A trip to Papua – Indonesian Papua Highlands

The endless blue ocean that is the Arafura Sea meets Papua with a violent shudder of breaking surf on rocky beaches. Papua simply rises out of the water like some strange prehistoric animal. Ponderous, enormous, mysterious. The mountains climb endlessly, effortlessly towards the sky. These are some mountains: craggy, monumental- a darker kind of bruised and violent blue. This is a land stuck in time.

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And the Jungle. Having traveled all over Indonesia I thought I was prepared for what I assumed Papuan Jungles would be. These Jungles dominate the landscape, cut only by muddy ribbons of rivers that force their way from the mountains behind to the distant ocean. The jungle is impenetrable. Thick, lush, a myriad of greens and browns. It is almost inconceivable that the same country that has cleared most of Kalimantan has been unable to make any impact on the dense canopy that clings to the Southern slopes of Papua. Looking down over the millions of square miles of jungle, suddenly the fact that tribes were still being discovered here as late as the 1960's makes perfect sense. Roads are few and far between, hamlets (if that's what they can be called) are rare. This is still natures preserve. Still almost untouched by human hand.


Timika, the first transit stop in Papua, has been carved out of this jungle. It is a small parcel of habitable land with impenetrable walls of trees bordering it on all sides. It literally is a city carved out the jungle. Its main reason for existence is as a base and air-link for American mining company Freeport. They have a huge copper mine operating up high in the nearby mountains. Freeport is one of Indonesia's biggest tax payers. Their contribution to Papua is the infrastructure that makes up Timika as well as projects around the rest of the Island.


After a quick 30 minute stopover, the flight continues to Jayapura- the capital of Papua. Jayapura was described once to me as being like a “Kebon Singkong” (a sweet potato field) during the day, and like Hong Kong at night. There is no doubt that this city is a small slice of Paradise. It is located on a deep water bay, the inhabitants living on houses over the water and also built right up the sides of the mountains that surround the town. The Jungle snaps at the outskirts of the city, a thick green and blue belt of trees tied tight around the inland perimeter. The view seaward is of islands and the smoky grey outline of Papua New Guinea. PNG is a mere 70km from Jayapura, not more than a couple of hours drive.


While the rugged geography maybe similar to that of Hong Kong, Jayapura is no Causeway Bay. The tallest building in the city is the towering 6 storey Bank of Papua. The Swiss-Bell Hotel and several other buildings top out at 5 stories. At one end of town is the Port and the area known as Dok I. At the other end, Police Barracks and Dok IX. In between there is an army base, commercial centre, fish market and the soccer stadium - home to Indonesia's 2008/9 champion soccer team. The city is not huge, but vibrant. This is a melting pot of different cultures and different religions. Immigrants from South Sulawesi- Bugis, live hand in hand with Javanese and local Papuans. Churches- many Catholic, are everywhere. A large Cross, illuminated red at night, stands atop the peak overlooking the city. Another- this one yellow, guards the wide entrance to the harbor. Power is supplied by a sadly dilapidated and spluttering diesel fired power-plant at Dok I. Its poor performance means nearly every major building- hotels, cafes, restaurants, government offices and hospitals- have their own generators on site.


One of the major daily habits of local Papuan's is endlessly chewing Betel nuts. Betel nuts, or Pinang as they are known in Indonesia, used to be a fruit that was the bane of British Governors everywhere. The nuts were chewed and spat out in a gooey mess in cities including Hong Kong, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. Pinang itself is green and about the size of quails egg. The customer pops the entire fruit in their mouth and begins chewing like mad. It is crunchy, hard and oozes out a acrid and bitter flavor. The juice of the fruit stimulates the saliva glands- the chewers mouth quickly fills with liquid. This is regularly spat out and between chews the consumer eat chalk dabbed in a sirih stalk. The chalk helps to balance out the acidity in the mouth. The betel nut has a strange effect. It is for sure a stimulant and also it creates a numbing effect in the mouth. The local Papuans think it is also an excellent way to reduce gum disease. It is pretty easy to spot a Betel but eater- the bright red juice mixed with saliva would make an excellent prop for the “Twilight” cast of vampires. Blood red teeth, gums and an occasional chin. The streets of Jayapura look like they have been sprayed with blood!


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..


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.

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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.

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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.

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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


(c) Alun evans, 2009. www.merdekacoffee.com please,no problem to reprint/reproduce but give credit to author thanks!

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