Journey into the past, or the last place on Earth

Wamena Travel Blog

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Maybe I was tired of the waiting for the commandant’s approval and all the bargaining, because on boarding the plane it didn’t occur to me that in order to get to Wamena I’d still need the damn surat jalan [1]. On the one hand I somewhat forgot that there might be some sort of consequences from this, but on the other, after the experience at Timika, I felt a bit bolder and more convinced that all the checks could be contested - with the exception, of course, of the actual permission to climb Carstensz. And yet again it turned out that in my various journeys I get the luck that always deserts me when in Poznan.

I flew to Wamena on a plane belonging to the Merpati Flying Club. The small turbo-prop carried no more than fifteen people. The weather that day, as usual in this region, was far from perfect, clouds covered the sky and it felt like rain. The plane flew low, over the dense forests occasionally sliced through by a ribbon of river. Suddenly we flew into a milky-white fog. The cabin began literally to dance, by turns violently dropping then rising again. I was sitting at the front, just behind the two pilot’s seats. Imagine my terror when, through the window on the port side, I saw a dark, foreboding, mountainous rock face rising out of the mists. We were flying well below the peaks. One of the pilots immediately grabbed the joystick and took the machine up, while the other nervously opened a thick navigating manual and most likely attempted to find the safest place to fly over the mountains. For twenty minutes or so the pilots weaved the machine between the foggy, rocky slopes. I could clearly see on the faces of some of the passengers that they feared the worst. Finally we managed to fly out of the basin and the plane soared over a wide, green valley. One of the pilots wiped the sweat from his face and formally announced:

- Baliem Valley!

A moment later the plane dropped down low and landed at Wamena Airfield. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief. The man sitting next to me simply commented:

- Thank God! We survived.

I’d already heard that flying among the misty mountains of Irian Jaya was a dangerous adventure. But only now, after landing in Wamena was I inclined to believe the local statistics, which warned that more than one plane a month crashed here.

Once I’d already stepped out onto the tarmac of the small airport a man with the features of a Papuas called me from a distance and I, instead of following the other passengers to the normal exit, went the opposite way, straight towards him. I was certainly taking a big gamble, but I intuitively gave in to this course of action. After all I had nothing to lose. At any moment, at the first checkpoint, I could be stopped. We went through the fence surrounding the airfield. Amazingly, nobody stopped us. The man behaved like a typical client hunter.

- I’m Moses - he introduced himself in English - This your first time in Wamena?

- Yes - I replied.

- I know a great hotel for you, clean and cheap. Get in the rickshaw.


Travelling around Asia, I most often avoid the services of station hustlers. I find the hotel accommodation that suits me on my own. This time I gave in entirely to the situation and jumped into the bicycle rickshaw. The trip didn’t last long. After a few minutes we found ourselves on the outskirts of Wamena. The distance could easily have been covered on foot. During the journey Moses only managed to tell me that he came from here, had been brought up in the mission and now worked as a guide. The hotel he took me to actually turned out to be modest, cheap and had something of the atmosphere of a mountain shelter. It was run by a married couple from Sulawesi. To my surprise a number of Europeans were living there. Moses proposed to take me the next day on a trek round the neighbouring villages in the Baliem Valley. I agreed immediately, after all, this was what I’d come here for.

The valley, 60km long and 15km wide, set in the mountains at an altitude of 2000m above sea level, is still to all intents and purposes inaccessible by land. You can only get there by plane. The Baliem Valley is one of the places on Irian Jaya which the ‘white man’ only reached very recently. It was first spotted by the American traveller Richard Arnchold from on board his amphibious plane as late as 1938! What he saw was an enormous surprise to his expedition. Suddenly, in the inaccessible, green sea of the jungle, there appeared a beautiful valley, shut off by the high mountains, with farmed areas. Shortly after, Arnchold organised a special expedition there. He landed on the nearby Habbem Lake, from whence he made for the valley. The Dani tribe, that inhabited the area, had had no contact with the outside world before then. Thus Arnchold’s expedition met with people living in such a way, as if they were still deep in the stone age. The Dani in turn for the first time came into contact with whites, who at first they took for the spirits of their ancestors. Only later did they become convinced that they were also people, only that they had come from a very long way away. They were very surprised that these white people had on them many other skins - clothing, taken off and put on at any time. The whites also brought the Dani presents which amazed them.

These were metal knives and axes, unimaginably sharp and able to cut everything significantly better than their stones. Apparently Arnchold asked the naked Papuas what the place was called. Not understanding the question, they thought he was pointing at their most valued creature and answered ‘wamena’, which in the Dani’s language means ‘pig’. Shortly afterwards the hosts slaughtered the beast and arranged a grand feast in honour of the white visitors. Since then, the place has been called Wamena. After this event the existence of this green and peaceful valley was basically forgotten. It was rediscovered in 1945, completely by accident, when an American military plane was forced to land there. Nevertheless, permanent contact with the local peoples was established only in 1954 by the first white settlers, who were missionaries. They then began their arduous task in a world very distant and very different from our own.

To be sure, Wamena today must bear little resemblance to the place at the time of the construction of the first missionary buildings. Now almost 10 000 people live here, mainly settlers from all over Indonesia. The Protestant churches are very active here, for example the Baptists; and apparently there’s also a Muslim post. I didn’t hear of a Catholic mission though. Wamena is only a few interconnected streets lying parallel to the runway and along its entire length. That’s the whole town. At the centre, from among the surrounding single-storey buildings rose - to my surprise - not a church, but the multi-storey building of the Rakyat Indonesia Bank, symbol of the ongoing changes and ‘modern times’.

Still that very evening, at the hotel, I got to know a German by the name of Hans. He’d been in Indonesia for six months. He was a computer programmer, he worked half the year and the other half reserved for travelling. He shook his head in disbelief when I told him how, avoiding the checkpoints at the airport, I’d left through the fence at the side. His passport and surat jalan had been checked there twice.

The next morning Moses sorted out a Jeep. Hans also decided to come with us. We came across a checkpoint immediately on leaving Wamena. Hans immediately got out his papers and I said to Moses:

- Listen, I don’t have a surat jalan.

The guide just waved his hand and shouted something out loud to the guys standing at the post. They, in turn, waved us through. We all laughed out loud, and the soldiers nodded farewell to us. Made it, we’re going on. After a few kilometres Moses calmly announced:

- In a moment we’re going to enter another world.


His words sounded like the harbinger of a surreal adventure. Meanwhile the gravel track continued to carry us further in a direction north of Wamena. All around, small farmed fields could be seen, mainly potatoes, here and there colourful copses grew like islands. The horizon encircled the surrounding jungle with mountains. At a certain point I noticed that along the road was walking a group of completely naked Papuas with the characteristic tubes on their penises. They were walking in silence and paid no attention to our car.

- Look, it’s the Dani - said Moses.

It was only at that moment that I sensed that I was crossing a border of time. A moment later our vehicle left the main road and stopped on the edge of a village.The village with the nice sounding name of Kurulu was fenced off from the outside world by the houses, and at the front stood a wooden fence with a double gate in it. The smaller part was a kind of window, through which you could enter the enclosure. In case of larger parties presumably the entire gate was opened. It was made of wood and reeds, with dried leaves stuffed everywhere. To start with I couldn’t make sense of why, instead of an ordinary door, it was necessary to enter via such a window. But Moses at once explained that, thanks to this, the animals kept in the enclosure couldn’t escape. It was true, pigs and dogs were running free all over the place. I didn’t see any poultry though. The courtyard was closed off by huts placed in the shape of a horseshoe. In fact there were three huts linked to one another; all covered with a thick roof of reeds. The rounded hut at the end was, as Moses explained, the most important place in the settlement, because it was where the men met. The huts on the other side of the yard belonged to the women. It turned out that the men and women slept separately. I even heard that in many of the Baliem Valley villages the women shared the huts with the pigs. Maybe, seeing how they weren’t sleeping with the men, they found it warmer during the chilly mountain nights. It’s not uncommon to find a young woman breast feeding a pig, too. Hardly surprising, since for these people the animal is their most treasured possession. The number of pigs owned testifies to the wealth and status of a family in the tribal society. A man wanting to have an attractive young girl for a wife must pay four or five pigs for her. Moses explained to me that the Dani, despite opposition from the christian missionaries, to the present day they live in polygamous relationships. Many more women are born here than men and perhaps thanks to polygamy they have a greater chance of living in a family and not alone. Apparently the Dani treat sexual matters with a great deal of distance. Many even consider that intercourse weakens the body and can be dangerous. There is also a taboo regarding sexual relations following pregnancy. This ban can last even as long as four years. Only when the young child is able to walk and can look after itself can the women have sex again. Perhaps thanks to this a mother is not weighed down with raising several small children at once? And at the same time in a polygamous family such a taboo doesn’t lead to the break up of the relationship, because the man has other women to turn to.

When I saw the Dani I noticed that they were very short. In the village I felt like a giant. As soon as they saw us they all came out of their huts, but they somewhat kept their distance. Moses, who spoke one of the Dani dialects, began to speak with them. He even presented each of the men with a few cigarettes. It was a kind of ‘present’ from our civilization. It is said that the societies of the Baliem Valley formed one of the first agrarian cultures on Earth, but that they didn’t go on to develop in the same way as happened in other parts of the world. Still the only form of costume for the men is the kind of gourd[2] worn over the penis, which is called a koteka. It is the most unusual dress I have ever laid eyes on. They come in various sizes and are shaped like bottles. I noticed that the higher up in the tribal hierarchy a man was the longer was his koteka. The chief had the longest one, reaching up to his chest. Young boys had short kotekas, or ones shaped like curved horns. Maybe the fanciful shapes of the young boys’ kotekas is a privelege of youth, or maybe it had another meaning I didn’t understand.


 In turn the women wore grass skirts, but so short and hanging low on the hips that they gave the impression they might fall off at any moment. I suspected that they didn’t wear them every day. I also noticed that one of the little boys was wearing shorts. This demonstrated that the village - most likely due to the proximity of Wamena - was in permanent contact with the world of the whites, especially the missionaries who, since their arrival in the valley, have been fighting with the traditional dress, or rather undress of the Dani. From what can be seen, neither the missionaries nor the representatives of the new government have succeeded in persuading the Dani to wear western clothing. It would appear that the inhabitants haven’t given up other of their traditional forms of life, either.

The most interesting was yet to come. The cult of the ancestors among the Dani cannot be found in every village but here in Kurulu it is still alive. The inhabitants keep the mummy of a forebear, founder of the family, village or neighbouring village from which they originated. In this way the most revered dead are preserved, and the members of the tribe count on the assistance of these respected ancestors in time of war. In Kurulu the mummy was looked after by the chief’s son, who even slept with it, keeping it on a straw mattress about a metre away from him. The entire village society was extraordinarily proud of its mummified ancestor and needed no encouragement to display it.

The chief’s son carried it out of the hut. It was covered in a thick layer of dust, as if the forebear had gone cold, sleeping by the open fire. In the highlands, where it often rains, the Dani spend much of their time in their huts by open fires. And right above them the dead are hung, their bodies undergoing mummification. Aside from the legendary forebear, the honour of mummification can be accorded to an exceptional chief. In any case it has to be a ‘great man’. In Kurulu they honour their founding father. Moses explained that the mummy is apparently 400 years old, but in my opinion it could just as well be forty or a hundred. Who knows? I only wondered if the Dani used and lived by a time system similar to our own. I found it rather hard to believe.

At a certain moment Moses drew my attention to the hands of the older women. The hands of three of them were missing one or two fingers.

- It’s a remnant of one of the customs of the Dani which was practised until not long ago - he explained - The women had their fingers cut off in their youth.

- Why? - I asked earnestly.

- It was always done when a relative died. The girls had one of their fingers or part of their ear cut off.. The finger was left to dry or burned with the deceased. It was so that the dead could take with them a piece of the body belonging to their nearest and dearest. I think that with this offering they wanted to impress the sprirts.

- Oh, those women must have suffered badly...

- Thankfully they felt no pain. The fingers were tied with string half an hour before the ceremony. Then before the amputation the girls were hit on the forearm so as to remove all feeling. The wound was bound with leaves.-  Moses gave the impression of being an expert on local customs.

It seems a quite extraordinary offering to me. Another unusual habit of the Dani is their treatment of the dead. Apart from mummification of important chiefs it occurred that the deceased was neither buried nor cremated, but hung from a tree among the branches. In these cases the role of undertaker was played by carrion. I also heard that the fluids dripping from the decomposing bodies of the dead among the trees was gathered and then rubbed onto the body and mixed with food in order to absorb the strength of the deceased. Giving the dead bodies to the birds is most certainly in accordance with the beliefs of the Dani, who reckon that birds and people once lived in harmony and in fact were no different from one another. This is also why each tribal clan or village develops a bond with a chosen species of bird, treating it as a member of the tribe. Similarly the headgear worn by the Dani is decorated with the beautiful feathers of the bird that belongs to their family.


In recent years the Dani, under pressure fron the white man, have slowly begun to turn away from their varied, ultimately for us incomprehensible funeral rites. More and more often they simply burn the corpse, believing that the soul of the departed abandons its temporal life following cremation. But it is also worth bearing in mind that, not so long ago, before the arrival of the white missionaries here, fairly prevalent among the Papuas across the whole of New Guinea was the ritual eating of fallen warriors from the numerous tribal battles. It was thought that in the bodies of those that died suddenly a particularly large amount of life-giving energy remained. The most valiant of these were also eaten in order to retain their spirits’ immortality. It was also believed that in this way you could take on the strong and good features of the fallen one. Of course, cannibalism has been severely criticised by all the churches and outlawed across the entire area of Irian Jaya. While in a place like the Baliem Valley it wasn’t widepsread and before the arrival of the white man had already disappeared from tribal customs, still in other, more remote, regions it is most likely still practised.

Cannibalism in our culture fills us with disgust. The sight of another person being eaten, to say nothing of actually being the victim of a cannibal, is awful and terrifying. A certain missionary, who I met in Jayapura, told me that a baptist friend of his had already been working for ten years in one village, and despite that was killed and eaten by his ‘flock’, most likely because they loved him so much. This happened not long ago, in the mid-nineties.

From Kurulu Moses drove us to somewhere in the foothills. From there we were walking up a steep slope towards an enormous cave. Entering the first hall we heard a terrifying screech from somewhere inside.

- Flying dogs - explained our guide.

We went deeper. The cave walls were wet and unpleasantly dark. It was good that I’d brought my headlamp with me, as Moses’s torch went out near the entrance. In the next large chamber we saw the place from which the high-pitched noises had come. I pointed the beam of light upwards - over our heads an insane dance was going on between hundreds of bats of enormous size. The sight was alarming and frightening. We quickly retreated. Moses explained that he had only brought us here to show us the place from where the Dani had come. The newly emerging legend even says that it is the cave in which the white man and the Dani lived together. Only the white men wandered far over the mountains much earlier, taking with them all the clothes and the weapons. The Dani emerged from the cave later, wearing nothing but their kotekas. They didn’t want to go anywhere else, so they stayed in the Baliem Valley.

That day we visited two more villages by the roadside. In one of them a sick chief was brought to Hans and I in the hope that we might help him. Maybe they wanted to receive from us the health giving tablets of the white man? In the eyes of the inhabitants you could feel the limitless faith in the power of the white newcomer, and the expectation of help. Whenever I go into the mountains or even on a short trek, I take a small first aid kit with me. So I took an aspirin out of my rucksack as the safest cure and said to give it to the chief. I don’t know if the chief was sick with malaria, kuru kuru[3] or maybe some other serious disease. He was certainly in pain, that was visible. All that I could do to help was to carry out just such a psychological gesture of help.


From the moment the white man arrived in the valley, the Papuas began to contract illnesses previously unknown to them. For these peoples illnesses carried by us, even those like the flu, can be fatal. But it is also true that these same whites more than once halted epidemics visiting the valley. Many of the aborigines suffered, for example, from hideous skin disfigurations caused by framboesia[4]. Because the whites had, in their opinion, magical healing powers in the early years they were taken for demi-gods. This belief was further strengthened by the fact that the doctors were mostly missionaries, who, during treatment, said prayers as if they were magic chants. Many times the effectiveness of their actions could be seen, when they managed to quickly cure the sick with a dose of penicillin.

In the next village a young boy with a lightly injured arm was brought to us. He didn’t really need any help now, but I carefully washed the wound with oxygenated water and bandaged it. To my surprise, following this procedure a queue of naked Dani formed up, in order to receive a present of a sticky plaster. Seeing what was happening, Moses immediately began to explain something to them and told us we should leave the village quickly.

I think that for a long time still, in the Baliem Valley the foreigner will arouse hopes of receiving a present. The mere arrival of the whites with their material goods and food caused the creation of a new cult, called the cult of ‘cargo’, which bemused the foreigners. Many Papuas tribes believed that the spirits of their forebears could help them if the appropriate rituals were carried out. When the whites arrived the natives came to the conclusion that the rituals carried out by the missionaries, such as eating at a table, writing letters or conducting mass at church brought them the desired gifts. The Papuas obviously noticed that all the goods arrived in enormous metal boxes by air. Some missions were even supplied by airdrops. So they began to imagine that if they spoke, prayed or appealed to the metal boxes, transports from the heavens would appear, full of many riches, such as steel axes, knives or food.The ‘cargo’ cult even led to Papuas living in the area of today’s Papua New Guinea beginning to build models of planes and mini runways in the hope that the spirits would send them the goods prayed for by this route.

We returned to Wamena in the late afternoon. Moses promised another trip the following day. Hans dropped out though, as he was flying to Jayapura in the morning. I sat a while longer at the table with Moses and told him openly:

- Listen, it’s about tomorrow’s trip out of Wamena. I really don’t have a surat jalan.

- You’re joking. How did you come here? - he asked, very surprised.

- You took me yourself through the fence at the airport.

- Yes, but I thought you had all the papers in order.

- I didn’t manage to sort it out in Jayapura.

- I have never met a white man here without a surat jalan. But okay, I think we can get out of Wamena somehow tomorrow. I want to show you a village where - I heard today - the inhabitants are preparing an attack on their neighbours.

Not fearing eventual difficulties, Moses wanted to take full advantage of the chance to earn some money.

Hans and I had supper together in the evening.

- You need to be careful, going trekking alone - said Hans. - In your place I’d look for someone else to go with me. I heard that two weeks ago somebody from England or Australia was kidnapped. For a time they wouldn’t even issue any surat jalans. I had to wait a week in Jayapura. Someone told me that there are elections soon in Indonesia and this entire region is going to be closed off. As it is it’s an exceptional area and the only one of its kind on Irian Jaya which the Indonesian authorities let anyone into. The others really are totally inaccessible.

That night I couldn’t get to sleep for a long time. After what I’d seen in the Baliem Valley I had the impression that I’d found myself in a place not a hundred miles from the rest of the world, but a thousand years. When in the fifties the missionaries began to build their posts here, the Dani didn’t know what a wheel was, their knives were made of bamboo and their axes of stone. They had no cooking pots nor material from which clothing might be made. Maybe this place, or maybe the time which had stopped in it, meant I was struggling with a feeling of dreadful loneliness.


Once dusk fell Wamena became completely quiet, even mosquitoes were a rarity. For a country on the equator, it was also horribly cold, 2000 metres above sea level has its effects, after all.

Lying there on a wooden bunk, I thought long and hard about about the mummy of the Great Forebear and the sick chief, a living witness to the transportation of his people from deep prehistory to the 20th century. And maybe the chief was suffering from kuru kuru, the mysterious illness which had swept over the tribes in neighbouring Papua? I recalled a meeting I’d had while still in Poland, with a surgeon and a missionary in one and the same person, who worked in a hospital somewhere in the mountains of New Guinea. He told me about the shocking funeral feasts which the Fore people carried out there. The tribe ate the dead. The missionary told how, even as late as the end of the fifties, most funerals finished with the ceremonial cooking and eating of the corpse. This, for us, sickening ceremony was an expression of the great respect and love which the participants held for the deceased. Perhaps the Fore believed that a beloved person would be happier in a warm stomach than in the dark, cold earth? They were certainly an extraordinary tribe, even in New Guinea. Anthropologists had known for a long time about the cannibalistic practices of the Papuas, but the Fore were exceptional not only because they ate the bodies of their loved ones but also because they considered them a great delicacy. During these macabre ceremonies the body parts were mixed with vegetables. They ate the bodies of women, as well as men. All the inhabitants of the village took part in the funeral feasts, but the body of the deceased was eaten only by the women and children. It was a rare occasion for them to eat some protein-rich meat. Their daily diet consisted mainly of vegetable matter. While the tribe, similar to the Dani, raised pigs, it was only the men who had the privilege of eating pork. The men, in turn, were forbidden from eating human flesh. They considered that it took away the strength and fitness so necessary during tribal wars. The missionary also mentioned that not all the dead were cooked, or more precisely roasted on an open fire. Some of them were completely cremated and then a thick drink made from the ashes.

The arrival of the whites in the fifties led to the discouragement of cannibalistic activities. Unfortunately, the ban on cannibalism arrived too late. Among many tribes a previously unknown illness had appeared, named kuru kuru by the local populace. When in the sixties anthropologists and doctors began to research the mysterious epidemic, it was taking victims in every village. The illness developed slowly, starting with tremors which gradually became stronger and more visible. The sufferer after a time became unable to walk and eventually died. All the members of the Fore were convinced that someone had put a curse on them. The doctors who first came into contact with kuru kuru also thought that the shivers and loss of balance might have a psychological basis. However, autopsies showed significant damage to the brain. Similar symptoms were known to medicine in cases of the extremely rare Kreutzfeld Jacobs disease. Unfortunately, the causes of the epidemic were not known in those days. It was only the anthropologists who noticed that people born after the ban on cannibalism didn’t get kuru kuru. As a result, this fact became connected with cannibalism. Detailed research into families of the Fore tribe showed that cannibalism and participation in the funeral feasts influenced the spread of the mysterious disease. Participants in the ceremonies fell sick even after many years. It was mainly women who died of kuru kuru.

Only a couple of years ago scientists arrived at the conclusion that the disease was most likely caused by an infectious protein called prion. It’s an unusual protein which, unlike other proteins, doesn’t undergo enzymatic decay. In order to infect someone, the prion needs to be ingested. In this way eating the bodies of those suffering from kuru kuru caused the disease to become widespread. Scientists further discovered that eating members of the same species increased the likelihood of the disease occurring. And so cannibalism, while not the direct cause of kuru kuru, created ideal conditions for its development.


The example of this illness gave scientists a basis on which to state that observing the ban on eating the flesh of another human being has a significant meaning in terms of evolution, important for the preservation of the species. So the disgust towards cannibalism and all its related practices may have developed during the course of evolution. It’s not inconceivable that the antipathy towards the eating of human flesh assisted in the survival of a species and natural selection eliminated those portions of the population which ate one another. The experience of kuru kuru taught the Fore tribe that eating human flesh is extremely dangerous. So even these peoples, in fear of their own destruction, abandoned their traditional practices. Perhaps the arrival of the white man in the inaccessible valleys of New Guinea wasn’t necessarily the beginning of the end for these peoples, but quite the opposite - the hope of survival.

The next day there wasn’t anybody who fancied going trekking with me. Moses promised that we’d get to the village where they were planning an attack on their neighbours.

In the cantre of Wamena he bought a few packs of the cheapest cigarettes, some matches and candles. I guessed that they were to serve as a kind of cash or present for the Papuas. Not so long ago the only form of payment in the valley was shells. Apparently for 50 pretty shells you could buy a wife or a plump pig. Later, when the whites got here, steel axes and clay beads entered the currency system.

Moses remembered that I didn’t have a surat jalan. He didn’t stop at any of the checkpoints in Wamena. He just nodded at the bored Indonesian soldiers, and they - like the day before - waved their hands friendlily. After driving for an hour in our jeep we arrived on the edge of a green copse. From here we walked for twenty minutes or so down a narrow path through the woods till we arrived at a broad, open field. In the distance I could see the thatched roofs of a small village. Moses simply noted that we were under continual observation by a Dani in a tall look-out post. It was only then that I worked out that the sound like a bird screech was coming from precisely there. We didn’t manage to go as far as 100 metres before a warrior ran out of the thicket. He was holding a drawn bow with an arrow pointing in my direction. I stopped but was ready to immediately retreat. Moses released the tension, talking loudly to the warrior and producing cigarettes one after another from his pocket. The other one put his bow down smiled friendlily and led us to the gate. The village wasn’t much different from those I’d seen the day before. There was a lot of activity going on right across the whole village, not in the least connected with our visit. The men were preparing to go and meet their neighbours. Not for a polite chat, but for a neighbourly battle. The reason was unimportant. The important thing was the whole ceremonial and formal framework to the skirmish. The Dani - like the majority of New Guinea tribes - do not belong to those societies who love their neighbours. More often than not the killing of a neighbour is seen as the only means of resolving a conflict. Most usually the essence of the whole quarrel is incomprehensible to an outsider, the reason unclear, truly metaphysical. I suspect that, equally, our wars would be utterly incomprehensible to the Papuas. Tribal and inter-neighbour battles have always gone on here. They would fight to appease and conciliate the spirits of their forebears, who according to the Dani live not far away and influence all earthly life. Often, the point of stealing a neighbour’s pig was to fulfil their duties to their forebears. This, of course, became a pretext for a war.


Moses explained that the expedition against the neighbours was about a woman from the next village. A young warrior had taken a liking to her and wanted to fight for her. It was also important during this military foray to have ‘good fun’, though not necessarily safely. All the warriors were busy dressing thenselves, painting their faces, putting on lots of ornaments, on their heads they wore fantastic headgear decorated with bird feathers. ‘Every battle day is a wonderful and dangerous day for the Dani’ as Peter Matthiesen wrote, who arrived here in 1961 with the first American anthropological expedition. The weapons that the warriors use are long spears measuring up to 4.5 metres and bows and arrows. An official war always begins with an exchange of insults, often rather humorous sounding to us. The opponents accuse one another, for example, of sexual defects and other shortcomings. After the verbal opening the enemies approach one another to the distance of a spear throw or arrow flight. The actual battle lasts no longer than 10 - 15 minutes. A full day’s fighting consists of 10 battles at most and can be called off for the most prosaic of reasons - for example, rain. The warriors simply have no desire to damage the fantastic bird feathers and headgear. Of course, during these fights there is a risk of loss of life or health, but an alert warrior can dodge the spears and arrows. Peter Matthiesen further noted that the formal battles observed by him had more the character of a sporting event or - with often tragic effect - theatre. The opponents were rarely really angry with one another, but merely wanted to show off, among other things in front of the women.

Moses advised me against accompanying the warriors as he was concerned that I might get accidentally hurt and return with an arrow sticking out of me. The arrow shafts are deliberately weakened about 10 cm from the point. An arrow which hits its target easily breaks off in the body of the victim. During the numerous neighbourhood skirmishes those warriors hit by arrows usually die later of infection. When someone dies on the field of battle the body is carried to the huts amid lamentations and for the following two days a large dancing party is held. The dances are to call the spirits of the ancestors, as according to the Dani they control the whole battle and the death of the warrior is an offering to them.

The dead one must, of course, be avenged. If not in a formal war, then by an ambush. These attacks are the most feared by the villages. That’s why numerous look-out posts are built around the villages. The lookouts tasks are to warn of an unexpected enemy or thief.

Under pressure from the government and the missionaries tribal battles and wars have been ‘officially’ ended. But that ban, like many others, is ignored. Fights still go on in secret - like the one I was able to observe them preparing for. After all, for hundreds of years wars have filled the life of the tribe. The young people are growing up now in ‘new times’, but they still listen to the tales of the elders about great wars. So they themselves want to go and fight.

- Listen - I asked Moses - What would happen if somebody stole a pig from them nowadays?

- They’d probably kill him, but they certainly wouldn’t eat him - that answer sounded a little over-optimistic on his lips.

We left the village before the return of the warriors and were walking towards another one. It was early afternoon. That morning I had been wearing trousers, climbing boots, a shirt, a fleece and a cap and I hadn’t been at all warm. And yet all the Papuas are naked and go barefoot. Their feet are like the soles of a thick boot. A surgeon friend, the same one who told me about the cannibalistic habits of the Fore tribe, mentioned that the Papuas have an entirely different skin construction. Above all it’s thick and hard. Apparently a scalpel after cutting such skin is ready to be thrown away. For generations the Papuas have genetically adapted to the climate, the altitude and the cold. Maybe it’s warmer for them.

We were walking along the edge of a small, muddy field, which was clearly well watered.

- Before long the women will plant batatas, that is sweet potatoes here - Moses explained. - Growing them is the Dani’s main activity. One person eats as much as four kilos of sweet potatoes daily, because it’s their staple diet. Pigs are very rarely slaughtered, only during exceptional celebrations.

 And at that very moment an old Papuas appeared opposite us on the path from out of the undergrowth. When he saw us, he stopped and began to shout. We were standing two or three metres apart. Moses hurriedly translated his shouted demands:

- He wants your shirt. If you don’t give it to him he’ll kill you!

I felt my stomach tighten, because he really didn’t seem to be joking. When a moment later he pulled a machete out from behind him, I meekly removed my shirt. His expression brightened, he took the shirt and ran off. I could only really be grateful that he hadn’t wanted my trousers. It was also good that only a few minutes earlier I’d put my coat and my fleece into my rucksack.


We got to the next village without incident. The inhabitants behaved completely friendlily. I noticed that many of them wore small keys, like to your front door, round their necks. I was curious since they must have got here from the outside world. They must have either been presents or stolen. And maybe for them - I thought - our civilization is the civilization of the key? They saw how the white man cared for them, keeping them in inaccessible parts of their clothing, and when somebody lost them, how they spent a lot of time looking for them. Maybe they even thought that keys in our civilization had magical powers and were particularly valuable objects? They open homes, start cars and planes. Maybe, therefore, they themselves began to regard them as talismans? There’s something in it. Can you get into your house if you lose the key to it? Later I learned that the keys worn round the neck by the Papuas is a continuation of the ‘cargo’ cult. Because it was always a key that opened the mysterious boxes from the sky.

In this village I received a koteka from the chief as a present. It was the longest one I had seen to that point. A koteka is a most valuable thing to a man. While the women are working in the fields the men are always tending their gourds in their little garden patches. They take particular care to ensure that the gourd grows in accordance with the desired shape of koteka they wish to wear. For this exceptional present the chief received cigarettes and matches from us. They also suggested they show us some ritual dances. Moses translated the words of the chief that they were even prepared to slaughter a pig. All on my account. They looked delighted that a white guest had finally appeared in their village. A fire was expertly lit using an archaic technique - a gut string, a dry log and some straw under it. It only needed a few rasps, a gentle blow and at once the flames billowed out. It was already late, so watching the dances meant staying in the village overnight. But after the warning from Hans and the meeting with the lone Papuas who took my shirt, I didn’t feel to good about it. In addition, I recalled the BBC documentary about the English girl who disappeared somewhere on Irian and who had apparently been eaten by the natives.Even if it sounded a bit far-fetched I’d heard on the spot that such cases still occurred. What to do in such a situation? I lacked the courage to sleep in their village. We calmly thanked the chief for his hospitality and Moses and I left the camp.

On the way back to Wamena I noticed a row of single-storey concrete houses not far from the road.

- What’s that settlement? - I asked Moses.

- The government built them for the Dani. They tried to move them there by force. But they don’t want to live in them. In the new houses it’s too hot in the day and too cold at night. In their old traditional huts, covered with a thick thatch, it’s warm in the night and remains cool in the day. The smoke from the fires keeps the insects away. Look - not far away the Dani build their huts like the old ones, and keep their pigs and other valued goods in the new ones.

I returned to the hotel with mixed feelings. The world I had seen will remain for future travellers and tourists for another two or three years. Then it will disappear. Most likely next year [when 2001?] the first road on Irian Jaya between Jayapura and Wamena will be opened. Then everything will change. Till now only the air connection has operated and the Baliem Valley has remained a distant island. It’s not on anybody’s way to anywhere. But when the road gets here, access will be cheap and easy. Crowds of Indonesians and even larger crowds of tourists will flood in. The road will also have military and political significance too, underlining Indonesian dominance.During operations associated with relocating the Javanese the aboriginal villages are constantly being destroyed. It will be like that here, because the expansion of civilization is unavoidable.


In the small, pleasant hotel in which I was living, I met two businessmen - a German and a resident of Singapore. They were planning a joint enterprise - a luxury hotel near Wamena. They spent whole evenings sitting over plans, debating land prices. They wanted to build the hotel in the course of three years,which, for somewhere so distant from any kind of industrial centre, is pretty quick. But once the road opens it will be much easier for them. The hotel is to be five star, luxury. When that happens crowds of wealthy tourists from around the world will appear in the local villages. And that will change the lives of the natives up till now - who we still don’t fully understand - into a commercial theatre.

The next day I returned to Jayapura. My return ticket was only for the Merpati flights. The society’s flights left Wamena daily, at midday according to the timetable. Moses ran to the hotel early in the morning:

- Mister Jerzy, your plane has arrived. You must run to the airfield.

- Calm down Moses, it dosn’t leave till 12.00.

- That doesn’t matter, the departure time. Better to be there at 8.00. If the weather is good, like today, the plane leaves much earlier. If the weather’s bad, it goes at 12.00 or might only go the next day.

- And what then? - I asked.

- Then you won’t fly at all, because there won’t be a free place on the next flight.

If these tales were even half true, it didn’t look too good. I was a little alarmed and got to the airport for eight. The plane was already waiting.

I said a sincere farewell to Moses in the departure hall. He’d helped me greatly in exploring the Baliem Valley. It was all down to him and a lucky accident that, in spite of the lack of a surat jalan, I was able to see it all. I boarded the plane. By nine it was already full. The seats were occupied by a lot of missionaries. The departure was set for twelve o’clock, and here suddenly at 9.15 the pilot simply started the engines and flew off. Almost three hours ahead of departure time! If I’d gone to the airport as I’d originally planned, I wouldn’t even have seen it over the horizon. Thank you Moses!



[1]Surat jalan - name of the permit granting entry to the closed regions of Indonesia.

[2] Gourd note - do we need to keep this or go with Britannica entry????

[3]Kuru kuru - the name of a mysterious disease which decimated tribes in the eastern part of New Guinea (a description of the causes of the epidemic is given later in the chapter).

[4]Framboesia, yaws - go to Britannica!!!!!

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Wamena
photo by: alexchan