The ride from Wamena Airport to the Hotel in pedal powered Becaks took 5 minutes. The air was crisp, the sky clear and warming. The initial impression of the town was that the place was very small. Wamena is laid out in a grid like pattern, with streets patch-worked across the valley floor. Most roads were only recently sealed and until 3 years ago the only motorised transport was the four-wheel drives belonging to the Army, Police, Government and NGO's. As there are no roads in, or out of the Baliem Valley- all cars arrive in town via Hercules transport plane. One thing was fairly obvious, no beer was available. Wamena, like Jayapura, has very strict rules on alcohol sale and consumption. Alcohol has been blamed for contributing in some part serious flare-ups in violence and, of course, for contributing to the staggering HIV problem in Papua.

The Hotel was the very best in town. For sure the glossy and colorful billboards I saw at Sentani Airport did not do justice to the place. It was actually nothing like I imagined. Like cars, all building materials are brought into the valley by air. Thus the gold taps, ceramic baths and chandeliers were nowhere to be seen, However it must be said the place was cozy, the staff friendly and the coffee was hot. My room had two small single beds, a 12 inch TV and a pair of slippers which were well worn by previous guests.

At the Hotel were meet by the farming community head and his number two and went by trusty old Toyota Kijang to one of the sites we currently work with. Unlike Java, the small-holders plant in a well planned communal area, not directly around their houses./villages Most farmers have around 1.5 ha- ranging between 1600 to 2000 trees. Of course this number can be misleading, as not all trees fall into the productive category. .

In the case of our first visit there were 50ha of Arabica coffee trees producing good quality cherries, under the protective shield of full grown shade trees. The coffee- all Arabica, is flourishing at the Baliem valley's altitude of 1800-2000m+. There are many reasons why Arabica from Papua, and indeed Papua New Guinea, is so good. A mixture of the right altitude, soil types, rainfall, humidity, cultiva and processing makes up a good part of this. The coffee is also organic, the farmers use borer traps pioneered in Papua Niugini to catch and dispose of the bugs in a non chemical manner.

The farmers are growing coffee in an as sustainable system as possible. The shade trees have been growing 20 years plus. Almost by default the system has always been organic. The cost of transporting fertiliser and pesticides in by plane is prohibitively expensive. It is hard to imagine but nearly everything is brought in by plane- drinking water, fuel and even building bricks and tiles. The use of airplanes pushes the cost of everyday items through the roof. Aqua drinking water, selling for 2000rp in Jakarta, sells for 25,000rp in Wamena.

Historically the town has been a centre of commerce and trade for the tribes not only in the Valley, but also for those living in the thousands of square kilometers mountains around Baliem. In recent years the town has grown quickly. It is the Provincial capital of the JayaWijaya sub-district. Hospitals, schools, government offices are located either side of Jl Jend Sudirman, the main road. At night the town is dark. Electricity supply is often erratic, street lighting poor. Large groups of locals gather at the outdoor markets- as much for socialising as for shopping. Fires add an eery, primeval aspect to the cool evening air. Betel nut is in plentiful supply, imported from the coastal plains where the Pinang palms grow.

We were lucky with weather. Being in the midst of some very big mountains, the Valley is often subjected to lighting quick changes in the weather. Clouds can form within minutes and come charging down off the tall peaks, engulfing the town very quickly. Wind can also be quite strong, entering the valley at altitude and gathering speed as it is funneled down onto the valley floor. In the late afternoon the winds really make their presence felt, the temperature drops very quickly as the sun sinks.

The next two days we spent with various tribal groups spread over the Valley. The Agenda was a “Frank discussion on coffee”. The idea was to find out what we could do to help the coffee farmers as a collective to produce the best coffee and to then secure the best possible return for that coffee. It saddened me to see that many of the plots we went past were neglected. Several generations of coffee samplings were struggling up under the trees that spawned them. Long grass and weeds often thick and tangled under the trees. Luckily every group we meet was keen to work with us to revitalize their coffee crops. We walked through the plot after plot, looking at what needed to be done. Sometimes the coffee was actually in excellent condition, the farmers maintaining their trees as a point of honor rather than because of any material gain. The two days were pleasant- enjoying the quiet sounds of nature occasionally punctuated by a 4wd Mitsubishi Strada roaring past- loaded to the gunwales with tribesmen on their way to political or church sponsored meetings. Each 4wd roaring past left a scent of diesel and the sound of tribal singing hanging in the air.

Often the regular meetings we organised took place in communal settings outside: under huge shade trees, in pleasantly grassed compounds. Sitting in a full circle, like around a campfire, discussion came easily. The meetings were designed to be educational- for the villagers, for us. Learning from each other and therefore moving forward in a positive manner. Every evening the three of us would retire to Mas Budi's restaurant (serves the best Mie Kuah east of Java) and talk over what we had seen in the field during the day. Each had their own observations and sharing them really helped to formulate some ideas for not only for the next day, but for the intermediate term.

The Trek up the Baliem Valley had to wait until the 3rd day. It proved to be a big highlight of this trip. We left Wamena early and got to the drop off point. We hauled our packs out of the old Kijang and headed up the Valley. The first hurdle was TNI (Army) and POLRI (Police) checkpoints. Being a foreigner I had to present my Permit for being in Papua. The Permit comes from the Intelligence Agency in Jakarta and normally clears any misconceptions of why a foreigner is in these parts. Both the Police and the Army were pleasant enough, so no problems.

The walk was initially not too tough. A well trod gravel track marked out by hundreds of years. Soon the track narrowed, the gravel became a mixture of river sands and bare rock. We crossed the remains of a huge landslide, 1 km of mountain rock had tumbled across the valley floor into the river below. It had completely buried the valley floor under a million tonnes of rock.

The Baliem River which has carved out the impressive Valley is a ragging, violent beast- billions of litres of water an hour go tumbling down the tight and narrow valley. On one side tall, imposing cliffs contain the River. Above these cliffs are plots of land, walled with river stones brought up from below. Cultivation has been going on in this Valley for well over 9000 years. The tribes use a 7 year rotating method- hence the use of all arable ground right up to the top of the towering peaks. Apart from coffee the other crops include tapioca, sweet potato, corn, sawi and red ginger.

On the trails that wind through the valley we encountered wild pigs, an occasional dog and a number of tribal villagers. We exchanged “Nyayak Lau” to the villagers, and generally ignored the pigs and dogs. The hike took well over 3 hours to the first village. By days end we had covered well over 30km on foot! In many places we climbed almost vertical rock faces and traversed raging streams. It was tough going. Our local friends were pretty fit, but the three of us were flagging. Every village we came to we sat down and discussed coffee. Training issues, concerns with the market, the needs of each particular community. Every village was different but the common thread was a desire to be able to reach the market with a fair price for them all. Along the way we saw many hillside Arabica plantations. Most were very well looked after- the pride each family had in their plots evident. We picked up new crop samples along the way- almost 12kg in total! Most of it was still in parchment form- with the outer shell of the dried coffee still attached. Golden yellow and crackling dry it had to be carried by hand, which added to the sense of adventure and discovery. It was an amazingly rewarding day. Meeting with the growers, their families, the village chiefs is what relationship coffee is all about. Listening to their need s for the year ahead, indeed the years ahead, added to the incentive to come back as soon as possible. The culture and its ongoing vibrancy. The bonus: the absolute beauty and sheer loneliness of one of the most spectacular coffee growing regions on earth.

That last night the three of us had our ritual evening meal at Mas Budi's. The place was packed. A soccer game between Jayapura and Kediri was being shown on a small TV in a cornier of the restaurant. Indonesians have an insatiable appetite, an unquenchable passion for football. Even the smallest warung in rural Java or Flores will be packed when a local, an English or an Italian league game is being shown live. Over glasses of crimson red Tamarillo juice we reflected on the 4 days work behind us. We had visited farmers we had been working with for sometime as well as forging bonds with communities which were new to us. Everywhere we traveled we meet enthusiasm and hope, both great assets in the coffee growing communities around the world.

The next day we found it was far more difficult to getting out of Wamena, than to get in.. During the last night of our stay the rains arrived with a torrential vengeance. This was not your usual tropical downpour- the rain began heavy at 9pm and was still falling the next morning. The valley was swathed in a half light- padded with a grey cotton wool blanket. There was some doubt we would get to fly out that day. After saying our goodbyes to the coffee community leaders we headed to the airport. Puddles of brown, muddy water spilled out onto the streets, ankle deep around the entrance to the terminal building. The early fights were all canceled. By 12 noon it looked certain we would not get out. The check-in area was jammed with potential passengers, many chain smoking cigarettes. We camped as close to the check in counter as was possible. Suddenly a plane landed, chaos as it became evident that the weather was lifting and some lucky passengers would get out of Wamena that day.

We missed out on the first two flights, and fought a group of willy German Mountain climbers (who I must say jumped the Que) for seats on the final flight of the day. We were fortunate. Saying goodbye to the Valley was certainly harder than I expected. As the plane struggled up out of the misty cloud and broke into the bright blue skies above, I was already hard at work planning for my next trip to Papua.

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