Stilted houses on Lake Sentani, Jayapura, West Papua

Paniai Lakes (Wissel Lakes)

The Paniai Lakes lie in a natural depression between the Weyland and Sudirman ranges in the central highlands of Papua province. Comprising of three separate lakes, from largest to smallest, Paniai, Tigi and Tage, the lakes cover a combined area in excess of 150km2.

Despite their large size, the lakes lay undiscovered until late 1936 when a Dutch nave pilot named Wissel, just weeks after becoming the first man to climb Carstensz Pyramid, spotted them during an aerial survey flight. He noted villages and canoes on the water. He was the first to establish that this mountainous region of Papua was inhabited.

The Dutch administration quickly dispatched a ground expedition to the area who identified the thriving indigenous societies around the lakes shores as Ekagi, also called Me peoples. As well as fishing for the endemic Paniai gudgeon and abundant crayfish, the Mee were subsistence farmers growing a range of crops such as sweet potato, yams and taro.

Like many of the highland tribes, the modern world has slowly encroached on the Mee’s traditional way of life and although the villagers still maintain very simple subsistence lifestyles, visitors shouldn’t come with the expectation of seeing thatched huts and traditionally clad tribes people. Where previously the Mee took only what they needed, these days many of the Me are engaged in commercial fishing of the native crayfish and introduced non-native fish species such as the common carp and tilapia.

So far the the lakes have withstood the increases human pressure quite well although there are reports of declining fish stocks and increased sedimentation. Nonetheless, the lakes remain stunningly beautiful and visitors will be struck but the fresh mountain environment and the peaceful lakes setting. As well as fishing on the lake, there are endless trekking opportunities around the lake and into the surrounding hills.

Access to the Paniai Lakes is via the small city of Enarotali which is perched on the southern shore of Danau Paniai. Established in 1938 by the then acting governor of Dutch New Guinea, Enarotali was the only significant inland settlement established by the colonial government and remains an important regional centre for the central highlands.

The city has a basic hotel and guesthouse accommodation and local style restaurants. Local guides and motorised boats for sightseeing or fishing can be easily arranged. If you’re planning on trekking your guide should be able to arrange accommodation in a villager’s house but it’s a good idea to take a tent as a back-up. You can purchase basic food supplies from Enarotali before setting out and be sure to have plenty of warm clothing as overnight temperatures can be very chilly.

Currently, there are no scheduled passenger flights into Enarotali but Susi Air runs on-demand perintis flights or you can talk to them about chartering a flight which sounds expensive but can be surprisingly affordable if you can get a group together and split the costs.

Via Enarotali
North, West Papua
1-2 days
Get there
Private car or charter flight
Need to know
Be self sufficient if trekking

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