Irian Jaya

Irian Jaya, a land of contrast, mystery and adventure

Copyright 1997 -- story by Jean-Philippe Soule

Irian Jaya

        "An undiscovered world of pristine tropical rainforests surrounding majestic 16,000-foot mountains …" When I heard this, I wondered how in the modern world such an unspoiled place could possibly exist.

        Flying over this gigantic territory reveals the beauty of this island. Around the mainland of Irian Jaya lie hundreds of smaller but equally spectacular islands exposing virgin beaches of white sand to the dazzling blue sea of the South Pacific. Inland, Irian Jaya is a country of improbable, eternally snowcapped mountains where thousands of rivers slice through lush jungles, and mangroves claw their way to the sea. With the 5030m (16,498 feet) Jaya Kesum peak, its equatorial glaciers, the undisturbed jungle of Memberamo and everything else in between, Irian Jaya has it all. These impenetrable forests are home to incredibly diversified fauna and flora, most of which remain to be identified. It is in this world that hundreds of aboriginal tribes have lived in total isolation, leaving their cultures untouched by 20th century man. Today, even as Indonesia looks for the tourist dollar and starts to exploit this land, the indifferent natives keep the lifestyle of their ancestors. Centuries-old traditions abound. In the south, tribes such as the Korowai still live in 30-meter high tree houses. In the west, the Asmat still subsist on sago (starch prepared from palm-pith) and mangrove crabs and practice the primitive sculpture of their forefathers. And on the east coast looms the Memberamo valley, perhaps the last unexplored jungle on earth.
        This mystical island, the second largest in the world after Greenland, holds many more secrets.

        My first visit to Irian Jaya took me to the northwestern peninsula that the locals call the "Bird’s Head". I met a local, the son of an Indonesian and a Dutch missionary. He had studied in Holland and America, had worked as a journalist and then dropped out of society and returned to the jungle. A medicine man, survivalist and deeply spiritual man, he told me the first time I met him that he had been waiting for me -- that he had had a vision of my arrival. He took me under his wing for a month, showed me edible and poisonous plants, taught me to hunt bats, parrots and lemurs, and how to survive in a hostile new environment. My expiring visa took me away to Singapore with my head spinning with information.

        I planned to go to the Baliem, the so-called "Stone Age Valley" -- home to the headhunting, cannibalistic Dani and Yali warriors who first gained notoriety in the late 1960’s for the rude welcome they gave a group of Australian and American missionaries. All were eaten.

        Before setting off into the heart of the jungle, my father flew in to Biak from France. I met him at the airport. This small island is a postcard tropical paradise. It is host to an international airport which connects Jakarta to America. For most people, it’s only a stopover on their way to the famous resorts of Bali. For us it was a good base camp for our Baliem adventure.

        I introduced my father to a native fisherman I had met a few days earlier. Bapak Sabarek, a very hospitable man lived up to his name ("Bapak" means father in Indonesian and is also a friendly polite way to address an elder), and for the next few days "Pak" Sabarek took us fishing on secluded islands. There, his relatives lived without electricity. Nevertheless, those people seemed happy and were overwhelmingly friendly. (We were the first Westerners to set foot on most places, and thus discovered an unspoiled nature where Birds of Paradise can still be observed).

        The next morning, we climbed aboard a Twin Otter to Wamena. We landed on the rough grass field of Wamena in the heart of the Baliem valley.
        On the airfield were the Dani men dressed only in kotekas -- penis covers made from squash-like gourds. Bare-breasted women were sitting on their grass skirts a little further away next to the gates. The spectacle worked both ways. We were the only tourists disembarking from the plane. As such, we attracted a lot of attention. After going through the small building serving as an airport, we fought our way through Indonesians offering their services or accommodations. We walked toward a small guesthouse that had been recommended to me.
        We spent our first evening visiting the market of the small town and eating Indonesian food from Java, Sumatra and Sulawesi. This town offers an amazing mélange of contrasting cultures. Some Irianese from the coast had come here to guide or teach. Other people came from Sulawesi or Java to set up small restaurants or shops. Others were troops and police, sent regularly by the government to control the place. Muslims with mostly-covered bodies were interacting with tribal people wearing only kotekas or grass skirts. With a mixture of religions, languages and cultures, it seemed like Wamena was the only town in totalitarian Indonesia without a dress code. I hadn’t seen this anywhere else in Indonesia.

        After catching a bemo (Indonesian communal truck) to the end of the last dirt road, we trekked for hours, going through the last police check and crossing various villages. On the way, we met more Dani people carrying loads of things on their backs -- sometimes a screaming pig, or chickens, other times two-meter-high stacks of bamboo, sugar cane or even stone tools they were hoping to sell at the market. Soon, T-shirts and pants became rarities. It felt like we were walking back in time.

        In the evening, we arrived in a village without electricity. I asked a child to take us to the teacher. In each village, the teachers speak Indonesian and usually are gracious hosts. He guided us to a wooden house in which we were welcomed by the village elders. We were granted a stay in the teacher’s bedroom. After drinking some sweet teas together, the men went back to their primary occupations of smoking and talking village politics. We ventured outside to see the sun set on this village of round, smoking straw houses.

        As we were standing alone in the middle of the village, the boy who had previously guided us asked us to accept a visit to his home. We followed him in the dark through a tiny entrance door. It proved to be a difficult task for my dad to fold his 1.88m (6ft 4in.) frame enough to enter. In the low light we couldn’t see the details of the place, but it seemed bare of items. The single room was made of straw held together with a few boards. It was too small for us to stand up. After greeting the mother who did not speak any Indonesian, we crawled around the center and sat down around what seemed to be the cooking pit. The mother had just placed some rocks over the fire and had covered them with dirt. She then spread a layer of foliage over the hot dirt. On top of this first layer, she placed another type of leaves and then covered them again with leaves similar to the ones used for the first layer. We were wondering if this was to heat the place for the night. It might actually do that, too, but our young friend explained to us that she was cooking dinner. My dad was horrified about the idea of eating such food. As it would be an affront to refuse, he had no choice but to experience the native cuisine. As the woman lifted the top layer, she uncovered our meal -- steamed jungle leaves. I don’t know what varieties we were eating, but I enjoyed the meal. Slightly bitter, it tasted a bit like something between spinach and papaya leaves. After expressing our gratitude to our hosts, we returned to the teacher’s house where we spent the night on his bed which was an old blanket lying on the floor.
        Two days later, I sent my dad back to France with tales to regale his friends and family for years.
        Now that I was alone, I was free to leave the tourist boundaries and enter the real world of the traditional Dani and Yali people -- the ones who had had minimal or no contacts with modern civilization. I set off wondering if I would ever have contact with it again.

        I took with me the strict essentials. I figured I could always sleep outside or build a shelter if needed. Also, I wanted to minimize the impact I had on people I met. When I was living with the Mentawais I had worn only a loincloth made of tree bark. Here, I couldn’t wear the local fashion, a koteka, because it was too uncomfortable (local men have been wearing it since the age of seven). So, my concessions to western fashion were a pair of shorts, a belt with an inside zipper protecting my cash, and because the land is very rocky, a pair of trekking shoes. My last piece of clothing was a jungle jacket. This jacket had 12 front pockets and a large one in the back. In the back pocket, I kept a spare pair of underwear, socks, a T-shirt, and a sarong. The sarong is a piece of batik that Indonesian men and women usually wear as a skirt. I also used it as a towel and a sheet to sleep protected from the mosquitoes. (It also provided great protection from sun exposure). That’s all the clothing I took -- no backpack, rain gear, or pants. I filled up my front pockets with a compass, lighter, small knife, some malaria pills, mosquito repellent, and lots of tobacco. The tobacco was my main tool to break the ice. Although not a smoker, I smoked in Indonesia just to socialize. Sharing a cigarette is an important part of making friends. Advised by a friend from Northern Irian Jaya, I didn’t trim my beard for eight months. Most Dani men grow beards, but they are generally very short. It is believed that a person who can grow a long beard has a strong and good spirit. I wasn’t sure about the reason, but it didn’t fail to catch their interest. The last piece of equipment I carried was a tiny camera with a few rolls of film.

        When I left Wamena, I wanted to go beyond the last village influenced by modernization. I had no map. My only source of information was a short briefing from a few West Papuan friends who had been in that direction but "not that far".

        From the town, I first followed the Baliem river southward, then I walked East crossing through dry rocky hills and valleys. I met many people walking between villages, to and from their fields or going back home from Wamena. They sometimes spoke Indonesian and enjoyed walking with me even past their own village. Walking through mountainous landscapes, we had as our only source of water the powerful rivers digging canyons through the landscape. Locals naturally drank from those. Understanding a bit about all the water-borne diseases, I was anxious about drinking from streams. Thirst made the decision for me; I had no choice but to re-hydrate myself. To ease my fear, I forced myself to think that most water-borne diseases such as giardia were due to overpopulation and domestic animals. Thus, in these pristine areas, the water was probably safe. Nevertheless, I was worried about getting sick so far away from any medical facility.

Three days from Wamena, as I walked between fields of sweet potatoes, astonished people would stop working and stare conspicuously or run away.

In the evening my traveling companions offered me a place in their homes. Their hospitality was so impressive that I felt like I was force fed with food they had saved for days. I could never refuse. I ate even the sago flour that they prepare as a tasteless paste with the consistency of sticky mashed potatoes. When I had had enough, my hosts weren’t sure I appreciated their cooking unless I had some more. Other food included sweet potatoes served two to five times a day and occasionally accompanied with potatoes, sago, bananas, and sugar cane. The pig meat was reserved for special ceremonies.

        On the eighth day, as I was walking alone, I met an amazing little man called Bapak Set. He was going back to his village from Wamena. Pak Set was from a Yali community. Yali people can be recognized because they dress slightly differently from the Dani. They still wear the koteka, but on top of it, they wear a skirt made of rattan strings. This rattan skirt makes it even harder to walk, and almost impossible to run, because every time they have to hold up their layers of rattan to take the weight off their kotekas. We walked together for a couple days, probably covering the distance I would have in less than a day.

        With his broken Indonesian, we managed to become good friends. While smoking my tobacco and eating the food I traded in the previous village, we talked about many things. Bapak being my first and only friend from a cannibalistic tribe, I couldn’t help but ask him the obvious. Very naturally, he told me that human flesh makes the best food there is, but with great regrets, he couldn’t eat people anymore. I asked why. He replied: "A few years ago, the Indonesian army came with helicopters. Without knowing the words, he described to me a giant noisy bird holding people in its stomach. I drew a plane with a stick on the ground. He knew what those were and shook his head "no." Then I drew a chopper, and he jumped up and down to approve my drawing. They killed many warriors and threatened to kill all the village inhabitants if they heard of anybody eating people. People from the far land have many strong magic. We cannot fight them. "

        I asked Pak Set if he knew places where cannibalism remained. He acknowledged that farther in the jungle, where the military cannot go, people still live as they have through the ages. To the question, "Why don’t you go live farther in the jungle?" Pak answered, "we’re mountain people, we can’t live in the jungle". Then, he told me that white people tasted better than those of neighboring clans. Surprised, I asked him how he knew. He told me about how before the Indonesian army, the Dutch army had come to the mountains when he was young. Papuans and Dutch died in the fighting. The Dutch victims were eaten following a long ritual dancing ceremony to appease the spirits of the dead. After recounting his story, he grabbed me and with a smile said: "You are big and white. You have a lot of meat and you look delicious!" I laughed, gave him a cigarette and answered, "As long as we are together, I will make sure you are never hungry". Bapak Set was a really charming old man, and I enjoyed the days we spent together. Our paths split as he took a trail going north while I continued east, following my friend’s vague directions -- "you go over this pass, and you cross straight through the next 3 valleys. Then from the top of the ridge, you’ll see the next village". I walked through valleys hidden in the clouds. I was lucky to find a small, empty cabana in the middle of the forest -- a real treat on this rainy night. When the rain stopped, I heard some strange noises. I suspected it was hunters, and I probably was in their refuge. I don’t know if they saw me through the boards and decided not to come in, but this made me wonder what those people would think or do if, coming back from a hunt, they found me sleeping in their hut.

        On day 11, I came across a few cabanas. That probably was the unnamed settlement Pak Set directed me to. Only two families were tending a couple of fields. After trading some tobacco for food, due to the language gap and lacking a map, I left without any clear information.
        I walked until late afternoon, still hoping to arrive in a village before dusk. When the temperature dropped and the light dimmed, I kept walking in the darkness of the night. Then entering a thick forest, I had no choice but to stop. In total obscurity, I couldn't make a shelter and slept for a few uncomfortable hours against a large tree.
        The next morning, I crossed some deep jungle. I could feel that I was at a much lower elevation than the week before. The vegetation was thick. The trees were taller, and plants grew everywhere, exposing their large leaves to the rain.
        In the rain forest, finding drinking water was never a problem. There were many vines offering ample supplies of liquid. I discovered the hard way that one type of vine was extremely bitter. Knowing that some plants with a bitter, sticky, milky sap are poisonous, I feared that the vine could have been dangerous and hoped that I wouldn’t be affected. Many trees and plants hold small quantities of water at the base of their leaves. On rainy days, a large leaf rolled into a conical shape made a perfect cup to catch the powerful rain. The best way was to make a cut on the base of the stem of a broad-leafed plant and keep the cut open with a small piece of wood. The water collected by the giant plant ran down the main stem, acting like a rain gutter, and dropped through the cut into the cup I was holding. Sometimes, the rain was strong enough to supply me with more than a liter of water in less than a minute.

        Late afternoon on my 14th day, coming out of the jungle, I arrived in what seemed to be a ghost village. Not a single human being was in sight, but I could feel the presence of people. I looked for the only house made of solid wood. These were houses built by the government to accommodate teachers from more modernized places. In villages hosting a teacher, I didn’t need to worry about communication. The teacher could always translate from Indonesian to the local tongue. I learned many things from them. The Indonesian administration sends them to educate or "Indonesianize" territories it wishes to control. As outsiders, they are rarely socially accepted. Locals grudgingly tolerate them because of fear of the military. In spite of such protection, they sometimes get killed over cultural or status quarrels. Teachers live in better houses and own more accessories than the chief. Young students look up to their mentors, and neglect the elders.
        After dusk, The teacher introduced me to a father and son who offered me their hospitality, sharing the earth floor of their small hut with their families. We all slept around the central fire on some mattresses of raw straw. During the night, people who awoke fed the fire. With the door closed to stay warm, and the absence of a chimney, I woke up with red eyes and coughing out all the smoke inhaled during the night. At night, we had visitors as several rats took great pleasure in jumping on our heads. I was the only one who bothered to react. Everybody else seemed undisturbed and deeply asleep.
        In the morning, as I was looking around, I felt the need to blow my nose. In the absence of tissue, I pressed one finger against one of my nostrils and blew as is done on other Indonesian islands. Everybody around me froze. Even the feared warriors seemed terrified. Right away I knew I had made a mistake, but I didn’t understand why. After a few tense minutes of silence which seemed like hours, I offered them some tobacco, and they calmed down. I later learned that evil and dangerous spirits exit the body through the nose. This wasn’t my first cultural mistake, but I still felt stupid and embarrassed.

        On the sixteenth day, I left for what I knew would be a long stretch without any habitation -- maybe two or three days, so I thought, although I knew not to rely on the information I received.
        For the next few days, I stopped early in the afternoon and collected branches to build a shelter. In the jungle, many leaves are large and offer good protection against the rain. Banana leaves with their impressive size made the best roofing. To shield myself from the humidity of the soil, I made mattresses of small branches covered with layers of leaves. When available, the giant ferns were my favorite padding material. Cool nighttime temperatures were combated with layers of leaves piled on top of my sarong sheet.
        After walking for three days through mountains and jungles eating what I gathered and scrounged from the previous village, I ran out of food and started to worry. I had no idea where I was. For all I knew, I could have been an hour or weeks from a village. I didn’t know when I would meet up with anybody. Food was definitely my biggest challenge. I was always on the go, so I couldn't set any traps. I wasn’t a good trapper anyway. I didn't have any hunting equipment, and my knowledge of local edible flora was very limited. I couldn't find many of the plants I had learned to feed on with the Mentawais. Until now, I had optimistically relied on the hope that I would probably come across a village within a couple of days. The following day, I was at a loss and almost decided to backtrack. Doubts started to transform my great adventure into a nightmare. I stopped to protect myself from the torrential rain that had just started. After reminding myself that one can survive for three weeks without food, I calmed down and realized that my lack of energy was more a result of my doubts than the last two days’ diet. I continued east and soon came across a large river. Feeling reassured about the possibility of people living along the river, I followed it downstream.

        After five days of jungle crossing, and more than two days without anything else to eat than the few unknown plants I tried to chew on, I discovered a narrow suspended bridge. It was made of three sets of woven vines held together by rattan strings. One rope was for the feet and two others were set at elbow level. I crossed it and hurried down the small trail which soon led me to a little settlement. I didn’t know its name. I was about three weeks east from Wamena. If it wasn’t for the smoke escaping from the roof of a few huts, I would have believed it was abandoned. I walked with a strong feeling of being observed by thousands of eyes. As I stopped in front of the central hut, I was suddenly welcomed by people aiming their arrows and spears at me. All silent and careful, they jumped all around me, slowly getting closer. Although they were just a few dozen men, It felt like I was surrounded by hundreds of people who looked at me as an interesting, and maybe dangerous, prey. The danger was real, but showing my fear was not an option. My only weapons were the same as my assets -- a long beard, some tobacco and a lighter. I started talking to everybody in Indonesian. Not a soul understood, but it didn’t matter -- my voice was friendly and they knew I was addressing them. I carefully pulled out a bit of tobacco, started smoking a cigarette and moved slowly to offer some to a few elders. Little by little, the bow strings lost their tension, the spears and arrows were aimed down, and people started talking. After a few minutes, children and women came out of their huts to see for themselves the giant stranger who came from nowhere into their village. It didn’t take long for people to start pulling my beard. When they realized that it wasn’t a necklace made of pigs’ hair, they laughed and welcomed me. The adrenaline rush gone, I relaxed and socialized with my new friends. They envied my magic. I could quickly make a fire with my little green plastic lighter. I envied their skills -- they still make fires using wood and rattan. They split a wood stick two thirds of the way down its length, held the two halves apart with a small stone, filled up the space with some kindling and rubbed a piece of rattan against the wood. After a few minutes smoke appeared, and soon after the tinder caught fire -- a very simple process I had to practice for 3 days before succeeding.

         A month into my adventure, I lost track of time. I had stopped writing daily in my journal and couldn’t remember the date. For the last week, I went south and passed through a few more villages. I started to develop bad stomach cramps accompanied by dysentery. Sometimes it restricted my movement, but at other times of the day, I could keep trekking. I couldn’t help but worry about what I had. I hired some locals to guide me back to a village that had a mission. Five days later, I was sitting in a barrack made of hard wood shafts. The radio operator placed a call to the Missionaries’ Headquarters. I just had to wait a couple of days in that village for a Cessna to pick me up. I would have liked to have moved closer to the Papua New Guinea border to meet different tribes, but with some regrets, it was the end of my adventure.
        After six weeks trekking back in time, I returned to Wamena and flew to Biak. To my great surprise, I had malaria. Doctors told me that many strains were resistant to most preventive medicines. After treatment, I relaxed in tropical paradise.

        Throughout the trip, I heard many stories of tribal wars and cannibalism. I never witnessed any. In Irian Jaya, war is a practiced art form, spiritual and indoctrinated to the point of a socio-religious tradition. It is war completely divorced from the western concept of goal-oriented military conflict. Often people decide when they will have a war, and it never lasts very long. Guests would never be allowed to witness any.

                In my experience, in spite of the extreme caution with which I was received in some villages, once the introductions were over, I found the Dani and Yali people to be amiable. When they smile, their mouths seem to cover half their faces, changing their countenances from feared head hunters into cute children.

I returned to the States to face a counter cultural-shock -- I was home, but I couldn’t call it home anymore. The marks Irian Jaya made on my body faded, but the impressions which began with the Mentawai tribes in Sumatra remain etched in my mind.

Jean-Philippe Soule


Reportages Portfolio Biography Contact