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Published: March 30th 2013
When i was 9 i read in the papers about a Dutch expedition in Papua, at the time called Nieuw Guinea. I loved it and was determined to go there once. Now it is 56 years later and we have just landed at the airport of Jayapura, the capital of Papua.
It took some time to arrive at Sentani/Jayapura. We had the nightbus from Hua Hin (Thailand), the city where we live now. In Hatyai (South Thailand) we changed busses. After 23 hours traveling we arrived in Kuala Lumpur and could finally sleep. Next day we flew with Air Asia to Makassar (South Sulawesi) and the day after to Jayapura, only to find out that all hotels in Sentani were full, but one, which was loaded with fungi on the bathroom walls. Moreover the first flight to the Baliem Valley would leave only five days later. According to Lonely Planet Sentani is a nice city. Quite the contrary. It is terrible.
Traveling in this part of the world is not that easy. I get more and more respect for the famous naturalist Alfred Wallace, who traveled the Malay Archipel 160 years ago. He did it on his own and
without Lonely Planet, ATM's and Internet. The Baliem Valley
Everyone warned us for the Baliem Valley. There are uprisings and floodings. You cannot go there now, they said. And still we did. The flight with Trigana lasted only 50 minutes. Down we see jungle, jungle and more jungle, now and then crossed by a meandering river. Then the mountains and behind the mountains the famous valley. While waiting for our luggage at the airport of Wamena we see for the first time Papua's. Some of them wear penisgourds. We think it is for the tourists but later we will find out that it is normal. It is a wonderful mix of people at the airport. Next to a naked Papua with only a penisgourd sits a muslimwoman, dressed from top to toe and with a scarf. Her little daughter is glancing with big eyes at the penisgourd.
We leave the airport via gate one (the only gate) and shake hands with one of the naked Papua's as if we find our roots back. These were the people whose ancestors left Africa 50.000 years ago. Alfred Wallace already noticed how different they were compared with the Asians.
We need a Surat Jalan, a permit for being here. We get it at the policestation, a wooden building full with soldiers. There are brown circles at the ceiling, traces of leakages, worn electricity wires. Three soldiers are busy with our permit in a sideroom. It takes an hour. Finally one of the soldiers shows up with a paper with our names and pictures. Our permit. We may stay here 4 days. 'Welcome in Wamena', he says friendly.
We do not expect too much of our hotel in Wamena, but the Baliem Pilano Hotel turns out to be a great hotel with beautiful gardens. Even in our bathroom we have plants (no fungi this time). In the bar alcohol bottles are displayed, like Four Grouses Whiskey and Kethel Jenever. We are surprised to see a muslimwoman with a scarf behind the bar. We ask for a Bintang beer, but she says they do not have it. 'I see a lot of alcohol behind you', I say. She begins to smile and says: 'that is just show, inside is nothing more than tea or water.' The Kethel is a bit brownish indeed. 'You cannot get any alcohol in Waimena', she
adds. How cruel.
I cannot help to feel a bit embarrassed by the Papua's. They have strong faces, big jawbones and a morose glance. But as soon as we smile, they look back with a shy smile. Surprisingly many of them speak English. Often we shake hands. Sometimes they keep up for a while with us without saying a word. Like Nicky, a young Dani boy. Every now and the he said 'okay', whatever we said to him. Most people like to talk a bit. They are so friendly. And helpful when you ask for directions. The only problem is that everyone points to another direction.
Unfortunaly we cannot do so much. The weather is bad, we do not have so much time and we do not feel strong enough to make a big hike. We make some short hikes though. With a becak we leave for Wesaput, a village nearby, there we walked to the Palimo Adat museum. The door was open, but everything was gone. We pass the Sungai Baliem river. Now there is a concrete bridge. The hanging bridge is still there, but only some locals use it. We walk in between flooded mais- and
tarofields. At the background are mountains. Every now and then we pass honai, the round huts of the Dani people. We smile and shake hands. Old women are wearing big bags on their back with a string over their forehead. Sometimes we pass someone with a big red fruit on their shoulder. We do not know what it is. After one hour walking we reach Pugima, a Dani village and turn back to Wamena
In Sinatma, another village nearby we see the market with all kinds of vegetables: cauliflower, taro, passifruit, pinda's, lemongrass, garlic, pineapple, mandarins and so on. From there we walk to the Sungai Wamena river. Everywhere are big boulders, which are struck to pebbles. People are washing their clothes, motorcycles and themselves in the river.
Back in Wamena we buy some souvenirs a woodcarved sculpture of the Asmat and a stone axe. There are loads of penisgoards in all sizes and forms, touristic souvenirs, like the wooden shoes in the Netherlands. There are crafts with complete skulls of hornbills, toes of casuaris birds and feathers of birds of paradise. But we leave them alone however tempting they are. Better to see them alive like in
Sorong, our next destination. Sorong and the Raja Ampat Islands
To get to the Raja Ampat Islands you need a permit. It costs 500.000 Rp per person tells Amy at the Raja Ampat Tourism Office in Sorong. She is wearing a scarf. "Fifty Shades of Grey" lays on her desk. 'It is a lot of money, but you support the ecosystem with it', she says. The coralsea around the islands is one the most precious in the world, but threatened by fishing with dynamite and cyanid. Ecotourism might prevent further damage. But unlike most tourists we do not come for the coralsea, but for the birds of paradise.
We take a yellow taxi (B) to the harbor and buy tickets for the ferry to Waisai on Waigeo Island. It takes 2 hours. With a little boat we leave from there for a smaller island, called Kri, just east of Pulau Mansuar, which took one hour. We sleep in one of the simple huts on the beach, owned by a Papua family. It is a homestay for only 300.000 Rp full board. The only drawback is that there is an Englishman who presents himself as the chief of
a volunteers organization, which does scientific research on the coralreef and supports the local community. It turns out that his only passion is to dive, that the research is not professional and that he does not want to pay the Papua's for his transport. One of the Papua's tells me they want to kick him out.
The spot is wonderful. A beautiful beach fringed by palms, casuaristrees, pandanusplants, mangroves and full of birds, like fisheagle, kingfishers, frigatebirds, lorikeets, red and white parrots and birds we cannot name. Everywhere are deep sounds of unknown birds.
Next morning at 5 we leave with a little boat for Pulau Gam, an island nearby. It is completely dark. The sea is calm and there is a cool breeze. The sky is full of stars. Down in the water are thousands of blinking lights of fosforising plankton as if they are mirroring the stars. In the wake of the boat is a tail of blinking plankton as if it is the tail of a comet crossing the universe. After 15 minutes we are at Gam. In the dark we walk over a narrow path across the jungle. Near a enormous tree we wait.
From everywhere unknown sounds arise, as if a orchestra starts up. Behind us we hear the unmistakable sound of the heavy wings of some hornbills. Slowly it becomes lighter. Then we see high in the tree two birds. Pigeons, not the birds we come for. We wait and wait and our necks become cramped. Finally they arrive: three Red Birds of Paradise, endemic for only a few parts of the Raja Ampat Islands. The male is dancing for one of the females, shaking its wings. It is absolutely great!
We stayed some days at Pulau Kri, snorkeled around, saw an amazing number of wonderful coral fishes and a lot of dead coral. Tomorrow we'll leave Papua. We go to Manado in Sulawesi (Celebes).
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