overland-underwater.com - A charity drive from the UK to New Zealand
Pic of the week: (previous - fav video clip)
Pic of the week
Final Statistics: Alex & Maz Total distance: 93,550km
Furthest Point: Rotorua, NZ Now settled in Sydney, Australia
Final Statistics: Martin Total distance: 79,698km
Furthest Point: Hobart, Australia Now settled in Bristol, UK

The wild man of Borneo has now been tamed

Written by Maz Towns. Uploaded 3 November 2006.

Indonesia, Country 24, Diary entry 21st – 27th Aug 2006, Total distance in Indonesia: 8396KM

It still amazes me, even 14 months into the trip and 24 countries travelled, how one boundary, an invisible line, can change so much from one side to the other. Entering Indonesia was a fine example of this. There were distinct differences from Peninsular Malaysia to East Malaysia, mainly with east Malaysia being so much more rural that the Peninsular, but Indonesia is a whole new world. It reminded me of when we crossed from China into Laos, people now live back on the edges of the roads, wooden huts with huge satellite dishes encroaching on what little space is left of the land, children playing in the mud, strays everywhere and even a few kamikaze chickens to try and avoid!

The team gather at the border You're never quite sure who the official customs officers are!

Having been warned by a number of people that Indonesians ‘were a bit rough and very likely to rob us’, we’d already taken off all our jewellery and watches as advised and placed them in the safe out of temptations way. Satellite dishes are everywhere Feeling slightly more brave as we were being escorted by Indonesians (obviously the nicer ones of the country!), when we entered this new world, our first impressions definitely weren’t of pillage, rape and all things bad. Far from it in fact. As we passed through customs, no money exchanged hands, chops were readily given and there was much amusement by all as photos were requested and readily given with all the custom guards wanting them! Formalities were a breeze.

Off the convoy began, seven cars in total. The roads were tarmac as we began our way round ‘remote Borneo’. An easy beginning, road conditions OK, easy to pick up speed to gain some ground knowing that at some point we would be clambering over dirt and rocks, slowing us down immensely. I had to question then, why we were driving like Miss Daisy albeit in convoy with all hazard lights flashing in unison.

Over to the other side of the world…S 00°00.000' Not such a grand welcome compared to other equator crossings

The answer didn’t come, just frustration that we weren’t using the roads to their full capacity. We had a long way to go and having been told an array of different timelines of how long it would actually take to reach Balikpapan, we were eager to cover some ground. The first hurdle was a water crossing at Tayan. Waiting for the boat to arrive, we didn’t have to wait too long and after the collection of trucks had managed to negotiate their way out of the tight holds they had squeezed themselves into for the crossing, it was amusing to see them trying to escape to get back on land - it was now our turn. After descending down an extremely steep slope, you had to drive the car across two metal planks onto the car transporter and squeeze yourself into the space allocated for you. Our seven cars fitted just nicely thank you!

The bridge to the ferry You wouldn't want to miss these

We carried on south, easing our way to the other side of the world. We’d finally made it – zero degrees south – the equator. Unlike Martins experience where there were lines marking the experience and monuments to take photos of, we had nothing, well, apart from our GPS telling us it was S 00°00.000' ! We stopped the car for this monumentous occasion, taking a picture of the GPS to prove we had in fact driven to the other side of the world and then proceeded to get out of the car and do a little dance from the northern hemisphere to the southern hemisphere. We were having a lovely time, but Benny and his co-pilot who were tailing us in the convoy, must have wondered who agreed to let these two loons join them, who for no apparent reason got out of their car to do a little dance. We tried to explain our huge achievement, but I don’t think they were any the wiser when they understood we were at the equator, wondering how on earth we knew we were at the equator anyway! As we continued the journey, I have to say I was slightly disappointed not to see immediate indigenous culture, untamed jungle and an array of wildlife swinging across the trees. Having seen the destruction of the forests throughout the north in Malaysian Borneo, it was apparent that the palm oil barons had intensified their search on land and had penetrated deep into Kalimantan, bulldozing and chain sawing at an alarming rate. The wild man of Borneo was to be found no more.

All the cars neatly packaged onto the deck The sun was setting by the time we started moving

After the first 170 kms, the tarmac ended. Goodbye easy driving….hello darkness. As you know, our rules to not drive at night are always adhered to. :) OK, maybe that was more than just a little white lie….. However, if we are driving at night, it tends to be through towns and villages, normally lit so we can see where we’re driving. We were about to be introduced to another ‘first’ for the trip – offroading at night! As the days passed by, I was to question more and more the whys and wherefores of many of the techniques implemented by the offroad team, but for now, I was to just follow. As darkness settled all around us, the tracks we were following seemed to grow darker and more precarious the further we drove down them. Starting off as dusty tracks, the small ruts quickly became apparent and soon they degraded into a poor excuse of a road, with huge channels where water had eroded the path. Hidden dips lurking in the shadows cast from the beam of the headlights gave way to precarious edges falling away along the narrow sections of the track. We came to Borneo for excitement and adventure…… the 4x4 boys were doing their duty! A nice view while crossing the river

As the roads smoothed out slightly and only ruts, pot holes and corrugations were obstacles, this was the cue to put rubber to pedal and cover some ground. Again I questioned the reasoning for this after the average 40km/h along tarmac, but again we followed as best we could. Slowing for the mud pits which would have made great video footage had we been in daylight. The best bit of driving at night, was following the car in front, casting its lights ahead, illuminating sections for the road and casting shadows of the trees and shrubs as we crawled up the hill – but turn the bloody hazard lights off please. A spectacular sight to follow. Having no idea how long we would be driving for, we eventually stopped at 9.30pm at the hotel they had booked. The small town we stopped at housed what seemed to be the only hotel, and Alex having had a quick peek at the rooms, was more than persuasive when he said we were very happy to set up the tent and camp. Knackered after such a long day, we stuffed in a bit of dinner before crashing out in our tent in front of the hotel, lulled to sleep by the stray dogs barking, the motorbikes zipping about and the incessant chatter of locals who stayed up till all hours.

The cars lined up ready for another days action Up at 6.30 for a 7am leave, we soon realised we were working to Indonesian time, or so we thought. 7am soon came and went and when it got to 8.30, I gently asked when we would be leaving as everyone seemed to be ready, but no-one was willing to make the first move. We didn’t have to wait much longer and soon we were on our way again. Having been asked the previous night if we could drive for 20 hours today, we said we would prefer not to, as we were on ‘holiday’ (and felt no need to kill ourselves in the process). With conversation a little difficult between the group due to language constraints, we said if they wanted to drive further than we did, we‘d be happy to just go at our pace, although nagging at the back of our minds was always the problem of whether we’d get lost – the whole reason we were following the group in the first place – we’d see how the day progressed. The roads were much better than I had anticipated, with only a couple of sections of ‘you really wouldn’t want to be driving this at night’ – which was what we had expected most of the way to be like. It was extremely colourful, with the roads being the colour of turmeric and paprika. Really pretty. Dust was of course everywhere and covered us as much as the cars as soon as we got out of them. With the humidity being much higher than that of Malaysia, if felt like every grain was sticking to you.

Tinfish on some of the better roads The not so good

By lunchtime we had covered 100km and were told only another 100 to go. We also realised our novice mistake of timekeeping. On comparing watches to make sure we had our timings correct, Fahmi’s watch showed an hour earlier than ours. Strange. We checked again and then realised to our dismay that when we entered Kalimantan, the clocks went back an hour, but we hadn’t realised. It felt even worse when it dawned on us that we actually got up at 5.30am!

OK, with only 100km left to do, not so bad I thought to myself. As we carried on, fate and luck were on our side as the roads were flat and wide, smoothed out so we could continue a pace of 80km/h. We glided through the jungle passing plots of slash and burn with ash showering down on us. No sooner was I settling into the pace of the day we came to a building and abruptly stopped. A quick U turn had us racing off in the direction we had just come from. A little confused, but realising we must have taken a wrong turn, I cast my mind back to where the last turn off was……a bloody long way back! Fate and luck had taken us 30km past the turn; a one and a half hour detour.

The exchange of headscarfs in the Tiwah ceremony The materials hanging from the rack - not sure what they were actually used for! One of the locals partaking in a tipple from a 2m long bamboo tube

Once back at the junction I enquired as to how much more driving we would be doing that evening. 5 hours was the reply. It was now 6pm. So much for the only 100km left to do! Alex took over driving, and unfortunately for him, he picked the short straw as this section of road was probably the worst bit of the drive so far. Again we were offroading in the dark. To add insult to injury, it then began to rain. We drove for another 3 hours before reaching Kudangan where we pulled over for a short dinner stop of noodles. The chief of the village then came over to Sapta, the leader of the group, and invited us to see some traditional singing and dancing. Great, a nice respite from the road for an hour or so. We entered a crowded room, full of people dancing, drinking, shouting, singing and having a lot of fun. Music floated out of the room, played by a group of guys in the corner with drums and gongs.

The musical gongs Immediately on entering, we were greeted by the locals, smiles attached to each face, welcoming us in. Quickly a stem of bamboo was handed to us……a small sip then of whatever liquor they had concocted before sitting to watch the action. We had actually just walked into a “tiwah” – a wake - and what a different experience it was to back home. In the centre of the room, stood what looked like a drying rack on a pole with lots of pieces of material hanging off it. Sat underneath were some of the locals with a black headscarf wrapped round their head. A process then began with a man placing a knife on parts of their body, the black headscarf was then removed and replaced with a yellow one. The person with the headscarf then dressed up in a hat fit for a wizard, a sequined jacket and a piece of material sewn down the ends into a cylinder shape, which they then stepped in to and knotted making a sarong type garment (something that you see on locals all the time). A mandau in a sheath was then attached round their waist with a bit of rope. They then drank more of the liquor from the bamboo and danced around the drying rack, in slow motion waving their arms about in a snake like motion. Not really sure what was going on we watched with fascination. We were then passed a very long bamboo carried by 3 men, again filled with liquor to have a sip from, which was easier said than done.

Maz practicing for the next Harry Potter movie Silence then fell on the party and Sapta was asked to give a speech. Having no idea what he really said, the few words I did know were Maz and Alex, after which we had to take a bow to the cheering crowd as it was explained to them we had driven here from the UK and that was about all I understood. It was then our turn to dress up. Bearing in mind, most Indonesians are 5ft nothing and built like rakes, Alex was then required to squeeze himself into the same outfit! Taken into the centre of the room, we dressed up with the same clothes we had just seen the others put on. Alex had slightly more difficultly than me (looking incredibly like a fat garden gnome – his words not mine!) and had to pretty much dislocate his shoulder before his arms would fit in the jacket. We then had to neck some more of this liquor, of which I tried my usual trick of pretend to take a sip and pass on, we had to drive later after all, but they were having none of it and as it was in a glass, could see how much I’d taken in! We were then shown the dance we had to perform round the drying rack and off we went….It was an incredible experience and such a joy to see the family and friends of the deceased celebrate their life in such a vibrant way. However with another 40kms, 2 hours or 3 hours drive ahead of us (depending on who you asked) the time came to head on, and after another bite to eat prepared by the family, a yellow headscarf was tied round our heads and we waved goodbye and shouted our ‘terima kasih’s” before driving back into the night, liquor regurgitating on me all the way. Arriving at the hotel, we were happy to camp again, but they insisted on giving us a room. A good nights sleep with the exception of us cussing the sounds of the mosque at whatever ungodly hour it was when it went off. We had covered 500km and been on the road 18hours!

Alex drinking the magic potion! The next day we were allowed a lie in. Preparing for a 9am start, we spent the morning lounging and being interviewed as best we could for the Palangka Post, as some of the team had jobs to do before we set sail. The whole team were also allowed to fill up the cars with diesel, and I’m still not sure who paid for it. Local government officials came in and we were whisked away to the petrol stn. Sapta must have contacts everywhere!

After 2 days of gruelling driving, we were becoming more experienced in distances and anticipating timings for these. With the conditions of the road variable and the 500km we had to achieve by the end of the day, we knew it was going to be another toughie. We were discussing that we would never make the 500km as it had taken 2 hours to do the first 38km, when as if by magic, tarmac appeared. A nice straight, silky smooth road to lead the way. This lasted for a few kms before the road became broken and potholed, making it even more difficult to drive on than the dirt roads, as we hurtled along at a fast pace, only to break sharply, hitting a hole head on making it hard work and uncomfortable for us and Tinfish. After lunch the roads got a little better, but the driving got slower and slower. We were rearing corners at the mad speed of 20-30km/h sometimes hitting 40! Why were we going so much slower on good roads than the 80km/h we’d achieved on dirt??? One of the toll points along the dusty Kalimatan roads

After dinner I asked if we could maybe speed up a little as we still had over 200km to go and it was going to be an extremely long evening if we carried on the pace we were going. My sign language and translation did not get through and we carried on our sedate pace for the next two hours covering only 50kms. At 10.30pm, the boys were tired and needed a coffee break to jolt a little energy into them. Again, trying to explain we could go a little faster as the tarmac was good, Benny asked how fast our car could go. When I said 100km/h he nodded and seemed understand what I was asking. Alex was dead beat and even though it was his turn to take over driving, I wasn’t so tired and carried on. This time it had sunk in, Benny didn’t actually like driving so fast, and after 10 minutes Sapta took over and suddenly a rocket was launched!!! Off we jetted at a crazy pace, eating up the miles as we went. I’m not sure who had the worse deal, me having the drive for 5 more hours in to the night or Alex using the dirty laundry bag as his pillow, but we made it in the end. Sapta kindly asked us to stay at his house in Palangkaraya for a couple of nights for us to rest before we carried on our way to Balikpapan (at least another 2 days from here). We were relieved to have made it in one piece and extremely grateful to the guys for guiding us through the dusty roads. If they can get lost, we know that we’d still be driving through the logging tracks now, wondering how to get out!

The team during one of the few rest times We woke to a clean car (those car washing fairies are great) and spent the day sorting out our kit. Sapta and his wife Albertha took us out for lunch, seafood, which was delicious. Crab and sweet corn soup for starters followed by crab, garlic prawns, fried fish, rice and mixed veg. We gorged ourselves until we couldn’t fit another morsel in before retiring at Sapta’s for the afternoon. Early evening his daughters returned from school, who could both speak excellent English and we transversed through them with Sapta and Albertha. Still full from lunch time we had a small dinner of sate and corn on the cob before getting an early night to catch up on sleep.

Lunch time soon Hmmm, not so tasty. Supposedly adds flavour to the soup The others seem to enjoy it!

Our next destination was Banjarmasin, which thankfully was only a 4 hour drive from Palangkaraya. Sapta, and Albertha along with Nia and Selda who had been taken out of school for the day all came with us. After all, how would the baton be passed on to the next network contact if Sapta didn’t escort us?! We passed a festival ceremony along the way, where we turned up just as the head of a chicken had just been cut off and was still twitching as Alex photographed it! It was a very colourful picture and again the friendliness of the Indonesians shone through as they welcomed us with open arms to celebrate with them. Unfortunately we couldn’t stay long, but enjoyed the time we had watching their procession. We met our next guardians in the dusty, fume ridden, hustle and bustle city of Banjarmasin. This was really our first experience of an Indonesian city, and it was incredible how it brought many memories of India flooding back. The amount of people walking the streets, the rickshaws were back in full force, the chaos of the traffic, but there was something fundamentally different. People were actually smiling and even thought it was dusty, it wasn’t actually dirty.

Seafood special with Sapta and Albertha We met with Edy and his wife Dewi and went for lunch in a local restaurant. We then said our thanks and goodbyes to Sapta and his family for guiding us through Kalimantan and looking after us, before following Edy and Dewi to ‘wheel street’ in the search of buying some new steels for Tinfish. Unfortunately, alloys are the way to go here so we carried on to the hotel they’d booked for us for the night. This is always an uncomfortable situation for us, as we never know what has been booked. Today was no exception and as we pulled up to the plush looking hotel, we knew we couldn’t afford to stay there. At reception we asked Dewi the price and after converting it to 30quid, apologised and said that we’d need to find somewhere cheaper. No sooner did we speak, Dewi piped up that they’d pay. Very much appreciated by us and not what we expected at all – but embarrassing all the same.

We also do more than eat, but it’s one of our favourite past times! We settled ourselves in the room and arranged to meet up with Edy and Dewi for dinner later. After a sun downer in the comfortable lounge waiting for Edy and Dewi to turn up, not watching a sunset at all, but trying to avoid a huge 50” TV screen blaring out some Indonesian soap opera in the corner. We jumped into Edy’s car and he said dinner was going to be at his mothers house. Having been invited to many homes across the world now, it’s important never to be expectant as you never know what’s going to be presented to you. Tonight was no different and as we pulled up to a house, with a tall wall round the perimeter and huge gates giving access to those allowed to enter, we were mesmerised by the grandeur of it. Walking in through the huge oak hanging doors past a small entrance hall, we entered the main living area where marbled floors, pillars and a sweeping staircase to the veranda upstairs greeted us. This was a palace not a house! Not necessarily a style I would adopt myself, but out of all the homes we’ve been into, this was one of the more ‘homely’. Huge pictures of current family and generations lost hung on the walls, rugs covered the cold marbled floors giving the place a warm, lived in feeling. Ebu (meaning mother) greeted us warmly and asked us to sit down and make ourselves comfortable.

There's little room in the river taxi's Laundry day

Dewi was main translator along with Bambang, Edy’s brother, but Ebu could understand bits of English also. We had Thai food for dinner which was delicious and chatted the night away with tales from our trip. Asking where we were heading next, we told them of our plans over to Sulawesi and then on to Surabaya before heading to Bali. What a stroke of luck, not only do they have an office in Balikpapan with a couple of bedrooms for us to stay in before we head to Palu, they also have a house in Surabaya which we’d be more than welcome to stay in once we arrive there! Ebu said she’d like us to stay for the night, but as Edy and Dewi had kindly paid for a hotel for us, we declined. Maybe tomorrow then? Not wanting to make too many plans until we confirmed when the boat was actually leaving Balikpapan for Sulawesi, we said we’ve love to, as long as we could organise all our other plans so said we’d confirm tomorrow.

Relaxing the lounge before dinner After a lie in, leisurely breakfast and an hour in the internet the next morning I made the call I needed about the ferry crossing. Eons back, Faruk from Petronas 4x4 has given me a contact number for Uvan, a shipping contact in Balikpapan who I had been liaising with ever since. A quick call to him this morning to tell him we’d arrived earlier than planned and would like to catch Mondays boat, instead of the Thursday’s which we’d initially planned to, was not conducive. We’d inevitably called too late, the office was shut. This was the weekend after all and there was not much he could do until Monday morning! Great. We’d take the risk and confirmed we needed to be in Balikpapan by Sunday night, so we could afford to stay for another day Banjarmasin. Let’s hope we didn’t have to wait 3 more days up there before Thursday’s ferry. Edy and Dewi met us at lunch time and took us across the waters to a restaurant where we enjoyed a bowl of soto ayam (chicken soup with noodles).

We then drove to Martapura, to visit the jewellery markets. Taking us to their regular gem shop, they bought us a gift each to take on our journey with us. I got a lovely bracelet made from Kecubung, a pretty purple stone. They wanted to buy Alex a ring but with knuckles as big as conkers, he couldn’t get his fingers into any, so bought a solitary Kecubung stone which could be made into something. An extremely generous gesture, especially as they’d already settled the bill for the hotel. On the way back we found an antique mandau (the knife which was strapped round our waist during the tiwah) and as they wouldn’t budge an inch, even with my hard bargaining, Dewi worked her magic and managed to persuade them to sell it for a much more reasonable price. Another fantastic ornament of our travels to somehow fit into Tinfish! Thanks guys!

Could Alex's grin get any bigger?!
We returned to Ebu’s house where we were shown our room. Freshening up, we returned to find more family had arrived for the evening. Tonight was pizza (from Pizza hut no less) as they’d asked the night before what food we liked if it wasn’t local and we’d said we treated ourselves to pizza sometimes! We had another fantastic evening, and after dinner, they had arranged for a masseuse to come and give us a massage! After being pummelled and prodded for over an hour my feet, hands and shoulders were sore, but I was sure I’d feel better by morning. All the family stayed the night at the house in one room or another and the next day after a local breakfast of bubur ayam (a sort of rice pudding with chicken) it was time to say our goodbyes as we had a long journey to Balikpapan.

Could life get any better, relaxation, pizza and a massage - yum
Edy and Dewi escorted us for the first 3 hours or so. We stopped in some town and happened to bump into a friend of Edy’s for lunch, unbeknown to us it was all pre-planned and they were our next escort! With blue flashing lights and a horn louder than a steamliner, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was an actual police vehicle. It paved the way for the next hour or two before we were on the straight and narrow and had 4 hours of the final leg to manage all by ourselves. To reach Balikpapan, you have to get a ferry from Panajam, a stones throw over the water, but that still took over an hour. Upon arrival at the other side, we were met by Edy’s office manager who showed us back to the office where we’d be staying. Texting Uvan to let him know of our arrival, we agreed to meet tomorrow morning after making sure we could get tickets for the boat leaving at 1pm!

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