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Trekking 'off the map' in West Papua | Action Asia magazine.

This article, by Adrian Bottomley, recounts a daring expedition deep into the jungle home of the Stone Korowai tribe in Indonesian New Guinea, and was published by Action Asia  magazine in 2016.

'He wants red money' stammered our guide, the frightened whites of his eyes clearly visible in the dark. That afternoon, passing through Woman, a remote and largely deserted settlement north of the 'pacification line', we had been perplexed by a strange assemblage of feathers, barbed arrows and cassowary bones that marked the entrance to the village. Nervously, our porters had ushered us in silence to the nearby river where we pitched our tents and swam. It was a moonless night and I strained to make out three Korowai men stomping menacingly beyond the glow of our campfire, their bows raised and pulled back; arrows aimed at my pounding chest. Five million rupiah, in red one hundred thousand bills, was their frantic demand, supposedly needed to pacify the spirits we had offended by trespassing the 'tuwut'. Equally sinister and surreal, it smacked of extortion. It had been a borderline crazy idea to come in the first place; had we overstepped the mark?

In 2008, my friend and expedition partner, Phyllis Hischier, a keen anthropologist and collector of Papuan art, had made initial contact with a large group of Korowai Batu, near Baigun along the upper Eilanden River. There she witnessed a traditional gathering of local clans celebrating a sago grub festival; a rare, once in a lifetime ritual held to foster fertility and prosperity. In the intervening years, sketchy reports of forced settlements had filtered out of the jungle as the government ‘encouraged’ the tribe, with promises of money, schooling and clinics, to swap their remarkable tree houses for rows of rustic wooden shacks. Often those promises went unmet. Now she and I had returned to the area on a trip that was part adventure, part fact-finding mission.

Our expedition began with a bum-numbing 12 hour longboat ride from Dekai, up the Brazza and Eilanden Rivers to Mabul, the largest of the new settlements. From there, we intended to head north to Baigun, find some of Phyllis’s ‘old friends’ and then trek deeper into Korowai territory across the 'pacification line' - an imaginary border drawn by Dutch missionaries to demarcate those clans unaccustomed to outsiders. Finally, we hoped to exit the sea of green by hitching a ride back to Dekai on a construction truck we had been told trundled up and down a new road that was slowly being built into the highlands. Worryingly though, there was no sign of it yet on google earth. let alone any map.

For decades, hidden behind a curtain of thick jungle, the Korowai Batu were in an almost constant state of conflict, both amongst themselves and with the neighbouring Kopayap tribe. The fierce fighting kept proselytizing missionaries at bay until the late 1970's and, more recently, prevented the encroachment of gaharu - agarwood - traders that have plagued the Asmat people further south. The hostilities also provided the defensive rationale for the Korowai's calling card – huge tree houses -  which lie at the heart of their cultural identity. At night, or when under attack, whole families along with their valuable pigs and hunting dogs could retreat to the safety of their arboreal homes, some of which tower 35m off the ground. These days, with the cessation of hostilities, the mid-air structures are shrinking in height but still highly valued in the forest for the relief that they provide from insects.

The Korowai are widely acknowledged by anthropologists to have been amongst the last people on earth to practice cannibalism, (something that was not lost on me as I struggled to count out red bills, at arrow point, in the dark). Even today, there are reports of people still eating human flesh, although historically it was only practiced in very specific ritualistic circumstances that revolved around the concept of the 'khakhua' or male witch. The Korowai traditionally had no knowledge of the deadly diseases that infest the jungle and believed that these  mysterious deaths, that continue to kill most members of the tribe before the age of 40, are caused by witches who assumed the form of men. A dying victim whispers to their relatives the name of the person they believe to be the khakhua. Definitive retribution and the complete expunging of evil spirits is then acheived by consuming the witch. Men killed in fighting, on the other hand, were never eaten.

'Sometimes things change, sometimes they don't' said Phyllis as we pulled up to Mabul, its shiny new jetty burnished red in the setting sun. I had no idea what to expect but it quickly became clear that, at least here, things had changed. A lot. Mabul had expanded exponentially and now housed sixty or so wooden shacks, a Catholic church, school and (empty) clinic. Everyone was wearing tattered clothing rather than traditional attire and swarmed around us as we unpacked our gear and painstakingly negotiated rates for porters.

The next morning we set off into the primary jungle. Colossal trees, with enormous buttresses, supported a canopy that kept temperatures suprisingly cool. It also reverberated with a cacophony of sounds: shrieking eclectus parrots loudly advertised their presence, while birds of paradise whistled tunefully, heard but seldom seen. The booming calls of the giant hornbill made me miss my old motorbike, while at night, crickets and toads ramped up the decibels still further, as fireflies danced in the trees. The place was overwhelmingly alive. Everything cut, clung, scraped and snagged. Mosquitoes whined and bit incessantly. Leeches and pig flies drew blood. And nothing ever dried.

Within a day of Mabul, we came upon our first Korowai tree house, resembling a giant bird’s nest at a quick glance. It certainly felt high enough to be one as I climbed the rickety ladder, trying not to look down as the rattan ties and rotting wooden rungs strained and creaked under my weight. It was deserted - close to Mabul, the structures were seemingly occupied only ‘upon request’ and had mostly been commissioned by international film crews, some of whom had never even shown up to pay for their construction. The tree houses were not inhabited: everyone now lived in the village, so we pushed on northwards towards Baigun, a day-and-a-half away, in search of more than just a photo-op.

We were now in uncharted territory. Few white faces have ever ventured this far behond Mabul so this was no place to have an accident. I was traversing yet another slippery log bridge, my nerves fraying at the sight of the the river raging beneath, when a voice called out. ‘Sore’ ('Afternoon - in Indonesia you say hello based on the time of day) it said, though as I was barely halfway across the log, I struggled to look up. Gingerly, I inched towards the river bank and gratefully grasped an outstretched hand.

Oni was tall and wiry, with unusually large feet and greying hair. He was wearing a pig-tooth necklace, two rattan hoops around his waist and a tobacco leaf wrapped around his foreskin. In his other hand he held a large bow, a cluster of barbed bamboo arrows and a dead tree kangaroo (which I later discovered tastes like liver-y lamb). We followed him home and climbed a ‘ladder’ consisting of footholds carved into a single, stout wooden pole up to his treehouse

Sat on a wooden platform about twenty metres off the ground, the house was built around an ‘ironwood’ tree. The floor, made of inter-woven bamboo strips, was covered in tree bark and divided into two separate areas for men and women. The smoke-blackened roof was woven from palm leaves and decorated with fish and cassowary bones, turtle shells, and crocodile skulls. A lovely breeze cooled the now slightly bemused residents within: Oni’s two wives wearing nothing more than sago skirts, his sister (likewise), two hobbled hunting dogs and a piglet. We were made at home and I was offered a piece of baked sago to chew on and a bamboo pipe. Both are staples of the Korowai. The sago was rubbery and gritty at the same time, while nicotine is clearly the drug of choice (frustratingly the Korowai didn’t seem to have mastered the art of making alcohol) Children as young as five routinely roll up and puff away. In a community rife with malaria, where half of all children die young, the relative health risks of tobacco obviously pale in comparison.

I asked Oni if he ever went to Mabul, to visit his two adolescent sons. ‘Never’ he replied with evident disinterest. He is one of the older generation still living an isolated, traditional life, and exuded the calm confidence of someone free from the pressure to be who they are not. The younger generation that I had encountered in Mabul, on the other hand, were clearly grappling with the tribe’s tentative, yet rapid steps out of the stone-age. In the new settlements, hierarchical and collective social structures are starting to break down and an ancient repository of knowledge is sadly being consigned to the past. Elders have the option of staying put or returning to the trees. The Korowai youth, however, are increasingly detached from the natural environment and cling tightly to their signal-free phones, symbols of a tenuous link to the edge of a materialistic world that has - at least thus far - marginalized and failed them.

It strikes me that this detachment is a phenomenon that many of us struggle with on a more subtle level, with the popularity of ‘back to the wild’ programming on our television sets just one example. Perhaps our romantic tendency in places like Papua to focus on the tribal rituals, traditional dress and age-old construction techniques is an echo of our own often suppressed need to reassert fading cultural identities in a globalized world.

After two days with Oni, we decided to push even further north towards Burumakot to try and find Uganto, one of Phyllis's 'old friends' from the sago feast. A fiercely independent Korowai warrior, he, like Oni, lived by the old rules of the jungle and had five wives. ‘He may be still out there, in the jungle, about two days away’ said our guide, after we announced the plan, 'but our porters refuse to go. ‘They say he steals their women.’

Without porters, we set off to trek as lightly as possible, assured by our guide that we could live off the land. The jungle is so universally green, that any flash of colour immediately catches your eye, yet nearly all our enquiries about tasty-looking fruits or fungi tended to be quickly rebutted. One exception was ‘buah merah’, which looks like a red jackfruit and is believed by the Korowai to be a remedy for almost anything, including cancer, although its curative powers seemingly do not extend to elephantiasis or ringworm which we continued to see all around us. For the most part we ate small catfish and pudgy sago grubs, each as slimy as the other. My personal favourite was banana heart, which, when fried, and you are famished, almost tastes like bacon.

Uganto was not there. His old tree house (they are typically rebuilt every six to seven years) was ‘locked', the ladder barred at the bottom by two crisscrossed branches. A ‘woman’s hut’ nearby, where Korowai mothers give birth and live separately for a few months with their newborn babies hinted at a recent addition to the family. We camped and waited for two days but no one came. Perhaps they had also re-settled? Perhaps they had retreated even further into the jungle, wary of the encroaching road? They, like all 4000 Korowai, have a tough decision to make. What to keep and what to change? What should they hang on to as Korowai and what should they adopt as newfangled Indonesian and Papuan citizens?

Without Uganto, a local strongman, we were fairly exposed this far north as we pushed on towards the road. By now, we had run out of clean clothes, were covered in insect bites and had lost weight. Our sole goal now was to reach the road and, hopefully, a ride back to Dekai. The last thing we needed that night was a prehistoric stick up. Being the victim of extortion is never fun but the presence of loaded bows brought a whole new level of jeopardy. The expression 'being shafted' crossed my mind later but at the time it was no laughing matter. I was bewildered though, feeling a strange kind of euphoria due to the utter strangeness of the situation. I had seen nothing that the Korowai obviously had to buy: their building materials and food came from the forest, the tobacco was home-grown and they wore no clothes. We were experiencing first-hand one of the ramifications of the whirlwind cultural transition that the Korowai are attempting: namely a highly distorted sense of the value of money.  Until very recently, the Korowai had never seen money, or had any use for it. The government just hands them as much as they need to build shacks in the new settlements so they assume that any outsider has an unlimited supply of the stuff. Consequently, they just pluck numbers out of the sky.

Reluctantly, we handed over the spirit-calming cash. Instantly, our armed antagonists transformed before our eyes and without a hint of irony, offered to accompany us towards the road, all smiles. I couldn't help but be irked by the loss of the money and along the way, I toyed with the idea of re-negotiating a rebate with our newfound friends. I soon thought better of it though. It became increasingly obvious that we were helplessly beholden to their knowledge of the land. Without them we might easily be lost forever. Not to mention the fact that they still had bows and knew very well how to use them.

One day later, we reached the road where we camped overnight, before flagging down a gigantic truck the next day. The driver looked at us dumbstruck and ushered us into the back where, sat atop a large fuel tank being transported to Dekai, we both lit up a clove cigarette and savoured the sweet smoke. Sod it. It had been a hard trip and we deserved it. We laughed, relieved to be ‘safely’ on our way back to a proper bed and a good meal. Swarms of giant fruit bats flew out of the deep red sunset, like world war two bombers heading home after a raid. The trip had been hugely ambitious and mentally and physically gruelling. We'd eaten grubs and kangaroos, swatted a billion bugs off our bodies and clambered into tree houses the height of small tower blocks. Above all, we had witnessed a people on the cusp of massive anthropological change, switching sago for Samsungs. After all the effort, our payoff was golden, fleeting moments of reflection such as this. which reminded me ......

‘What the hell are they going to do with all that money? The nearest shop is almost a week’s walk away.’ I shouted over the clanging as the truck bucked and swayed down the rough road.

‘Havn’t got a clue’ said Phyllis, smiling. 

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