Of all the places we have visited along the Mahakam River, the area of Melak in West Kutai (Kutai Barat), was probably the one that left us the best memories, three days dense of attractions and experiences: real Dayak celebrations, still inhabited longhouses, waterfalls and peculiar vegetation just to name a few.
While it is on the Mahakam River, we actually got there hitchhiking (we did all the way by ferry on the way back) from Kota Bagun, and we were really lucky to get a several hours ride with a Pastor from Tenggarong going to our destination for a ceremony!
Backpacker Indonesia and local traveller communities
For the amazing time we had in the surroundings of Melak and Barong Tongkok, we are not grateful to Sungai Mahakam, since we always stayed quite far from the river, but to our amazing host Yana and her friends that were perfect hosts. We actually didn't visit the town of Melak itself, our contact was staying in the surroundings of Barong Tongkok, and we were willing to follow the suggestions of our local guide and friend Yana, that already had prepared a plan for us. But lets start from the beginning.
When in Samarinda, our other great hosts Brillianti and Mukmin, introduced ourselves to this system of the local traveller communities in Indonesia called "Backpacker - CityName", in example "Backpacker Samarinda". They usually have a very active Facebook group, do weekly or monthly gaterhing exploring the surroundings togheter, and more important build a strong and knowledgeable network that can give you generous assistance mostly anywhere in Indonesia. Even if we couldn't find anybody available with free hospitality networks in the area, there were poeple from the backpackers communities. So if you are looking for adventures, great people and contacts with local travellers, you might try to get in touch with them.
Brillianti from Samarinda, introduced us to Yana in Melak area, even if they actually have never met personally before! And not only Yana gave us shelter for some nights, but she even organized many side trips arranging transportation for us with her generous and helpful friends!
Dayak Funeral commemorative Ceremony in Barong Tongkok
Right after arriving in Barong Tongkok, we were proposed to go and assist to a sacrificial killing of a Buffalo, for a funerary ceremony that was going to happen later at night. Because of our beliefs and ethic, we preferred to decline, but we were definitely interested in the Dayak ceremony!
It was actually a commemorative ceremony, the dead body was not in the house, and consisted of songs, dances, food and rituals. We wrote a separate article about it: read here about our experience at a Dayak Funeral ceremony.
Inar Waterfall in Kutai Barat
Inar Waterfall is still in the surroundigs of Melak, but I wouldn't be able to say exactely where the waterfall is, since Yana and her friends showed us around with their motorbikes. The best way to get there is to probably asking to locals for the direction if you plan to hitchhike a scooter (cars are rare here) or have your own transportation.
After a short walk from the scooters parking, we reached the top of the waterfall, from where it was opening an amazing view over the surrounding forest; unfortunately we had to share the panorama with a concrete lock controlling the water flow, and ruining not only the view but also the whole atmosphere.
To access the waterfall there are steep stairs going down through an intricate forest full of lianas. To our surprise the area was deserted and we could enjoy the waterfall in total peace. Places like this in Java get so crowded, in particular during week-ends, that sometimes it's totally senseless to visit; but Kalimantan is a different story, and population density is much much lower, in particular out of the big cities on the coast.
The waterfall was quite nice and tall, even if I can't call it impressive.
If you go for a quick look and snap a shot, 10 minutes are probably enough, but if you get a little bit more active and adventure below the heavy spray of water, you might end up spending hours there as we did. Be carefull, since sometimes we saw pieces of earth falling from the top with the water and I don't exclude there could be also some stones.
Visiting Benung and Eheng Longhouse, and discovering Dayaks daily life
After attending the Dayak funeral ceremony in Barong Tongkok, we were really courious to experience also the original dwelling of Dayak people, the longhouse. It was usually a big house extended on one side (that's why longhouse) shared by several families of the same tribe.
We really enjoyed our visit to Eheng Longhouse, exploring the interior and speaking with the dwellers. That's why we wrote a separated report that you can read here: Discovering Dayak daily life in Eheng longhouse.
After visiting Eheng Longhouse, we went to the village of Benung to visit the local Longhouse: here our visit was much faster and superficial, we quickly checked the exterior, not even entering into negotiation to access the interior.
The interesting feature was the presence of some recently sculpted Hampatong poles outside, one of them depicting a man singing with a microphone: quite far from the origins of a tribal man hunting wild pigs in the rainforest! A new modern longhouse was being built just hundreds of meters away from this traditional one, putting a question-mark on the future of Benung longhouse.
Searching for the mythical Black Orchid in Kersik Luway National Park
Our last destination in between Melak and Barong Tongkok, before heading back to the Mahakam River, was the Kersik Luway National Park. We absolutely knew nothing about this place, not even of its existance, and once more we have to thank our "Backpacker guides" for taking us there.
It looks instead like it is a quite known and popular destination for Indonesians, but despite this we were still the only visitors. That's Kalimantan!
It was funny to read in the guestbook that an American Biologist we first met on the Mahakam River, and then perpetually missed in different locations, has been there once more just one day before us. Basically he paid many thousands of dollars to do the same tour along the Mahakam River that we did on a total of 50$ per week (and that was "Luxury" for us).
The Kersik Luway National Park is famous for two main reasons: the first one is the white sand inexplicably found here, far away from any water source. The second is the rare Black Orchid, growing inside the forest but difficult to spot.
The touristic area is actually quite small, and it doesn't take much time to walk the whole length of the small trail. During our short hike we were not able to see any black orchid, and we weren't even expecting it, since it wasn't the best season to spot it. But to our surprise, when we went back to the base, one of the rangers said that every morning he is patrolling the park, and he had already seen some in the surroundings. Me and Oti decide to go back in the forest with his expert eyes helping us, and we eventually managed to see the Black Orchid!
Another attraction in the park is a small watch tower, good for relaxing a bit. The view though is not that impressive, with low forest and arid or burned down land. On our way back we met a group of cyclists coming to visit, but no motorized vehicles. So I ended up waiting for some hours for Yana to leave first with Oti and then to come back and pick me up, since there were no possibility at all to hitchhike the several miles of dirty road connecting to the main junction.
Going back to the Mahakam River
It was eventually time to say goodbye, and to continue our trip upstream on the Mahakam River, looking for new adventures.
Yana and her friends still managed to give us a ride to Tering, the port village from where we were going to take the "Kapal Biasa" (Normal Ferry) towards Long Bagun.
But first we took one day to explore the triple village of Tering, Tering Lama and Tering Baru, with more Dayak life going on along its streets.
Read the full report here: Exploring the Dayak Village of Tering Lama
These days passed in the surroundings of Melak were a pleasant surprise for us, full of experiences, learning more about Dayak culture, and exploring amazing nature, that's why we would definetely suggest a stop to people cruising Sungai Mahakam. To conclude, we want to thank once more Yana for the help and support she gave us to make this trip possible!