even though there is one road leading to it. This village is the last one at the entrance of the Lesan National park where we will hike on the last day. They welcome every year 200 scientists coming to study the jungle and a base camp is installed in the forest where we can offload to start trekking.
At the village we stayed at the local priest’s house and his wife cooked the most delicious meals in gigantic quantities. By then and after a hot day, we went all for a swim in the river accompanied by all the children who just couple get enough of us. They invited us to watch them dance in the evening. We did and it was funny seeing them all put a smartphone with a local choreography video of a popular Indonesian pop song and all of them learning it ! It was good fun.
The following morning, we started slowly and made our way by boat to the entrance of the Lesan National park. After docking at the tent camps of the scientists we continue for a 2 hours until we reached a waterfall in the jungle. We stayed there almost two hours, refreshing ourselves, snoozing and having lunch. Along the way we pick up some wild Mangosteen ( unfortunately half were full of worms or rotten…) and Rema explained us loads about the trees and seeds. We also saw some of the projects from the scientists like snake traps or how to build small shelter in the woods. It was a like a survival exhibits – and we had the best guides, Rema and two local men from the village, with us to explain them.
Our last night was simple, we washed and baths in the river to remove the grime of the day and after another scrumptious diner, went to bed happy.
The last day was dedicated to our transfer to the port where we had booked a private transfer to Maratua island in the Derawan Archipelago.
Our ride arrived early morning and we were ready to leave – we then watched the guide shunning the driver away about a bag of something he was lovingly trying to stow in the truck. After getting closer we realized it was at least 10kg worth of Durian ! ( That is to tell you how delicious this particular one was ! ). Of course spending 3 hours in a contained vehicule with that in would have been utter nightmare !
Perplexed but not dettered, the driver then loaded all our stuff, got some rope somewhere and started to fix his load on the outside of the car hanging there. And it work, we did stop a few times for him to check, what we had by then dubbed “His baby” on the way. We arrived in Berau for lunch, bid our driver and guide goodbye. De Gigant tour had arranged another car to drive us the remaining 2h to the pier and on we went.
We arrived at 2 pm at the pier, the boat was already there, after a short transfer we went on our way in a small speedboat at full speed for another 2 hours directly to Maratua Guesthouse.
Let’s stop for the practical part of the trip. Booking a tour was easy for the jungle part, what was quite challenging with Derawan archipelago is getting the information on how much things cost there – because there is NO ATM anywhere. If you intend to dive, then you need to travel with loads of cash – who that doesn’t make uncomfortable ? None of the hotel and resort that we met accepted card payment on Maratua island.
Derawan archipelago is composed of 4 main islands:
Derawan, where most of the dive centers are located, the closest and easiest access.
Sangalaki: which one resort on it & great snorkelling spots around. It’s also where manta point dive spot it.
Kakaban: home of the famous and awesme jellyfish lake. There are only two in the world where you can swim in stingless jellyfish. Palau and Kakaban. And swimming in there is like taking a jellyfish bath – it’s weird and funny and the lake is actually quite beautiful and peaceful. It surely must be on your daytrip tour when visiting Derawan archipelago.
Maratua: the further away one and the least developed.
Maratua has a few cheap homestay as well as at least 3-4 hotels. We stayed at Maratua guesthouse and dived with Nabucco resort. All hotels I looked at were all inclusive, because there is simply no restaurants there.
To get to Maratua, I saw people arriving with a public ferry – but couldn’t find information about that – or you arrange the transport with your hotel. Maratua guesthouse proposed us 70 USD / way /pax, which is roughly 1,000,000 IDR. I found that too expensive, as I had read on one blog and into the comment section of a post in Jakarta Expats facebook that someone paid 2 millions for a private boat per way. Fortunately for me, I asked De Gigant Tour and they arrange private boat transfer and car to/back Berau for 5 million rupiahs. That was already money well saved.
Maratua guesthouse had good food, and comfortable bungalows, I believe it to be great value for money for the accommodation and the services provided. You can book and pay in advance this part so not much cash is needed.
My parents didn’t dive but they rented for a day a motorcycle for 100,000 IDR and explored the island. There is also a cave pool to swim in – the staff at the hotel can guide you. Amazing snorkelling spots in from of the guesthouse and at high tide a nice beach, at low tide also nice but a little walk to do before reaching the water. Snorkelling equipment is available for free at the guesthouse.
We also booked a daytrip to see the jellyfish and snorkel off Sangalaki and Kakaban island for 640,000 IDR per persons with the guesthouse.
Diving was another issue altogether. The owner of the guesthouse can hook you with a local dive master who would charge you 400,000 IDR per pax per dive. There are two catch to this :
One, it’s provided this divemaster doesn’t already have a group – you will not be priority and therefore can end up there having to look for another option to dive.
Second, at this price it is only for the dive sites that are on the same side of the island as the guesthouse – and these are not the nicest ones ! If you wish to have your own boat to dive wherever you want around Maratua and up to Sangalaki, that cost 2,500,000 IDR per boat. If you are lucky you can share with others but there aren’t that many independent travellers diving in Maratua who are not already hooked with the diving resorts.
We met a few travellers who couldn’t dive what they wanted because, either lack of dive master available or boat or buddies with similar experience to do the nicer and more advanced dives.
This is what happened to us – the dive master had already a group of Japanese customers and we seemed to be the only truly experienced divers on the island. We had planned sizeable amount of cash but not THAT much for the private boat rental.
Be aware that the dive resorts do not accept outside divers. That was shared by another diver who visited every other resort looking for a group to join. ( He also shared the price list of Nirvana resort as a reference)
The owner of Maratua guesthouse then recommended to us to dive with Nabucco resort which is a luxury resort on the other side of maratua ( right by some fantastic dive spots ). They have staff shuttle that pick up from the village harbour at 7 am and leaves Nabucco resort at 5 pm. It takes roughly one hour to get to the resort. Each dive, when you have your own equipment, is 60 Euro aka 950,000 IDR per person and per dive, and you can dive with a little extra in nitrox. They dive everyday even if you are the only ones. The food at Nabucco resort is about 125,000 IDR per meal for budgeting your lunch.
I must admit that if I had the funds, I would stay at Nabucco resort, the dive operation is neatly run and the resort sits on its private island which is nicely maintained. The food was good at the restaurant.
If you are there for the day (which is possible if you let them know in advance and you use their free staff boat), you have a nice beach, a huge sandbar in front at low tide, and some hammocks anyone can use to catch a snooze.
The owner of the guesthouse can arrange motorcycle pick up and drop off to the pier for their staff boat for 20,000 IDR per person and per way.
We stayed in Maratua for 4 days plus 2 days of transport and that was a nice time to dive two days and do a day trip another – rest the remaining time.
Underwater, we saw a good diversity and some good shark actions at the spot called “the channel” which requires a reef hook to enjoy fully the show. All in all, it was a great island gateway and worth the time spent to get there.
Kalimantan is a worth the visit and is advised for travellers with a contemplative nature ( you haven’t much to do but relax, there is almost NO phone reception in Maratua at all !) and not shy of basic lodging with fantastic local encounters. You will experience warm welcomes, ancient jungle and tropical paradise waters.
It could be combined with northern Sabah on a longer trip of at least a month via Tawau to dive Sipadan, wildlife spotting in the river Kinabatangan ending in Kota Kinabalu via Sepilok Orang Outan sanctuary. You can check my borneo sabah itinerary if you wish to combine both trips into one.