Exploring the lightly populated, truly wild landscapes of Indonesian Papua

There are maybe only a handful of pockets left on this planet where entire landscapes can remain unseen by outside eyes, where new species of animal are hiding and where uncontacted tribes might still exist. The interior of Papua is one such place.

The old man holds up his fingers for me to count. Three on one hand, and four on the other hand. “What happened?” I ask. “Did you lose the others in an accident?” “No”, he replies. “I did it myself. I got a rock, and I smashed each finger off.”

The man looks out across a landscape of ruptured valleys swirling with afternoon mist and abruptly rising mountain peaks. “Each missing finger represents a child of mine that has died. It’s our custom to do this”.

I’m walking through the hills of the southern Baliem Valley in Papua. Papua is the Indonesian half of the enormous island of New Guinea (the other half being Papua New Guinea). It’s ­Indonesia’s forgotten corner, but if you ask the Papuans, it’s not really a part of Indonesia at all. The people are Melanesian rather than Asiatic, and the region has only been a part of Indonesia for the past few decades.

Culturally, this is a world away from the rest of Indonesia. ­Papuans are primarily ­Christian or animist – most of the rest of Indonesia is Muslim. They eat differently. Gone is the rice of the rest of Indonesia, and in comes sweet potatoes and roasts. They dress differently, too. Sometimes very differently. Traditional dress, which is still fairly common in the remote and mountainous interior, should perhaps better be called traditional undress – women often go about topless, and men are normally totally naked but for a bit of jewellery and a sheath-like wooden gourd.

With such glaring differences between Papuans and other ­Indonesians, it’s perhaps not surprising that the relationship between Papuans and the central government in Jakarta has often been fraught. There’s an active, armed independence movement. Although tourists haven’t been a target of this violence, and all main tourist areas are calm and safe to visit, the political situation can lead to restrictions on visiting remoter areas.

Flying from the big coastal city, and Papua’s main town, of Jayapura into the Baliem Valley, you look down on thick, brown, python-like coiling rivers, clogging lowland forests and, gradually, ever-growing serrated lines of jagged mountains, which in places are plastered in shrinking glaciers and dustings of snow. The one thing you don’t see are roads, towns and villages. From the air you will likely come to the conclusion that the interior of Papua is a lightly populated, truly wild land. Your assumption would be correct.

There are maybe only a handful of pockets left on this planet where entire landscapes can remain unseen by outside eyes, where new species of animal are hiding and where uncontacted tribes might still exist. The interior of Papua is one such place. It was only in the late 1930s that the massive, and for the Papua interior, fairly densely populated Baliem Valley was first discovered by the outside world. When the first explorers stepped foot in this valley, Baliem was still a real Jurassic world, where headhunting was a part and parcel of life, and people still worked bones and stones into tools.

Today, it’s the centre of Papuan cultural and trekking tourism, and the only bone tools you’ll see being made are aimed strictly at a tourist souvenir market. That’s not to say that the past has been totally forgotten. There are plenty of older folk who still recall days of old, and cultural festivals are enthusiastically celebrated by all the inhabitants of the valley – the big event in the cultural calendar is the Baliem Valley Festival, which is held in mid-August, and has mock tribal battles and spectacular traditional tribal dress. Although headhunting, which was never as common as the outside world likes to think, is now forbidden, there are many other cultural traditions kept alive by young and old alike.

For one exhilarating week, I walk (with a guide and a couple of porters) through the mountain peaks that rise up from the southern end of the Baliem ­Valley. We cross terrifying, raging rivers on rickety wooden bridges that swing in the breeze, and clamber and pant up slopes so high and steep that my eyeballs start sweating. Invariably, these climbs are followed by a descent down into a neighbouring valley on a trail so sheer that my knees jar with every downwards step.

No matter how tiring the walking gets, though, the scenery always rewards. There are mist-dressed forests of pine trees, terraced slopes of sweet potatoes (the staple food of the highlands), meadows filled with bird song and wild flowers, crashing waterfalls, and seemingly always over the next ridge, the barren rock and ice-slopes of the highest peaks in this part of the world.

But as memorable as the scenery is, it’s the opportunity to witness something of local Dani life – the predominate tribe in this part of Papua – that’s the highlight of the trek. Old men, naked but for gourds, work in their fields; women carry children on their backs; young men with bows and arrows return from hunting missions in the forests; nights are spent in smoky huts listening, spellbound, to elders tell tales from the days of old.

Papua turns out to be more than just muddy mountain trails and the Dani’s thatch villages, though. As I discover when I fly from the bracing highland air to the sultry Raja Ampat Islands, Papua is also turquoise waters as warm and still as a bath, ­drooping coconut palms, beaches with sand the colour and texture of sugar, and coral reefs with such an explosive diversity of life that they’re fast getting a reputation for the world’s best diving.

Indeed, the marine life in the Raja Ampat Islands is so abundant, I don’t even need to don a snorkel and mask to appreciate the drama of the underwater world.

On my first morning in the islands, I walk 50 metres along the wooden jetty of the dive resort in which I’m staying. ­Looking down into the thigh-deep waters, I see half a dozen baby black-tipped reef sharks menacing the blennies in the jetty cast shade.

Later that day, after several hours diving and snorkelling through rushing, swirling, massing shoals of fish thousands strong, and several encounters with the mummies and daddies of the baby sharks I saw earlier, I sit talking with the man who had first explored, mapped and realised the importance of these reefs a decade or so ago. He explains how the coral gardens of the Raja Ampat Islands were essentially the nursery grounds for the reefs of all the eastern Indian Ocean and western Pacific, and that in many ways, this is the single most important reef system in the world.

Digging his heels into the sand, he says: “People around the world now know that the Raja Ampat Islands are special, but really all of Papua is special, and we’ll continue to discover new species of plants and animals here for years to come”.

Looking out toward another oil-painting sunset, he finishes our conversation by merely saying: “Papua is unlike anywhere else in the world.” That’s something I certainly can’t argue with.