Paradise found: West Papua for beginners

For a grab bag of stimulating experiences, this remote province is hard to beat. West Papua is as far west in Indonesia as you can go, with sublime landscapes, extraordinary animals and an ancient and vibrant Melanesian culture. Combined with the more recent arrival of colonial missionaries, military and administrators, it’s a remarkable place.

Jayapura, the capital city, has a distinctly contemporary Indonesian vibe. It’s the entry point for most travellers, and visitors need to get travel permits for anywhere else in the province approved at its main police station.

Head for the hills

Beyond Jayapura, Melanesian tradition asserts itself. Head for the highland town of Wamena, an hour’s flight away. It’s home to Dani (and other) tribespeople and the gateway to the Baliem Valley. Prepare to feel overdressed at the local market, among bare-breasted women and men clad in penis-gourds.

In highland villages, expect to be segregated by sex. Men may go hunting. Women may spend time in the women’s hut among small children and piglets, and are likely to have their clothes and bodies minutely examined to gales of laughter. Local guides will have social and cultural niceties covered, but solo travellers will get brownie points for bringing a courtesy gift - leaf tea or fresh fruit is always welcome.

Surf and turf

While highland landscape is stunning, and short walks around Wanema are simply beautiful, extended hikes are not for the faint hearted. There’s less gruelling country on the north coast, where the island of Biak has beaches and many WWII monuments; the classic old wooden hotel beside the airstrip has been in use since the days of early flying boats.

Around the southern township of Merauke, Wasur National Park offers a good day trip. With flocks of seasonal migratory birds on the coastal flats and wallabies feeding on the floodplains, it has close ties to tropical Australian ecology.

Making a meal of it

Many Papuans are subsistence farmers, and food is a constant preoccupation. Staples are pigs, sago and sweet potatoes. In the south, venison from wild deer may be on the menu; on the coast or upriver, fish provides protein. Local diet is meat-and-carbohydrate heavy and has little seasoning - travelling with a small jar of chili or soy sauce boosts flavour. Having ‘an allergy’ to meat is an acceptable way for vegetarians to avoid the slab of pork that has been served in their honour.

Where the wild things are

Out bush, wildlife includes endemic tree-kangaroos, possum-like cuscus and gorgeous birds of paradise. As with most native wildlife, actually finding it requires local knowledge - guides will always materialise. Ask if there is a nearby dancing-tree, where groups of male birds of paradise hang out daily up high, prancing and preening their plumes. It’s a fantastic sight.

Show and tell

If the 250 or so indigenous languages seem a daunting barrier to communication, an illustrated guide book can be a great prop for pointing at pictures, miming questions and learning local words. Indonesian is spoken in towns and some villages. Outside Jayapura and Wamena, good English-speakers are few. Tall, fair travellers in remote villages may occasionally be greeted by elderly villagers speaking perfect, formal Dutch - an unexpected reminder of former colonial days.

Go with the flow

The colonial concern with order and punctuality has long gone, though. Accommodation is often basic at best and timetables are very flexible, so enjoy slowing down rather than worry about catching up. You get as good as you give, travelling in West Papua. And, given time and patience, it repays in spades.