Having spent so many years travelling through Papua New Guinea, the west side of the island of New Guinea, had until now eluded me. Finally it was time to explore the west side of this amazing island. The island is divided roughly in half, the east together with the Bismarck Archipelago and the North Solomons make up the independent nation of Papua New Guinea, whilst the west is home to two Indonesian provinces. Papua and West Papua. The central division, dating back to European Colonial times when the Dutch and the British were demarcating their possessions. The western half of the island of New Guinea being of strategic importance as a buffer zone to the Dutch and their ever important spice trade back in the day, saw the first European attempts to colonise the land (and the people). These attempts were not that successful. And really it wasn’t until Suharto’s Indonesia and it’s dealing in gold mine permits that there was really ever any serious development in the western portion of New Guinea.
a Topographic map of western New Guinea, also showing the worlds largest gold deposit in purple behind the town of Timika
The naming of the western half is as controversial as the politics behind it. During the early colonial times it was simply known as Dutch New Guinea. After WWII with the independence of the former Dutch East Indies and the formation of Indonesia, the Dutch held onto the mineral rich western New Guinea and had plans to give it independence under the name of West Papua. Then the Indonesians invaded and the UN ruled a plebiscite on independence be held, the results of which we know through modern freedom of information documents was totally rigged in the Indonesians favour, with tacit approval by the US government of the day. Indonesia named the region, which the rigged election had “confirmed” as part of Indonesia, West Irian or Irian Barat in Bahasa Indonesian, until the take over of power by Suharto when he renamed the region Irian Jaya – or Glorious Irian. The Melanesian-Papuan people of the island had no such word as Irian and resented being generically called Irianese. The name “Glorious Irian” was seen as a slap in the face by many ethnic Papuans, who along with mining rights being given away offshore and Suharto’s mass transmigration program bringing in literally tens of thousands of non-Papuans from else where in Indonesia, formed rebel groups and violently opposed their absorption into modern Indonesia and fought to keep their Melanesian-Papuan identity.
the Morning Star flag now symbolises the struggle of the Papuan people of western New Guinea. Originally allocated by the Dutch as the flag for independent West Papua prior to the Indonesian invasion, today it is illegal to display he flag inside Indonesia.
former President Suharto whose famous trans-migration program and development of gold leases in the western half of New Guinea invariably led to the resistance and independence movements amongst the Papuan people which still exist today
With the fall of Suharto in the late 90’s, a period of change began in Indonesia and many more concessions were given to the inhabitants of Irian Jaya. Again the name changed, as part of the conciliatory process, and the province became known as Papua, to acknowledge and recognise the cultural identity of the indigenous people. The name change was accompanied by many more concessions aiming at more autonomy for the people of western New Guinea. Then in a sudden move the Indonesians decided to split Papua into three Provinces; Papua, Central Irian Jaya and West Irian Jaya. As the first, West Irian Jaya was established, the move was argued in court and in the houses of government. The recent granting of autonomy did not allow the government to then split the province. The split was ruled illegal under Indonesian law. But in the mean time West Irian Jaya province had already been set up! So the next ruling allowed West Irian Jaya to remain alongside the existing Papua province. In a further concession to the Papuan peoples, West Irian Jaya became West Papua province in 2007, a very significant move considering the political connection to that exact name.
A pre-2007 map showing the divisions of the island of New Guinea. Post-2007 West Irian Jaya became known as West Papua
So that brings us to now and I am off to visit the remote Asmat region around the township of Agats (which can be seen on the topo-map above). I was first to fly from Makassar to Jayapura on the Papua New Guinea border, just west of the Sepik River, and then down to the south coast township of Timika, the gateway to the legendary Freeport mine, the world’s largest gold deposit that Suharto had handed over to American interests shortly after taking power from Sukarno. Timika is also known as one of the centres of violence and protest surrounding the struggle of the Papuan people against alleged Indonesian oppression. From Timika I would take a local boat on a 12 hour journey to Agats, overnighting at a fishing village, and then spend several days setting up some business in the Asmat region before returning along the same path.
Arriving in Timika I was met by my local guide, a Florinese man who ran a tour company out of Jayapura. he was going to be my guide and interpreter in setting up the things I needed to set up around Agats and Asmat. After only being on the ground in Timika long enough to stock up on food and water, we were in the boat and underway to Agats.
A Hunter pauses and scans his horizons in the hunt for his dinner outside of Timika on the river bank
Transiting the river out of Timika
The river journey out of Timika was uneventful, yet scenic. As we headed out to sea the plan was to spend the night on a small island at a fishing village, so as to not to risk travelling and navigating in the shallow waters in the dark. Now I have been travelling in remote areas for a long time in many parts of the world especially Indonesia, and something was not right here. The guide, it appeared to me was a spiv, a con, bluffing his way through the journey without really knowing where we were going and what we were doing. This became fully apparent when just on sunset we arrived at the fishing village we were supposed to stay at, except there was no fishing village. My Bahasa Indonesian was good enough to ascertain the village had not been at that location for more than 5 years and it turns out iot was probably 8 years since this guide had actually been in the area we were traversing…..No problem, I can just use the Florinese spiv for a translator when needed,I didn’t really need a guide. And as for the missing fishing village, I suppose as long as it doesn’t rain, sleeping on the beach would suffice (as a huge clap of thunder rolls across the horizon accompanied by significant lightning…..). As the rain poured down, six of us attempted to shelter and sleep under a tiny sheet of plastic….it didn’t really work. By sunrise I and everything with us including my passport, camera, computer etc etc were totally soaked through! Note to self: never use this operator again! But no time to dwell on that stuff, we need to keep on sailing to the Asmat region, made famous by the mysterious disappearance of Michael Rockefeller in the late 1960’s, believed eaten by the cannibalistic Asmat people.
the overnight "camp" site in the rain
A few hours later, without the rain pausing for even a second, we arrived in Agats. Despite transiting briefly through Jayapura and Timika in the preceding days, this was really my first taste of Indonesian New Guinea, and the first thing that struck me was the incredible infrastructure in place in the town of Agats. Compared to equally as swampy areas in the east in Papua New Guinea there is nothing like this. The entire town is built up above the mud with boardwalks and platforms, there were schools, hospitals, port facilities, all kinds of things, in modern buildings. It turns out there is not even any mosquitoes and therefore3 any malaria. I think of my friends across the border in Watam Village near the Sepik River, a very similar geographic location. They would kill for half of this infrastructure and support that exists here.
the infrastructure of schools and other services was surprising, and far exceeded anything one would expect in the east in Papua New Guinea
Just beside Agats township, like an outer suburb, connected by boardwalks, is the village of Syuru. Syuru was one of the villages where I had to attend to some business. Arriving in the village, I was escorted to the men’s house, or long house, where the deals would be done. After this I was treated to a display of war canoes out the front of the village. The hypnotic chanting of the warriros standing upright in their canoes simply added to the whole event.
Syuru Village war canoes
Syuru Vilage Men's House in Action
Several weeks later, when we brought in the first group of travellers, the canoe event was repeated with many many more canoes. The original event hosted for me was tiny in comparison. Dozens and dozens of canoes woith a hundred warriors or more turned up for the later event, showing that my initial trip was worth while in the first place. On this later visit we also witnessed the launching of two large war canoes in a significant traditional ceremony.
But as far as this initial visit went, there were several more days left, I was yet to visit Owus village and the return transit and stop over in Timika were yet to come….
TO BE CONTINUED HERE…….