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!
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
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.
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…
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?”
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.
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: “it’s ‘Stallone’ you idiot. American”
B: “Van Damme?”
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.
He mean’s ‘Rambo’.
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’, 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.
 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.
I was stood on wooden decking in front of a good-looking Indonesian man in his forties. He was wearing a string vest and bouncing a small child, I assumed to be his, on his knee.
“I am Sam”, he said, in a whisper, barely making eye contact.
Sam had been plying his craft in the heart of the Asmat for most of his life. Having moved to Dekai with the first wave of transmigrants in the 60s, he settled, bought a small boat and figured out his way in and out of the mêlée that is the Asmat waterways. It can’t have been easy, setting yourself up as a middleman between the fickle Indonesian traders and the understandably standoffish local people, as well as negotiating your way through all the corruption and crocodiles. But in this land of water the boatman is god. Sam is proof that in the Asmat your boat handling ability can get you past even the most entrenched racial obstacles. A group of Papuans gathered round the decking to listen in as Sam held court. It was clear. After 30 years hard graft in the area, he was “the man”.
I told him who I was, where I had been, and where I wanted to go. He listened politely, nodding occasionally. I knew the subject of money was coming up so I put on a bit of a pantomime of woe, exaggerating the size of the snakes, mountain peaks and my injuries, and sprinkling in a few tales about being badly ripped off in the past in the hope I might somehow court favour when it came down to negotiating a price. I surprised myself at my own fluency in Indonesian. As any scholar worth their salt knows, the ability to exaggerate effectively is the ultimate yardstick for measuring proficiency in any language, and this was no joke. I had a 30 second window of opportunity to convince this man that I had more sense than money but that I could also be trusted to cough up a fair price if he chose to throw me a bone. Travel in the Asmat was prohibitively expensive. I had already been told that I’d be extremely lucky to finish my route for less that £1000. Money was already tight, if I wasn’t prepared to stick to my guns this could wipe me out, and I didn’t fancy an extended stay here doing the local equivalent of “washing the dishes” to clear my debts.
Sam seemed to understand.
He took my notebook from me and started to scribble names, destinations and outstanding prices, on a fresh sheet.
I thought I might be chartering him for the journey but he had me pegged from the start. Nice, but thrifty. Not worth his while. But he clearly wanted to get me off on the right foot.
“Have you paid for another night in your hotel tonight?” he asked flatly.
“No” but it was also past 4pm and my innate sense of fairness and decency dictated that I was committed already to staying another night. Or so I thought.
“Good” he snapped my book shut “you’ll be staying with my aunt down at the port tonight, Uncle Hendra will take you now”
I lay back on the wooden slats. My headphones plug my ears. I squeeze my eyes tightly closed and concentrate hard on not moving a muscle. I really really don’t want to be sick again….
Hendra’s truck emerges from the forest after two hours of bouncing along a brown ribbon of pot-holed road. The port is nothing more than two small shops and Sam’s Aunty’s guest house – a small tin-roofed stilt affair with lino floorings and single beds.
A smooth, wide, bend of brown river and half a dozen Papuans lounge around out front. They are taller and more slender limbed than the highlanders and have sharp oval faces and pronounced cheekbones. Many have bright plastic rings through their ear lobes and septums. I’m immediately offered half a day on a boat for £300. It is far too much, I try to negotiate and the group walks off laughing. Ominous. A large pig dozes. A pet cockatoo tears chunks out of a motorcycle’s rubber handlebar grips.
I’m going to be sick again. I know it. I leap from the bed, sprint outside into the rain and hurl hard over the side rail. The exertion brings me to my knees. Sweat and rain mix and puddle between my hands. I can see clusters of Lilly pads. I’ve been sick on a frog.
Things feel unfriendly. This port feels static.
No. It feels stagnant.
I feel a slight twang of panic.
This is a watery purgatory. I’m stuck, I’m stuck, I’m stuck.
A naked boy plays with a tyre in a puddle. A man burns rubbish. Two large boats are moored up. One is emptying bathroom tiles from its bowels.
Who the fuck has ordered bathroom tiles to be hand delivered to this arsehole of the universe.
I visit the military post. They sneer at me. “You’ll never get a boat out of here”.
I make it back to my room and assume the recovery position on my bed. The family has the Monaco Grand Prix on in the background. They didn’t hear me. Why do I care if they did? Members of the extended family stare down at me from faded picture frames, interspersed among bottles liquor and a broken clock. Sam is up there too. I swear he’s smirking.
I like Sam’s Aunt straight away. She is heavily wrinkled but has the kindest eyes. The skin around her ankles is dark and scaly from infection. I help her apply some anti-histamine cream and she tells me about her family. They are all from Sulawesi. Poor and optionless in an overpopulated rural community they signed up for the transmigration program at the first opportunity and shipped out to West Papua. The men carved a niche for themselves hunting down Gaharu, a dark, sweet smelling, resinous heartwood in high demand in the Middle East, and they haven’t looked back, or left, since. I ask her for help and she holds her palms out defensively: “I want to Will, but I can’t, you will have to fix your price with the Papuan boatmen, it is the only way”.
The rain hammers the tin roof. Mosquitoes and flying ants swarm through cracks in the rafters and congregate round the light bulbs. My phone bleeps into life. It is a text from a friend: Thinking of you. Please be safe and take care of yourself. I just got an email from Hannah being very concerned that you weren’t in a good enough way to set out. I know you feel this is the final push but please be careful and try not to ruin yourself. Lots of love…” I try not to think about home.
I go to my room having forced down some chicken and rice. I don’t feel well. Very unsettled. After half an hour I start to feel stomach cramps. I think I might be sick.
I am so weak this morning. Aunty brings me fried bananas and I try to force them down. A sense of grim obligation forces me back to the dockside. Ridiculous. I should be going to hospital, not carrying on. A small boy fires a plastic gun at the pet cockatoo. I take his picture. He tells me his Dad hunts wood and snakes in the forest so I show him a picture of a snake from my book. He jumps backwards in fright. I ask him if he knows anything about boats and we go to the docks together. The bathroom tile boat hasn’t left yet. I shout out to the Captain.
Three days later Captain Baroh was gently mocking me about this very moment, steering the huge boat through the swamps with his feet, chain smoking whilst attempting a British accent modeled on Frank Spencer: “ooooh, please let me on your boat”, he laughs at his own shit joke, “ YOU, looked like a crazy person – a white fatty holding hands with a little boy and his plastic gun! Gonna hold me up were you Will! HA!” he gurumpfed, smoke spewing from both nostrils, “You are lucky I am a very sick man too my friend!” He gave me a smile and an affectionate dead-leg.
I think they just let me on their boat. I’m never ever going to get permission from the military to leave on a commercial tug-boat though…they’ll arrest me if I even try. I chew at my finger nails. Aunty approaches in a delicate lime-green sarong. “I’m happy you finally spoke to the Captain of that boat, this way is better, now you can hide…get your bags, go to the boat, they will leave before dawn. I’ve spoken to the police, you are now on a petrol run to the coastal town of Timika, you understand don’t you Will”. She squeezed my hand and fixed me with her beautiful eyes. “We are from different countries but we are the same. Sam wants to help you. I want to help you”. She produced my falsified paperwork. I couldn’t believe her kindness.
I was stowing away.
I boarded the boat after dark when no one could see. Aunty cried a little when I left.
So did I.
I was on the way home.
The plane arrives. The plane leaves. I look at Nethalius. Nethalius looks at me.
It was obvious to us both.
We weren’t on the plane.
I had to walk all the way back to Wamena. Eventually, I make it back, alone, and in several pieces.
Slowly I recover again. Chocolate milk and antibiotics. I try to relax and take in a football match, but my mind is consumed with thoughts of the route south. The swamps. I begin to wonder if it is possible to fly to Dekai, bridge the 65km I’ve missed, and press on. Maybe I’ve got more in me.
I drop out of the cloud base smothering the hills. Behind me are the highlands, below me is the small square of forest I failed to cover. We sink abruptly and I wipe my window with my sleeve – I can see a series of huge coffee brown rivers with wide shingle beaches, soon, we’re so close I can even make out a woman drying her washing, spreading out brightly coloured blankets all along boulder strewn banks.
20,000 square kilometres of swamp that had remained virtually unexplored until the mid 1900s. New Guinea’s grizzly reputation for head-hunting, cannibalism and man-eating crocodiles comes from right here. This place has literally hundreds of years experience in repelling western explorers. The plane touches tarmac. I gulp.
The crocodiles on these big rivers are salties.
The estuarine crocodile. The world’s largest reptile. Death on a 20-foot long stick.
I thumb through my hastily scribbled notes on saltwater crocs in the region.
Mere miles from where I am stood an enormous salty with a taste for humans was caught. It had learnt that if it casually flipped a dugout canoe with its tail a shower of people shaped morsels would flap around in the water providing a banquet fit for its giant diet. It had eaten over 50 Papuans before it was eventually caught and killed. It had stopped trade between two tribal villages.
It sounded terrifying.
“Avoid surprising. Fight back if attacked.” I had underlined those words. Who would ever choose to “surprise” a saltwater crocodile?
Dekai feels unfinished. When I arrived I asked a motorcycle taxi driver to point me towards the town centre. He looked confused. I now know why. The town is built on a massive grid that shows huge ambition but very little in the way of actual shops, structure or people. There are a series of sporadic, expensive looking but ultimately empty buildings, a ludicrously wide immaculately tarmaccced road, but no vehicles, and inexplicably large spaces between houses.
It is a place waiting for something to happen. But it doesn’t seem to know what.
It does however have a military post. I dust off my scrumpled state pass, the ‘surat jalan’, an easily forgeable piece of paper that I have to present to any police and military I meet, so they can enjoy patronising me for a half hour before soliciting a bribe. Or, if you like, a critically important legal document that grants access to the hinterland and ensures my safe passage downstream.
The post wasn’t hard to find.
Like I said, Dekai was small, but the military had usefully painted their post in camouflage colours. I know what you are thinking: “but Will, surely that would make it impossible to find as it would just ‘blend in’ with the swamp?” It didn’t. Plus they had painted an enormous eagle on the front door. It had red eyes and a distinctly Papuan looking man trapped within the talons. Above it was a hand drawn slogan that read: “death from above”.
I entered, readying myself for the intellectual colossus I was sure to meet inside.
There were seven officers huddled round a small table playing cards. They looked surprised to see me and quickly tried to hide their cards in an all-too-late attempt to appear professional. One pulled on his shirt, but he barely had time to do up the buttons before I felt a hand on the back of my arm. I turned to see a youthful looking Balinese man in a black vest and backward facing Billabong hat.
“Come with me”
He leads me into a small office. He tells me he is the head of intelligence.
“What is your purpose?” he asked stiffly.
I stammer through an explanation that I want to head downstream to Agats. It’s 250 kilometres away, at least. It sounds ridiculous. It is ridiculous.
He reaches into the pocket of his board shorts and produces a packet of smokes. He takes his time lighting one. Exhales deeply, pauses, and blows the smoke into the light fitting above our heads. He looks like a poor mans Columbo but I’m still scared. I can’t tell if he is contemplating my answer or just practicing looking like a Detective. My palms start to perspire. Either way is bad.
“I don’t believe you” he says pointedly. Jabbing the end of his lit cigarette in my direction.
I don’t believe me either.
“Er, it is the truth”
I search for something to corroborate my story
“I have a map”.
The instant the words leave my mouth I regret saying them.
“Let me see it.”
I reach into my tattered document wallet and spread out the hand-drawn piece of paper with the words “treasure map” emblazoned on the top.
The officer leaned in. I noticed his eyes widened slightly as his cigarette drooped in the corner of his mouth, crestfallen. This. Was something he hadn’t expected.
He looked up at me, scrutinising my every facial feature, desperately trying to work out if I was mentally ill.
I smiled back weakly. Then he said something unusual.
“Are you in the CIA?”
He stamps my surat jalan and hands me a piece of paper with a number on it.
“This man will get you where you need to go.”
I’ve picked up two more local lads to share the load and Marcus the teacher, bedecked in an impressively white t-shirt, has joined the team as well. He marches on at the front of the group imperiously, naming mountain peaks and streams, occasionally turning to squeeze my hand when he really has a point to make – “100 people died here last year Will” he says gleefully, pointing at a landslide that appears to have calved an entire mountain in half.
The atmosphere borders on the carnival. I feel like I’m on a school trip. I relax enough to even experience a slight twinge of guilt that I have now spread my load across four people, having previously walked with Callum carrying everything ourselves. But, that was a different time and place, a totally different expedition. In as much as that one was on an ancient on-foot trade route that existed entirely in my head, whereas now, two months later, I was on a genuine trade route with luxuries such as people, villages and a heart-warming lack of white water/deadly vipers/wild pigs/bees etc.
Yep, today is going to be a good day.
We pop out the top of a spectacular crown of mountains just after sunrise. I can see the lowlands start to spread out at my toes, a disorderly sea of swamps stretching all the way to the horizon. The beginning of the end. Beyond that horizon is the south pacific and home. I have a great team, everyone is happy, even miserable Nathalius squeaked out a smile today. I just have to forget what the headman said about floods last week and concentrate on the matter in hand.
“Will” Marcus was staring at me earnestly. I reckoned he could read my mind. “We must turn back now” he looked to the two others who looked at their toes.
Of course he must. He’s the local teacher you idiot. This was only ever a day trip.
“It’s okay Marcus” I replied “thank you for your help”. I meant it. We had been given an incredible welcome by their village and they hadn’t asked for a penny in return.
“Please be careful. You already know the route forward is impassable.”
“Don’t worry about me Marcus, I’ve hiked in the Lake District!”
I laughed at my own joke before almost falling over under the newfound weight of my pack. I kept smiling, keeping up the pretence that my stumble had been an attempt at slapstick. They headed back, inside, I was absolutely gutted.
Nethaniel looked desperate.
He watched Marcus and the boys all the way to the crest of the hill and let out a heavy sigh as they disappeared.
“Never mind Nethaniel, just you and me again now, the dream team!”
He didn’t respond.
At lunch we sat on a rock together and drank from a small stream. We had started to swing south now and we were a long way from his village, family, and friends. The last hill we had crossed had just been another back-breaking ball-ache for me, but for Nethaniel it marked something far more significant. It was a tribal boundary on the great road. The Yali here didn’t speak his language, they didn’t share his cultural outlook, history or family heritage, and as we had long since exhausted the limit of mine and his knowledge of Indonesian, he had grown lonely and tired.
“Do you want to go home Nethalius?” I asked, trying to sound as sympathetic as possible, knowing it was a big deal for such a proud Papuan man to admit he was struggling.
“Yes” he replied flatly, much to my surprise, following up with “these people say there is a flight back to Wamena tomorrow morning from Soba, you must pay for me to fly home with that plane.”
He had said this once before on the second day, but repeating it again now represented a sea change in our relationship. All his initial enthusiasm had vanished as the grueling reality of multi-day walking had sunk in. He had become desperately moody. Whinging at every obstacle, complaining constantly about the weight of his pack and the ignorance of locals he had yet to meet. Worse still he recently started demanding even more money and threatening to take vital pieces of expedition equipment.
I could have replaced him at the last village with some of the stronger walkers, but for some reason I felt an unrequited sense of loyalty. I guess I was just unable to separate the quiet man with the young family from the boisterous adolescent I had since been lumbered with. Either way, I knew I was stuck. I needed him now more than ever.
This was by no means the first time I’d faced these sorts of issues. In 2009 I’d lost five guides in 24 hours to problems such as: “I am lazy”, “I have a sore back”, “I have school tomorrow” and “I just remembered my sister died”. I would have laughed it all off had the entire debacle not climaxed with me, Callum, and Sarah the pig (no really), abandoned and alone without food for four days in the middle of a forest. The hardworking walking talent of West Papua has nearly always been frustratingly out of my reach, either because they weren’t present in the village I was looking in, or because they were always, understandably, gainfully employed, but mostly, to be brutally honest, because they were female. Without question the women are the masters of the tradition, carrying loads way in excess of what I could manage, even after five months in the field, without a whimper. The times I had walked with the ladies I had been stunned at their cadence. A rhythmic approach to walking, their bare feet moulding to the track with unbelievable stability, no matter the slope, weather or load. But the fact was the men of the village would only ever let me walk with the ladies, who travelled along these routes daily, as an absolute last resort. “Men are stronger,” they always said, before invariably giving up a day later.
By the time we could see Soba in the distance I was beyond caring anyway. Nathalius was going home. Whatever the cost.
Even from where I was stood I could see Soba was little more than a cluster of large wooden huts, tin-roofed with a bit of flaky black paint on the walls. There was a small sloping airstrip, flattened along its length on a tongue of grass, and that was about it.
It was an easy downhill stroll from where we were standing so I don’t know why I fell. But what I do remember was the sickening feeling that I was going for the big drop this time. I fell about 18 foot, directly over the side of a ravine, stopping myself from smashing my face in on the rocks below by catching my ankles on a small tree trunk but opening up both knees on the way down. I was left hanging upside down, blood pouring from the wounds on my knees and up my thighs staring down at a dry riverbed another ten metres down. I turned and scrambled back up to Nethalius emerging on the bank like the closing scene to Carrie.
That night I sat round a fire with a group of men, clutching my knees, the blood dried and flaking like the paint on the walls. A longwinded political conversation begins regarding the Indonesian occupation. I tried not to listen.
“They don’t belong here” says one man. “We are Christian, they are Muslim, we are Australasian they are Asian”. I had heard it all many times before. The hot Indonesian tea and cocoa gets handed out with spoons full of Indonesian sugar, as we sit in a hut built by Indonesians with Government money. I try to sympathise with their situation. What happened fifty years ago was a travesty. But the problem today goes deeper than just a simple seperatist dispute between two culturally polarised groups. “Indonesians are ignorant,” another man chirps in, jabbing his index finger at the roof, “they can’t work in this environment, one day’s walk here they would die, they are selfish, they don’t even eat together, they don’t share.” Everyone nods in agreement, “yes! Yes!” “we must fight them, clear them all out!” The atmosphere darkens.
“That isn’t true” everyone falls silent. I had spoken without thinking really.
“I’m sorry it isn’t”. All eyes were on me now. “I have friends who are Indonesian, they share and they are strong, and just like you, they are poor too, they came here looking for a better life because the government told them too. This isn’t their fault.”
I couldn’t find the language to explain what I really thought. That the vast majority of Papuan men who got any political leverage here squandered it for more money and control, that many of the Papuans that had settled in social housing now relied on government donations of rice and didn’t work their sweet potato fields anymore. That the Indonesians who have come here from overpopulated parts of Indonesia aren’t the major problem, the exploitation of natural resources, the disenfranchisement of Papuans in the control of their land, which is sold from under their feet, and the lack of money filtering down into education and healthcare in this province is killing these people. This is the richest state in Indonesia, and among the richest in the world, yet its people are being kept deliberately dumb.
“We have become lazy as a people” an elderly man splits the silence with a croak, “The central Government, the Indonesians, have made us lazy as a people, we must fight to preserve our traditions, we must work hard again”. No one speaks. The elder had the final say. It was obvious he was right. If there is any freedom or control to be won, it isn’t going to come from sitting round a fire complaining.
I could hear the water boiling. A black pot full of sweet potato dangles from a spring-loaded hook over the fire. It starts to rattle as the vegetables strike the pot’s sides.
Nethalius tells the men all about me. “He is a crazy!” He points over his shoulder with his thumb, the elderly man starts to giggle. “He walked to Punjak Jaya with a pig and got arrested, then he walked across Paniai to Moni and got arrested again. He crossed to PNG with the Marind in the south and he crossed Yapan just to see a bird! Now he tries to walk to Mamberamo nearly dies and then comes here and walks to the Asmat. He has been coming back for five years now!”
“Why doesn’t he like his own home?” asks one of the men.
“He is from Ingeriss! They only have rain and snow there!”
That night I felt overwhelmed with fatigue. Five years coming back here. Maybe Nathalius is right, am I crazy? What was I doing carrying on? I knew this route wasn’t going to go. I had already been told it was flooded. Why couldn’t I just be a normal person. Why is that I always feel the need to march headlong into an epic before I can justify giving up?
I roll in my sleeping sack, wincing at the pain in my knees and check the date in my diary: the 14th May. That was it. I was done. I’ve got nothing left to prove. This is the route I was looking for. It exists. I don’t need to continue and cover every inch of path when I already know it is under several feet of water.
Tomorrow I’ll fly back to Wamena. I guess I should feel proud. Don’t beat yourself up Will. It’s time to think about going home.
I am definitely not home. I am being sick. Rice and spice are gushing from my nostrils. The cold rain strikes my bare back. I am hunched over a hole in a wooden decking over a swamp. I can hear my vomit splashing into the dark water below. The path was flooded after all. It is pitch black. I think I might be sick again.
I don’t know what else to do, so I crawl back to my blanket, put this song on my ipod, and try to think about something else other than my apparently limitless capacity for stupidity.