The question had to be asked. Why was a five feet eight inches (178 centimetres) woman being piggy-backed across a river by a five feet (152 centimetres) Dani, who wore little but a penis gourd and a headdress of bird of paradise feathers? The answer, of course, was that while I had tripped merrily over 10 feet (three metres) long bridges, when finally confronted by the prospect of negotiating a 23 feet (seven metres) number - no handrail and a head-spinning drop below - I jacked up. Turned to jelly. Wanted my mother. Wondered why on earth I had ever thought I could handle a long walk in the most remote tropical place on Earth, Irian Jaya's Baliem Valley. My blubbering, whining demeanour presented no problem to the porter, who put me on his back, ran down the river bank like a lemming courting suicide, waded through the rapids, then, thigh deep in mud, deposited me on the other bank. ("They're strong, these Danis" I thought, "know how to make a girl feel cosseted, if useless!") Despite the physical hazards and lack of domestic facilities (no power, beds or bathrooms: you do without, sleep on the floor of village huts or in tents, rush behind bushes and bathe in the rivers, respectively), Baliem Valley is Shangri-La.
It's a place of great beauty, so far untouched by Western custom, and is peopled by the kindest, most generous of tribes, the splendid, virtually naked Dani, whose perfect grace embarrasses anyone flanking them, making us clothed ones feel gauche and most certainly overdressed.
So little is known of Papua (which used to be called Irian Jaya) itself, with its isolated valleys and inaccessible swamps, that examples of its flora and wildlife are yet to be named. It has evolved in isolation, even its tribes had little contact with each other; it is still not unusual for one group living on one side of a jungle-clad mountain to know nothing of its neighbours in the next valley, which may lie as close as a mere 10 kilometres.
With so few people in Papua (Irian Jaya), with such little contact with the outside world, it is a country which, until recently, has remained in its pristine state. Even in Australia, which lies close to it, we remain ignorant of its special qualities; although since it was renamed Papua in 2007 and restrictions on travel were loosened some Papua New Guinea travellers are now crossing a common border to seek her magic.
Our journey to the Baliem Valley started in Jayapura, the country's capital is a city to be avoided if possible. It is a place of cracked concrete pavements and suspicious smells form the open drain. Compensations come in the form of a busy night market selling everything from pigs to zipped nylon backpacks, a muezzin with a marvellous voice to waken you each morning and to lift the spirits at various intervals during the dusty day, and good seafood to be found on the waterfront.
From Jayapura we flew across the wilderness to Wamena, where, on descending from our tiny plane, we realised we had arrived at somewhere absolutely extraordinary. Men wearing gourds on their penises and tea-cosy string hats on their heads hefted our packs, paying no attention at all to the great mountains ringing the wide stretches of the green valley. Some carried stone axes for trading with other Baliem men for precious pigs or food. Women in grass skirts, whom we later discovered would no more reveal their bare backs in public than Western women would walk bare-breasted down Melbourne's Collins Street, trod by with bark and string bags suspended from their foreheads: bags laden with sweet potatoes, cabbages and babies. These bags are beautiful, striped or dotted with earth colours, or dazzling with blue and red and yellow, some even woven with orchid roots. They serve a double purpose, being both decorative clothing and useful. We bought dozens. If you, too, succumb, they must be declared to customs if you leave Irian through Papua New Guinea and again on arrival in Australia.
The Dani, who carried our gear, are short, immensely strong (it's a local legend that it takes seven ordinary men to hold down a Dani, and, after carrying me, I'd believe it) and sometimes cover their naked tops with dirty T-shirts. Their penis gourds come in all shapes and sizes: short, stubby ones, long straight ones which run up to their shoulders, and curly ones. Some are so wide they need a sash to stabilise them, and double as a good place to keep their smokes. The Dani appear solemn but their serious expressions belie a great sense of fun which sees them burst into smiles, or take up a chant, singing along as they carry our packs, our food and water supplies, or, if pressed, a terrified traveller.
Our first day's trek took us through burnt sugarcane fields, whose lethal ground-level spikes had us leaping around like goats, then across a wide, rushing river. Here the current proved so strong one of the Dani had to leap into the water and push our log raft across from the stern, rather like a human outboard. On the far bank we sat and feasted on nasi goreng and freshly cooked yabbies taken straight from the river.
The river landscape gave way to orderly stockaded fields heaped high with sweet potato mounds - the Dani staple diet. We soon learnt to enjoy the sweetness of a steaming spud. Eating one without burning your fingers requires rare talent which you must acquire quickly, or else go hungry.
These carefully irrigated fields have high stiles at each corner, which you also rapidly learn to manage.
By late afternoon we had arrived at Holisili village where we were to spend the night. We opted to stay in the village church, a thatched hut with mud floors topped with straw, rather than to pitch a tent. This was a mistake. Holisili mozzies bombarded us all night long, so that the moonlight hours resounded to the slap of hands on weary flesh until dawn. Our morning ablutions provided huge entertainment for the villagers who all appeared on the river bank, giggling away as we clung to a submerged log in the swift rushing river, attempting to wash ourselves without being swept away in the current. Despite their nakedness, the Dani are extremely modest and travellers must bathe themselves with clothes on.
Dani men and women live separately, each having their own round thatched hut, although the men tend to gather in one long house where they smoke their strong tobacco over low fires and talk the hours away. The tribe is totally community minded: huts are whipped up in a day because everyone helps; children appear to belong to all and are shared and loved by everyone. Both men and women toil in the sweet potato fields, although the females do this with what can only be called a severe handicap; the Dani have an alarming habit of severing a woman's finger at the joint whenever a member of her family dies. We saw girls, no older than a robust 15 summers, with only a thumb left on each hand. It's a hard life, but such is the Dani love of beauty that even the most humble village boasts a splendid garden. Surprisingly, these resemble the English cottage garden: low, ordered borders, hollyhocks, a celebration of claret-coloured roses and trumpet-shaped exotics all vie for space among banana trees and sago palms.
Each day saw us becoming fitter by the kilometre, each day revealed more delights. One sun-blazing morning we spent ages paddling across the river on three logs lashed together. It was a hazardous jaunt which washed us on to a pebbly bank where the local children broke smooth, black river stones, revealing inside perfect fossil shells which they gave to us in exchange for nothing more than smiles.
At yet another village the elders produced a 350-year-old mummy wearing a string hat and just a tiny touch of electrician's tape wound around a hand to keep it all together. Everywhere, all through the valley, everyone smiled and sang and touched us; the children held our strange white hands, and then watched to see if our colour had scraped on to them.
... the ELDERS produced a 350-year-old MUMMY wearing a string hat and just a tiny touch of electrician's tape wound around a hand to keep it all together.
It was extraordinary to be so welcomed by villagers totally unused to Westerners (some had never seen a white person before). But because of their friendliness, the hard walking, the difficulties of taking a wash and the rigours of sleeping on rough ground dissipated in the thin fresh air of the high valley. At our last village, Manda, a stockaded compound with a ghost bridge set into the wooden stakes, designed to mislead any stray spirits from taking the pathway into the enclosure, our guide decided we must buy a pig for the villagers.
Pigs are special to the Dani. A source of wealth, bargaining power, status and constituting formidable bride prices, they tend to keep the pigs as tangible evidence of their prosperity, rather than eating them. But this doesn't mean they are averse to nibbling a pig if six white travellers are willing to buy one from them. The Dani selected several beasts, a jolly fat one and a big, ropey elder who had participated in one too many raids on the sweet potato patch. After chasing them before finally penning the pigs, the captor warriors disappeared into the bushes to get ready for the kill. Penis gourds were straightened, faces and bodies decorated with ceremonial white clay, bird of paradise feathers laced with parrot feathers hung about their necks and narrow green leaves were selected to suspend over their back- sides from their waist strings.
It was a sobering thought to know that the ceremony we were about to witness was a direct copy of the one the Danis performed for the execution of the Long White Pig (the White Man). While the beauty salon was in operation, the village elders dug a huge ground pit, then heated stones on a mammoth gold-flamed fire, while women gathered grasses and the ubiquitous sweet potatoes, piling all into their colourful string bags. Eventually, the warriors reappeared in their war paint, while their archer, a noble executioner indeed, overcame the embarrassment of stubbing his toe as he leapt into the compound, and cleanly killed the pigs which the senior village men then butchered and wrapped in banana leaf packages. The meat was then layered with the spuds and grasses into a mound, water poured on, and the whole lovely jumble steamed for several hours. When the pork packages were ready, they were handed out in order of size and status to the villagers. We decided abstinence was the better part of diplomacy, so just took the potatoes.
After the feasting, the partying and dancing began. The spectacle had started around noon, and not until 6 o'clock the following morning wound to its lyrical halt; night long they sang and danced, their sweet voices spinning into the darkness in perfect harmony. The Dani were high on nothing but movement and joie de vivre, as the Baliem Valley is free of alcohol, but kids, dogs, warriors and women, ancients, youths and even us, joined together in an exultation of life. It was quite heart-stopping.
We left the Baliem sadly, to the sounds of their spontaneous farewell chanting, walking up the last hills laden with images to sustain us for the rest of our lives. Images of how simple the world once was a place where men put out their hands in friendship to all strangers.
There is a dark side to this paradise, of course. Irian Jaya, instead of logically joining Papua New Guinea as an independent Melanesian nation, was passed over to Indonesia by a nervous American president. John Kennedy felt that Sukarno's anti-communist leanings were more useful to him than an emergent state of unknown political proclivities. It appears to have been a disastrous decision. The trans-migration of 16 to 20 million Indonesians to this beautiful land has swamped it with alien ways and people as genetically different from the Irian Jayans as chalk is from cheese. Jayapura is an Indonesian town, where the 21st century ways of Jakarta are strangling a culture as old as God; the cool breezes of the high Baliem Valley will not long look down on the old ways. The Dani are being forced to step into the darkroom of an alien culture where the light is swiftly dimming on their inheritance and innocence.
We feature this destination for the luxury of the experience, there is no accommodation that The Luxury Travel Bible would recommend. Sheraton Timika Hotel in Timika, or the Swiss-Belhotel in Jayapura is about as good as it gets - and you shouldn't expect much.
Words: Jill Mullens. Photos: Frank Mullens updated 18/4/10