The police spent too much time caressing their pistols and fingering their decorative
knives. My Australian innocence is unnerved.
It was my first time in Jayapura and already, five minutes after landing, I find the
Indonesian military presence oppressive. In the main square I copied the inscription on
the euphemistically titled Independence plaque and three policemen ordered me
away, their hands hovering over the weapons for emphasis.
Two Australian governments, one Liberal, one Labor, made possible the Indonesian
occupation of Western Papua and I was hoping to find out why they all thought it
My first visa application describing myself as a writer had failed, my second, more
like my father than me, and lodged in Port Moresby, had proved successful. I am shameless.
Most writers are. Graham Sheil, the
writer I was travelling with, described himself as an optical supplies importer, which he
is. He had no trouble with his visa. Neither of us had a camera but both carried pen and
paper. For the writer everything
becomes meat sandwiched between the pages of an unwritten novel. The Indonesians were
right, they shouldnt have let me in.
From the air Jayapura looks like an estuarine jewel but leaving the airport the roads
are a tangle of jimnies and motor bikes, the air sharp with exhaust fumes and the ground
level view of the lake makes the heartplummet. The jewel has been used as a sewer and
great skeins of algal blooms slop at the shore. Paradise has become septic in a handful of
years and nobody denies the vandals right to call it progress.
Im a bush Australian and the worst eight years of my life were spent in the
Melbourne suburb of Fawkner. I thought the estate was a tragic wasteland, but twelve hours
in Jayapura and Im a nervous wreck. Ive
never seen so many people, so much poverty and ugliness. I lock down, waiting for the
hours to dribble away so I can leave the city to fly to the Baliem Valley. I hate
Indonesia and I do it with the complete arrogance
of half a days exposure. They shouldnt have let me in until Id grown up.
Finally in the high country there are horizons to ease the antipodean soul. We leave
the market town of Wamena and cross the Baliem River in dugout canoes. The vegetable
gardens are palisaded and erupting
with growth, the people, naked but for grass skirts, quietly industrious. They dont
look like militant rebels.
It is the most peaceful and idyllic field of agriculture Ive ever seen. Such
grace and silence. Ive farmed and thought myself in tune with the land, but compared
to these people I would seem like an idiot beating a
petrol drum with a spade. Chaos with a tractor.
Two men were cutting trenches with spatula bladed poles and in the next field two women
hoed between sweet potato vines. Each garden has gourds, yam and orchids trailing over the
palisades, pigs and chickens
cooped in neat yards. The snuffle of pigs and the musings of scratching hens intrude
gradually like a trance.
We cross a stile between gardens and come to another river where two men in a log canoe
are casting a shimmering net across the water. The path leading away from the river is
bordered with berry vines and coffee beans. The casuarina groves are hushed and lead to a
village compound where pigs scrounge contentedly and men and women play with their placid
children. The forest surrounding them is quiet, still, calm and the life there seems easy
and good, elegant with an unobtrusive grace.
We slept in the mens hut which had a domed mezzanine below the conical thatch.
The walls of the building are pit pit matting and all movement is attended by a tiny
susurration like a whisper in church. In the room below a fire is made on a clay hearth to
produce warmth and the smoke crucial in keeping the mosquitoes at bay.
When I wake in the morning, shamed by my inability to move with the Papuans
elegance, I worry about urinating in paradise. The domes of the warm wet rooves steam
softly and no sharp sound is heard in the
entire valley. It seems unearthly until you realise that this is one of the destinies
available to mankind. The quiet dignified one.
The next night a boy asked me to visit his familys house. Beneath the thatched
roof a family of almost thirty people lived. Pigs grunted in their private pen, hens
squabbled somewhere in the gloom.
We squatted by a low fire where roasting sweet potatoes were rotated constantly. I felt
something near my foot and peering down realised a tiny baby was sleeping curled on a
grass mat. How could they bear to
trust such a clumsy brute with his legs so close to the child?
I was never so close to family, to the great extended family that shared that
longhouse. It is said they have hookworm and that the constant smoke gives them bronchial
troubles but the feeling of peace and love
in that room was a massive shock to my understanding of how life might be lived. I began
to scrutinize their life, looking for the flaw, an indication that they were no more
civilised than their colonisers.
They have cultivated yam and taro and other vegetables for thousands of years and their
complex social and agricultural organisation was unknown to the Dutch colonisers until an
Australian pilot stumbled on the highland valley sixty years ago. How could they have
arrived at this complicated social and agricultural development without recourse to Asian
and European expertise? Accepted history ridicules the possibility.
And why had the sophistication of the Papuan people reached its zenith with the Lani
culture in this remote highland fortress?
The Papuans feel the mountain cold and clasp the arms diagonally across their chests to
trap their body warmth. It is a distinctive pose and probably crucial to the successful
occupation of these high mountain valleys and partly explains their relative freedom from
Indonesian interference as the colonists cannot abide the cold.
An interesting perspective on the cultural dynamics operating during both periods of
colonisation is provided by John, a Dutch Indonesian, who has represented his province in
the Indonesian parliament, served in the army and now runs a tourist enterprise. He has
sympathy for the Papuans and employs them in his business with the result that he is
continually harassed by Indonesian bureaucracies who resent the employment of
savages before the transmigrees they brought to the island to reduce poverty
and crime on other islands. Although handling over-population in Java and Flores is one of
the purposes of the aims it also serves todestabilise and fragment Papuan culture.
The Indonesians refer to the people as Dani but it is a word with a hint of derision.
The real name is Lani but as we travel further we pass Mek and Yali villages, but
its a difference too subtle for the Indonesians who see the culture as an aberration
of evolution. My country views its conquered indigenous people in the same light. Not so
much defeated armies as misplaced apes.
On the second night we stay in a low thatched hut which doubled as a church but the
walk was so taxing and the packs so heavy that I collapsed on the cane floor and noticed
very little else. The next 12morning kids followed us laughing and trilling. They sang a
beautiful song which rises and falls across the scale and has a breathy oo as
a counterpoint, a deep wood wind resonance which in the gorgeousness of the valleys has a
The Papuan voice is both lyric and gentle, the softness humbling to an Australian
stunned by the hard, unyielding timbre of his own accent. People who meet you on the track
take your hand and arm in a soft embrace and breathe the greeting of wa. The
inflection of the word draws their face into the sweetest smile. The women say la
ook as they hold your hand and the smile and softness of voice can make your knees
buckle. To sit in a hut with these people exchanging news of the day is a gorgeous melody
of sweet voices and smiles. My idea of humanitys progress was vastly altered by
exposure to such gentle solicitude.
The wars of the Baliem Valley have been well documented but the emphasis by Europeans
seems always on the weapons and the casualties without fully explaining that they are
mostly what we would call piss and wind, a display of shimmering feathers and the flourish
of ritual weapons.
When we stumble into the next village to the accompaniment of voice, flute and guitar
we feel like Roman centurions but are too exhausted to maintain sufficient pomp and
instead accept the invitation to swim in the dam with the kids. For a while there is
decorous swimming and polite paddling of log rafts but there is
a sense of abatement in the children which they cannot maintain and soon there is mayhem
as kids are doing ballistic bombies and honeypots from the top of the bank and we reply
with the most grotesque bellywhackers we can contrive. These are met with hysterical
approbation. Centurions and cannibals at play!
That night a pig is cooked in a hangi oven as part of a celebration to mark the
initiation of some boys and girls. The level of excitement builds as each stage in the
preparation is reached. Ceremonial drums and headdresses are brought out of storage and we
are taken with the men and boys while they dress and apply white pipeclay to their bodies.
All use a repetitive u shaped design, all that is except one young boy who has
to endure the girls white dots. Theyre having trouble getting equal numbers it
seems. Im reminded of thelogistics of my school dancing lessons on King Island.
The men and women usually sleep separately but for this ceremony everyone begins
crowding in to the mens hut where all the food for the feast is cooked. By midnight
everyone in the village is crowded into the one hut and we couldnt have escaped if
wed wanted. What followed was the most incredible cultural performance Id seen
in my life.
Two pigs were driven into the compound killed with arrows and butchered meticulously
with a stone axe and sections of the carcass and intestines wrapped in banana leaves and
placed inside the earth oven.
When the food is cooked people come forward to collect a parcel of food and take it
gravely to other people or groups. All watch carefully to see if any of the westerners
will eat the pork. An Australian vet is one of the visitors at the village and discreetly
inspects the liver and proclaims it safe, nevertheless I am the only one to eat the flesh
and unwittingly the act makes me the darling of this village. Theyve never seen a
white man eat pork. Hitherto theyd thought all whites were missionaries,
and because they wouldnt eat pork, Muslims. It
was seen as an act of grace and faith to share their food. They werent to know that
Ive never knocked back a spare rib in my life.
The boys and girls who were painted earlier began to dance. They performed to the drum
of the man at the head of the stage. They sang the song that in one form or
another we were to hear all night but the
subtle shifts in tempo and rhythm never allowed the music to become monotonous even though
the ritual went from two in the afternoon to seven the next morning
On dark the dancing became frenzied and many of the dancers were tranced and
hyperventilating. Men and women paired surreptitiously and left the hut for a while, the
ritual having succeeded for them entirely.
It began to rain and rather than depress the mood it seemed like a blessing on the
But two days later we were back in market towns where the Lani have almost no money and
the kids even beg for single matches. Military music and propaganda constantly boom from
Government offices whenever prayers from the mosque lapse. There are hundreds of
missionaries being trained there by the Muslims and none of them seem to be Lani people.
Its a crude imperialism but I have to remind myself that tourists also punch well
above their weight when it comes to cultural interference.
Small wire meshed booths sell lollies, cigarettes and gaggingly sweet drinks. The
vehicles are driven by contemptuous Javanese who scowl and hoot at the Lani. We trudge
past this misery and on to a village where
they see no white visitors who are not missionaries. An explanation of my
ancestry through Lani, Indonesian and English sounds like maintenance instructions for an
old wringer washing machine.
Graham and I are urged to board a decrepit aircraft to the steep Karrabarga valley
where the airstrip slants at an angle of 30° to assist braking. On receiving this news
Graham helpfully points to the silver body of a crashed plane below us, now crippled and
consumed by jungle. We step gingerly from the plane to the astonishment of the villagers
where we are once again the first non-missionary European visitors for eight years.
John seems to be going out of his way to introduce us to people involved in the
resistance and encourages us to breakfast with a policeman who once belonged to the
indigenous resistance, the OPM. Perhaps for this
reason we begin to be shadowed by the only Indonesian policeman in the region. He catches
us, after pursuing us from Karrabarga, and makes great play of letting us see his
revolver, a lustrous, stubby beast like a dangerous eggplant.
I have further reason to wonder about the little accidental meetings John
orchestrates when, after leaving the village, we ascend a scorchingly vertical path.
Graham and I dont carry nearly as much as the Papuans
and we reach the top first and turn to see John collapsed at the bottom. We watch through
binoculars as he is helped to the shade of some trees and the news is relayed up and down
the mountain in broad mime and
The Indonesian policeman begins waving his revolver at us and the news is relayed that
we must come down immediately. It is against the law for westerners to be in the mountains
unaccompanied by an Indonesian official. The Papuan porters reach us and sit glumly
watching the policemans charade. Its a good charade; there is no mistaking the
meaning of the guns gesticulation.
We have to go back, says Graham who is a law abiding person and concerned
for the welfare of the Papuans but they seem poised to continue, a twinkle of mirth in
Amos eye emboldens me.
Its alright, Graham, I say, Im deaf as a post, I
cant hear a thing the coppers saying.
I stand and cup a hand to my ear and put up a dumb show of confusion. I wave my hand
vaguely at the upper slopes of the mountain, at our group and back down to John and the
policeman. Its just a flurry of hands and arms and could mean anything. The Papuans
are refusing to transfer his yells of outrage. I cup my hand to my ear again and throw my
hands in the air, apparently at a loss to understand whats going on. I believe I can
sense John winking despite his sudden attack of malaria.
When I turn back to the Papuans they are already hoisting their packs and beginning a
song which might be defaming the Indonesian or the Europeans, quite possibly both. But it
is clear were going up the mountain and as quickly as we can. None of us are in any
doubt that our next meeting with Indonesian authority will be difficult.
Before we reach the top we turn the glasses on the group below and see John being
helped back down the valley by the policeman who turns every now and then to wave his
pistol at the mountain. Not happy, Jan.
Some of the Papuans leave us to return to their own villages but the pattern of
previous days is repeated as curious locals join us on the gut busting climb as if out for
a brief walk to the shop.
We are very close to the Papua New Guinea Irian Jayan border and just before
reaching Abuverney it begins to rain heavily and we have to cross a dangerous river
punching down between huge boulders
which accelerate the stream and drag at our tired limbs. Wet and deeply exhausted we
shelter in a thatched hut on the edge of a garden. The rain masks all sound so we just
look at each other and smile and it is an enchantment to share the grass hut as the
rains sibilance renders us all speechless. Another couple crawl through the doorway
laughing at their dousing. We steam and smile gently in the warm fog of our
During the night I wake to the weird vision of men in penis gourds silently stoking the
fire before settling to sleep between us. The intimate communality, the sounds of the
forest and the unforgettable smell of
smoked bamboo is so unworldly that I have to look twice at everything to assure myself it
is not dream.
At dawn I look through the door at a group of children already playing before a
backdrop of chocolate box mountains. This is remote country, there are almost no western
clothes to be seen and very few
metal objects. That absence intensifies the impression of living on a different planet.16
Men casually pluck a grass stem and poke it into a minute rivulet descending vertically
from above us and drink from the impromptu spigot. Everything they do is artful and
beautiful, it seems impossible
for them to build or decorate anything without the most casually sublime beauty.
We climb higher into darker and more sombre jungle. There were many river crossings and
at one my legs were pummelled by tumbling stones the size of footballs. We passed many
pretty little villages approached through delightful avenues of casuarina or pine but near
Kilila we cross a monstrous stream on a delicate vine bridge which I would have hated to
encounter in the dark. It roared as if a bullock was bellowing in my ear and looking down
I saw one of the most frightening visions Ive ever seen. In the deep black cut of
this gorge a torrent of water smashed into a vertical cliff, leapt up 40 feet as its
appalling energy negotiated a right angle turn, and the whole mountain pass trembled with
the violence. The thundering roar made your heart hurt and the black rock and black water
seemed like the maw of doom.
The Indonesian Police have a station here and are very cool toward us. Most of the
Papuans turned off the path before the village and climbed through the jungle to avoid the
police. They will meet us on the other side by which time we will have new appreciation of
The Captain stares at us with undisguised malice and insists that we come into his
office and show our passports and visas. Why dont we have an Indonesian guide? He
snorts with contempt at our explanation
of our guides malaria. He pushes a piece of paper toward me so that I might see the
reason for his scepticism. Its a copy of my original visa application. I am not his
favourite tourist despite the fact Im the only one hes seen since he took up
this post five years ago.
We are to call in at every police post on our return to Wamena and that must begin
immediately. Theres no road and no chopper due so he cant bear the thought of
accompanying us himself and we are ushered
from his presence with icy formality and led away to the poorest house in the village. The
family have virtually nothing and the contrast between the villages weve passed
through recently and this grim place cannot be overstated.
The police hang about and insist on eating with us while we in turn try to save some of
the meal for our hosts. We reclaim a large bowlof rice and three quarters of a pot of soup
but it has to be divided between about 17. There was an awkward silence as the family ate
and as soon as Graham and I went to bed they began to giggle and snigger but soon a tense
and highly charged discussion begins and I fear it is about us. We sleep with our shoes on
and I hold onto the straps of my pack ready to make a dash for it if the argument is
decided against us.
I hardly sleep at all and it is a solemn dawn. Saool, one of the guides who skirted the
town the previous day, has been accused of carrying a gun and the police are looking for
him. Karintos says it is a toy gun but that may be a euphemism for small. We are crippled
by our language ignorance. The police believe all in our group are OPM (Organnasi Papua
Merdeka Free Papua Movement) members or sympathisers.
The air is tense with anxiety and suspicion and to complicate things Karintos has a
crook knee and Grahams dodgy knee is also playing up and his feet are badly
blistered. The Papuans are struggling with their packs and I try to augment my shameful
load but Im soon humbled by weakness.
At the first of the mornings river crossings we came across a woman in a grass
skirt sitting on a rock mid-stream while her children played in the river. Once again we
are reminded of the paradise our culture promises us after we die. A young man joined us
on the path guilelessly playing his guitar as he walked the steep path. He played a
complicated melody even while picking a route from rock to rock across the torrents. We
felt like oxen beside his deft and unconscious display of grace.
The next day we had a long slippery walk and arrived back at Asilimo to the
contemptuous faces behind the wire screens of the Javanese cigarette and sweet vendors.
The fruit stall was run by a gent who thought it was fun to fire his air rifle over the
heads of the Papuans. I was all ready to go and express free world outrage but the Papuans
begged me not to because Indonesian revenge would be swift and out of proportion as soon
as I left.
The cultures are opposed across an unbridgeable chasm. While the Indonesians love tacky
plastic trash to decorate the jimnys and tinny pop music assaults the air whenever the
Koran isnt blasting like marbles in a jam tin from pre-war tannoys it is nothing for
a Papuan boy to idly pick a soft flowering head of grass to poke in his hair so that it
bows across his head in a graceful arc. The men and boys love decoration and can turn any
leaf, vine or orchid to some artistic purpose. The Indonesians scoff at such unmanly
That night we are visited by one of Johns politically unsound friends, an
Australian Agricultural scientist who explains the history of Irian Jaya, a history where
the pig plays a crucial role in the cultural, religious and political divide. The
scientist wondered about the pigs President Soekarno imported into the highlands and which
turned out to be riddled with a parasite that creates lethal cysts in the brain.
Conversation like this could not take place in many Irian Jayan homes and he seems
relieved to spill his heart.
Land pressure is increased by the vast transmigration of Javanese and Bugis into the
mountains. Most are not farmers and cant understand why the rice wont grow
like the government promised. Gradually they turn to trade and prey on the Papuans
economically and culturally. The misery of both peoples thrust together in the towns is
palpable. The Indonesians are not bad people; they are simply poor and desperate and have
been used unwittingly as a tool to smash a heathen culture. History is facilitated by meek
and ignorant people doing what they are told.
Most Indonesians are friendly and generous toward us, probably because we can afford to
buy from their restaurants and roadside barrows, but also because they understand us
better than they do the Papuans and it is a relief for them to associate with a culture
closer to their own.
You can be lulled by food and beer and friendly conversation until you look below the
restaurant deck and see garbage and green slime slopping about the piles. People excrete,
and wash clothes, bodies and dishes directly in the lake. This culture, despite its
inarguable sophistication, is poisoning paradise.
Because of my visa we return via the highlands of Mt Hagan and I reflect on the
relative benevolence of Indonesian and European colonists. The Europeans in PNG establish
large plantations and lord it over the natives and teach their dogs to attack
any black person as an essential part of security and even when they feign a
kind of paternal friendliness toward the Papuans tend to make jokes at their expense and
in place of conversation shout at them as if they are deaf. The embarrassment of the
Papuans under the assault of this
crude behaviour is obvious and I cant believe the planters and tourist operators
dont notice the offence they cause and how it prejudices the relationship. It is
obvious that this is a well rehearsed colonial distancing technique.
I wonder how imperial peoples develop such certainty about their economic and spiritual
beliefs that they seek to impose them with withering force on any who do not believe. Of
course such imposition only exists while the non-believers have something of value to the
colonists. People living in resource free deserts of sand or ice seem relatively protected
from democracy, communism and JudaeoMohammedan religions.
I am deeply affected by all the people tangled in this mess of imperial lust and
bureaucratic lunacy but, as I said, the Indonesians should never have let me in because
almost everything I saw I refashioned and disguised for my novel Ruby Eyed Coucal
When Papuan resistance fighters arrived in Australia as asylum seekers our government
treated them like criminals. The persistence of their claim to cultural identity was
compromising Australian investments in oil, gas, gold and timber.
Indonesia was quick to punish their relatives and Australia was even quicker to treat
them like criminals. I was reminded that we are talking about a people whose culture is as
sophisticated and egalitarian as those who declare it primitive. Apart from Australian
indigenous yam cultivators and grain harvesters the Lani are the oldest horticulturalists
in the world. Both cultures are condemned, not because of their barbarity, but because
they are in the way.
My next visa application will have to be far more inventive as Ive run out of
fathers to impersonate, but in any case, under new Australian security legislation
criticism of Government threatens any passport. Weve learnt a lot from Indonesia and
nothing from the two most peaceable and ancient civilizations on earth. Argue that such
sentiments are untenable in the modern world but dont pretend modernity is the
pinnacle of civilization. Imperialism hasnt made it as a moral precept in either the
Bible or Koran despite what our leaders tell us.
Gods are always blamed for selfish commercial decisions.
Bruce Pascoes most recent novel is Bloke, Penguin, 2009 and his
non-fiction title is Dark Emu: black seeds. Agriculture or Accident