The Grand Valley
As I stepped into this celebrated valley, I was awestruck by its majestic beauty. A string of soaring mountains looming over a wall of forest, a winding river and tranquil creeks tucked away amongst emerald fields of sweet potatoes, all dancing beneath t
Located near Wamena, in West Papua, the easternmost island of Indonesia, Baliem Valley is a mythical destination of otherworldly beauty that promises unbelievable rewards for those willing to make the trek. Intrigued, I recently decided to visit. Two friends and I took a flight from Jakarta to Jayapura, the capital of Papua province. From there it was a 45-minute flight to Wamena airport. Our guide whisked us to our hotel, the Baliem Palimo. This is considered the best hotel in Wamena and is functional, but it clearly doesn’t live up to the standards of luxury hotels in Jakarta or Bali. But it is centrally located in downtownWamena, near several good restaurants and minutes from Jalan Irian, Wamena’s main shopping street, making the hotel a favourite with tourists and visiting Indonesian officials. After checking in, we crossed the street to Blambangan restaurant. Ibu Dewi, the chef and owner, who is originally from Banyuwangi, East Java, greeted us and suggested we try a traditional Wamena delicacy — udang selingkuh, or cheating prawns. The name comes from the unique shape of this Baliem River prawn, which has the body of a prawn and the claws of a crab. Its succulent meat, mixed with Ibu Dewi’s special seasoning and sambal, make this a dish to die for. For the rest of our stay in the valley, we could not resist savouring a plate of the prawns each and every night, cholesterol be damned. Wamena, which literally means “tamed pig” in the local tribal language, is the capital of Jayawijaya regency. The name is appropriate as pigs are considered the most vauable possession for members of the valley’s tribes. The city lies in the heart of Baliem Valley and is the gateway for exploring the secluded valley and its tribes’ unique way of life. But be warned, never ventureintothevalleyonyourown.There are no trekking maps or signs, making it very easy to get lost, which you really don’t want to do. So always hire a guide. News of this Eden-like valley was first reported to the outside world in 1938 by Richard Archbold, an American philanthropist and passionate explorer. Christian missionaries were soon descending on the area, but were met with much resistance and many were killed. It was some time before tribe members stopped regarding these outsiders with suspicion. Despite the arrival of these missionaries, to this day some of the tribes’ ancientanimistic rituals and traditions continue to be practiced. Situated at 1,600 metres above sea level, the isolated Baliem Valley is surrounded by the soaring peaks of Mount Puncak Jaya (4,884 metres), Mount Trikora (4,750 metres) and Mount Mandala (4,700 metres). Because of these mountain guards, access to the valley is by air only. This helps maintain the area’s exotic sense of isolation,butitalsohelpseplainwhyfood and other supplies in the valley are so pricey. Baliem Valley has three main tribes: the Dani, Yali and Lani. While the Danis live in the basin of the valley, most of the Yalis inhabit the southeast of the valley and the Lanis live in the west. The tribes have managed to hold onto some of their traditions in the face of modernization’s onslaught, and visitors can still get glimpses of what life may have been like for them before the valley was opened up to outsiders. Most people are fascinated in particular by the koteka, or penis gourds, and sali, weaved dry grass worn by women like a skirt, that are still used by some tribal members. The tribes are also apt farmers, making full use of their fertile pockets of land and abundant rivers to cultivate sweet potatoes, taro, corn and sago palms. Jibama, Wamena’s biggest market, is not far from Palimo Hotel. It features rows of tin-roofed stands filled by farmers from the surrounding villages. A bit farther on, Wouma is a smaller but more charming
as oranges, pineapples and avocados, ferns, dried flowers and coiled rolls of pungenttobacco,creatinganexplosionof colours in these vibrant markets. In Jibama, we spotted some men crafting necklaces with pigs’ teeth and others were selling koteka and noken, a traditional bag made of naturally dyed threads that women usually carry strapped across their foreheads. And, of course, there were plenty of pigs around. This highly revered animal has great cultural and ritualistic significance for the tribes, including their use as a dowry — four to five pigs must be presented to the family of the bride. It was their astronomical price that made me flinch; a piglet costs around Rp 2 million, or more than US$200, while a mature pig could fetch an astounding Rp 40 million. Tribal tradition allows for polygamy and some of the wealthier men “buy” several wives, some as many as 11. The social status of men is distinguished by the number of pigs and wives they have. One of the more unique traditions is for tribe members to cut off one of their fingers or to slice their ear as a sign of grief for a death in the family. We saw the results of this tradition in many of the villages we visited. Escorted by a guide and three porters, we roamed the pristine valley, visiting some of Wamena’s more remote villages including Sugokmo, Yetni, Polimo and Kurima. The clear air energized us as we tramped up steep hills and along narrow trails, crossed countless streams on tiny wooden planks or shaky hanging bridges, and passed carpets of green fields and endless trees. Wherever we cast our eyes we saw nothing but picturesque scenery. We also enjoyed our encounters with the local children. We handed out packets of milk biscuits that they gratefully accepted, rewarding us by singing Nahosa Nipase, a local children’s song about a sweet potato. It is hardly surprising their favourite song would be about a sweet potato as it is the staple food for the tribes; they eat it twice or three times a day, with its leaves as a vegetable. Our hike up the Napua Hills was particularly spectacular. Protruding mountains paraded before my eyes, each reaching up to touch the milky clouds. We drank in the sunset from the top of the hills, a palette of colours painting the sky. It was stunning. Our treks to Aikima, Pabuma, Suroba, Dugum, Jiwika and Sumpaima in the northern part of Wamena were less strenuous, as the villages sprawl out in the lowland of the valley. First we headed to the Mabel clan’s honei in Jiwika village, where Wimintok Mabel, a fragile 250-year-old mummy, is housed. It was a bit frightening, so we quickly shook hands with the clan’s chief, Konono Mabel, and drove to Suroba. There we were greeted by Miyagon Kosai, the charismatic chief of the village. He insisted on accompanying us to the next village, Dugum, where he showed us a few interesting spots.The highlight of the trip had to be our visit to Sumpaima. A full mock war was being staged in the village by its chief, Yali, and his whole clan. The men strapped on their koteka, smeared their bodies with pig fat and dry mud, adorned their heads with colourful feathers and accessorized themselves with walimo, a kind of really big necklace made of silver and pigs’ tusks. Then they got down to the business of fighting, or pretending to fight, using long spears and bows and arrows. Following the performance we were ushered to Yali’s compound where his six wives and children greeted us with a local victory song. The Dani’s honei is made up of round huts with thick thatched roofs. There are rows of honei surrounded by stone walls and gates to prevent the pigs from escaping. Men and women occupy separate honei; women and children are forbidden to enter the men’s honei (pilamo).There’s an elongated honei with several holes in the floor that serves as the clan’s kitchen. We were treated to the Pig Feast, one of the main festivities for the Dani. Fire to heat the stones is made by rubbing a small piece of rattan on a little pile of dry hay. The pig is killed by shooting an arrow into its heart, and then it is slaughtered with a piece of sharp wood. It is then cooked on hot stones together with sweet potatoes and lots of sweet potato leaves. Afterwards, we retreated to BaliemValley Resort for tea. Located deep within the valley, it is set atop a hill with a stunning panorama of the valley. We were breathless as we watched the sunset from the lobby deck, dazzlingly intense reds and oranges illuminating the valley before the sun disappeared over the horizon. As dusk settled in, we left Baliem Valley for the last time, but our memories of this grand valley and its people will linger on. Yogo (goodbye), BaliemValley!