setulung village


Join Colours on a visit to the bustling oil-rich city of Tarakan – the largest town in the new province of North Kalimantan – to discover a place with a colourful culture and vivid history that was vital to Indonesia’s independence.

Words by David Metcalf


I have visited the city of Tarakan on several occasions, never staying more than one night. For me, it’s an overnight stay as I hurry off to explore the many wondrous sights nearby, such as the pristine 150-million-year-old rainforest and the many Dayak tribes still living close to their traditional ways in remote villages, or jet off on a boat to take in some of the stunning pristine tropical islands. This is all within three hours of Tarakan; but on a recent journey, I decided to stay a bit longer and see what this city of 230,000 residents really has to offer.

One of the first things I discovered was a 21-hectare forest right in the middle of the town full of large, very active proboscis monkeys. I was told by the hotel concierge to make my way into the forest around 9am for feeding time. He said it would be a certainty that I would come in close contact with these large mammals. I obliged and found myself there at 9am – the only person in a damp, swampy forest, camera in hand and no monkeys.


By 9.30 am there were still no proboscis monkeys, and it was starting to get unbearably hot. I had thoughts of going back to the hotel and complaining to the concierge when suddenly I heard the deep, ancient sound of a wild animal quite close and a bit unnerving. Suddenly, branches started cracking, trees began to sway, and I was surrounded by ten of these large primates as they came for their morning feed. I was mesmerised watching these huge monkeys swing and dive between trees right in the middle of a city, and I am sure there is nowhere else on earth this happens. This is not a zoo, but a forest preserve that somebody many years ago had the vision to protect, and it now provides a haven for these creatures.

The reddish-brown proboscis monkeys (called ‘Bekantan’ by the locals) typically grow up to 90cm tall and weigh 15 to 20kg. They are native to the island of Borneo. Tarakan is an island situated about 100km south of the Malaysia border in eastern North Kalimantan. North Kalimantan split away from East Kalimantan and became its own province in 2012. Seventy per cent of this province contains original, pristine forest, so it has a lot of potential for eco-tourism.


The original inhabitants of Tarakan are the Tidung people, a sub-tribe of the indigenous Dayak tribe who inhabit most of Kalimantan. It is believed the Tidungs established a kingdom in the Tarakan area in 1076 and settled in the coastal area from 1571.

The Tidung, who number around 31,000 people, speak their own language and are mostly farmers, although some are fishermen. Some still follow traditional animist beliefs, but most have turned to Islam, which arrived with seafaring traders from Sulawesi; however, as is often the case in Indonesia, traditional spiritual beliefs are still very strong and customary ceremonies are regularly held to keep the balance between good and evil. These are conducted by the village shaman and are taken very seriously.


I discovered Tarakan is very multicultural and influenced by a colourful history, as Bugis, Javanese and Chinese Indonesians have all settled on this island. Tarakan in the Tidung language means a ‘meeting place for eating’. Tarak means ‘meeting place’ and ngakan means ‘to eat’. It is well named as the area is blessed with plenty of seafood from the mighty Sesayap River, which flows into and around the island bringing with it a bounty of fish and other sea-bound creatures – huge crocodiles!

Oil was discovered in Tarakan in 1905, and one year later oil production began. By the 1920s, Tarakan was producing five million barrels of high-quality paraffin-based oil a year, which represented one-third of the oil being produced in the entire empire of the Dutch East Indies.

This was to have an enormous influence on the island when battles broke out in the Second World War, and today many visitors pay their respects to the departed heroes at the Jembatan Besi War Memorial a few kilometres from downtown. Playing such a crucial role in the country’s fight for independence, every year Independence Day is celebrated in spectacular fashion with street parades in Tarakan, and many villages and towns from the area come together to play traditional games after the flag-raising ceremony.


This year, following the initial celebrations on August 17, between August 25 and 28 there will be an international sailing competition involving more than 40 yachts from various countries to celebrate independence and Tarakan’s connection with the sea. There will also be a traditional festival, the Jepen Festival, involving many Dayak tribes from the North Kalimantan area. Being surrounded by water means there are some beautiful beaches to explore, with Binalatung Beach well worth a visit, with its long sandy expanse.

Tarakan is also a jumping-off point and gateway to many beautiful places including the Sangalaki Archipelago, which attracts many domestic visitors. The main island Derawan is just three hours by boat from Tarakan and from there you can visit the famous Kakaban Lake and swim with stingless jellyfish. Another magical experience is to visit Maratua Island, with its pristine white sandy beaches, and swim with manta rays.

CB467H A brackish lake full of stingless jellyfish, Jellyfish Lake, Kakaban Island, Berau, Kalimantan, Borneo, Indonesia, Pacific Ocean

To the west, it is just a one-hour flight to Malinau to access some of the most beautiful natural forests in the world. From here you can visit the many Dayak tribes living in the area, including the Punan, Kenyah, Kayan and Lun Deyeh.

During my visit I was fortunate enough to meet with Iranto Lambrie, the governor of North Kalimantan, and he looks to the future with great optimism, proud of the people of Tarakan, who effortlessly blend with their different ethnic and religious backgrounds and live together in a spirit of tolerance and harmony – a shining example of what was won through Indonesian independence.


Balikpapan to Tarakan

Flight Time 50 minutes

Frequency 7 flights per week

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From Colours August 2016

FJFWR3 An elder man plays a traditional musical instrument called Sape during the Malaysian crafts day in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on Tuesday 6 March 2007. The sape is a traditional musical instrument of Malaysia's state of Sarawak used by the Kenyahs, Kayans and Kelabit tribes. The sape was once played solely during healing ceremonies within the rumah panjang (longhouses), but gradually became a social instrument that is used as a form of entertainment. EPA/AHMAD YUSNI

5 Senses – Sound

Plan to visit when the Jepen Festival is being held this year in August, although the dates have yet to be finalised. You will get to hear many types of music, some traditional and some more modern. You will hear the lilting sound of the sape, the traditional Dayak guitar made from trees in the Tarakan area. Experience music from the ethnic mix of Bugis and other tribal groups, which make up the population of Tarakan, for a richly textured tapestry of cultural sounds.