Western Papua, Indonesia/Papua New Guinea
The distances we travel on this trip are immense, far more than what they look on the map (no kidding right), and to get to our next destination we sailed all afternoon, all night and well into the morning the following day.
Despite having a leisurely morning, I was up early and in time to see not only beautiful rainbow, but another pod of dolphins (again no photos of the dolphins but I did get a half decent one of the rainbow). I must admit I am so glad I get up early as this time of day is always so calm, and more often than not, stunning.
It also means I get to join “breakfast with Rod the naturalist” and this morning we got double Rod, as straight after our morning chat, Rod gave us another lecture on Island Diversity which was really interesting until it came to an abrupt stop when the call for dolphins went out. This time it was not just a handful of spinner dolphins that were too fast, but hundreds of them that spent ages jumping around the boat – lots of babies and mothers riding the surge of the bow. This time I did have my camera, but, in typical fashion, the battery died! I got a few videos but sadly no great photos. Not for the first time on this trip, I must remind myself to enjoy the moment and not fixate on getting the perfect photos.
It was a lovely morning “steaming” down the coast of Papua, watching the wildlife, passing the rugged coastline as the waves crashed against the cliffs. As we had a later start today, we also had a wonderful brunch, rather than breakfast. One thing I can definitely not complain about is the food. It has been plentiful, varied and delicious!
Our destination for the morning was Jayapura, the capital and largest city of the Indonesia province of Papua. In fact, it is actually the largest city on the entire island of Papua, even bigger than Port Moresby (the capital of neighbouring Papua New Guinea that shares the island). Once known as Hollandia, it is also the fastest growing city in Indonesia and in the 2020 census it was reported to have a population of our 400,000.
Compared to the islands and towns we have visited in the last couple of days, Jayapura appeared huge! So big and busy in fact, once we travelled by zodiac to the huge port and boarded the buses that waited for us, we headed through town with … wait for it …a police escort!! Cleary the standard hazard lights and horn honking is not sufficient here – so official lights and sirens it is as we drove through the town completely ignoring traffic lights and give ways.
We passed through the bustling town and out through a small beach area, past families enjoy the beach front park and then out passed the new bridge that heads over to the land border between Indonesia and Papua New Guinea (which apparently has only recently reopened after the pandemic).
Our destination for today was Lake Sentani, in the Cyclops Mountains Nature Reserve. The lake is a tropical, shallow lake with a surface area of just over 100 k2, and is home to 22 islands. On board our small local boats we zipped around the lake and around the small islands looking at the wooden stilt houses of the island inhabitants.
We arrived at Assey Village (population 500 (give or take)) on one of the islands to the sound of the Kundu drum and the singing from our welcoming party of elaborately dressed villagers. Once we were all ashore, they put on a spectacular performance of a traditional dance about their ancestral snake who brought them to live on the lake.
It was amazing to see villagers of all ages partaking in the performances, but what struck me as odd was that as we watched the dances, we were seated in the village cemetery at the edge of the main square. On top of that, the cemetery was scattered with WWII relics – including an old machine gun which is being used to display handcrafts for sale!
Speaking of handcrafts for sale, there were lots (as in most of our stops), beautiful bark paintings featuring traditional designs, weaved bags, polished stones axes (used locally as for bride prices) and local headdresses – including one with a Bird of Paradise! Yes, a real, whole Bird of Paradise – sadly still being killed for such ceremonial pieces.
After saying our goodbyes, we travelled back across the lake to pick up buses and police escort again and on our way back into town had a quick stop at the Loka Budaya Museum. We had about 20 minutes to have a quick look around the fascinating collection of local artefacts from the region.
Back at the wharf we say goodbye to our police escort and goodbye to Indonesia. Whilst we were ashore, all our exit immigration stuff was done and as soon as we were back on board we started travelling south towards Vanimo, 36 nautical miles to the south and the first port in Papua New Guinea (country number 100 for me – finally!)
New country, new time zone and 6pm became 7pm as the PNG immigration came on board to do all the customs and immigration formalities with the crew as we had dinner before we continued steaming down the jungle clad coastline – this time of Papua New Guinea.
And so, we went I to our final full day on board. After another beautiful early morning (each one different, each one beautiful), the morning continued with packing and a lecture on one of the traditions of the Sepik River area – “Making men into crocodiles”. A scarification initiation where young men’s skin is made to look like that of the revered crocodile. Apparently, there is a resurgence of young men wanting to go through this lengthy and painful process (similar to the resurgence of other Pasifika young people getting their traditional tattoos) and only initiated men can take leadership roles within the villages.
Back on deck after the lecture, there was a moody sky and the sea was changing from blue to muddy brown as we neared the mouth of the Sepik river. On the horizon we could see a couple of active volcanic islands. Using maps.me I could see that the islands were called Kadovar and Bam (I am sure they are hoping it does not go ‘bam’ lol). I should also note that there appears to be island volcano further out in the Bismarck Sea called Blup Blup 😂. Now that is one I want to see!
Now, back to the mighty Sepik river – the Amazon of the region and one of the world’s great river systems. It is 1,146 kms long and up 1.6 kilometres wide and acts like a highway for the villages along the river and its smaller tributaries.
Our main destination for the day was Kopar Village, one of the villages near the mouth of the river. We were told that many performers and artists/crafts people had travelled for days to be part of our visit and of course for our final stop we were greeted by singing and drumming before being treated to a performance of the national anthem and raising of the flag and then they busted out the village’s traditional Dragon Dance amongst other colourful rhythmic dances including a fair amount of twerking which everyone gathered, locals and visitors alike, loved lol.
They also performed a small skit and although we didn’t really know what was going on, the large gathering of locals (who outnumbered us greatly) found it hysterically funny and I loved that they were enjoying the performances as much as we were.
Following the performances, the ‘shopping mall’ was open. So many handicrafts, brought to the village to sell from all over the region. The area is renowned for its beautiful handicrafts, including totems, masks, bilum bags etc. There was definitely some pressure to purchase, not from the local sales people, but just from knowing that they have just had two 2+ years of no tourism and therefore no sales, and that they had travelled so far to be here for us. I bought a small wooden sculpture to join my global collection and thankfully everyone really had their shopping head on!
As we were not in PNG for long, and had had no opportunity to change money, the ship had organised for a couple of the expedition crew to act as a bank. If we found something we wanted and agreed a price, we would then go and get the money from one of the ‘bankers’ and the cost would be added to our cabin bill in US$. It was a really convenient way to do it and, between everyone we broke the bank lol, spending all the Kina (the local currency) that they had.
Once I had finished shopping, it was nice just to wander around the village, watching the children play – some with balloons some of the ship’s guests had brought with them, others just entertaining themselves, splashing around at the water’s edge.
Sadly, it was time to say goodbye to Kopar village and we boarded our zodiacs and headed further down the river to explore a little. Unfortunately, our zodiac driver decided that we could not fit down the narrow tributaries, but it was great fun speeding along and spotting birds along the shoreline. A few of those identified were sea eagles, whistling kite and a great billed heron amongst many others.
Back on board, my quiz team reunited to enjoy the wine that we won. Sitting on the back deck we could enjoy the small eruptions of the Manam volcano as we sailed passed before heading down for our farewell dinner. A perfect end to a perfect day. I must admit, this final day was my favourite – the kind of action packed days I expected to have most days. It’s a shame it took to the last day for it to all come together.
And so the final morning rolled around and it was a beautiful morning as we pulled into Madang Harbour. Some people were staying on board to continue on for another couple of weeks through PNG, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu and although I would have liked to be continuing, for the first time I was also glad to be disembarking due to all the issues! That said, it was definitely sad to say goodbye to my new friends.
Once our goodbyes were said to those staying on board, we were transferred to the small airport where we were to catch our charter flight to Port Moresby. I guess it was really no surprise that the small airport was pretty disorganised. No one really knew what we should do or where we should go (I had to laugh as it was really just on par with some of the other excursions on the trip lol). Finally, we were directed to a large hangar where everyone’s bags were inspected before being tagged for the flight. And then we waited.
On the short transfer through town, it was clear that there was far more poverty on this side of the border. The infrastructure was much more limited, there were lots of men just hanging around on street corners, shutters and barb wire on shops and buildings and the roads were terrible. Such a contrast to the thriving city of Jayapura just over the border.
The waiting in the airport hangar continued and for a small airport it seemed relatively busy. Finally, our plane arrived (with the new passengers joining the ship for the next 2 weeks) and we were on our way to Port Moresby to make our connections home.
How do I summarise this trip? Firstly, this part of the world is AMAZING! I saw some incredible places and wildlife and met some lovely people. Unfortunately, this trip was just not active enough for me and there was too much time spent travelling and not enough time spent doing! I guess that is always going to be an issue when trying to travel such long distances. And of course, we had the ship issues causing a 5-day delay in boarding and missing full days of activities which really put a dampener on things.
Ultimately, I have to say the beauty of the natural world has to win over.