The Expeditions West Papua
I have always been fascinated by the tribal cultures, especially of the indigenous peoples of Irian Jaya (today called Papua) occupying the western part of New Guinea island.
We went to Papua for the first time in 2006. Of course, we started in the Baliem Valley with the Dani tribe. Unfortunately, we only found small pieces of their culture left, but still enough to get at least some idea of how their life used to be only a short while ago.
Then we headed to the mountains to meet the Yali tribe. I had never expected this to be an easy walk, but the reality far exceeded my imagination – not only are the ridges of Jayawijaya incredibly steep, but it also rains nearly every day, so most of the time we were wading through deep mud, balancing on the wet and slippery logs or climbing the unbelievably steep rocky slopes. Probably nowhere else we have met so strong and hardy people like in the Papuan mountains.
It is necessary to carry food for the whole trek because we couldn't rely on locals to have enough sweet potatoes or vegetables for themselves and be able to sell us some. To carry our food on a month long expedition we had to hire porters, who also – most of the time - knew the way. Funny was the communication with them; their Indonesian was often equally poor as ours and when combined, it sometimes turned out in very interesting results. Not to mention that their concepts for time and distance differ vastly from ours. It took us a while before we realised that, but now we know that if a Yali tells us it takes two days to the next village and the path is easy, then we might easily need a week and would arrive completely exhausted.
Here is a bit more about how the Yali perceive distances:
If a Yali says it's near, that means you need to leave before the daybreak, walk amazingly fast without stopping over the incredibly difficult, steep mountain terrain, to arrive just after dark. And that's only if you are a barefoot Yali. If you are not a Yali - like us - you might need anything between two days and a week .....
If a Yali says it's two nights, then you are in for a week or two of hard slog through the mountains.
If it's further than that, they just say: ”It's too far”
(meaning he's never been there, and basically has no idea ...).
Hiring local porters also complicates the fact that the people from one mountain valley often cannot enter the territory of their neighbours in the next valley. In addition, the fact, that Papuans generally don't share our idea of a deal, and often what has been arranged in the evening, has changed completely by the morning .....
On the other hand, despite all the initial difficulties, once on our way, it's a another story. When there is some real problem, such as flooded river which we had to cross, our Papuan porters would risk their lives to help us, without a moment of hesitation.
But most of all, we always wanted to visit the lowland tribes, Korowai and Kombai, known as the ’tree people’ because they build their houses high in the trees.
For the very first time we flew there by a small water-landing missionary plane, after our first attempt to to walk over the mountains failed. We landed on the Dairam river, where the pilot left us with our supplies before continuing on his journey. It was a strange but euphoric feeling there on the river bank surrounded by the jungle and the Korowai people, and watching our connection with the civilization disappearing into the distance. Unfortunately, our first expedition to the ’wild’ Korowai was over a few days later, after they stole our money. Later we learned that we have entered the area visited by tourists and so the local people became very professional thieves - the way they do it is so, that a less careful tourist might not realise until he is gone or possibly not at all. Here we would not learn much about the traditional culture. We trekked back to the airstrip and we were lucky enough to get on another missionary plane a few days later. Clearly, we still had much to learn.
We returned to Papua in 2009, more experienced and better prepared (so we hoped ...). After a short trek to the Lani in western ranges of Jayawijaya, we once again headed to the Korowai and Kombai. This time we tried to walk all the way from Wamena. First we had to climb over the mountain ridges of Jayawijaya. We chose the long and very difficult way, so we could learn a bit more about the Yali and Kimyal mountain tribes along the way.
We don't have very happy memories of the Kimyal people. Most of the Kimyal we met on our way were already converted to Christianity, but their hostility and bad nature is still evident, only in different form. We had only problems with them, we couldn't get any porters, they wouldn't even point out the right direction, or give us any information ...
After nearly five weeks, we finally descended to the southern lowlands and managed to cross the rising river on the way to the Korowai territory which was now just a few days away (by Papuan standards). We spent with the Korowai and Kombai in their jungles nearly two weeks. We even got to the very edge of the area still closed to the outsiders. Locals refused to go with us any further, because the next clan had not let anyone in, yet, not even the Dutch missionary who ’works’ in the area.
We wouldn't manage the long and extremely difficult crossing from the Baliem Valley over the mountains without the great help of our friend and guide Yesaya. Without him we would have never made it. He is a man with amazing ability to deal with anything that could happen in harsh Papuan mountains. He often risked his life for us on the steep slippery rock faces and when crossing raging rivers. The same is true of his son Yelius, who not only went with us all the way to Yahukimo, but also did not hesitate to accompany us alone on what was to become his very first expedition to the Korowai and Kombai. He was absolutely great, and a friend, too. We thank them both very much and are looking forward to another expedition with them sometime.