Tag Archives: Sungai Katingan

Durian season (again!) in Tewang Rangkang



Yes, durian! Loved by many as the Raja Buah (the ‘King of Fruit’), and reviled by others as stinky and disgusting. I’m a durian lover, and can’t comprehend those who aren’t. Perhaps it’s a genetically determined hypersensitivity?


There are around 30 species of durian, at least nine of which are considered to be edible. The durian genus is native to the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, with many growing wild here, and referred to as durian hutan (‘forest durian’).

LOTS of edible durian are produced in Kalimantan. Some of the best ones grow along the middle reaches of the Katingan River in Central Kalimantan, upstream from the town of Kasongan. Our favourite Dayak Ngaju village of Tewang Rangkang sits right in the middle of that zone. We were delighted to return there last month for a short stay during harvest season.

In Tewang Rangkang (as in almost all Dayak villages), the houses line up in a row along the riverbank. Behind the houses are areas where chickens and pigs are kept, and areas (often quite extensive) of fruit trees – especially durian. Further away (and across the river) are areas used for ladang dry rice cultivation.

There are no fences around the individual durian orchards, but everyone knows exactly who owns which trees. Each orchard is marked by a the presence of a pondok (hut), further asserting ownership. During harvest season (December – January) the pondoks are occupied day and night, with family members taking turns to stand guard over the orchard.

Pak Dahuk and Ibu Wanie have built a new pondok since we were there in 2015. It’s a solid structure, with an even more solid roof, so that there is no risk of getting beaned by a falling durian.

Not all pondoks are quite so grand. Some appear decidedly impermanent.

And others, like Pak Etiu’s pondok, are somewhere in between.

The stated intention of the pondoks is to protect the durian harvest from pilferers, because the fruit are quite valuable.

But actually there is actually little or no theft, and we think that the villagers just enjoy a special time of year when a large proportion of the population ‘camps out’ in the forest, cooking and eating and sleeping under the trees, and visiting their friends and neighbours residing in neighbouring pondoks.

And collecting the durian fruit as they fall to ground from the tall trees.

A mature durian fruit can weigh three kilos, and the rind is covered with characteristic hard sharp spikes. The word duri actually means ‘thorn’. A fruit falling tens of metres onto one’s head could potentially be fatal. Even the ground gets scarred by the impact of falling fruit.

I had one land a couple of metres away from me, with no warning but a colossal thump – and so I quickly retreated back under the shelter of the pondok roof.

Apart from collecting fruit and socialising, there’s work to do out in the pondok. Led by Ibu Wanie, everyone helps to prepare large quantities of dodol durian – for consumption, gifts and sale.

The durian flesh is removed from dozens of fresh fruit, and cooked up in a very large pan over a slow fire along with coconut milk, glutinous riceflour and gula aren (palm sugar derived from the aren palm). After hours of simmering and near-continuous stirring, a thick dark red-brown fudge-like paste is produced. It is delicious.

After production of dodol durian, and quite a bit of feasting along the way, there is a large a growing pile of discarded durian husks.

But it’s not just durian trees. The vegetation around many Dayak villages may at first glance appear to be secondary forest regrowth. But closer inspection reveals that almost every herb, shrub and tree has some productive value. So there are all sorts of fruit trees: bananas, papaya, langsat, mango, guava. And of course many coconut palms.

And rambutans – all in fruit at the same time as the durian.

And mangosteen.

Pak Itiu shins up the mangosteen tree to collect fruit.

And meanwhile, back at the pondok, there’s time for a group portrait.

Desa Tewang Rangkang

Tewang Rangkang is a Dayak Ngaju village which stretches along a couple of bends of the Katingan River. It’s about an hour’s drive north of Kasongan in Central Kalimantan.

Since 2014 we have been frequent visitors. We’ve been privileged to stay there as guests of our wonderful Dayak Ngaju friends Mbak Lelie Liana, Pak Dahuk, Ibu Wanie Manur, Mbak Susi, Om Indra and Tante Hente – and their (very) extended families. Over those many visits we’ve witnessed manugal (communal rice planting) in 2014 and 2015, rice harvest, tiwah funeral ceremonies in 2014 and 2017, other family ceremonies – and durian harvest in 2015. 

Katingan canoes

Downstream from Kasongan on the Katingan River (Central Kalimantan), few villages have road access – especially at his time of year during the rainy season.

The river IS the road, and motorised canoes (‘ces‘, ‘kelotok‘, ‘perahu‘) are the vehicles of choice.

Boiga dendrophila

If I was trying to think of things that I would LEAST like to find in my bed, a two metre long Mangrove Snake (Boiga dendrophila, also known as the Gold-ringed cat snake) would be high on the list*.


They are a bit temperamental, being variously described as ‘nervous’, ‘notoriously aggressive’, and inclined to ’strike repeatedly’. As a result, they make poor bed companions. Fortunately, it seems that they are only ‘mildly venomous’, though one website says (less reassuringly) that ‘there are no substantiated reports of human fatalities’.

* [Actually I CAN think of something much worse than finding a two metre long Mangrove Snake in my bed – but you’ll just have to read on to find out what that is…]


So, you’ve probably gathered that the snake-in-the-bed thing is not a hypothetical situation. On Saturday night we (Karen, our dear friend Gaye and I) were staying in a ‘guesthouse’ near the village of Jahanjang on the Katingan River, about four hours from here by car and ces (longboat). It’s a little out of the way, and only has guests stay there about once a month. The guesthouse stands on stilts in a little lake called Danau Bulat, 10 minutes walk from the village proper.


The lake was stunningly beautiful throughout the day, changing moods and colours every time the light changed. From the boardwalk we sighted proboscis monkeys, macaques, big fruit bats and a variety of water birds.


People passed by rowing their little jukung canoes, on the way to work, for fishing, or to collect the grass which grows in the lake for cattle feed. Sometimes it looked like they were traversing the sky.


It was also pretty nice in the evening light.


Jahanjang village was (as always) very friendly, and as always was home to many unspeakably cute children – such as Nesia (aged 5) and Maulida (2) above.


And boys learning to fly.


Across the Katingan River from Jahanjang is the western edge of the enormous Sebangau National Park. We made a day trip by a motorised ces canoe up a narrow river to Panggu Alas lake, and the nearby WWF station.

Sebangau National Park, although degraded in parts from past canal construction and logging is still the largest area of peat swamp forest left in Borneo, and home to big populations of wild orangutans, sun bears, proboscis monkeys, and innumerable other lifeforms, including… snakes.


Aah yes, snakes. As I was preparing to go to bed in Saturday night (our third and final night in the guesthouse) I reached down to pick up my clothes bag from the floor, and couldn’t help but notice that a large black snake with bright yellow rings was coiling himself up behind the bag. He slithered away under my bed, and I slithered away backwards as quickly as I could towards the bedroom door.

While I waited and monitored the snake’s movements, Karen and Gaye went up to the village (along a narrow dark elevated boardwalk through the swamp forest) to seek assistance. About 25 minutes later they arrived back, along with the guesthouse caretaker (Pak Adinan), Bambang, Pak Sarwedi and three others, armed with some stout sticks and an air rifle.

At first they thought that the snake had departed, then we realised that it had actually wriggled up inside the bottom half of my bed. The bed was propped up on a chair, two shots were fired into it, and as the (no doubt outraged) snake emerged to complain, the appropriately named Bambang whacked it repeatedly with a stick.


Bambang carried the poor limp thing outside and laid it out on the boardwalk.


It obligingly posed for some group photos (that’s Pak Adinan on the left, and Bambang on the right), before our rescuers all left (taking the snake with them) to their homes in Jahanjang village. Karen, Gaye and I fortified our shaky nerves with a cup of tea, and resumed our delayed preparations for bed and sleep. All’s well that ends well.

So… what’s worse than finding one large and aggressive (if only mildly venomous) snake in your bed? Well, finding two of them of course! As I reached across to open the mosquito net over my (only recently remade) bed, I couldn’t help but notice another snake, basically identical to one recently evicted, on the floor at the head of my bed. Black with yellow rings, about two metres long, it was a depressingly familiar sight.

Upon this disappointing discovery, we unanimously agreed that the guesthouse had lost its appeal, so we hurriedly decamped to the village. It was now almost midnight, and we had to knock on a few doors before we located Pak Adinan’s home and woke him up. He and his charming wife Siti Masni took us in, gave us another fortifying cup of tea, and his daughter Wini kindly gave up her room for us to sleep in. Perhaps surprisingly, we all slept well, with no snake dreams…

Manugal 2015 at Tewang Rangkang

For two years in a row, we’ve had the pleasure of attending and helping with the planting of rice in the Dayak Ngaju village of Tewang Rangkang, on the Katingan River a couple of hours drive to the northwest of our home. It’s the kampung of our dear friend Lelie, who seems to be related to almost everyone in the village!


When I wrote about our previous visit I described the rice planting process, and so I won’t repeat the detail now. In summary, family and community members get together for a ‘working bee’ (gotong royong) to plant rice for dry cultivation in a newly cleared and burnt field (ladang) in the forest. The event, which incorporates many traditions and procedural requirements from the Kaharingan religion, is known as Manugal. It takes place right at the end of the dry season, around the last week of October.


Lelie is now away studying at Gajah Mada University in Jogjakarta, but we were invited back by her family, and stayed overnight in the home of her aunt and uncle, Tante Hentie and Om Indra. That’s them with their ces canoe above.


In the evening before Manugal, we walked out to revisit the sandung (family ’tomb’) where the remains of Lelie’s grandparents are interred. It was one year to the day since we had attended Nenek’s Tiwah funeral ceremony. The two white sapundu pillars to the right of the sandung have since been relocated there from their previous location beside the road, where they had served as the tethering posts for the buffalo and cow sacrifices during the Tiwah.


On the way back we chanced upon this large and quite beautiful toad, who was kind enough to pose for some close-ups.


In preparation for feeding everyone at the next day’s Manugal, a pig was slaughtered and cooked, beginning with a very basic singing process. Another pig looked on, understandably looking rather disturbed. “Gerald, what have they done to you?!”


The next morning, after a disturbingly early start, everyone crossed the river by ces canoe, and travelled up a tributary stream to a spot where we could disembark and walk through the forest to the ladang rice field. The first wet season rains had only arrived a few days previously, but the water level was a lot higher than it had been the year before, obviating the need for a lot of muddy hiking.


When we reached the ladang, there was still some smoke and flames rising from the clearing fires. The ladang is actually the same field as was used last year, as they get a few years’ use before the soil fertility becomes too low for cropping (This is very simple agriculture – no cultivation of the soil, no fertilisers, no irrigation or pesticides). The area still contains many felled tree trunks from the original forest. Since last year they have built a stilt hut (pondok) for temporary accommodation while working at the ladang.


A line of men and boys work their way down the length of the ladang, making shallow holes in the soil with the pointed end of the staff that each carries. Some of the staves (the black ones in the photo) were prized pieces of kayu ulin (ironwood) that they keep for use from year to year.


In some areas the smoke was still thick, but no-one seemed to be deterred.


Meanwhile the seed rice is carefully scooped into handmade (mostly rattan) baskets (kusak dare), ready to be planted. There were several varieties including red rice, all saved from the last year’s harvest.


No two baskets are the same. Some of them are really finely made, and most show evidence of many years’  use.


The women and girls follow in a line behind the men, dropping a small number of rice grains into each of the newly made holes. There is a lot of chatting, laughter and tom-foolery in the process.


With so many people helping, the sowing was all finished within a few hours. Time then for a big communal meal: plenty of rice of course, plus eggplant and other veggies, and babi ketjap (pork). “Hullo again, Gerald!” Little cakes wrapped in palm leaf, sweet coconut rice and coffee followed.


Om Rudi and his daughter Jesica sat nearby at the edge of the ladang, sharing a plate.


With the morning’s work finished, and the heat and humidity approaching the daily peak, we all headed back over the river to Tewang Rangkang.


We are very interested in the weaving of rattan (or rotan, they call it), and later we went to visit Ibu Linie, who is possibly the only person in the village who still makes kusak dare baskets and sapuyung hats from rattan.


She explained the many and complicated technical steps involved, from selecting the best rattan vines from the forest to preparing them and fashioning the cut canes into useful and attractive objects. After lengthy equivocation, she agreed to part with the basket above, and we established a mutually agreeable price. It now adorns our hall table – but sadly it may never be used for sowing rice at Manugal.

Tiwah Tewang Rangas

The Dayak Tiwah ceremony that we attended back in last November was one of the most astonishing and powerful things that we have experienced in Kalimantan. So when we heard that another, much larger Tiwah Massal was to be held in the nearby Katingan River village of Tewang Rangas, we were determined to get there. Fortunately our dear and very knowledgeable Dayak friend Lelie was able to accompany us, and we were able to stay at the family home of Pak Damelson, who is one of Karen’s workmates at the Museum Balanga in Palangkaraya.

The Tiwah is a secondary funeral, sometimes held many years after death, which aims to help the soul of the deceased on its journey through the afterlife to ‘the Prosperous Village’ i.e. Heaven. ‘Good’ spirits, and the spirits of the ancestors, are invited down to the village to help in this task, and also to help protect the village from other, malign spirits that might be around.


The Tiwah ceremony is a big, complex and expensive affair, and it is increasingly common for a mass Tiwah to be held for a number of the recently (or not-so-recently) deceased. The Tiwah at Tewang Rangas village was large indeed, and was for some 57 people who had died between the years of 1945 and 2013. The government of the local district (the Kabupaten of Katingan) helped to fund the event, which involved ceremonies over a period of about six weeks. We attended for the main days, when the big ceremonies are held, a large number of animal sacrifices are made, and the remains of the deceased are reinterred in specially built wooden crypts (known as sandung, or pambak).


In the central square of the village, a number of kayu ulin (Ironwood) posts are erected, each with a carved and painted representation of one of the departed. A large circle of people move in a slow anti-clockwise dance around these sapundu, raising their arms and inviting the spirits, with every sideways step, to descend.


In the Dayak Ngaju Kaharingan religion, there are no priests as such, but the ceremonial proceedings are led and presided over by one of more basir – specialists in the complex and precise details of correct ritual procedure. The basir must have the gift of being able to communicate directly with the spirit world, and be adept in the ancient Sangiang language, which is the language of the Kaharingan spirit world, and is used for recitation of lengthy prayers.

At Tewang Rangas there were no less than seven basir (known locally along the Katingan River as ‘pisur’’). Chief amongst these was Babak (above), who comes from the nearby village of Tewang Rangkang, and was in fact the basir at the Tiwah we attended there. He was very busy throughout the Tiwah.


Three bukung characters were also busy throughout the days we were there. The role of these masked and costumed figures is to protect the village and participants in the ceremonies from any ‘malevolent’ spirits who might try to attend. They wander around more or less continuously clacking together poles of split bamboo, to scare them off. They also manage to terrorise small children around the village. Apparently the identity of the individuals inside the bukung costumes is a secret, and they are not even allowed to return home to sleep at night in case their human identities are revealed.


Over the two main days of the Tiwah, a large number of buffalo, cattle, pigs and chickens were sacrificed. The pigs (on the second morning alone there were some 17 slaughtered) are despatched to the afterlife very quickly and relatively humanely, with a single carefully aimed blow of the mandau (the short sword/bush knife universally worn by Dayak men) to the heart. In just a few seconds, it is over.


For the buffalo and cattle, the process is neither quick nor painless. Each beast is tethered to one of the sapundu, via a very strong rope and yoke of rattan cane. Selected family members have the ‘honour’ of taking turns to spear the animal (always on its right side). When the poor creature can no longer stand, it is then quickly finished off with a large knife. This last step is performed by a Muslim villager in proper halal manner, so that the meat can subsequently be shared with the Muslim members of the community. Ever practical and communal.




For the Kaharingan participants, the blood of sacrificed animals is considered to be pure and cleansing. It is collected and used in other offerings and in subsequent rituals. A drop is placed on the chest, neck, chin and forehead of participants. Mothers dip their infants’ feet in blood to give them strength and good fortune for years to come.


On the day before we arrived, the bones of the deceased had been removed from the graves where they had laid since burial. These were cleaned, wrapped in fine cloth and placed into coffins. These were all laid out in state on a large covered platform, where they stayed for two days until all the dances, prayers, sacrifices and offerings had been completed. One or more family members maintained a vigil beside each of them, day and night.


For one important ritual, one of the pisur sits in the doorway of the main ceremonial building, and begins a long prayer in the Sangiang language. At regular intervals he throws rice from a bowl placed in front of him. This invites and encourages the good spirits to come to the Tiwah. He seems oblivious to all around him, and you have to be careful to avoid getting showered with rice as you enter or exit the building.


As darkness comes, the bukung look even more otherworldly. Rice wine (baram) and beer having been freely consumed for some hours, the action on the street can get a bit ‘messy’. Nothing aggressive, in fact everyone was very good-humoured indeed – just a number of intoxicated people…


Next day, after all the preparations and sacrifices have been completed, rattan mats are spread in a large shaded pavilion, and a huge array of offerings and ceremonial objects are laid out. Babak and another basir conduct the prayers, and each of the offerings is bathed in smoke, touched by the mandau of the basir, and raised up into the air three times.


After the completion of the prayers, there is a long procession of family members carrying the coffins about 500 metres to the location of the newly constructed sandung crypts.


Each of the coffins is lined up outside the appropriate sandung, each covered with a batik cloth. Only the bones of blood relatives can be placed in the family sandung, as it is considered possible that anyone else (including spouses) could later turn out to have actually been evil spirits which had taken human form.


A gong orchestra is playing, there is much more baram  and beer consumed, and there are a range of strong emotions amongst the substantial crowd. There are people looking contemplative, there is hilarity, there is mourning, yahooing and singing. Family photographs are being taken everywhere – as well as photos with the four bules (foreign visitors) who were in the village.

And one by one, each of the coffins is passed through a little doorway into the sandung, and placed in its final resting place, ending a journey which for some of the deceased had taken 70 years since they passed away.


The woman above appeared to be hysterical, and I was told that the spirit of one of the deceased had entered and taken possession of her. After flailing around for a bit, she grabbed both of my hands while I said some inane soothing things to her. She did actually calm down, and proceeded to thank me profusely, before collapsing exhausted. The (blurry) woman on the left of the photo was concerned that the spirit might have transferred to me.


The friendliness and hospitality of the people of Tewang Rangas was amazing. We were welcomed and encouraged to witness – or participate in – all of the important parts of the ceremonies. We were invited into people’s homes and given several meals (which, not surprisingly, featured lots of buffalo meat, beef and pork!) They were as curious about us as we about them, and we literally lost count of the number of times we posed for photographs.


More photos from the Tewang Rangas Tiwah can be viewed on my website.

Durian Season

The dry season has begun here, and the smoke has started to thicken from the countless fires across the island of Borneo (especially our part of it…!). Soon it’ll be mask-wearing time again. The smoke is likely to worsen from now until the wet season starts some time around November – though the forecasts for a doozy El Niño event suggest that this year’s rains may be delayed into 2016. Everyone looks forward to the arrival of the rain.


And the wet season is also keenly anticipated because it is … Durian Season! This fabulous odorous fruit is available here from December through to February. Regarded here as raja buah (the ‘king of fruits’), the segments of this 1-3kg fruit segments have custard-like flesh around the seeds (which are also edible). It’s delicious, and quite unlike any other fruit that we’ve tasted.


It also smells a bit – well, a lot actually – even before the fruit is opened, and we often see signs at hotels and public transportation advising that possession of durian is prohibited. We like the smell (in moderation), though some people consider it repulsive. Having spent a couple of hours travelling a car with the back section stacked up with fresh durian fruit, we can confirm that the scent can be a little overpowering.

There is an Indonesian saying: Durian jatuh, sarong naik (“The durian falls and the sarong rises”), referring to the supposed aphrodisiacal qualities of the fruit, but we can’t directly confirm this to be true.

There are a number of different species of durian, at least nine of which are edible, and a large number of cultivars. They are all members of the Durio genus. The trees grow large, up to 25-50 metres depending on the species. They all have thick hard skins (to survive falling from the trees when ripe), which are adorned with hard sharp spikes. In fact the word duri means ‘spike’ or ‘thorn’ in Indonesian (and Malay).

Durian from the Katingan River region to the north of Kasongan, about an hour to the west of where we live, are prized for their flavour, and are priced accordingly.


The village of Tewang Rangkang, which we have now visited several times with our friend Lelie, is right in the heart of the Katingan durian-growing region. There are numbers of the big trees in plots on the outskirts of the village, each plot belonging to a local family. In each one there is a simple wood-and-tin shack/shelter (pondok). Throughout the fruit season, family members take turns to sleep overnight in the pondoks, to guard against thieves making off with the valuable fruit.

The pondoks may be simple constructions, but they always have a strong roof. A heavy durian falling from 40 meters onto your head could be fatal… (even worse than a coconut!)


Durian trees flower in September – October, and the fruit are collected as they fall from the trees around three months later. The flowers of most Durian species are pollinated by bats.


The ripe fruit fall to the ground with a bit of a whoosh and then a big thump when they land, making it easy to locate each new incoming Durian missile. While we were visiting, everyone made a game of racing to be first to get to the newly descended fruit.


With Lelie and her sister Susi we dropped in to visit at a neighbouring pondok. Ibu was preparing a meal of forest mushrooms, which she kindly shared with us. In her batik blouse, bathtowel cummerbund and leopard-skin tights, she displays a fashion sensibility of refreshing individuality. The mushrooms were delicious.


Attached to the outside of the pondok was a web with perhaps the biggest spider I have seen. I didn’t get close enough to measure it, but I estimate it to have been easily 20cm across. Those long spidery legs looked strong enough to pick up durian…


Back at Lelie’s family pondok, a barbecue was under way. Fish caught in the Katingan River (some fresh, some dried and salted), local free range chicken (ayam kampung), and rice and veggies from the family’s ladang gardens. I think that the only purchased ingredient was salt.


Tante (Lelie’s aunt) likes a good joke and a bit of teasing, and so she made an elaborate show of not wanting to share the barbecued food with anyone. Fortunately she wasn’t serious…


And so we tucked in. The sambal was mostly garlic, tiny onions and chili, crushed on the flat hardwood mortar (cobek) in the picture above. Karen enquired about the wooden cobek, which had been made by Uncle Itiu. He slipped away after lunch and came back with a gift for Karen – a ‘spare’ cobek that he had at home…


After lunch, Lelie, Karen and Enjel found a shady spot to relax – but it was NOT under a Durian tree.


And Enjel borrowed her mum’s fan to keep cool – or to play with.

As the day went on, the stockpile of Durian fruit grew larger and larger. And that’s how we came to be travelling in a car loaded up with fuming Durian when we returned home that evening.


Betang Tumbang Manggu

We were delighted when Sally came to visit last month. The three of us (plus our guide Indra and driver Pak Wondo) headed off on a three-day trip to the Dayak village of Tumbang Manggu, about four hours drive to the north-west of here, along the Katingan River.


The first hour’s travel is along the Trans-Kalimantan Highway (TKH), a mostly decent road built (in part, at least) by Russia in the late 1950’s. In return for their generosity, the Russians were given rights to all the forest for a kilometre on either side of the road. They clear-felled it, swamps and all, and much of it is now given over to oil palm plantations. (The guy in the photo above was moving at a fair clip, and making a lot of noise as the timber planks dragged along the road behind him).


A big proportion of the oil palms are cultivated by small-holders, who sell the fruit on to middle-men with trucks who take it to the processing plants around Sampit about two hours drive west of here. Most of the growers (like this guy, who had moved here from Flores to ‘make his fortune’ growing oil palms) seem to be pretty poor.


We stopped at a pineapple plantation along the TKH, and ate (and bought) some very fresh fruit from the friendly owners. They grow three varieties of pineapple here, with the sweetest and juiciest being the smallish nanas madu  (honey pineapples). In the plantation there were a few really weird mutant fruit like the one above.


As we left the TKH and headed north alongside the Katingan River, houses in the villages were mostly pretty basic, and rarely more than a single storey high. But in amongst the houses were peculiar multi-storey structures like the one above. These are built to house ‘swallows’ (actually swiftlets) for the edible birds nest industry. The nests used to be collected from limestone caves in Borneo, but over the last 20 years or so a huge industry has developed here and in Sumatra to harvest nests from these purpose-built high-rise birdhouses. They play recordings of birdcalls at high volume to attract the swiftlets to enter and build a nest, and 35 days later you’ve got a nest which can be removed, dried and sold to the Chinese, who believe (according to Wikipedia) that eating the nests confers benefits such as: “aiding digestion, raising libido, improving the voice, alleviating asthma, improving focus, and an overall benefit to the immune system”. Apparently they retail in China for around $2,500 per kilo…

Betang Tumban Manggu panorama

Eventually we crossed the Katingan on a two-vehicle ferry and arrived at the village of Tumbang Manggu, where we stayed two nights in the longhouse. The longhouse was built only recently by Bapak Syaer Sua, who wants it to be a centre for Dayak culture. It’s a massive, solid building, made from the traditional (and now rare and hugely expensive) ulin timber (‘Kalimantan ironwood’, Eusideroxylon zwageri). This wonderful timber is incredibly hard, smooth grained, lemon-scented, strongly resistant to weathering, water damage, termites and fungal attack. The catch: it’s hard to propagate, and VERY slow growing, with mature trees being many hundreds of years old. It’s now formally classed as a ”Vulnerable’ species.


The traditional betang (longhouse) is now very rare. It stands tall on high timber foundations, with only one or two steep narrow stairways for entry – even for longhouses that were the length of a football field. It’s a great place to play.


Inside it’s cool and nicely lit from the side windows. The walls are lined with gongs and drums, tanggui (Dayak hats) and tombak (spears), (carved wooden) deer heads, and framed photographs of family members, and local and national politicians. Along one of the long side walls are a series of closed-off areas for sleeping.


Ibu Emitha (Syaer Sua’ wife) (at left in the photo above) is a great host, with a livewire personality and a big laugh. In her ‘spare’ time she embroiders large ceremonial banners adorned with Dayak motifs.


Christianity and traditional Dayak Kaharingan religion sit side-by-side in most villages of Central Kalimantan. Around Tumbang Manggu there are a number of sandung bone-vaults like the one above, adorned with effigies of the deceased and various spirit protectors.


Carved ulin posts (sapundu) are usually found near to a sandung. When the tiwah funeral ceremonies are in progress, the buffalo or cattle to be sacrificed are tethered up to the sapundu. At other times the posts, which can be 5m or more high, just stand around looking mysterious and powerful, often half-concealed amongst vegetation at the back of homes.


The sapundu at above left incorporates three of powerful Dayak symbols: the balanga (Chinese jar), gong, and burung enggang (hornbill bird). And the symbolism of the crocodile at right? No idea…


The Indonesian Presidential election was held on the 9th July last year, but there are still a lot of banners and other promotional material around. And lots of people (mostly poorer people) wearing tee shirts promoting the candidates. There must have been millions of them distributed during the campaign. Interestingly, hardly anyone seems to be wearing tee shirts for Prabowo Subianto (the loser).


The main industry of Tumbang Manggu is logging. The logging company – PT Dwima – is (apparently) one of the better ones, although much of the country around the village appears to have been clear-felled. There is some preliminary milling done in town, and massive rafts of felled timber are assembled on the river and floated away to the big mills downstream. The company is the biggest employer in town and puts a heap of money into local schools etc.

We were taken out to a protected bit of forest on the three hills collectively named Bukit Bala, and climbed to the top through beautiful (but still mostly secondary) forest.


We were guided by a bloke from PT Dwima, who showed us wonders like the thick woody vine that releases massive amounts of lovely fresh drinking water when cut open, flowering tree trunks and huge fungi.


On the edge of the forest we came upon a huge convention of different species of butterflies all swarming around a patch of earth. They were  quite stunning, and we were only slightly put off when told it was a indication that someone had recently urinated at that spot!


The forestry roads are windy, steep and muddy in places. The logging trucks have absolute right of way, and they hurtle along, cutting across to the inside of every corner that they navigate along the road. Consequently there are arrow signs all the way telling other drivers which side of the road they must drive on. The sides can change frequently, pretty much with every bend that you drive around, so it’s important to pay attention!


On our second night in the longhouse a Dayak dance and music performance was staged for us. The dancers, and most of the musicians, were teenagers from the local high school, and they were led and trained by teachers from that school. And they were remarkably good, and the boy who was the chief dancer was truly scary as he slashed around with that big mandau bush knife.


On our last morning we accepted an invitation to visit the high school and meet with teachers and students. It was recess when we arrived, and the headmaster made an announcement over the PA that we would be visiting two specific classes. There were immediate loud cheers across the playground, and the students of those two class raced back into their classrooms. We talked to them for a while in our clumsy Bahasa Indonesia, and our even clumsier Bahasa Dayak. In fact, “Selamat hanjewu! Narai kabar?” (“Good morning. How are you?”) is about the extent of it. But they seemed to enjoy it, especially when Sally and Karen got the kids to stand and do a one-legged yoga pose!