Leading our first Redfern expedition across Papua, the Indonesian administered half of the island of New Guinea, was an extraordinary experience. Our
expedition took place in November of 2013, during the dry season — which isn’t
all that dry just less wet! Some of the participants were of science
backgrounds and interested in exploring the unspoiled forests and wildlife of this vast and diverse island.
Others joined simply for a voyage of self-discovery, and our travels certainly challenged our expectations. Spending weeks on the hoof with a group
of people from around the world is always a jump into the unknown, but especially so in Papua. People want to visit New Guinea because of its reputation for being wild and largely unexplored. We created an itinerary which took in various different areas with the hope of seeing some interesting
things — plants mainly — but also people and animals. The majority of people enter Papua via Jayapura,
the administrative capital, which can be reached most easily on
flights from Jakarta or Bali with or without stops in between.
Thereafter… most travel in Papua involves smaller aeroplanes
– usually turboprops – since roads are few, often localised, and usually in poor condition outside of cities.
As a result, getting around can be very expensive.
Air services between the busiest Papuan cities often involves jet planes,
but the majority of air strips are basic and untarmacked; the aeroplanes that fly these routes are small,
tough affairs generally in good condition, because the ones that aren’t tend to fall out of the sky. Smaller planes are advantageous as they
fly at relatively low altitudes, giving great, detailed views of the landscape,
still largely swathed in rainforest. In many places, aeroplanes are still rare
and infrequent enough that entire villages of locals will come running to greet you on arrival. In our experience, they were curious, cautious, but always friendly and willing to smile
if you first took the initiative to show that you weren’t a psychotic marauding pirate. Within and very close to urban areas, the roads are in pretty good condition;
they’ve been bulldozed, so they are very flat, and most city roads
are covered with tarmac or concrete. Once you venture further afield, the
roads become rutted, muddy and very slippery owing to the
frequent rains, especially in areas where deforestation has occurred. Our first destination was a
cultural visit the Baliem valley, a high tableland at 1600 metres
elevation famous for its tribes. The three largest tribes inhabiting
the Baliem Valley are the Dani, the Lani and the Yali,
each with their own distinct language and culture, though when dressed in western clothing,
as here, you can’t tell one from the other.
They are all of Melanesian origin, with curly hair and
— as the word “Melanesian” suggests — dark skin.
A highlight was our visit to a Dani village. Papuan traditional dress is rather idiosyncratic, and in the tribes of this region,
can leave little to the imagination; for example, male members sport a “holim” — also called a koteka, or penis gourd —
and little else… …whereas the women are bare breasted, but often wear simple natural fibre skirts,
called “dorongi”. In this day and age, the wearing of
traditional dress is strongly stratified across generations. Most young people wear western
t-shirts and shorts, and only the oldest continue to dress
as they have always done. Travel far enough from the cities,
and yes, traditional dress may become a little more
common, but it is certainly on the out. We took a field plane to a remote village
where westerners had only been seen twice previously in living memory, but not one person wore traditional clothing.
When I asked why, a helpful local quietly explained that Indonesia, who they regard as an illegal occupying force,
deemed such dress “uncivilised, and only fit for tourism”.
The Dani people mainly live a subsistence life, cultivating sweet potatoes and taro,
and raising pigs, which originally arrived via Southeast Asia.
Pigs are extremely important for the people and have a enormous cultural and ritual significance.
Our arrival at the village was tactically interrupted by a
troupe of male villagers, who enacted war games outside the
village compound in full battle dress, their bodies adorned with ceremonial
ornaments, including pigs’ teeth as well as feathers from birds of
paradise, cassowary and chicken, which are variously used
to indicate status, as well as to give their wearers a fearsome appearance.
We entered the village compound to find the women in procession,
readying themselves for ‘ebe akho’, the pig feast. The ceremony culminated in
the slaughter of a young pig by bloodletting – this involves firing an
arrow at close range into its heart, withdrawing it, and then simply
allowing the animal to bleed to death. A fire saw was then used to start a fire, the back and forward motion of a
rattan cord against a wooden stick generating enough heat, via friction,
to ignite some dry tinder below. The resulting fire was nurtured and fanned in a fire pit
till white hot, and then used to heat cooking stones. Once hot, these were placed, along with raw meat,
sweet potatoes and bracken leaves, into a neatly circular mound in
alternating layers surrounded by bundles of grass.
Finally, water was added to produce clouds of steam,
the mound sealed with additional grass and the whole tied with cord. The meat and vegetables were
left to cook therein over the course of approximately one hour.
Thereafter, the food was distributed to
the assembled villagers and guests. The people of the village look
like tribes out of history, but of course the majority only look
like that because they are wearing ceremonial dress as part of an event. It’s authentic in the sense that it reflects aspects of
their culture that were the norm until relatively recently, but it’s not something they do every day,
except perhaps in the most remote places. Given that these villages lie in close proximity
to a city with ample resources, observing certain customs simply isn’t
crucial to their way of life any longer. Even so, the local people have a very
strong, proud sense of identity, and continue
to celebrate their rich history through ritual and song.
On the nature side, our hikes took us into mountainous
regions seldom visited by outsiders, including one that has only been
visited by one other expedition. Ever. Among the highlights were
the Nepenthes pitcher plants, particularly Nepenthes paniculata,
which was rediscovered just a month before our visit after decades of being lost to science. Less rare, but no less remarkable
is Nepenthes ampullaria, with cute, tubby pitchers that
emerge from tall climbing vines. Orchids, too, were a spectacular
component of the local flora, and included the stunning miniature,
Dendrobium cuthbertsonii, as well as Bulbophyllum, Cryptostylis
and Mediocalcar, amongst which were even some new species. In the lowlands, an interesting place
from the botanical perspective was the coast around the endearingly named
town of Fak Fak, where limestone outcrops erupt from the sea
and are dotted with pitcher plants, orchids, and petroglyphs over a thousand years old. The rewards of visiting Papua are great
in terms of both the interesting cultures and remarkable biodiversity, but it’s also a very frustrating region
to get around in. One must be prepared to spend a lot of
money to travel short distances in reasonable time, and to wait, and wait… and wait for flights to leave. Visiting in a group
certainly makes it more accessible, affordable and ultimately memorable. “I was gonna say, did you bring enough for all of us to share,
that little drink you got there?” Looks like John the Baptist, doesn’t he? All images © Alastair Robinson 2014