_photography

“There is no time here”, or trekking in the Papuan Highlands (Baliem Valley and Yalimo)

“What time is it now?”
“There’s no time here!”

After over a month in Bali of working, driving a scooter and basically doing nothing, it was time for being a bit active again. Actually it was time for the real deal – I have been dreaming about visiting Melanesia for a long time. I am particularly interested in its linguistic and cultural diversity. So besides travelling, this trip is about seeing if I like it there and if I could maybe work on my PhD in this part of the world. Or at least this is my excuse for visiting this part of the world.

Through couchsurfing I met a Canadian, Nicholas, who wanted to go to the Baliem Valley at the same time as me. We met in Jayapura, the biggest city in Papua and took it from there.

The island of New Guinea is the second largest in the world and has over 1000 of the 7000 languages in the world. The area was unexplored until relatively recently and especially some of the people living in the middle of the island, isolated by high mountains, did not have contact with the outside world until as late as the 1960s. The valley of the river Baliem was discovered first when someone flew over it in the 1930s and a large amount of people were found there, using tools made of stone and bone and wearing very few clothes, despite the relatively chilly conditions.

The garment of choice for men was the koteka – a penis gourd (dried long pumpkin-like fruit) that keeps the penis upright with the help of a string around the waist. Women were topless and wearing grass skirts. On this trip I did not see any women or children in traditional outfits, but many older men, even in the center of the big town of Wamena were still walking around practically naked.

There are plenty of opportunities for trekking in the wide Baliem valley itself. We wanted to go to a neighbouring, less visited valley where different tribes lived. In the Baliem valley the people call themselves Dani or Lani. We wanted to go to where the Yali people lived – Yalimo. This would however involve going over some high mountains.

The Baliem Valley in Papua. It also took me a while to figure it out but here is the deal. The whole island is called New Guinea (second largest in the world after Greenland). It is shared by Papua New Guinea, the independent country to the east and Indonesia that rules over the western part of it. After the occupation Indonesia named it Irian Jaya, but that didn't go down really well. It is better known as Western Papua (as opposed to PNG - eastern Papua). However, to make things a bit more complicated, Indonesia actually has devided its part of the island into two provinces - Papua (the bigger part of it to the east) and West Papua (the "bird's head" to the west). So the Baliem Valley is in the Papua province of Indonesia. Sentani airport is the airport of Jayapura.

The Baliem Valley in Papua. It also took me a while to figure it out but here is the deal. The whole island is called New Guinea (second largest in the world after Greenland). It is shared by Papua New Guinea, the independent country to the east and Indonesia that rules over the western part of it. After the occupation Indonesia named it Irian Jaya, but that didn’t go down really well. It is better known as Western Papua (as opposed to PNG – eastern Papua). However, to make things a bit more complicated, Indonesia actually has devided its part of the island into two provinces – Papua (the bigger part of it to the east) and West Papua (the “bird’s head” to the west). So the Baliem Valley is in the Papua province of Indonesia. Sentani airport is the airport of Jayapura.

This is our route in the highlands. First we went north of Wamena to the village of Jiwika. Then back to Wamena and to the end of the road in the south to the village of Kurima. From Kurim we trekked for two days in a beautiful valley to Kiroma, from where we had a hard, wet, dirty and exhausting trek over two mountain passes to reach Angguruk.

This is our route in the highlands. First we went north of Wamena to the village of Jiwika. Then back to Wamena and to the end of the road in the south to the village of Kurima. From Kurima we trekked for two days in a beautiful valley to Kiroma, from where we had a hard, wet, dirty and exhausting trek over two mountain passes to reach Angguruk. It took us five days to reach Angguruk from Kurima.

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Sentani is a town a bit outside of Jayapura where the airport is. The hill next to it is a memorial to some general from World War II

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Getting to Wamena is straightforward. In the sense that there are not many options. Triana air flies up to five times daily from Jayapura to Wamena on Boeings with a lot of space in the back for pigs and such. On some maps there is a road to Wamena but that doesn't seem to actually exist. The terminal building at Wamena airport consists of a roof and baggage is delivered directly on forklifts. Wamena is the biggest town in the Papuan Highlands. Migrant workers from the rest of Indonesia, including women covered head to toe, coexist with local Papuans, sometimes wearing nothing but their modest koteka.

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The village of Jiwika

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We arrived in Wamena on Sunday morning and everything was closed until 1 pm so we killed some time at the church, then had lunch at a hotel and then left for a small village called Jiwika, 1 hour to the north of Wamena by public transportation. There's a traditional village close to Jiwika with traditional houses and a 200 year old mummy that can be brought out of its hut. That was recommended somewhere on the Internet. Well, once we got there we were asked for whopping amounts to see the mummy and then some more to take pictures. By the time the price went down to acceptable levels the whole thing looked more like a circus so we walked away. If you want to see the mummy, there must be pictures on the Internet. After staying the night at a small guesthouse nearby, we went for a hike in this valley , up to a salt water spring.

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The salt water spring itself was nothing crazy - just a pool of water. I tasted it to make sure we are at the right place. It is quite salty. Local people extract the salt by soaking dried banana tree trunks in the salt water, then letting them dry and burning them. The salty ashes are then used as salt.

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After spending the morning trekking in Jiwika, we took a "bus" back to Wamena. The "bus" broke down a bit before the town so we had to walk for a while. Then we visited an Internet shop called Papua.com that we knew sold a map of the area where we wanted to go trekking. The Japanese man there was a lot less helpful than the Lonely Planet described him but we got the map and managed to get the last bus to Kurima (easy name to remember for Bulgarian ears). It was already dark when the bus stopped in the middle of nowhere. The road had been washed away by a river and we had to walk the last couple of kilometers to the village. We had some locals to show us the way across the knee deep river and then on to the village. They kept asking where we would sleep and we kept saying we had no idea. We ended up on the floor of a church and had a nice one hour lesson of the local language. The shower and toilet were down in the river. There's a police station in Kurima where we had to register our travel permits and then it was only walking from here on.

In the language of Kurima the counting system is of base 29. The words for numbers are body parts. You start counting with the fingers of the right hand and up the arm to the top of the head (15) and down the other arm and hand until 29.

In the language of Kurima the counting system is of base 29. The words for numbers are body parts. You start counting with the fingers of the right hand and up the arm to the top of the head (15) and down the other arm and hand until 29.

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Just when we arrived at the village of Hitugi it started raining. We wanted to continue to the next village and stay there that night but as we were waiting for the rain to stop we were invited to a pig feast up the hill. Someone had died a couple of days earlier and the person is commemorated with three days of eating pig. In Papua pig is cooked by making some big stones really hot, then putting them in a pit in the ground, then the pigs and some sweet potatoes. The whole thing is covered with earth and left like that for many hours. We joined just as the food was being taken out, which involves a lot of hot stones being thrown around and a lot of impatient looks. Pigs are very important for most highlanders. They are the main source of protein and can also pay debts, buy wives etc. I overheard that the going rate is four pigs for a wife. And you can buy more than one.

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The photographers became the photographees

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In Hitugi, as in most other villages, very few older men were wearing their traditional outfits

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The kids took their positions around the... table

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Kids are the same everywhere

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I love Papua too

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After the pig feast we stayed the night in Hitugi and the next day continued to Kiroma. That meant we had to go slightly down to the river, cross a bridge (here you can choose to go back to Wamena on the other side of the valley) and then ascended a whole lot to reach Kiroma. On the way we made a longer stop in Yogosem, which had an airstrip and we had lunch with a very friendly and very Christian lady.

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The lunch party at Yogosem

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Washing sweet potatoes

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This lady hosted us in Kiroma. They had a special room for guests with mattresses. She cooked for us and helped us a lot. She and her very young daughter got infected with malaria after a visit to Jayapura. Kiroma itself is way above 2000 meters so there shouldn't be many malaria mosquitoes. Her slightly older sons smoked already. And she holds the copyright to the quote in this blog post's title. I'm more than ashamed to say that I forgot her name.

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The guest room

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The honai (round hut for men) of the village chief in Kiroma had the distinctive solar panel perched on it. We first asked the village chief to be our guide for the next two days for the difficult pass ahead. "What do we need for the trip?, we asked. "Well, cigarettes...", he started prioritizing. His Bahasa Indonesia skills were kind of worse than ours and we had initially imagined someone younger coming with us so we ended up going with someone else. It was not an easy choice though. For some reason there were very few, if any, young men in Kiroma.

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HIV awareness campaign

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Kelapa asli is the fruit of a mountain palm.

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Nicho and Julius

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Forest is cleared to make space for gardens. The tree roots prevent landslides.

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The way up from Kiroma follows a river valley surrounded by impenetrable jungle. The "path" was basically the river itself.

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Julius wanted us to spend the night here, most probably trying to extend our trip by a day and get paid for a day more. The weather was nice and there was plenty of time so we pushed on to the hut on top of the pass where most people spend the night.

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On the top of the pass the views were pretty amazing. From here on the path was slightly going up and down or flat, but in all cases featured loads of mud.

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This is the hut at the top, locally known as Pelantara. The roof leaks (I know since it rained all night). That night there were around 15 people sleeping there and two fires were kept burning the whole night to prevent everyone from freezing (the altitude is 3500 m). The trick was to lie down all the time and stay as low as possible and allow the smoke above to escape from the sides of the hut. Fun times.

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Did I mention the mud? It was everywhere. For three days we were walking in mud except when going down a vertical rock. Most times there would be some rocks or tree trunks trunks to step on. But it's easy to lose balance or just mistake a chunk of mud for a rock. Then your feet go deep down, sometimes knee deep.

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The next morning we woke up early. Julius told us he had malaria (?!) and wanted to go back to Kiroma. We followed two brothers from Piliam, the next village down the path. When I say "down" I mean it! After a few hours on a very muddy and flooded plateau, the path goes down a vertical cliff. In the most difficult places ladders were put in place sometimes consisting of just a bunch of tree branches tied together with lianas.

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Another one of those "ladders". Going down here when it's raining is out of the question.

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We went down this cliff face, in the middle there. Looking back towards it, I think it was a bit crazy

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In Piliam we slept at the office of the village chief. As soon as we arrived and were shown into out quarters, a crowd of kids and adults gathered outside and watched us doing nothing basically. For hours. Someone said they had a TV in the village but that was probably broken or there was no electricity. Nicho said that he also heard someone coming to out window in the middle of the night. This is genuine, friendly curiosity.

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Goodbye picture at Piliam. Eki, one of the brothers who walked with us the day before tried on my backpack. He didn't like it.

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These local...well... street musicians were happy to entertain us and for lack of anything better to do they followed us to the top of the pass for about two hours while also trying their slingshot skills on the birds in the forest. By now we were so tired and the blisters/sores on our feet so bad, that I couldn't wrap my head around anyone wanting to walk up this mountain voluntarily. I wish I were a kid again.

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The second pass awaited us on the way from Piliam to Angguruk. This one was certainly lower and less challenging than the Mt Elite one but equally muddy. Someone said it took them 4 hours from Piliam to Angguruk so we took it easy. Well that someone must have been Superman cause it took us almost ten hours. There were many ups and downs that day.

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From the top of the pass we could clearly see Angguruk with its airstrip. So close yet so far away.

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These planks had to be delivered higher up the hill where a new house was in construction for the needs of the village chief.

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The last big river to cross. Luckily there was a bridge (a covered one) over the impressive canyon. From here it was mostly up up up (and some down + up up up) to Angguruk.

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Approaching Angguruk we could see a difference. Villages were tidier, the path was better maintained. Still every step was painful.

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Arriving in Angguruk was different than other villages. Instead of traditional honai we saw mostly modern buildings including this villa as I would call it. No idea who lives here. Angguruk was chosen as the base for missionaries working with the Yali people and therefore it has the best transportation and other facilities. And the only place where the solar batteries actually worked and it was possible to charge batteries.

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The Yali, as many other tribes practiced anthropophagy (cannibalism) until recently. As always it was related to a certain ritual - in their case, they would eat parts of the body of a killed enemy. Inter-village fights were "disputes over women, pigs and gardens, as it says in the article where these pictures were published. The first missionaries that came here in 1960 were killed and eaten. Since then the missionaries have made sure that as good Christians the locals would satisfy their protein needs by eating pigs only. Interestingly, we saw chickens only in Angguruk but in the other villages there were only pigs.

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Angguruk had some pretty nice views of the surrounding valleys.

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The grass airstrip at Angguruk ends with a 22 degree slope to make sure the planes come to a halt. For extra safety there's a cross at the end of it.

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Mr. Zöllner is one of the early missionaries who converted the locals. Everyone was telling us about him arriving in a couple of days and here he is, fresh off the plane from Jayapura with his family. He comes to visit almost every year all the way from Germany. That was lucky since the plane that was apparently chartered for him, had some free seats for us on its way back to Jayapura.

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MAF (Missionary aviation fellowship) is a Protestant organization providing flights in remote areas of the world for the use of missionaries on Cessna planes like this that can land on grass air strips. We managed to get seats on this one going back to Jayapura. We wouldn't have minded going to Wamena instead and spending more time in the Baliem Valley but we couldn't be too picky. The day before there was a flight to Wamena but it was full. Locals (and their luggage and pigs) as well as missionaries a and NGOs have priority over tourists. We certainly didn't want to walk back to Wamena so that would be the end of the Highlands trip for now. The ticket from Angguruk to Jayapura set us back 1,320,000 rupiah (around $110) per person after the local MAF agent and the pilot performed some calculations. Before that we were also asked for a 100,000 to. departure tax. We didn't get a receipt for that and the money disappeared too quickly for me to see if it departed for the drawer or the agent's pocket. The flight was well worth it. I asked for a window seat and got to sit next to the pilot.

The time has come for me to leave Indonesia. When I first arrived here I was going to stay three months. A few hours after I landed, I thought: “Let’s make it four”. Many years are not enough to see a country that is held together by little else than its diversity (and a pinch of military power). What it’s 17000+ islands have in common is their natural beauty and their smiling and easy-going inhabitants. I’m sometimes jealous of this easy-goingness that makes traveling much easier if you just let it be. In Angguruk, while waiting for an airplane to happen to appear and take us back to somewhere, I had time to finally finish the Swedish book called “The hundred year old man who crawled out of his window and disappeared” (highly recommended!) In there Indonesia is called “the land of possibilities”. And it is! It’s a place where you need to be prepared for anything and yet you can’t be prepared for anything.

I had big plans to visiting most of the major islands (Java, Sulawesi, Kalimantan, Maluku, Bali, Lombok, Flores, Papua, Timor…), but ended up not even reaching Java. However, apart from a short, quasilegal stop in Sumatra earlier this year, I only managed to explore some of Flores, Bali, Sumbawa and Papua on this trip. Slowly but with style and with many new friends. All in all, 12 islands, big and small. 16988+ to go. I’ll have to be back.

Next stop: Papua New Guinea

Practical information

Transportation – flights to Wamena from Jayapura cost 925,000 rp one way on Trigana air. Around the Baliem valley there are bemos that go to where there are roads. MAF, AMA and Susi air fly to air strips in the villages from Wamena, Sentani and sometimes between villages. Tourists have last priority. Church people, NGOs, locals, supplies and pigs are more important for sure. Angguruk seems to be one of the best served air strips with flights to somewhere almost every day.

Travel Permit – besides the Indonesian visa, for travelling in Papua one also needs a special travel permit – “surat jalan”. I got mine without any problems at the police station in Jayapura. Some people have apparently been asked for money but it should be free. I only showed a copy of my passport (my actual passport was at the PNG consulate) and I got a nice stamped piece of paper with my picture on it. I could travel with this to Wamena and beyond without having my passport on me. In fact noone really ever looked at our documents really well. We only registered our surat jalan in Wamena and in Kiroma. There are no police stations in the villages after that. We asked someone if there was police anywhere and we were told something like: “We don’t allow the police to come here”. When getting the surat jalan it is good to mention all areas in Papua that you plan to visit. Even to see the memorial on the hill above Sentani, you need the surat jalan. Only in Jayapura itself it is not necessary.

Accommodation – we couchsurfed in Jayapura. The local CS community is very friendly. Jayapura and Wamena accommodation is generally more expensive than in the rest of Indonesia. In the villages on the trek, we paid 100,000 per person to sleep in a house. At the church in Kurima we donated 50,000 to the church.

Food – at the villages there are sweet potatoes in abundance, you can buy rice for as much as 50,000 per kilo and instant noodles for 5000 per piece. If are lucky there will be something green as well. We usually asked the locals to cook for us. It is good to bring some protein with you – tuna cans for example, all the way from Jayapura. Wamena is very expensive. We drank water mostly from the streams, purified with iodine. In the villages they boil it. For the two-day passage without any villages we brought a lot of sweet potatoes and rice and cooked at the top. Our guide carried this for us.

Routes; guides and porters – more or less unncessary (if you speak some Indonesian)! We hired someone to carry the food for us and show us the way over the pass through Mt Elite. We probably would have gotten lost if we had been alone, but there are many locals walking this route, so it was never long before we met someone. For the routes around the Baliem Valley a guide is absolutely unnecessary. If you get the map from Papua.com, it is absolutely enough. From Kurima it is possible to walk for a couple of days on the way to Kiroma and then, in the village before, after the bridge, go back on the opposite side of the valley through some other villages. The views are super nice, even if you don’t go across the mountain to Yalimo. Most tourists actually do exactly that route in five days, strangely having guides and god knows how many porters tagging along and also paying hundreds of dollars a day. We met two Dutch guys doing that route – the only tourists we met. For going to Angguruk, there’s apparently another route described by this guy. I tried asking a few locals about that route but most seemed not to consider it an option at all for some reason. Only one person confirmed it existed but said it was a bad path. Although it’s difficult to know for sure. The path over Mt Elite was not good either. I’m sure it’s used often enough by the villages in that area.

Equipment – I brought too much stuff. My lightweight tent I never used. The sleeping bag was useful. I had too many shirts. Basically with a sleeping bag and a warm and waterproof jacket and a change of clothes you will be fine. I used my old sandals that I bought in India for $5 most of the way and that was very good – there is a lot of mud and rivers to cross. Someone mentioned rubber boots – I am not sure how comfortable these would be for such a tough trek. Most locals walk barefoot, but their feet are well trained. So basically sandals is the shoe of choice.

Presents – it is good to bring presents to the locals. Many people mention cigarettes and indeed many locals seem to smoke. Rolling tobacco is cheaper and a better present than a pack of cigarettes that will disappear very quickly. If you smoke, some people will be all over you. A lady told me once very proudly: “My sons (aged 9 and 10) already smoke!”, which was supposed to mean “Give them some cigarettes please!”. Coffee, but not the instant one that is just sugar and milk – they will give it to the kids instead. Sugar might be good. I gave some notebooks and pens to children.

Language – most people speak Indonesian. Without some Indonesian skills, you might have to go to the hundreds-of-dollars-a-day English speaking guides in Wamena. Still, even if Nicho spoke much better Indonesian than me, misunderstandings were common and answers to questions like “How long does it take to walk between village A and village B?” easily vary between “I don’t know how to think in hours” to “two hours” to “two days”. After some language skills, the most useful skills are patience and a smile.

Photos – many people warn you that you will be asked to pay for photographing people. That might be the case around Wamena, especially at that circus village with the mummy. In the villages on the trail noone asked for money for photography. However I always asked for permission of course. The only exception was one guy who was carrying a big gun in the middle of the forest. I asked if I could take a picture
“What will you give me?”, he asked.
“I can give you cigarrettes!”
“What kind of cigarettes?”
“Rolling tobacco”
“I don’t want it”, he said and left.

Safety – I never felt threatened. Everyone was smiling and super nice. There is no Indonesian military or police in the villages. However, Papua is a place of conflict between the Free Papua Movement and the Indonesian government. None of them seem to target tourists or regular citizens anymore. However, in the past, the Indonesian government carried out a de facto genocide in Papua. Many things in Papua are related to one name: Freeport. It’s a mining company that operates the world’s largest gold mine in the south of Papua. That’s a lot of money flowing towards Jakarta and quite a bit of pollution. I had a chance to see it with my eyes when my flight from Bali to Jayapura made a sunrise stopover in Timika, close to the mine. There’s a lake next to Timika where all the chemical waste from the mine collects. It’s a sad view. Part of the reason why the Norwegian Petrol Fund sold its stake in Rio Tonto (Freeport’s parent company). More on Freeport.
Back to the point – the trail conditions and weather might be the biggest concern when it comes to safety.

Mosquitoes /malaria – you hear so many stories. Papua is considered to have high levels of malaria. Jayapura and the coastal regions certainly do. In some places you ask if there is malaria and they will say “noooo”, although there actually is. In other places the word “malaria” has become synonymous with “being sick” so people might say they have malaria as soon as they cough twice. I had mosquito repellent and used it in the evenings, except when we were quite high above sea level. I don’t take malaria prevention pills but have doxycycline with me just in case.

Fleas. Well, there are some. Both me and Nicholas got bites three nights in a row. Or maybe they were bed bugs? But since we hardly ever slept on anything even reminding of a bed, I’m holding on to the flea theory.

Money – sit down before you google “trekking in the Baliem valley”. The prices you will see are whopping. Some even promise to take you to people who have never seen a white man before. This is crazy – missionaries, governments and mining companies went there before you, for sure! We did it the cheap way. We carried our bags and had a guide only for two days. I bought few souvenirs. A noken – á bag made of string made from wood fiber that is the bag of choice in the Highlands. I just needed something for when I’m out in cities. I also managed to find a koteka. It took a while to find my size but finally I got lucky. Later I found a dead cockroach inside so I haven’t tried it on yet. This is a breakdown of the prices per person in rupiah:
925,000 one way flight Jayapura to Wamena
1,420,000 one way Angguruk to Jayapura
800,000 for sleeping in villages
200,000 for guides (our guides charged 200,000 per day for two days)
around 500,000 for food and other expenses

All in all around $340 for a total of 9 days with the flights being around 2/3 of that.

Volcano Bagging on Flores

It was all unintentional. I like hiking and mountains and especially volcanoes (all those years in Iceland have left a mark on me) but I wasn’t planning to be hiking most of the time in Indonesia. In the end, just by happening to be at the right places and meeting the right people, I ended up climbing eight volcanoes in Flores.

First off, here is a video (8 minutes if you have the patience) I made with time lapse photography from these volcanoes. Someone said it was nice.

Flores is one of the bigger islands along the Indonesian part of the “Ring of Fire”. There is a line of volcanoes, extending through the length of the country from Sumatra and Java through Bali, Lombok, Flores and the smaller islands to the east. Basically there is a major volcano every 20-30 km and they are all active and have erupted in recorded history, actually in most cases they still do quite regularly.



From east to west, the ones I visited are Ili Api (Lewotolo) on the island of Lembata, Ili Boleng on Adonara, Egon, Iya, Kelimutu, Ebulobo, Inerie, Wawo Muda. Unfortunately I did not climb one of the major volcanoes on Flores, Lewotobi because it had some signs of activity and was closed off for visitors. Otherwise it is a beautiful sight: it has two peaks – Lewotobi Laki Laki (“the husband”) and Lewotobi Perempuan (“the wife”). Of course, the “wife” peak is the more fierce and active one but because of her I couldn’t visit the “husband” either… The volcano had some very major eruptions and is even mentioned by Rudyard Kipling in one of his short stories. Kipling’s character however calls it “Loby Toby”, but he also calls sea gypsies “orange lords” (orang laut – “man of the sea” in Indonesian).

View of Ili Boleng from the island of Solor

View of Ili Boleng from the island of Solor

The first one I visited was Ili Boleng. Since I stayed with my friend Billy in a village on the slopes of the volcano, it was relatively easy to find my way. I already wrote about it here.

While looking for information on the internet for Ili Boleng, I found a website, called Gunung Bagging. Gunung means mountain in Indonesian and bagging is mountaineer lingo for “collecting” peaks. The website is very useful with relatively up-to-date information and what’s more important, GPS traces for many of the trails. There are two other major sources of good GPS data for trekking: WikiLoc and the trace collection of Open Street Maps (which I still don’t know how to search, so I just use google to search it). Then I use the excellent Open Street Maps in an app called OsmAnd for my phone, import the GPS trace, turn on the GPS and off I go. No guides needed and I don’t hire porters for such short walks (or any walks).

All the volcanoes I climbed in Flores were a one-day affair. They are not too high (most are under 2000 masl) but the trails were not always easy. In Indonesia trails seem to always go straight up the mountain, no matter how steep it is. And if you see any locals trekking, they will be wearing flip flops. Or nothing when their flip flops break. I saw many broken flip flops on the trails.

Most of these mountains see very few visitors. Locals are hardly ever interested in going up a mountain for fun (in fact few Indonesians would walk more than a few hundred meters unless they really have to and they would advise you to take a taxi for something that is two blocks away). Few foreigners make it here so trekking is by no means an industry. Most people who visit still seem to prefer to hire a guide from the nearest village. Now most guides in Indonesia are not what your idea of a guide might be. They are certainly cheaper than in some developed countries but here is where the good news ends. They might have never been to the mountain in question (or even to anywhere above sea level) even though they have lived next to it all their lives. They will most certainly not have any first aid knowledge or know what to do in case something happens. They will be late so forget about getting there for sunrise. They might slow you down due to the many smoking breaks. And they will probably not speak any English, so unless you speak some Indonesian you will have to be talking to yourself.

I chose to go without a guide, either alone or with a friend. There is phone coverage (Telkomsel is the only operator) almost everywhere.

Ili Api is smoking

Ili Api is smoking


When I was on top of Ili Boleng, I saw Ili Api on the neighboring island of Lembata and decided that I should go there too. Lembata is a nice island with few tourists. The only foreigner I met was an Italian, Marco, who had been traveling with his Indonesian friend on motorbikes all the way from Java but he had an accident on Lembata and was waiting there until his knee would get better. We had great chats. Finding a ride for early next morning to the start of the trail was no problem. In fact the ride found me. The local ojek boys smelled the newly arrived bule (foreigner) very quickly and a couple of them showed up in my hotel. Ojek is a motorbike taxi – you sit on the back. The guy was supposed to take me to the coastal village of Jontona where the trail starts and then the first five km up the mountain which he was sure would be doable by motorbike (“I’ve taken many tourists up that track”, he assured me). Well, the track was in really bad condition so he gave up half way but at least it was something. From there I walked the rest of the motorbike trail to the abandoned traditional village of Desa Lama and then followed the GPS way points from Gunung Bagging up the volcano making relatively slow progress through jungle, mud and swarms of mosquitoes. In three hours I was at the top, long after sunrise (the ojek guy came late!) but the views were amazing.

These goats were hanging out in the crater. Ili Api has one of the most beautiful craters of the Indonesian volcanoes I have seen.

These goats were hanging out in the crater. Ili Api has one of the most beautiful craters of the Indonesian volcanoes I have seen.

The view of Ili Boleng from Ili Api

The view of Ili Boleng from Ili Api

Since everyone else seemed to have set their name in stone in the crater, I thought why not. This is my name in Bulgarian (Cyrillic). (Get over it!)

Since everyone else seemed to have set their name in stone in the crater, I thought why not. This is my name in Bulgarian (Cyrillic). (Get over it, Denise! :P)

On my way back from Lembata I thought of checking Couchsurfing for people to meet in Flores and I sent a message to a guy named Valentino from Maumere, the biggest town in Flores. He was not only the only active couchsurfer around, but he was also interested in climbing volcanoes too. We met in Maumere and while waiting a few days for my visa extension we went together to Egon, which is nearby and to the tourist-infested Kelimutu.

Egon's crater with a nice lake

Egon’s crater with a nice lake

Egon is a relatively easy climb. You can drive a motorbike on an eroded road quite far up and then once you know where the trail starts, you might not even need the GPS trail (although finding the correct ridge to go down afterwards might be a bit tricky). The crater was really beautiful with a very active and loud fumarole and a lake in the middle of it all.

And of course the views on the way were breathtaking.

And of course the views on the way were breathtaking.

Kelimutu is the most popular tourist attraction in Flores proper. It has three lakes in its craters and these change colour regularly. Visitors to Flores usually come mostly to see Kelimutu. It is indeed a fantastic sight, especially at sunrise but that is also when most tourists congregate and it was an endless parade of selfies. Going to Kelimutu hardly requires any hiking. There is a road that goes almost all the way up. You pay entry fee, camera fee, vehicle fee and god-knows-what fee that is 10 times higher for foreigners than for locals and you get to see the tourists taking selfies with the colorful lake. Charging a camera fee is just as ridiculous as it sounds.   Who doesn's have a camera these days? They might as well charge a shoe fee or an underwear fee. Indeed, I have met some travelers who don't have a camera and not even a mobile phone that can take pictures. And also some who don't wear shoes (and possibly no underwear), so maybe I should stop giving ideas to the Indonesian government...

Kelimutu is the most popular tourist attraction in Flores proper. It has three lakes in its craters and these change colour regularly. Visitors to Flores usually come mostly to see Kelimutu. It is indeed a fantastic sight, especially at sunrise but that is also when most tourists congregate and it was an endless parade of selfies. Going to Kelimutu hardly requires any hiking. There is a road that goes almost all the way up. You pay entry fee, camera fee, vehicle fee and god-knows-what fee that is 10 times higher for foreigners than for locals and you get to see the tourists taking selfies with the colorful lake. Charging a camera fee is just as ridiculous as it sounds. Who doesn’s have a camera these days? They might as well charge a shoe fee or an underwear fee. Indeed, I have met some travelers who don’t have a camera and not even a mobile phone that can take pictures. And also some who don’t wear shoes (and possibly no underwear), so maybe I should stop giving ideas to the Indonesian government…

Kelimutu at sunrise. I managed to get a second to take this shot in between the selfie-taking tourists. Had to use my elbows a bit...

Kelimutu at sunrise. I managed to steal a second from the selfie-taking tourists to take this picture. My elbows did a great job…

After I got my visa extension I travelled further west together with Valentino on his scooter. Being a travel writer and photographer, he was interested in seeing more of his home island and really wanted to see two of the major volcanoes on Flores – Ebulobo and Inerie.

On the way there we stayed a couple of nights in Ende, which is the capital town of Flores. Right next to it there is a small volcano, merely 600 m high but with an incredibly beautiful crater. Mount Iya is easy to reach from Ende, very active and the crater drops steeply down to the sea.

Iya's crater

Iya’s crater

View to the town of Ende from Iya

View to the town of Ende from Iya

Once again, without me spoiling the view

Once again, without me spoiling the view

Ebulobo was one of the higher mountains I climbed. We went to the village where the trail starts in the evening planning to sleep a bit and then start the climb in the middle of the night

Ebulobo was one of the higher mountains I climbed. We went to the village where the trail starts in the evening planning to sleep a bit and then start the climb in the middle of the night

The deputy mayor (deputy village chief?) hosted us in his house.

The deputy mayor (deputy village chief?) hosted us in his house.

After some difficulties walking through the overgrown trail, we made it to the top for sunrise, which was initially cloudy but then an amazing panorama opened up.

After some difficulties walking through the overgrown trail, we made it to the top for sunrise, which was initially cloudy but then an amazing panorama opened up.

The island of Ende and behind it the small cone of Iya

The island of Ende and behind it the small cone of Iya

And Valentino playing hide and seek with his camera on the opposite side of the rim.

And Valentino playing hide and seek with his camera on the opposite side of the rim.

And to the west is the perfectly shaped cone of Inerie, our next destination.

And to the west is the perfectly shaped cone of Inerie, our next destination.

This lady hosted us in her house right where the trail up Inerie starts. We tried to camp but the dogs and kids soon found us in the bush and wouldn't even hear about us sleeping in a tent. I think they even had a small fight about who is going to host us.

This lady hosted us in her house right where the trail up Inerie starts. We tried to camp but the dogs and kids soon found us in the bush and wouldn’t even hear about us sleeping in a tent. I think they even had a small fight about who is going to host us.

We set off in the middle of the night under a starry sky that soon turned very cloudy and it started to rain. We stayed under a tree for a couple of hours and when it didn't get better we decided to give up and went back down, got some coffee and were ready to go when it suddenly cleared up and the volcano was visible once again. Valentino was too tired to climb so I went alone. The trail was ok, a lot of loose gravel towards the top (going down I was using my butt more than my feet) but the views were of course great. Probably the most challenging trail of all, but also the only place I met other people.

We set off in the middle of the night under a starry sky that soon turned very cloudy and it started to rain. We stayed under a tree for a couple of hours and when it didn’t get better we decided to give up and went back down, got some coffee and were ready to go when it suddenly cleared up and the volcano was visible once again. Valentino was too tired to climb so I went alone. The trail was ok, a lot of loose gravel towards the top (going down I was using my butt more than my feet) but the views were of course great. Probably the most challenging trail of all, but also the only place I met other people.

from the very top of Inerie

from the very top of Inerie

There are some traditional villages in the area that have been nominated for UNESCO listing. This is one of them from above.

There are some traditional villages in the area that have been nominated for UNESCO listing. This is one of them from above.

After going down, we had a small chat and headed off to a hot river for a dip. This is the good bye picture with the family of the old lady who hosted us.

After going down, we had a small chat and headed off to a hot river for a dip. This is the good bye picture with the family of the old lady who hosted us.

And this is the last volcano I saw in Flores. Wawo Muda erupted in 2001 in the middle of a hilly area and created this beautiful crater. It is easy to get there. From the town of Bajawa there is a road to a village and then it is a short walk to the crater.

And this is the last volcano I saw in Flores. Wawo Muda erupted in 2001 in the middle of a hilly area and created this beautiful crater. It is easy to get there. From the town of Bajawa there is a road to a village and then it is a short walk to the crater.

The eruption burnt down some trees...

The eruption burnt down some trees…

And made a small tunnel between the two small craters.

And made a small tunnel between the two small craters.

Next to the town of Ruteng, further west there is another volcano called Poco Ranakah which is also easy to get to as there is a motorbike trail almost all the way up. I was too exhausted by the time and didn't go there but I went for sunrise to a small hill next to the town, Golo Curu, from where the views were fantastic. It was only 40 minutes on foot from the town.

Next to the town of Ruteng, further west there is another volcano called Poco Ranakah which is also easy to get to as there is a motorbike trail almost all the way up. I was too exhausted by the time and didn’t go there but I went for sunrise to a small hill next to the town, Golo Curu, from where the views were fantastic. It was only 40 minutes on foot from the town.

Views from Golo Curu

Views from Golo Curu

Flores was not only about climbing volcanoes though. It is a really beautiful island to visit.

some rice fields

some rice fields

and some spiderweb rice fields

and some spiderweb rice fields

more rice fields

more rice fields

A bule in a rice field

A bule in a rice field

are you getting bored?

are you getting bored?

Rana Mese lake next to Ruteng is a very peaceful and magical place.

Rana Mese lake next to Ruteng is a very peaceful and magical place.

For lack of a better picture, this is where a (very) hot river mixes with a cold river and it is perfect for bathing. The locals love it and so do the few visitors. It was great after an exhausting climb of Inerie.

For lack of a better picture, this is where a (very) hot river mixes with a cold river and it is perfect for bathing. The locals love it and so do the few visitors. It was great after an exhausting climb of Inerie.

Some wise local made this sign with bathing rules. These were however not for tourist but for locals. It reads:  1. Don't throw your garbage around. Put it in a plastic bag. 2. Don't wash your clothes while the tourists are bathing 3. Do not stare at the tourists while they are bathing. Join them instead and practise your English!

Some wise local made this sign with bathing rules. These were however not for tourist but for locals. It reads:
1. Don’t throw your garbage around. Put it in a plastic bag.
2. Don’t wash your clothes while the tourists are bathing
3. Do not stare at the tourists while they are bathing. Join them instead and practise your English!


Pantai (beach) Koka is popular with locals but not with tourists. If you happen to pass by, stay a few days!

Pantai (beach) Koka is popular with locals but not with tourists. If you happen to pass by, stay a few days!


A typical registry of reservations in a Flores hotel. "BPK(Bapak)" means "Man/Mr", "bule" means "foreigner" (in this case that was me in room 10)

A typical registry of reservations in a Flores hotel. “BPK (Bapak)” means “Man/Mr”, “bule” means “foreigner” (in this case that was me in room 10)

At the western end of Flores is the town of Labuan Bajo – the gateway to the famous Komodo National Park. I spent more than a week on a tiny beautiful island called Kanawa, licking my wounds (one of my toenails is about to fall off from too much hiking). This will be another blog post but here are some teasers:

Sunset from Kanawa. The double peak in the distance, to the right of the sun is a volcano called Sangeang Api, close to Sumbawa. Who would have known that just a week later it would have a major eruption, disrupting air traffic in Indonesia and Australia. That happened on the day I was on the top of Tambora, the site of the most powerful volcano eruption in recorded history. But that is another story...

Sunset from Kanawa. The double peak in the distance, to the right of the sun is a volcano called Sangeang Api, close to Sumbawa. Who would have known that just a week later it would have a major eruption, disrupting air traffic in Indonesia and Australia. That happened on the day I was on the top of Tambora, the siteof the most powerful volcano eruption in recorded history. But that is another story…

Turtle chasing

Turtle chasing

Komodo dragon

Sailing east from India

As some of you may know, I am currently in Kochin, in the south of India. Together with two other people, captain Gerd and Andres, we are preparing the sailboat Liberty to sail east from here. We have been here for over a month now, working hard on everything from repairing sails to cleaning to working on the engine and self-steering. Liberty will be slowly making its way to New Zealand in the next 12 months. The first leg of the route will be the longest open ocean passage of the whole trip. From India to East Timor passing west and south of Sumatra and Java.

The route for the beginning of our trip. This leg should take 40 to 50 days of sailing, a lot in open ocean without much connection and certainly no Internet.

The route for the beginning of our trip. This leg should take 40 to 50 days of sailing, a lot in open ocean without much connection and certainly no Internet.

In East Timor we are planning to stay some days, explore, pick up some new crew members, provision and continue more east, where the real exploring will begin, all throgh Melanesia: Irian Jaya (the western part of New Guinea, that is part of Indonesia), Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and New Caledonia are on the route before the end of the trip in New Zealand.

The others in the crew for now are:

Captain Gerd from Switzerland, who owns Liberty and has spent a lot of his life sailing and living around the Pacific.

Ali (left) and captain Gerd planning out the self-steering

Ali (left) and captain Gerd planning out the self-steering

Andrés is from Mexico. He has spent a lot of time travelling and certainly wants to be a sailor too.

Andres at work.

Andres at work.

Originally we were going to be six people sailing out of India. Ali, Majed and Ryan spent time with us, helping preparing the boat but had to leave for different reasons. For the time we spent here together we had a great time and it was a bit of a downer for me that they would not come with. Hopefully we will be able to travel together later.

Ryan is from Alaska. He is 21 and took a year off his geology studies to join this trip. A very polite and mature guy. I really hope he will be able to join us in East Timor.

Ryan is very good at all things mechanical

Ryan is very good at all things mechanical

Ali, from Iran, lives in San Francisco and is a sailing instructor. He wants to make it by sailing from Iran to San Francisco through the Pacific Ocean

Majed interviewing Ali for the film

Majed interviewing Ali for the film

Majed is also from Iran and is a documentary filmmaker. He wanted to make a film about this trip. He has filmed a lot in war zones in Afghanistan and Lebanon so he should be pretty well prepared for this adventure.

Besides a filmmaker Majed turned out to be a very taleneted cook

Besides a filmmaker Majed turned out to be a very taleneted cook

And last but not least: my humble self. I joined this trip for a few of reasons. Firstly, I have been interested in visiting Melanesia (Papua New Guines, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands etc.) for a long time. This part of the world is not very easily travelled due to its remoteness and lack of infrastructure. All of it is islands, big and small, so travelling by boat makes perfect sense. When I was in the Cook Islands and Fiji in 2008 I found Pacific islanders to be very friendly, sane, proud and relaxed people and I certainly want to explore more. The land- and waterscapes are of course picture perfect. But most of all, for some time now I have been thinking about working with endangered and/or undocumented languages and Melanesia has the highest linguistic diversity in the world. More than 1300 of the world’s 6-7000 languages are spoken there, many of them undocumented and certainly a huge number are endangered. So my most important mission on this trip is to get acquainted with the cultures of Melanesia. Other than that I want to learn how to sail better (I had a great sailing trip of a few weeks in Croatia with captain Zeljko last year). Also, sailing, although quite challenging on the body and mind, can be quite relaxing and I hope to have enough time to catch up on reading books and my video and photography skills. When I first came here I added one more mission: learning Persian since we had two nice Persian crew members onboard willing to teach me (one day I will travel Iran by bicycle but that is another story). Now that they are not coming along, I still hope to be able to make some progress by myself.

And me with a Kathakali traditional dancer. We attended a show organized for us at the place where we are staying. It takes 3 hours for the dancer to get prepared for the show.

And me with a Kathakali traditional dancer. We attended a show organized for us at the place where we are staying. It takes 3 hours for the dancer to get prepared for the show.

And finally, ta-dam! Liberty is a 15-meter ferrocement boat, built in New Zealand but now travelling under the Vanuatu flag. Gerd has owned and sailed it since 2008. Liberty is by far not a luxury yacht but all of her equipment is very well maintained (we are spending quite some time here in India making sure everything is as it should be after all). Liberty would have made very good friends with my South American bicycle Traicho, with his milk crate instead of panniers. She has two kitchens, comfortable berths and a lot of space on the front deck. We are taking good care of her and I am sure she’s gonna take good care of us in the coming months.

Liberty was docked at the international marina in Kochi – the only marina in India and the only marina between Dubai and Singapore. This is where we did most of the preparation work. We had plenty of space on the pier to do our work and have a good time. The marina is on the island of Bolgatty – the first island settled by Europeans in India, basically where the colonization of the whole subcontinent began. The marina is attached to a five-star (well…) resort that is housed in a Dutch palace from the 18th century. There is a nice swimming pool that we use for free and the views of the city across the river/bay are nice. A very quiet place and perfect for us.

We also managed to get to see some of the area around Kochi. We spent some time in Ernakulam, a satellite city of Kochin, across the water, mostly for shopping. And we did a great day trip in our dingy up the backwaters of Kerala. I am certainly coming back to India – an ocean of cultures, landscapes, people and smells in itself.

So this is the first and long blog post, therefore a bit dry, from this trip. I hope to be able to update as much as possible from where the real adventures will happen.

We are now anchored in the bay of Kochin and hopefully tomorrow we will finish doing the paperwork for clearing out and leave on the long voyage to East Timor. 40-50 days of sailing, probably not much connection to the outside world.

We have a facebook page about the trip: https://www.facebook.com/libertygoingeast