Papua is the western half of the world’s second largest island, New Guinea, and is the eastern-most province of Indonesia. Its inhabitants, being Melanesian, are ethnically discrete from other Indonesians with broad faces, very dark skin and they’re not very tall. Around 250 tribes live here and speak hundreds of langauges. Papua is appropriately referred to as Indonesia’s ‘final frontier’ since it’s one of the few remaining parts of the world where pockets of uncontacted indigenous people still live. Some reside deep in the jungle in tree houses soaring 20m or more in the air to prevent attacks from animals and other tribes. Some live on manmade islets in swamps, travelling around in dug-out canoes. Some still live entirely off the land and hunt with bows and arrows. Some use pigs as currency. Some wear nothing but gourds and grass skirts. Until the second half of the 20th century, some still practised ritualistic cannibalism (indeed some sources say this is still going on among tribes such as the Korowai).
Once the island of New Guinea had been ‘discovered’ in the late 19th century, it was carved up by the Dutch, the British and the Germans; missionaries brought Christianity which combined with the existing animism; and Japanese armies arrived and were subsequently forced out. Although the Dutch intended to facilitate Papua’s independence, in 1962 they ended up signing it over to the Indonesian government who had already made their intentions to occupy it clear.
Various rigged political situations robbed the Papuan people of their choice in the matter despite their desire for independence being made clear. State sponsored transmigration of Indonesians, as well as other economic migrants over the following years means that today only half of the population is Papuan and so it’s unlikely that a democratic vote would now result in independence.Interactions between the Indonesian government and the Free Papua Organisation have resulted in hopes for independence at times but violence and an influx of security forces at others.
The area we visited, the Baliem Valley, is more or less in the middle of Papua and only accessible by plane. At its centre is a town called Wamena. It’s crazy to think that less than 80 years ago, Dutch explorers arrived to find the native tribes – Yali, Dani and Lani amongst others – living in the jungle,largely unclothed and still using stone tools. I doubt those explorers would recognise the area and its inhabitants if they were to return today.
This last century’s influences have converged to form a typical developing town, not dissimilar to many others we’ve visited which have grown far more slowly and organically. Decent roads (though only a few), regular flights and public transport make travel easier but signage and road markings are lacking at times and safety standards are often not enforced or are entirely absent. ATMs are everywhere however you can’t yet use cards to pay for goods and services. Apart from in the more remote areas, everyone wears regular clothes most of the time but many opt out of shoes and I doubt many have extensive wardrobes. Recognisable cosmetics and junk food have been imported into small supermarkets although the majority of the population stick with goods bought at market: rice, sweet potatoes, vegetables, meat and fish. Churches and mosques are well attended. The internet exists but only here and there (we didn’t come across it) and although you see the od smartphone, most people have flip phones and Nokia ‘bricks’. Tourists are made to feel welcome but the lack of competition in terms of hotels and restaurants results in high prices and low standards.
We didn’t meet anyone we could communicate well enough with to ask them their opinions on this speedy modernisation or to ask them their hopes for the land’s future. However, the general sense we got was that Papuans have adjusted well, embracing the changes and making them work for them.
So, you have the context. Now to share with you what we got up to in this remarkable place. We’d decided to go it alone for the most part, instead of joining an organised tour. It was all a bit of a gamble as information was thin on the ground. There’s very little online, particularly regarding the festival which was our main reason for visiting, and our guidebook only had a few pages on the general area. Some months ago we made a shaky skype call to book a hotel battling the langague barrier and keeping our fingers crossed. We’d also made sure to book flights to Jayapura and then on to Wamena in plenty of advance due to the festival.
Day 1: a walk to Pugima
It was Sunday. Everything was closed and no transport was available so we opted for a self-guided walk to the village of Pugima. Leaving Wamena, we were approached by James, one of the many young men we met during the course of our stay who wanted to practise their English on us (one even showed me an ID badge saying ‘tourist hunting programme’!). The usual stuff: names, occupations, where we’re from, ages, where we’re going… Before parting ways, he showed us a short cut past the end of the airstrip as we headed for Wesaput village.
All day we enjoyed greeting more or less everyone who passed with the time-appropriate version of hello (pagi until 10ish, siang until about 3, sore after the heat of the sun has died away). Many people shyly sought eye-contact or straight up stared at us for a moment before we spoke so it seemed the right thing to do, and even the sullenest of faces, determined to ignore us, responded to our smiles. Everyone, without exception was friendly. How different Britain would be if we all greeted one another!
There were no signs so, when we suspected we may have missed the turning, we asked an old lady the way and she walked all the way back with us! Here are a few snaps from Wesaput village:
We reached the remains of an old bridge, photographed it and crossed the new concrete replacement monstrosity.
The rest of the way was 2km of unpaved road. It was scorching hot with no trees for shade. Every now and again we passed some housing, either brick structures with tin roofs or compounds containing circular thatched huts (honai) and gardens.
After a while a man caught up with us, shaping something out of a dismantled Sprite can with his hands as he walked. He spoke no English so we tried out our basic Bahasa Indonesian phrases on him, establishing he was heading to his home in the hills, and then he literally stuck with us all the way to Pugima. He seemed quite bemused when we stopped to take photographs of what he must have thought were very mundane sights!
When we reached our destination, we glimpsed lots of people over by the church and the rest seemed to be gathered in and around a stretch of river. Some were washing, some were chatting on a bridge and some were dragging nets across the muddied water in attempts to catch some fish.
In need of somewhere quiet to rest and eat our picnic, we turned round and headed back. It wasn’t to be though. Another 20-something man approached us on his ancient, broken bike – with a shoe sole attached as a manual brake -asking where we were going. The usual conversation ensued and, in no time at all, two more friends on bikes and two on foot had joined us! They walked the entire way back to Wesaput with us, mainly in silence! It was bizarre! People just seem to want to hang out! For a while we were also joined by three women carrying a huge amount of firewood on their head and in string bags called noken which hang from their heads down their backs. We even stopped at the concrete bridge, thinking the lads might carry on, but they stayed with us, ate our Starbursts and posed willingly for some photos! I should point out that, as is normal in Papua, I (at 5’4″) was taller than them all!
On the way back, we lingered around the end of the runway watching some little boys cartwheel, handstand and breakdance on it.
A plane taxied down to us, ready to take off, and the boys waved excitedly to the pilot (who waved back), then emulated the plane with their arms out, their hair and the grass blowing in its exhaust.
Day 2: the Baliem Valley Festival
We couldn’t sleep, we were that excited! I warn you now: there are a lot of photos!
Trucks full of men and women in their tribe’s distinct costumes were delivered to the arena. Feathered headwear, natural black, orange, white and yellow body paint, bones through noses, long wooden spears, bows and arrows, grass skirts and noken string bags for women (one even contained a pig!), shell and seed necklaces, colourful beads and a whole array of different shapes and sizes of penis gourds!
As each Dani village tribe from around the valley arrived, they gathered high up above the arena, chanting calls and responses, dominating, intimidating, before charging down to the arena.
Of course, it’s all for fun at the festival but if you get in their way, which I did, your heart doesn’t half pound in your chest as they swarm around you. The deafening shouts. The smell of the unwashed bodies. The spears and bows raised aloft.
One by one, the tribes stampeded across the arena to take their places. A huge group of, we think, Indonesian army cadets, formed comparatively subdued, sheepish, uniform diagonal lines from each corner.
Extensive speeches welcoming dignitaries, a dance performed by the army, a ceremonial pig slaughter and prayers forced all the tribes to line up near us, surprisingly sedately, but did give me chance to snap a few more photos.
The two hundred or so foreigners were initially directed to a concrete seating area whilst the thousands of Papuan visitors crowded round the other three sides of the arena. Fortunately the segregation was not enforced so we got to mingle properly a little later.
Then the events began. Each village entered the arena and enacted what was termed a ‘war dance’ but was really more like a role play about wife stealing, land disputes, pig stealing, village disagreements and so on, all of which resulted in a mock battle. With the crowds, we laughed. We cheered. We were shunted back by officials as arrows flew towards us. The traditional music played a note at a time by one musician on a pikon was a bit wasted on us! Never far from our minds was just how recently all this actually happened, especially when a pig was brutally beaten to death as part of the Wesaput village’s (where we’d visited the day before) dance.
We saw the earlier ceremonial pig being cooked using the traditional method of burying it (above ground) with vegetables and sweet potatoes under several layers of leaves and stones that had been heated on a fire. It was uncovered towards the end of the day. I’m not sure who ate it!
The highlight was our time spent roaming around the surrounding grassland where the tribes were hanging out, eating lunch or gearing themselves up for their moment in the arena by chanting, jumping, clapping and dancing. They even did mock charges at one another!
Bizarrely, we were stopped loads of times to have our photos taken with other visitors! Curiosity goes both ways!
It really was an amazing day!
Day 3: a walk south of Wamena
We’d planned to do this walk unguided but, arriving at Wamena airport, we heard there’d just been two murders in a dispute between two villages in the area we’d planned to walk in. So we found a lovely guide named Kanak to take us in case of any problems. It turned out to be a very good decision as we would otherwise have got completely lost too! He had a gap-filled grin, swaggered in his wellies, traded the biscuits we bought him for boiled sweet potatoes, chain-smoked throughout the walk and spoke five languages to some degree – Dani plus Lani, Yali, Bahasa Indonesian and English!
The area was even more rural than our previous walk. Here, Kanak told us to greet local people with wa wa wa and almost everyone we passed proffered their hand to shake. Quite time consuming when we passed a group of tourists off on a multi-day trek with their 30 porters!
Our hot, drizzly, muddy route took us over some very dubious bridges, through farms of sweet potatoes, onions and maize, past honai huts and an enormous orange church and through tiny villages.
The views were amazing.
At the end, we had to wade through a fast-flowing river! Kanak nearly lost a welly but it was so refreshing after a long walk! Whilst drying our feet, we watched some locals crossing, including a man with his pig over his shoulder!
Then we took two bemos (public taxis) back to Wamena. The first one contained 13 adults, three kids and a pig! That was a first for us!
Well, there ends our Papuan adventure. We loved the people and the land and we’re really glad we got to see it before the 21st century turns it into every other tourist destination!
Notes for anyone who stumbles across this post whilst scouring the web (as we did) trying to plan their trip:
☆Garuda is definitely the best quality airline to use to get to Jayapura. You can book through their website.
☆Flights from Jayapura to Wamena with Wings Air were booked through Nusatrip which (along with tiket.com) accepts foreign card payments. Flights with Trigana might be a bit pricier but might also be more reliable.
☆We got our surat jalan from the Polres station in Jayapura. About an hour by taxi (250,000 Rp is the standard price in an airport taxi). A tour guide told us that the Lonely Planet’s assertion you can get one near the airport is wrong. It felt quite dodgy – several chain-smoking men in a darkened office in front of an ancient desktop PC – but it was all OK in the end. Free of charge and took about 20 minutes.There’s a kiosk to photocopy it at if you turn left out of the station, after an ATM. We weren’t asked for it at any point in Wamena or on our walks, though perhaps you’d be more likely to need it on multi-day treks.
☆Wamena’s airport terminal seems to be incorrectly marked, even on the new Lonely Planet (2016). It is more like C5 on the map. Many hotels are still walkable from there in about 20 minutes. Otherwise you are likely to be charged 100,000 Rp for the 5 minute journey which is a ridiculous amount!
☆During festival time, most hotels are full.
☆Everything is closed on Sunday until about 5pm and there’s no public transport. I think no one is supposed to work.
☆Rooms at the front of Pilamo Hotel were awful. Rooms at the back are another world! Cheapest was 550,000 Rp: do not expect good value for money! If you stay as an independent traveller during the festival, be prepared to be completely sidelined in favour of dignitaries and tour groups even if you’ve booked in advance. Don’t bother trying to eat at the restaurant when the hotel is booked up. It’s not worth it.
☆In 2016, the festival was in a new ‘stadium’ in Walesi not in Wosilimo. This is closer to Wamena and takes 20 minutes or so in a taxi. We paid 500,000 Rp for 5 people to go (9am) and be collected (4pm). You can also get a motorbike taxi (ojek) there for a bit cheaper but I’m not sure how easy it is to get one back. It’s also possible to hire your own motorbike. It may move again next year.
☆In 2016, entry to the festival was free!
☆Arriving at 9am was ideal as we saw the tribes arrive and photographic roaming was allowed. There was a long period of slightly boring speeches and official stuff where everyone had to be still and then the war dances etc started about 11am.
☆Tourists are hearded onto a roofed, concrete seating area (you can come and go as you please though) whilst local guests arrived a bit later and spread around the main arena. There’s no other shade. Drinks and snacks can be purchased but only from one small area. We’d recommend buying a picnic from Pilamo Bakery in Wamena!
☆We felt one day was enough. We met someone who went again the second day and said it was more of the same just with different villages.
☆For walks south of Wamena from Sugokmo, you really need a guide on the east bank of the river to Seima as paths are winding and it’d be easy to get lost. I think it’s probably that little bit safer entering villages with a local too. Getting bemos (public taxis) to and from the start and end of the walk is easier with a guide too. Kanak Pahaboi’s number is 081247020368. He was friendly, genuine, his English was comparatively pretty good and he cost 500,000 Rp plus lunch plus cigarettes plus ojeks and bemos for all three of us.