Papua (previously known as Irian Jaya) is the western half of New Guinea, the world's second-largest island, and three times larger than Java and Bali combined. This region is mainly impenetrable jungle where traditional tribes survive harsh conditions and modern intrusions, though most inhabitants live in and around a few towns along the coast. Almost all visitors head to the Baliem Valley, home of some of the most remarkable traditional cultures on earth, while some include a side-trip to explore the dive sites of WWII relics around Palau Biak (Biak Island). Papua has a lot more to offer, but it suffers - and will for some time - from limited transport due to geographic inaccessibility and frustrating government travel regulations.

Irian Jaya: The Last Frontier
The first inhabitants of Irian, black skinned and frizzy haired, first arrived from the west perhaps 60,000 years ago. While the sea level was considerably lower at the time of man's first migrations to Australia and New Guinea, there were still stretches of ocean to cross. rising seas eventually cut off Australia from New Guinea and led to the divergent gene pools which now show up in the somewhat different physical types. Small groups settled along the seashores and short distances inland, living from hunting, fishing and gathering. There must have been but slight contact between these groups on what was to merge as the island of New Guinea. In recent studies, linguists were amazed to learn that on this island, with only 0.01 per cent of the earth's population, 15 per cent of the world's languages are spoken. Out of an almost incredible 800 languages (not dialects), about 550 are found in Papua New Guinea and some 250 in Irian Jaya.
By 4000 B.C., agriculture was well developed, leading to some population concentration and stable social structure. Then the next waves of immigration began washing up on Irian's shores. The newcomers, who originated from south china and dispersed from Taiwan, slowly spread over a time span of two millennia to populate the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Micronesia and Polynesia. In most areas, this new breed, called Austronesian, replaced existing populations thanks to their more advanced technology in tools, weapons and agricultural skills. But in New Guinea, the majority of the long-established Papuans successfully resisted assimilation  by the Austronesians who established themselves only on some nearby islands and coastal strips.
The next great step in Irian's history was the "sweet potato revolution". Plant geneticists still have not established an accurate date for the introduction of the sweet potato to New Guinea, but the impact of this new tuber revolutionised the population distribution and resulted in large increases. The sweet potato, unlike taro and other previously planted crops, grows well above the 1,500 metre line of altitude. This crucial fact placed its cultivation beyond the normal range of the malarial mosquito which had - up to then - kept down the number of humans. The intensive agricultural technique of planting the sweet potato resulted in great yields which also helped to increase the population in Irian's highlands.
The island of New Guinea was "discovered" in the early 16th century for the European world as a by-product of the search for the spice islands. But whites hardly ever landed - let alone go inland - until well into the 19th century. About all that was known was that slaves, along with birds of paradise, were the chief exports and that the Sultan of Tidore claimed some ill-defined parts of western Irian. When Britain - and later Germany - started claiming parts of eastern New Guinea, Holland asserted her ownership of the western part of the island. Most of Irian's interior was a geographical blank until the early years of this century when a series of expedition, led by Dsuitch military forces, first ventured for inland. The Baliem Valley - with over 50,000 inhabitants - was not discovered until 1938 and even  today many areas are still "tierra incognita".
World War Two put New Guinea on the map of world consciousness with a series of vicious battles during which the Japanese were defeated by the Allied forces under General Douglas MacArthur. After the war and the independence of Indonesia, Holland tried to hang on to Dutch West New Guinea. Military engagements and diplomatic pressures forced the turning over of Irian to the United Nations which, after a short transition period, handed the territory over to Indonesia in 1961.
Indonesia's province of Irian Jaya, representing 22 per cent of its total land mass, spreads over the western half of New Guinea which is the second largest island in the world (after Greenland). The shape of this 800,000 sq. km island, north of Australia, resembles a squatting bird with a neck which narrows to a few kilometres before joining a large peninsula called the Bird's Head. A cordillera of mountains runs the length of New Guinea, topped by Puncak Jaya which, at 4,884 metres, is the highest peak between the Himalayas and the Andes. The rugged highlands which surround the mountains hold most of the population. Closely packed, radically different ecological zones result from the combination of tropics, steeply rising elevations and weather patterns. Rivers play no role in Irian's economy but two drainage systems dominate the geography. In the north, the Memberamo River cuts through low hills to split in two, forming a huge area called the Meervlakte (Sea-lake). Most of the rainfall from the highlands ends up in the Memberamo or the Baliem river which runs through the only gorge of the central range towards the south where it feeds one of the world's largest swamplands. 
New Guinea and Australia share the Sahul continental shelf which was never linked to the Asian land mass during the Ice Ages, even when sea levels dropped some 120 metres. Mammals thus evolved in isolation, in the marsupial form. It was man who introduced the common placentals like dogs, pigs (and recently, deer) to complement native kangaroos, bandicoots and cuscus.
Saltwater crocodiles, some over 7 metres in length, are Irian's largest animals. One such monster was credited in the 1950s with 55 confirmed human victims. Other awesome reptiles include tree pythons and the death adder whose hide brings on almost instant fatalities. Huge bird-eating spiders grace sticky, sheet-like webs. Irian's largest bird, the flightless cassowary, can handle spiders of any size as well as careless hunters who are disembowelled by a swift kick and sharp claws. there are also parrots, lorries, cockatoos, the Victoria crowned pigeon and the birds of paradise with their spectacular plumage. The soils of Irian are thin and most susceptible to erosion despite a luxurious cover of vegetation. while logging has started in earnest, the spread of tropical vegetation is still huge, second only to the Amazon Plant life includes insect-eating pitcher plants, phosphorescent fungi and 2,700 species of orchids. the most useful tree, the sago palm, has a trunk of pure starch which is the staple food for most swamp-dwelling tribes. At the other end of the elevation scale, high altitudes foster a tropical-alpine vegetation of tree ferns and other panorama, adding an aura of mystery to a place that remains untouched by the outside world.

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Biak Island, in Cenderawasih Bay off Irian's north coast, has the province's best air communications, international flights to and from Hawaii and Los Angeles as well as jets to Jayapara, Bali and other points west. Small planes also reach several towns in Irian from Biak. but few foreigners have gotten off from their LA-Bali flights in Biak - information is scarce and facilities are far from international standards.
The situation is due to change with promotion campaign and the construction of new hotels. but there is no season to wait until then, the existing hotels are far from being dumps, meals can be excellent and costs are very reasonable. Mass tourism is still a long way off. Tropical islands, fulfilling all the cliches, lie scattered around Biak. Most travellers glimpse them only from the air - the blending of shades of the seas from dark blue to light turquoise, the thin fringe of waves and sand, then the coconut palms. some of the islands hold little villages perched on stilts, others are uninhabited. With a bit of time, you can reach any of them. Cenderawasih Bay hold four major islands and lots of little ones. Biak dominates politically and concentrates facilities and infrastructure. Yapen Island, long and mountainous, boasts of birds of paradise, a decent little hotel and daily flights from Biak. Unfortunately, the hotel and landing strip are on opposite sides of Yapen from the birds. Numfor Island, flat with a couple of deep lagoon,s also received flights from Biak but holds no commercial facilities for travellers. Supiori, separated from Biak by a long, narrow sea-passage, can only be reached by boat and once there, as on Numfor, one depends on local hospitality which are generously available.
Although thoroughly missionised, many villages on all the islands can perform traditional dances with a day or two's notice. On Biak, this includes five-walking, an ancient ritual recently revised at Adoki village, close to town. Also near Biak town, visit a cave called Goa Bissari, one of many used by the Japanese during World War Two during the furious battle for control of this island. Biak Island can easily be explored as three paved roads lead out of town, to Bosnik in the east, to Wardo in the opposite direction and to Korem in the north. From Bosnik (or Biak town) take a canoe to one of the close-by Padaido Islands, little jewels in the sea. Near Wardo, hop into any outrigger for the best magical trip up a river, to Wapsdori waterfall. From Korem, the paved road continues along Biak's north-east coast for the most wonderful seascape and village scenery in this part of the world. Stop at Warsa village where you can see boys who gleefully jump off the top a 15-metre waterfall.
There is more frequently minibus traffic everywhere on market days, and a chance to catch a boat ride from the end-of-the-road to those villages which can only be reached by sea. Markets are usually on Wednesday and Saturday but check on this before heading out. Another alternative is to hire your own local boat. Try the fishermen's cooperative or a travel agency in Biak town for a double-hulled, outbound-powered catamaran with an open, thatch-roofed little cabin amidships. take along a sack of rice, mask, snorkel and fins. the crew will provide the fish. Go exploring for several days for the trip of a lifetime - but now between November and March, the season of heavy seas.
The Gateway to the Valley
Jayapura, the capital of the province of Irian Jaya, is the gateway for the Bailem Valley. The flights schedules make it impossible for travellers to plan for a same-day connection from anywhere to Wamena. Baliem's principal town, even if you already have the necessary "surat jalan" or travel permit. And the fact that the airport is located some 40 km from town doesn't simplify life either. The logical way to proceed is to land as early as possible in the day to allow enough time to obtain the sarat jalan and a ticket to Wamena. The police station where you must go for the travel permit as well as the Merpati Airlines office are located in downtown Jayapura, on either side of the Hotel Matoa. The Merpati office closes at 3 p.m. on normal working days, earlier on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. And as the daily 7 a.m. flight to Wamena tends to be full, you might not be able to obtain a ticket for the next day. A second flight is sometimes added, provided there are enough passengers, but there is no guarantee of this happening. so you might well be stuck in Jayapura for a couple of days. but don't despair: the Baliem is worth the wait and the Jayapura are itself holds enough interest to keep you gainfully occupied.
The main part of Jayapura, a city with a population of about 100,000 lies on Yos Sudarso (formerly Hambold) Bay. there is a splendid view of the city from the base of a communications tower, located on a steep hill just in back of the harbour. To the east, Hamadi suburb offers numerous souvenir stalls, and Yotefa Bay with Engros village where the church and all the houses are built on stilts. To the west, there's a decent swimming beach called Base G (pronounced as Bestegi), a popular spot with locals on weekends. A short distance from town, you can visit one of several crocodile farms. On the road to the airport, the University of Cenderawaih has a good museum of artefacts. On the same road, the Museum Negeri features excellent ethnographic displays. boats are available to motor around Lake Sentani - try to land on Apayo Island where local craftsmen produce bark cloth paintings and carvings in the traditional Santani style. A paved road heading into the hills winds through an army camp to the MacArthur movement, erected to commemorate the location of the general's headquarters. On a clear day, the surrounding views from here are spectacular.
The fertile Baliem Ground Valley lies in Irian's highlands an hour's flights from Jayapura. It's cool here, at some 1,400 metres or more. Early morning clouds and mist often hide the surrounding heights, giving a timeless and mystical atmosphere which slowly dissipates with the sun's rays. The Baliem river, of rich creamy brown tones, snakes through the valley before pouring out through a gorge to the south and the Arafara Sea. This is home to the Dani tribe, the most famous of Irian's interior. These former-warriors lived in isolation until they were discovered in 1938. they grew stupendous harvests of their staple sweet potatoes in the rich valley soil with the help of an efficient irrigation system. As the men had plenty of time left over after the gardening chores were done (most of which were done by the women anyway), ritual warfare developed to a degree seldom matched anywhere.
Today, after over 50 years of contact with the outside world, the Dani's life-style has changed somewhat. But many of the men still wear distinctive penis sheaths, and the women in grass skirts, agriculture is still centred around sweet potatoes. Pigs and women remain a man's most valued possessions. Occasional ritual battles result in dozens of casualties to arrows, spears and the odd imported axe. Funerals and marriage rites have changed little over the years. A visit to the region of the Baliem Valley can be as tame or adventurous. For those who need a degree of creature comforts, Wamena has acceptable hotels and meals, and locally organised day trips which could include a Dani ritual. Hardier souls can set out by public transport, then trek to many a fascinating village. Guides are essential for these jaunts where one has to rely on local hospitality (small payment is appreciated) and take victuals unless you can survive on a straight diet of sweet potatoes.
Wamena, with several thousand people, is the only urban centre in the Baleim. All flights land here, the highlands' main airstrip. foreigners will have their travel permit checked here upon arrival. the district's principal government officials all live in Wamena, along with many students of the high school and teacher training college. The roman Catholic Church has its highland headquarters here. There's a post office, a book and telephone service. And best of all, there's the daily market. In the early hours of dawn, the Dani from miles around begin to drift to the market. Most of the locals bring surplus sweet potatoes and vegetables such as tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers and cabbage along with pineapple and a variety of bananas. Souvenirs like bows and bunches of multipurpose arrows, each for a different kind of game, including humans can be bought. Other items include penis sheaths, stone axes and cowrie shells, formerly used as money.
There are a few traditional Dani villages near Wamena. The nearest, Pugima, can be reached in an hour's stroll for a first taste of local culture. Jiwika, some twenty kilometres away, is linked by a good road and frequent public transportation. En route to Jiwiika, all tours stop to see the mummy of Akima, the smoke dried remains of a powerful war chief who has access to the world of spirits. There is also another mummy, not so popular but cheaper to photograph. A night but basic losmen at Jiwika makes a good base to explore this section of the valley. An hour's steep climb leads to a brine pool from where salt is still extracted in the traditional way. The road continues out of Jiwika, with caves and villages along the way. This road will, someday, link with one being built from Jayapura.
To the south of Wamena, a road leads part of the way to Kurima, at the head of the Baleim Gorge. Paths along the gorge lead to the Yala tribe who saw their first missionaries only a generation ago. On the other side of the Baleim Valley from Jiwika, a road of sort leads to Pyramid at the northern entrance to the valley. Before Pyramid, side paths head into the mountain, past Dani villages to uninhabited lands where Lake Habbema and the snow-capped Mount Trikora are located. Pyramid, a Protestant Missionary Centre, lies on the main paths leading out of the Baliem Valley to the territory of the Western Dani. The sub-district centre of Karubaga can be reached in three or four days on a good path. If you don't feel like trekking back, Merpati has a couple of schedule flights a week from Karubaga to Wamena and there are also occasionally missionary flights. All, if you are up to it, you can keep hiking out of Karubaga to Bokondini and onto Tiom to the west.
The land of the Asmat tribe, centred around the town of Agats, has been off limits to travellers in the past. Only Agat itself has been opened up recently. There is an excellent museum with world-class carvings available, however, it is hardly worth the trip if you cannot move around. Most of the swamp-dwelling Asmat are christianised and wear tattered western clothing. Other interesting tribes, some of which still practice cannibalism, live way inland and are very inaccessible. High transportation costs in outboard-powered dugouts and days of monotonous motoring in malarial swamps make these places for explorers only. Also for the specialists are several spots along the south coast of Papua where cave paintings are found, similar to those of the Australian aborigines. Below Puncak Jaya is the world's most spectacular mine owned by Freeport Indonesia, however, entry to this copper mine is by invitation only. Much easier to reach are Sorong, located at Papua's western most tip and Manokwari, on the shore of Cenderawasih Bay. Sorong, an old oil town, has a great seascape in front and offers access to the region of the Bird's Head. Manokwari, the site of the first mission in Papua, both of a couple of beautiful islands just outside its bay. There are also flights from there to the Anggi Lakes, to beautiful bodies of water located in the Arfak Mountains.     
Dutch Rule

In 1660 the Dutch recognised the sultan of Tidore's sovereignty over New Guinea island, and because the Dutch held power over Tidore (the Sultan's territory) New Guinea theoretically became Dutch. The British unsuccessfully attempted to e3stablish a settlement near Menokwari in 1793, but by 1824 Britain and the Netherlands agreed that the western half, Dutch New Guinea, would become part of the Dutch East Indies. In 1828 the Dutch established a token settlement in Lobo (near Kaimana) but it also failed miserably. About 27 years later the first missionaries, Germans, established a settlement on an island near Manokwari.

The Dutch didn't try to develop the province again until 1896, when settlements were set up ion Manokwari and Fak-Fak in response to perceived Australian ownership claims from the eastern half of New Guinea island. The province continued to be virtually ignored, except by mining companies from the USA and Japan, which explored the rich oil reserves during the 1930s.

World War II

After the bombing of Pearl Harbour, the Dutch declared war on Japan, so the province, as part of the Dutch East Indies, inevitably assumed importance in the battle for the Pacific. (Some Indonesians welcomed the Japanese as Asian liberators who would eradicate the hated Dutch colonialists.)

In early 1944 a four-phase push, led by the US general Douglas MacArthur, was launched from what is now PNG to liberate Dutch New Guinea from Japanese occupation. The Allies were for from optimistic: this part of the world was almost completely undeveloped, inhospitable and uncharted.

A village in the Baliem Valley, one of the most accessible of the highland areas

Phase one, the capture of Hollandia (Jayapura), was the largest amphibious operation of the war in the south-western Pacific and involved 60,000 Allied troops. (Numeroud WWII monuments and relics in and around Jayapura are testament to this event.) The second phase, to capture Sarmi, saws strong resistance from the Japanese.

The third phase was the capture of Pulau Biak (primarily to control the airfield) and nearby Pulau Numfork, on the way to Sorong. Several hard battled were fought on Biak, exacerbated by Allied intelligence severely underestimating the Japanese strength. the fourth and final phase was the successful push to the Japanese air bases on Palau Morotai, off northern Halmabera, and then towards the Philippines.

Asmat tribesmen showing their highly prized Asmat shields

Along the south cost, the Allies fought for control of Merauke because of fears that it would be used as a base for Japanese air attacks against Australia. Fak-Fakj, which was also the size of battles with the Japanese, has probably the best range of untouched WWII relics in the province. 


Major City: Jayapura
Main Industries: Agriculture, fishing, oil, mining
Land Area: 421, 981 square kilometres
Highest Peak: Puncak Jaya (5,050 meters)
Population: 2m7 million
Main Languages: Bahasa Indonesia, Dani, Yali, Ekari, Biak
Main Religions: Christianity, Islam

 Irian Jaya or Papua?

When the Portuguese first sighted the island now shared by Papua and Papua New Guinea (PNG) in 1511 they called it iihas dos Papuas (island of the Fuzzy Hairs), from the Malay word papuwah. Later, Dutch explorers called the island New Guinea (because of the black-skinned people reminded them of the inhabitants of Guinea in Africa) and named the western half Dutch New Guinea. When sovereignty was transferred to Indonesia, the province was renamed Irian Barat (West Irian) and then Irian Jaya; Jaya means "victorious" in Bahasa Indonesia and irian means "hot land rising from the sea" in the Biak language.

To placate the growing separatist movement, the Indonesian government agreed to rename the province Papua on 26 December 2001. To add to the confusion, many Papuan activists, and some International NGOs, refer to it as West Papua.  

Indonesia Takes Over

In 1945, the Dutch wrenched back the territory from the Japanese and used it as a place of exile. the infamous Boven Digul camp (in Tanahmerah) was established as a prison for Indonesian nationalists. following international pressure, the Dutch were forced to withdraw from the Dutch East Indies (which became Indonesia) after WWII, but still clung to Dutch New Guinea. In an attempt to stop Indonesia from gaining control, the Dutch encouraged Papuan nationalism and began building schools and colleges to train Papuans in professional skills, with the aim of preparing them for self-rule by 1970.

Following WWII most Indonesian political factions claimed that Dutch New Guinea, like the rest of the former Dutch East Indies, should be part of Indonesia. throughout 1962 Indonesian forces infiltrated the province, but with little success. The Papuan population failed to welcome the Indonesians as liberators and either attacked them or handed them over to the Dutch. However, US pressure eventually forced the Dutch to capitulate abruptly in august 1962. A vaguely worded agreement in that year under United Nations (UN) auspices required that Indonesia allow the Papuans to determine, by the end of 1969, whether they wanted independence or to remain within the Indonesian republic. So in 1969, an 'Act of Free Choice' was 'supervised' by the UN. The Indonesian government, however, suddenly declared that it would use the procedure of m  by which a consensus of 'elders' would be reached.

In July 1969 the Indonesian government announced that the assemblies in the Merauke, Jayawijaya and Paniai districts had unanimously decided to become part of Indonesia. And West Irian (as it was then known) became Indonesia's 26th province. It now consists of ten districts, with capitals at Sorong, Manokwari, Biak, Serui, Nabire, Jayapura, Timika, Merauke, Wamena and Fak-Fak.

Papuan Opposition

Even before the 'Act of Free Choice', the Indonesians faced violent opposition from the Papuans. In 1969 rebellions broke out on Pulau Biak and Enarotali in the Western Highlands. Between 1977 and the mid-1980s, occasional conflict erupted in the mountains around the Baliem Valley, at Tembagapura (sight of the US-run Freeport mine), and in remote areas of the Paniai District. After a short lull, anti-Indonesian activity recommenced. In 1995, members and sympathisers of the major independence group, the Free Papua Movement stormed the Indonesian consulate in Vanimo, just over the border in Papua New Guinea and took to the streets in Tembagapura and Timika. In 1996, about 2000 Papuans rioted for several days and burned Pasar Abepura market in suburban Jaypura, resulting in several deaths. In the same year several Europeans and Indonesian researchers were kidnapped in a remote part of the Baliem Valley. The Europeans were released unharmed four months later but two Indonesian hostages were killed by the three Papua Movement. By late 1998, the post-Soeharto government indicated a willingness to listen to separatists and reduced the military presence in the province. In December 2001, the province was officially renamed Papua and significant concessions were offered by Jakarta with increased autonomy and a reinvestment of 80% of the revenue from Papua into the province.

But most separatists still wanted total independence and demilitarisation by Indonesia. Papuans are also still angry because the Indonesian government continued to sell parts of the province for logging, mining and other commercial purposes without compensation or consultation. They also resent the occasional brutal responses of the Indonesians to political dissent. The government's proposed division of the province into three - Central, East and West Papua - has been opposed by some Papuan activists and may worsen the separatists problem. The final decision on this has been delayed.


The Indonesian policy of transmigrasi is also one of the reasons for continuing unrest in Papua. Over one-third of Papua's population originates from outside the province, mainly from Java, Bali and Sulawesi. Most of the trans-migrants live in settlements near the main towns of Jayapura, Merauke, Monokwari, Nabire and Sorong. As Papua represents about 22 per cent of Indonesia's total territory, but only about one per cent of its population, the Indonesian government continues to move thousands of people to Papua from other, over-crowded islands. Poor locations and lack of planning for many existing settlements indicate that the main thrust of transmigrasi is less for the benefit of the trans-migrants than to make the province truly "Indonesian".  

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