River Walking in West Papua

Recently, frequent Gaia Discovery contributor Simon Pridmore and his wife Sofie travelled to West Papua, Indonesia’s easternmost province. This is the third of three pieces recounting their adventures.

Climbing through the forest is a test for the fittest

Climbing through the forest is a test for the fittest

PNG, 20 February 2014. “River-walking!” we exclaimed. “Why would you want to walk along a river?” Not by the side of the river, you understand, but actually in the middle of the river.

In West Papua, the forest canopy is too dense to observe the bird-life from within, so the best vantage point is from the rivers. But the rivers are too low in places for boat travel, even for canoes and the only way is get along the river is to walk. So we walked.

We dropped the car at the edge of the forest and ran out of passable track 30 minutes out of town. Here we waited for Elijah, our guide. I introduced myself. Simon is my father’s name, he said.

He led us out into the forest where butterflies, beetles, spiders and millipedes decorated the trail, all familiar animals but all huge versions of those familiar animals! At one point a fallen tree blocked the trail and our guide scouted around to find a new route. A couple emerged from the forest behind us, the lady with her huge knife raised. She motioned with it directing us towards a detour. Once I had started breathing again, I thanked her.

Along the River

We forded a number of streams and ridges for the first two hours before coming upon a wide shallow river, where we turned upstream. The river wound and wended, stones on one side, silty mud on the other and we followed Elijah as he navigated to avoid deep pools. The sun beat down and more butterflies cavorted on stony beaches where bleached skeletons of coral lie in testimony of a time long ago when this part of Papua lay under the ocean.

Hornbills soared overhead, massive and ungainly, the crashing beating of their wings drawing our attention, their distinctive call utterly un-bird-like. The cockatoos were more graceful and tuneful and flashed brilliant white against the sky in their passing. 

Our local guide, Elijah, saw us safely through the dense jungle

Thunder rumbled in the distance, grey clouds gathered and we pressed on more quickly as Elijah reminded us that rain further up-river could cause the section we were walking through to flood.

The water became deeper, sending us closer to the banks where our shoes were sucked down into muddy silt. Buried branches and vines clawed at our feet as we were sometimes dragged knee deep into the riverbed.

We rounded a bend where a chorus of katydids were screaming out a welcome; or was it a warning? Just then the rain came in huge droplets and we were instantly soaked to the skin. The water level rose to the point where we had to leave the river and strike out into the forest, Elijah slashing a makeshift track for us with his machete. It was heavy going and we slid back into the river wherever we could.

Beyond a broken bridge, fashioned long ago by loggers but now derelict, the rain eased, leaving mist in the forest canopy to each side of the river.

Finally, we saw smoke, indicating the presence of a hunters camp, with hunters in residence. A stocky man in a loincloth emerged to greet us, a gun slung over his shoulder and an enormous blade in his right hand.

He and his group welcomed us. We shared our cookies with them; they offered us boiled bananas in return and showed us their bows with bamboo strings and ugly, vicious-looking arrows. Dogs and children played under a raised platform covered by blue tarpaulin.

Hard slog back

We wanted to stay longer but could not as, to get to a road, we had a further three-hour trek ahead of us through the forest and did not want to still be out on the trail after dark.

After the rain, the trail was invisible in places and treacherous. We cut sticks to help us negotiate the descents, which were much harder than the climbs as the path was slick with mud and fallen leaves. Only tree roots emerging from the forest floor give us purchase. Hornbills barked overhead and as evening approached the noise of the forest increased.

Walking between the river, camps, guns, dogs and arrows . .

Walking between the river, camps, guns, dogs and arrows . .

Just as night fell we reached the road, thanked Elijah for keeping us alive and caught a ride back into town.

We had walked 16 miles in 9 hours, much of it through knee-deep water and the rest of it through foliage on the forest floor. Back at our hotel, we bathed and lay on the beds, resting our aching legs. As if on cue, the hotel started moving. The shaking continued for a good minute but we looked at each other and shrugged our shoulders. We are too exhausted to move, even for an earthquake.

Simon & Sofie were helped and guided on their quest for paradise birds by Charles Roring, who lives in Manokwari and is an enthusiastic advocate and organiser of tours that involve and benefit local villagers. Contact Charles via http://manokwaripapua.blogspot.com/

Getting There

We stayed in Manokwari, which is served by daily hopper flights originating in Makassar in South Sulawesi. Makassar is an international entry point to Indonesia, with daily flights from Singapore. Entry is visa free for ASEAN nationals; citizens of most other countries can buy a visa on arrival, (currently USD35.00 for a thirty day stay.)

Previous articles

West Papua Birding- Quest for Paradise

The Whale Sharks of Cendrawasih Bay