A Baliem Valley Festival in Papua with the Dani Tribe is one of the wildest tribal experiences you can have in the world…
Imagine a Tolkienesque land. Mountain peaks and deep valleys strewn with tribal villages inhabited by a people who up to only 70 years ago still lived in the stone age, away from all modern civilisation, high up in the remote Papuan Highlands.
That was the image I had when I dreamed of entering that world.
Finally making it to the Baliem Valley of the Papuan Highlands in 2006, it became one of the wildest adventures I’ve ever had.
At this point I should make it clear that the Papuan highlands I am talking about are the ones on the Indonesian side. Most Papuans I met there want independence from Indonesia, so I call it Papua out of respect for them.
Many of the tribal people in the highland areas still live an existence like in ages past.
It all came about due to a Polish couple I had met in the Togean Islands of Sulawesi. My original plan was to go to the famous spice islands of Banda next, but over a few bintang beers they told me about their adventure hiking with tribes in Papua.
I was sold on the idea and as I always say “last minute decisions are the best” four days later I was on a flight to Jayaypura, the main city in the north of Papua.
This will be written as an adventure diary from emails written at the time of the Baliem Valley festival that I went to.
The Baliem Valley Adventure
The hottest I’ve felt anywhere!
I arrived in Sentani a small town near the airport for Jayapura. Within 20 minutes of landing the ground started shaking as I arrived at my hotel. The hotel staff and I exited the building fast.
It was an earthquake. Not a serious one, but not being used to earthquake zones that much it certainly was an enlightening experience. The wobbling feeling of the earth underneath you moving. My first introduction to Papua.
Papua feels more like the aboriginal territories of Australia than Southeast-Asia. The people are black skinned and larger in size than Southeast-Asians. Papua is more linked to Australia than the Asian continent, so it makes sense.
The heat and humidity of Jayapura is overwhelming, drenched in sweat within minutes of going outside. A large thunderstorm looms in the distance and soon enough a tropical downpour engulfs the land.
In two hours I would be flying to Wamena Airport. Wamena is the only town in the Baliem Valley of the Central Papuan Highlands, and being higher in altitude is much cooler than the heat of the coast (thankfully).
Going to the police in Jayapura before leaving to get a surat julan (travel permit) to allow for travel to the Baliem Valley, as all tourists need it to visit there, I anticipated the adventure ahead.
Quick background of The Baliem Valley in West Papua
A West Papua map so you can see where Wamena (the main town of the Baliem Valley) is. West Papua is another way of saying Western New Guinea and as it’s easier to write that’s the way it will be called for this article.
West Papua Map
And the West Papua Flag:
The Baliem Valley is landlocked by high peaks (5000m +) and is only accessible by air. It was first discovered by a WW2 pilot when he crash landed there. Until this point they were one of the last of the undiscovered tribes in the world.
Nowadays the Dani tribe (the main tribal group in the Baliem Valley) is used to foreigners visiting the area. Having said that there are some tribal people that live like they have for millennia only a few hours away in the mountain area.
Naturally as an adventure traveler I would have loved nothing better than to just head out for a few weeks into the middle of nowhere, to visit tribes that hardly ever see tourists. However not having the proper equipment and ill prepared for it, as well as a limited budget to afford the expensive costs of a guide, makes that a very difficult proposition.
Wamena is a very small place, and as all things have to be supplied by air, it’s not cheap to get supplies. Therefore I chose to base myself in Wamena and do some Baliem Valley trekking from there on day trips. Also it might be possible just to spend a few nights in a mud hut with some of the Dani Tribe.
Arriving at Wamena Airport
The plane from Sentani to Wamena was a relatively small twin prop cargo plane, with a few seats added for the passengers. There were no foreigners on board, just tribal people from Wamena.
It takes round 45 minutes to fly to the Baliem Valley and the first 30 minutes or so is over nondescript jungle cover. But then a blanket of clouds covered everything below until a few mount peaks appeared through the clouds. After flying through mountain passes for a while a big flat valley appeared amongst them. The Baliem Valley.
Arriving at Wamena Airport the first thing I saw was a naked man crossing the runway with nothing but a koteka (penis gourd) to cover his genitals.
Welcome to Wamena!
After checking in to a cheap hotel near the airport I instantly went out to explore Wamena, which has a population of around 30,000 people. The West Papua population is around 900,000 people so Wamena in comparison really is tiny.
It’s a small place and I wasn’t really impressed as there isn’t much in the way of the traditional culture left. It has motorbikes, supermarkets, paved roads, concrete buildings, sporadic electricity, and everyone wears clothes.
There’s lot’s of migrants from other parts of Indonesia who tend to have a wealthier lifestyle that the indigenous Dani Tribe. The Indonesians run most of the businesses in the Baliem Valley, such as the minivans and 4wd’s that transport people around the valley. The local Dani Tribe work for these migrants and mostly do the less desirable jobs.
The Indonesians are mostly the occupants of the concrete buildings, whereas the tribal people live in their traditional mud huts with thatched roofs that are located outside Wamena.
The only really traditional thing left in Wamena Papua is the occasional Dani Tribe member walking naked with just the koteka on. There is a fun local market to visit however just outside of Wamena for the local tribal people.
Wamena is not the fly into “middle of nowhere tribal land” that was thought to be. West Papua tourism has surely also had an impact on the place as well.
I talked with a guide in the hotel later in the day about visiting the Dani Tribe surrounding Wamena. With some heavy bargaining I got a decent price for him to take me hiking on day trips around the Baliem Valley.
It’s best to have a guide to be able to communicate with the Dani Tribe and to show you around the valley. Most of the guides, like the one I chose, are locals from the valley, speak English well, and know where to go.
The hotel was very cold that night as Wamena is 1500 metres above sea level and is chilly. The next day early in the cool of the early morning we set out into the Baliem Valley.
Day Trip to Jiwika in The Baliem Valley
The guide took us by minivan to Jiwika which is about a one hour drive from Wamena to visit a traditional Dani Tribe village. It soon dawned on me that a lot of the Baliem Valley is developed.
The tribes still mostly live in mud houses with thatched roofs, but most of thee people wear modern clothes now. Forget that image of tribes running around looking like they do in some documentary show.
In a typical Dani Tribe compound there will be around three huts and 20 or so people. The men all sleep in one hut, the women and children in another, and the third is used as the kitchen. A whole village is normally made up of 10-20 compounds and ruled by one chief.
Many of the Dani Tribe still practice the traditional marriage. This involves the man has to pay 5-10 pigs to the family of the woman he wants to marry. A man can have as many wives as he can afford.
In fact a mans status is shown by how many wives and pigs he can afford. Sounds harsh but remember they’re still coming out of a Stone Age existence from only several decades ago.
Arriving at Jiwika Dani Tribe members came out to greet us. Some of the men were wearing the koteka (penis gourd) and decorated themselves with necklaces and bracelets made from cowrie shells. Cassowary and birds of paradise feathers are worn on the head. Other men just wore modern clothing.
The women wore traditional grass skirts, but were naked on top. Again only some of the villagers were dressed this way.
From the outset of arriving in Jiwika it became clear that the village was regularly visited by rich tourist groups. They come for 1-2 months a year when the Baliem Valley has the best weather, and festivals are held.
The Dani Tribe of Jiwika ask money for photos to be taken. If you want them all to get dressed up in the traditional way and do a Dani Tribe dance and mock battle scene, it will cost a lot. I didn’t pay it.
It was interesting to see the mummified remains of a previous chief of the area though.
At this point it dawned on me that in order to get a more realistic feeling of the Dani Tribe I would have to leave the valley itself. It was time to plan for the mountains surrounding the Baliem Valley. There it’s hard for tour groups to go and a more authentic feeling of the area could be had.
The Plan to Get Out of The Baliem Valley
There are three main tribes in the Baliem Valley region. The Dani mostly in the valley itself, with some in the mountains. The Lani in the north and western parts of the mountains. And the Yali to the south and east in the mountains.
My guide was Dani and most of my time would be with the Dani Tribe.
Getting out of the Baliem Valley isn’t as easy as was thought.
To get to the few remaining very traditional areas takes 1-2 weeks trekking (each way preferably). That involves trekking over hard mountains passes, along slippery, muddy trails.
Plus the cost of weeks paying for a guide and porter to carry all the food, which would also have to be paid for, was getting to much.
And I didn’t have time due to my tourist visa running out. So the time was spent overnight discussing options with the guide and a few other locals.
Hiking in The Baliem Valley
While figuring out how to go and visit the tribes away from the Baliem Valley we took advantage of the trails in the valley itself.
The first hike was in the far south of the Valley. Taking a truck southwards we headed to a hiking trail in the foothills of the mountains.
This hike involved precarious rope bridges across the fast flowing river that goes through the Baliem Valley. Here locals could be seen in their traditional villages amid astounding views across the valley itself.
When an important family member dies the women cut off the top of their fingers in memory. On the hike I saw some of them in the villages we went through.
Notice in the picture below the woman is missing the top of her fingers from cutting them off.
This day hike, and another one that was done, gave just a teaser of the real adventure that was just about to begin.
Heading Into The Mountains from The Baliem Valley
After four days based in Wamena we had changed our plans of just a few simple days in random villages out of the valley. Big news came!
The guide had heard about an epic festival that was about to begin in Tiom village in the north-west mountains. This was in Lani country, however members of the Dani Tribe would also be there, being the most populated tribe in the whole region.
We got in an overcrowded van that drove one hour northwards until it started heading up into the mountains. The road it drove on was nothing but mud and stone, with steep drops on each side.
The scenery was amazing!
Now at 2500 metres above sea level the air was nice and chilly.
Tiom village is only 50km north-west of the valley but takes six hours to reach on the winding mountain road.
Only four wheeled drives can make it there due to the tough conditions, and other vehicles had broken down on the side of the road due to the terrible conditions.
Eventually arriving at Tiom there were still some modernness to the place. It’s the main village in the region and so some ramshackle huts can be seen with tin roofs. These are used just by the teachers and christian missionaries in the area.
But the rest is all traditional villages of mud huts with thatched roofs surrounded by forested mountains.
Although I had really wanted to stay in a traditional hut for the experience but the guide warned me they are crawling with pests and insects. Explaining that the tribes are used to it, but I would be bitten alive, with other foreigners having stayed in one feeling the bites for weeks afterwards.
The guide therefore arranged a place for me to stay in one of the teachers huts, not wanting to die a death from insects! The hut is nothing but a glorified garden shed, with the ‘bed’ being justt a blanket over a wooden floor with a mosquito net attached.
After getting settled in I went out for a walk with the guide, who showed me around.
The tribes are definitely not used to foreigners visiting. They expect visits from the Christian missionaries, but not ‘tourists’. After our walk we arrived back at the hut with 50 children in pursuit.
The floor of the hut was a killer to sleep on and gave a bad back. Two rats had also decided to keep me company for the night and scurried about my feet and legs just outside the mosquito net. Inside the net cockroaches and other bugs found solace on this foreigners cozy skin.
If it was this bad in the ‘modern hut” who knows what it’s like in a mud hut!
Add into all that the cold mountain temperature and sleep was little to be had.
Breakfast and a Hike
There are no eateries in the area (no s**t) so breakfast the next day was had with some tribal people in one of their mud brick huts.
This consisted of sweet potato and nothing else. Sweet potato is their staple food and is had with practically all meals.
Walking off the breakfast with a morning hike up a steep mountain, the locals again came out fascinated by this foreigner amongst them. The guide explaining they were shouting “white man, white man”!
Two of the guides tribal friends in the area joined us and we walked together until reaching the place where the main festival would be held the next day.
The place it would be held was on (and by) a small grass airstrip that was built for the missionaries to fly in on for their missionary work.
Only now we learnt exactly how big this festival was going to be.
It turns out that it’s a festival celebrating 50 years since the first missionaries came to the region. Around 10’000 tribal people from all around the mountains would be coming to join it!
100’s of pigs would be killed for it to feed them all. No other tourists would be there (with nine days total in the Baliem Valley I didn’t see another tourist), just some of the original missionaries (around 25 of them) and two Australian bush pilots that would fly them in.
Being so close to Australia the missionaries in the Baliem Valley are mostly from there.
For the rest of that afternoon, and all night long, people from surrounding villages came in groups of 100 or so to bring banana leafs, stones, and wood for the traditional fires that would cook the pigs the next day.
The Baliem Valley Festival in The Mountains
The different groups all competed with each other to be the noisiest ,as they came swarming from the mountains chanting traditional songs and screaming.
1000’s of people coming and going, singing and shouting tribal chants.
That night the trails around the mountains were lit up by their wood fire torches. It was such a magical experience I stayed up most of the night watching it and listening to the chanting.
Epic isn’t a word that even comes close. Easily one of the best things I have ever experienced in over 20 years of travel.
Early in the morning I headed to the main area again and watched the pigs being sacrificed for the feast.
They are killed by traditional bow and arrow from their stone age days. They are expert hunters that kill the pigs quickly, aiming straight for the heart.
Over and over the sacrifice went. In all over 500 pigs had been killed according to my guide and what the locals had told him.
Walking around while all this was going on I met with tribal chiefs interested in meeting the foreigner amongst them.
Missionaries were starting to be flown in on tiny propellor planes onto the small grass runway. One of their larger buildings that overlooked the runway is where they congregated to watch over everything.
So many of the tribal people came to shake my hand, shouting “wah, wah, wah”! It’s their cool way of saying “welcome”.
No-one spoke English so my guide had to translate everything, especially for meeting the chiefs of the tribes.
Whilst the pigs were being sacrificed for the people during all this, others started building the traditional earth ovens.
These consisted of a pit dug in the ground. Stones would be heated for hours in massive fires, until burning hot.
Some stones would then be placed into the pit, covered with banana leafs, pig meat, and sweet potatoes put on the banana leafs, covered in more leafs, then more hot stones on top.
This process would be repeated several times for one oven until there is a big mound sticking out of the ground. Around 5-10 pigs per earth oven.
The whole area was covered in smoke from these fires.
Roughly 100 or so of these earth ovens were made, as the tribal chanting still went on and on. When one group were finished building their oven they would then go and help the others.
Most of the tribal people wore modern clothes given to them by missionaries. In fact most of this region was like this now, even in the mountains.
But everything else that happened there was traditional practice used over millennia.
By mid afternoon the food was cooked in the ovens and people were ready to eat. They formed groups of ten and more to do so.
Meeting The Traditional Dani Tribe
I was lucky as my guide brought me to a group of tribal people who still dressed in their traditional way.
They had trekked for a week to be there, mostly caring about all the free pig meat that would be had as pigs are only really eaten on special occasions (like festivals).
They were mostly naked apart from the penis sheaths (koteka) on the men, and grass skirts on the women. A few did wear modern clothes but mostly were in the traditional style.
Decorative necklaces were worn, along with armbands and squashed parrots on their heads. Some painting was also done on their bodies.
This was one of the truly tribal groups I had wanted to meet.
Being invited to eat with the tribal chief of the group was a real honour.
Pig meat was thrown on a canvas bag on the ground, and the people starting making grunting noises in excitement.
It felt almost like being in the stone age.
I was so excited to eat the pig meat.
Cooked in those earth ovens images of smoked pig made me drool. But what we got was not expected. Big blobs of white fat only with burned skin attached.
It turned out the tribal group love the pig fat more and that’s why they were given it!
Thankfully there was a small piece of normal meat I was given to eat which tasted so good. But the rest was just greasy fat.
I took one bite of the fat out of politeness and tried not to chuck it up. It was nasty and just slimed down my throat.
At least I tried some, but I’m not a big meat eater and not used to just fat, whereas the tribal people are.
After eating they looked around their environment, which they are perfectly in tune with, and said to the guide that it will rain.
They then got up and disappeared into the surrounding forest for shelter.
My guide and I headed to a mud hut where some of the guides friends were hanging out. Sure enough ten minutes later a heavy thunderstorm came in.
The 1000’s of people outside went running for cover and the festival was technically coming to a halt because of it.
It rained heavily for the next five hours turning the whole place into a mud pit. Walking became hard as we slipped around on the trails to get back to the hut I was staying in for the night.
The past two days had been an adventure I wouldn’t forget.
The Baliem Valley Adventure
The day after the Baliem Valley Festival we got a lift on a truck back to Wamena and the adventure was over.
After nine days in the West Papua Mountains of the Baliem Valley it was time to leave.
My Indonesian visa was running out soon, and I was more than happy with my experience with the Papuan Tribes in the highlands of West Papua.
The friendliness and hospitality of the Dani Tribe and others will forever be with me.
The atmosphere was so surreal it is now like a dream.
If you like these kind of offbeat adventures with tribes then you may like my guide about visiting the remote Kyrgyz in the Afghanistan Wakhan Corridor.
Also, if you are planning an adventure in West Papua Indonesia, or that part of the world in general, then you can also visit Borneo. This is a post about an adventure in the Kelabit Highlands of Borneo with tribes there.
Useful West Papua Links:
The most useful guide I found for travel to West Papua is: Lonely Planet Indonesia.
Also a good read about the state of affairs in West Papua is: Freedom in Entangled Worlds: West Papua
If you’re planning any kind of adventure be sure to take travel insurance. If something went wrong in a remote place such as the Baliem Valley you will need it.
I use WorldNomads Travel Insurance and find them to be excellent.
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