To the top of Papua, and dinner with Kal
This story took place back in 2007 on a trip to West Papua, the Indonesian side of the great island of New Guinea. This part is the morning after going fishing in the lowlands with one of Freeport’s executives for Barramundi in the Aijkwa River. Rowan Brown is one of my best friends and Dr Jo is a dentist for the Freeport company that owns the massive gold and copper mine and had invited us on the journey into Papua…
Hours later I woke up on the lounge in the apartment. Rowan was again spread-eagled on the floor near the door. Soon we were all up and once again on our way to the Flamboyant for breakfast. It was around four AM. During breakfast, we met up with Andrew Fields, the young Geologist we had been introduced to a couple of nights before. Olivier and Michelle, the medical professionals from ISOS were also in attendance with our sponsor Mark Howland. The aim of this day was to go up to the real highlands, at over 4300m high. There was snow there, and we were to see it!
After breakfast yet long before sunrise, we piled into Andrew’s Landcruiser and drove towards the mine itself. Higher and higher we went in the dark until we reached the cable car terminal at the mill facility. The mill is below the open-cut mine. Ore is taken to the mill and the copper and gold is floated out. The slurry is then pumped down to the Portsite. Guided by the mill lights, we walked to the platform to wait for the cable car. We had been supplied with uniforms and helmets, I remarked to a rather tired and bothered looking Rowan that he looked like a Village Person. He was awake, but his sense of humour was still obviously not. I took photographs of the crowd that were waiting to go to work. Indonesians and Papuans stood side by side chatting about this and that under the orange lights shining down from above. Most of them had customised their helmets, many Indonesians had Islamic texts on their helmets, a few had Christian slogans. I only saw Christian writing on Papuan’s helmets, some had Virgin Mary stickers, or Bird of Paradise silhouettes. I saw a few “Jesus Saves” written on helmets as well. Every few minutes the cable car returned to collect another load of passengers. Andrew left to drive through the tunnel to meet us at the top. He did not have enough safety gear to drive us into the tunnel. Eventually, as the sun came up on an incredibly clear day, we managed to step onto the cable car. The glass doors closed behind us and the carriage began its diagonal journey into the sky. We climbed higher and higher, the mine getting smaller and smaller. Waterfalls all around plunged off the cliffs and created a tumbling stream below us- the head of the Aijkwa River. Soon we were seemingly floating in white, misty nothingness then well ahead, the terminal appeared. We bumped gently onto it and stepped out. Andrew was waiting for us. Mark, Michelle and Olivier went their own separate way while Rowan, Jo and I walked towards Andrew. The air was noticeably thinner here. I noticed I needed to muster up a little bit more strength to do anything. We jumped into the vehicle again and continued up. The trees, the few that existed were just clinging on. As we climbed higher, soon there were no trees- we were far too high.
We drove around the perimeter of the world’s largest gold and copper mine, centred around Grasberg- the mountain that held the rich deposits. Massive trucks drove back and forth, with massive loads of grey, mineral rich soil.
We headed to the top and got our first glimpse of the famous Meren Glacier, one of the Carstentz Glaciers of the Puncak Jaya Massif. It was a bizarre feeling, to be in the tropics looking at an ice-cap. Apparently once one glacier, in recent years it has split into three. Tim Flannery in Throwim Way Leg is pessimistic of the future of this glacier system. From here we had a first-class view of the massive open-cut mine in what seemed almost like a lunar landscape. Behind us, alpine tundra undulated into the distance, punctuated by plant-free, jagged limestone peaks. The sky was blue, a very rare treat indeed here. Andrew commented that we were around 4300m ASL. We drove further and parked the Landcruiser. We prepared the gear and left the mine uniforms behind. At first we saw loads of rubbish, then none at all. In fact, only a couple of hundred metres in we saw no trace whatsoever of humans. No tracks, nothing.
A black bird with orange legs, bill and eye-rings landed on a rock nearby, then flew up the side of a hill to join a friend. They looked like the English Blackbird, so familiar to those that live in Victoria, Australia- except bigger. Later I identified them as Island Thrushes (Turdus poliocephalus,) Jo commented:
“Those birds Tim Flannery mentioned in his book, I have seen in this area before. Keep an eye out for them.”
The bird she was discussing was in fact a Snow Mountain, or Archbold’s Robin (Petroica archboldii,) a bird that is common here, but only in the immediate area. It is classed as Critically Endangered. Overall, very few exist.
I was now feeling the effects of altitude stress. Being the tallest and heaviest in the group meant that oxygen didn’t get to where it needed to as quickly with me, besides living in a flat land like Australia means that I had never been at high altitude before. It was an effort to walk. I became dizzy and slow. Rowan and I let Jo and Andrew continue ahead once we entered a valley. Alpine grasses and mosses covered the ground. Snow lay in pockets. It was cold, very cold. Rowan and I kicked back on a freezing, spiky slab of limestone.
We explored the immediate area, climbed and sometimes walked over the sharp, cold limestone towards a piece jutting out over a sheer drop to a valley below. We both took a heap of photographs. Later we found out, according to Jo that we were among ten other white people to ever go down the track. And we were possibly the first people to ever look down upon that valley below from that point. Jo also mentioned that it would have been too cold and dangerous for Papuans wearing nothing at all to cross, so they possibly had never been on this track either. Tracks centuries old cross the mountains at a lower altitude.
The clouds came rolling in, and soon enough Jo and Andrew returned. We made our way back to the car. On the way, a small black bird with a red bib landed on a rock, soon joined by a friend. They largely ignored us, instead fighting among themselves to see who actually owned that particular rock. These were Archbold’s Robins. I grabbed the camera and snapped off as many photographs as I could before they flew off.
Eventually the open cut mine came into view and we descended back to where the Landcruiser was sitting. The uniforms had to go on again, and we drove back to the cable car. Andrew and Rowan drove through the tunnel, while Jo and I took the cable car back to the Mill. This time, the mist had set in, which meant no scenery. Andrew and Rowan eventually emerged from the tunnel and we made our way back to Tembagapura.
It was lunchtime. We made our way to the Lupa Lelah, and saw how formidable Hans really was. He had arranged, with utmost precision a feast. There were stations, each with a chef. Buffets had seafood, desserts, salads and massive assortments of meats. You could go to a chef and request an omelette or soup, the ingredients laid out in front of you. It would be made and delivered to your table. After a lunch like that, I vowed “Never again…” I was bursting at the seams ready to pop.
Later in the day, we had to prepare for our journey to Jayapura in the coming morning. I had lost my glasses in Gaffy’s car. I went to the supermarket to see if I may bump into him. I don’t know if it’s just me or if it’s strange to go past guards with machine guns and swipe an ID card just to enter a supermarket. I saw Colin doing his shopping, and had a quick chat. I asked if he had seen Gaffy. As he was about to answer, Gaffy walked in. He said he hadn’t seen my sunglasses, but let me have a look in the back of the car anyway. I found them, to my relief.
It was time to say goodbye to Colin and Gaffy. Both were champions, and had been extremely good to Rowan and I. I owe them my thanks.
We packed our gear, replaced used soap and other things in the apartment and boarded our transport back down to Timika. Rain had closed in and it was getting very dark. We had nearly reached the bottom of the windy road and a tyre blew out. Our Indonesian driver continued anyway. We stopped at the mile 50 guard post to change cars. It was bucketing down at this stage; I had to keep the computer and camera dry. We ended up in another Landcruiser. As we neared Timika lightning began, the flashes lighting up the jungle and illuminating the rain drops for a split second, followed by a tremendous roar. Fireflies somehow managed to dodge the drops hammering down around them.
We were to be staying in a small motel in Timika and meeting Kal for dinner. In fact, the motel was where Kal lived. With haste we opened the car and unloaded our gear in the motel. The aqua walls looked out of place with the grey concrete below.
A young Indonesian couple were looking after the motel. They led us up the concrete stairs, past flaking aqua walls, and to our room. Rowan and I were staying in the same room; Jo was over the other side of the hall. I heaved the gear into the room and had a look around. The Kamar kecil (toilet room) had a floor of bare concrete. The shutter-type windows had a marvellous view of the flooded, weed-filled gardens below where children played in the black muck and mothers walked through the water to the back steps. Hello malaria! The toilet itself was one of those squat-types. It was basically a pit raised slightly above the floor- the liquid contents normally sit 5cm below the lip of the plastic “turd catcher” as I nicknamed it. There was no flush, instead a plastic bucket with a ladle. Obviously somebody had forgotten to “flush” it last time as it was a dark yellow colour with a monster log floating in it. At least the masses of cockroaches were well-fed. A bit of water poured into it from the bucket soon broke it up and sent it on its way. Did I mention it had a powerful odour? The floor was perpetually wet, I’d like to think it was water. To shower, you used the toilet flush bucket, and let most of it drain into the hole in the floor. The rest drained into the main living quarters. A television decorated the wall above the sink in the main room. Decoration only- it showed no signs of life. The room only had one double bed, which Rowan was unpacking his gear onto.
“Only one bed, ay!” I said.
“Don’t try anything.” replied Rowan.
“Don’t worry; you’re too ugly for me anyway.” I answered.
“Boys, you ready to come and see Kal?” called Jo from outside.
We stepped into the hallway, locked the door and walked down the steps with Jo to Kal’s room in a dark corner on the other side of the motel. Outside the room was a shelf adorned with Papuan artefacts: drums with lizard skins, spears, paddles and all sorts of other carved objects. Kal invited us in.
“Welcome to my home!” he said warmly.
The room itself was tiny. One bed in the corner and a makeshift office with papers, books and artefacts everywhere- it was simple yet effective. We chatted with Kal about our journey so far. Gin and Tonics appeared in front of us in mugs. The topic soon turned to animals.
I asked: “Is there any information on frogs here? I have seen at least one familiar species here.”
“My friend Steve Richards was here recently. He is a biologist. Working on the other side of the river, he found twenty new species last trip. Here’s a picture of one he just found being eaten by a snake. As soon as he took the first picture, the snake appeared and took the frog, so he took this one. It’s a great picture.”
Kal handed me a printed picture of a Colubrid snake eating a frog rear-first. It was a tree frog of sorts by the look of it- a Hylid. The frog itself was like no other I had seen- skinny and heavily camouflaged. I guess it was imitating a leaf. On the end of the frog’s snout it had a bump- like a tiny nose. Possibly this added to the leaf-effect. Such camouflage is no match for a snake though- they will find the frog by smell.
“The other night I went for a look after you left the Sheraton. I did not leave the compound, because of the security risk. Would the guards let me out you think?” I asked.
Jo was about to interrupt, but Kal replied:
“I am sure you are able to go for a walk outside the compound, just let the guards know what you are doing. I’m sure it will be fine.”
We finished the drinks and Kal announced that it was time to go out for dinner. On the way out, Jo picked up an hourglass-shaped drum, with a handle on the side and a skin made of Mangrove Monitor (Varanus indicus.) Speaking about it, she said:
“It’s over fifteen years old, Rowan. This is near identical to the drum I bought you for your 21st. It’s a proper ceremonial drum used for initiations. There’s human blood in the seal for the skin. Custom’s won’t budge on it. Perhaps we will have to find a way to get yours out of customs. They won’t let them in because the skin is from a Mangrove Monitor, which is common here but protected in Australia under the CITES treaty. Maybe we can cover the monitor skin with goat skin and remove it later” she joked.
BOOM BADA BOOM… came the deep bass notes as she gave the drum a few sharp taps.
“The sound is fantastic. You can tighten the drum by heating this wax here (pointing at a blob of grey stuff in the middle of the skin.) I think I’ll buy this one from Kal.”
“I know this great little restaurant near here. You will like it, I think.” Kal then called Jeffrey on his mobile phone.
Leaving the motel, we made our way a few blocks down to a small eatery in Jeffrey’s car. Out the front, a man leaned against the aqua walls enjoying a smoke.
Lit by humming fluorescent lights, the restaurant was also painted aqua inside. A long table had been set out for us; a couple were enjoying a meal at their own table. We all sat down at the table. Rowan, Jo and I were all sitting on one side, while Jeffrey, Kal and Jeffrey’s son sat opposite us.
Kal proclaimed “The Indonesians like their food hot. Don’t worry, I have told them to tone it down a little. I know you are not used to it. I think it is a macho thing; they think the hotter the food you can handle, the more of a man you are.”
Shortly after, a steaming plate of fish arrived, baked whole, eyes and all. I had a look through them:
“Rowan, this is a Tilapia. We have them in Australia. They were introduced here, too. I am told they are pretty good eating for a freshwater fish. This other one here appears to be a lutjanid of sorts.”
“It looks like a Mangrove Jack or something” he replied.
“Yes, it could be- but there are loads of fish from that group in this area, you never know, ‘specially the way they’ve been cooked.”
Salad, rice and noodles soon made their way to the table. We loaded our plates. I had to try the Tilapia. It was actually quite an acceptable fish on the plate. In Australia, these fish were introduced by accident through aquarium releases. They are a very serious threat to Australian waterways in the tropics especially. At least, unlike the Cane Toad, they are edible.
“That rice there looks hot…” said Rowan.
“I’ll give it a go anyway” I said.
With eyes watering and throat choking up, I made it through my first mouthful. I don’t know how I finished the rest.
“This is hot, Kal!” I exclaimed between coughs.
“No, it’s not hot compared to what they normally eat here! It’s mild!”
“They must normally season their food with pepper-spray…riot strength.” I thought to myself.
The cook/waiter laid a bowl of brown meat down on the table.
“That one, it will be hot.” Kal advised.
Rowan and I took a few pieces each. The meat was rubbery, but I cannot describe the taste, as it was like eating that crowd-controlling pepper spray.
Struggling to breathe, Rowan asked: “What…(gasp)…is…this?”
“Anjing. Dog.” was the abrupt reply from Kal between mouthfuls of whatever was on his plate, obviously expecting more of a reaction.
Had it not been searing with chilli sauce, and goodness-knows-what, I’m sure we would have finished it. By now, nature was calling- urgently. This was the moment I was not looking forward to. I enquired from Kal where the kamar kecil may be found, and he pointed down the hallway. I walked past the chef watching Indonesian television on the screen high up the wall, and into the toilet room. I was greeted with another one of those concrete standard-issue Timika toilets with the wet floor, and un-flushed turd catcher filled with a football-team’s worth of urine. I tipped the bucket of water down the hole to clear it, contemplating the unthinkable consequences of “splash-back.” Looking for paper afterwards, I remembered we were politically in Asia- paper is not used- you use the water in that versatile, red plastic bucket there, scooping it up with the ladle. The left hand is for splashing oneself with that water. Not sure whether I was relieved or not, I made my way back to everyone at the table that had now finished their meals and were getting ready for the fruity dessert that was on its way. The only thing not laced with things unknown was the dessert, a pleasant mixture of fruits and other bits and pieces, including the bizarre Snake fruit.
Stuffed full, and safe in the knowledge that the meal I had just consumed would burn at least one more time in the future, we said “Terimah kasih” to the chef and left for the motel.
Arriving at the room, Rowan and I continued packing the goods. The plan was to take a backpack only to Wamena, and leave the rest of the things at the Sheraton. My computer and most of my fishing gear went to the big bag that was to end up staying, and I packed a handful of lures and one small rod.
“I hear there are trout there.” I said to Rowan.
“Well, take some gear and catch them then.”
As I finished packing, I asked a half asleep Rowan:
“I really want to catch one of those Gapu that Gaffy told us about, you know those Snakehead things that were released into the swamps. They’re meant to fight a bit. You coming to catch them tomorrow?”
A mumbled sound came out of Rowan’s mouth in reply: “Meeememph….” He went unusually silent.
Rowan made no further sound as I finished packing and turned off the light. I then remembered the dilemma at hand- one bed. Looking around for another alternative was unsuccessful. I could sleep in the cesspit- I mean bathroom or I could sleep on the floor and be licked through the course of the night by run-off from it. Neither sounded acceptable, so I slept in the corner of the bed.