The Mighty Mahakam River

The fabled Mahakam River (Sungai Mahakam) snakes sinuously for over 900 kilometers from the central mountains to Samarinda and the sea through some of the world’s richest remaining ecosystems. Its waters also carry a cargo of human history. Sultans, pirates, Dayaks and European adventurers plied the river in search of treasure, territory and human heads. Their exploits live on in literature and legend.

The Mahakam Adventure

These days a journey on the Mahakam is still an adventure. Rising in the highlands near the Sarawak border, the upper river tumbles over a series of dangerous rapids. The Dayak in this remote region live by subsistence agriculture and the occasional sale of birds’ nests, rattan and gold.

Few travellers brave the perilous white water of the upper river, and transport and supplies are expensive in this isolated area. The village of Long Bagun, 300 kms from the headwaters, is as far as most river traffic can travel, with the big boats ending their journeys at Long Iram.

The broad highway of the middle Mahakam is easily accessible, though tourists are still quite rare. Several tour companies offer river safaris in houseboats starting from Samarinda or Balikpapan, also the beginning of the challenging cross-Borneo trek.  Most tours feature a combination of river trips, visits to parks, wildlife observation, jungle treks and cultural encounters with traditional Dayaks.

Map of the Mahakam River
The Mahakam River Bridge
Your journey begins here: Bridge over the Mahakam River in Samarinda.

 

Public ferry on the Mahakam River, Kalimantan, Indonesia
A Klotok boat plies its trade along the Mahakam.

 

‘Last Guardian of the Mahakam’: a documentary on the critically endangered freshwater, or ‘Irrawaddy’ dolphin.

Life on the Big River

Dayak tribes continue to dwell in their customary longhouses along the river and most welcome visitors. Many still practice the old religion of spirit worship – decorating their bodies with intricate tattoos, sporting heavy iron earrings and hunting the creatures of the jungle for meat.

The river’s waters, rainforests and floodplain are home to a wealth of flora and wildlife found nowhere else in the world. Almost 150 indigenous freshwater fish species found here include the critically endangered freshwater or Irrawaddy dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris). And about 300 species of birds, 70 of them protected, call from the forest. Treks and short detours from the main river reveal a treasure trove of unusual wild orchids, orangutans, sun bears, reptiles and proboscis monkeys.

The Mouth of the Mahakam

The river widens as it approaches the sea, fed by tributaries and punctuated by large and small lakes. The villages along its banks grow into towns and small cities as river traffic increases. Passing through the bustling capital of Samarinda, the river soon divides into a vast delta of mangroves and swamp before meeting the sea at the Makassar Strait, its epic journey over.

The Mahakam River In Photographs

Traditional floating village on the Mahakam River
A traditional floating village on the banks of the Mahakam.

 

Motorised dugouts and speedboats on the Mahakam River
Who needs cars? Motorised dugouts and speedboats are the quickest way to get around.

 

Schoolchildren on their way home on the Mahakam River
Schoolchildren on their way back from school in the village on Melintang lake near the Mahakam.

 

Floating convenience store on the Mahakam River
A floating convenience store on the banks of the river.

 

The Mahakam River near its mouth
Dusk falls over the Mahakam as the river widens towards its mouth.

 

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Local ferries are the only way to get to the other side, if you don’t have your own boat…

 

Traditional houseboat on the Mahakam River
A traditional wooden houseboat is moored on the banks of the river.

 

Riverlife on the Mahakam
Just another day on the Mahakam River.

 

Young family on the Mahakam River
A mother paddles her two young children down a quieter stretch of the Mahakam.

 

Floating fish market
Local women hard at work at a floating fish market.

 

A proboscis monkey on the banks of the Mahakam River
A proboscis monkey searches for leaves on the jungle banks of the river.

 

A millipede crawls through the jungle near the Mahakam River
Watch where you walk: a millipede crawls through the jungle.

 

Hornbills over the Mahakam River
A hornbill (Bucerotidae) cruises over the jungles of Borneo.