This year, in an attempt to mitigate the chills of winter, we’re leaving western civilization behind for a far-flung adventure on the world’s third largest island of Borneo. The exotic plan tickles our travel taste buds, and conjures up images of dense tropical jungle, exotic wildlife, and native headhunters. Christine and I decide it sounds like just the place to whet our adventurousness!
In the hectic town of Banjarmasin our initial gung ho exuberance rapidly wanes during our pleasure less pursuit of accommodation. Locals providing lodging must report this activity to police, paying what’s called ‘cigarette money’ and filling out detailed forms. Due to the onerous hassle, we repeatedly get turned away in our hunt for a room, and if there was a market for frustration, we could sell franchises!
During our exasperating search we’re using a ‘becak’; a three wheeled Pedi cab designed so passengers sit in front of the person pedaling. We can only assume this is to take the brunt of any collision during the pulse-pounding ride; going face first into the turmoil of traffic on lawless streets where ignored traffic lights blink uselessly. Constantly in harm’s way, we clutch our backpacks in front of us as a shield, praying we don’t end up an integral part of somebody’s front bumper! Two hours later we’re relieved to discover a rentable room.
Shrouded in the moist mist of dawn, we boat along the Barito River to a massive floating market where a multitude of vendors, shaded by straw Tanggui hats, peddle an array of wares ranging from fish to firewood and plants to pots; all stacked sky-high in dugout canoes acting as floating stores!
Our plan is to start in the south of Borneo and work northwards to Samarinda, for a trek to see the Dayak tribe in an area known as the Apo Kayan. However, on our second day here we meet two American doctors just returning from that region who inform us an epidemic of Cholera is devastating the small villages, with fourteen people dying in the short time they were there. Since Christine and I do not have our Cholera shots, it is an easy decision to revamp our plans and probe the globe elsewhere.
Our spur of the moment ‘Plan B’ is an off-the-wall jaunt to the unusual orchid-shaped of island of Sulawesi, to explore the intriguing cultures of the Bugis and Torajan people. Hunting their prey in packs, the Bugis were the most feared pirates on the Java Sea, and originated the fearful term ‘Boogie Man’!
Our goal is to reach the little known village of Tantatoraja in Central Sulawesi, where the ethnic Toraja remain mostly oblivious to the outside world due to their isolation. Getting there requires an 11 hour, 328 km derriere numbing bus ride over jungled mountain roads amputating Tantatoraja from the rest of the island, and protecting their ancestral customs for centuries. Our transport looks like it’s been around since back when the earth was cooling, and the seats feel like they’re taking batting practice with our kidneys!
Waylaid by a mudslide, the deafening jungle cloudburst assaulting our bus sounds like a truckload of marbles being dumped on the roof. However, late evening, amid growling thunder, and lightning forking through the black sky like a snake’s tongue, we arrive in the middle of nowhere town of Rantepao. Luckily we’re successful in finding minimalistic accommodation, but unfortunately have to settle for a cold shower to sluice away any grime missed by rain leaking through the porous roof of the aged bus!
Torajan houses and rice barns are unlike anything we’ve ever seen. These raised shelters built on stilts have an oversized boat-shaped roof and are proudly adorned with buffalo horns. We soon learn that a sacrificial ceremony called a ‘Death Feast’ is taking place in a nearby village and we’re dying to check it out, as Sulawesi’s Torajans are renowned for their elaborate funeral rites.
When someone dies, Torajans keep the partially embalmed corpse with them, often for years, until enough money is saved to pay for the expensive funeral arrangements and assemble far-flung relatives. The funeral happening today regrettably involves the butchery of animals as it’s believed the animals’ souls will follow their masters into heaven; the more important the person, the greater the number of sacrifices.
Trussed up pigs have a knife plunged into their heart, with their executioner gruesomely hastening the bleeding out by jumping on up and down on the dying animals. Nearby, buffalo with predetermined fates are led in by a rope through their nose, and tethered by a leg to a stake driven into the ground. Then, with a powerful double-handed slash of a razor-sharp machete, their throats are slashed open. Amid the beasts’ dreadful dying bellows and terror filled eyes rolling about, young lads are grimly accessorized with crimson while using sections of large bamboo stalks to try and catch the geysers of spurting arterial blood.
The ghoulish slaughter of more than a dozen water buffalo and hogs is taking too much of a mental toll; so as the vomitus bloodletting and sacrificed carcasses continue to pile up, we turn our backs on the horror of the still kicking corpses and unobtrusively make our getaway from ‘Aporkalypse Now’.
We hike on to the village of Pallawa known for its large rice barns and giant fruit bats; called ‘flying dogs’ by locals. The bats gorge on the fruits of the forest at night, and return at dawn to digest their bounty before hiding their freakish bat heads inside the leathery membranes of their wings to sleep out the day. Dangling upside down from the tangle of tree branches the look like grotesque Christmas ornaments. We decline a furry flying lunch and trek on to Lemo village, also known for some rather peculiar death rituals.
Lemo is a mysterious place where carved effigies of the dead called ‘tau-taus’, peer down from funerary niches cut into sheer rock cliffs. Carved out of jackfruit wood because the yellowish wood best resembles human skin, these clusters of silent sentinels eerily watch over the graves to drive away any malicious spirits. Toraja infants dying before they start teething are buried in ‘Baby Trees’; with the wrapped body placed inside a hollowed out space of the growing tree, and the hole then covered with a palm fiber door. The belief is that the body and spirit of the child will be absorbed into the tree, and continue to grow with it.
Brushing aside our angsts as we seek the unique, we forge on along a jungle trail alive with vivid butterflies and myriad of peculiar looking insects. In a beautiful bamboo forest we come to a natural swimming hole on the river, with cool, crystal-clear water beckoning us for a skinny dip. That is of course, until we notice the large ugly-ass eels slithering menacingly along the bottom! These slippery dudes are never going to win a beauty contest, and their tenancy squashes any enthusiasm for even a toe-dip.
Last on todays’ tropical trudge is the remote village of Londa, where once again we are the only outsiders here. A villager offering a gas lamp motions us down a path leading to ancient burial caves. Christine and I, pushing the edge of edgy, enter the spooky darkness where all sound has been swallowed. Together, alone, crawling on all fours in the dirt through a passage from one dark dank cavern to another, a fist-sized spider scampers past in the lamplight causing us to shudder. Struggling to suppress our vivid imaginations we scan the eerie cave’s floor for any other cringe-inducing shapes we do not want to see.
Tomb it may concern, I feel like Indiana Jones; minus the fedora and bullwhip. Being immersed in darkness among rotting coffins with some exposing mummified corpses with bodies, bones, and skulls spookily adorned with cobwebs and dressed in dust, is enough to unravel our intestines. In a matter of seconds I do a week’s worth of cardio when a thick spider web brushes against my face, instantly turning me into a Karate Master! Suffering an attack of the heebie-jeebies, and a crippling claustrophobia in the tomb-like air, we bid the cave spirits adieu and wriggle back out to daylight to rejoin reality; ending a morbid entombment capable of raising any adrenaline junkie’s pulse!
After a thrilling week’s adventure in Sulawesi, monsoons begin turning the mountain roads into muddy quagmires, so we’re off, like bucket of prawns in the noonday sun! Our bus fishtails on the slick roads, but we make it back safely to the capital of Ujung Pandang, where rioting between the Indonesians and Chinese is creating serious tension. With a two day layover until our flight to Bali, we keep a low profile, as the state of affairs is a ticking time bomb, and we have no intention of being around for the boom!
We’re stoked to return to the shores of Bali, thanks to kindliness less prevalent on all other Indonesian islands. The glorious weather here in Kuta is ‘tan-tastic’, and at Suji Bungalows we bask in a cool pool surrounded by mango trees. However, after a week of sun-induced stupor, we’re already missing the pulse of excitement from our Sulawesi escapades and keen to see what other ‘derring-do’ we can muster up.
We’ve read about an extremely primitive tribe called the Dani residing in the Baliem Valley of the Irian Jaya part of New Guinea; one of the last truly wild places on earth. They’re known as the ‘Last of the Cannibals’, as up until less than a century ago human flesh was on their menu; eaten as way to humiliate their enemies.
Looking for any info about Irian Jaya, people keep telling us it’s not safe to visit, but eventually we run across an interesting Belgian couple who have recently returned from there. They warn us of the difficulties we are likely to encounter, but offer us encouragement. That’s all we need to hear, count us in!
Aggravated by a gastronomic grumble in our guts, we arrive in the capital city of Jayapura with darkness masking the town, and while hunting for a room we’re dogged by some deranged and disheveled nutter. Sensing his skulking about a soon to be problem, I turn and confront him. With hostility brewing, several locals rush over to intervene, and in Pidgin English, inform us that the perpetrator lost his mind many moons ago. While they restrain him we slip away to continue the irksome task of finding a bed; thinking that being stalked by the unrefined town’s madman is certainly not the most agreeable of starts!
Getting into Wamena proves challenging as it requires a special permit called a ‘surat jalan’; approved by both the government and police as a result of incidents involving tribal wars and killings. It seems strange, but before being issued a permit we must convince authorities that we are both Christians and that neither of us is a writer or journalist! Sorting out the paperwork and getting compulsory signatures has delayed us two long days, and Jayapura’s 40 degree temperature has us keen to get under way.
Permits now in hand, we stop in Hamadi for supplies before reaching the lakeside town of Sentani; known by locals as ‘home of the rainbows’. While we’re watching natives fishing on the lake, a helicoptering swarm of dragonflies beside us scatters as a poacher slinks out of the forest holding several illegally killed Birds of Paradise. They’re valued for their stunning plumage, but it’s heart-breaking to see such splendor destroyed.
The isolated Baliem Valley is only accessible by small plane, and involves flying through a treacherous cloud covered entrance in the steep Cyclops Mountains. Today our plane has arrived, and once in the air, we are awed by the sprawling immensity of primitive jungle in one of the most impenetrable places on earth! Preparing to land we’re jazzed to again feel that tingle of high adventure, as our twin prop plane swoops down between the harsh gash in the mountains.
Descending into Wamena, we look down spellbound. A group of near naked natives clutching a bow and arrows are on the dirt runway, gazing up at us as we are coming in for a landing. Abruptly they turn tail, as an ear-piercing siren’s assault warns them off in order to avoid a slice and dice by the propeller blades!
As we step off the plane we’re pointed to a thatched hut, where our names and nationality are recorded in a school notebook. Christine taps me on the shoulder, pointing towards the huts open windows, where black bearded faces glistening with lard and soot cosmetics inquisitively gawk in at us. The stone-age Dani tribe looks similar to Australian aborigines, with broad noses and curly black hair much like a French poodle. We are now seriously off the grid, and the realization of just where we are slowly begins to sink in!
With a history of tribal warfare, loyalty had a special significance to the Dani’s and their greeting to close friends and relations is ‘Hal-loak-nak’; grossly translating to “let me eat your feces”. Apparently the true meaning is “I will do the unthinkable for you”. Holy crap, that would be one hell of a commitment!
The bone-through-the-nose tribesmen flaunt their maleness by wearing nothing but a hollowed gourd over their penis; tied up along with their testicles by a supporting string around the midsection. This sheath pointing the penis upwards in a permanent erection is called a ‘koteca’, and its top terminates somewhere north of the navel and south of the nipples. I ask Christine if she thinks I should get one, and my ‘ninth wonder’ slyly grins back at me and asks, ‘but where would you put your passport?’
Their tribal adornment includes fancy feathered head-dresses, fur armbands, and shell-embellished necks. Many of the men have wild boar tusks stuck through their nasal septum, and when tusk-less there remains a gaping nose hole slightly smaller than Madagascar, through which we can gaze at the scenery beyond.
They survive basically on sweet potatoes and pigs, and in this odd culture, a man’s social status is measured by the number of pigs he owns. Even brides must be paid for in pigs; usually four or five per wife. The Dani believe the pig to be their brother, and new mothers often breastfeed a baby and a piglet at the same time; one on each breast! Nope, there are no sties for these little guys, as these piggies stay in the huts with the women and children. Quite the pleasing arrangement if you happen to be a little porker!
Dani women are bare-breasted, and their wardrobe is simply a short skirt woven from orchid fibers and decorated with straw; seemingly defying gravity as it’s worn almost below their butt. Their only other indispensable is a bag woven from bark fiber called a ‘noken’, which hangs down their backs supported by a strap over the forehead. Inside it, women carry everything from vegetables to stone axes, to babies, and yes, even baby pigs; and sometimes all at once. When empty, the noken is worn over their shoulders and back to help provide extra warmth in the cool of the evenings.
Not far removed from the Stone Age, the Dani tribe is notorious for their offbeat customs. For example; when a family member dies, in a practice called ‘Ikipalin’, all related females voluntarily have a finger segment amputated, with the severed section burned to ashes to satisfy ancestral ghosts! One lady proudly shows us her mutilated hands, with six of her ten digits now only rather bulbous stumps.
Now I’m not a bookmaker, but I reckon this spooky village’s chances are less than slim of ever becoming a spawning ground for any female prodigy pianists! To us this shocking ritual seems to make about as much sense as submarine with screen doors; but hey, we are simply visitors to this land of intrigue!
Wondering if adventure may be addicted to us, we trek through the Baliem Valley and arrive in Kurulu; a village about as remote as world peace. It feels as if we’ve truly arrived at the end of the earth, with round huts enclosed by a fence of sharpened tree branches. With fear and fascination duking it out, we warily step inside the gate as frightening looking humans approach us through a haze of smoke coming from a forbidding fire pit dug into the ground. In these parts, the only evidence of the twenty-first century is us, and looking at the advancing faces, it’s obvious we’re as out of place as a couple of icicles. We’re just hopeful they’re not considering us as an foreign ingredient for a native stew!
The men are menacing looking with wild unkempt hair and coal black eyes staring from soot-blackened faces; bedecked with bow and arrows, penis sheathes, and curved wild boar tusks stuffed through their nose. The women appear equally sinister with their bodies and faces smeared in a yellow clay. Sadly we cannot communicate with them, but this is one exhilarating experience I’m sure few have ever experienced.
The primitive tribe seems unconcerned with our camera, perhaps not even knowing what it is. Taking in our amazing surroundings, Christine and I are startled to make the acquaintance of a macabre blackened human mummy, dragged out from one of the round mud huts! With the crispy corpse set before us, we’re unsure an appropriate reaction to an encounter both creepy and exhilarating in just the right proportions!
The fierce looking tribes of this valley are known to occasionally fight and kill each other, using daggers carved from the leg bones of the giant cassowary birds that roam the jungle. Although still actively engaged in headhunting and cannibalism only a generation ago, the Dani fortunately appear to view us as simply an exotic rarity rather than lunch; and in a child-like manner, inquisitively want to touch our white skin.
Hiking along a river today looking for a hanging bamboo suspension bridge, we come across one of the Dani tribespeople. I point across the river hoping he will point us towards the bridge, but instead, in a lovely gesture, the fellow quickly starts stacking rocks in the river for us to use as stepping stones so we can cross staying dry! At no point during our wanders do we ever feel threatened. On the contrary, we’ve developed a real fondness for these wonderful people, and saddened by the fact they are a vanishing breed.
To try and ensure that the plane and treacherous terrain do not meet, pilots make no attempt to fly unless weather conditions are perfectly clear. Before we can leave we’re required to write our names down in a school notebook at the tiny airfield. This serves as a rudimentary waiting list to fly out whenever the unpredictable weather decides to cooperate.
Knowing we will surely never be able to experience anything like the Baliem Valley again, we feel incredibly privileged for having had the opportunity of the National Geographic-like moments on this epic adventure of a lifetime, here in these strange and exotic lands known as ‘The Last Frontier’.
Mark H. Colegrave 1991