An encounter with the Kamoro and the drive to the highlands

An encounter with the Kamoro and driving to the highlands

In 2007 I travelled to West Papua (Indonesian New Guinea) by invitation from within the Freeport mining company, which has the largest gold and copper mine in the world. I had just arrived with dentist Joanne, or Jo for short and my friend Rowan Brown. Kalman Muller manages relations between the mine and the people affected by it. We were due to go and see the Iwaka River with some of Kalman’s friends – the Kamoro people.

Meeting the Kamoro

At five-thirty in the morning, my blissful snooze in the Sheraton was interrupted by Jo calling across from the other side of the room for me to get out of bed. The electronic alarm also went off. Despite this cacophony of noise, Rowan remained stubbornly in his bed for another five minutes. After rolling out of our beds and clearing our eyes, we stumbled out of the door, lugging our equipment through the corridors to the downstairs restaurant.

Breakfast at the Sheraton

Breakfast itself was rather pleasant, as is to be expected in such a hotel- something I am definitely not used to. Omlettes, freshly squeezed juices, doughnuts, danishes and a massive assortment of other luxuries were laid out on a self-service bar. It is hard to imagine such excesses if you had lived your life outside the hotel grounds with the true locals of Timika. In fact, staying at the Sheraton with its swimming pool, lush tropical gardens and expensive rooms means that you can forget where you are. Looking out of the restaurant and seeing the barbed wire fence at the edge of the compound is a quick reminder.

Breakfast was quickly finished as the greys and blues of the dawning of a warm, rainy day in the tropics began to materialise. Rowan packed a couple of boiled eggs to eat later while I walked to the entrance. Right on cue, Kal’s driver Jeffery was waiting. Jeffery is a short Indonesian man that rarely lacked a smile somewhere under his thin mustache. Had I spoken better Bahasa Indonesia at the time, I may have got along quite well with him. The mode of transportation was a small black van that might seat six or so passengers at a time. Trinkets of all kinds decorated the interior while the bonnet had a dinner-plate sized “Lucky Strike” cigarette brand sticker proudly affixed to it. His young son sat in the front passenger seat.

After loading our fishing rods, camera equipment and assorted baggage into the van we were on our way. Jo handed Jeffery some fluffy suction-cup style koala souvenirs as a present as we departed, and wished us well. We left the Sheraton compound, waved at the security guards and headed for nearby Timika. Compared to our living standards in Australia, Timika was a real eye-opener – a proper frontier town right in the Kamoro region. It was only established as a town in the early 1970s, but already looked old and tired. Many people lived in third-world conditions. Fibro houses were run-down, patched up with plastic and scrap metal. Many of the houses sat among overgrown weeds in semi-permanent dark coloured water left by the rains. The street itself was in a state of disrepair while rubbish and mangy dogs occupied the roadsides. Small Kamoro and Javan children in grubby clothes searched through rubbish heaps while men, mostly Javans dressed in yellow raincoats sped around on motorbikes. For days we wondered about curious small stalls that sold old water bottles filled with yellow, urine-like liquid. They were scattered everywhere, you would not go more than a hundred metres in many areas without seeing one. Later, Kal informed us that they were selling fuel, as many people don’t want to drive all the way to the service station. Small kiosks and other shops were lining the streets, already open for business. Considering the conditions, it seemed odd that almost every second shop had massive red posters in place advertising the sale of mobile phone SIM cards.

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We eventually left Timika and found ourselves beetling along, in no hurry to Iwaka Village – a Kamoro outpost. The paved road gave way to dirt shortly after. We drove over countless muddy creeks carrying their cargo of rainwater and rubbish out to sea. Every time we encountered another life form on- or near the road whether human or not, Jeffery would sound the horn. We passed children walking to school and Kamoro women bent forward carrying cargoes of goods to market in string Noken bags- the strap/handle across the forehead and walking stick in hand. We passed through fern and orchid-dominated swampland and drove through rainforest, weaving our way around dangerously deep potholes and rills caused by the rain. The road soon met a “T” intersection.

The rubbish dump

Right ahead of us was a sad sight. Town rubbish that had not been thrown in the creeks had been dumped in large piles; a bulldozer periodically cleared a path through it. The rubbish had piled quite high, and was now spreading sideways into the lowland rainforest. We swung a left and noticed the rainforest was rather flooded in many spots. Palm trees began to dominate in a few places, their massive, peculiar fronds pointed almost vertically. Many did not seem to have trunks. Jeffery addressed us, pointing at the palms and said one of the few words spoken to us so far, simply saying: “Sago.” Sago, it turns out is apparently a staple of the Kamoro people of the southern West Papuan lowlands. Families process large amounts of the palm to be made into a variety of products for consumption. 

Looking for the mysterious bird

Some movement caught my eye. From the left side of the road a dark bird with an outrageously long black tail and rounded wings flew across the road and into a tree on the right. The only bird I imagined it to be from a quick glimpse was a species of Astrapia- a Bird of Paradise whose long tail feathers are prized by hunters all over New Guinea, but it doesn’t seem well known to the Kamoro. Jeffery stopped as he knew I wanted to photograph such things. As I quietly opened the door and stepped out, the bird vanished even though we did not see it leave. Rowan and I searched for it, but there was no further sign of it.

The Kamoro village

The houses

We piled back into the black van and continued down the dirt road. After an hour and a half or so, we saw a clearing ahead,the Kamoro village. There were two rows of grey fibro houses, on each side of the road, about forty metres to the side. They were all identical, except for those whose owners had decorated with paintings of animals. Each house was marginally larger than an average Australian living room. Between the houses and the road were ditches filled with the wavy edged, heart-shaped, downward pointing leaves of the taro plant, another food source that yields potato-like tubers under the ground- another staple for the Kamoro. Many of the houses had satellite dishes- possibly picked up from the local dump. I doubt many of them even had access to electricity; there certainly was no mains power. This was Iwaka Village, made to house the Kamoro people; the houses were apparently built by the mining company.

Most of the Kamoro are Catholic

The village

 

We meet Demianus

As we drove further into the village, Jeffery slowed down and swerved to the left. Rowan and I strained from the back seat to see what the commotion was. A frail old Kamoro man with a slingshot in his back pocket began to yell at Jeffrey, who swerved back to the right. Jeffery mumbled something at the old man and continued. We saw what the cause of the disagreement was, a very sick, dying dog laying on the road; the old Kamoro obviously did not want it put out of its misery. When the people saw these strange white fellas in Kal’s car, we drew much attention. An old Kamoro lady in colourful clothes, bearing few teeth in her mouth leaned in the window, stared at us for a moment and screamed to the general public several times at the top of her voice some words which neither of us could understand. Rowan and I nearly jumped out of our skins. Still in fright, we laughed at our introduction to Iwaka as the car turned right at the local church – also fibro and down a muddy side street, stopping at the side of a turbid creek. A crowd of Kamoro people was gathering to greet us. Children, men, women and a couple of blokes dressed like Jamaicans complete with colourful shirts and beaded dreadlocks stood watching us with deadpan expressions.  

Rowan expressed his opinion. “I really don’t like being the center of attention here; I’m just not comfortable with it.”

Without saying much, Jeffrey unloaded our equipment and handed it to a Kamoro man with a rounded, friendly, yet stern face complete with a moustache. He wore shorts and a blue shirt. He greeted us, and we figured his name was Demianus, the man in charge of the expedition upriver. As our gear was carried down to the water on some planks sitting in mud, some Kamoro saw my camera and called me over to photograph something of interest. To my surprise it was a Blyth’s or Papuan Hornbill (Aceros plicatus,) and only a baby. It was a pet and sat on a horizontal stick, eyes half closed in the drizzle. I took a few photographs and made my way into the now loaded canoe. As is the case with many of them around it, it was a dugout canoe made from a single tree trunk. The sides were built up further with planks to increase the freeboard. A rough frame covered with a tarpaulin had been built up over the top where we were to sit. Planks and plastic sheet were in place to give us something dry to sit on. The back of the canoe had been chopped off to allow for the installation of an outboard motor- complete with Catholic style stickers of Jesus with a staff and a lamb by his side, as well as matching Mary stickers. Our masses of equipment made us look stupid compared to the tiny provisions Demanius and the three other men had packed; to be fair the majority of it was camera equipment to record our journey. 

Rowan is awake and ready to go!

I stepped through the sticky brown mud into the canoe, Rowan jumped in right after. I had the luggage to use as a backrest, so I was surprisingly comfortable. Demianus waved goodbye to the crowd on the riverbank as we motored out into the main river. The canoe was wobbly to us as first- I stressed at the thought of ending up in the water with the expensive equipment. Sure, it had insurance but all of that means nothing when you are out in the middle of West Papua at the start of a photographic expedition. We headed downriver at first. I tried to ask the men- who had said practically nothing to us so far- where we were going, as I was hoping to go upriver. Demianus indicated through sign language and very broken English that we were to go downriver, meet a junction then go upriver. As we travelled, a Great Cuckoo Dove landed in a tall tree on the other side of the river. Although too far away for a decent photograph, I could see the bird’s superb colours- the white head and neck, purple back and long greenish-looking tail through the 300mm lens. Soon enough we were traveling against the raging current up the river, dodging protruding logs, sometimes glancing off them. One of the men excitedly yelled “KUS KUS,” stabbing a finger in the direction of a large overhanging tree. Kus kus, pronounced locally as “cous-cous” is the generic name given to practically any possum species and sometimes to tree kangaroos. Demianus, totally straight-faced spun the boat around to see if we could find the animal, but despite looking could not re-locate it. By now the drizzle had practically stopped, but the warm, damp and overcast conditions had not.


Adult hornbills

The River

As we traveled further inland the trees got taller. A pair of Eclectus parrots (Eclectus roratus) flew over, the bright red and blue female following the plain, predominantly green male. Red Cheeked Parrots were spotted every few minutes high in the sky, as were a large variety of Lorikeets. Chattering and buzzing only centimetres above the swirling muddy water were a range of Swiftlets, mainly the blue-satin coloured Glossy Swiftlet and possibly the Uniform, their boomerang shaped wings carrying their aerodynamic bodies at seemingly impossible speeds through the air in search of insects. Banana plantations and temporary settlements dotted the riverbank.

Kamoro get around mostly by motorized canoe

Motorised canoes are popular

As we drove further up the river, on stumps overhanging the sides we noticed two-foot long Forest Dragons (Hypsilurus sp) trying in vain to get some sunshine, their dark greenish backs and sides blending in with the forest behind. They had crests of spines and serrated dewlaps on their chins. Approaching one, it dipped into the water and vanished as the men tried to catch it.

Rowan enquired of me “Can you please tell the Kamoro that I really, really need to pee, your Indonesian is far better than mine.”

Rainforest meets the flooded river

I attempted to tell the Kamoro men, who laughed among themselves and agreed to stop for a leak, when they found a good spot. We passed a small banana plantation on the river bank with a large temporary hut.

Dogs in Mr Sunshine’s canoe

About fifty metres upstream a Kamoro man and his wife sat in a canoe, pulling themselves along by grabbing handfuls of overhanging grass on the river’s edge. Demianus made conversation with the man, who did not appear to have a happy disposition. I mentally nicknamed him “Mr Sunshine.” Dogs, mostly sandy coloured Asian Dingo types, plus a black and white mottled breed clambered about the canoe, growling in our general direction. After the conversation was over, Demianus revved up our engine and we sped on upstream.

A Danaid butterfly on the bank

A Danaid butterfly on the bank

About ten minutes later we came ashore on a sandbar. As one of the Kamoro held the canoe in place, a rather pale looking Rowan practically ran along the surface of the water to get to the bank. We all found relief on the bank. Once our bladders were empty and I had chased some wildlife in the form of insects around, Demianus, for the first time introduced his crew. He pointed towards a man, thin but obviously strong. His eyes were half closed and his face was well defined. He had so far never lacked a genuine smile – it seemed to be stuck on. On his head he wore a blue cap which was covered by a floppy camouflage hat. Moses was his name and he said very little. His smile broadened as he nodded. Next was Titus, the oldest member of the crew. Titus, like he other Kamoro also said very little. He was skinny and possibly the most physically fit grandfather I have seen yet. He wore a blue singlet under his pink and purple teddy bear-patterned fleece shirt, topping the outfit off with blue shorts. His hair was clipped short and, like many Papuans, including the Kamoro we met had very little grey and no sign of balding. Normally relatively straight-faced he was perhaps the most friendly and outgoing crew member. Like the others, excluding Demianus he spoke absolutely no English. Finally, there was Nelson. Much broader across the shoulders, but no less fit, he had a moustache like Demianus, but did not seem so relaxed and easy-going. His eyes were always wide open and darting about, as if constantly on the lookout for something that may leap out of the bush to attack him. His favourite shirt was army camouflaged. Nelson seemed to be the best at finding animals- little wonder with his constant wide eyes and alert temperament.

During the introductions, a few birds had made their presence known. One, possibly a species of Coucal made a series of deep booming notes on the other side of the river deep in the jungle. Close to it, I heard some raucous trilling screams. I identified it as a Rufous Bellied Kookaburra- a colourful rainforest dwelling kingfisher, a relative of the more famous Australian Kookaburras. Another type of kingfisher, the Sacred Kingfisher- so familiar to many Australians zipped across the water, its turquoise back blending in with the trees on the other side. The low level clouds parted for the first time, and we got our first glimpse of the massive mountains further inland- some with ice at their summit. We were certainly looking forward to our journey in that direction later in the week.

Climbing back into the canoe, I asked Demianus if there were big fish here. “Ikan besar…?” I asked, hoping he would understand, as I pointed at the river.

He replied by saying “Ya, ikan besar ini,” with his hands spread far apart indicating the fish indeed are big in this river. 

I asked if the water was clearer further up. He said it was, but not how far up and if we would go there.

“Now…” he began, “…we make… home… den, ahh… mancing ikan.” (Make a shelter and go fishing) He imitated fishing with a rod and line. He continued: “We…make home, fish later,” pointing a finger back downstream, indicating that we were to make home or camp in that direction.

…and done… sort of

Shelter being made

Sure enough, we stopped where a coffee coloured creek met the much larger, lighter coloured river right opposite the encampment belonging to Mr Sunshine. The men tied the canoe to the bank and set about business. Almost without a word, they fished around for axes and machetes in the bottom of the boat, sharpened them on a stone and hacked a clearing in the jungle, selecting large logs and putting them aside. Massive swallowtail butterflies boldly marked black, white red and blue fluttered past. Ulysses swallowtails made their determined swift flight through the clearing, their enormous blue wings flashing like animated metallic foil. A peculiar tiger striped Clipper butterfly (Parthenos sp) would flutter; and then swerve around, gliding with its wings pointing down. I managed a few photos of this unusual but common species. The Kamoro simply said “Kopokopo” when I pointed it out. One of them collected long, thin tree roots, while another gathered green sticks from deeper in the rainforest. In about ten minutes a structure took shape. Planks were removed from the floor of the boat and lined up to form a floor about a metre above the ground while a tarpaulin formed the roof, a beam placed along the ceiling made sure it sloped evenly each side so as not to gather water in case of rain. The tree roots were used as ropes to secure the construction. All up, the entire operation took all of twenty minutes. The Kamoro lay back for an hour or so. I pestered them to go fishing. Rowan and I extracted the fishing rods from their tube. Admittedly we had taken far too much- then again we didn’t know what lived up this river so we had gear suitable for anything from tiny Garfish right up to enormous Spot-Tailed Bass. As we set the rods up, the Kamoro gathered around, extremely curious as to what we had brought with us. Looking at the shiny reels and rods, they shook their heads in disbelief while making a “Tsk…tsk…tsk…” sound with their tongues.

Heading up the tributary

When the box of lures emerged from the bag, they giggled amongst themselves like school children. Of particular interest was a soft rubbery crayfish type lure. They marvelled at its realism. Demianus informed us in his serious voice that real versions of these are to be found in that very river. I grabbed a small Jitterbug style lure from the box and clipped it on the line. This lure has a blue body with a dark back and tiger stripes. At the front, it has an oval shaped bib, cup shaped and angled like an aircraft wing. I called for their attention and cast it onto the water. It landed with a plop, floating to the surface. I gave it a twitch and retrieved it, the bib causing it to wobble side to side as if alive. The Kamoro looked at it wide-eyed and fell to the ground in hysterics. I lifted it out of the water and they re-composed themselves. I cast again as they silently watched it in anticipation. As soon as the wriggle began, they once more clutched their sides in hysterical laughter. The next lure- a “fizzer” (floating lure with a propeller at the front and rear) had a similar reaction, but they found it a little funnier for some reason. We tried several other lures and gave a small green bibbed lure to Demianus- who gazed at it in wonder for several minutes before putting it away. Some further pestering to take us fishing, directed at Demianus persuaded him to send Moses and Titus over the other side of the river in the canoe to Mr Sunshine’s plantation. About half an hour later they returned with a can full of pale, fat earthworms. Demianus was clearly impressed by the lures, but insisted on fishing with the worms on a hook. He also indicated that we were going up the small creek, as the best fishing was to be had there. I asked if the water cleared up and the creek widened, as I hoped for some sight-fishing. He gave me the thumbs up. As the guide we trusted his judgement.

Demianus boiled some water on the fire and prepared us some sweet black coffee. Rowan, by then was dozing on the top of his swag in the shelter. Demianus opened a plastic bag and asked me my opinion of canned fish, hunted about and extracted a white can proudly labelled “ABC,” the same brand as just about every product they seemed to have. I told him I liked canned fish, but that was the last view of the can, or its contents that I saw.

Demianus rummaged around once more in the plastic bags, grabbing a brown paper bag soaked in what looked like oil. I was curious as to the contents of this bag. He passed Rowan and I a bag each, they both contained deep fried taro cake, similar to the potato “cakes” or potato “scallops” available in every Australian fish and chip shop. Taro is similar to potato in texture, but is somewhat sweeter and the Kamoro love it. The base of the stems had also been cooked and had come out a lovely purple colour. I was very hungry and practically breathed mine in, giving our intently watching hosts the thumbs up. Rowan did not find it to be to his taste.

“I’m not sure I like this” he announced quietly to me. Had he not already eaten it, I would have inhaled that one too.

We asked the men about the local fish. I drew some simple diagrams in a notepad Rowan had brought along. I drew the first fish we had seen, a tiny “Halfbeak” (in Australia we call them Gars.) Demianus looked at the diagram, and said “Bairo.” The fish we were really interested in was the Spot-Tailed Bass. A type of snapper, it lives in large freshwater rivers. A fighter nothing short of savage; and growing to well over a metre, I have wanted to catch one for years. I drew a picture. The men discussed the image, and agreed it was called “Imoro.” Well, I hoped it was a Spot Tail; several very similar fish live in the area. Well, they knew something like it that grew big lives in this river.

While looking at the rubber crayfish, they told me that big ones live in the river. I drew a picture of a Giant River Prawn (Macrobrachium rosenbergii) and the reply in Kamoro was instant: “U’rakoh.”

Intrigued by the language of the Kamoro, we decided to write some of it down. I drew columns in the notepad, one headed by “English” the next was “Kamoro” and the last was “Indonesia.” For a while, we sat and had an unusual game of charades, trying to work out each other’s languages. We learned much from this educational bit of fun.

 

The fishing spot

Finally it was time to go fishing. Jumping into the canoe and almost tipping it several times, we motored up the tributary, the grey, overcast sky overhead almost totally obscured by rainforest. Demianus soon pulled the canoe up to the bank in a small back-eddy, the other Kamoro men holding us in place by grabbing some tufts of grass. With the engine off, I flicked the worm bait into the dark swirling water, letting it sink to the bottom. I clutched the rod with white knuckles ready for the inevitable bite- but ten minutes later, no sign of any fish. As I adjusted and re-adjusted the bait, the loud, high pitched trumpet-blasts of Manucodes (Manucodia sp, a type of Bird of Paradise) periodically drowned out the other bird sounds. After half an hour, we decided that maybe this spot was actually dead, so we motored further upstream, the noisy outboard blowing blue smoke that settled just above the water. The stream got no clearer; it certainly did not get wider. We bumped the odd log with the leg of the outboard, and weaved up further still. As there was no wind, any movement in the trees was very obvious. A large greenish Dendrelaphis tree snake climbed up a bush growing next to the water. I badly wanted to catch it and bring it onboard for some photos. I asked the Kamoro men if I may, not that I could have as it was too high to reach by now. You did not need to understand Kamoro, or even Indonesian to understand their reaction to such a question. Gorgeous metallic green damselflies darted about, settling briefly on twigs showing above the water, their broad, upright folded wings also showing a metallic blue-green. The Kamoro commenting: “Kopokopo” (“butterfly.”) A Brush Cuckoo (Cuculus variolosus) made his stuttering series of whistles “What-you-drink…” each repetition higher pitched than the last. I imitated it, much to the delight of the Kamoro. This caused the bird to become even more worked up- my conversation with the cuckoo reached fever pitch, which made the men slap their thighs and giggle all the more.

 

Nelson with ‘Omo’ fruits

Demianus steered the boat to the bank, and Nelson climbed out onto the muddy rainforest floor. He stomped through the muck to a tree that had a cluster of green golf-ball like fruits, pausing to pick a few, calling them by their Kamoro name: “Omo.” He began to eat one and threw the rest into the boat for us to distribute among ourselves. Rowan took a bite into one, exclaiming:

These aren’t too bad, you know. I quite like them. What did you say they were called?”

The Kamoro men in unison looked up and said “Omo.”

I took a bite of one. It nearly broke my teeth. It tasted like a hard apple- laced with citric acid crystals. The sheer sourness of it made me involuntarily wink. 

 

Cutting the water Rotan

Further on, I asked in broken Indonesian/English if you can drink from vines here. Nelson’s eyes lit up as if he had an idea. We once again pulled into the bank and Nelson leapt out with his machete, severing a long cane-like green vine, He cut it into a three metre long section and angled it to Rowan, gesturing for him to drink. Crystal clear water dribbled out of it. Nelson simply said “Rotan.” I tried some of the water. I cannot describe the taste as it had none; quite simply it was possibly the purest water I had ever had from a plant.

A Papuan Day Moth (Alcides sp) fluttered into a clearing over the river, its large black velvet wings adorned with bands of holographic blue.

Titus excitedly jabbed a finger in the direction of a small protruding log, calling out “Komodo kecil!”

Where is that Komodo Kecil gone?

It seemed he was referring to a small lizard that he likened to a miniature Komodo Dragon, possibly a species of unrelated Forest Dragon. Neither Rowan or I could see it, but soon enough the boat was up against a section of bank dominated by a fallen tree. The Kamoro kept pointing at the animal but we did not know what to look for. Titus and Nelson wasted no time, leaping out of the boat and clambering up the horizontal fallen branches with ease. They obviously missed the target, and spent a few minutes poking around the exposed roots looking for the creature.

Rowan and I joined them, Rowan soon calling out “Look at him, he’s gorgeous. Just look at the beautiful blue tail. Nathan, come over here and see it.” By the time he had finished his rapid-fire sentence, I was already well and truly looking. He had found a blue-tailed skink (Emoia caeruleocaudata.) We tried to catch it but missed. Titus, wearing his teddy-bear shirt offered assistance, chasing it through the leaves and twigs. When it reached an exposed area, he clapped a flat hand down on the poor creature. Surprisingly it was alright, showing no signs of damage. I put it in an empty water bottle, drilling holes in it with the knife to allow air circulation.

We returned to camp with my reptilian prize safe in the bottle. On the way, Nelson helped himself to logs and sticks that had been deposited in overhanging branches by floodwaters a few days ago. This was to be our firewood, as it was the driest timber available.

Upon returning to camp, Moses and Nelson remained behind as we unloaded the fishing gear.

Demianus enquired: “Makanan babi anda?”

Demianus fixing the motor

 

The pig refrigerator

Thinking of the tinned fish, I was slightly surprised at being asked if I ate pig. I answered that I sometimes eat pig. Before I could say anything else Demianus asked us to remain in the boat. We zipped over the other side to the camp of Mr Sunshine. As before, he was in his usual dark mood. We finally figured out the reason for that. His outboard obviously was playing up. A pile of banana leaves sat in the shallow water, held in place by a spear. Mr Sunshine lifted some of them away to show two pigs, a sow and a piglet pinned to the riverbed. The warm muddy river seemed to be the refrigerator- keeping the carcasses fresh…well mostly fresh. When the spear was wriggled, a trickle of blood left the body. We re-assured ourselves that it must be fresh…ish. Mr Sunshine picked up the piglet, very much dead and hog-tied with tree root rope, and heaved it into the bottom of our canoe with a thud. Meanwhile, Demianus worked on the outboard engine, taking bits off here and there, starting it and adjusting other components- all the while chattering in a mixture of Kamoro and Indonesian. I took no more than cursory notice of what he was doing.

Rowan remarked: “He should be careful not to flood the engine. I know all about that motor, we had one on the tender of Passage.”

I was more interested in a beautiful oval shaped canoe paddle that was stabbed into the mud, beyond the men working on the boat. Mr Sunshine had apparently carved it out of a single piece of wood, decorating it with a row of hexagonal patterns on the “laki-laki” (boy, or convex) side of the blade. This turned out to be a common Kamoro design. I regretted not asking for a price on it, it certainly was a gorgeous paddle- totally practical and made to work, but also pleasing to the eye. The dogs we had seen earlier ran around the camp, there must have been at least ten of them. Some sat in the canoe and I thought it would make a fantastic series of photographs. Mr Sunshine’s small son sat and watched the strange westerner taking pictures. Each time I approached the dogs to take a photo, the attempt was met with a growl- or several growls until they sort of got used to me.

Moses cleaning the pig

Pork stir fry anyone?

With Mr Sunshine’s outboard fixed to a satisfactory level, we zipped back over to our camp. Almost immediately the Kamoro men got to work preparing the piglet. Knives were sharpened and the carcass was butchered. The only parts thrown out were the stomach contents. Rowan and I looked at each other and I remarked that I will eat most things, but I did not like the look of the entrails. Well, I resigned myself to the fact that if worse came to worse I have eaten literally hundreds of sausages in my lifetime.

I became aware of a frog call. It made a grating, harsh creaking sound- coming from behind Moses, who was cleaning his knife. It stopped almost instantly. I turned around to walk back and it started again, stopping before I could locate it. Hours passed before I figured it out. It was the incredibly loud sound of a Kamoro grinding his teeth, a nervous habit that many Papuans, from the Kamoro in the southern lowlands to the Dani of Wamena, everyone seemed to do it. Demianus got to work rummaging around in the bags looking for herbs, spices and cooking tools. He also produced a bag of rice, cooking it in boiling water. Thankfully, he selected some diced meat from the leg of the piglet and cooked it in a wok. It was a most marvellous meal, the rice and the pork cooked with soy sauce and lemon grass. The other men helped themselves to the ribs and other parts, charring them on the coals of the fire. They chewed on the piglet’s badly burnt head, ate most of the ribs and wrapped the rest in banana leaves to eat later.

I looked at how fast the river was falling (it had fallen by about a metre since we had arrived at camp) and asked if the men thought it would rain that night. Demianus looked at the sky and said that it would almost certainly rain. I was not worried about getting wet, as the shelter they built was more than satisfactory, but of the threat of rising river levels. Titus interrupted, simply saying in Indonesian that somebody would be on watch all night.

I enquired of Damanius: “Jalan Jalan…(imitating walking with my fingers)…saya dan Rowan? I know it was possibly not the best way of using Indonesian to ask to go for a walk.

Demianus, in his calm and unhurried voice replied in Indonesian “Tomorrow you, Rowan, Nelson and I will go for a walk to look for animals.”

We asked more about English words and their equivalents in Bahasa Kamoro and Bahasa Indonesia, writing our findings down on Rowan’s waterproof notepad. One word that I could not get them to understand, no matter how hard I tried was “Hunter.” I really wanted to find the Kamoro and Indonesian words to describe such a person, but the conversation ended up in a lingual mess.

Titus smiled and looked at Rowan and I and said in Indonesian: “We all family.” He pointed at the other Kamoro men one by one, and finally to Rowan and I, who were now sitting on the raised floor of the shelter. He locked his two forefingers together, saying the only English word he said… “Brothers.” He pointed at himself and said “Pak” (father.) His smile broadened further. “We family” he proclaimed. It seemed we had been accepted.

As the daylight faded real frogs began to call. I asked Demianus if I may look for them. He did not really understand, as he said we would look in the morning. I insisted and he finally let Rowan and I go with Nelson.

As Rowan and I were getting the camera gear ready, Nelson called out. He had already found a frog. I shuddered as I heard the hard “clap” sound of an open palm surely squashing the life out of a poor hapless frog. He brought it over to us in his hands. I congratulated him on finding it. As his hands opened I could see it was a medium sized brown and white Rana frog- the exact species is still yet to be determined, likely to be (Rana grisea.) I took a number of photos of the creature which looked healthy enough, but soon enough its eyes dulled and it rolled over- no doubt due to mortal injuries sustained during “clapture.”

The tiny Rana frog, still unknown

Rana grisea? Whatever i was, it was a new species for me

We searched on, walking through the sloppy, knee-deep mud of the Papuan jungle. More frogs called among the trees. A large Rana frog crossed the track, near identical to the first one, only much larger, possibly a female. I made sure I caught this one, with a much more gentle approach. After a series of photos were taken, I let it go on its way. A small, high pitched call caught my attention. After much searching yet another species of Rana was located, calling from a fern frond near the ground. This frog was tiny, about 25-30 millimetres long. I chased it around, losing it several times before finally capturing some photos.

A large assortment of insects, mostly crickets were located among the leaves. One massive, spiny specimen looked just like a leaf, complete with leaf-veined wings and spiny legs.

Nothing escapes Nelson!

This nasty customer also had a fierce temper, using its powerful jaws to bite clothes and flashlights when handled. When we released it, the nasty insect leaped of a tree and flew onto my clothes, sinking those evil jaws into my shirt.

Another insect that caught my attention was a massive green Caddis fly- not including the antennae it was around three and a half centimetres long. Superficially similar to a tent-winged moth, Caddis typically live underwater as a small grub in little homes they build, depending on the species, eating either plant matter or other small insects. When they reach adulthood they take on their winged form and leave the water. Typically they are moth-like as stated earlier, but often have two enormously long antennae that are stored pointing forward.

The giant Caddis

The evil Katydid

Another cricket

We returned to the campsite. Titus, Demianus and Moses were chatting around the fire. I asked Demianus if we may go looking for crocodiles, as he had indicated earlier that they are found in this river quite commonly.

The jumbled Indonesian/English reply from Demianus was simply: “Jam sepuluh (ten o’clock pm…) Krokodil slip (sleep) now.” He made his point in case we didn’t understand that the crocodiles sleep for the first part of the night by placing his hands together and resting his head on them.

 

 

Soon after, Demianus announced that we would hunt crocodiles now. As quick as a flash we were in the canoe ready to go.

Rowan said: “Stuff catching crocodiles for a look. I want to eat one.”

Crocodile spear

I was quite content to catch a small one by gripping its jaws, or a larger one with a rope. I had no intention of killing any. Success or not, at least it would be fun to try! The engine started with a roar and we were off. First port of call was the encampment belonging to Mr Sunshine. We beached the canoe on a rock bar that was visible for the first time with the rapidly diminishing river. Nelson and Moses searched around the temporary hut, eventually producing two spears. Each spear head was made of metal. Two points poked out of the front, sharp barbs pointing backwards ensuring escape was not an option. The head itself, as Demianus demonstrated, would detach and the creature could be fought on the attached rope. We set off, hopes high and buzzing with excitement. Scanning the banks with my spotlight revealed practically no signs of life. We continued upstream for an hour or so, scanning every direction to no avail. It seemed crocodiles had possibly already been hunted to near extinction, at least in the Mimika region. At the turn-around point, two white figures appeared on a branch in the distance. As we moved closer, I noticed they were two white birds, each the size of a tennisball. They sported lovely white bellies and a grey/black head, wings and back. The wings were pointed and a white spot divided the eyes from the base of the bill. Titus, as quick as a flash shot his hand out, grabbing them off the branch in one go. They screeched in protest, clawing and biting. Titus smiled warmly at them. I asked what the men would do with the birds.

Demianus replied in broken English: “Pet, for my baby.” Opening a thick, clear plastic bag, he dumped them in it. I protested, but the men did would not release them. These were obviously a prize. I insisted at least on putting air holes in the bag. I opened my knife, poking holes in the violently convulsing bag.

Adobe Creative Suite 5 (CS5) Family

Eventually we arrived back at camp- with absolutely no crocodiles. Almost immediately Rowan slinked into his swag and zipped it up. As I slipped into my sleeping bag on the bare planks of the shelter, Demianus pointed at my right leg. I had a look and noticed blood had been dribbling on my leg for some time. A fat leech was the source of the commotion, and was promptly dealt with. I applied some insecticide in vain- there were few, if any mosquitoes out that night. I dozed off in complete comfort.

The giant prawn

My snooze was interrupted at about two o’clock am by a somewhat excited Titus, who sat next to the fireplace, pinching my toes through the sleeping bag. I ignored it for a moment, but he insisted that I see this wonder that he had fished from the river bare handed. Rubbing tired eyes, I sat up and saw he had a massive Giant River Prawn, known in Australia as a Cherabin, or to the Kamoro as U’rakoh (Macrobrachium ronsenbergii.) Looking similar to a skinny crayfish, this crustacean had long thin blue claws longer than its light brown body which was the best part of a foot long. I tried to wake Rowan, who rolled over and groaned. Titus gestured toward Rowan’s swag with a limp hand.

We will enjoy the prawn ourselves” he muttered in Indonesian.

After a few photos, Titus tossed the now dead prawn on the fire. The claws cooked first, becoming soft and flexible. He first gave the largest one to me. I thanked him with a nod, breaking it apart and squeezing the meat out- toothpaste style. It was deliciously sweet. By the time we had finished the claws, the rest had cooked. Titus picked the body from the coals. The body meat was even more spectacular. The orange and white meat was plentiful and had a gorgeous flavour – like the best saltwater prawn. I thanked Titus once more for his generosity, and went back to bed.

 * * * *

 Only a couple of hours later at first light we were awoken by the men- ready for more adventure. Demianus had a coffee ready for Rowan and myself. I drank mine while Rowan slept in. Rigging my baitcaster I noticed the river had fallen two metres since we arrived. Fish swirled periodically on the surface. The mullet-imitating lure hit the water. The Kamoro men looked at me, almost with pity. They were convinced I was wasting my time- worms were the only bait to use. On the fifth cast, the lure wriggled down out of sight and the line pulled tight. I called out to the men, who looked on in shock. Triumphant, I reeled in a fish that fought deep and flashed silver. As it surfaced, I looked in surprise at it- a catfish. Normally despised back in Australia, the Kamoro hooted in excitement, “Ewako” they called out. This was not a species I had caught in Australia, possibly the Triangular Shield Catfish (Arius letapsis.) The vertical silver stripes over the silver body and exceptionally long thin spines on the leading edge of the dorsal and pectoral fins looked unlike any fork-tailed catfish I had caught. I gave the men an “I-told-you-so” look as they excitedly tried to remove it from the hook. Titus was concerned about me- pointing out the long, sharp serrated spines, as I had commandeered the hook-removing task bare-handed. Once the hooks were removed, the fish was quickly wrapped in banana leaves and placed next to the charred pig meat and the birds in the bag which were still alive and seemed healthy. I asked what the Indonesian word for this fish was; “Ikan sembilang” was the reply.


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Red fungus on the trail

Next, Demianus and Nelson kept their word and led us through the jungle, hacking a path with a machete. Nelson led the way, slipping his way through the rainforest and Sago palms with extreme ease. Rowan and I stayed behind the men as we slopped through the deep sticky mud and wet leaf litter of the forest floor. Little springs appeared on the ground, flowed for a few metres and vanished once more into tennis-ball sized holes in the soil.

 

A weird fruit

We crashed through a small muddy creek, and upon climbing up the opposite bank, happened across a footprint in the mud. This was the unmistakable print of a Southern Cassowary (Casuarius casuarius,) a large black flightless bird with a red neck wattle and a blue head topped with a hard axe-blade like casque. It is renowned for its bad temper and habits of shredding open the abdomens of human attackers with a hideously oversized toenail. Naturally, we wanted to find one. Normally these birds feed on fruits found on the forest floor, but in bad times will raid orchards and plantations. The double-shafted black feathers of these birds are used by Papuans as decorations for their headdresses. The track was very fresh, maybe laid down only minutes before we found it.

Cassowary print

 

Nelson called us over. He pointed to the ground at what looked like a pile of animal dung at the base of a tall ginger plant. Plucking one of the brown, turd-like, gobstopper-sized objects from the heap, he broke it open to reveal a red fruit, filled with a mass of black seeds within a white crystalline pulp. Clearly this was the fruit of this particular ginger.

Rowan enquired in Kamoro: “Ana?” (You eat this?)

Nelson ate some, gesturing for us to do the same, calling it by the Kamoro name: “Da’uti.” The ginger flavour was definitely there, as was a hint of sour citrus and maybe a tiny bit of pepper. This was a strange combination of tastes no doubt. Personally I didn’t think much of it, but soon another fruit caught the eye of the Kamoro.

Kowaike

It looked to be a species of lily, growing in the moist soaks of the forest floor. The corrugated spear-head like leaves grew upright and the plant bore a cluster of white fruits in the centre, each about the size of a large grape. Nelson removed one from the plant and ate it. We did the same. Of all the fruits we found, this was by far the best. The texture was soft and smooth. Initially the flavour was like a ripe watermelon, but after twenty seconds or so an overwhelming rush of butterscotch took over. Nelson pointed at it and said: “Kowaiki.” For the rest of the walk, Rowan and I raced each other for these little delicacies.

We had seen many banana trees growing along the river in plantations, but we were now well away from these, yet we saw a number of banana plants. To my understanding, the banana we and the Papuans know as food has been subject to so much artificial selection that they cannot reproduce without human farming methods. These ones grew through the forest. Nelson paused for a moment to show us a large specimen growing nearby. He called it “Pisang hutan” – literally “Banana of the forest.” I was familiar with wild bananas in the Wet Tropics of Australia, only the Papuan ones are much bigger. They are just like the cultivated varieties, only the fruits are smaller and full of black seeds. These wild forest bananas are undoubtedly the ancestors of today’s farmed varieties.

Flame of Papua

Flame of Papua flowers on forest floor

Leeches – Nature’s way to keep you alert

 

 

 

 

 

 

The forest was surprisingly devoid of flowers. We stopped for a moment to pluck leeches from our legs. As I looked around I noticed a tree covered in masses of flowers that had to be of the brightest shade of red I had ever seen. I asked if we may go and look at it. Nelson nodded over his shoulder at me, while he finished directing a golden arc at some leaves on the ground and led us to the tree. Not actually a tree but a vine covering the tree, its red pea-like flowers were littering the forest floor. We did not know what the vine was at the time, although I had already heard about it from Jo:

There is this tree called the Flame of Papua, there is one that flowers about this time of year at Kuala Kencana golf course. You’ll see it a mile off. It’s like a Bouganvillea, the red flowers cascade down the plant. It’s just gorgeous.” 

After snapping off a load of photos, we continued along the path. Demianus soon signalled us to turn back. We stopped off for a quick drink from the water bottles we had carried in. When the Kamoro men finished theirs, we were horrified that they just tossed them into the forest. As we walked, I discussed this topic with Rowan.

They are not used to plastic packaging…” Rowan began… “All of their rubbish in the past was packaging made from leaves and wood. It all rots away back into the soil. Plastic is very new to them, they don’t have any idea on how long it takes to rot away.”

I added: “Well, also there is the fact that it lies on the forest floor and every time it rains, it gets flushed away never to be seen again, at least by the Kamoro. It ends up somewhere else, but they don’t know that. To them it just vanishes.”

 

The pink vine

We crossed a mud wallow on a small log. Above us was another vine, this one had massive oval shaped leaves. At the end of a branch was a clump of pink flowers. Demianus asked Nelson to get them for us. He searched around the forest floor, producing a tree root, which he used to bind his knife to a stick so that the blade pointed down on a forty five degree angle. He hooked it over the flowers and pulled downwards, cutting them free. I photographed them before thanking the men.

Throughout the walk, Nelson in particular would stop dead still and lean forward, his eyes wide open and fixated on something, usually a lizard, in the leaf litter. He would rock forward and clap an open hand on the ground, occasionally succeeding in capturing a lizard, curling his fingers around the poor, wriggling creature. Sometimes his hand came down with mighty thump, and I am glad in such cases that the lizard escaped.

 

Tree kangaroo track

Nelson called out. He had found a track, a Kangaru track in the mud, no less. Looking at it, I knew immediately it belonged to a Tree kangaroo (Dendrolagus sp,) the species unknown. Obviously it had come to the ground to hop along before climbing up another tree. The track was also very fresh.

As we made our way back to camp, some movement caught my eye. A thrush-sized, vivid black and yellow bird hopped down towards the ground from branch to branch. I could not make out the whole bird, so I started walking towards it. In an effort to help me, Nelson surged forward into the bush in the direction I was headed. I abandoned all hope of photographing this bird, instead rushing into a tangle of vines, not catching another glimpse. Just before getting back to camp, a loud screaming trill erupted in a large tree above our heads. I looked up, straining to see the bird that made all that noise. I knew what it was, but could not see it. Not surprisingly, Nelson’s ever wide-open eyes caught the first sighing of it. Eventually I saw it, the first actual sighting I had made of a Rufous-Bellied Kookaburra. Slightly smaller than the familiar Australian Laughing Kookaburra, it had bright blue wings, a reddish belly, black head with a white collar and massive white eyebrows and a heavy, bone coloured bill. Another flew in, chattered with it on the branch before they chased another intruder away.

Unidentified skink

Blue Tailed Skink

Another skink

We arrived back in camp to find Moses and Titus had packed most of it away. Obviously enjoying a break, they sat on the raised floor of the shelter quite content. I photographed the skinks that had been caught; I am surprised that they survived at all considering Nelson’s method of capture. As the campsite was dismantled, Demianus struggled to undo the tree-root ropes. I handed him my most prized knife (complete with a locking blade and camouflage colours) so he could cut the ropes. Obviously he thought it was a gift. The smile on his face was priceless. I did not ask for the knife back, as I would have felt guilty, besides, I could always get another and he would see far more use from it than I would. Also, he would remember us by the knife. It was worth losing it, he wore it about as if it was the best thing he had ever been given.

Nutmeg. “Mace” is the red stuff around it.

Once the valuable items from the camp had been bundled into the canoe, including the birds, fish and the charred remains of last night’s pig we headed off. However, Titus would not let go of the tree roots on the water’s edge until we had thanked the campsite, in Bahasa Kamoro, of course. We sped over to the other side of the river- which by now was a mere trickle compared to the day before, ending up at Mr Sunshine’s camp. The spears were returned to their resting place in the “attic” of the structure. Afterwards, we swam in the river, fully clothed. I figured that I and my clothes needed a wash, so I cleaned both simultaneously.

As we climbed back into the canoe, I noticed the tracks of a rather large crocodile heading up into the forest only a hundred metres from where we had been swimming. They were fresh tracks, the crocodile was obviously still there.

Driving downriver was much faster than heading upstream, obviously due to the fast current. We dodged and glanced off logs, disturbing kingfishers, hornbills and a myriad of other birds on the way. We all waved at other canoes heading upriver with their cargoes of Kamoro, crops and farm animals. As we turned at the junction to head up the Iwaka River to the village, I waved at some people living in their wood-and-tarpaulin structure, cast nets strung up on the side and small children playing in the water. Looking up over the house I saw another bird of paradise, a Magnificent Riflebird. It flew on its rounded wings over the tree tops and out of sight. I am familiar with Riflebirds back in Australia, we have three species, including this one. In Australia this species is found in Cape York- where I had seen them in dense mangroves around Weipa.

Nelson enjoying another smoke

Eventually we found ourselves chugging up a small tributary and into the village itself. Without many words, we unloaded the canoe, putting all the baggage on a pile of timber. Rowan and I sat in the shade, the heat and humidity clinging to our clothes. The men were oddly straight-faced at the time. It was as if we had insulted them somehow, thankfully this was not the case, something else must have been catching their attention, and possibly the fact that Demianus was having trouble with the mobile phone he had been given to contact Jeffery for a lift back. Meanwhile, Titus sat down with a broad smile, inviting us to sit with him. In Indonesian, which I had no real grasp of at the time he spoke to us. The language barrier was frustrating to say the least, but we feel we understood what he was saying, well we hoped so, as he had to repeat himself many times! Titus told us that he was a grandfather, with a number of grandchildren. Several he introduced to us, but their names we could not remember


The crew. Me on the left, followed by Nelson, Titus, Moses, Rowan and Demianus

Jeffery’s car swerved around the corner and pulled up in front of us, three fluffy souvenir koalas swinging about from the inside of the windscreen. After many photos, we said our farewells to our Kamoro “family” then rattled and bumped our way back up the road to Timika. Demianus was with us, catching a lift back to his house. On the way, we passed many people, mostly Indonesians but also Papuans walking either to or from town. In the distance, a man was walking down the road in our direction.

Demianus commented “Amungme.”

Rowan and I were astonished. All Papuans looked similar to us, yet Demianus could tell who was who from quite a distance away. We found later on that although the various groups look similar to us, Papuans are very good at knowing who belongs to which group – at a glance. The Amungme are from the highlands, near the town of Tembagapura. They are coffee growers, and this man was carrying a massive burden of coffee beans on his back to sell them in the market. He must have walked for days.

Demianus’ house

We arrived there after half an hour or so. It was made out of planks and stood next to a bridge spanning a small river. A satellite dish pointed skywards while washing hung from various lines strung between the house and nearby trees. The side rails of the bridge were also covered in drying clothes. The roof of the house was constructed mostly of palm leaves, patched in places by blue tarpaulins. Our arrival drew a crowd. Kids flocked out to see us. Demianus called an older man out. Like many older men, he was built almost entirely of muscle it seemed. He was carrying a crude cage bent out of aviary mesh. Within it was a striped possum or Triok (Dactylopsila trivirgata.) He called it “Kuskus,” as is the standard in New Guinea for any possum-like creature. Such a cute, gentle looking creature with big, glassy brown eyes and long brown and white stripes, we did feel kind of sorry for it, not that its looks should influence that. He tapped the side of the cage and the possum reacted, screeching. We took some photos of it as both Rowan and I independently debated buying it for release.

The Striped Possum

We decided against it, as some Papuans have found out that there is a business for possum catch-and-release… It is custom in many areas, however to tip those that you photograph. Maybe it was the wrong thing to do, but searched and found I only had notes at ten thousand rupiah and above. Five thousand is the normal rate, about eighty Australian cents at the time of writing. I gave him a ten thousand rupiah note, which he refused at first, but was very grateful when I insisted. I just hope that he doesn’t get the idea to form some sort of dodgy zoo for passers-by to view. Then again, it seems almost nobody with white skin travels that road anyway.

 

Leaving the Kamoro and heading for the hills

We said goodbye to Demianus and thanked him very much. Kuala Kencana was our next stop. I noticed once more the gorgeous pink Spathoglottis orchids on the roadside. I asked Jeffrey to stop, and I got out and photographed them. He knew I liked photographing things, so he stopped the car further up the road and pointed out another Flame of Papua vine, its flowers spilling out over the road. I thanked him and leapt out and took some photos. Even in the dull light each flower shone bright. The muddy streams we crossed on the way to see the Kamoro were now gin clear, but still full of rubbish. Eventually we reached the guard post at the entrance to Kuala Kencana. Security demanded to see our identification, before letting us through. Local members of the military sat back, puffing on cigarettes in their mouths, half leaning on their assault rifles- probably half asleep too. Looking down at us were Kamoro carvings of the typical human type. Like the examples at the Sheraton which were also carved out of single logs, these were hollow and wonderfully carved. A couple of them had real-life Indonesians curled up inside them, obviously finding them a great place to rest and watch the world go by. About five minutes later we reached Kuala Kencana…

 

The big statues

Kuala Kencana was a stark contrast to every other place we had seen so far. Imagine the perfect American neighbourhood- I’m sure most of us have seen them on television at some stage or another. The perfect manicured lawns, paved road, neat houses side by side- each with a nice shiny new car in the carport etcetera. Well, imagine this type of suburb dropped right in the middle of a Papuan rainforest. We had already studied the place from satellite images. It looks like a giant flower- the petals being the streets full of houses. We proceeded to the medical centre in Jeffrey’s car. A storm was brewing- the air was hot and thick. Arriving at the entrance to the clinic, we were dropped off along with our gear where I met up with Jo, who was in her dentist’s uniform. She handed me a new suitcase- my old one had burst apart earlier in the trip. As I was packing it, another colleague came over to say hello. Also a dentist, he was of Indonesian origin, and had a warm, welcoming smile. His wife had made some banana bread, of which I was given a few pieces. Quite nice too, I had hardly eaten up until then.

I bumped into Rowan again, and we headed outside. Already, tiny spits of rain were appearing on the concrete. Kal was there, sitting on the steps. We greeted him once more.

How did you guys go out there?” he asked.

It was great!” Rowan and I replied.

I would be interested to see your pictures” remarked Kal.

I produced my camera and switched it on. Digital cameras really are fantastic; you can see exactly what you photographed without waiting for development. I flicked through photos of the Kamoro.

Show me something I have not seen” said Kal bluntly.

I eventually got to the lizards and insects from the forest. Kal showed some interest in these.

You probably have some new species there. That area is hardly explored. Nobody has put much work into the lizards of the area.”

The raindrops increasing in size and frequency forced me to put the camera away.

Jo emerged and asked Rowan and I if we were to be cycling to the golf course. We were both happy to. Jo gave us the keys to two bicycles in the rack in the carpark. Unlocking them, our gear went to Jeffrey (who also received a tip for driving us around) and we rode off. I tried to keep my Akubra hat on, but I was going too fast. I held it to my chest as the heavens opened and the rain came belting down. As Jo instructed, we took the second right hand turn and followed the road through the jungle to the golf course entrance. Kal, Jeffrey and Jo had already overtaken us and were waiting.

Southeast Asian Toad

The golf course was built with no expenses spared. The entrance was fully undercover with a walkway leading to the foyer. At each side of the walkway were two saucer-sized sandpits, each had the “Sheraton Hotels” logo stamped in the sand within. The foyer itself was roomy enough. To the right was a toilet block that must have cost a fortune. Each sink was a large copper bowl, the walls made of fossil-bearing rock. To the left was the bar and dining area. Right ahead was the course itself. Rowan and I walked out to the back with Jo and Kal, where there was a set of chairs and a view of the course. Rain was cascading from the roof with a roar by now. We sat back, each holding a Gin and Tonic and discussed the journey so far. A smoking hot bowl of peanuts arrived on the table. Normally I wouldn’t eat them, but I was hungry. My attention was distracted by a Southeast Asian Toad, which I quickly photographed, and the wing of a large moth which was lying on the pavement. A short while later we were off again. Jeffrey, who had been waiting in the foyer took Kal away, while we left the bicycles and took a lift back to the clinic in an ISOS (medical) vehicle.

While we waited for the ISOS car that was to take us to the highlands, I killed time by photographing the forest and Kamoro statues in the rain.

Eventually the car came and we loaded our gear into it. Markus, another Indonesian dentist, was to accompany us on this trip. Rowan had the front seat, with Jo, while I sat in the back with Markus. We headed off up the mining road. Jo told us it would be a pretty windy trip, as the road straddled a large ridge to Tembagapura. In the fading light we crossed over the Aijkwa River, carrying its load of grey tailings and soon arrived at Mile 50 checkpoint. The guards stepped out from the building and demanded our ID cards, which Jo had. They swiped them through a weatherproof computer, which made a loud “beep” each time a card was approved. Soon, all cards were checked and we started the climb. Rowan and I then got our cards to look after. The cards when swiped record the time. If a driver arrives at the Tembagapura checkpoint in less than 45 minutes, they are assumed to have sped, and get penalty points. There was no danger of speeding here, I thought. By now it was fully dark. The road swerved left and right. I lurched around in the back, riding sideways and confined with the luggage and the hot, steamy air. I have never been carsick, but the banana bread came very close to exiting the way it went in.

Soon enough we were at Tembagapura. The guards checked our ID again. We had climbed from less than 100m to around 3200m in less than 50 minutes!

A friend of Jo’s had offered us use of his apartment. Space is very limited here due to the extreme terrain, so just about everyone lives in apartments. We offloaded our equipment and wished the driver well. We were to be on the top floor- no easy walk with the gear all the way up by stairs!

When we unpacked, I stopped to have a look over town- not that much was visible. Tembagapura is in a cloud forest, most of the time there is a thick mist over town. I could see lights below pricking holes in the fog, but nothing in detail. It was cold and very damp, having no time to admire views we were due at the Lupa Lelah, or the “Loop” as the ex-pats call it. The walk there took only around five minutes. The Lupa Lelah is a restaurant where the executives, advisors and doctors eat. It was wonderfully set out with painted murals on the walls and large buffets in a corner. We sat down with some friends of Jo’s: Zed, an Australian ex-pat and his fiancé Unique. We ordered our meals and sat back to chat. While chatting to Zed, who had a razor-sharp sense of humour, a man in the background came to our attention. He looked like a waiter, with a cloth at the ready. He moved from table to table, smiling at the diners and asking questions, dripping with politeness and a slight lisp. He made his way towards us. Rowan and I simultaneously thought of the name “Hans” because when he came over and Jo introduced him as Hans, we both nearly choked on stifled laughter due to the coincidence of it all. Hans, as it turned out was from Switzerland and had moved to West Papua and become the manager of the Lupa Lelah. Despite his small stature and gentle, teddy-bear like manner- he proved himself to be a rather formidable restaurateur, as we discovered later.

Dinner went on well into the night- Rowan and Zed in particular got along very well. They spoke well into the night of investments, property and all sorts of other things that go right over my head. We were the last in the Lupa Lelah. The staff hinted that we should leave by turning lights off and shuffling about. Soon we were out. Zed offered us a lift around town for a look. It was nearly midnight as we drove the Landcruiser up and over the very steep, always wet gravel streets of Tembagapura. Soon it was time to get back for some rest.

So that was our meeting with the Kamoro. Stay tuned for more Papuan adventures.

4 comments on “An encounter with the Kamoro and the drive to the highlands

  1. Casque Beats Solo on said:

    Very great post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I have truly enjoyed surfing around your blog posts. After all I will be subscribing for your rss feed and I’m hoping you write once more very soon!

  2. Nathan on said:

    Thanks! I’m glad you enjoy it. I’m currently gathering more stories to share as well as spending lots of time in the Australian bushland. Remember we also have a facebook page…

  3. Andrew Pearson on said:

    I would be very grateful to get the email address of Jo the dentist who lives in Kuala Kencan so I could ask her questions about life there since I am at present looking into an opportunity with SOSInt. there. Please reply to my private email address.
    Thanks for the great blog.
    Andrew

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