Even a country as full of adventure as Indonesia must have its final frontier. Here it is – Papua, half of the world’s second-biggest island, New Guinea. Here, a traditional tribal world still holds its head high amid outside encroachments. This is a place where some people still hunt their food with bows and arrows while others buy it in supermarkets. In this youngest part of Indonesia roads are scarce and to travel any distance you must take to the air or the water. Papua seems like a different country – which is what most Papuans, who are Melanesian and ethnically distinct from other Indonesians, would like it to be.
Travel here is undoubtedly a challenge, and not one that comes cheap. But those who take it on rarely fail to be awed by the charm of Papua's peoples, the resilience of their cultures and the grandeur of both their landscapes and their teeming seascapes.
The province of West Papua chiefly comprises two large peninsulas – the Vogelkop (Bird’s Head/Kepala Burung/Semdoberai) and the more southerly Bomberai Peninsula – and several hundred offshore islands. The attractions here are primarily natural – above all the world-class diving and gorgeous island scenery of the Raja Ampat Islands.
Raja Ampat Islands
This group of about 1600 mostly uninhabited islands off Sorong has some of the best diving in the world. Little known until the last few years, Raja Ampat’s sheer numbers and diversity of marine life, and its huge, largely pristine coral-reef systems, are a scuba dream come true – and fantastic for snorkellers too. It’s like swimming in a tropical aquarium.
The North of Papua
Papua province’s capital, Jayapura, and its airport town Sentani, are hubs of Papuan travel, and there’s a scattering of appealing things to see and do in and around these towns. Further west, Biak is a relaxed offshore island that's good for a spot of lazing on a beach, snorkelling and diving, and has evocative WWII sites to investigate.
The Baliem Valley
The legendary Baliem Valley is the most popular and most accessible destination in Papua's interior. The Dani people who live here were still dependent on tools of stone, bone and wood when a natural-history expedition led by American Richard Archbold chanced upon the valley in 1938.
Downtown Jayapura is hot, busy with traffic and hard to love, but it has a beautiful setting between steep, forested hills opening on to Teluk Imbi. If you just want to get up to Wamena as soon as possible, you can often make all arrangements in Sentani without coming into Jayapura. But if you want to see Papua’s biggest and most important city, this is it.
Biak (1898 sq km) is one of Papua’s biggest offshore islands. It’s a relaxed place with – even by Papuan standards – exceptionally friendly people, and has good beaches, snorkelling and diving. Biak saw fierce fighting in WWII, with about 10,000 Japanese and nearly 500 Americans reported killed in the month-long Battle of Biak (1944).
Wasur National Park
The 4130-sq-km Wasur National Park, stretching between Merauke and the PNG border, will fascinate anyone with an interest in wildlife, especially birds and marsupials. But come in the later part of the dry season (mid-July to early November), otherwise most of Wasur’s tracks will be impassable.
Capital of Papua Barat province, Manokwari sits on Teluk Cenderawasih near the northeastern corner of the Vogelkop. It merits a visit mainly for the natural attractions in the surrounding area, notably the Pegunungan Arfak. Most travellers’ facilities are in the area called Kota, on the eastern side of the Teluk Sawaisu inlet.