Hiking the “Cannibal” Tribe of New Guinea island

This story (in Chinese) was first published in the Issue 09/2022 of World View magazine.

This English version was translated from the Chinese original using DeepL, with the manual correction of some obvious mistranslations. I apologize for any mistakes made by this AI translation tool.

Do you believe that there is a place in the world where “the country is Asian, the people are African, but it is actually in Oceania”?

This place, the island of New Guinea – the second largest island in the world after Greenland.

It is geographically part of Oceania, however, the western half is the territory of the Asian country of Indonesia. The island’s indigenous people are Melanesians, also known as Papuans. With their dark complexion, they could easily be mistaken for coming from sub-Saharan Africa – but there is actually no kinship between the two.

Melanesians on the island of New Guinea

The isolation of the rainforest has made it one of the most isolated and underdeveloped regions in the world. If you search the internet for “New Guinea Island”, the first thing you’ll likely see is a variety of strange rumors. Some of the most bizarre are that there are still many “cannibalistic” tribes on the island. Some even fervently say that Michael Rockefeller, son of former U.S. Vice President Nelson Rockefeller and great-grandson of “Oil King” John Rockefeller, disappeared on New Guinea Island in 1961 and is still missing because he fell into the hands (mouth) of “cannibals”. “(mouth).

Whether the rumors of “cannibalism” are true or not, the island of New Guinea is indeed one of the best preserved areas of indigenous tribal culture in the world today, and many tribal people still wear traditional clothing on a daily basis. The relatively more developed Indonesian territory on the west side of the island has become a more popular destination for lovers of indigenous tribal culture than the less secure and less developed infrastructure of Papua New Guinea on the east side of the island.

In May 2017, a friend and I made a special trip to Baliem Valley, the hinterland of the Indonesian island of New Guinea, hoping to unravel the mysteries in our minds with a trip deep into the tribe.


Wamena – a tribal town deep in the mountains

The small town of Wamena, the undoubted centre of the Baleem Valley region, is the starting point for all treks. To reach it, you have to take a plane from Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, and then change to a small propeller plane at Jayapura, the island’s “transportation hub”, after an overnight flight. Like most of the island, Wamena is not connected to the outside world by road, so flying is the only way to get here, other than through hundreds of kilometres of jungle.

This is by no means a popular destination. The only proper guesthouse in town is probably only “comparable” to a small hotel next to a Chinese train station, and doesn’t even have wifi or cell phone reception, but it’s not cheap – $50 a night. Here we met the only 2 foreign tourists we saw on the trip, who had just returned from a hike in the valley and were preparing to leave. This meant that most likely we would be the only tourists in the entire Vallem valley for the next 3 days of the trek.

Streetscape of Wamena, not so different from a normal Indonesian town

We tried to find the difference here in the town, however, we couldn’t find much difference anymore except for the ethnicity of the people. The residents wear all normal modern clothing and the restaurants sell Masakan Padang, a dish found everywhere in Indonesia. This implies that the town’s inhabitants, at least, have long since assimilated into the native Indonesian culture. If I had to find any difference, it would be that most of the residents here are Protestant Christians, rather than the Islam that most Indonesians follow.


In theory, the valley hike could be done entirely by public transport and mobile phone maps. However, to be safe and to learn as much as possible about the local culture in a place where we don’t speak the language, we chose to follow Jonas, the guide recommended by Lonely Planet’s guidebook, and found him in a very strange way: the book said to go to a print shop and ask the Japanese owner to call him. We did, and Jonas arrived immediately, as promised, so quickly that we didn’t even have time to figure out: why would a Japanese man want to open a print shop in the Papuan rainforest? The price he offered wasn’t cheap, over 2,000 RMB per person for a 3 day, 2 night trek, including all expenses in between. But we had no choice but to accept.

Day 1: Experience the Dhani customs in visits and performances

After enduring the shabbiness and noise of the room all night long, we finally waited for Jonas, or rather Jonas’s “team”: himself and a backpacker to accompany us both for the next three days; in addition, he brought a car and a dedicated driver. We were amazed by the “VVIP luxury”, it was “worth” the money!

The first day didn’t really count as a hike, but rather Jonas took us on a bus ride to see the locals. The first destination was a market on the outskirts. At first glance, it looked like any other market in Indonesia. At first glance, it looked like any other market in Indonesia, but upon closer inspection, we realized that it was a primitive “bartering” type of market that had been formed by the residents of the surrounding area, and therefore sold a wide variety of goods. Laptops and smartphones, like bananas, were being sold on the dirty counter, leaving us to wonder where they came from – in fact, just the night before, a friend’s phone had almost been snatched by locals in town.

Laptops and smartphones for sale at market stalls
Traditional costumes and hats for sale at the stall

The original inhabitants of the Baleem valley, called Dani, now number about 25,000. Outside the town, the inhabitants continue to live in the most traditional way: they live in two or three families in compounds called Lima, supporting each other in every way and living in a semi-family and semi-community. In the compound, each adult has his or her own thatched wooden hut, and the men live in a round house called Honai (“hon” means man; “ai” means house). Women and their children live in rectangular houses called Ebeai (“ebe” meaning woman), which are usually smaller than Honai. Even the relatively tall men’s rooms are low and gloomy inside, with ceilings only about a meter high, making them impossible for a normal adult to stand in – yet this uncomfortable shape provides excellent stability on the earthquake-prone island of New Guinea. The Honai, located in the middle of the compound, is the house of the patriarch, who is the most prestigious person in the entire compound. The Dani practice polygamy to this day, so the women’s rooms often outnumber the men’s.

On the left is the women’s room (Ebeai) and on the right is the men’s room (Honai), and you can clearly see the difference between them

The largest and most spacious house in the compound is the dining room for all and also serves as a children’s classroom. In Dani culture, sleeping must be separate for each person (even for couples), but eating must be done together. There are also thatched huts that are used to store sweet potatoes and other foods – the most important staple food for the Dani.

The dining room room in the courtyard, which was also our temporary spot for lunch

Pigs have an irreplaceable place in Dhani culture, they even live in the same compound as people! Even the pig pens have their own name: Wamai (yes, “wam” means pig). In the eyes of the Dhani, pigs are a treasure: pork is eaten, blood is used for rituals, bones and tails make great decorations, and they even serve as the best “peacemakers” in case of inter-tribal conflicts. Even Dhani marriages are based on pigs: it is said that four to five pigs can be “exchanged” for a wife.

Piglets in the courtyard

Even more peculiar than the houses is the clothing of the Dani people: they do not regard female breasts as a taboo, so women have only a grass skirt to cover their bodies. The men even wear “no clothes” at all, except for a long sleeve called a koteka, which covers their penis. Koteka are worn by many ethnic groups on the island of New Guinea, and their style can even be used to identify different ethnic groups. But most of them have one thing in common: the longer the koteka, the higher the status of the person. Don’t think they only wear it in front of tourists: more than once on the hike behind me, I saw men (mostly elderly) wearing traditional headgear and koteka, walking past our group as if nothing was wrong.

In the 1970s, the Indonesian government tried to eradicate what they saw as a “bad habit”: they air-dropped fancy modern clothes into the tribes by air. Although this succeeded in “buying” some of the young people, the majority of the elderly remained true to their traditions. The Government then had to resort to administrative measures to make “normal dress” compulsory for entry into government institutions and schools. As a result, fewer and fewer young people today still retain the original custom, and it may not be long before this unique tradition disappears.

The women of the tribe in traditional dress greet us with a dance. Despite their bare breasts, they are not at all shy about it.
Men in the tribe in traditional dress. You can see a clear difference in the length of their Koteka. The two men with the white cloth draped over their chests are recognized as the most prestigious and respected leaders of the tribe.

At each compound, the residents would each silently bring out a roll of artifacts, from headdresses and pig bone carvings to koteka. But no one ever tried to sell it to us, it was just silently placed there, like a mysterious ritual, even knowing that we were the only visitors.

While most children here have access to basic schooling, many adults (especially the elderly and women), continue to lack the most basic literacy skills. But this also seems to vary from person to person – we even met a tribal woman who complained to us in English about her husband’s neglect of her and her children. It would really be interesting to know where she learned her English.

But we did ask Jonas, our guide, where he learned his English. He said that 30 years ago he accidentally received a Western tourist who came to “explore” the area when he spoke only a few words of English. He later learned that the man was the author of Lonely Planet back then. As he was included in the world’s most famous travel guide, more and more tourists came. From one reception to the next, Jonas not only mastered fluent English, but even built a house in the city of Vamena with a peacock as a pet in his backyard! When he met us, his biggest worry was his youngest son’s addiction to smartphone games. “That’s so bad for his eyes!” He said indignantly.

The highlight of the day was a “war show” that could have been faked. When a dozen men in traditional dress stood before us, I thought it was just another “tribal fashion show”. But then they split into two teams and practiced for real – even though we were the only two in the audience.

Contrary to what you might think, the Dhani once clashed between tribes, usually not to conquer a city, but to humiliate their enemies, so killing each other was not their main goal. But in the show, I did see the “fallen” enemy being carried off the battlefield by the victors. I asked Jonas if they were going to be eaten, and Jonas laughed, saying that he had never heard of such a thing in at least the last few decades.

In fact, some tribes on the island of New Guinea did practice the consumption of human corpses, which even led to the spread of prion-infected “kuru disease” for a time. But this was only done as a traditional ritual, usually of dead relatives or of enemies recovered in battle. However, there is never any evidence that they hunted other humans specifically for food (after all, killing for meat is much less “cost effective” than raising pigs). The last remaining tribes have mostly been educated to abandon the tradition after “cannibalism” was discovered to be the cause of Kulu disease in the 1950s.

Although the Dhani have long since stopped eating people, another tradition has survived: mummification. When Jonas said he was going to see a “mummy”, I thought he meant some sacred female in the family. . After all, how could there be mummies left in such a hot and humid environment?

The Dhani, however, who worship their ancestors, leave their remains in a clever way: smoking. Perhaps they drew inspiration from the preservation of pork: when an old man sacred to the family died, they smoked him in a special house until the remains were completely dehydrated. Although the practice is no longer prevalent, there are indeed some amazing centuries-old “smoked mummies” left in the village.

On the way, we passed a giant natural cave that was a “ball park” for local children. It was like a “halftime break” compared to all the wonders we experienced during the day.

Day 2&3: Indulge in the untouched nature of the Baleem Valley

The first day was spent seeing the culture of the Dani people, and the next two days were spent walking through the regal scenery in the Baleem Valley. It’s not a tough hike, but Jonas has crafted a route that ties together just the right amount of scenery and people along the way. The high ground offers breathtaking panoramic views of the valley, while the bottom of the valley often requires crossing thrilling canyon or suspension bridges, giving a real sense of the tropical valley’s fast-flowing waters. The villages that we pass along the way allow us to meet the locals at close quarters.

Children playing in the village. Unlike their parents, the children are dressed in their usual modern clothes.

The government has built modern schools in the valley, but the infrastructure in the villages is still extremely lacking. There is no mobile phone signal and no electricity coverage, let alone running water or gas. Villagers living in traditional thatched huts have to make do with solar panels and batteries for nighttime lighting.

The Dhani kitchen continues the tradition of earthen stoves and firewood. At sunset, you can see the smoke rising from the villages all over the valley. Jonas was kind enough to arrange a “cooking experience” for us: setting up the stove and lighting the firewood, which seems to be a simple process, but in fact requires a lot of experience. Instead of the local mountain pork, Jonas used a box of canned luncheon meat. He explained apologetically that the local pork is not quarantined and may have germs and parasites that foreign tourists find hard to resist.

It was a great meal and Jonas even “turned” Coca-Cola for us.

That night, we stayed in a most traditional hut. Two mattresses and a net of mosquito nets were all that was needed. I barely slept for a minute as the mountain wind whipped against the hidden wooden door, emitting mournful cries and the perpetual buzzing of giant flying insects of all colors outside the mosquito net. I tried to swipe my phone, but there was no signal, so I could only silently ponder the comforts of the modern world: even the damp, dark hotel room from the night before seemed like heaven.

Yet for the villagers here, and for all the people who live in the tribes of the island of New Guinea, this is the daily routine. As tourists, we can go into (and even sleep in) their huts ourselves, we can cook a meal ourselves in the most primitive way, but do we really get to know their hearts deeply?

Like the can of lunch meat used in place of mountain pork, and the Coca-Cola that got us all excited for a moment. Traveling through the villages of the Dani people, we seem so close to them, but we are so far away. But how much longer can even the Dani themselves remain in this state of “independence”? Their children are already wearing modern clothes and going to modern schools. Maybe in a few decades we will only see Koteka in museums and tourist attractions.

Since we couldn’t sleep, we woke up early and climbed to the top of the hill behind the village, waiting from the early morning fog until the sea of clouds cleared, and letting the “nonsense” of the night before go away.

Jonas brought a delicious breakfast in due course. The village was so lovely in the morning that it was hard to relate to the horribleness of the previous night in the cottage.

On the way back, I asked Jonas what he wanted his kids to do in the future. He laughed: to go to the big city, of course!

Even the most traditional Dhani parents understand that it is “better” for their children to be exposed to more advanced modern culture and to move to the town or even the big city in the future. But what about the traditions that have been passed down for thousands of years among the Dani, and indeed among the various indigenous tribes? Letting them “die” and moving them to museums is the way to go in many places, but that is obviously not the best option; but is it better to let the children continue to live in huts with no electricity, no internet and no benefits of human development?

I can’t think of an answer.

Accidental stay at the “world’s second largest island’s most luxurious resort”

At the end of our four-day trip, just as we had arrived, we were ready to buy our return tickets on the spot at the airport. However, all flights were sold out that day (which is very rare) and we had to stay an extra day. To add insult to injury, the next flight was already booked and was due to leave in a few hours.

Luckily, the airport was one of the few places in town that had cell phone reception, so anxiously we had to call the airline to change our tickets immediately. After endless waiting and broken English, even using the “Alpha, Bravo” I learned on my radio test, I finally managed to change my ticket to the next day.

However, when I called the hotel to renew my room, I got more unexpected news: they were about to welcome the President of Indonesia to stay, so they were closed for the day. At that moment, I was furious and laughing – even if you were the president, you’d still have to stay in that damp, dank, dreary hotel when you’re here! (In that case, wasn’t the room we stayed in the other day a real “presidential suite”?)

The other hotels in town were in predictable condition, and we were reluctant to go to them as a bum. I suddenly remembered what the book said: there is a “luxury resort” about ten kilometers out of town. It had never entered our minds before because of the lack of access. But since we had this extra day to do nothing, why not go and experience it?

When I called, there were rooms available for “only” $90, including afternoon tea and breakfast. I immediately called two motorcycles and raced there, but when I saw the muddy and bumpy road along the way, I wondered: is this really the way to a “luxury resort”? Moreover, does a “luxury resort” really exist in a place like Wamena, where “the president has to be aggrieved”?

All these doubts were dispelled the moment we saw the resort for real – we couldn’t believe our eyes! An entire row of exquisite buildings with a unique local character, scattered like a paradise on the slopes of the Baleem Valley side. There are only 15 rooms here, all detached wooden houses modelled on traditional Dhani houses. From the large floor-to-ceiling panoramic windows, you can see the entire Baleem Valley without any obstruction. The common areas, with their terraces, restaurants and even bars, were even more stunning than the rooms. At the time, I couldn’t think of a word to describe the contrast between “wildness” and “luxury”. Now someone has finally invented the word: “wild luxury”.

Jokingly, I asked the clerk, “You have to be the most luxurious resort in the entire Indonesian province of Papua, right?” To my surprise, she replied seriously, “No – we are the most luxurious resort in the whole island of New Guinea.”

No one else checked in that night but us. In other words: we had the most luxurious resort on the second largest island in the world for just over $90! Lazing in the rocking chair in my room, watching the clouds roll in and out of the valley, sipping freshly brewed coffee, I could never have imagined that an hour ago I would be worried about being on the streets tonight!

The candlelight dinner was the only “optional” item, and the total for two people was surprisingly less than $15.

The next day, I ran to that panoramic terrace early to capture the early morning mountains and sea of clouds. Below those mountains, behind the clouds, was the tribe we had just hiked through. I couldn’t have imagined that the two worlds hanging in the sky, from the primitive tribe to the luxury resort, were only a dozen kilometers apart.