Tag Archives: Oil Palms

Danau Sembuluh

We first heard about Danau (Lake) Sembuluh and the village of Bangkal while reading the journals of the Norwegian explorer, ethnographer and naturalist Carl Lumholtz (“Through Central Borneo; an Account of Two Years’ Travel in the Land of Head-Hunters Between the Years 1913 and 1917.”). He travelled to Sembuluh almost precisely one hundred years before us. He wrote about the “attractive” lake, and wrote a little about the Dayak Tamuan people from Bangkal village.


Actually Lumholtz never quite made it up as far as Bangkal, because the water level was too low for the Dutch steamer that he was travelling in to negotiate the lake. We thought that, travelling by road, we might complete the journey for him.

We travelled in company with our dear friend Gaye and our friend and guide Berdodi Martin Samuel (a.k.a. ‘Dodi’ or ‘Bucu’). Our main reason for the six-day trip was to attend a Tiwah ceremony (Dayak Kaharingan religion funeral), which I have written about previously  (I’ve also written about some of the wonderful sapundu (funerary poles) of Bangkal village.) The Tiwah ceremonies beside Lake Sembuluh were beautiful, strange and fascinating.

But Lake Sembuluh itself, and the journey to get there, is worth a few words and pictures.

Peta Sembuluh

The Dayak village of Bangkal sits by the shore of Lake Sembuluh, the largest lake in Central Kalimantan. It’s about 300 km to the southwest of Rungan Sari in Sei Gohong village – which was our home at the time of our journey (back in mid-March).  We’d been keen to visit the area since we first came to Kalimantan, and finally got the opportunity when we heard about the upcoming Tiwah.

Above is the GPS record of our road trip.


The five-hour drive to Bangkal stretched out somewhat with several unplanned stops along the way. Here we paused at a roadside collection of Dayak sapundu (funerary poles) and sandung (mausoleums). Karen is always keen to document such fine examples of the ‘material culture’ of the Dayak Kaharingan religion.


A little further down the road we came across a rotan (rattan) processing plant. The rotan is traditionally harvested from the forests, but with the forests rapidly disappearing, it is now more likely to be produced through small-scale plantation farming. The spiny outer layer of the rotan (which is actually a variety of palm, though it resembles a vine) is stripped off at the plantation, and then the bundles are then transported here for processing. Another outer layer is removed, and the canes are treated (twice) with sulphur, which bleaches out any colour. In this photo above the sulphur is being washed off prior to drying. It smelt like brimstone.

We were assured that the shirtless boy in the photo above had already put in a full day at school before starting work in the sulphur tank…


All the rotan from this plant is sent away for making cane furniture. Most of it goes to Java, but bundles of the best quality canes (such as those above) are exported to China.


Just a few kilometres to the southwest of the main road near Kasongan is an extensive area (maybe 50 sq km?) that has been thoroughly worked over by small-scale gold miners. You can see the result on Google Earth – it’s the big white area in the satellite image. I don’t know if any remediation was attempted afterwards, but it is now a wasteland of gravelly white sand – pits and mounds –  and highly toxic (mercury-contaminated) ponds. Karen and our guide Berdodi decided against fishing or swimming there.


We stopped for a very nice lunch at Sampit – the biggest town along the road – and later walked around the newly beautified port precinct. Sampit is apparently the busiest timber port in Indonesia, and it’s also a major centre for processing of kelapa sawit (oil palm) fruit to produce Crude Palm Oil (CPO). Large numbers of yellow trucks can be seen heading to Sampit, loaded up high with the harvested oil palm fruit. We had hoped to visit one of the factories, but were unable to obtain permission (it’s difficult for foreigners…) prior to our arrival.

Outside of Kalimantan, Sampit is however best known for the kerusuhan Sampit (the ‘Sampit disturbances) of February 2001. Around 500 transmigrants from the island of Madura (and 13 Dayaks) were killed during several weeks of brutal violence, and tens of thousands of Madurese had to be evacuated from Kalimantan by Indonesian armed forces to prevent further massacres. The violence spread to other villages and cities, including Pangkalan Bun, Palangka Raya and Kuala Kapuas. It was a truly ugly episode, and one which is still fresh in the minds of the community here, since everyone over the age of 20 has memories of that time…


But fifteen years later, our biggest problem in the ‘ethnically cleansed’ town of Sampit was deciding which pineapples to buy.


We arrived in Bangkal a little before the sun set across the lake.


At the entrance to the village is a bilingual gate which spells out the values that the village aspires to – or perhaps it is a character test for visitors?


The children seemed quite pleased to meet us.


At the lakefront, a long jetty has been constructed for fishing, docking canoes, and recreational activity. We were there at the height of the wet season, and so the floor of the jetty was a little submerged.


Inundation of the jetty didn’t stop it being used. The children above are hauling a large fish trap out of the lake, from which they removed a number of (very small) fish.


Bangkal is one of the friendliest villages we have been to, and the kids – as always – were more than willing to pose for photos.


We had to wait a few days, until the Tiwah ceremonies were completed, to go out on the lake. A large number of behavioural and dietary prohibitions are enforced during the main days of the Tiwah. One of these – significant in a fishing village like Bangkal – is that you may not travel by boat.

When we did get out onto the water, we toured the northern part of the lake in a the usual klotok (canoe/longboat), with five of us sitting in a line. I got to sit up front.


A century ago, Carl Lumholtz remarked that the lake “looks attractive, though at first the forests surrounding the ladangs of the Malays are partly defaced by dead trees, purposely killed by fire in order to gain more fields.” The use of fire to clear land continues today, only on a far greater scale as the forests of Kalimantan are progressively converted to oil palm plantations.

Along most of the eastern edge of the lake, there is a thin strip of secondary forest, with the beginning of the oil palm plantations just behind. The sandy soil of the western side of the lake is not suited for cultivation of kelapa sawit, but instead is pockmarked and scarred from past gold mining, and burning to ‘clean’ the land.


So we were therefore (pleasantly) surprised to find that a moderate population of animals and birds still survive in this compromised landscape – including some large Proboscis Monkeys (Nasalis larvatus) like this one above.


At another part of the lake we were entertained by a pair of fighting (or courting?) Greater Coucal (Centropus sinensis bubutus). These impressive large (48cm) cuckoos are found across Asia from Pakistan to southern China. In Kalimantan, they are regarded by some as a pest because they like to eat the fleshy parts of ripe oil palm fruit. I would have thought that there are more than enough oil palms to share some fruit with these beautiful birds.

They are known to the Dayak people as burring bubut (because their call sounds a bit like: “but.. but… but…”), and an oil which is extracted from the wing-bones of these birds is used as a treatment for broken bones – along with massage. This treatment was even recommended to me after my motorbike accident – but I opted for surgery.


Parts of the lake were quite beautiful, even these burnt pandanus had a starkly elegant beauty when reflected in a still patch of water.


Most houses in the district are firmly constructed on dry land, but some fishermen’s homes are built on floating platforms so they can move to different parts of the lake as conditions change between wet and dry seasons.


And then we were back to the jetty at Bangkal village, leaving the tranquillity of Danau Sembuluh for the challenges of the ‘Trans-Kalimantan Highway’ and the long journey back home.

Kelabit Highlands

A 45 minute flight in Twin Otter plane south from Miri (on the Sarawak coast, just to the west of Brunei) to Bario passes over some awesome terrain – and some that is pretty awful. Miri is an oil town, but the offshore rigs that dot the sea around Miri soon give way to a different kind of oil production, with an almost endless series of oil palm plantations stretching off to the horizon.


Millions of hectares of the bio-diverse Bornean forest have been converted to oil palm monoculture. This has lots of short and long-term consequences – almost all of them bad. Deforestation, appropriation of traditional lands, soil poisoning, disrupted economies, and declining biodiversity. For example, I’ve just read in the excellent Birds of Borneo book that primary (pristine) forest supports over 220 species of birds (along with 1200 tree species). In the oil palm plantations a maximum of 12-14 species of birds can be found.


Further inland it’s forestry that prevails. Mostly it’s ‘selective’ logging as above.


But there are other areas that for some reason are just clear-felled (there are thousands of fallen trees in that middle area above). Mostly they get terraced and converted to oil palm plantation.

Gradually you see (with some relief) the country below become more rugged, wild, and heavily forested, and soon the plane touches down in Bario, the main village in the Kelabit Highlands. This remote area along the border with Indonesia (East Kalimantan) is really interesting, both for the landscape and the remarkable Kelabit people who inhabit it.


There’s only 6500 Kelabit people, but their dynamic nature and their strategic location has meant that they have received a lot of attention of the years. During the 2nd World War, Australian and British troops parachuted in and recruited, armed and trained the Kelabit to mount a guerrilla campaign against the occupying Japanese forces. (With considerable success – a plaque erected by the grateful Australians at the end of the war proudly notes that they “soon controlled 25,000 square miles, and bagged 1900 Japs”.) Tom Harrisson, who led the troops, was for many years after the war the curator of the Sarawak Museum.


The boat in the picture above was being prepared for us to board for a 90 minute journey downstream. The guy at the back of the boat steers and controls the motor. The guy at the front gives advice about imminent collisions with submerged logs and rocks (we had maybe 100 such collisions en route) and the guy in the middle just sat still holding a rifle. We believe he was looking out for wild pigs – not recalcitrant Imperial Japanese soldiers. And as usual there was a sudden downpour in the middle of the journey. It was fun.

Kelabit_20150416_245From the 1940’s, missionaries were very active in the area, and the entire population has abandoned traditional Kaharingan animism in favour of Protestant Christianity. At the same time they embraced education with gusto, and the Kelabit people are now found in senior positions in academia, government and business across Malaysia. The area was at the front line of the Konfrontasi between Indonesia and Malaysia in the 1960’s, and several villages were evacuated and later re-settled. An extraordinary dose of cultural change in just one or two generations.




The longhouse of the Kelabit Highlands have a long common hall area which is where family photos are proudly displayed. There are some wonderful juxtapositions of photos; parents and grandparents in traditional attire (hairstyles, extended earlobes, heavy tattoos etc) alongside their children at university graduations, in offices and aeroplanes.


About half the Kelabit population has left the area to live in the cities for study or work. Of those who remain, most now live in separate free-standing houses, but some (a declining number) still choose to live in longhouses. Their longhouses have each family’s kitchen area out in the open communal part of the building, each with its neat little stack of firewood keeping dry above the fireplace.


Rattan and bamboo are still used to make a range of baskets, carriers and mats. Some – like these ones above – are quite beautifully made.


From Pa’Dallih village a guide took us along tracks up and across the River to a site in the forest which was an ancient burial site (Benatuh Pa’Diit). Urns carved from stone were used to store the bodies (or maybe just the bones) of the deceased. This site pre-dates the arrival of Chinese pottery jars in the area, which became pretty much ubiquitous across Borneo, and which were used for the same purpose in later years.


We stayed in three villages (Bario, Pa’Lungan and Pa’Dallih), but he highlight was probably a jungle trek into some wild country along the Indonesian border. There are several trails, and continuing strong cultural ties, between the villages on either side of the porous border.


Our guide Petrus (from Pa’Lungan village) was fabulous. He showed us how to get fresh drinking water from inside vines and bamboo, how to cook babi hutan inside bamboo with fruit, herbs and leaf vegetables collected from the forest. He showed us where the sun bears had torn off bark to get at the bees and honeycomb underneath. He showed us which tree produces a highly flammable sap for use in candles or as fire-starters (better than Little Lucifers!), and how to make your own darts for your blowpipe. He was patient when we repeatedly misplaced the walking poles that he cut for us, and he was greatly amused by how obviously we hated the abundant leeches (between us we got around 100, mostly on our legs and feet).


We spent the night under a shelter in a little clearing by a creek in the jungle. It was the only ‘building’ we saw in the forest. We bathed in the creek, and could hear the sound of its waters, the insects, birds and monkeys through the night, and a hornbill landed in a nearby tree in the morning.


We still haven’y got used to the extraordinary number, variety, size and splendour of the Kalimantan butterflies. They swarm in some locations, each one as gaudy as the next.


There are about 100 (highly valuable) buffalo at Pa’Lungan village. There’s currently no road to the village, and the buffalo are used to transport all manner of stuff into and out of the village, on wooden sleds that they drag behind them. 200kg is their load limit. Many of them are currently being deployed to cart loads of river stone for construction of the new solar power plant for the village. The contrast of technologies is wonderful! A new road is under construction, but it currently stops two kilometres from the village as the project ran out of money. When complete it will fundamentally change life in Pa’Lungan – not least for the buffaloes!


As we were about to fly out of Bario after our week in the Kelabit Highlands we noticed a hornbill sitting on the railing at the top of the air traffic control tower. The flight controller invited us up the ladder and introduced us to ‘Turuh’, a female Wreathed Hornbill who comes in from the forest and hangs around the airport on most days. After weeks of trying and failing to get close to any hornbills to photograph, it was a nice end to our visit to meet the very friendly and compliant Turuh.