A gruelling journey through the untamed wilderness of Irian Jaya

Jun 22, 2023
'However, there were compensations because the panoramas were stunning'.Source: Getty

The first thing to strike me on flying into Irian Jaya (locally referred to as Papua) was the beauty of the country, which was lush and mountainous. But from then on it was all downhill; the venture turned into an ordeal and was the most difficult thing that I had ever accomplished.

Failure to meet me at Jayapura caused some consternation because I only found one man to speak English, who endeavoured to assist me. However, I was eventually located, and after a lengthy delay and much disorganisation typical of developing countries, we boarded the plane for Wamena, where we (nine in total) were taken for an excellent lunch.

I obtained my first pictures of a tribal man wearing the koteka (penis gourd) in front of the hotel, but unfortunately, commercialism had caught up with these people, and he demanded money. Far from what I expected, Wamena, the provincial capital of the 1,554m altitude Baliem Valley, was quite a large community, and the colourful buildings with their many free-standing gables were interesting.

Immediately following lunch, we set off on what was supposed to be a walk but which turned into an endurance for which I was ill-prepared. Apart from my struggle to breathe and lack of sleep since departing Perth, the trek was arduous and difficult.

Clambering over high rustic stiles, crossing logs fording rushing streams, and ploughing through thick growth, but the worst aspect was the mud, and my sneakers were completely inadequate for the conditions. At times, my porter had to piggyback me over sections that I found too hard to negotiate, and I was left far behind. The guide having gone on ahead, I could not communicate with my helper and the three-hour walk turned into six, the last half completed in darkness with the aid of one torch.

To cap it all off, I could not eat my dinner and had the most uncomfortable night of my entire life on the floor of a hut in the village of Kilisi. The mattress they provided was wafer thin, and in spite of my exhaustion, I barely slept all night. At this stage, I had grave doubts about my ability to complete the 18-day programme.

The only positive aspects were that the weather was kind and there were few mosquitoes, but I was assured that they would come! I obtained a few photographs because, by the time we encountered interesting villages, it was too dark to film. One consisted of gaily painted wooden houses, the second of beehive-shaped grass huts with a fire burning inside (end of the first section) It gets more interesting as it goes along, but I felt I should include the introduction to Papua.

The following day was even more challenging because I suffered severe chest pain and became quite alarmed. The guide having accompanied the group, I was alone with the porter and was prepared to abandon the trek and return to Wamena. However, having been summoned back by a porter sent from another group who noticed my plight, the guide calculated that it would take too long and not be accomplished before dark.

He suggested a shortcut to the next village, which was our destination for the night. This turned out to be up an exceedingly steep slope, and even with frequent rest breaks I almost gave up. We were ascending a mountain, and every time I thought that I had reached the top there was another crest to surmount.

However, there were compensations because the panoramas were stunning, and ultimately arriving before the group, I had the pleasant surprise of being able to photograph men in ceremonial dress, who had been practising for the forthcoming festival around which I had planned my trip.

They were garlanded with hawk feathers, cuscus fur, dog tails and seashells and looked very regal. I was granted permission to film a group inside their house; wearing the koteka, the man was cooking sweet potatoes in coals. I was given a half to eat but did not finish it. This was the village of Ugem, where we stayed at the teacher’s guest house.

The meal that evening, the first I had been able to participate in, was surprisingly good: vegetable soup, chicken curry, beans, and prawn crackers. Breakfast on both days consisted of toast with peanut butter or chocolate and tea (no milk), with the addition of a fried egg on the first morning.

The next day was undoubtedly the most difficult test of endurance that I had ever experienced. The mud was so thick and slippery that my porter resorted to piggybacking me again, at one time slipping but landing on hands and knees with me still on his back! Occasionally, a couple of the guides made sport of it and challenged each other as to who could carry me the furthest. But regardless, I finished with the black ooze filling my shoes, caking my socks, and halfway up my trekking pants.

Once again the scenery was astounding and the villages, with their thatched houses and vegetable gardens, extremely neat. Everybody we met on the route stopped to say selamat pagi (good morning) and shake hands. Towards the end of the ordeal, we crossed a suspension bridge over the extremely powerful Baliem River.

This raging watercourse would show no mercy if one were caught by it; in fact, the first bridge broke and a Japanese tourist was swept away and never found. I arrived back at the hotel in Wamena thoroughly exhausted and never more dirty in my life. It was a blessing to reach a decent hotel and hot shower after three days without even cleaning my teeth. I anticipated it being considerably more harrowing in the virgin Korowai jungle.

I spent hours attempting to clean everything, even scrubbing my shoes inside and out. On the trek, hygiene had gone by the board; there were no facilities for washing and one was constantly shaking dirty hands. Amusingly, as well as my luggage, the porter carried a battered guitar that he strummed with a monotonous rhythm, having to put it down to help me over the many stiles with extremely high rungs, which I found strange because they were little people.

To read more travel articles from Faye Day, head here. Or you can find her brilliant travel series “Every Nook and Cranny: A World Travel Guide” here.

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