Merabu: Go to The Forest

Deep in the forests of Borneo, Merabu village is an adventurer’s wonderland that is leading the way in Indonesia for responsible environmental management and ecotourism.

Words and photography by David Burden


Lining the southern banks of the Lesan River in the Berau region of East Kalimantan, Desa Merabu is not the easiest place to get to – it’s taken me four hours of off-road driving and two river crossings to get here from the city of Tanjung Redeb (serviced by Garuda Indonesia Explore).

With the village in sight on the opposite bank, my driver plunges us into the river and drives straight through it to the other side, where I’m greeted like a long–lost son by my homestay host, Mama Bunga. There are no hotels or even guesthouses here, but lodging with a local family is far more enjoyable anyway, and definitely the way to go. After dropping off my gear, and a refreshing hot tea, I go in search of Pak Franly Oley, the village chief, and the man I’ve come here especially to meet.


In 2014, the 22,000 hectares of Merabu were awarded special hutan desa (forest village) status by the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry, meaning that it is firmly protected from any mass development. The plan was drawn up and signed by Franly, along with the Berau district government and the helpful input of US-based NGO The Nature Conservancy, to safeguard the future of this fragile part of the world and the animals that live in it. Some of the largest – orangutans, black and red gibbons, wild boars, cloudy leopards and sun bears – call Merabu home, although spotting them can be quite a challenge as they are truly wild and tend to steer clear of humans.


I find Franly at his house, dusting himself off having been blazing the local trails on his scrambler bike. As we wander around the village, he tells me there are around 200 people living in Merabu – most of whom are descended from the indigenous Lebo Dayak tribe. Franly is originally from Manado in Sulawesi, but has been living here for over five years, and evidently cares very deeply for the area. He was instrumental in kicking off the pilot programme back in 2011 along with The Nature Conservancy, and since then has been working tirelessly to keep pushing things forward. His efforts have clearly paid off, as he’s leaving for Marrakesh to speak at a United Nations conference on climate change.

We continue to amble around, taking in the vegetable gardens, rubber tree plantations and brand-new livestock paddock – our steps punctuated by the persistent cries of “helllooooooo misteeerrrrr” from the adorable village kids. “Our mission is to be well governed, well protected and well managed, whilst keeping our identity and culture of Dayak customs and beliefs,” explains Franly. “We are aiming to be a kampung asik,” he adds – an acronym that stands for aman (safe), sehat (healthy), indah (beautiful) and kreatif (creative). It’s a noble concept and has already started to attract visitors to the area, sold on the ecotourism angle and extraordinary local sights.


One of those sights is the mysterious Beloyot cave system, which riddles the limestone cliffs away to the south. Discovered as recently as 2006, the vast cavern walls bear the paintings and handprints of a prehistoric people – thought to be over 4,000 years old. The following day I go for a hike with guide Pak Parhan to have a look for myself. The five-kilometre trail through
the lush jungle is pretty waterlogged but is relatively easy; however, the caves themselves are quite tough going. Like Indiana Jones escaping an ancient temple, we scrabble on our hands and knees up through cramped tunnels that open out into vast caverns, occasionally finding ourselves on precarious cliff ledges high above the tree line before ducking back into the next subterranean passageway. We finally emerge into a huge chamber with views over the forest that contains countless paintings all over the walls. It really is impressive (I’m told Beloyot
is on the UNESCO World Heritage waiting list) and I feel incredibly fortunate to have witnessed such ancient paintings with my own eyes. The next morning I bid farewell to Franly and wish him good luck as he heads off to Morocco. I’m heading deeper into the forest to visit some more of Merabu’s remarkable sights and spend a night camping in the forest at Nyadeng Lake in the Karst Mountains. This time we’re not hiking though; instead, my guides Yusup and Hendri have something much more hair-raising in store…


I look on helplessly as the skinny wooden boat hits a submerged rock and lurches abruptly forward for the third time in as many minutes. I grab an oar and start shoving sideways like I’ve been told, all the while with an anxious eye on my bag full of camera gear, which is one good roll away from being upended into the burbling shallow rapids. The nonplussed looks on the faces of my guides provide some comfort as they’re evidently used to this, but, still, my heart is racing. With a final heave we’re deposited back into deeper water and off again, rattling along at breakneck speed upriver as startled birds take to the skies and overhanging branches whistle past our heads. If you’ve never been on a Dayak longboat before, it is absolutely one to add to your bucket list – the exhilarating experience best described as like being on a rollercoaster in a storm drain.

We pull up at the mooring for Nyadeng and cart our gear the final few hundred metres to our digs for the night, which turn out to be a very basic but beautifully constructed treehouse overlooking the idyllic lake. The place is deserted, and we spend a relaxing afternoon fishing and swimming in the clear turquoiseblue waters, which are so deep they have yet to be properly measured. Later, as dusk descends and the trees come alive with flashing fireflies, we tuck into our simple dinner of barbecued fish and rice before turning in for an early night. Granted, the treehouse isn’t exactly five-star, but the experience most definitely is. For the last day of my trip, we rise at dawn to take in the sunrise from above the clouds atop nearby Ketepu Peak, woken by the calls of black gibbons chasing each other across the high cliffs. It’s an exhausting hour trek up steep and slippery trails to reach the rocky summit, but watching the mists roll
across the forest canopy as eagles and hornbills circle far below is nothing short of spectacular and a fitting end to my adventure.

With thanks to The Nature Conservancy ( and the people of Desa Merabu for making this trip possible.

Jakarta to Balikpapan

Flight Time 1 hour 50 minutes

Frequency 56 flights per week

Balikpapan to Berau

Flight Time 40 minutes

Frequency 14 flights per week

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From Colours December 2016


5 Senses – Taste

The honey season in Merabu rolls round every couple of years when the kumbang flowers are in bloom and huge wild beehives appear way up on the boughs of the tallest trees. Local harvesters collect up to 2,000l of the stuff during this time, which is bottled and sold as part of the village’s scheme to generate income. The taste is magnificent and has a multitude of health benefits.