In the 19th Century Borneo was still very much territory unexplored by Western travelers, whether naturalists, ethnologists, geographers or adventurers – the most common descriptions of those who tried to shed light on the dark of hitherto white spaces on maps. One of the reasons for this was that several earlier expedition leaders had died, mostly due to hostility of the Dayak tribes in the interior, and through machinations of the Sultan of Kutai, who controlled a large area along the east coast of Borneo, and its hinterland along the Mahakam River.

Carl Bock, a Norwegian explorer employed by the Dutch Indies governor-general, became the first Westerner to enter deep into the jungles of Borneo, and come out alive again, thereby traveling a good deal of the interior of the island. In 1879 he traveled from Samarinda, on the east coast, up the Mahakam River and then turned south on the Barito River to reach Banjamarsin in February the following year. An important part of his success was no doubt his ability to convince the Sultan of Kutai to accompany him, no mean diplomatic feat in those days.

Bock wrote an account of this trip, “Head-Hunters of Borneo”, which is one of those fabulous travelogues of the 19th Century, a bygone era as far as travels are concerned (I have commented before on the fact that I have been born too late…). Although severely criticized at the time, for being not scientific enough, and for an obsession with the Orang Buntut, men with tails that were supposed to roam around in the Bornean jungle and were the perceived missing link between apes and men, Bock’s book is well written and entertaining. It has been suggested that Bock was more interested in capitalizing on the adventure story then contributing to the greater understanding of the world in general, and Borneo in particular. His focus on head hunters and cannibals certainly helped selling his book and turning it into a cash success. More peculiar is that later travelers appear to have ignored his account completely: it seems to have been pretty common to claim to have been the first one to have crossed Borneo, at the time, as did the Dutch scientist A.W.Nieuwenhuis, who participated in three expeditions between 1894-1900. Another Norwegian, Carl Lumholtz, traveled Bock’s route in reverse for a period of no less than two years, in 1917-1919, and almost certainly had his maps, but fails to mention Bock in his own account of his journey.

We have rather less time, as we start with the Mahakam River, for which we have reserved about ten days – which will bring us about twice as far upriver as Bock ever got. Granted, we have access to a lot more knowledge than the early explorers had, and much less anxiety about head hunters and cannibals. As far as the Barito River is concerned, we may tackle that from Banjamarsin later – doing exactly as Bock had been advised so many times; trekking through the interior of Borneo is still quite an exercise, and not only just to organize, and after all, we have to get back to Samarinda first to pick up our suitcases!

next: the first part of our own river journey

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