1995 Indonesia – Irian Jaya

Needless to say I was exhausted when I finally arrived but there was no time to recover because as soon as I left the plane in Wamena, the main town in the Baliem valley, my mind was immediately overwhelmed with impressions. Images that I had only seen in a book so far appeared in front of my eyes. It was the beginning of a fantastic journey through time…

In Jayapura I had to arrange a “surat jalan”, a special travelpermit, before I could book the final flight to Wamena in the Baliem valley… During the long waiting period I met Ronald and Eus, 2 Dutch guys, we got along very well so after we finally arrived in Wamena we decided to do a trek together. On the airport we were contacted by a guide who offered his services. He seemed to be reliable and competent so we agreed to do a 6 day trek through the northern part of the valley with him and his helpers. After everything was arranged Ebanus went out doing some shopping while we went to the market sightseeing. Over there all my senses went nuts… 

Beautiful traditional and more modern dressed Papua’s overcrowded the marketplace busy buying and selling an amazing variety of fruits and vegetables. The whole scenery was absolutely overwhelming. This was unlike all the traveling I’d done before. What a place! Outside the market pigs were being sold and the latest gossips exchanged by the locals who came from the surrounding villages to Wamena in order to sell their goods. 

Further on loud music sounded through the streets so we decided to check it out.  A procession to celebrate the 50th Indonesian Independence anniversary took place. A strange mixture from all Indonesian ethnic groups formed an impressive parade. 

After this we had to go back to our guesthouse as we couldn’t cope with more impressions. In the evening Ebanus showed up with an amazing amount of food for the coming up trek. Fresh vegetables, fruits, eggs, rice, water. It seemed we we’re going on a trip for a month. Tired from all intensive impressions from that day I fell in a deep and satisfying sleep, dreaming of things to come.

The next morning a minibus brought us to the starting point of our adventure. It turned out to be a local market place which even had a more intimate atmosphere then in Wamena. Here we bought some extra supplies after which we started walking through a landscape which was of extreme beauty. 

Steep rocks, small rivers and stunning panorama’s covered with thousands of shades of green. Ebanus had arranged 3 porters for the trip, but we were accompanied by a large group of villages who clearly seemed to enjoy our presence. The farming grounds of the Dani’s were all over and well taken care off.

Every now and then people crossed our way who shook our hands as a way of friendly greeting.  We saw several traditional villages which perfectly fitted it it’s surroundings. It was awesome. After a couple of hours we arrived in Tagineri where we stayed over the night. Our carriers prepared a fantastic meal while it was getting dark quickly. It had been a fantastic day to start our trek with.

It was still very early when I woke up the next day. The valley was covered with white dots of clouds which slowly disappeared when the sun came up. The atmosphere was fantastic. After breakfast we left for our next destination. We had to climb a lot and all the time we had a spectacular view of the villages in the area and the overwhelming landscape. 

One thing which really caught my eye was how clean and well taken care off the villages were. Sometimes it even was surrealistic, walking around in what could have been a beautiful dream. It just was to good to be true and yet I wasn’t dreaming. Another eye catcher were the fragile looking wooden bridges hanging over rivers with fast streaming white water. On some of them only one person was allowed at a time and our porters went first to check to stability of the bridge. Needless to say that every crossing was a small adventure in itself but we managed to stay dry every time. 

During our walks Ebanus explained the use of several plants and flowers growing everywhere. Flowers were used to paint objects and clothes, several plants were suitable for medical use and tree roots were used to weave bracelets. Everything had a purpose and was used in an environmental friendly way.

Also the next couple of days were a collection of wonderful impressions following up in a high pace. In every village we entered people came out of their houses to welcome us. It was unsure who amused themselves more, the villagers looking at us or we looking at them. It was awesome. In most cases the head of the village followed us to the border of his area in order to wish us a good trip. It was unbelievable how friendly this people were. One of the nights we stayed in a little village called Luarto. Looking at the guestbook we found out we were the first guests in three months time! We arrived pretty early in the afternoon so there was time enough to hang around end get to know the people a little bit. 

On the riverbank we witnessed the preparation of a traditional meal. A large whole was digged in the ground and partially filled up with hot stones which were heated on top of a large fire. On top of the stones grass was put before vegetables and sweet potatoes were added. Finally grass and more hot stones were added and this stone oven was left alone for some hours. In the mean time a large social event took place and everybody appeared to have a good time. In the evening half of the village gathered in our house and started singing and dancing. It was magic. The singing was very monotone and had a hypnotic affect on me. I fell in a deep sleep while I was still conscious about my surroundings and what was going on. When I woke up a bit later I found out that the singing and dancing hadn’t stopped yet. The head of the village was staring at me and we started to talk. I was happy I still was able to do a simple conversation in Indonesian, I hadn’t forgotten it all.

It was hard to believe that 6 days passed by so fast. On the last day we walked to Jawiki, a little village where we were able to see a 360 year old mummy. In former times it was the habit to mummify village chiefs and other important men. Many of these mummies have been destroyed by the Indonesians during the “civilization process” of the Dani’s. This was one of the few left so it was a very special thing to see.

After we left the village Ebanus had something very special for us in mind as a grand finale of the trekking. We did a short hike to a neighboring village and as soon as we came close we spotted a warrior standing in one of the lookout towers. He was “guarding” the area and warned his fellow warriors as soon as he saw us. A whole group came and faked to attack us with arrow and bows, sticks and knifes. After this they performed a ritual war dance between two groups. It was a thrilling and wonderful event to watch. 

When this part was over we were invited to their village. A welcome dance was performed for the three of us after which a young pig was slaughtered and prepared in the traditional way. In the mean time we had the possibility to watch it and have a chat with the locals. Needles to say this event was the absolute highlight of our short trek.

After our return to Wamena it was time to relax and order all impressions of the last days. As a way of saying thank you we invited Ebanus and the 3 porters for dinner in a local restaurant. It was a very nice evening. Eus and Ronald left the next day while I had another week in the Baliem valley. As it was impossible to travel to the Asmat region I decided to spend another week in the valley. I had agreed on another 7 day trek with Ebanus and 3 porters, Elly, Lemoera and Wasman. I knew Elly from the 1st trip and asked him to take him along on the 2nd as well. I didn’t know Lemoera and Wasman, they were the replacement of 2 older porters from the 1st trip.  This time the destination was the south part of the valley, an area which turned out to be much rougher than the north. It was good I had a day of rest in between the 2 treks.

The second trek started in Kurma. It didn’t take me long to realize that this trek would be much more difficult than the first one. We started with a steep climb. I still remember being exhausted when I reached the top of the hill but I forgot about that immediately when I saw the unfolding panorama deep below me. In front of me I saw the Baliem valley with Wamena in the centre and behind me a narrowing gorge through which the Baliem river fought it’s way. From here it was a 12 day walk to the Asmat region, unfortunately a trip beyond reach… We walked for another hour until we reached a beautiful village where we stayed over the night. I noticed the different building style of the houses compared to the north of the valley. Also the gardens were divided by huge large stone walls instead of the wooden fences I had seen in the north. Ebanus explained me that over here it was much easier to find rocks to make the walls with which explained the difference.

The next morning the departure was delayed as it had rained all night and the whole valley was covered in thick clouds.  The first part of the walk was a steep climb again and as the path was slippery of the rain it was difficult not to fall. I was concentrated a lot so I missed most of the stunning landscape around me. Fortunately we had enough breaks so I could have a good look of where I was going. 

We arrived early in the afternoon in Tangma where we stayed for the rest of the day. After lunch Elly took me to a holy rock called Wolom which happened to be at a viewpoint from where I had a fantastic view of the Baliem river which meandered it’s way deep below me. The gorge now narrowed extremely and Elly told me that that was the way we were going tomorrow. It looked very promising!

As it would be a long day an early rise was part of the program. We left the village and walked through the gardens. I spotted several pigs walking around and villagers waved us goodbye. I noticed they were still very friendly but kept more distance then the people in the north. After an hours walk we arrived at the narrow gorge. The path was extremely slippery now so I had to be extra careful. Once through the narrow gorge I saw a long hanging bridge which we had to cross. The first half looked pretty ok but then parts were missing so big steps had to be made. The bridge rocked from side to side while I walked over it so it was pretty sensational. The river below me was really wild with big waves which encouraged me to watch my steps extra careful! 

The next hurdle was a landslide we had to pass. A hole side of a hill was washed away with previous rains and the crossing was pretty tricky. I survived that one as well so now it was time for another steep climb. We were surrounded now by thick forest so I could not see how much we actually climbed. Every time I thought we reached the top there was another stretch to go. This was sometimes pretty frustrating but after 2 hours of sweating we finally reached our destination, Wesagalep. The village was built on a little plateau and overlooked the valley deep below us. The Baliem river now was nothing more than a thin white line. It was a beautiful sight especially as little clouds could be seen hanging below us. The whole effort was forgotten by seeing this magnificent panorama.

The next days turned out to be tiring but fantastic walks. Day after day I was amazed by the purity and beauty of everything around me but exhaustion asked it’s toll… One of the days we had to climb a hill which was covered with thick forest and plants. The only way up was to follow a stream of water which came down from the top. Climbing over rocks and boulders was absolutely great but I must admit I did not reach the top with dry feet… 

As clouds were climbing up as well we couldn’t slow down as Ebanus expected the weather to detoriate. And right he was, we arrived at our camp for the night soaking wet. By now I was in a state I wouldn’t mind to return back to Wamena. Exhausted, wet, dirty, smelling and overfed with impressions. Returning however made no sense as we already covered more then half of our journey. The only way to go was forward. The good mood and jokes of Elly, Wasman and Lemoera together with the breathtaking scenery kept me going.

On the 5th day we visited the brother of Ebanus. He was working as a teacher in a little village called Wusaren. The two hadn’t seen each other apparently for a long time and in order to celebrate the reunion a pig was slaughtered. As a special guest I was offered the best part of the pig.. part of the roasted liver. If there is one thing I can’t stand it’s liver! For me it was a painful situation as I had to explain the food was perfectly ok but I couldn’t eat liver. Luckily it worked out and didn’t spoil the absolute wonderful evening. 

From Wusaren it was only a day and  half walk back to Wamena. The scenery was changing again, the gorges became wider and more agriculture was to be seen. The typical Dani gardens covered the slopes. I noticed for the first time that coffee was being grown over here. Maybe the terrain was easier going or was it that I gained new energy by the knowledge that I had almost accomplished the trek. I don’t know. Fact was that I felt much better then the previous days and the number of breaks became also less. We crossed the Baliem valley several times over fragile bridges. The wild water under me made me dizzy sometimes and it was only after I managed it safely to the other side Elly told me that a couple of months ago two tourists drowned when they fell of the bridge. I was happy I didn’t undergo the same thing. One final hill to climb and we returned at the road where the trek had started a week ago.

A minibus brought us back to Wamena. Exhausted but with a totally happy and satisfied feeling about all sights, sounds and smells of the last week. It had been absolutely fantastic. I had travelled extensively through a valley which had only been discovered 60 years ago. Mind teasing images I had only seen in a book so far now were part of my memory. Memories which still bring a smile on my face when I think of them. Also this time I invited Ebanus, Elly, Lemoera and Wasman for dinner. It became a wonderful evening. 

The next morning on the airport the full crew was available again to say goodbye. Each of them had bought little presents for me. It was a heart-warming event and I felt sad leaving my new friends behind. While the plane took off I could still see them waving besides the runway. Tidak Lupa! No, I will never forget you!

Continue the journey in Sulawesi & Bali