…the dreamers of the day are dangerous men

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A Downstream Chimp

I just got the Royal Geographical Society’s ‘Journey of a Lifetime’ Award! This Spring i’ll be making a packraft descent of the Mano River on the Sierra Leone/Liberia border and broadcasting my experiences on BBC Radio 4 – Check out my new blog http://downstreamchimp.wordpress.com/ and join the Facebook group www.facebook.com/downstreamchimp to keep across the adventure and please enjoy reading all about last year’s epic Trans Papua expedition by scrolling down right here!

Thanks for stopping by San Diego

I want to extend my heartfelt thanks to everyone who has followed this tale over the last few months. I’ll be honest I am totally overwhelmed and very touched that you’ve stuck with me this far, seeing the worldwide views go over 10,000 this week truly blows my mind. When I first started this blog it was really only ever going to be a place for me to piece together the things I was going through, I guess as a bit of therapy to make sense of why I was still leading expeditions, why I was back in West Papua and as a bit of a reality check that yes, the snake really was that big, those stings really were that painful and that river really was that scary. In all honesty though, I have loved sharing mine and Callum’s experiences with all of you, it really has been my pleasure and I do hope you’ve enjoyed reading as much as I have writing.

If you want to keep across news, publications, and upcoming talks on the Trans Papua Expedition then you can do so from the site www.willmillard.com and I’ll keep posting things on the open Facebook group:  “The Trans-Papua Expedition 2012”. There are articles here and links to more clips from this expedition and the Jalan Raya in 09 here, plus my broadcast for the BBC World Service’s From Our Own Correspondent, on our close contact with an unknown tribe, is available for playback here.

Callum, having left the project at the end of the first leg, continues to go from strength to strength as a trainee Teacher in Primary Education, really proving that it was definitely the right call for him to concentrate on his new career and life back in April.

If you are new to this blog then hopefully you have got here thanks to any one of the spectacularly poor promotional tools I’ve tried to implement in the last year of writing – or maybe you are one of those guys who googled: “world’s oldest bike” and accidentally found this site.

Either way, my name is Will Millard, I am an adventurer and a storyteller, increasingly more of the latter than the former, and this is the home of the Trans-Papua blogs; a chronological blow for blow account of my expedition that attempted to cross the Indonesian province of West Papua between January and July 2012. It was an enormous undertaking, not least because Papua is a vast unexplored wilderness, but also because it is illegal for foreigners to access many of the most remote areas owing to a tragic conflict between indigenous seperatists and the Indonesian military that shows no signs of abating as it approaches its 50th anniversary. I was hoping to uncover and record the last remnants of a great inter-tribal network of trade that, in the years before roads and planes, once linked the highlands to the coasts along a trade route that could well turn out to be one of the longest running in human history. I filmed it step by step, took lots of photos and wrote ceaselessly, forming the bulk of the blog that you’ve found here.

Please do scroll right down through the pages and keep clicking on the “older entries” tab until you get right to the start, because then the whole story will make much more sense, and please, if you like it, share it.

To everyone else, thanks again, especially my friends, family and sponsors.

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” Winston Churchill 

www.willmillard.com

Email: willmillard_1@hotmail.com

Not all those who wander are lost

Today at some stage, I will reach the river mouth town of Agats and the end of this expedition.

It feels quite unreal. This isn’t how I imagined it. I thought I’d be bursting into sunlight after some survival epic on my packraft with Callum close behind, embracing the exhaustion and celebrating our achievement after numerous close shaves. Instead I am motoring down to diesel fumes and dance music having just covered a distance that would have taken weeks in the rafts in just two days. By the end of today we will have travelled 250km. When I think back to Callum and I cutting our way through the forest and making just 500 metres a day I can’t help but have a new found appreciation for motorised transportation. It is all too easy to over-romanticise the tribal groups ‘simple’ life. If I was a member of the Kombai, Korowai, Dani, Yali, Monuma or any of the other groups living on these trade routes I too would want to take maximum advantage of transportation advances, and the higher quality of living that being in a town dominated with government social housing clearly offers.

The river is vast now, 300 metres across at least. People have been coming up here from the coasts for centuries, long before this island was discovered by people from the west. Probably those people were not too dissimilar in their attitudes to these boys I’m travelling with today, they too didn’t feel the need for fanfare in all those decades prior to our ‘golden age of discovery’. There is no question that the Captain Cooks and Columbus’s of our history were extraordinarily gifted and courageous, but the need to make money, trade, and survive, guaranteed that even the world’s remotest corners were sites of human commercial activity long before we started pushing flags into the ground. Take the sweet potato for example: a South American vegetable and staple crop throughout West Papua. For decades we just assumed it had spread eastwards to the province in the eighteenth century, after the Portuguese had found it in Peru and brought it to Asia. Well, recently the Baliem soils were analysed and guess what was discovered? The sweet potato had actually arrived at some point in the seventh century. Absolutely mind blowing. Not only have some brave Papuan souls transported this vegetable 250 kilometres upstream to a point where other Papuans have then carried it up and over the largest mountain range between the Himalayas and the Andes barefoot, but, it would also appear, a group of Polynesian seafarers in little more than a raft made of wood brought the potato to these coasts…from PERU!

So just to recap:

A so-called stone-age society famous worldwide for head hunting and cannibalism managed to discover a route through the most formidable collection of geographical extremes, barefoot and in dugout canoes, and then went on to maintain a level of inter tribal co-operation to such a degree that they established one of the longest running trade routes in human history and one of the most sophisticated systems of highland agriculture the world has ever seen, thanks, in large part, to a group of sea-faring Polynesians who brought their potato crop from Easter island on a raft made of wood having previously fetched it from Peru, 15,000 kilometres away.

But, you know Captain James Cook did circumnavigate New Zealand in a massive ship with 94 people, pigs, poultry, two greyhounds and a milking goat, a thousand years later.

I am being a little disingenuous, but I do firmly believe we must recognise the incredible feats of those indigenous people that first populated and later thrived in some of the world’s most inaccessible places. We can’t put a face to their achievements, there is no written report of daring do or of there triumph against adversity, but here in West Papua there is that path, the humble potato and the people, who stand as a physical testament today to one of the most remarkable human journeys ever undertaken.

We are approaching the mouth now.

The boys have signal on their mobile phones and have started texting their various love interests. I can see the tin roofs of the town of Agats on the horizon, the South Pacific is ahead of me, and directly behind is the vast interior of New Guinea. The sun is setting. It feels perfect.

“Yo Mister Will!”

I turn and see that Captain Baroh has placed the ships hosepipe between his legs and is pretending to urinate over the side.

Will left the boat and wondered off into the Agats sunset where he was arrested for entering the town illegally and escorted onto the very next boat out of town…

…for once he didn’t care.

THE END.

In conversation with ‘el Capitan’ – el parto quarto

Back by popular demand, a meeting of intellects the like of which has not been seen since ‘Frost/Nixon’, I give you, in the red corner, everyone’s favourite lard-arse skipper, the man who put the “master” into “mastur”bate, Captain “mr. laba-laba” Baroh… and joining us, for the next 250 kilometres, in the blue corner, internationally unrecognised Adventurer and full time Gap-lifer: Will “Will” Millard…

*APPLAUSE*

Baroh: “I think Indonesia and England are the same at football”

Will: “Don’t be ridiculous. They are NOT the same.”

Baroh: “Yes they are. Neither have won anything ever”

Will: “errr, we won the World Cup in 1966 Baroh”

Baroh: “Doesn’t count”

Will: “Why not?”

Baroh: “You beat a country which doesn’t exist.”

Will: “Whatever. None of this matters anyway Baroh, you know why? Because you have never even qualified for the World Cup once and you are near the bottom of the international rankings. Don’t tell me you don’t try, you love football more than me.”

Baroh: “Everyone knows the English Premier League is only good because of players from Spain, Argentina, Portugal…all the English players are ugly and rubbish…not like Christiano Ronaldo who is a genius and beautiful.”

Will: “Did you not hear Baroh? It was recently discovered your hero Christiano Ronaldo doesn’t actually have a penis.”

Baroh: “HA! Yes he does! He has illegitimate children! Which is more than YOU mister! ahahahahahaha….”

He had a point.

We had entered the river delta: a maze of islands, mudflats and swampy shallows. Suddenly, having previously been cruising around in the spacious luxury of a vast river, we were hemmed in on all sides by a thick wall of flooded forest. It feels and looks like crocodile heaven. First mate Agung joined me on my bench, he was chewing his fingers nervously. I ask about crocs: “there are loads here” he replied, “they come in on the high tide”. Salties then, I thought to myself, the world’s most deadly crocodile. “We don’t worry about them!” interjects Baroh, “they only eat English people!”

I try and spot crocodiles. Giant Jurassic tree ferns crowd the banksides, the largest I’ve ever seen at well over 12 foot high, funnels and gullies, huge lilies and pitch-black pools tucked hard into overhanging banks. Innumerous hiding places, an ambush predator’s paradise. “Not long ago a man was found floating in the river” whispers Agung, Ali joins us on the bench to add: “he was divided in two”, before dragging deep on his cigarette.

An hour later we emerge into a slightly wider channel. It is obviously tidal and incoming hard. Two gulls drift past us on a large log heading rapidly upstream, they look a little lost. “Easily done round here!” booms Baroh, “if you don’t know what you’re doing you’ll end up in Timor Leste!”

What happened over the next hour was nothing out of the norm for our boat. Captain Baroh weighed into another grotesque and unnecessarily detailed description of a recent sexual conquest that somehow evolved into a protracted argument between Baroh, myself and the crew, who accused Britain of having no successful music. Again, in lieu of Baroh actually knowing any British music beyond ‘One Direction’ I was forced to resort to Westlife to win the argument, safe in the knowledge that Baroh didn’t know the difference between ‘Ireland’ and ‘island’. Either way, when we emerged from the latest round of pointless quarrelling it became immediately apparent that we were in a world of shit.

Baroh, wrapped up in the somewhat carnival atmosphere aboard the boat had clearly had a momentary lapse in concentration, probably around the same time he sensationally declared the Beatles were “not famous,” and had taken a wrong turn on a route he successfully navigated hundreds of times before. The colour drained completely from his face. Either the tide had reversed or we were heading back upstream. Sweat was pouring as he fumbled with his onboard navigation equipment, furiously pounding the ‘select’ button before settling on a screen which distinctly resembled 1958’s prototype computer game ‘Tennis for Two’. This is bad, I thought. Someone has even turned the DVD player off. “Go coil those ropes!” Baroh screamed at the crew who scuttled out on deck and began meticulously uncoiling and recoiling coiled ropes. He swiveled in his chair: “Help me Will! Get your GPS on! This Chinese piece of shit is fucking useless!” he wafted his hands at the blue-green screen of his radar, “I have no idea how it works!” Jesus Christ. We really are lost. I wonder what Timor Leste is like at this time of year? I switch on my GPS and zoom into the smallest possible scale on my satellite map. It is badly pixilated but provides enough detail to conclusively prove we are going exactly the wrong way. Baroh slams on reverse and executes a tight three point turn that comes within a whisker of leaving us in an Austin Powers-esque trap in the middle of a crocodile infested stream: “if the river isn’t wide enough, we make it wider!” he shouts over the engine, red-faced, manic and desperate, ploughing the nose of the craft hard into the bankside, effectively destroying it and causing an egret to fly off screeching with fright.

Hours later we emerge on a much wider river. The boys come back in, ropes successfully recoiled to perfection, and the ‘Manado Girlz’ DVD gets stuck back on in triumph. Normality resumes.

“So Will, tell me” says Baroh leaning back coolly, as if the last four hours had all been part of his masterplan, “why didn’t you just play football for Manchester United instead of coming to Papua?”

In conversation with ‘el Capitan’ – Parto tres

1st March 2008 – It is only the first day of my attempt to walk across this mountain range and already I’ve got problems. Heron and I walked all day and well into the night. We were on the verge of collapsing with exhaustion and about to pitch our tent when a Papuan man emerged on the track: “please, don’t sleep down here, this is where Satan lives.” Heron insisted we kept walking after that. Brilliant. Cheers Satan. You complete bastard.

22nd May 2012 – We slowly eat up the kilometres on this Papuan giant. I had really settled into life on board the boat: the rhythm of the engine, the swirling wildlife on the river and the wall of trees choking the banks from a reassuring distance. Making actual progress was really comforting and the crew were brilliant company. It felt like I was back with my friends already. I wanted to go home more than ever.

We pass a number of Gaharu camps and their tarpaulin tents. A row of coloured t-shirts drying outside marked they were active, but their occupants were already deep in the forest on the hunt. Gaharu, or Argarwood, was by far the most important local trade commodity in the area. At its highest quality, pound for pound it is worth more than gold in the Middle East, where it is prized for its use in perfumes and incense. The valuable resin forms within large evergreen trees due to a specific mold infection, the men in this area penetrate deep into the forest in search of the darkest disease, in some cases deliberately scraping away a tree’s bark to encourage growth. As I headed downstream I must have seen at least half a dozen of these temporary camps dotted along the riverbanks. Yet, as demand outstrips supply the pursuit of Gaharu has become yet another contributing factor to Indonesia’s record-breaking levels of forest clearance. I ask Captain Baroh if he was ever tempted to get into the trade:

“What! No way!” he spluttered emphatically, “Satan lives in those trees!” he started gesticulating wildly, his face suddenly reddening: “Stick. To. The. Rivers…” Baroh turned his back on me and everyone went silent in the boat. For the first time on the trip I was glad the ‘Manado Girlz’ DVD was on in the background. I had unwittingly struck a nerve.

“It is no joke Will,” whispered first mate Agung as we spooned noodles into a bowl in the ships kitchen later on in the morning. He pointed his spoon at me and added with firm finality: “stick to the rivers. You’ve already been very lucky.”

West Papua is a province where superstition rules supreme. With the coastal development and largely contacted populations in the highlands it is all to easy to forget that this province is overwhelmingly dominated by a vast untamed wilderness, the majority of which still remains totally unexplored. For many, it is scary, and foreboding, and dark. For early explorers the vast New Guinea interior stood as a mysterious vacuum for almost anything you wanted to project into it from your wildest fantasies. A quick trawl through the province’s history of exploration reveals tall-tales of prehistoric beasts, giant apes and mountain’s far larger than Everest, in fact, until very recently, the few people that did live ‘out back’ were governed by a series of strict spiritual and animistic beliefs. People just didn’t get sick because of disease. It was a curse, or a spirit, some of which could be avenged, and some of which couldn’t. You don’t just erase these beliefs overnight. This “Satan” of which they speak isn’t the Christian lord of darkness and God’s adversary, no, this is something living in the depths of the forest, a cursed being of supreme evil that roams the leaf litter looking to wreak havoc and bring death to humankind. Its roots transcend the decades of Christian missionary work in the region and increasingly I came to realise the belief of the ‘Satan’ of the forest is far from exclusively Papuan.

In 2007 I was working as an English language Teacher in the state capital Jayapura, mostly I taught privileged Indonesians but time and time again conversations in my classes would turn to the spiritual and supernatural. At first I used the angle as a useful tool to get my students speaking English, but the more I heard the more beguiling the tales of the ‘forest man’ became. I started documenting the stories, encouraging my students to write about their beliefs and experiences and looking for similarities. It was absolutely fascinating.

Hilda “My mother, her brothers, my Grandmother and my Grandfather moved from Jayapura to Serui (a small town on the Papuan island of Yapan). One day my Grandmother was sleeping and she saw a big man, a satan, standing in front of her. The big man was tall, dark, his hair was long and he was naked. His penis was branches. He told by grandmother to move to a new house but she disliked. Everyday he disturbed my family. They prayed until one day the big man came to my Grandmother in a dream and asked for forgiveness, before he gone he leave two stones. Those stones can help us to treat our sickness but then my family gave that’s stones to the church. They prayed it and break it. From that moment the big man or any ghosts never came to my Grandmother’s house.”

Priscilia “I remember when I was ten years old my mother has told a story about her unusual experience when my mother was young. One day my mother followed her dad to the jungle in Cyclop village. After they got woods they went to a small river for rest. When my mother was washing her face she saw an old man. He sat on a big stone and he stared my mother with his red eyes. My mother was so frightened because she knew that the old man isn’t a human but he’s a satan which people in Sentani call ‘Enelo’ who always makes himself like a human. He lives in big trees, especially in the jack fruit tree. They always show themselves if there are people will die or people arrange traditional ceremony.”

Isaac “The experience is I was seen ghost. The ghost look like smaller man.  While I taked water from the drum I’ve seen that man running beside my house. I was runned go inside my bedroom, and pray to God. I slept safely until the morning. At the morning I was tell my family about incident at midnight, my father said that he has seen the smaller man too but he said: “the small man is not evil. If we respect to them they will good to us, they can’t kill us and spill our blood because they are ghost. They have no bone to killed us but they just make feeling fear to us.”

Maximus “The small people of the forest are the ‘kaboter’. I see one in Kamu district in the trees, he was covered in hair with blue, white and yellow and I later I see the big man of the trees. Satan with red eyes. Very dangerous”

Laurence “On Thursday 16 March 2006, precisely at 01:00 am I saw a big jack fruit tree, after I was closing with the tree when old woman went out from beside the tree with walked stoop and wear stick. As I passed she hold my hand, I saw into her face but she didn’t have a face, just blood and I asked her ‘who are you?’ but she didn’t answer to me. I discharged her arms by might and main and I ran away. After that I went to paranormal to medicined and paranormal said the satan was angry with me because the satan think I had a occult strength. Paranormal tried to talk with the ghost. After that, my illnesses gone.”

Samuel “I try write homeworks on ghost experience, but then I look and ghost is look me write. I have fear and can’t write. Sorry.”

You could say the most frightening thing about these stories is my glaring deficiencies as an English Language Teacher, however, I couldn’t help but notice how the students consistently hit on a common set of themes in their descriptions of events. The above stories (bar Samuels) were very much typical of student’s descriptions of the role of the trees and their collective fear of the outside: the big man and the small people, the dark, the grotesque being. Perhaps, you could argue, the root to these beliefs lies in the animistic stories of pre-Christianity tribal Papua, yet, my students were amongst the most privileged and educated people in the area and were from a range of racial and cultural backgrounds from right across Indonesia. There was no piss-taking. Everyone had a story to tell and the idea that any of these experiences were not genuine was unfathomable. As an atheist and scientific thinker I couldn’t help but feel skeptical. It felt the stories were an age-old attempt to find a knee-jerk explanation for something that wasn’t immediately obvious from a group of people who had already been heavily socialised into explaining the ‘unknown’ as evidence of the ‘supernatural’. I have spent months in the most remote parts of the state, both camping wild and walking in the dark, but I’m yet to witness anything remotely like what my friends describe, yet, I don’t doubt their sincerity for one second. They believe firmly in what they’ve seen  and, in many cases, their experiences involves a level of physical contact. It would take an exceptionally condescending person to simply write everyone off as a liar.

Back on the boat the moment passes. Eventually the sun sinks and an electric storm plays out on the horizon. The boys unreel a long extension cable to get a large lamp off the prow and drop anchor. “Mister, if we are hit by a big piece of wood in the night this boat will sink. You, me and the boys, will all have to swim downstream to the last village,” says Baroh warily, with one eye fixed on the pitch-black drink sweeping past the side of our craft.

In all the time I’ve spent here I have come to understand just why the people that live in Papua have such strong fatalistic spiritual beliefs. We are utterly at the mercy of this environment. There have been many times that I have felt my safe passage has been down to little more than blind luck. I can understand why you wouldn’t want to anger anyone, physical or spiritual, real or imagined, when your very presence feels like such an affront on this inhuman space. Placing your faith in a spirit, or the blame on an evil malevolent force, ultimately keeps you from actually going insane with worry.

Driftwood scrapes past the hull of the boat in the night as the storm tears apart the forest around us. To everyone’s relief, the boat stays afloat.

In conversation with ‘el Capitan’ – Parto dos

“So what films are from England then, apart from Mr. Bean?”

Captain Baroh was leaning back in his chair, his feet stretched out over the top of the wooden ships wheel. Smiling and smoking. He was laying a trap. Again.

This had become a regular tit-for-tat between me and Baroh.

He’d ask me a question about England that, due to his total ignorance of English culture, would be almost impossible for me to answer to his satisfaction, thus proving that Indonesia, or more frequently, America, was the superior nation.

The question was not of course: “what films are from England apart from Mr. Bean?” it was: “what actors are from England that I know that aren’t Rowan Atkinson?”

There are four genres of film that are on Baroh’s radar: pornos, Hollywood action and Mr. Bean. So, apart from Mr. Bean, who was already out of the question on a technicality, I was struggling and Baroh was loving it.

Will: “Look, just because you don’t know them doesn’t mean there aren’t any!”

Baroh: “okay, okay, I’ll help you, how about Arnie?”

W: “American”

B: “Stalon?”

W: “it’s ‘Stallone’ you idiot. American”

B: “Seagal?”

W: “American”

B: “Van Damme?”

W: “American”

B: “Norris?”

W: “American”

B: “Rainbow?”

RAINBOW?

W: “English! How do you know Rainbow Baroh!?”

I sat bolt upright. I couldn’t believe my ears.

In my exhausted state I had assumed he was referring to 80s children’s favorite with Zippy, George, Bungle and chums.

This was quite a turn up for the books!

I could suddenly imagine Baroh and his children, sat at home, watching Rainbow together. It was sweet, poetic, almost. I was suddenly seeing a lighter, nay, softer side to this tour-de-force of sexual perversion. I suddenly felt a lot closer to the man, after all, I too had grown up on a diet of Zippy’s antics, sure, it freaked me out when Howard would rather cruelly use his zip-mouth disability against him but still…

Baroh just looked on confused.

B: “you know with the red bandana” he motioned round his sweating forehead with a lit cigarette.

W: “oh.”

He mean’s ‘Rambo’.

“American.”

In conversation with ‘el Capitan’ (el parto uno)

I am on board the good ship ‘Cintra Harapan’ with five lads from Sulawesi: Captain Baroh, who prefers to be called “Captain laba-laba” after the 90s smash hit “Mr Bombastic” by reggae-rapper ‘Shaggy’,[1] is a portly, chain-smoking 26-year old who looks like he’s well into his forties, twice married, three kids and armed with a wicked sense of sarcasm and the sort of smile that, if I was being particularly cruel, I might suggest makes him look like a bit of a sex pest. Agung was his first mate. A wonderfully calm and gentle man, clearly the most intelligent person on board, always well presented in a smart check shirt, he was the man really in charge. Then there was Imrhan, a lad with an insatiable curiosity for all things British, in particular a laminated picture he discovered of my female cousins and sister. He was just 18, with a fro of curly hair and a sharp skinny-jean dress sense that sort of made him look like he should be playing bass in an Indonesian ‘Strokes’ tribute band. Ali was Agung’s right hand man, a quiet, slightly nervy chain-smoker with a horrendous scar all over his body from when he had rolled into the fire as a toddler. He was kind, intelligent and exceptionally hardworking. Then finally there was Agus, a baby-faced 16-year old with a smart cap and single plastic-diamond stud in his ear, he was responsible for a constant conveyor belt of culinary delights – spiced fish, fresh fried chicken, donuts, rice. The lad was a superb cook, possessing, as they say in Papua, “tasty fingers”.

“Welcome to kapal makan!” shouted Agung as I wandered on board in the dead of night, “welcome to the eating boat”. They weren’t wrong. I don’t remember a time over the following days that I didn’t have coffee, or crackers, or noodles or fish, in front of me. Rarely have I felt so welcome, never have I felt so full.

The boat was large and shaped like a tug. It had a spacious hull, a small sleeping deck with a DVD player, a few bunks, a tiny kitchen with a gas ring out the back and a diesel engine in the bowels. Life was suddenly very easy.

The crew and I gather on the sleeping deck and a game of cards ensued of the sort of complexity that only people that spend a disproportionate amount of time together could possibly understand. “Do you like your tea” asks Agus, he had given me the biggest mug he could find, “Yes, it is perfect,” I reply, lifting it up in the traditional tea-salute. Agus beams with pride then blushes. “Oi Will, what do you know about women from Manado!?” shouts Baroh. “Errr, I don’t really know where you are going with this but I…”, “Well!” Baroh cuts me off abruptly, “let school begin!” He shoves a DVD into the player and turns the bass amplifier up to full volume. A trio of women dressed in white, barely there, bikinis and short skirts burst onto the screen and start lip-syncing along to a Euro-pop trance hit. Baroh clicks his fingers and rolls his shoulders in time to the music, “these ladies are the product of the naughty Dutch colonialists having sexy time with our women!” enthuses Baroh, “by far the most sought after women in the whole of Indonesia!” He fists pumps the air and then lays his next card. I notice a calendar on the wall commemorating a local Islamic leader’s recent Hajj. Stern conservative Muslims stare out from the images on the front cover which is covered in scripture from the Quran. “Indonesian’s love pornography” screams Baroh over the thumping beat, “but ours are rubbish compared to yours! Our dicks are tiny!”

Just after 5am the boys haul in the rope and we cast off downstream. Instantly we plunge into thick forest, the Captain and his large wooden steering wheel silhouetted against the mist and a formidable jungle backdrop. Kingfishers, rails, swift-like birds and fish eagles abound on the banksides and, as the sun gets fuller in the sky, I begin to notice Asmat villages: stilt houses and longhouses with reed roofs and people out fishing in dug outs.

“We have to kill the speed whenever we see a canoe” says the Captain, pulling down the throttle to a putter as we pass a Papuan man, stood up in his dugout, bow drawn and taught, eyes focused on the water. “If we roll a canoe on our bow wave it’ll cost us 15 million rupiah (£980)…they’ll chase us down in their motor boat and if we don’t pay we have to fight”, he rubs a long scar on his arm, “you don’t want to get in a fight here.” It all felt a bit over dramatic, but then when your profit margins and wages are so low an avoidable mistake like that could cost you your whole trip.

The local villages have been long established here and signs of local industry are everywhere – informal logging camps, fishing and the buzzing of dugouts with motor engines up and down the river channel we are all sharing. It doesn’t take much of a leap of faith to imagine that this has been a vital watercourse for trading for centuries.

For the first time since I set off in January I feel like this really is the connection I have been looking for. I sip from my massive mug and recline on a bench as Baroh noses us down the vast coffee coloured river.


[1] A source of constant amusement amongst a certain Indonesian demographic is the similarity between the way shaggy pronounces “they call be mister lover lover” and “laba laba”, the Indonesian word for “spider”. I know. Hilarious isn’t it.