Swamp spinach and tree-kangeroos in the jungles of West Papua
-An account of CME whilst ascending Carstenz Pyramid, October 2015
When we finally stepped off the plane and onto the tarmac, we were confronted with an oppressive wall of heat. The fierce equatorial sun, combined with the intense humidity and the windless atmosphere immediately felt draining. It was our fourth flight connection within Indonesia and we had been flying all night. Nabire, a listless frontier town, was at the very end of the line.
We were a small expedition of six heading for one of the remotest and the most exotic of the seven summits, Carstenz Pyramid. At 4884m, the peak is the highest in Oceania and just getting to the base of the climb involves one of the world’s last real adventures. This mountain is as remote as it gets; with multiple flights on ever smaller planes before eventually arriving in West Papua. From here the approach is a very challenging trek lasting five days through the dense jungle accompanied and assisted by members of Dani and Moni tribes. Past expeditions have been held up for days with tribal delays. Its extreme remoteness, combined with government restrictions, political instability in the region and frequent tribal warring, has meant that few people have climbed it since the first ascent in 1961 by Heinrich Harrer.
After a day in Nabire spent sorting the gear for final time and enjoying barbequed fish washed down with ginger ‘ditchwater’, we made our final flight on a single-engine plane into the central highlands of Papua. Landing at Sugapa was like moving into a film set for Easy Rider. To our amazement, we were met by a group of motorcyclists in leathers. Their job was to transport both us, and our kit on the dirt track roads as far as the road head. Although Coop, the expedition leader, had emphasized to the drivers that this was to be done cautiously, it rapidly turned into a mad Whacky Races charge to the end of the trail. During the bike journey we were held up for an hour or so as two different Dani tribes argued over the arrangements for the porterage for our group on the mountain trail. This readiness to argue over everything is a feature of their society:
‘Ritual small-scale warfare between rival villages is integral to traditional Dani culture, with much time spent preparing weapons and treating resulting injuries. Typically the emphasis in battle is to insult the enemy and wound or kill token victims, as opposed to capturing territory or property or vanquishing the enemy village.’
Wikipedia October 2015
We spent the night in a bright yellow hut within a village compound of more traditional ‘round houses’, which were co-occupied by the tribesman and their highly prized pigs. The following morning, a three and a half hour ‘debate’ between the two tribes began. It gradually developed and more and more people squeezed into the compound. Axes, guns, bows and arrows all featured, as did a couple of individuals wearing only penis gourds. The heated debate became a vociferous argument and we wondered how it would end and if we would ever set off. Then all of a sudden, we were leaving on a five-day trek through the jungle up to base camp at 4300m, ably assisted by Arland, Joy and the Indonesian crew.
I have never trekked through jungle and I found it both interesting and challenging in equal measures. The sheer physicality surprised me. The heat; the absence of any breeze; the lack of a view for more than 20-30 feet and the fact that virtually every step was climbing up, over, or through dense vegetation, took me by surprise. It was very difficult to establish any sort of rhythm and there was no feeling of covering any sort of distance; one just ‘walked‘ for two to three hours at a time. The advised footwear was wellington boots, or in American parlance ‘rubber or rain boots’. River crossings were variable and often difficult, but we were relatively fortunate due to reasonably dry conditions. There is an ecological intimacy to jungle trekking, by virtue of being up close and personal with everything from exotic plants to butterflies and insects. The Papuan jungle appears to be relatively benign, apparently with very few of the poisonous or dangerous flora and fauna so often described. Birds of paradise were heard but rarely seen, and tree-kangaroos (Dendrolagus matchiei) were rarely heard or seen but three were eaten after a night hunting expedition by the tribesmen. The jungle gradually thinned as we ascended, and eventually we emerged into more open countryside. There were weird limestone rock formations, beautiful rivers and interesting marshlands. The Dani tribesmen were experts at finding local delicacies to eat, which ranged from a delicious ‘swamp spinach’ to more challenging crunchy culinary delights such as river frogs which were eaten smoked and whole by the more daring amongst us.
Summit day started well before dawn with an alpine-style start, so as to avoid the potential hazard of a mid-afternoon thunderstorm whilst descending the ridge. After a minor route finding issue we found the first pitch. This was indicated by a somewhat worn looking 11mm fixed rope, which led off around a vertical buttress. Jumaring up this feature set the tone for the next ten hours of climbing. Although the rock was steep, and mainly solid, with high friction and most of the belay points reasonably sound, the ropes themselves were less reassuring. Despite new ropes, allegedly placed last year, there was alarming wear, right through the sheath in a number of places. The infamous Tyrolean traverse had been replaced with an equally exciting three-strand wire rope bridge with the same outrageous drop-offs. We all followed the tortuous ridge to the summit arriving at about 8.30am. There were stunning views in all directions, and after the summit photos and the ubiquitous selfie for Margaret, we began the cautious and steady descent, trying to select the safest combination of worn abseil ropes and somewhat dubious fixation points. We made it down by 2.00pm and some celebrated with a quick swim in the turquoise blue glacial lake.
The walk out was a delight. The Dani tribesman had visited the shop in the nearby goldmine and were stocked up with various ‘essentials’, including wellington boots, safety helmets, coloured bread and fizzy drinks. There was an end of term feeling as we descended back through the jungle. At one particular campsite, face painting with coloured muds gave us an insight into some of the behaviours for which the tribesmen are famous. A couple of boys who were probably 10 years old, called Perri and Pas, entertained us (and I think we entertained them!) They played games all the way down the mountain. Whether it was trying to knock tin cans over by throwing stones, using catapults to stun and catch birds, or sorting out our pathetic attempts to keep wet jungle wood fires going, they kept us thoroughly amused. Their enthusiastic and energetic approach to life was enlightening and uplifting, although one could not help but wonder what the future held for them. All too suddenly it was time to leave the jungle, the boys and the other Dani tribesmen who had carried our gear, looked after us, educated us in jungle traditions and techniques. Leaving was not easy and I hope a return may be possible.
We managed to hitch a ride out of the jungle on a single-engine cargo flight; the first of five flights back to the so called ‘civilisation’ of Bali which seemed to be populated by obese tattooed Westerners, partially covering their beer bellies or cellulite with ubiquitous Bingtang singlets.
We had a day to spare in Nabire before we could catch the second flight out and Coop had heard there was a chance to swim with Rhincodon typus or whale sharks. Whale sharks can grow up to 12m in length and we had been told there was a possibility we might be able to find some. After a minimalist diving lecture, without a single unnecessary phrase, we had an amazing day of snorkeling and diving. In the languid midday tropical sun our boat approached an Indonesian fishing vessel in flat calm seas. A fisherman was sitting on the deck trickling seawater over the edge and occasionally throwing whitebait into the sea. As we got closer it became apparent that he was hand feeding two 8m whale sharks. This was an incredible sight in an idyllic setting and after a while we were able to join them in the water.
We drifted closer to the sharks and held on to anchor ropes that hummed in the gentle current. The mooring lines curved into a deep blue oblivion, whilst shoals of whitebait glinted in the shafts of diminishing sunlight.
What an end to an incredible expedition.
Coop: the cool, calm and relaxed mountain guide from Bozeman, Montana who was unflappable.
Margaret: super organised, super fit radiology resident from Phoenix, Arizona
Chris R: the quiet and understated Australian travel doctor from Perth Australia who knew everything there was to know about tropical diseases.
Ben: the energetic and enthusiastic ER consultant from Baystate Medical Centre, Massachusetts with a wealth of wilderness experience.
Blandon: the thoughtful bearded Texan medic who had practised in some of the most challenging environments in the world.
Chris I: ebullient vascular surgeon from UK who loves being in the mountains with friends.
With thanks to:
Mike Cooperstein and Andes Mountain Guides for the inspiration and fantastic organisational skills: