Borneo’s second-longest river, the Mahakam, winds southeast for over 900km from its source far inside the central ranges on the Malaysian border, before emptying into the Makassar Straits through a multi-channelled delta.
There’s an established three-day circuit taking in the historic town of Tenggarong and the Benuaq Dayak settlements at Tanjung Issuy and adjacent Mancong. With a week to spare, scanty forest and communities inland from the Middle Mahakam townships of Mfak and Long Iram are within range; ten days is enough to include a host of Kenyah and Benuaq villages, as you venture up the changing Mahakam through the rapids towards Long Iram and Long Bagun. Unlike in Sarawak, less than a week on the Mahakam won’t get you as far as the traditional Dayak longhouses, and this experience does not come cheap; solo travel is prohibitively expensive. Most tours include a good mix of river trips, trekking and participation in some traditional activities, such as a day’s hunting with the Dayaks. If you don’t go with one of the recommended tour companies in Samarinda it’s easy enough to find freelance guides there, but the quality varies dramatically. The best guides are contracted to work for the tour companies; if you want to know whether a freelance guide is worth his salt, ask him to trace the intended route on the map.
Whatever your plans, bring as little as possible with you. A change of clothes, wet-weather gear, decent footwear, a torch and first-aid kit (with anti-malarial tablets) are adequate for the Lower and Middle Mahakam, as there are accommodation and stores along the way. After Tenggarong, there are no banks on the Mahakam capable of changing money. Guides are essential beyond Long Bagun if you can’t speak the language. Balikpapan, or Samarinda in particular are good places to hire a guide, though there may be opportunities to pick one up along the way.
Crowded, basic houseboats are the cheapest way to tackle the Lower and Middle reaches of the Mahakam if you’re not taking part in an organized tour. If you plan to disembark before the boat’s ultimate destination, make sure that the pilot, not the ticket collector, knows. Houseboats leave Samarinda’s Terminal Sungai Kunjang every morning for towns as far upstream as Long Iram. Unless you’re a real boat enthusiast, take a bus to Kota Bangun, and hire a ces (a motorized one-person-wide canoe) to start your journey from there. It’s possible to go as far as Muara Muntai in one of the motorized boats, stay overnight there, and continue on in the morning.