West Papua IV – From Highland to Lowland

For the final section of time in Papua the plan was to follow the pioneering route of Austrian explorer Heinrich Harrer to the remote ‘Jae-Li-Me’ stone axe quarries and neolithic peoples written about in his book ‘I Come From The Stone Age’. (Heinrich Harrer also wrote the more famous ‘Seven Years In Tibet’, more recently turned into a film with Brad Pitt playing Harrer).

As always in Papua, things never quite go according to plan. We needed to get to Mulia to start the Harrer route, but with apparently nothing better to do some individuals in authority had set up a roadblock on the new Wamena-Mulia road with the aim of personal enrichment and causing nuisance. With limited time available and a very difficult and uncertain road ahead the choice was made to approach the Jae-Li-Me area from a different direction, no Harrer route but it would be our own small bit of exploring as the route had never been attempted before.

The 17 days that followed proved to be some of the physically and mentally toughest of my entire travelling experience but also some of the most positively memorable and rewarding. It is not possible to recount in detail on a short blog all of the many episodes of this trek, from preciptious ravines and river gorges, across bottomless chasms bridged with tree trunks, through crocodile rivers and leech infested swamps we walked to finally reach the beautiful surroundings of the Jae River, but we will try and get this into a readable account when we can. We started in Lani tribe territory at 1,600m, crossing the border after a few days to the territory of the Vano before finally passing through the edge of the Dubre tribal area on the edge of the Mamberamo basin. It seemed that every day was full of surprising and memorable encounters with the decorated local people.  Unlike the less fortunate Harrer who nearly died crossing a waterfall on the way, we were blessed to pass all dangers and obstacles without serious injury to anyone.

This post covers the walk from Yogobag to the Jae-Li-Me area, a following post will detail the stone quarrying of Jae-Li-Me itself. As regards getting out of the Mamberamo once our walking was complete, well that was a ‘down to the wire’ adventure as well… Hopefully after a little more time we’ll be able to put together a more detailed narrative of the trip to recount the whole story!

The Papuan Highlands - beautiful, but difficult (and sometimes dangerous) to get to. This Trigana Air plane skidded off the 'runway' in Mamit village.

The Papuan Highlands - beautiful, but difficult (and sometimes dangerous) to get to. This Trigana Air plane skidded off the 'runway' in Mamit village.

The early stages our of our walk took us through beautiful Lani villages spread sparsely through the rugged mountainous terrain.

The early stages of our walk took us through beautiful Lani villages spread sparsely through the rugged mountainous terrain.

We tried to camp in villages wherever possible, not much flat ground anywhere else. The clouds would 'boil' up out of the valleys in the early mornings.

We tried to camp in villages wherever possible, not much flat ground anywhere else. The clouds would 'boil' up out of the valleys in the early mornings.

We met (and sometimes surprised!) many colourful local people as we walked from one village to the next in this remote part of Papua.

We met (and sometimes surprised!) many colourful local people as we walked from one village to the next in this remote part of Papua.

This man is a traditional warrior / hunter from the Vano tribe. 'Warriors' are still a very real concept here, we passed through one area with inter-village warfare where the men from different groups were hunting each other with bow-and-arrow.

This man is a traditional warrior / hunter from the Vano tribe. 'Warriors' are still a very real concept here, we passed through one area with inter-village warfare where the men from different groups were hunting each other with bow-and-arrow (and yes, people die).

Favoured decorative element are bird of paradise feathers and cassowary feathers, commonly worn protuding from the hair or hat.

Favoured decorative element are bird of paradise feathers and cassowary feathers, commonly worn protuding from the hair or hat.

Another cosmetic element shared between Lani and Vano males is bright coloration of the nose - with some dyes it can really look like their nose is covered in blood.

Another cosmetic element shared between Lani and Vano males is bright coloration of the nose - with some dyes it can really look like their nose is covered in blood.

As we passed through a 'senior' Vano village we were honoured with a pig feast. The whole community got involved, women (including the Vano woman here) worked on a large earth oven full of vegetables while the men prepared the pig.

As we passed through a 'senior' Vano village we were honoured with a pig feast. The whole community got involved, women (including the Vano woman here) worked on a large earth oven full of vegetables while the men prepared the pig.

With the hair taken off the pig skin was cut with a knife made from a section of bamboo.

With the hair taken off the pig skin was cut with a knife made from a section of bamboo.

With fat and meat rare in the local diet, nothing is wasted.

With fat and meat rare in the local diet, nothing is wasted.

Blood red pandanus fruit is cooked in the earth oven and is also a local favourite.

Blood red pandanus fruit is cooked in the earth oven and is also a local favourite.

Female facial decoration did not seem so common with the Vano, however we did see a couple of examples at the pig feast.

Female facial decoration did not seem so common with the Vano, however we did see a couple of examples at the pig feast.

Travel from one village to the next always involved scrambling through, up or down waterfalls and streams, the trip record was 10 rivers and streams between two villages. Put that together with the sweat from the climate and you are never dry...

Travel from one village to the next always involved scrambling through, up or down waterfalls and streams, the trip record was 10 rivers and streams between two villages. Put that together with the sweat from the climate and you are never dry...

Sometimes you get lucky and you have bridges - this was the best one of the trip - it even had some metal cable!

Sometimes you get lucky and you have bridges - this was the best one of the trip - it even had some metal cable!

There was far more flora in the highlands than on the previous lowlands trip.

There was far more flora in the highlands than on the previous lowlands trip.

... mostly very colorful.

... mostly very colorful.

There was less insect life, but this jewel-like beetle brightened up one rest stop.

There was less insect life, but this jewel-like beetle brightened up one rest stop.

As we progressed from highlands towards the lowlands the flora changed...

As we progressed from highlands towards the lowlands the flora changed...

... but it always remained colourful.

... but it always remained colourful.

The rivers also grew bigger as we descended into the lowlands. It's worth checking with locals about crocs once you get towards the big rivers!

The rivers also grew bigger as we descended into the lowlands. It's worth checking with locals about crocs once you get towards the big rivers!

As the mountains fade away you are left with mile upon mile of swamp, and buckets of bloodsucking leeches. Bugger.

As the mountains fade away you are left with mile upon mile of swamp, and buckets of bloodsucking leeches. Bugger.

Reaching the Jae River was a wonderful release from a pretty terrible stretch of lowland jungle just before we got there.

Reaching the Jae River was a wonderful release from a pretty terrible stretch of lowland jungle just before we got there.

This area has both Vano and Dubre people living there, both of whose houses are rectangular rather than circular as with the Lani.

This area has both Vano and Dubre people living there, both of whose houses are rectangular rather than circular as with the Lani.

The Dubre are a people of the inner Mamberamo basin who typically live in the lower areas.

The Dubre are a people of the inner Mamberamo basin who typically live in the lower areas.

They often carry very large and strong bows and arrow as they hunt crocodile with them.

They often carry very large and strong bows and arrow as they hunt crocodile with them.

Note the large metal tipped arrows now favoured. 'Armour piercing arrows' for improved crocodile hunting I guess...

Note the large metal tipped arrows now favoured. 'Armour piercing arrows' for improved crocodile hunting I guess...

Of course, in lowland areas of the Mamberamo sago is very much back on the menu. (The old lady carries a 'sago axe' very similar to other sago producing peoples of Papua).

Of course, in lowland areas of the Mamberamo sago is very much back on the menu. (The old lady carries a 'sago axe' very similar to other sago producing peoples of Papua).

We passed through one vilage of mixed Vano and Dubre tribes where there was really a lot of variation in body decoration.

We passed through one vilage of mixed Vano and Dubre tribes where there was really a lot of variation in body decoration.

Orchids seemed to be favoured by the men, with hibiscus more favoured by these women.

Orchids seemed to be favoured by the men, with hibiscus more favoured by these women.

The, ahem, 'Teddyboy Tribe'. Actually this man has a juvenile cassowary skin fashioned into a hat - it just looks uncannily like a 'bad hair day'.

The, ahem, 'Teddyboy Tribe'. Actually this man has a juvenile cassowary skin fashioned into a hat - it just looks uncannily like a 'bad hair day'.

We got quite a welcome in this village - note the halved plastic bottle as additional hat decoration...

We got quite a welcome in this village - note the halved plastic bottle as additional hat decoration...

This man has the plumage of a 'twelve wired bird of paradise' adorning his hat.

This man has the plumage of a 'twelve wired bird of paradise' adorning his hat.

Soot mixed with fat (e.g. pig fat) makes an effective black face paint for decoration. As regards the vegetation, I couldn't ascertain whether there was a specific ritual purpose or just plain decoration.

Soot mixed with fat (e.g. pig fat) makes an effective black face paint for decoration. As regards the vegetation, I couldn't ascertain whether there was a specific ritual purpose or just plain decoration.

Old mixes with new - this child with the skeleton like black/white face paint is holding a drum made from a section of drainpipe and rubber sheeting (probably a development project leftover from somewhere in the region). Traditionally this drum would most likely have been wooden body with stretched crocodile skin.

Old mixes with new - this child with the skeleton like black/white face paint is holding a drum made from a section of drainpipe and rubber sheeting (probably a development project leftover from somewhere in the region). Traditionally this drum would most likely have been wooden body with stretched crocodile skin.

While the material world is sure to continue changing in the future I hope the humor of the people will not. I spent sometime getting close to this child to take a good portrait but the scowl seemed stuck on his face no matter what, then, just as I was pressing the shutter he suddenly pulled back the bowstring and pretended to fire an arrow at me with a huge grin!

While the material world is sure to continue changing in the future I hope the humor of the people will not. I spent sometime getting close to this child to take a good portrait but the scowl seemed stuck on his face no matter what, then, just as I was pressing the shutter release he suddenly pulled back the bowstring and pretended to fire an arrow at me with a huge grin - he was just playing me along!


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