Faces of Borneo: Kalimantan

The third-largest island in the world, Borneo is split into 3 countries: Brunei, Malaysia (with 2 states – Sabah and Sarawak) to the north, and the Indonesian province of Kalimantan to the south. As an island, it has some of the world’s most species-rich equatorial rainforests with prime patches that are easily accessible from modern, multiethnic cities. The island’s jungles conjure up remoteness and adventure, bringing to mind impenetrable foliage into the ‘heart of darkness’, while offshore the deep blue brings with it rich marine life.

A great pied hornbill sit on a branch, Thailand

Mention Kalimantan, and images of lush rainforests come to mind – with no volcanoes or tsunamis, its ancient forests have flourished with towering trees that house some of the most endangered wildlife in the world, including the orangutan and sun bear. This Indonesian province covers massive three-quarters of Borneo.

Kalimantan is also home to the indigenous Dayak tribe, who have long thrived in this rich landscape, living in longhouses that dot the banks of Kalimantan’s many waterways.

Stretching over 540,000sq.km., Kalimantan is divided into central, north, south, west, and east – where you’ll find its most cosmopolitan city, Balikpapan.


Until the late 19th century, Balikpapan was a quiet fishing village, but that all changed with the discovery of oil, bringing with it extensive development and a relative prosperity that can still be seen in the city’s decidedly modern architecture and good infrastructure – in fact, Balikpapan was recently named Indonesia’s most livable city.

Situated on Kalimantan’s east coast facing the Makassar Strait, Balikpapan’s New Sepinggan Airport has frequent flights from Jakarta, as well as direct flights from Singapore (SilkAir and Garuda Indonesia).

Sungai Wain

The Sungai Wain Protected Forest, in the northern part of Balikpapan, is a conservation and research area that serves as a source of clean water for both the residents of Balikpapan and the needs of the oil industry.

This lowland forest covers a limited area, yet is home to unique wildlife like sun bears, and no less than nine species of primates, including silvery gibbons (owa-owa), proboscis monkeys (bekantan), orangutan, black leaf monkeys (lutung), pigtailed monkeys (beruk), and macaques (monyet ekor panjang). The orangutans were released here by the Borneo Orangutan Survival (BOS) in the early 90s.

There are a number of trekking trails that allow you to explore this slice of the jungle, located under an hour from Balikpapan.

Bukit Bangkirai National Park

About a two-hour drive north of Balikpapan is Bukit Bangkirai National Park, located within a rainforest with cottages, jungle trails, and a popular canopy bridge walk.

The canopy walk is a series of 5 forest canopy bridges, suspended between massive old-growth Bangkirai trees (aka “Yellow Balau”), 30m above the forest floor. This is the ideal way to spot the park’s resident hornbills that frequent the area around dusk.


Located 35km by road from Balikpapan, is the Borneo Orangutan Survival (BOS) foundation’s unique Samboja Lestari forest reserve.

Covering 2,000ha (roughly 20sq.km.), the reserve is unique in Borneo (and arguably the world), as having regenerated what was formerly arid scrub land, following decades of logging and fires, back into a vibrant forest ecosystem that’s now home to hundreds of species of fauna.

The project includes an orangutan rehabilitation project, sun bear sanctuary, and eco-lodge while engaging the local community in agroforestry, conservation, and tourism, all with the overarching aim of reforesting and rehabilitating the area and its once-thriving local wildlife.

Decades of logging since the 1950s left the area vulnerable to fires, with successive conflagrations in the 1980s and 90s leaving the former rain forest devastated. Since 2001, BOS has been buying over denuded land, and replanting trees; to date, they’ve reintroduced over 800 (formerly) native species, with the aim of eventually replanting 1,700 types of trees.

As a result, the once-barren area around Samboja Lestari is home again to 9 species of primates, including orangutans which have returned under BOS’s Orangutan Reintroduction Project. The programme’s aim is to create a permanent, stable, secure habitat for local orangutans, and includes a Sekolah Hutan (“forest school”) to teach young/orphaned orangutans – often grown up as house pets – how to survive in the wild, as well as 6 man-made river islands dedicated to the care of chronically ill orangutans. BOS also operates a 58-hectare sun bear sanctuary, reintroducing and caring for bears confiscated from illegal animal traders and owners all over Indonesia.

BOS also boasts a 159-hectare arboretum for rainforest research, with over 5,000 species of native Bornean trees.

The decades-long initiative has also been a boon for the local community of Samboja (pop. 10,000), whose livelihoods had been devastated by the fires. Now involved in agro-forestry, fruit growing, tree planting, wildlife monitoring, and even forming a local fire-fighting brigade, this formerly marginalised community has a vested stake in their region’s growing ecotourism industry, resulting in soaring employment levels, higher literacy rates among local children, and a markedly better quality-of-life in Samboja, for humans and wildlife alike.

The eco lodge runs various programmes, allowing visitors to both observe the animals in their natural setting, as well as getting involved in volunteer conservation work.

Guided nature walks along its 4km nature trail depart daily at dawn/dusk (for mammals, birds) and mid-day (for reptiles), with commonly seen species including deer, eagles, pigs, pythons, and numerous primates, including gibbons, macaques, proboscis and red leaf monkeys.

Volunteer opportunities include helping prepare the orangutans’ food, assisting in collecting field data, and repairing sleeping boxes for injured orangutans (healthy orangutans in the wild normally build their own leaf nests each night). BOS is also looking to re-design modular nests – an ideal role for volunteers with a building or engineering background.

BOS runs numerous other NGO initiatives in Kalimantan, including at the Orangutan Reintroduction Project in Nayru Menteng and Wanariset, and the Mawas Wildlife Reserve. For more about the BOS, visit www.sambojalodge.com.


Situated just off Kalimantan’s east coast in the Makassar Strait, the idyllic islands of Derawan were one of the region’s best-kept secrets until very recently.

Consisting of 6 main islands and a smattering of 25 other islets and reefs, the archipelago offers a mix of everything from the relatively bustling (by Derawan standards) main island of Derawan, to the outlying atoll of Maratua, which is home to just 4 villages, and designated marine conservation sites like Kakaban and Sangalaki.

While most travellers come specifically for its famous dive sites, Derawan’s mix of fairly pristine reefs, good marine life and undeveloped beaches make it equally appealing for its laid back island vibe and low-key beach scene.


The islands have dozens of dive sites including drift, shore and walls, concentrated around the main island of Derawan itself, as well as Sangalaki and Kakaban.

Derawan Island

This tear-shaped island has plenty of accommodation options, including stilted houses suspended over the water. Despite the fact that the reef has been decimated by dynamite fishing, you can still find a huge amount of marine life, including cuttlefish, octopus, pygmy seahorse, as well as large manta rays.

The island is also a nesting place for the Green turtle and Hawksbill turtle; volunteers can accompany the wardens of the local Turtle Conservation Group on their evening vigil for poachers.

Kakaban Island

A short boat ride away from Derawan is Kakaban Island. A popular dive site here is the Blue Light Cave – a cave dive that starts as a slit in the reef just 1m below the surface, and descends 20m down into a large chamber, making it an exciting but highly advanced dive site. Nearby Barracuda Point is a drift dive along Kakaban’s sea wall at a depth of 25m, with big resident pelagics including its namesake barracuda, various shark species, and tuna.

Arguably the best-known dive site – and the main reason people come here – is for the sting-less jellyfish lake on Kakaban, one of only 3 sting-less jellyfish lakes in the world (the others being the Tojoman Lagoon in the Philippines and Eil Malik in Palau). Surrounded by a wall of mangroves, the lake – accessible via a 10-min walk along a boardwalk – is home to 4 species of sting-less jellyfish which divers and snorkellers can swim among.

The most common is the spotted jellyfish (mastigias papua), which has evolved to no longer have spots, followed by the upside-down jellyfish (cassiopea ornata) and the moon jelly (aurelia aurita), which has a transparent body.

Maratua Island

The neighbouring island of Maratua has even greater numbers of sting-less jelly-fish; in the brackish inland lake near the villages, 3 species can be found, including the box jellyfish (tripedalia cystophora). Maratua is also home to a very unique coral reef with fluorescent colours – these spectral spires and technicolour starfish loom out as thousands of jellyfish bob about in the greenish waters.

Sangalaki Island

Further away is Sangalaki Island (50 minutes from Derawan), where divers can spot giant manta rays that flock here in the plankton-rich waters. The waters around Sangalaki are home to numerous manta cleaning stations, where cleaner wrasse are found in abundance. The rays can be found in huge numbers on the east coast, especially at Manta Avenue, Manta Parade and Manta Run.


Derawan is accessible from either Tarakan or Berau, located in the northeast corner bordering Sabah, which are about an hour’s flight north from Balikpapan. From Tarakan, there are speedboats to Derawan (3.5 hours), while from Berau it’s 2-3 hours by speedboat.

There are various accommodation options on the islands, including a limited number of small dive resorts.

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