29.06.2012 - 29.07.2012
Indonesia... It's hard to picture Indonesia as a single country. Spread from Sumatra to Papua and with 17,500 other islands in between it seems more like a continent. So much cultural diversity with different looking people, different religions, different languages, completely different traditions, hundreds of ethnic and linguistic groups (300!) occupying different regions. Sumatra, Java, Kalimantan, Sulawesi, Flores, Timor and Bali may very well be their own country, but even such a diverse and rich country has its final frontier, and that is exactly were we set our eyes on: PAPUA.
Papua New Guinea is the second largest island in the world, and it's divided by a straight line right in the middle, splitting the island in two. To the east the independent country of Papua New Guinea, and the other half known as West Papua belonging to Indonesia, where we just spent a month. With only three million inhabitants about seventy five percent of the territory remains forest. In it, some three hundred plus tribes still live. The island once belonged to the Australian land mass, so no wonder the fauna is much more closely related to Australia than that of the rest of Asia... You cannot find the civets, cats, boars, deer, monkeys of South East Asia, but instead can find wallabies, cockatoos, echidnas, cassowaries, and tree kangaroos.
If you had to choose a single adjective to describe Papua it would have to be WILD. With 400,000 kilometers of untouched jungles full of endemic species, and home to some of the most astonishing tribes like the highland Dani, with their trademark penis gourds. The Asmat warriors from the lowlands had a reputation as head hunters and cannibals, and were left undisturbed for ages, only coming into regular contact with the rest of the world until the mid twentieth century. And with an even more fearsome reputation, the more isolated clans of the Korowai are believed to still practice cannibalism, known for living in tree houses that can be over thirty meters off the ground! These tribes were first contacted by the outside word in 1974 and still live as hunter-gatherers. The pictures of Man with wild boar tusks piercing through their skin, elaborate hats made from the delicate feathers of the magnificent Birds of Paradise, body paintings, beautiful bows and arrows and intricately crafted cassowary bone daggers called to me. I couldn't think of a more exotic place.
We left Borneo and after a day in Singapore flew to Indonesia's capital just for transit. We arrived at Jakarta late and had to take a bus to the other terminal with less than twenty minutes before we lost our plane! Cindy and I ran like crazy; it felt like we were in the middle of the Amazing Race, stopping for quick directions and resuming our race before our adviser could finish what he was saying, but we made it! As we were boarding the Boeing 737-700 to Jayapura we noticed that there was not a single westerner on board. The dark, very characteristic features of Papuans are unmistakable, resembling only those of native Australians. On board the full plane there were one hundred and forty eight Papuans, and us two. This is not a very touristy destination, that was certain. Five hours later the captain announced the end of our trip was approaching and I looked out the window. It was a very fitting arrival: the sunrise lit the forests that were covered in mist with an assortment of yellow, orange, blue and green hues. There was nothing but forest as far as your eye could see. It seemed so wild, so untouched!
We left the airport luggage-less as it wasn't as quick as we were changing planes in Jakarta, and looked for a hotel. English is a rare tongue in this place and when we couldn't speak in English at the hotel reception, at any restaurant or on the street, Cindy's recently acquired knowledge of bahasa Malaysia really came in handy!! (It's almost the same as bahasa Indonesia).
When you arrive to Papua you need to apply for a "Surat Jalan", a traveler's permit to visit particular areas. It was a Saturday and we got to the police station just before dark. The police was very kind and explained it was too late and that tomorrow would be Sunday but that it's important to give tourists a good service so he gave us his cellphone number and told us to call him the next morning. We went to bed and before we knew it we were woken up at 6:00 am to an energetic knocking on the door followed by a loud and happy "It's Alex! I have your luggage!". We did not want to waste time in the city and so we thanked Alex and called the policeman, who exceeded our expectations by going through the trouble of driving us thirty minutes away to the headquarters where he could process our permit. He was wearing the same clothes as the day before and had a tired face. He explained that he had not slept all night. It was July 1st, the Free Papua Movement's anniversary and they had to be extra vigilant to prevent anyone from rising the Mourning Star flag (the former flag before Indonesia took control, now used as a nationalist and pro- independence symbol).
"You know" -he elaborated- "they kill random people for no apparent reason, just like the two Germans last month. They want people to believe it's dangerous to visit Papua, but that's not true..."
We couldn't help but find this horrific statement a bit funny: They kill people, it could be anyone, and for no apparent reason... But its not true it's unsafe! Oh boy! Welcome to Papua.
We later learned a bit more, Papua had been under the Dutch rule and they had started a strong missionary work in the nineteenth century. That's why we found many Christian churches in the most unlikely places, and why many Papuans are Christian while Indonesia is a majorly Muslim country. When Indonesia took control of Western Papua in 1963 they named it Irian Jaya, and immediately started liquidating her abundant resources and making little reinvestment into Papua. This of course did not sit well with proud Papuans whose Free Papua movement remains active. People from the highlands seemed to feel more passionately about it. In the first three days of our stay there, seven Papuan were killed fighting the military and we learned close to the end of our trip that our guide had been in jail for six years for killing a policeman in a riot while trying to raise the Mourning Star flag. Papuans -and certainly Martinus- were really proud of their culture and they feel (and so did we) that Indonesia wants to change them. Laws that prohibited the Koteka were placed but didn't hold, and the transmigration program by Indonesian government to move landless people from densely populated areas of Indonesia to less populous areas of Papua will make Papuan independence hard to achieve as now more than a million Indonesians share the country with them. The idea of this program was to reduce the considerable poverty and overpopulation on Java and other islands, to provide opportunities for hard-working poor people, and to provide a workforce to better utilize the natural resources of the outer islands. However fears from native populations of "Javanization" and "Islamization" have strengthened separatist movements and communal violence.
But let's get back to our story.
We went directly to the airport to buy our tickets for Baliem Valley, which we had read had thick jungles and ragged mountains. Most places remain isolated in Papua, and with no roads to connect them flying is the only alternative. We wanted to visit the highlands, home to the Yali, Dani and Lani tribes. The valley and its people was first discovered by the outside world as recently as 1938, when the third zoological expedition by Richard Archibolds found an unexpected stone age population living in the highlands.
TREKKING THE HIGHLANDS
We met our guide-to-be at the airport in Sentani. I was planning on hiring a guide once in Wamena, and had no intentions of hiring one before we got there as I wanted to meet with several before settling for one, but I couldn't seem to shake him off. He was a short man with a friendly face and a nice laugh. He showed me some pictures from his previous tours and before I knew it I was trusting him with a one million Rupiah advancement. He would meet us in Wamena.
Hoping to see him again, we boarded the plane. It was divided in half, with the first half of the plane serving as a big cargo compartment and the other half filled with passenger seats that you picked at your will just like in a bus. Before we lifted I looked around at the faces. Again I failed to find a single tourist. Once in the air I had my nose pressed against the window the entire forty five minute flight, looking excitedly at the endless jungle beneath us, and only imagining the people and animals we were flying over.
We landed in a chaotic airport. The air was cool and I studied the faces in the crowd. Almost everyone was Papuan,and the few that weren't were people from other parts of Indonesia that in recent years had moved there. The vast majority wore western clothing but with no shoes; here and there men wore beautiful feathered crowns on their heads, some red (Eclectus parrot), others dark (Cassowary) and a few wearing longer, astonishing feathers belonging to different species of Birds of Paradise. Many had boar tusks hanging from their necks, and red lips and teeth from chewing Pinang (Betel nut). And standing in the middle of the crowd, a man wore his koteka!
It was funny and curious to find some older men wearing their traditional (or lack of it), walking in the middle of the streets among hundreds of western dressed Papuans.
Again not a single tourist to be seen, we took our bags and met two men that said they were friends of Martinus our guide, and escorted us to our hotel. We met Martinus later that day. "Welcome to Papua!" -he greeted- "Wamena Papua. Jayapura (Sentani) not Papua". We started to plan but he seemed to have forgotten half of our conversation at Sentani and was beginning to quote us on the different expenses. We had been clear with him we didn't want porters, much less a cook and that we carried our own food. He slowly wrote carefully outlining each letter, taken by what seemed to be deep thought:
No numbers next to the headings, just that list and a total below. I would say we couldn't afford that much, and he would immediately start the list even more concentrated this time:
After we had reached an agreement (a lot higher than we were expecting) I looked at him in the eyes.
-"NO more money for twenty days, right?" -trying to make sure there were no misunderstandings I clarified- "That's it!"
-"Yes, no more money... except for the boat".
-"And how much is the boat?"
-"Sixteen million Rupiahs".
What?! There was no way we could afford that (over 1,500 USD). I couldn't believe that a boat ride could be so expensive. It caught me by surprise and I felt a huge disappointment burden me. We wouldn't be able to visit the remote tribes of the Korowai that seldom received foreigners and still lived as hunter-gatherers in the forests and living in shockingly high tree houses.
O.K. so Plan B.... a twenty day hike to Anguruk, sleeping in the forest and local tribal villages on the way. It's a long way and the toughest part is climbing and descending a rocky peak that is over three thousand meters above sea level before getting to the lowlands. Our guide stared at the piece of paper with the previous lists on it and started to elaborate a new one:
-"Martinus!" -I interrupted!- "WE DON'T WANT PORTERS! We can carry our own bags" -I said in the most polite manner, really just trying to make a point and be sure that we understood each other. He looked at me confused, then worried and then sad.
-"Ohhhh, I think better porter. If you die I go o jail".
-"Well" - I conceded- "we certainly don't want you to go to jail". Apparently descending the mountain with steep rocky cliffs and shaky wooden vertical ladders was too much for tourists carrying their own heavy bags on their back.
Once again and for the last time he slowly and thoughtfully started his list:
We negotiated a while until the total sum under those categories was acceptable, and after more than two excruciatingly long hours what seemed to be a mock business meeting was over. We had agreed to leave the day after tomorrow as he needed to buy supplies and find the porters.
We took a bike taxi towards the market early the next day. It was a colorful, lively, chaotic place with pigs of all sizes running around lose and playing in the mountains of trash, many men with their cassowary feather crowns, a few older men with just kotekas, loads of people selling produce, some stands with stone axes for sale, other ceremonial hats full of beautiful feathers, the pig meat laid on top of fresh green fern leaves. Still not a single tourist to be seen. Everyone looked at us. Sometimes it could be intimidating as many of the men's features made them seem angry, but when you smiled at them they would always smile widely back at you.
That night we were to meet Martinus to discuss final details prior to our departure. To our surprise he arrived with a German couple and their two teenager boys. They were going to join us. Initially i was put back by this change in plans, but after a while everything was O.K. They were real nice and would be coming with us for the first week after which they would turn around with a porter and we would continue to Anguruk.
Early the next morning we left Wamena on an old jeep and drove for about 45 minutes to our drop off point where we would start our twenty day hike. We had initially intended to carry our own food and bags and just hire a guide to show us the way, but here was our guide, four Germans, one cook and eight porters!
During the next ten days (before an unexpected landslide made us return earlier) we had many extraordinary experiences. Too many to list or this will become a book, but I will give you a glance at some of them.
After hiking up some nine hundred meters in altitude on a very steep hill overlooking amazing valleys and waterfalls, we stopped to regain our breath. All of a sudden, out of the blue one of our porters that was overlooking the valley gave a loud cry, and the rest of our porters ( Ernest, Franky, Emmanuel, Yang Tse, Yali, Junus, Otto, Juneh and Markus) all joined him in a beautiful spur of the moment song. We loved it!
We arrived to a magical town. A man in his Koteka working the soil of the surrounding sweet potato fields (sweet potatoes are a staple and the mayor form of agriculture in the valley; comparable to the rice of the Philippine tribes), grass roofs, great views and beautiful gardens with corn, bananas and other greens made this a picture perfect town.
On our way I had noticed a piece of branch with some strange markings. They explained it had been used to make fire. I couldn't believe it and begged them to show me how to make fire with just sticks! Yang Tse asked the this man sitting on the rock for some rattan. The man fetched it out of his small bag and gave him a small bunch. I was in awe when days later while cooking a pig with hot stones they started a fire using nothing but this. Watch the video!!!
We had to cross some amazing bridges, this one has absolutely no metal in it, no screws, wire or nails. It's all vines!
Every new town we arrived at would gather a crowd at the sight of us. First the kids but several adults also came to welcome the newcomers. They were fascinated by us. They didn't seem to tire of staring. Kids especially followed us all day, making taking a bath in the river or going to the bathroom in the woods extremely challenging as they would follow us absolutely everywhere we went even when frustrated by the need to poop I couldn't make them go back or give me some distance... It was really funny. In some villages we could escape quietly unnoticed sometimes and were able to take baths in the chilling waters, but naked and at altitudes above two thousand meters it was very invigorating.
One day after taking a bath by the river I saw two kids filling up some gallons of water. They seemed to be concentrated in their own chore and not minding me when they started singing. I loved the song and started dancing. They looked at me and stopped singing. I stopped my dancing. They started again and I resumed my dancing. They loved it so much that on my way back to town they were all following me singing their hearts out to see me dance! Every time they stopped so did I, and sure enough, they would start again and laugh and run. I said goodbye and entered the room. I told Cindy what had happen and how much fun the kids were having. We took a nap and hours later when we walked out for dinner, they still remained outside our room waiting for me to come out. The minute I did they started to sing and Cindy captured some seconds of it. It was dark so you can't see the video of me dancing (thank God) but you can hear the kids singing full of joy.
One day Martinus pointed out a man's ears. They were cut diagonally, missing almost half of each one.
-"What happened to him?"-I asked.
-"He cut them off".
-"What? Why?"-I asked, horrified.
-"They do that when they lose someone they love, like a wife or kid" -he answered, solemnly.
-"When you lose someone your heart is sick, your head is no O.K. It's very bad. They cut the ears or fingers also to make it better."
After that I noticed several men with their ears cut and many many women missing fingers.
This man wanted me to buy this artifact used to cut the fingers!!! It's made of stone and has some cassowary feathers in it. I would have loved to buy it, but the cassowary feathers made it ethically wrong to do so, going against our beliefs in conservation, so we paid for a picture.
UNEXPECTED ENCOUNTERS IN DEKAI
Our mission for the rubber boots was successful. After using mainly signals to explain what I was looking for, I picked up that the term was "sapato lumpur", and from there on marched into every little shop of the market declaring proudly the word I'd just learned. By then I was getting quite comfortable with my basic knowledge of Indonesian, and jumped at every opportunity to extend it. On this afternoon, it led me right to what I was looking for, and the next day I was fit for the muddy trails of the jungle!
Juan and I loved our cultural experience in Wamena, but at the same time were anxious to get back into the nature -and warmth- of a tropical forest, and we were eager to encounter the famed Birds of Paradise and cassowaries Martinus assured us were in Dekai.
Dekai was only even placed on the map of Papua twelve years ago, when Indonesian government decided to extend its influence into that area trough transmigration. There is but one hotel along the road by the market, a police station and the village. Everything else seemed to be covered by jungle.
Martinus picked us up the next morning with three other Papuans and two small rifles. We jumped into the pick up truck and headed off down a long dirt road being cut straight through the jungle, apparently meaning to reach all the way to Wamena. I assumed the rifles were for safety against mall-intentioned people we might encounter in the middle of nowhere. Although I tend to feel safe in general under most circumstances, I was aware of the political instability of Papua and accepted the presence of the weapons as a precaution.
After a little over an hour listening to the same silly songs play over and over in the driver's stereo, the car stopped in an entrance to the forest dug out by the road's machinery. The world was different all of a sudden. Birds we could not see sung melodies we had never heard, using vocal instruments that surprised and dazzled us, urging us to leave the running motor of our ride behind and walk into the jungle.
Eager to try our new camping hammocks out -a model with integrated mosquito netting and water proof shading that fit light and comfortably in our back packs- we searched for the best spot to hang them. After abandoning one where Juan almost snapped a young tree in half under his weight, we set camp in the perfect spot by the river, conveniently sheltered by leaves, where we could hear the ripple of the water over the stones, and only twenty five meters away from the fire and Martinus.
Juan and I were thrilled with the success of our purchase, and were comfortably laying in our respective cocoons, talking away in the night before sleep when one of the porters walked up to our camp with the only purpose of asking us for cigarettes. We didn't have any and he walked away, visibly disappointed.
Against my normal ease of heart, that brief encounter made me feel largely unsafe. I had sensed a vibe I did not like, a realization that Juan and I were not part of a group of friends going on a tour, but a couple of outsiders paying unknown men to take us to a remote place we knew nothing about. Juan tried to soothe me reminding me we were with Martinus, whom we knew pretty well by now, and suggested that to ease my nerves we should go over to his camp and get to know the new porters a little. We had only met them that day, and I conceded that that might help, so off we walked to their fire and struck up a banal conversation, limited to the few words I knew in Indonesian and Martinus' basic grasp of English. Presumably to break the ice a little, Martinus decided to share with us a video he has on his phone. In the three minute footage a large crowd of nearly naked men jump up and down to the beat of a shrill bamboo instrument, their faces painted, their voices deep and angry, their brows low over their eyes, their hands gripped tightly around lances and knives. The file ends with an image of the Papua flag, to which Martinus shook his head, kissing the phone and putting his hand on his chest, longing for the freedom of his people.
I decided that I was "calm" enough by then and preferred to return to my hammock, trying to concentrate on the beauty of the forest around me to put myself to sleep.
The early walk the next morning cleared the air for a timeless moment when, as Juan and Martinus followed the song of a bird high up in the canopy, I found myself silently drawn into the hollow center of an old Strangler Fig Tree. The feeling of vastness in this living enclosure is paradoxical, but when standing inside the rooted temple you're all but perplexed, and rather invaded by a sense of belonging that blows away all thoughts, leaving room only to the awareness of your own breathing and heart.
A loud shot startled me out of my meditation. As Juan and I walked towards the point where the sound had come from, we soon discovered that it was one of our porters who -accompanied by Martinus- had shot down a beautiful red and blue Eclectus Parrot. I was FURIOUS.
I stomped away in boiling ire while Juan tried patiently to explain to our guide that we did not want anyone killing the birds we were there to watch. I knew Juan was just as upset as I was seeing the wild animal put down so carelessly, but Juan somehow found room in his reason to acknowledge that we were nothing but visitors in a country where people have lived hunting and gathering for generations that reach back to the very beginning of humans in the area. There is an intricate relationship between traditional Papuan culture and birds and their feathers. We had seen men of all ages wearing them as crowns of every color, but to me the shooting of that bird by our porter in the presence of our guide was unacceptable in the face that we had told him from the beginning that we did not want to hunt. Still, Juan gave Martinus the benefit of the doubt, and established that we would continue our tour with him only if he refrained from hunting.
We moved camp that day, proving the quality of our hammocks in a dense rain that lasted through the night and the entire following day. We remained enclosed in our dry capsules most of the time, coming out occasionally to share some coffee by the fire with our guide and porters, trying to ignore their failed attempt at hiding the plucked parrot they sneaked into one of the pots, pretending I didn't understand when they said in their language they were hungry for parrot. I did manage to enjoy our meal of Sago (see video and description below), and as soon as the rain calmed a little I was happy to walk with Juan on the unfinished dirt road to see what we could find on its forest edge.
Sago is a starch extracted in the spongy center of the Sago Palm Metroxylon sagu. It is a major staple food for the lowland people and is nearly pure carbohydrate. 100 grams of dry sago typically comprises 94 grams of carbohydrate and not much more.
Many large dump trucks passed back and forth, every one of the drivers offering a friendly hello that lifted my spirits. One driver in particular offered us a ride twice, trying to explain something we couldn't make out. Seeing his insistence on us going back we decided to head to our camp, where an unexpected surprise awaited.
Three Papuan men met us at camp. They approached us with stern looks on their faces, paying little attention to my friendly "Selamat sore" (Good afternoon). After a few unsuccessful attempts at communicating, we politely took them to Martinus, where a serious discussion began. Concerned, Juan and I watched and listened intently. I could understand from the conversation that there was a problem related to us being there. Martinus explained that these were "Orang Hutan" (people of the forest), and that we were meant to ask them permission to camp in their lands. As we listened some more and prompted Martinus for further translation here and there, it became clear that this was a matter that was above any written Indonesian law; it was a custom directly imposed and enforced by the original inhabitants of the area, so it didn't matter that we had obediently had our local pass stamped by the police to visit Dekai, this was their forest, and they did not appreciate outsiders coming into it and possibly "taking things that are important". At this point I'm sure I heard the leader say "bird" in their language repeatedly. Juan and I did not need any more translation. I directed myself politely to the leader and apologized for the misunderstanding, assuring him in my broken Indonesian that we did not know we had to ask and that we would leave immediately. The men already had a big dump truck ready for us!
I know it all sounds scary, but for me this situation was actually liberating! For me we now had a great excuse to leave the bird-hunters, and we had an interesting cultural exchange to lead us to it! When we announced our intention to lift camp the Orang Hutan graciously explained that they knew it wasn't our fault, said our guide should have known better, were very kind to help us with our bags and they even stopped us at their village to treat us to some warm dinner before taking us all the way back to our hotel! They drove off with smiles on their faces, leaving us just as pleased.
Unexpectedly, the hotel was full due to some local group, and we had to find a place to sleep by knocking on doors in hope of someone's good will. Leaving Juan to guard our luggage, the first door I tried was the little restaurant across the street, and was pleasantly received by the most welcoming Indonesian family ever, who with no hesitation prepared a bed for us and some hot lemon and honey tea. Among all those smiles, despite the nine rats that we heard scurrying along the beams, rustling through our bags and -according to Juan- trying to push a sofa somewhere in the next room, I slept in absolute peace and happiness that night. I felt welcome.
Before closing our eyes Juan and I reflected on the events of the day. We were both quite amused by the way we had been kicked out of the forest by the native tribe. Despite the situation, we were happy to witness people proud and protective of their land and their culture. It was obvious they had had little to no contact with any foreigner and that they wanted to make sure their identity and heritage was preserved. We wondered if they realized what the new road they were working on would do to their treasured isolation.
OUR EXHAUSTIVE SEARCH FOR THE LEGENDARY CASSOWARY
Pak Jamil laughed modest and free, with peaceful, twinkling eyes and a stringy black mustache that framed his outstretched upper lip. He was short, thin and held a knowing man's posture: back straight, shoulders parallel to his rubber-booted feet, eyes humble and confident meeting ours, body and mind relaxed, with visibly no need to prove anything, his natural amiability alone enough to gain our respect and trust.
He was the prized fruit of a blind search for a Papuan wildlife experience; a name we had come across by chance in a casual conversation with a seemingly professional guide in Dekai's tiny airport. During this conversation, which was greatly blurred by language barriers, the guide jotted down "Nimbokrang, Pak.Jamil" on the last page of my crossword puzzle pocket book. In a week's time we were to discover that Jamil was THE man to go to when aiming for birdwatching in Papua, sought out even by giants as the BBC for knowledge on precise spots for birds of paradise, specific bird calls and behavior, but the day Juan and I decided to jump on the public mini-bus to Nimbokrang we had absolutely no idea if that was a national park, a camping ground, a private forest or a random little village in the lowlands, as it turned out to be; or that Jamil was not a park ranger but just another Indonesian man from the community except for his passion and experience with the area's feathered treasures. That is the living ones, not the decorative crowns we'd seen men wearing in Wamena.
Jamil's wife, Surip, greeted us with motherly welcoming warmth, spreading out clean sheets on our bed in a room spic and span as the rest of her simple house. Everything in it, though quite basic, had a precise position on its respective shelf, and her natural hospitality led to the delicious habit of always having a bowl of fruit and hot water for tea and coffee set neatly on the outside porch for every spontaneous visitor to help himself. I personally could not resist grabbing a tangerine every time I walked by! Juan and I were inspired to start this friendly custom in our own home as soon as we settle down.
The plan was this: at 4:30 am we would meet on the porch for a light breakfast consisting of bread and butter, coffee, tea and some fruit. We then would walk across town, cut through some tall grass and enter the jungle.
With the first streaks of sunlight the next morning we were already at the spot: a tall, heavy-set tree in the forest rose ominous over the others. Song preceded, then the fluttering of wings rendered invisible to us by the concealing leaves above, but after a little patience and carefully hushed excitement the spectacle began: on a robust branch cut out against the sky a "Lesser Bird of Paradise" landed ceremoniously, making Juan jerk his camera out in undeniable readiness. The handsome male made no unnecessary preludes on his stage, and immediately commenced his dance, ruffling up his feathers, spreading his rounded wings, skipping along the branch and shaking his elaborate yellow tail in a striking display of beauty and carefully contrived mechanisms of evolution to present himself as a suitable bachelor to the many females gathered around, studying his attributes for reproduction. From the forest ground thirty meters below the show we were most definitely impressed!
After spending some considerable time at that first sighting Jamil took us to some other good spots where we were able to watch a "King Bird of Paradise", some Imperial Pigeons, Cockatoos and even -completely unexpected- a Green Python!
We marched into Surip's house victorious that day. Juan could not stop reviewing the photos of his camera and zooming into the details of the snake, but there was one animal that kept taunting Juan's thoughts... We knew they were in the area, we had seen one's fruity scats in the morning, we had compared the size of our own hand next to its muddy footprint in the ground.
We had to find a cassowary!
We have seen cassowary before in zoos, but just like any other animal there is no comparison to observing the animal in the wild. Juan, for instance, would much rather find a footprint of a tiger near a creek in the jungles of Myanmar than to play all day with one in captivity (I personally wish I could hug a wild one to pieces). The possibility of encountering this astonishing animal in the wild kept growing in Juan into an uncontrollable excitement that took us to some great adventures.
There are three species of cassowary in the world, all native to Papua, and only one (the Northern Cassowary) can be found also in Cape York Australia. The feathers have been modified and look more like long hairs, serving tribal Papuans as adornments in ceremonial attires and instruments just as much as their meat serves as food. Nimbokrang is home to the Southern Cassowary. This bird can reach up to two meters in height and weigh up to sixty kilograms! It has a dinosaur-like helmet on its head and red piercing eyes surrounded by blue skin. The deep blue neck has a large red wattle hanging low on its chest. It lives in dense jungle, where it looks for fallen fruits on the ground. If scared they can run to up to fifty km per hour through the forest but if it stands its ground it can be deadly. Its huge legs have enormous feet with three jagged toes, the second containing a razor sharp claw reaching up to thirteen cm in length, an effective weapon that in rare cases has killed humans. Like all animals it's naturally shy of people and dangerous encounters are extremely rare, but with no doubt the cassowary receives the title for "most dangerous bird in the world".
For the next two days we did not stop for anything that was not some mark that might lead us to the elusive giant of a bird. Jamil hired one of his friends, Dante, to join in and assist on our ambitious search.
Dante was a tall, muscular Papuan, who made up for his lack of English by exaggerating every single one of his gestures and pronouncing the national language careful and slowly, mimicking the action that described the word and declaring after: "Bahasa Indonesia", so that we might learn a little. He was a character we increasingly grew fond of, who had the ability to keep up the suspense for hours on end as he walked silent and steadily off the trails with eyes alert, ears reacting to the faintest sounds, making us stop dead in our tracks with only the lift of his palm as he looked ahead, leaving us in a knot of excitement as we waited for our objective to pop out of the bush.
Those two days we came very close to seeing one, and actually Dante was able to spot one around a corner that I missed for only a couple second! During the quest we did manage to see two more birds on Juan's list: the "Twelve Wired Bird of Paradise" and the "Palm Cockatoo", both spectacular animals, but still no cassowary.
At the end of the last day we went back to Surip's happy about our time with Jamil but resigned to lay low for the next few days in the Sentani hotel, since we had already gone way over our budget. Then, sitting around after dinner Jamil asked us "Why you leave?", to which we gave him our sad answer, for some reason spilling out the numbers of our budget for the remaining days before our flight out of Papua. And then Jamil lit up our night with the shiniest proposal! He told us about an area of forest where he had heard there might be higher chances of seeing cassowaries; it was a couple hours away by motorcycle. We could drive up, walk a while into the forest and camp for a couple nights. "For me it's no problem," - he went on, referring to our inability to pay more than what we'd already considered for our budget- "for me it's good because survey area". He was clearly enthused with the idea of going on this outing, and I think a part of him also was set on tracking that cassowary down as a personal achievement. Juan and I eagerly accepted!
The next day Dante showed up a little earlier than scheduled, quite effectively managing to make conversation with us through elaborate face contortions and wide gestures about the time he'd spotted a cassowary for a group of tourists. While he was rolling on the ground simulating the tourists' victory celebration, Juan sneakily tried to compliment me on how "sexy" I looked in my rubber boots. When I hushed him embarrassed, noting that "sexy" was actually a very international word possibly not decent in a Muslim country, Dante looked up at us with effusive nods saying "Ya, ya! Kasuari internasional! Internasional group kasuari!". At that point we knew we could not have found a more focused or driven man for this venture!
That night we camped far into the forest. We hung our fancy hammocks near the river while Jamil, Dante and another Papuan man named Augus set up a large canvas like only real forest people would think to do. Augus is actually part of the community who owns that forest, so of course he would have the skills! First they cleared the ground of twigs and stones as best they could with their palangs (machetes). Using ferns and grass they cushioned the area they planned on sleeping on, and over that they used a third of a large canvas to cover it, while the middle served as a wall and the top as the roof, all fastened tight to the trees around them with flexible, strong vines found on site. Now we were set.
Like dreams, there are some scenes that can be described to detail, but to live them is the only way to experience the unique sensation of the moment. The forest was dark beneath the trees on a moonless night, but through the canopy the sky opened to uncountable stars, some of which would seem to fall into our world, twinkling in yellow hues as the flew erratically through the leaves. As our gaze followed the intermittent light of the fireflies, we noticed many more glowing gems peeking out among logs along the ground: mushrooms! It's these little wonders that remind me how magical the Earth really is, and that as humans we might be removed from this notion is not only a shame, but a great puzzle to me.
Here's a picture Juan took of the fungi that night so you can get a glimpse but please, I beg you to find the time to walk into a tropical forest and live for yourself the magic of the sight. Actually I beg you to walk into any point of nature and let yourself be wrapped in the marvel of life around you.
Back to our search though, apart from helping Dante and Augus collect a bunch of betel nuts, we continued the night with no more results than a good time, my favorite being when with but the lift of a finger to his lips, Dante's super power to build up suspense resulted in Juan dropping to the ground, slithering through the mud under the shrubs with his camera clicking furiously at the roots Juan imagined to be the legs of an enormous wallaby. I laughed my head off to that one! I was barely able to see through my tears on our walk back to camp.
A total of ten hours were spent the next day actively searching for the cassowary. Walking through the tangled jungle, our ears and eyes alert to every movement and sound, following Dante blindly when he detected clues in the air. We stepped over countless cassowary footprints, many of them very fresh, and several times almost burst in of excitement when mistaking a feral pig for our target. At one point Juan and Dante came as close as seeing a large black blur bolt ahead of them into the bush. They were quite sure it must have been a cassowary, but all they saw was black. The most fruitful accomplishment of the day was spotting a tree, which was quite generously dropping dozens of vivid pink fruits on the muddy ground beneath it, which in turn, showed evidence of many fresh footprints to give us hope.
As a last attempt, we concocted a plan for the next morning: We would build a hiding place near that tree, arrive early before sunrise and wait for the cassowary to walk up for its meal. According to us, it was an infallible move!
Our hiding spot was lightly constructed out of dry palm leaves and vines around a fallen log that would serve as our bench during the hours of waiting, and at 4:30 in the morning Juan and I were already quietly waiting in it, peeking out towards the tree, rain ponchos on against the drizzle that started after Dante dropped us off. We were silent. We waited. We perked up our ears to every suspicious sound. We stayed there, practically motionless for more than five straight hours.
Experiencing the awakening of the forest seems only natural to me, especially having lived in the Osa Peninsula for years, and for Juan it's no different. Nonetheless, we both love it. The only way I can think of to describe it at the moment is to say that it somehow transports you to the beginning of the Earth as we now know it. When you hear the first loud calls of parrots breaking the night's rest and the darkness very gradually starts giving into tones of greys, then dark blues, then greens, then oranges... when the scratching of a forest turkey starts altering the ground and unidentifiable buzzing and chirping inject more and more life into the previously dormant black, you can't help but to feel part of... just nature!
After these two nights in Papuan jungle, after the rest of the marvelous week sharing experiences with characters like Dante, Augus and Jamil, having failed in all our efforts to find the legendary cassowary we were far from disappointed. We had met wonderful people, learned a little Indonesian, seen gorgeous birds found only in this single island in the world, and experienced many little adventures we will always remember, but one thing in particular made our departure from that jungle special. As we were walking out of the forest towards the motorcycles, pulling our boots out of the mud at times and dodging low branches as we made our way along the overgrown trail, Dante once more lifted his hand to hush. A vibrating hoot-hoot, somewhat similar to that of a didgeridoo started increasing in volume from the forest. Juan looked back at me with wide sparkling eyes: the cassowary called us good bye!