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 I can tell you now with certainty that this information is untrue, or at least outdated.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.


Papua: Island Paradise

With only six weeks at our disposal this travel season, we decided to visit a place new to us but in a country very familiar: Papua, New Guinea (Indonesia). A visit to Papua would allow us to see and do many of the things we love most while traveling: dive in pristine underwater environs, search for rare wildlife, and visit unique and endangered cultures. I refer to this half of the World's second largest island as Papua, New Guinea, rather than Papua, Indonesia, or the name it is referred to as locally in Indonesia, Irian Jaya. I do this for a few reasons. First, the comma distinguishes it from it's independent neighbour to the east, and second half of the island, Papua New Guinea. Next, as an Indonesian acquisition, Papua doesn't have the feel nor composition of any other province of Indonesia. Native Papuans are Melanesian and ethnically distinct from all other Indonesians. Lastly, it's the way the Papuan people would want it to be. The people of Papua have been fighting for their independence ever since the Dutch signed it over to Indonesia back in 1962 and many thousands have lost their lives in the process. I don't intend to get all political here, and Indonesia will always hold a special place in our hearts as one of our most beloved places to travel in, but I just want to show our respect to the people who made our one month journey through Papua one we will never forget. Right! Back to the blog then!

The beach and house reef at RABD

Papua has intrigued us for quite a long time. While in Sulawesi a few years back, we heard of the diving Mecca and stunning archipelago of Raja Ampat which has since remained on our travel “to do” list. The chance to see rare wildlife endemic to the island of New Guinea, such as the beautiful Birds of Paradise, was yet another great reason to want to explore Papua. But it was the opportunity to visit the endangered cultures and tribal life in Papua's remote interior and to trek though its lush Baliem Valley region that was the deciding factor in visiting this most eastern holding of Indonesia now rather than later. We broke our trip up through Papua into three stages. First we would head to Raja Ampat to enjoy some stellar diving and snorkeling and tour some of the most gorgeous islands and islets imaginable. Next we would fly to Manokwari and then venture into the jungle-clad Arfak Mountains in search of birdlife. The last portion of our Papuan experience would be the Baliem Valley where we would mingle with the Dani peoples and trek through the ever changing landscapes of this remote area. Our posts from Papua will follow these three stages in the order we travelled them.

Raja Ampat was our first stop in Papua mainly for logistical reasons as we had booked a 5N/4D dive package with Raja Ampat Biodersity (hereafter RABD) while still in Canada and we wanted to make sure that we wouldn't miss our booking (flights in Papua are notorious for delays and cancellations so by flying from Bali to Sorong in West Papua first we knew we would make our dive reservation). We stayed one night in Sorong (at the Belagri Hotel which is a very choice for a night or two in Sorong) and then took the 2 p.m. ferry to Waisai (the capital of the Raja Ampat Regency) the next day where we were met by staff from the dive resort who then shuttled us to Pulau Gam, the home of RABD. RABD is a quaint budget-oriented dive operation of an excellent standard run by a friendly Spanish, English, and Bahasa-speaking duo whom I formerly dove with in Bunaken, Sulawesi, Rey and Patricia. The “resort” itself is situated on a beautiful strip of sand in southern Gam with a gorgeous house reef and jungle walking trails to keep you occupied when not diving. You could often see dolphins right off the beach and pier and on a couple of occasions we spotted resident cuscuses in the trees around the huts.

Over the next few days we dove 8 locations, each offering something new to discover. The coral reefs in Raja Ampat are the healthiest I've ever seen (and I've seen some of the world's best) which attracts a staggering amount of marine life. One of my favorite dive sites in the region was “The Passage” which offered plenty of interesting macro life below the surface (as well as some larger creatures too) and beautiful karst scenery above the surface.

After diving we still wanted to explore more of the Raja Ampat archipelago so we decided that we would try one of the many homestays in the area set-up to accommodate tourists. This is where I have to deliver my one and only warning about travel in Papua- the Internet and telecommunications in general are horrible in RA (outside of Sorong and Waisai) and many of the people who operate these homestays either don't have Internet or phones or simple live in a place where the telcom infrastructure wouldn't support such modern amenities anyways. Even finding resources on the internet about these places or any reliable travel advice for that matter is scarce. If you are fortunate enough to make contact with a local homestay (click on this link for a complete list of homestay options in Raja Ampat complete with contact info) then communication becomes the next challenge. Try to have someone fluent in Bahasa Indonesia with you when attempting a booking. We tried to contact our homestay for many days while on Gam but to no avail. We ended up having to go back to Waisai to organize our homestay with a family member of the owner, who, through a network of other family members and friends, was able to put the word out to the owner that he was about to receive guests. So one night in Waisai organizing our next leg of our trip (paying for our homestay, buying provisions for our stay, and meeting with a member of the government tourism bureau who acted as a liaison between us and the homestay and made sure we were holding our proper Raja Ampat park tags) and we were off to our dreamy homestay in one of the most beautiful places in RA- Pulau Piaynemo, in the southwestern Fam group of islands. I guess I lied when I said I had only one warning! It would only be fair to warn others about the costs associated with a trip to Papua. Papua is not a budget destination by Indonesian or Southeast Asian standards. It is a remote place and the cost of fuel is high. When everything has to be shipped-in from larger centres and then shipped or flown to their final destination, the cost of living becomes drastically inflated. 500,000 rupiahs ($50 USD) is a realistic budget for a room per night in very basic accommodation. If you travel any substantial distance in Papua you will inevitably need to take to skies or the water and that alone can destroy a backpacker's budget. But I promise I will offer any cost saving tips I can for the most frugal friendly journey through Papua possible. We paid 500,000 rupiahs PER PERSON per night at Piaynemo Homestay which is very basic (you sleep on mats on the floor and you poop in a hole in the ground yet all meals are included and a boat is at your disposal for sightseeing and self-exploration) but to us it was absolute paradise. It is owned and operated by a very friendly Indonesian named Eli who speaks very good English.

The stunning karst landscape around Piaynemo

We only intended to spend three nights on Piaynemo, we ended up staying for five. Piaynemo is postcard material, but it is very remote (3 hours by boat from Waisai) and blissfully secluded. Some day trippers make the journey from Waisai on the weekends but other than that we had the whole bay, beach and homestay to ourselves for 95% of the time. The Homestay is situated on an island isthmus with an open view of Piaynemo bay and its karst landscapes on one side and a very nice (albeit a little dirty) beach on the other side. We spent our days lazing around the homestay reading, drinking tea, taking our tiny catamaran through the local islets, and climbing up the karsts for the most stunning panoramic views possible. We ate fresh fish (and I mean fresh) and coconut crab and shared our stilted hut only some mosquitoes and geckos, a monitor lizard, lots of fish and our resident juvenile black tip sharks that incessantly patrolled the water below us. In the bay we spotted sea turtles, monitor lizards, and lots of colourful birdlife and insects.

The back beach on Piaynemo

We could have easily stayed many more days but we had to take advantage of the window of good weather to exit the island safely. But the thing with weather is that it can change very quickly and we spent the next three hours white-knuckling the sides of our longtail boat hoping that we'd make it back to Waisai alive. This post is proof that we did! We made it back to the Waisai harbour in time to catch the 2 o'clock ferry back to Sorong where we overnighted and caught our onward flight to Manokwari the next day. The beauty of Raja Ampat can only fully be understood and appreciated in person. It is slowly becoming a more popular tourist destination mainly because it remains one of the most accessible destinations in Papua and because of its amazing diving opportunities. With every pristine place off the beaten tourist path we encounter, we can only hope that a healthy balance between tourism and the natural environment can be negotiated. It would be a great loss to us all if this, one of the World's last final frontiers, falls prey to the powers of capitalism.