Borneo Island is the third largest island in the world, and its territory is shared by three countries, i.e. Malaysia (Sabah & Sarawak States), Indonesia, and Brunei. Though the land border of Sabah and Kalimantan (Indonesian portion of Borneo) spans more than 300 KM, there is no highway to connect both sides.
However, for thousand of years, people of Sabah have been going in and out of Kalimantan freely. Dense forest and treacherous terrain form the natural barriers between Malaysian and Indonesian Borneo, but human can get around these by network of rivers that cover the inland of Borneo. For example, you can reach Kalimantan from Sapulut, a small district in Sabah interior.
I’ve tried the boat ride from Sabah to Kalimantan, which takes only 1.5 hours, to experience the ancient river passage in the Heart of Borneo. Overall, it’s a fun river cruise to explore the scenic countryside of two countries. Please read on if you want to know how I travelled between two countries in half a day.
Kampung Salung Jetty
First we drive about an hour on the gravel road from Sapulut town to the jetty of Kampung Salung (Kampung means Village). On the way, you would see dozers and trucks are busy upgrading the 38-Kilometre road from Sapulut to Pagalungan town. Salung Village is somewhere in the midpoint.
The road is located near the Sapulut River, which flows to Kalimantan. As Sapulut is a mountainous region, road is expensive to construct. Though this road may eventually connect to Kalimantan, that would be an ambitious project that needs a lot of time and fund to complete.
Kampung Salung is a peaceful village next to a big river. After we park our car and take a toilet break, we depart at 10am on a 20-feet-long traditional wooden boat that is powered by two engines.
Going to Kalimantan, the Indonesian Borneo
The name Kalimantan is derived from the Sanskrit word Kalamanthana, which means “burning weather island”, because of its warm and humid tropical climate. As the boat has no sun cover (Bimini top), applying sunblock lotion will prevent sunburnt.
When the long boat speeds and glides on the river, it’s breezy, too comfortable for a nap, but I was busy being thrilled by the scenic view along the river.
Joining me are Dr. Richard and his son, Virgil from Orou Sapulut, Ms Wong from media and two local girls, Mia and Barbara. The ladies and me are first timers on a boat trip to Kalimantan.
It takes about 1.5 hours to travel about 25 KM from Salung Jetty to Kalimantan border. The river is about 20-50 metres wide, part of it could be shallow during drought and you would need to get into water to push the boat.
The land at both sides of the river is mostly lush forest, slopes and high ground, where villagers build their houses, schools and farms. The riverside view is interesting as our boat passed by many longhouses and villages such as Kampung Binanding, Kampung Silungai and Kampung Babalitan. Virgil said he saw a group of hunting dogs chasing a deer at the river once.
Most of the population along the river are Murut, which means “the People of the Hill”, and they are the third largest indigenous people of Sabah. Majority of them here are farmers, fishermen and hunters. Travel agents like to advertise Murut as the descendants of headhunters. Nowadays most of them are educated and live a modern life just like others. Many are converted to Christians or Muslims too.
Part of the forested hills are clear for planting hill paddy, tapioca, banana, rubber and other crops. Many Murut live in longhouse and I see almost every house has more than one boat parked on the river.
Anyway, when the new road to Pagalungan town is fully upgraded, longhouses at river side would be gone slowly when more people move to roadside for better accessibility.
In general, the river is calm, only a few sections are slightly bumpy due to the swift rapids, I’m only hit by the splashes twice. We go through more than 10 rapids and pass through the narrow gaps between boulders couple of times.
The boatmen are really skillful and experienced, so our boat navigate in the raging currents smoothly. So that’s why they call it rapid shooting huh. I really appreciate that whenever my camera points at something, the boatman will slow down the boat until I’m done shooting.
We have our life vests on and feel totally safe. By the way, swimming in this river isn’t a great idea as there are crocodiles. We find only one juvenile crocodile resting on the river bank anyway.
We see a lot of volcanic rocks and boulders of different shapes on the river bank. They are probably 4 or 5 million years old, giving this river more vibes of ancestry. Some rocks look like an animal and probably have a story to tell.
Crossing the Border
After passing by Bantul, the last Malaysian village before Kalimantan, we see the Garuda Pancasila monument, the National emblem of Indonesia. I know we have arrived Kalimantan.
Unlike other border controls that are usually guarded by unfriendly armed force and officers, there is no fence and checkpoint that stops our boat. We just go in like an outlaw. However, such relaxation is only applicable to Malaysians. They would stop foreigners to enter even if they have a passport.
They are probably watching us but too busy working on some modern structures. According to Virgil, Indonesia is building a CIQS complex (Customs, Immigration, Quarantine and Security complex) there. It’ll be finished in 1.5 years, and operational in 2 years.
It’s my first visit to Indonesia but there is no proof on paper. When their CIQS is ready, I want them to stamp on my passport, and I would spend a few days in Kalimantan. Currently the proper way to enter Kalimantan from Sabah by water is taking a ferry from Tawau town and land on Nunukan or Tarakan of North Kalimantan Province.
In fact, there were time when Borneo was under one ruler or government (e.g. Brunei Kingdom and British North Borneo Colony) so there was no boundary. People could move freely between Sabah and Kalimantan during that period.
After “trespassing” Kalimantan for a short distance, we make a U-turn at the Luyu rapid and head back to Sabah. Return trip will take 2 hours, longer time because the boat goes against the river current.
I know we will have our lunch picnic by the river but didn’t expect it comes with a surprise. The colour of main river is like milk tea, a characteristics of the downstream river, which collects silt washed down to the water on its course.
When our boat enters a tributary of the big river, I look at the water in disbelief because it’s crystal clear. “This is Sumandapiravuhus River. We will have our lunch here.” Dr. Richard says. He smiles at me, as if he knows that I’m impressed by the beautiful river.
I don’t know how they find this perfect spot for picnic. The surrounding dense trees shade us from the hot sun, and our presence spooks a flock of Bushy-crested hornbill flying over the canopy. I sit on a rock, soak my feet in the cool water, and enjoy my lunch and soda drink.
Too bad I don’t have any swim wear with me or it’ll be refreshing to bath in this clean river. Well, maybe next time.
About Sapulut (or Sapulot)
For a tour in Sapulut, you can contact Borneo Outback Tours Sdn Bhd (Licenses: Co. No. 846369-H / KPK / LN:9247) at:
Phone: +60 19 2277077 (Whatsapp), +60 87 337 277
Address: A-7-2, Apollo Atrium, 89008 Keningau, Sabah, Malaysia
The tourism operations in Sapulot are managed by Orou Sapulot (means the Sun of Sapulot), a community based project to promote tourism and in sustainable manner.
Photos taken in Sapulut and Kalimantan