Callum’s shout extracted my mind violently from a daydream about cake.
We both stopped dead in our tracks.
We were slowly making our way down the left hand side of a shallow gully. There was some serious canopy overhead, throttling the light out of the forest floor, stifling the plant life, and allowing us a very rare opportunity to walk almost unabated. This meant we had a clear view for about 30 metres, and there, right at the base of the gully, next to a tree, staring straight back at us, was not a pig.
“DOG!” Callum and I were both shouting now “It’s a bloody hunting dog!”
This was incredible news.
Less that 25 metres away was a small-white faced dog with chocolate brown legs. I started down towards it. My heart was thumping hard.
“I don’t believe it! It IS a dog!”
This was huge. There was no way a domestic hunting dog would be this far into the forest without its human owner. This was our first solid contact with people for over three weeks.
“Hello!” I shouted, before sensibly switching to “Selemat sore”, as we were in Indonesia after all. But then I thought there was zero chance the dog-owner actually spoke Indonesian in this land containing one-third of the world’s languages. So, I switched back to “Hello”.
We got to within 20 metres of the dog, then it just turned tail and idly trotted off down the gully.
I kept shouting greetings. No Papuan is ever far from their dog.
We traced the pug marks. They went into a stream so I ditched the bags and started searching and shouting frantically. People, without doubt, were near.
We needed help. We were in a bad way. It was obvious that the last few days, despite our mental resilience, had taken a massive physical toll. We were thinner than ever before and were taking serious antibiotics and painkillers constantly to get the worst of our pain and infection under control. We both knew deep down we were getting close to the end of our thresholds. If we could just make contact with someone now then maybe we could get help to the village of Wara. Maybe this ordeal would be over.
I followed the stream right down only to find it disappeared into dense brambles. I scanned the banks, looking for more prints, but found nothing.
As I started back towards where I had left Cal I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I stopped, just feet away from him. We both stood in silence. We could both feel it. We were being watched.
I have never ever been so sure of anything in my life.
After weeks of being in the forest we were acutely sensitised to the calls and movements of the jungle floor.
Now there was an eerie silence.
“If” I stammered, “that was the people of Wara on a hunt, they would have come over. People’s hearing here is too good to have missed our shouts…unless…”
Callum grinned and finished my sentence “…we just crossed paths with a totally different tribe.”
There you have it.
Why I do what I do. For that one moment, where pretty much everything you think you know suddenly and abruptly turns on its head, and you are left standing completely dumbstruck.
The people of Wara were absolutely adamant no one lived or traded south of their position. I had naively ignored their warnings three weeks ago when I pressed on downstream in the forlorn hope they could be wrong. Now, I realise, we probably both were. Whoever it was we encountered that day had zero interest in meeting us, and certainly weren’t engaging in any downstream trading activity with the people of the Mamberamo. That much I do know.
But I can’t tell you anything else, as I literally haven’t got a clue.
A few hours later I found those dogs prints again. They were leading from a side-stream that ran right through the southern line we were cutting back to the village. They followed a freshly cut path right and were matched almost step for step by another absolutely tiny set of human prints.
Five minutes later they all disappeared into another stream.
I never saw those prints again and, in truth, I didn’t really want to.
I like the idea there are people still living on this planet that can express their choice to not make contact with the rest of us. Making first contact with indigenous people should always be a two way choice. We certainly weren’t out there to force ourselves on anyone who didn’t want to meet us. As it was, we just quietly crossed paths in the middle of the forest, and that was fine with all of us.
We were however, getting closer to Wara village, and were starting to court real hope.