Before huge swaths of Borneo were aggressively carved up to make way for palm-oil plantations and voracious logging, the whole island looked something like the Meratus Mountains. This 2,500sqkm range in southern Kalimantan has mist-laced, river-crossed peaks, dense jungles, steep valleys and jagged karst formations. They are also heavily populated with Borneo’s indigenous people, the Dayak, whose strong religious customs play to the soundtrack of the shaman’s drum.
The best way to experience this mystical mountain range is through homestays in the villages scattered along the many mountain trails. You can sleep in an atmospheric stilted longhouse between river rafting and trekking in some of the most stunning scenery in Southeast Asia.
Stocking up on supplies
You will need to source a driver and an English-speaking guide in the city of Banjarmasin or the town of Kandangan. Without them, the trip is considerably harder. They will help you communicate with the locals, and there are stories of over-ambitious travellers losing themselves – sometimes permanently - in the maze of trails that stitch themselves across this vast area.
One and a half hours north of Kandangan is Loksado, a Dayak village at the base of the Meratus Mountains. This is the starting point for many treks and has a few guesthouses and basic restaurants. Mr Alut’s Guest House (Loksado; 0-81-3493-46147), located along the river, has cosy rooms with wood walls and warm blankets, as the temperature drops sharply at night.
From Loksado you will trek into the mountains by foot with your guide. At dusk, expect to see fireflies flickering, bats wheeling and the fringes of the pathway periodically lit by what seems like countless green eyes. Thankfully, it is not a sign that animals are watching you -- it is the bacterial phosphorescence of low level fungi. The whole experience is eerily beautiful, like a natural spectral funhouse.
Homestays in Dayak villages
With the Dayak’s history of headhunting and animism, few places on earth are as wrapped in such rugged mysticism. Indeed very little has changed in the last century: swidden (slash and burn) farming and ancient customs are still observed, and the shaman still holds sway in most villages, despite the presence of mobile phones and satellite TV.
Upon arrival at a village, you or your guide will need to ask the Kepala Kampung (village headman) for permission to stay the night, and a cash donation should also be made to him on your departure.
A homestay will most likely include a tour of the longhouse, where as many as thirty families used to live together under the same roof. Nowadays, villagers often have their own, separate houses, but the longhouse is still the nucleus of the village, where ceremonies and celebrations take place and prayers are made at the spirit altar.
If you are lucky, you may be able to see the village pembeliatn (shaman) at work. His job is to identify the bad spirits that are attaching themselves to the juus (soul) of a person, and by placing himself in a trance he is able to purify the afflicted soul. Also sought in times of marital distress and for blessings, the shaman is the link between the tangible and the mysterious forces lurking in the forest.
If you stay the night, it is likely you will be offered accommodation in the stilted longhouse, sleeping on a thin mattress and eating whatever food is offered to you. Children and adults often ask to see photos of your family back home, so make sure you have your camera with you. But if you want to take pictures, ask permission first.
Trekking and rafting
Treks can last anywhere from a few hours to three days, depending on your fitness level and how deep you want to penetrate the interior. One trek worth taking is to a series of pretty waterfalls past Harati village. They can be found by following the Amandit River upstream from Loksado for about eight kilometres. The climb becomes progressively harder as you reach the higher cascades, and it is recommended that you use a guide.
Do not miss the beautifully carved longhouse at the village of Malaris, a few miles away across the river from Loksado, once home to 32 families. Provided no ceremonies are taking place, it may be possible to stay here if your guide speaks to the headman.
A trip to the Meratus, especially when the river runs high, would not be complete without rafting on the Amandit River. The usual end-point is the village of Muara Tanuhi, about two hours downstream from Loksado; long enough to give you a taste of the rapids and a burst of adrenaline while passing through the atmospheric karst country and wild forest.