That Time I Went Back in Time…

I stepped off the twelve-seat prop plane and onto the tarmac in Wamena, West Papua, without a plan. Burdened with only my bag, camera, and no small amount of disquiet, I had arrived at one of the world’s few remaining primitive frontiers. Inspired by a worn-ragged copy of Carl Hoffman’s Savage Harvest, his gripping first-hand account retracing the steps of Michael Rockefeller’s ill-fated journey here in the 1960’s, I had booked my flight from Denpasar on a whim. With just a few months left on my yearlong, solo journey around the world, I was determined to test my travel mettle, and to discover for myself a place that few knew about – and certainly no one that I knew did. 

Above the jut of Australia’s Cape York in the Arafura Sea sits West Papua on the island New Guinea, the second-largest island on earth. With its long and bloody history of Dutch colonization, warring tribes, ritualistic cannibalism, and primitive subsistence, West Papua is a land frozen in time; a modern-day visage of the Stone Age.

Wamena is the gateway to the Baliem Valley, home of the Dani. The town’s airport terminal more closely resembles a lean-to shed than a place for passengers and planes. Here, modern conveniences are merely abstract notions, and I would need to find my way alone, without a guidebook or essential must-do list from a fellow journeyman or friend. 

First discovered by outsiders from an airplane in 1938, the Dani were once considered the most-dreaded warriors on the island. Known for their fierce defense of the fertile lands of the Baliem Valley, the Dani are now a peaceful agrarian culture, far removed from the more hostile tribes that inhabit West Papua’s southern reaches where Rockefeller had vanished. 

I would eventually secure meager but clean accommodations, and helpful locals I’d encountered introduced me to a would-be Man Friday named Khasperd, a Yali tribesman who took on odd jobs around town. What followed made West Papua, New Guinea, the most interesting place I have ever been.

We met at dawn, sketched a back-of-the-napkin itinerary, steadied our gear and ourselves into the truck bed of an abused Toyota Hilux, and drove the serpentine dirt road leading out of town until it dissolved at a trailhead along a hulking bend of the Baliem River. The next week would be on foot, and I had no clear idea of what to expect. 

After traversing a seemingly endless span of the valley, faint signs of rural life in the distance soon became broad, beaming smiles, awkwardly long customary handshakes and attendant bashful greetings of ‘wa-wa-wa’, as we passed through several highland villages - stopping to say hello, share the local gossip from below, and to rest and refuel each night.  

The Dani bear a careworn, gaunt appearance and sustain on a diet of mostly rice, sweet potatoes, or the occasional swine - their only discernible source of protein. With no refrigeration, electricity, running water, or basic transportation, they live on the edge. Everything beyond what they grow arrives on someone’s narrow shoulders and rationed with wartime efficiency. 

They have no formal education, steady income, or reliable communications. They live in straw huts and sleep on dirt floors, and care for their valuable passel of domesticated hogs as if they were aging, fragile members of the family. 

With no use for clocks or calendars, they rely on seasonal rains to plant and harvest. Passing a village chieftain who did not even know how old he was, Khasperd said the man’s uncle remembered the first time he ever saw metal, and that I was the first American he’d ever met. The Dani men wear no clothing or covering, but for decorative penis gourds, or ‘kotekas’; and what would be a week for most modern climbers, these men can clamber the brutal high passes of the Central Range, the snow-capped mountain spine that cracks New Guinea lengthwise, in just a few days.

The Dani are a proud, warm, and welcoming people. They opened up their lives to share of themselves and what little they had with me with uncommon grace and generosity, making the Dani of West Papua, to me, some of the most hospitable people I’ve ever met.  

I suspect that for those who travel extensively, deciding upon which destination is the most interesting when asked is a difficult and complex question to answer. Count me among them. 

Yet, at its heart, travel for me has always been about more than just the utter joy of being adrift somewhere new, capturing its essence in photographs. It’s also about the people you meet and the bonds you forge along the way, often in the unlikeliest of places. They sculpt the feelings and memories of a place in rich and vivid detail that lasts a lifetime. 

Some say those connections are travel’s greatest reward; pursue the memory, not the photo, they say. You can’t truly experience a place through a camera’s viewfinder. I would agree with that. 

But still, pack that camera.

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