A Trip to the Papuan Highlands - Indonesia (Part Deux)

There are over 250 tribal languages spoken in Indonesian Papuan alone (258 to be exact). The languages are so different that tribes living along the length of the long and wide Baliam valley can not understand each other. A common language called Papua-Malayu has been invented to help bridge this language gap. A combination of Malay and commonly used Papuan words. It works well.

The Valley itself has been cultivated for almost 9000 years, making it one of the oldest continual agricultural cropping locations in the world. Coffee is a recently introduced crop, being brought to the district by Missionaries during the 1960's. These days there are many cultiva of Arabica being grown along the Valley floor and on the steep valleys that intersect the Valley along it's km length.

Getting up into the coffee districts involves negotiating the crowds at Jayapura's Sentani Airport. Located about 1 hour outside of the city, the airport is a link through to places such as Sorong, Nabire, Maurake and Biak. The locals who crowd around the entrance to the departure check-in area are friendly and conversational. They know where NZ is, they know Maori are the local indigenous people of NZ and make the appeal for the NZ government to support a united, independent Papua. I will pass this info to John Key when I next see him for brunch. Being the lone foreigner at the airport was bound to attract attention I guess.

Inside queuing is haphazard at best, non existent at worse. Luckily my local partner has a way of securing our seats, booking our luggage through and getting us to the waiting area without having to get anywhere near a “Que”. . A decades worth of Indonesian airport protocols and dramas means I am all for this option. I am travelling this week with Pak Jusuf and Pak Indri- both live in Papua. The airport waiting room itself (and the view out over the runway) reminds me of that NZ's Rotorua's airport. I am on the lookout for my first Orang adat (ie a Papuan only wearing a Koteka/Penis sheath)- none in sight at the airport! The array of aircraft and airlines that fly into Sentani is amazing. Planes including DC3'.s, Dash-8's, ATR-72's, 737s of various vintages, Cessna, Russian built Andraprov cargo lifters, Twin-otters and BAE whisper jets take off regulary. Airlines include: Garuda, Merpati, Lion, express, Trigana, Aviastar, Silkway and JayaWijaya. Flying really is the only feasible way of getting around Papua. A boat trip from Jayapura to Meaurake takes 2 weeks, the new airline Aviastar flys there in a little over 90 minutes.

Like many provincal airports in Indonesia, there are no air bridges securing the terminal to the planes. The aircraft park 200m from the terminal and when the boarding call is made there is a made dash for the door. Seats are not assigned so, like boarding an aged bus, its first to the plane-first choice of seat. The weather in Sentani is variable, so often the run for the plane is made in misty and foggy drizzle. Luckily on this morning the weather is calm. Clear sky rippled by a touch of high cloud bodes well for the day, the week ahead.

The flight to Wamena should take around 45 minutes in the turbo-prop. Due to the fact that we arrived at the airport at 9am, the flight was rescheduled until 12- it made for a fairly long trip to fly a distance of roughly 279km. This issue of time is typical of Papua- traveling anywhere outside the Timika-Jayapura-Biak triangle a minimum of a day should be allowed. The plane duly arrived, it was a fairly aged ATR72-200- a two engine turboprop used to haul cargo of both the material, and human type. I managed to get a seat up the front (I am a , next to the cargo petition (cargo takes up the FRONT end of these planes- human cargo at the back). The front seats are by far the best on these aircraft- a full 6 feet of legroom! Unlike other airlines there are no rules about securing personal baggage in overhead lockers, so the cabin is filled with luggage.

The plane climbed steeply out of Sentani airport and banked sharply in the direction of Central Papua. We flew 40 minutes over jungle, rivers, more jungle. To say the scenery below was monumental would not be doing the landscape justice. It was purely, simply how the earth must have looked before human development stripped the rainforest away. Awesome.

Apart from the show out the window the flight was fairly non-eventful. The only drama was that some cargo moved during takeoff blocking the door to the captains cabin- thus denying him the privilege of eating Papa Rons Pizza (we all ate small bits of dried fruit cake- the flight attendant had Pizza for the captain only). The final 10 minutes of the journey we flew up the Baliem valley, the tops of the mountains on either side just hundreds of metres from the plane. The weather determines whether or not the plane is actually going to make Wamena, on some days the planes make it all the way to the “Pintu Pesawat” (Plane corridor between the moutains) only to have to turn back.

We dropped through the cloud. On either side, less than 300m from the planes wings, were craggy and menacing rock faces. Suddenly the plane burst free and with a bump entire Baliem Valley was spread out underneath us, spectacular and wide open- like some of the huge river valleys in NZ. The ATR dropped quickly, the pilot planting us rather too firmly on the roughly asphalted runway. Wamena Airport was pretty basic- a single runway, fairly dilapidated terminal shed. and a cluster of buildings with traditional Lani Hone style shaped roofs. The exodus from the plane was a competition in shoving strength, then a quick run over to the main building. Crowds of locals in tribal garb were leaning up against the fence, watching us passively and spitting red, gooey gobs of Pinang stained saliva on the runway. It looked like a pool of blood from a slaughtered animal. Duly the luggage was hauled by handcart to the stained tiled floor in the terminal where it was dumped to be picked up by passengers..

(To be continued)

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