A Travellerspoint blog

September 2011

A Trek deep into Dani Country, Papua

Papua Journal Volume 4


After a poor night's sleep with insects creeping under the floor of my hut, I woke up to perfect morning light with clean, crisp air, a body of fog in the river valley below and a surrealistic cannibal village under my feet. The photos attached display the beauty of the valley. All the men folk were working the grounds while the women folk were grooming their children under the sun. Sweet potatoes, their primary diet, were cooking in an underground hearth, the pigs had already been released to their stockades (from the family bedroom) and I was watching everything in silent fascination.

After morning ablutions, a scary experience where a misstep could have hurtled me down a deep ravine,a wonderful breakfast of eggs and bread, we set off on our 7-hour trek for the day. Good Byes to the Kilease clan was brief as the elders were beginning to fight for sharing the fees even before we departed.They are a bellicose people, easily provoked by external stimuli involving property and women. They literally get on each other’s face with or without the Stone Age hoe that is their main agricultural tool. I did mention that the Dani, Lani, Korowai, Kombai, Asmat and other peoples of the Island are stone age tribes, since all their implements were made of stone until recently and still in use. (I bought a couple of hoes from the chief).

The climb was getting arduous despite the porters carrying everything including my camera. On a mere nod they would have lifted me too. I regret not noting their names but all four of them were very pleasant but for one grouch who always kept to himself and never communicated. White Water Rivers were hurtling below and periodically we crossed bridges built only of wood and tree vines over great heights. This was Indiana Jones country for me. No nails, no metal but pure archaic engineering (see photo). Along the way we saw several villages but would not trespass them since Scorpio knew where to go and what to avoid.
One particular meeting was with a pair of Papuans who were returning home after trading tobacco for penis gourds. They proudly showed the long gourds, which were teased while growing to become straight, long, and broad enough to hold a Negroid penis. While I inspected them I was tempted to smell the gourd but suddenly realized with great alarm that there could have been a "fitting" prior to the purchase. These travellers had nothing but a bag made of hemp holding some tobacco, some sweet potatoes and their body decorations. They demonstrated their nasal bone ornaments that they always carry lest they have to attend a function of great importance. All Papuan males have pierced septum to accommodate boars’ teeth ornaments. Large ones being rarer these days, the longer the bone the more sophisticated the wearer. After bidding farewell to them we ascended to greater heights were the clouds seem to hug the crown of the mountain ridges.
Scorpio suddenly swept me aside and made me crawl on the high grass and observe an amazing hunt. A local bird hunter actually shot a flying bird with his arrow at 50 yards and while in flight. I could not believe my eyes. Imagine that your only diet consisted of sweet potatoes and an occasional bird stew of an animal in flight downed with the most rudimentary tool-a bamboo bow and arrow.


After several magnificent vistas and vertical meters, we were about to enter a village to call our home for the night. Being squarely in the tropics sunrise was 6:00 AM and sunset its numerical counterpart in the evening. I was given my customary private hut but this time on an elevated platform because a major stream was only a few yards away. Within a span of 5 minutes several young children and many maimed village elders sat outside my hut trying to get cigarettes or medicines and sell me some trinkets. The first woman that approached me, topless of course (No Bridgette Bardot folks!) raised both her palms in the way the pope would do as you approach him. I was wondering if she was bestowing a blessing on me, but it turned out to be a typical Papuan greeting to indicate war loses (I noticed that several digits of her fingers were missing in both hands). I have seen too many lepers in India with such loss of digits but I was told she was not a leper but a person who was mourning death(s) in her family. What? I thought!. Then came a middle-aged man with a cigarette between his forefinger and thumb, of course with all his digits missing ,worn to the nub. Upon further inquiry, I was told that the each digit was sawn off to mourn the loss of a sibling or parent in a tribal war. I saw many have them had only two complete fingers in both hands. With regular pitched battles in the past family losses were so heavy that most Papuans over the age of 50 ( born in the 1940’s and 1950’s)had severely maimed bodies.
The next morning with mostly naked people all around me, I was least conscious when I disrobed and washed myself in the stream. I found a spot upstream from the pigs and the ladies washing their sweet potatoes. I was very tempted to wear a gourd and walk about but better judgment prevented me from doing so. A noble savage imitated by an urban literate is tantamount to blasphemy.
IMGP4387.jpgIMGP4376.jpgIMGP4363.jpgIMGP4361.jpgWishing a hunter good night

Wishing a hunter good night


Posted by Ramdas Iyer 17:00 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)

Reformed "Head-Hunters" of Baliem Valley, Papua, Indonesia

Over the Jungle and into the Land of the Dani People......................Ramdas Iyer

Approaching the age of 50 one wonders if the time for hard adventure becomes limited. So I decided to embark to places not easily accessible or to have perceived difficulties. Papua has always been on my scope: an isolated Eden with amazing anthropological treasures. My frequent visits to the Met in New York especially to enjoy its ethnographic art and particularly the Michael Rockefeller collection from Papua, has often left me yearning to visit the place. As a young man, I had read about how Michael Rockefeller, the son of VP Nelson Rockefeller a Peace Corps worker and a collector of artifacts for the Peabody Museum at Yale university was attacked and cannibalized by the Asmat people of Papua.


So in December of 2006 I flew into Jayapura on a hopper flight from Jakarta to Sulawesi, Timor, Biak Island and finally Jayapura. On this flight I met a young and rather scared Indian engineer who was on his way from Bangalore to Biak. He was to spend 6 months in a trailer with 2 other Indians working for ISRO, the Indian Space agency that uses that location for geo-tracking its satellites. The thought of a Hindu boy, religious and a sworn vegetarian in the wilds of the south pacific in the midst of newly reformed cannibals was indeed a testimony to globalization.
The last leg from Biak into Jayapura consisted of a visual explosion of verdant forest canopy for miles on end. Being home to the second largest rainforest after Brazil, my fantasy of naked cannibals ( not necassarily)in Penis gourds, slithery vipers and constrictors of every size, color and maiming ability was coming close to reality. However Jaypura was a disappointment. It was modernizing fast with Internet access, slow traffic, commercialization but also thankfully the telephone exchange from where I had an opportunity to call home from, where my wife was wondering if I was having my tryst with spear tips.

Unlike New Guinea its ethnic cousin, Papua is still wild and exciting. Until WWII it was a Dutch colony. The Dutch having given Indonesia to its people wanted to maintain Irian Jaya ( Western Papua) as its territory. Finally after a hard fought UN resolution in 1962 it became a state under Indonesia. The locals are still fighting for independence often leading to foreigners being restrained from visiting several parts of this island, the world’s second largest. New Guinea on the other hand was under Australian protection until 1975.

Japanese forces occupied Jayapura known as Hollandia, a very tiny Dutch Indies town at that time, in 1942, only to be driven away by Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s troops. He established Hollandia as his HQ until the conquest of Philippines in1945. Over 500,000 US troops had made amphibious landings in its shores during WWII.

The first peril of travelling had already hit me. My local agent was bitter with the main agent based out of Bali because he was short changed for this trip. He was supposed to pack all our cooking material and supplies for a our 5 day trek and escort me by hopper flight to the Baliem Valley, home of the stone-age Dani people. Instead he bought lots of noodles, biscuits, oil, salt etc. and packed me off alone to the land of the infamous cannibals. Like most interior flights this flight was operated by Dutch missionaries and as guessed a Fokker propeller aircraft. The tiny airport had no tourists but consisted of different ethnic Indonesians trying to get a foothold into this mysterious land. One of the passengers seemed to have a brief case that was moving periodically. It turned out to be a gagged piglet slung on a rope like a brief case.

Until 1961 cannibalism was rampant in Papua. The Dani were only discovered in 1938 only after the advent of flight.
They did not come in contact with other people on account of the fact that the highlands had 150 miles of virtually impassable territory and there was no available food for explorers to eat on the way. They were discovered
Their history is one of violence for the sake of violence. Every one of the hundreds of villages that dot the mountainous country embarks on ritual pitched battles on a regular basis with the sole intention of insulting their enemy by either maiming or killing them. The main reason for cannibalism was not for dietary purposes but for the capture of their spirits. This enmity over the centuries led to isolated village groups with slightly different customs, language and body decorations; an anthropologist’s laboratory. My Dani guide Scorpio, was orphaned at a tender age when his father was gored during such a fight with a spear.
The last cases of cannibalism were only recently recorded. In 1968 two missionaries (Australian Stan Dole and American Phil Masters) were chopped and eaten. During Christmas 1974, four Dutch families were killed and eaten by aborigines in the Jayawijaya Mountains near Wamena. The last known case was a killing of a priest and his twelve companions. It allegedly happened because they tried to ban the aborigines from hunting for skulls and they burnt their fetishes. This tragic event happened in 1976.

Upon arrival at this tiny airport into a town set in a green valley, I was received by a stocky aboriginal man with a red feather hair dress- I believe it was jungle rooster, and a large toothy grin and broad aboriginal nose; I had delivered myself to the Dani. My worries quickly evaporated upon meeting Scorpio, dressed like a Texas Ranger ready for a mission in Helmund Province. I was pleased.

A glimpse of the market at Wamena was enough to keep my interest peeked for the next one week I would spend on this Island. Every man over the age of 40 was naked, with a headdress and penis gourd ranging from a curled 6” specimen to a vine teased 14” long lance. The younger ones were all in modern but dirty t-shirts given by missionaries. Yes, Christianity is very big here. I am sure they imagined Jesus on the cross with a penis gourd! The women were all dressed and seemed to do the bulk of physical labor. They were selling tobacco leaves, vegetables, roots and some conveniences like flashlights from China, Aspirin etc. Of course Papuans did not use currency until recently and maintained their wealth in pigs. I witnessed a massive pig pulled out of the earth from an underground hearth and the local abbotoir cum chef was selling pieces from a walk in pit.
We walked to the hotel, a small arboreal retreat from where we prepared to assault the Highlands of the Dani with 4 porters, guide and a chef who took cooking lessons from me, periodically. It was different from his usual cuisine I wondered: cilantro and spleen, lettuce with liver and some basil for the brains. The rest I will continue in my next volume.

Ramdas IyerZ

Posted by Ramdas Iyer 17:00 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)