Papua: Valleys and Mummies

A Dani elder in the village of Jiwika

The last week of our Journey through Papua was spent amongst the hills and valleys of the Baliem region, deep in Papua's eastern interior. From Manokwari we flew to Jayapura, the capital of Papua, but stayed instead in the airport town of Sentani. Sentani lies beautifully between the imposing Gunung Ifar and the incredibly picturesque Danau (lake) Sentani. Flying into Sentani gives you a a spectacular birds-eye view of the lake and the undulating hills that line its shores. We had little choice but to overnight in Sentani as the connecting flights into Wamena, the administrative centre of the Baliem Valley, were full for the day. We did reserve seats for the next morning with no problems though. We stayed at the Rasen (a.k.a. the Ratna Sentani) Hotel which is a mere 5-10 minute walk from the airport and a solid option for a night or two in Sentani. That night we explored the town and indulged in some Western culinary comforts.

Hiking in the Baliem Valley

The guidebooks and websites will all tell you that for any travel outside of Wamena and for most places in Papua you will have to obtain a surat jalan (travel permit) stating, in detail, all the places you wish to visit. I can tell you now with certainty that this information is untrue, or at least outdated. As of January 2014, the government decided that processing these permits wasn't worth the cost (bribe money included) and trouble so they did away with them altogether. We did however need one for the Arfak region for some reason. Anyways, that's one less thing you have to worry about when visiting the Baliem Valley. Another thing that much of the available literature will lead you to believe is that an organized trek is the best way to explore the Baliem. This may be true if you trek for one or two weeks, but for anyone who is considering a 2, 3, or 4-day trek I don't think that is the best, and definitely not the cheapest, of your options. We talked to many people about their multi-day treks and were shocked when they told us that they only hiked for around 4 hours per day on average and covered the same ground as we did on a single day of hiking. There is very little variation in these kinds of organized treks. The daily regiment of hiking is calculated to meet the needs of the majority of those who trek with their companies and is also most likely based on which villages offer comfortable accommodation to their guests. When you consider the costs associated with hiring transport, guides, porters, and cooks, you can understand why these organized treks can be so expensive. The other downfall to these treks is that once you are done your program, you have still only experienced one part of a valley that varies so greatly with every direction you branch from it.

A Dani man we came across on a walk

What we decided to do instead was to hire a guide and driver (with a 4X4) for each of the days we were there (excluding our first and last day). This strategy allowed us to see much more of the valley and its varied landscapes than on a traditional trek as well as provided us with outings tailored to our specific interests. Another benefit to this arrangement was the freedom to cancel a day's outing if weather didn't cooperate (which luckily did not happen). So when we arrived in Wamena we headed straight to (the local Internet cafe) where we met up with owner Mr. Fuji who reccommended a guide for us to call. We met with Jonas within a half hour and discussed the things we were interested in seeing and doing. He took care of the rest! For his and the driver's services we paid $100 per day, and, although we were just two, this fee could have been shared between a larger group as well.

The 300 year-old mummy in Jiwika

On our first day Jonas took us northeast of Wamena which turned out to be a great introduction to the valley and its tribal cultures. We started in Jiwika (Sumpaima) where we experienced our first interaction with the Dani people. Since Jiwika is known to be a village frequented by tourists we thought that the inhabitants were dressed in traditional garb (or lack thereof) for our benefit. But as we walked through villages in the surrounding areas we soon realized that this is very much the way it still is on a daily basis. The women wear little more than grass skirts and maybe a head dress of some kind, while the men wear virtually nothing except for a koteka (a penis sheath made from dried and hollowed-out gourds) and perhaps some type of head adornment. Both Dani men and women (and children too) are notorious smokers, so regardless of whether you smoke or not, it would be a good idea to pick up some cigarettes from town to distribute among the friendly folk of the villages you visit. One thing that you should be prepared for when visiting the Baliem Valley are the elongated greetings and a whole lot of hand-wagging. I think I shook more hands during that week in the Baliem than I did over the past 10 years of my life. When you consider the length of time each handshake lasts, you begin to realize that a good portion of each day is spent locked to another person's appendage! At other times the men will loosely wrap their arms around your waist and pat your back for a minute or two while reciting a chant-like “wa wa wa wa”. It's actually pretty endearing once you get used to it. Another thing we quickly noticed is that older Dani women are often missing one or more digits of their hands which reflects the now outdated custom of removing portions of a women's finger when a close relative dies. Yup!, there is definitely a lot to take in on a visit to one of these villages, but the people are very friendly and genuine. Jiwika is also known for its 300-year-old Wimontok Mabel mummy who was a celebrated chief of the village. The mummy is in remarkably good condition, and, if you are willing to pay a small fee for the privilege, you are more than welcome to take photos. We kept exploring that area for the rest of the day taking in many more villages and visiting the Kotilola Cave. On our way home, Jonas took us through the local market which sells everything from traditional regalia and weapons to fresh fruits and veggies.

Our second day was spent trekking a stretch of trail, southeast of Wamena, very popular with the organized trekking companies. We did a 8-9 hour hike that took in the countryside around the villages of Yetni, Kurima, Kilise, and Seima to name just a few. This is the part of the Baliem Valley that is perhaps most dramatic in terms of the depth of the valley itself and the whole day was just a really beautiful walk with some sections of more strenuous inclines.

I would say that our favourite hike in the greater Baliem Valley came on our third day. One of Jonas' passions is bird-watching and he is very knowledgable on the variety of species that live in the vicinity. We drove out towards Walaek (southwest of Wamena) early that morning and did spot a few species of birds including an Astrapia (a kind of Bird of Paradise). Once birding time was over we continued walking until we reached the village of Walesi about seven hours later. This stretch of path takes you over some impressive hills with stunning views and back down along the Sungai Owi which twists its way though beautiful forests and jungles complete with waterfalls and suspension bridges. As I said earlier, in terms of diversity and scenery, this was the part of the valley that we enjoyed most.

Just one of the friendly folk of the Baliem Valley

We were really intriqued by the mummy we saw in Jiwiki on our first day out in the valley so we asked Jonas if there were any other mummies, perhaps less visited, that we could see. He asked around and the next day he took us back up north, quite a bit further past Sumpaima, where we embarked on yet another excursion. He was bringing us to the small village of Pomo on the western banks of the Baliem- a place that he himself hadn't been to in over 10 years. The path was muddy if not waterlogged until we reached the Baliem. There we had to summon a boat driver to shuttle us across the river in just a tiny dugout canoe. Once on the other side it was just a short walk onwards to Pomo. The people of the village seemed shocked to see foreigners, but after some chat between our guide and a villager the mummy was brought out. We were told that it was one of the first mummies in the Baliem region but I can't say whether or not this is the truth. What I can say with certainty is that it was worth the hike. It may not have been in quite as good condition as the mummy in Jiwika, but considering it was 350+-years old, we were not disappointed. Later that day Jonas also took us to see the mummy in Aikima, but that one is kept behind glass and not very well preserved.

Mummies of the Baliem

Our week in the Baliem Valley was one we will never forget. We met many interesting people and saw tonnes of beautiful things. We feel very fortunate to have witnessed cultures and customs that, in the not so distant future, will be a thing of history books. We are always amazed by the diversity that we, a single species, possess and demonstrate. We truly live in an incredible world.