I woke suspended between two trees, thousands of miles away from help, and completely soaked. It could have been sweat from the inescapable, unrelenting humidity. It could have been the rain running down the ropes of my hammock.
Something wasn’t right. Something sounded different than when I fell asleep. The blitz of rain falling on the jungle camp hadn’t changed; it was still deafening. It was something more subtle. Sliding around my slippery plastic cocoon like an oversized maggot, I found my headtorch bundled in the ball of clothes at my feet. Peering at the ground through the fine mesh, I rode a horrible wave of realisation to its cresting peak. The river, which should have been twenty meters down the beach, was lapping over the roots of the tree below. Taunting me. Reminding me that I’m at the jungle’s mercy.
“We need to move.” An unfamiliar voice cut through the thunderous explosion of rain. No shit. As I made to get out of the hammock, it hit me. It built rapidly, leaving me unable to do anything about it—the unmistakable, unstoppable force of diarrhoea. “Not now,” I groaned as I helplessly made a bad situation worse.
The people I was with weren’t people I knew particularly well. In fact, before I found myself in this situation, I didn’t know these people at all. However, at that moment, that didn’t matter. What did matter was that the river was rising at a rate that I didn’t even think possible. It was 2 am and pitch black, I’d just shat myself, and we needed to move farther into the suffocating Bornean rainforest to escape the raging torrent. Finding a good spot for the hammocks had been hard enough in the daylight.
After several long minutes of frantic jungle bashing, I found an acceptable spot. My stomach gurgled like a sleeping volcano. I knew it could erupt catastrophically at any moment. Eager to get camp sorted so I could get back into bed, I picked up the pace. Suddenly, sharp pain radiated out from my foot and up into my leg. “What was that?” Jumping around, shouting and swearing in pain, I thought, “It’s my first night here, and I’m actually going to die.”
Yes, this did happen, and no, nobody died. Strangely, this is now one of our fondest memories from an incredible trip to Central Kalimantan and the 2022 British Universities Kayaking Expedition.
Since its inception in 2005, the British Universities Expedition (BUKE) occurs every two years. It’s an opportunity for a young, relatively inexperienced team to test themselves by planning and executing a kayaking expedition. For student paddlers in the UK, it’s an honour to be selected. The team for 2022 consisted of six paddlers from all over the country: Aaron White and Jonah Morgan from the University of Dundee; Barra Liddy from Surrey University; Matt Stephenson from the University of Nottingham; Piers Oliphant from Cardiff University and myself representing the University of Strathclyde.
We met for the first time at the selection weekend in November 2021. The next time we were all together was for the expedition itself. Under most circumstances, there would be some friction if you put six random people together in a jungle for six weeks. Remarkably, this wasn’t the case. We didn’t have a single argument the entire trip and are now all very close friends.
Choosing a location wasn’t easy. It took weeks to narrow our options down. Ultimately, we settled for Aaron’s idea—Central Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo)—lured by the promise of big multi-day first descents, warm weather, good food and a distinct lack of hippopotamus.
We arrived in Eastern Kalimantan in July. The journey from the east to the centre, where we would base ourselves, was lengthy, but a great opportunity to start getting to know each other. Two hours on a bus, twenty-four hours on a boat up the Mahakam River, and a “three-hour drive”, which took sixteen hours, followed by another four to finish.
The grueling journey gave us an immediate respect for this new environment and its inhabitants. The rainforest is a harsh place, always changing with the severe weather cycles. Ironically, the quality of the roads improved as we moved away from civilisation and concrete paving. The land would ripple and buckle as the storms came and went. The tarmac couldn’t keep up and was often apocalyptically cracked and broken. The dirt roads were much better maintained and a lot easier to endure.
When we finally arrived at our first river, it was…intense. Excited and scared, we jumped out of the vehicle and ran as fast as our dead legs could manage. We stood, taking in the confluence of the Sungai Joloi and the Sungai Barito, two major rivers in the Seribu Riam district. It was supposed to be dry(er) season that time of year, but what we were looking at was not a low river. At least 200 meters of wide, brown water boiled and surged. This was, in fact, a very high river.
The aptly named Seribu Riam district is an absolute dream location. Directly translating to the Thousand Rapid district, it is a huge drainage where three significant rivers meet. The Sungai Barito, the Sungai Joloi and the Sungai Busang. Each river spans hundreds of metres wide. The Busang is a tributary of the Joloi, and the Joloi is a tributary of the Barito. Perched on the river right bank of the confluence of the Joloi and the Barito is Muara Joloi, a charming village we quickly called home.
There are no roads in or out of Muara Joloi, the only access is by ferry. As such, there was no motor traffic in the village apart from a few mopeds. The two main streets were suitably narrow. Walking the streets that first day, hundreds of eyes locked onto us, curious, questioning, but never unwelcoming. The odd call of “Hello Mr!” echoed, followed by friendly waves. The streets were snaking concrete with steep inclines and steep declines, winding left and right. The village was like a botanical garden, flanked on all sides by incredible flora. But the best time in the Muara Joloi was when it was pouring rain. Sat on the balcony of our hostel, we’d look out and watch the rainforest come alive.
Muara Joloi became our home base. Logistically, it was perfect—all of our major descents finished in Muara Joloi. We found family in Muara Joloi. We met Chatur, a boat driver, on our first day in the area. Chatur looked after us on our river travels and let us store our kayaks at his boat shed. He also introduced us to his family. The eldest brother, Pris, had a shiny Toyota Hilux, which he used to bring everything the village needed from the nearest town.
For us, Pris was the man for the shuttles. There was some rough driving, but he never let us down. Their older sister, Mrs. Yuli, cooked all our meals when we were in the village. We ate like kings. With each incredible meal, we joked that this was probably one of the only expeditions where the risk was putting on weight, not losing it. Finding this incredible family was our biggest achievement. The feeling of welcome, safety and comfort so far from home felt miraculous and more rewarding than any rapid.
Still, the rivers were epic. We descended six sections, three of which were parts of previously mentioned rivers, and the other three were tributaries of these. All of the descents had incredibly easy access and were beautifully high quality. Everything was accessible by vehicle, sometimes with a bit of a flat paddle in or out. If a group were to commit to some hike-ins, thousands of rivers remain hidden in those ancient trees.
All of our descents were first kayak descents, and we paddled them at higher flows than any of the locals would consider, but I must pay homage to the skill of the boatsmen in the Seribu Raim. They build long boats and canoes out of wood and can very competently navigate some serious whitewater. At lower flows, they have driven up through some of the rapids we paddled down. We also heard tales of locals descending rapids on hand-built wooden rafts. These are true whitewater people. They live for the river, and the river lives for them.
On our last descent, I woke suspended between two trees perfectly spaced to tension the hammock to maximum comfort. Opening and closing my eyes, I saw no difference. The pitch blackness meant there was more time to sleep.
Relaxing into the hammock, I couldn’t help but admire the symphony of noises from the surrounding rainforest. The jungle doesn’t sleep. The shrill scratching of insects, calling of frogs. The depth and diversity of life in this beautiful place are on a scale we can’t even imagine, from microorganisms to some of the largest and oldest trees on the planet.
Lying in the hammock, I felt grateful to be a visitor to this other world. Grateful that for nearly six weeks, we had been granted safe passage through some of the vast freshwater corridors of the Central Kalimantan. As I drifted off into my final night of jungle slumber, I couldn’t help but note how far we had come since that infamous first night in the jungle.
The unfamiliar voices of my expedition team had become those of brothers. Screaming and laughing, somebody sprints to their hammock in agony. The ants have a horrible kick in the Seribu Riam, but not much more. It was scary when I first got bitten, and I didn’t know what it was. I had imagined the most poisonous of snakes or spiders, but now, we knew the pain wouldn’t last too long.
Unlike before, the interior of my hammock stayed cool and dry on this last descent. It’s a shame it took me until the end of the trip to work out the perfect hammock/tarp setup to create a blissful escape from the moisture of the rainforest. Even better, we had developed a technique of moving extremely slowly to avoid over-exertion and unnecessary sweat saturation. To reach the finish line of bed sweat-free, without disturbing an ant was a delicate art.
In the hammock, I felt safe, comforted by the fact that no exotic creatures could reach me. I felt safe knowing that no matter how much the river might rise, we were out of its reach. It was also a huge comfort to know that even though we were deep in the middle of nowhere, we had an incredible family waiting for us in Muara Joloi, just a day’s paddle away.
At first, the jungle seemed like a place of unmanageable extremes. After six weeks, I felt at home in this equatorial paradise. I don’t think we could have had a more perfect BUKE experience if we tried. We found high-quality, multi-day kayaking. A team of strangers that turned into a group of extremely close friends. And a newfound family that would instantly welcome us back to this incredible destination.
Seconds before falling back to sleep, I had a moment of clarity. Over six weeks, it seemed we had perfected the planning and the execution of multiple first descents. We were prepared for the rivers to rise unexpectedly and expected the burn of the stinging ants. And yet, none of those things matter when it comes for you. There it was, the jungle’s final gift: the unquestionable gurgle deep in my gut and the unstoppable force of diarrhoea.
Guest Contributor Pretam Gurung graduated from University of Strathclyde with a First Class Honors Degree in Naval Architecture with High Performance Marine Vehicles in November, 2023. He plans to continue combining his passion for kayaking with his education as a Naval Architect by pursuing a PhD in addition to future travels and expeditions. To learn more about Pretam’s expedition, watch Seribu Ram, the full film from the 2022 BUKE Expedition to Central Kaliman.
Editors note: Photos courtesy of Pretam Gurung, Aaron White, Barra Liddy, Jonah Morgan, Matt Stephenson and Piers Oliphant