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Setulang – Deep in the forest, North Kalimantan

When I arrived at Setulang Village, I noticed there were no supermarkets to be seen anywhere. The village is located in North Kalimantan, miles from any major town. It is nestled along the edge of a forest which
dates back 130 million years.

Author in Source Title

Story by Stephanie Brookes
Photos by David Metcalf

I was greeted by my lovely homestay family and dinner was already on the table waiting for me. This consisted of grilled fish, tropical fruit and a variety of fresh green vegetable dishes, plus boiled cassava and steaming hot rice, all grown locally. My host, Benyamin, explained he was from the Omah Long tribe. “We are mostly farmers here in Setulang,” he explained. “We have our own fruit trees, vegetable plot and chickens, and the boys go out hunting at night for game.” “We practise sustainable slash and burn and rotate our crops. If you want to go and visit a farm, I can take you.” Tempting as this offer was, I said I would have to save it for another day. I had another plan. A boatman was going to take me in his traditional longboat to a place called Tana Olen, a jungle camp located deep in the forest where I planned to stay for two nights.

The next morning I clambered into a long wooden boat with a single outboard, and set out for Tana Olen. I noticed there was only one sack of rice on board and no other supplies. I wondered what we would be eating for dinner. The journey was exciting as we speed along the river, negotiating small rapids and going deeper and deeper into the forest. Long looping vines hung low and, just as I my mind had begun to drift into a jungle vibe, we pulled over onto the riverbank. After about five minutes an elderly lady with a heavily laden woven basket of root vegetables and greens popped out of the jungle, “This is for you,” she said and handed the basket to our boatman, “Nice to meet you. I must go back to work now”. And just like that, she was gone. A little further downriver, we stopped at another jungle fastfood pickup point, this time for a basket of cassava. “Great,” said the boatman, “that’s our last pick-up, but we still need our main course for tonight. We will set fish nets as soon as we arrive at camp. Plus, I have a gun, and I will go out hunting tonight. If we get lucky, I will get a deer or wild boar. Is that OK?” I replied very enthusiastically, “Of course, yes, that would be wonderful”, trying to sound as casual as possible, like this was an ordinary conversation for me.

In around 45 minutes we arrived at the jungle camp, which consisted of a bunkhouse, a kitchen, and common area. We got settled in no time and relaxed for the afternoon down at the river. In evening we sat around talking by the fire, as our freshly caught fish grilled on the open fire. The Sape, a traditional Dayak lute hand-made from local tree, came out and Philius, one of the Dayak guides played for us. Sitting under the stars, and surrounded by nature, I sensed the power of the forest and fell effortlessly into its rhythm, feeling at one with my surroundings. Listening to songs sung in Omah Long language, this age-old music took me on a peaceful journey, and I was transported to another time. “Kalimantan, “I said quietly to myself, “At last I am really here.” The next day we trekked around two hours to a place deep in the forest where there were some very old giant trees, and I asked Philius to play the Sape for me. He promptly shimmied up a tree, crawled along a huge branch and played the instrument, from his perch high up in the tree. What a delight! At 67 years old, he climbed that tree like a teenager.

When we returned to Setulang Village after a wonderful two-night stay in the forest, it happened to be a Sunday. There is a Christian church service every Sunday, and it seemed like the whole village was in attendance. I loved sitting in the church, on the wooden pew with all the locals dressed in their Sunday hats and other finery. After the service, there was a lovely event in one of the houses in the village. On Sundays, the elders, mostly Dayak Omah Long, gather in a circle, sing songs and share stories about the old days. They love to have visitors join them, and I readily made many friends among the elders, even though most of them only spoke their native tongue. We all seemed to communicate through that universal language which finds commonality without words. If Kalimantan has ever called to you, or the name Borneo evokes a special feeling for you, then head to North Kalimantan where you can sit in an ancient forest, spend time with Dayak people and experience something extraordinary.

Stephanie Brookes is a travel writer and blogger with tales from Indonesia and beyond.
Author –Indonesia’s Hidden Heritage; Cultural Journeys of Discovery

David Metcalf runs unique cultural photography tours in Indonesia and beyond.

Fact File:
Flight: Jakarta to Tarakan (or via Balikpapan) and then take a three-hour boat journey up the vast Sesayap River to Malinau. Transfer by private car and the trip to Setulang village, North Kalimantan is around 1 hour.

Setulang Borneo Eco Jungle camp: Open dates to suit individuals, families and small groups.

More on Setulang: Setulang Village is a living-breathing example of a successful eco-tourism programme operating in a remote village and is a truly original, pure travel experience. The village consists of 800 Dayak Kenyah and Omah Long people. Setulang has a fascinating history, and in fact, people only settled in this area and built the village 40 years ago. Before that, the original Dayak people of Setulang, the Omah Long people, lived much deeper in the Borneo jungle in a place called Long Saan. While they were very happy living in the original forest for over 80 generations, the village council made a decision to leave in 1969, in pursuit of better health facilities and education for their young people. The journey took one-month on foot through the jungle, to the present-day village of Setulang.

See the documentary film: YouTube:



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