Dani tribe village in Baliem Valley, West Papua

Baliem Valley Central Highlands

The island of New Guinea is dissected by a series of east-west running ranges which contain more than 50 peaks over 3,750m high; the highest peaks in Australasia. 36 of Indonesia’s 37 highest mountains are all contained in the Maoke Mountain range in West Papua, including Puncak Jaya (Carstensz Pyramid) which at 4,884m high is Indonesia’s highest peak. The range creates a high level of rainfall which feeds fast flowing rivers, montane forests, alpine grasslands and dense tropical rainforests which cloak the lower slopes.

Baliem River sweeping through the "Grand Valley," West PapuaFor over 40,000 years the mountain sides and in the valleys have been inhabited by scattered highland tribes. Even today, those communities remain largely intact and represent some of the oldest living tribal cultures in the world. It is still possible to find village elders who recall the arrival of the first white man to their village.

It goes without saying that a journey into the highlands of West Papua will leave you with some unforgettable and sometimes jaw-dropping memories. And the best part is, it’s all relatively accessible.

For the vast majority of tourists, the town of Wamena in the Baliem Valley is the gateway to the central highlands and the starting point for most independent trekking or organised tours. The town can be reached several times via daily flights from Sentani, has reasonably good facilities and easy access to the surrounding villages; all of which are nestled in the gorgeous Baliem Valley.

Traditional thatched huts, West Papua, IndonesiaLying at an elevation of 1,600m, the valley is formed by the Baliem River which sweeps downs from the 4,750m high Mount Trikora in the south, then meanders through the massive valley before spilling into the Arafura Sea. The fertile river plains encapsulated in this so-called “Grand Valley” are home to a tranche of the Dani tribes people, who lived for centuries in splendid isolation in Papua’s central highlands until first contact was made with western tribes in the late 1920’s by Dutch explorers. The Grand Valley Dani weren’t discovered until 1938 when an American zoologist and philanthropist flew over the valley in 1938 and spotted the thatched huts and extensive, terraced gardens where the tribes grew root crops such as sweet potato, yams and cassava and raised pigs, a highly prized commodity that measured a man’s wealth and status.

Baliem Kilise village, West Papua, Indonesia

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To defend their valley from hostile tribes, the Dani erected lookout towers, established outposts and fenced their villages but unlike some of the more ferocious Papua tribes, their warfaring was limited to defence and small-scale ritualistic assaults. Battles focused more on insulting the enemy, inflicting non-fatal injuries and making occasional token kills rather than plundering enemy villages or claiming new territory. It’s a trait that earned the Dani their reputation as “gentle warriors.”

Baliem ceremony, West Papua, Indonesia

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Despite their fairly “recent” discovery, don’t expect to find a culture stuck in the Stone Age. Most of the population still live in traditional thatched huts and continue their subsistence farming lifestyle but with the exception of a few older Dani, penis gourds (kotekas) and grass skirts have been traded in for western style clothing and most villages are linked by roads and public buses. Nonetheless, visiting the Baliem Valley tribes offers a fascinating and rare glimpse into an eons old way of life and stunning highlands scenery.

After arriving in town and checking into your accommodation you should check in with the local police to obtain your travel permit. You will no doubt be accosted by local touts offering act as guides, arrange cars, show you to your hotel, set-up exclusive trips to never before visited tribes and so on. The latter is a myth and as for the rest of it, you’re better off arranging transport and whatever else you need through your hotel.

Trekking

Trekking in the Baliem Valley, West Papua, IndonesiaThe Baliem Valley is a haven for trekkers and a great place to kick off your highland trekking adventures. The villages in the valley are all well connected by roads or village trails that are rarely lonely given their frequent use by locals so it’s almost impossible to get lost. The locals are friendly and will always point you in the right direction. It is quite possible to trek the full 72km length of the valley or beyond; eastward into Yalimo and Mek territory, westward into Lani country or south to the Korowai tree house tribe, if you happen to have a month to spare.

There are so many trekking options it’s impossible to list them all here. The information below should give you a start then jump online and have a look at some of the itineraries the tour companies are offering. Due to the lack of interregional roads, most treks will be circuitous, meaning you’ll have walk back to your starting destination, by either the same or an alternative route. The only real way of avoiding this is by chartering a small plane to either fly you out to or collect you from one of the small grassed village airstrips.

Yali tribe, West Papua, Indonesia

Photo © Kationnok

Two of the most recommended treks head eastwards into Yali country where you’ll some of best preserved traditional culture and spectacular scenery. The most direct route is heading due east from Wamena to Pronggoli, but it’s a hard three day slog and you’ll need to camp out along the way. From Pronggoli it takes another full day to reach the small village of Angguruk, once the main missionary outpost for the entire Yalimo district, despite several of the first missionaries who arrived in the late 1960’s being murdered and supposedly eaten by the cannibal tribesmen. Fortunately they’ve given that particular custom away and visitors are quite welcome these days. The villagers have even set-up a small, very basic guest house. The village is very traditional with thatched huts but the highlight is the local market which is one of the few places in the central highlands where you can still see large numbers of people in traditional dress.

An easier but longer route to Angguruk starts from Kurima about 22km south of Wamena and heads west through Tangma then loops south via Wet and Soba Ninia before veering north to Angguruk, the entire trek taking about 7 days. A slightly shorter 6 day route heads due east from Kurima through Kosarek, Serkasi, Telambela Membahan, Helariki then Angguruk. You can generally rely on a villager hut or a teachers house for somewhere to stay on either of these two routes.

Yali village, West Papua, Indonesia

Photo © Mujiono Leo

If you’ve still got the energy once you’ve arrived Angguruk, you can use the village as a base to hike to the surrounding villages of Panggele, Psekni, Tulukima and Tenggil.

If you’re trekking out and back from Wamena each day, a guide really isn’t necessary. Arguably you don’t need one at all but for longer overnight treks it’s not a bad option as a good guide will generally arrange village accommodation, cook or arrange meals for you and be a porter too. Keep in mind too that unless you speak Bahasa Indonesia, an English speaking guide acting as your interpreter will go a long way to enriching your experience. Expect to pay around 150.000Rp per day for a guide but don’t make any upfront payments; instead pay your guide at the end of each days trekking. You should also pay for accommodation (around 100.000Rp for a night in a honai) and meals directly to the provider.

Yali tribesman, West Papua, Indonesia

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The key to a successful multi-day or multi-week trek is finding a good guide and that isn’t always easy. We recommend you include at least 2-3 full days in Wamena before embarking on a trek to give yourself plenty of time to find a guide you’re confident in and comfortable with. Start by asking your hotel for recommendations and any returning trekkers you might meet. Set aside some time to interview a few guides then when you’ve made your initial selection, engage them on one or two day trips from Wamena. You should have a good idea by then if the guide is someone you’d be happy to engage for a longer trekking expedition but don’t be afraid to go back to start again if you’re not. Agree on a daily fee payable at the end of each day so if you decide to part ways you’re not out of pocket. Also on longer distance trips, you may have to engage a new local guide part way through your trek if your original guide is unfamiliar with the new territory.

You need to be well prepared for trekking in these parts. At the high elevation it can get very cold at night so warm clothing and a good sleeping back are a must. Whilst you can generally purchase your meals from local villagers you should carry some food provisions of your own just in case. Also in remote villages bottled water will be hard to come by and expensive so you should have some means of sterilising drinking and cooking water such as water purification tablets or a filter either of which can be purchased from most good camping stores or online before you leave home.

If you prefer to have everything organised for you, there is a plethora of tour and trekking companies offering standard and personalised tours throughout the highlands, many of which can be found online. Shop around and don’t be afraid to haggle, even online, as prices tend to range from high to ridiculously high.

Mummies

Dani tribesperson holding mummified remains of a Dani warriorA morbidly curious traditional Dani custom is the practise of mummifying important tribesmen such as an elder, a chief or a great warrior. To the Dani, the mummified corpse represents a tangible link to their past, their ancestors and the spirits. The process of mummification begins by draining the body of blood, then hanging the body above a smoking fire in a special hut for around two years. Once the mummification process is a complete, a huge feast is held to celebrate.

In the Baliem Valley, there are three mummies that villagers will happily bring out to show tourists. Aikima Village, 10kms northeast of Wamena has a 350 year old mummy and Jiwika Village, 10km past Aikima has a 300 year old mummy. Pumo Village 22km northwest of Wamena in Asologaima district has 250 year old mummy. All three villages can be accessed by road and public buses.

Caves (Gua Kotilola & Gua Wikuda)

The Balium Valley has over 50 recorded caves scattered through the rocky hills flanking the valley, many of which can be found in the hills to the east of the Jiwika – Wosilimo (Wosi) road. The most notable of these is Gua Kotilola located just 5km north of Jiwika. The entrance to the large cavern is found inside a ring of limestone outcrops crowning the top of a small hill so one almost has the sense of entering a secret garden. The cavern was once the burial place for Dani warriors from the nearby village and although the bones are off-limits to tourists, the walls are adorned with thousand year old cave paintings and is an interesting natural formation so it’s worth stopping in for a look if you’re in the area.

Closer to Wosilimo, Gua Wikuda is believed to stretch back into the hillside for nearly a kilometre and has an underground river that according to local legend, flows all the way to Lake Anegerak about 4kms southwest of Wosilimo. It’s possible to trace the first few hundred metres of the cave which has a few stalagmites and tights but you’ll need a good torch and a local guide to accompany you. Admission fees for each cave range between 10.000-30.000Rper person.

Jiwika Salt Spring

Extracting salt from the Jiwika Salt Spring

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Located about a 1 hour hike east of Jiwika lies a small cluster of naturally occuring salt springs that have provided the Dani with a valuable source of salt for centuries. Dani women use absorbant banana stems to soak up the briny water then transport them back to the village the salt is extracted through a process of drying and burning the fibres. It’s a fascinating process to witness which for a small charge the tribes women from Jiwika will happily demonstrate on request.

Lake Habbema

Located on a plateau at 3,200m above sea level in the shadow of the snow capped peaks of Mount Trikora, the alpine scenery around Lake Habbema is stunning. The montane forests are pristine and renowned among birdwatchers for the astounding variety of avian species including the New Guinea Thornbill, Archbold’s Bowerbird, tiger parrots, snow quails and endemics such as the Orange-cheeked Honeyeater, Snow Mountains Robin and Black-breasted Munia.

Lake Habbema is located about due west of Wamena and can be accessed via 80km, 2.5hr drive. Although it can be done as a day trip from Wamena, it’s best to camp at the lake overnight to give yourself plenty of time to enjoy it. Make sure you have plenty of warm kit though as it can get exceptionally cold there; so much so the lake has been known to ice over.

Local Markets

As the central hub for the scattered Belium Valley communities, Wamena has a vibrant local market scene which is an absolute must see whilst you’re in town.

Wamena’s central market Pasar Nayak is a fascinating, colourful mix of the old and new. Flanked by Indonesian owned shops selling imported electronics, clothing, hardware and food stuffs, the local villagers squat among an astounding array of fresh produce that they have brought from their village gardens to swap and sell. Although it is becoming less common, it is still not unusual to see penis gourd and bear breasted grass skirt wearing tribes people walking around the crowded market.

Pasar Jibama (also called Pasar Baru “new market”) is located on the northern outskirts of Wamena about 2km or 15min rickshaw “baichac” ride from town. Jibama is Wamena’s largest market and is still quite traditional with emphasis on natural produce such as fruit, vegetables, tobacco, panda nuts, fish, pork and bush food such as cuc cus. If you’re looking for a genuine souvenir, it’s a good place to pick up handcrafts such as shields, bows and arrows, traditional headwear, carvings, woven dillybags and even penis gourds.

These two markets are the easiest to reach and the biggest in the Baliem Valley but there are other smaller markets in Wamena and around the valley so you’ll likely stumble across more during your explorations, particularly with the help of a good local guide.


Location
Wamena in the Baliem Valley
Region
Central West Papua, Indonesia
Allow
3-7 days
Get there
Daily flights from Sentani
Need to know
Permits are required. Take plenty of warm clothes if hiking as temperatures can be close to freezing at higher altitudes.

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