Hiking the “Cannibal” Tribe of New Guinea island

Do you believe that there is a place in the world where “the country belongs to Asia, the people there looks like African, but it is actually in Oceania”?

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

It belongs to Oceania geographically, but the western half is the territory of Indonesia, an Asian country. The aboriginal people on the island are Melanesians, also known as Papuans. Their dark complexion can easily be mistaken for sub-Saharan Africa, but there is actually no relationship between the two.

This article was translated by Google Translate from Chinese. I have corrected some obvious mistakes though there would be more. I apology for any inconveniences. You can click the Chinese flag🇨🇳 at left bar to turn to Chinese version, then use any translation tools if you want.

Feel free to make any questions or suggestions by comment:)

Melanesians on the island of New Guinea

The isolated rainforest environment makes it one of the most isolated and underdeveloped regions in the world. If you search for “New Guinea Island” on the Internet, the first thing you see is probably all kinds of strange rumors. The most fascinating thing is that there are still many “cannibal” tribes on the island. What’s more, it’s true that Michael Rockefeller, the son of former U.S. Vice President Nelson Rockefeller and great-grandson of “oil king” John Rockefeller, disappeared in New Guinea in 1961. They said the reason is that he fell into the hand (or mouth) of the “cannibals”.

Regardless of whether the “cannibals” rumors are true or false, New Guinea is indeed one of the best-preserved areas of indigenous tribal culture in the world today, and many tribal residents still wear traditional costumes daily. Compared with Papua New Guinea on the east side of the island, the security is relatively poor and the infrastructure is not very developed. The relatively more developed Indonesian territory on the west side has become a favored place for more indigenous tribal culture lovers.

In May 2017, my friend and I made a special trip to the Baliem Valley (Baliem Valley), the hinterland of New Guinea, Indonesia, hoping to take a trip to the tribes and uncover the mysteries in our happiness.

Wamena — A Tribal Town in Deep Mountains

The small town of Wamena is the unquestioned center of the Baliem Valley region and the starting point for all hikes. To get here, you have to take a plane from Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, and after flying all night, then change to a small propeller plane at Jayapura, the island’s “transportation hub”. Like most areas on the island, Wamena does not have roads to connect with the outside world, so airplanes are the only way to get here except through hundreds of kilometers of jungle.

This is by no means a popular destination. The only formal hotel in the town is probably only “comparable” to the low-end family guesthouse. It does not even have Wi-Fi and cell phone signals. However, the price is not cheap, costs $50 a night! We met two foreign tourists here who were only seen on this trip. They had just returned from hiking in the valley and were about to leave. This means that in the next 3 days of hiking, we may be the only tourists in the entire Baliem Valley.

The street view of Wamena is not much different from an ordinary Indonesian town

We tried to find the difference here in the town, but apart from race, we couldn’t find much difference. Residents wear normal modern clothes, and restaurants sell Masakan Padang(chicken rice), which can be found everywhere in Indonesia. This implies that at least the residents of the town have already been assimilated by Indonesian native culture. If you insist on finding any difference, it is that most of the residents here believe in Protestantism instead of Islam, which most Indonesians believe in.

The Christian church in the town. However, most aborigines of New Guinea still retain some traditional “animity” beliefs while they believe in Christianity.

Theoretically, the valley hike can be done entirely by public transportation and map apps. However, in order to ensure safety and to learn as much as possible about the local culture in places where the language does not speak, we chose to follow the guide Jonas recommended by the “Lonely Planet” travel guide. The way to find him was very strange: the book said that he was going to a print shop and asked the Japanese boss to help him. We did, and Jonas arrived immediately, so fast that we hadn’t even had time to figure out: Why would a Japanese open a print shop in the Papua rainforest? The price he offered is not cheap. The hike for 3 days and 2 nights, including all the expenses, costs more than $300 per person. We had no choice but to accept.

Day 1: Feel the Dani Customs During the Visit and Performance

After enduring the rundown and noise of the room all night, we finally waited for Jonas. To our surprise, it was Jonas’s “team”: he himself and a porter were responsible for accompany the two of us throughout the next three days. He even brought a pickup truck and a full-time driver! We were stunned by this “VVIP luxury team”, the money was really worth it!

The first day is not a hike, but Jonas takes us to see the lives of the locals. The first destination is a market in the suburbs. At first glance, it seems to be no different from other markets in Indonesia. You can look closely and discover that this place is completely spontaneously formed by surrounding residents, and is a primitive trading place similar to “bartering things”. Therefore, the goods sold can be described as a dazzling variety of products. Laptops and smartphones, like bananas, were randomly placed on dirty chopping boards for sale, so we had to doubt their origins. Since just in the lase night, my friend’s iPhone was almost snatched by the locals in town.

Laptops and smartphones sold at a market stall
Traditional costumes and hats sold at the stall

The aboriginal people of the Baliem Valley are called Dani people, and there are about 25,000 people today. Residents outside of towns continue to live the most traditional way of life: they live in a courtyard called Lima with 2-3 homes, help each other everywhere, and lead a half-family and half-collective life. In the courtyard, every adult has his own wooden thatched house. The round house where men live is called Honai (“hon” means “man”; “ai” means “house”). The rectangular house where women and their children live is called Ebeai (“ebe” means “woman”), which is usually smaller than Honai. Even the relatively tall men’s room, the interior is very low and gloomy, the ceiling is only about 1 meter high, and normal adults can’t stand at all. However, this uncomfortable shape is provided excellent stability on the island of New Guinea where earthquakes are frequent. The honai located in the center of the courtyard, is the house of the patriarch. He is the most prestigious person in the entire courtyard. The Dani practice polygamy so far, so there are often more rooms for women than for men.

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

The largest and most spacious house in the courtyard is the dining room for everyone and also serves as a “children’s classroom”. In the Dani culture, each person must sleep separately (even husband and wife), but everyone must eat together. There are also thatched cottages that are used to store sweet potatoes and other food-sweet potatoes are the most important staple food of the Dani.

The restaurant room in the courtyard is also a temporary place for us to have lunch

Pigs have an irreplaceable position in the Dani culture, and they even live in the same courtyard as people! Even the pig pen has its own name: Wamai (yes, “wam” means “pig”). In the eyes of the Dani, pigs can be described as “full of treasure”: pork is edible, pig blood is used for sacrifices, and pig bones and pig tails are excellent decorations. Pigs can even serve as the best “peace messenger” in clashes between tribes. Even the marriage of the Dani is inseparable from pigs: it is said that 4-5 pigs can be “traded” for a wife.

Little pig in the courtyard

What is more peculiar than the house is the clothing of the Dani: they do not regard female breasts as a taboo, so a women have only a grass skirt to cover her body. The men even “does not wear clothes” at all, and only uses a long sleeve called Koteka to cover his penis. Many ethnic groups in New Guinea have the custom of wearing Koteka, and their style can even serve as a basis for identifying different ethnic groups. But most ethnic groups have one thing in common: the longer the Koteka, the higher the status of the man. Don’t think that they only wear this in front of tourists: I saw men (mostly old people) wearing traditional headdresses and Koteka more than once in the back of the hike, passing by our group as if nothing had happened.

In the 1970s, the Indonesian government tried to get rid of this “bad habit” in their eyes: they used airplanes to drop colorful modern clothing into the tribe. Although the move successfully “brought over” some young people, the vast majority of old people still go their own way and stick to tradition. Later, the government had to use administrative means to stipulate that people must “wear normally” when entering government agencies and schools. Therefore, fewer and fewer young people still retain the original custom, and this unique tradition may soon disappear.

Women in the tribe in traditional costumes greeted us with a dance. Although they are topless, they will not feel ashamed at all.
Men in the tribe in traditional costumes. You can see the obvious difference in the length of their Koteka. The two men with white cloth hanging on their chests were recognized as the most prestigious and respected leaders in the tribe.

Every time they arrive in a courtyard, the residents will silently move out a blanket of crafts, ranging from headdresses, pig bone carvings to Koteka. But no one has ever tried to sell us, just silently there, like a mysterious ritual, even if we know that the tourists are only two of us.

Although most children here have access to basic school education, many adults (especially the elderly and women) still lack the most basic literacy skills. But this 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. I really want to know, where did she learn English?

But we did ask where the guide Jonas learned English. He said that 30 years ago, he accidentally received a western tourist who came to this “expedition”, and he could only speak a few English at that time. Later he learned that the man was actually the author of “Lonely Planet” back then. As he was written into the world’s most famous travel guide, more and more tourists came here. In the receptions, Jonas not only mastered fluent English, he even built a house in Wamena, with a peacock as a pet in the backyard! When he met us, his biggest annoyance was that his young son was addicted to smartphone games. “That’s too bad for his eyes!” he said angrily.

The biggest highlight of the day was a “war show” that could be fake and real. When a dozen men in traditional costumes stood before us, I thought it was just another “tribal fashion show.” But then they were divided into two teams and practiced with real swords and guns, even if the audience was only two of us.

Perhaps different from your imagination, the Dani’s past inter-tribal conflicts were usually not for siege of cities and land, but for humiliating the enemy, so killing the opponent was not their main purpose. But in the performance, I did see the “dead” enemy being carried out of the battlefield by the victor. I asked Jonas, will they be eaten? Jonas smiled and said that at least in the last few decades, he had never heard of such a thing.

In fact, some tribes on the island of New Guinea did have the custom of eating human corpses, and even the “Kuru disease,” which once caused prion infections, spread widely. But it only exists as a traditional ritual, and the objects of food are usually either dead relatives or the corpses of enemies found on the battlefield. However, there has never been evidence that they will kill other humans specifically for the sake of eating. After discovering that “cannibalism” was the main culprit of Kuru disease in the 1950s, most of the tribes that left this custom have gradually abandoned this tradition under education.

Although the Dani have long ceased to eat people, another traditional custom has remained: making mummies. When Jonas said to see “Mummy” , I thought he was talking about some sacred woman in the family. How can there be mummies in such a hot and humid environment?

However, the Dani keeps their worshiped ancestors’ bodies in a clever way: smoke. Perhaps they got inspiration from the preservation of pork: when the sacred old man of the family died, they would smoke it in a special house until the body was completely dehydrated. Although this custom has gradually ceased to prevail, there are indeed several “smoke mummies” with a history of hundreds of years left in the village, which is amazing.

A huge natural cave passing by on the road is a “ball court” for local children. Compared to all the surprises experienced on this day, the schedule here is almost like an “intermission”.

Day 2–3: Indulge in the Original Ecology of the Baliem Valley

The first day was to see the Dani culture, and for the next two days, we walked through the breathtaking scenery in the Baliem Valley. This is not a difficult hike, but Jonas’s carefully designed route can just connect the scenery and humanities along the way. Whenever you go to a high place, you can have a panoramic view of the magnificent valley. When you are at the bottom of the valley, you often need to cross the thrilling single-plank bridge or suspension bridge, which makes people really feel the rush of the tropical river valley. The villages passing by along the way allow us to get in touch with the locals.

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

The government has built modern schools in the valley, but the infrastructure in the village is still extremely lacking. There is no cell phone signal, no grid coverage, not to mention tap water and gas. Villagers living in traditional huts can only use solar panels and batteries to meet the night lighting.

The Dani’s kitchen still continues the tradition of earthen stove and firewood. Every time the sun sets, you can see the smoke rising from the villages all over the valley. The caring Jonas even specially arranged a “earth stove cooking experience” for us: supporting the stove and lighting the firewood. This seemingly simple process actually requires experience. The protagonist of the cuisine is naturally the sweet potato and pork that the locals love most. Jonas did not use the mountain pork that the locals eat, but a box of canned luncheon meat instead. He explained somewhat apologetically that the local wild pork has not been quarantined and there may be germs and parasites that foreign tourists cannot resist.

A hearty meal, Jonas even “changed” Coca-Cola for us.

That night, we lived in one of the most traditional huts. Two mattresses and a mosquito net are all of them. Throughout the whole night, the mountain breeze slapped the open wooden door with a screaming cry. With the mosquito nets, the giant flying insects were always buzzing. I didn’t fall asleep for almost a minute. I want to swipe my phone, but I don’t have the slightest signal. I can only silently miss the comfort of modern society: even the damp and dark hotel room the night before, it seems to be heaven.

But for the villagers here, as well as all the people living in the tribes of New Guinea, this is the daily routine. As tourists, we can walk into (or even sleep in) their huts and cook a meal in the most primitive way. But can we really understand their hearts?

Just like the can of luncheon meat used to replace mountain pork, and Coca-Cola, which makes us so excited. When we traveled in the Dani village, we seemed to be very close to them, but in fact, they were too far apart. However, how long can even the Dani himself maintain this “independent” state? Their children have put on modern clothes and have entered modern schools. Perhaps in just a few decades, we will only see Koteka in museums and tourist attractions.

Since we couldn’t sleep, we simply got up early and climbed to the top of the mountain behind the village. From the beginning of the morning mist, we waited until the sea of ​​clouds drifted away, which also let the “crazy thinking” of the previous night disappear.

Jonas delivered a delicious breakfast in time. The village in the early morning is so lovely, it is hard to connect with the horror in the hut the night before.

On the way back, I asked Jonas, what do I want my children to do in the future? He laughed: Of course go to big city for his future!

Even the most traditional Dani parents understand that allowing their children to accept more advanced modern culture and allowing them to develop in towns or even big cities in the future is undoubtedly a “better” option for them. But how can the Dani people and even the various indigenous tribes pass on the traditions that have lasted for thousands of years? Allowing them to “die” and then moving into museums as a whole is a practice in many places, but that is obviously not the best option; but is it possible to let the children continue to live in huts where there is no electricity and no Internet, and they cannot enjoy any human social development benefits Is it better?

I can’t think of an answer.

Accidentally Stayed in “the Most Luxurious Resort on the Second Largest Island of the World”

At the end of the four-day trip, we are going to buy the return ticket at the airport, just as we did when we arrived. However, all flights were sold out that day (this is very rare), and we can only stay for one more day. What’s more troublesome is that follow-up flights have already been booked and will depart in a few hours.

Fortunately, the airport is one of the few places in town where there is a cell phone signal. Anxiously, we had to call the airline to change the booking. After enduring the endless waiting, the poor English of the other party’s customer service, and even the “Alpha, Bravo” that I learned when I took the ham radio test, I finally managed to change the ticket to the next day.

However, when I called the hotel to renew the room, I got even more unexpected news: they were about to welcome the Indonesian President to stay, so they were closed for business that day. At that moment, I was angry and laughed, even the president still had to live in that damp and dark hotel! (So, the room we stayed is really a “presidential suite”?)

The conditions of other hotels in town can be imagined. I suddenly remembered what the book said: There is a “luxury resort” ten kilometers away from the town. Because of the inconvenience of transportation, we have never considered it before. But since there is one more day without incident, why not experience it?

I called and found that there was still room, and the room price was “only” $90, including afternoon tea and breakfast. I immediately called two motorcycles to rush over, but when I saw the muddy and bumpy road along the way, I felt bored in my heart: Is this really the road to the “luxury resort”? Is there really a “luxury resort” in a place like Wamena?

All these doubts disappeared at the moment when we saw the true content of the resort-we couldn’t believe our eyes! A whole row of exquisite buildings with unique local characteristics are scattered like a paradise on the slopes on the side of the Baliem Valley. There are only 15 rooms here, all of which are independent wooden houses modeled on the traditional houses of the Dani people. Looking out from the large floor-to-ceiling panoramic window, the entire Baliem Valley has an unobstructed panoramic view. In the public areas, terraces, restaurants, and even bars are all available, and the view you can see is more shocking than the room. At that time, I couldn’t think of a word that could describe the sharp contrast between “wildness” and “luxury”.

I joked and asked the clerk: “We must be in the most luxurious resort in the entire Indonesian Papua Province, right?” She didn’t expect that she actually replied seriously: “No. You are in the most luxurious resorts on the entire New Guinea Island. “

Apart from us that night, no one else stayed. That is to say: We spent just $90 to “book out” the most luxurious resort on the second largest island in the world!

Lazily lying on the rocking chair in the room, admiring the clouds and clouds in the valley, tasting the freshly ground coffee that was just delivered, I couldn’t believe that I was still wondering “Will we sleep on the street tonight?” one hour ago!

The candlelight dinner is the only “own expense item”, and the total amount of the two is less than $15.

The next day, I ran to the panoramic terrace early and photographed the mountains and sea of ​​clouds in the early morning. Below that mountain, behind the clouds, is the tribe we just hiked. I can’t imagine that, from primitive tribes to luxury resorts, the two worlds are separated by only a dozen kilometers.