Tribes of Papua Indonesia – An Unlikely Guest at a Highlands Festival

Have you ever had a travel experience, or dreamt of one, that totally blows your mind? Such was the case for me back in 2006 in the highlands of Papua, Indonesia where I was to encounter something I had always dreamed of, in the remote mountains up in the clouds.

Tribes of Papua Indonesia – An Unlikely Guest at a Highlands Festival

tribes of papua indonesia soccer

It all started with a chance meeting with two travellers on the Island of Sulawesi, in Indonesia. They had just come back from hiking in the jungles of Papua, and listening to their stories had me hooked. I had to go there.

With nothing else really planned, I booked a flight in the next few days to the city of Jayapura on the Papuan coast, and then connecting onto an old propellor plane headed to the secluded Baliem Valley in central Papua.

Before even landing the sense of excitement was kicking in. I love adventurous travel and leaving the crowds behind, and where I was going was what I dream off.

As you fly further into the centre of Papua, the jungle clad cover gives way to a thick blanket of cloud, and then jutting through all that, majestic mountain peaks, and ahead a large valley looms amidst it all. Upon landing, one of the first sights seen was of a naked man with a penis gourd, and a dead parrot perched on the head, walking along the runway. As the old saying goes; “You’re not in Kansas anymore”!

Baliem Valley

tribes of papua indonesia leaves

Tourists do make it into the Baliem Valley itself during the peak months, but are mostly contained within the valley, and are still limited in numbers. I was there during the off season and there were no other tourists in sight, but still I wanted to escape further away, to have a true adventure.

So after five days or so exploring around the valley, I organised a local guide to come with me, and we headed up into the mountain regions, away from it all.

Getting around up there is tough. We were lucky enough to hitch a ride on the back off a truck, travelling on a very rudimentary road for what seemed like forever, passing remote villages with thatched huts, until the road was no more. Now it was time to start hiking between the villages spread out in the highlands, often shrouded in cloud.

Staying in a Local Hut

fire papua indonesia tribes

Upon staying in a local hut, my guide heard of a huge gathering that was to take place up on a hilltop grass runway, that is used by the christian missionaries to transport themselves in on small propellor planes. It was something to do with celebrating fifty years of them being in the region, or something like that.

Despite not being keen on missionaries in general, we were both intrigued, and so moved in the direction where it was to take place, and upon arrival, quickly arranged a place to stay in a local teachers hut.

The next two days before the celebrations were to kick off in earnest, was used too roam around meeting the villagers, and get an even greater sense of where you were, and the history of the region.

Local War

man papua indonesia tribes

The local people used to be constantly at war with each other. Different tribes attacking one another, and rather gruesomely eating the enemy as well!

Yes, they used to be cannibals and lived in a stone age existence, until the discovery of the valley in the 40’s allowed enough room for planes to land amongst the mountains. It was then that missionaries came in, and to their credit stopped the fighting, and brought about some modern ways.

Many of the people now wear clothes, but there are still some who walk around traditionally naked with just a penis gourd, and some body decorations. It can get quite cold up there, and they rub pig fat into their skins to help keep warm, not very appealing!

With my guide being able to translate for me, it was easy to meet and talk with them. They are some of the friendliest people I have ever met in over 17 years of travels around the world. I was so happy with what I was experiencing, but the main event was just to come that completely blew my mind, and left me in awe.

Day of Celebration

group papua indonesia tribes

The day of the celebration had come. A dozen or so missionaries had flown in with two Aussie pilots, and I was the only tourist there to witness the event. It was truly a one off unique experience. It was meant just for the missionaries, and so I was very lucky to be there.

Now all the tribes in the area started descending onto the grassy field, that was the would-be runway. Some had walked for days to get there, and they came in their thousands. They would run down the field, one group at a time, shouting their presence to all around.

Pigs are highly prized up there, and many were to be eaten for the feast ahead. The pigs would be carried tied to wooden poles, and upon setting down would be shot through the heart with a bow and arrow. I couldn’t keep count of how many pigs there were, but could say up to a hundred, maybe more, maybe less.

Preparing for the Feast

pigs papua indonesia tribes

During this time dozens of large earth ovens were prepared, with rocks being heated up over massive fires, big pits being dug, and the leaves that were brought in by the villagers at the ready. The whole area was now wrapped in smoke from all the fires, and with a low misty cloud coming down, it felt like something out of a fairy tale.

After all the pigs were expertly chopped up, the cooking process began. First some leaves are put into the pit, followed by hot rocks, and then another level of leaves.

Then the meat is put in, and then another level of leaves, and then some more rocks, and so on. Then the pit is covered in soil, and left to cook the meat for a few hours in the ground. I was hungry and in high anticipation of the meal to come!

During the wait for the food, the guide and I continued to mingle with the crowd, meeting tribal leaders to pose for photos. When the food was eventually ready, I sat down with a group of traditionally dressed people, in other words not dressed at all, and waited for the food.

Getting the Pig Ready

women papua indonesia tribes

One thing I had not found out until now, was that the pig fat was considered the local delicacy. Now back home I do enjoy some pig fat with the meat, I would even say it is one of my favourite parts, but over there it was slightly different. Excited to try the meat, a huge bundle off it was placed between the group, but my wishes of smoky flavoured prime meat, were dashed by large clumps of fat.

The pig fat did not seem all that appealing to be honest, wobbling away attached to burnt skin. But you have to try anything once, so being offered a piece, I dug in. It wasn’t as bad as expected, but I was wondering where the hell all the good parts of the meat had gone. Still I was loving every minute off this.

As it grew dark, the villagers in their thousands started to move back from where they had come, and exhausted I dropped to the floor of my temporary hut, and with various small creatures crawling around my feet (rats?), I drifted into a deep slumber, with images of smoke filled skies.

papua indonesia tribes festival

The next day we decided to move on, as the area had returned to normal, and with my Indonesian visa running out, I had to get going soon enough anyway. Arriving back in the small town next to the airport after a long journey, part walking, part on the back off a truck again, I said my farewells, and booked a flight out for the next day.

Leaving was hard to do. I had such a good time there, and understood that it would be hard to come across something like this again. They do have these earth oven cook offs for the small groups of tourists that do come in, but I knew it wouldn’t have the same feeling for me, as randomly coming across a secret event deep in the highlands, away from it all.

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Up in the sky now, I looked out from the window at the mountains slowly fading away, and thought off all the friendly people I had met in this astoundingly beautiful place, and wondered if I would ever return. I hoped that some day I would, and that others could discover a unique experience for themselves, somewhere in the world.

About Jonny


Jonny left home back in 1997 and has been travelling and living abroad ever since. Growing up as a child, he lived in many different countries due to his fathers work, which gave him at a young age the sense to experience and see new things.

He travels on a cheap backpackers budget, and you can find him looking for some off the beaten path adventure whenever the opportunity arises. He writes about his travels at Backpackingman, and you can find him on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Pinterest, and Instagram.

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29 thoughts on “Tribes of Papua Indonesia – An Unlikely Guest at a Highlands Festival”

  1. When you realize how this people are spending their lives, it looks like we can be super happy of what we have. It is sad to see them living like that, when the technology is so much developed.

    But who knows…. maybe they are happier than many of us.

    Reply
  2. Woah!

    An education in the form of a blog piece. Someday, and, I am sure, someday, I will now be traveling to Papua Indonesia to live these visuals.

    Also, if you are planning to be in Delhi, sometime, please let me know ๐Ÿ™‚ I would be glad to host you in our hotel.

    Regards,

    Bhavya.

    Reply
  3. Hey Jonny,

    This looks like an amazing cultural experience! Do you feel that an increase in tourism to these places will be a good thing? I have done some great travel in my days, and always had this internal dilemma, the more exotic I search for and share with others, the more it will be visited, and maybe changed by its popularity. Would be interesting to hear your thoughts on this.

    Cheers, and keep on trekking!

    Reply
    • Hey Phil,

      You brought up a point I think about often, especially as some places I used to know did become over-touristed and lost their charm because of that. With so many people travelling these days, and so many people such as myself writing about it, there are many places that are being discovered by others that may have been much less visited before. It’s a fine balance between tourism, and keeping a place unique to what attracted people there in the first place.

      I like to try and get people excited about going to somewhere that maybe they would not normally go to, or have heard of, because I know it’s a great experience and would love to share it. That being said places like the mountains in the centre of Papua are still remote enough for many people not to come. There are a few months in the year when more people visit the main valley itself, as it’s easy to fly into, but just get out into the mountains and the majority of tourists will not bother due to the effort involved.

      The world is such a small place now that it is harder to get off the beaten path, with more places becoming easier too reach. I remember getting into the bush in Zambia in 2010 and it being a hell ride over a rough dirt road for several hours, but on a visit last year again there was a brand new road taking only two hours to get there, opening it up for more people.

      Lets just hope that when these places do become more and more visited that they will use sustainable tourism and try to keep their culture.

      Cheers!

      Reply
      • I should have mentioned that there will always be somewhere to get away from it all, but that can become a true adventure and may have some risks involved. Going for a visit to the Congo and I doubt there would be many tourists around.

        I think it’s a good thing that new people discover new places, but hopefully the locals will appreciate what made them come in the first place and not change their ways to much.

      • Great point Jonny. If I may take a slightly different view, although I don’t think it is necessarily opposite from what you write above. I think many travelers are searching for “authentic”. The more tourism that comes, often the more commercial an area gets. But perhaps the local culture welcomes the commercialization. Who, then, is the commercialization bad for? Most likely for those looking for the “authentic” experience. Like you said, there is a fine line between the two and our wish to keep things authentic might not always be what is wanted to by the local culture. It’s obviously a very complex issue. Thanks for allowing me to chime in.

    • Yeah I tried the pig but the group I was with got mostly just the fatty part, which Bonnie in the comment above clarified that honoured guests get the best part of the meat, which they consider to be the fat.

      Reply
    • An experience I would love to repeat again, but I guess that would be hard! New experiences in others places too discover ๐Ÿ™‚

      Reply
  4. Next week I’ll go to Indonesia and stay one year there. It looks like now you need a special permit to enter in Papua, and the foreign office of my country is advising against going there. Was it the same in 2006 (so I could expect the situation to be ok despite warnings) or it was more stable?

    Reply
    • Hey Davide. Yes there has been travel warnings for Indonesian Papua for a long time, as some Papuans want independence and are fighting against the Indonesian army/police. However I had no problems back in 2006, but can’t say if the situation has changed recently because I haven’t been back since. I have been to so many places where the foreign office said not to go and it was fine, they tend to blow things out of proportion sometimes to cover there back. I think once in Indonesia you will be able to find out more.

      Reply
  5. Crikey! What a story! I’ve always wanted to travel to Papua, but as a woman alone, I’ve haven’t quite plucked up the courage as yet. Your post is really inspiring though and the photos are out of this world. So many open smiles. This was an awesome read. Thanks so much.

    Reply
    • Happy you liked the read Bryony. I don’t know too much about the coastline of Papua, Indonesia, as I spent minimal time there, but the people in the Baliem Valley region and the surrounding area where this took place, are really friendly and welcoming. I’m sure you would be ok going by yourself, get a reputable guide when you arrive and they will look after you like family. I hope you make it there sometime.

      Reply
  6. I grew up in Papua, Indonesia. I know which missionaries you’re talking about too. You are very lucky to have experienced that feast. I can answer your question about the meat: the chunks are given to the most honoured guests, so they were honouring you. The bits without the fat will be divided amongst the other people who are not as honoured. The village I grew up in is even more remote than the one you went to, but the Indonesian military and police are making their way into many of the villages, and “my” village even has a cell phone tower now (which doesn’t always work, but at least it is there). I know that missionaries around the world have not always done good things for the people they go to, but, in my experience, the missionaries in Papua have brought cultural stability and cultural pride to the many different tribes through retention of their languages and freedom from warfare.

    Reply
    • Hey Bonnie. Wow I never did know that about the meat, thanks a lot for clarifying it! Yes I could see some of that military/police presence you talk about, some of the Papuans are not happy with that of course. Couldn’t agree with you more about these missionaries, they brought peace to warring tribes like you said. Thanks so much for sharing your information, it’s really great hearing from someone who lived in Papua. I think I will have to try and go back sooner than later, I do miss the people there.

      Reply
  7. Oh yeah, you’re right Jonny, that is one of the most unique experiences I have ever seen. You definitely are one of the most adventurous travelers I have ever seen.

    Did you get to bring home a souvenir penis gourd? I wonder if they get them slammed in car doors too often. Now that would be hard to explain at work.

    Reply
  8. Wait, so what did happen to all the good meat?!

    This looks like an awesome experience. Have you considered trying to head back over there to see what its like now, years later?

    Reply
    • I would have liked to have known that question about the meat myself Stephen! I will definitely go back again sometime, they are some of the friendliest people and the scenery is stunning.

      Reply