Written by: Jaii Fredregill
Destination: Baliem Valley, Western New Guinea
Visited: April 2017
Far off from much of the world, the lush green hills of Baliem Valley pour across the central highlands of Western New Guinea. This stunning river valley is an ideal travel destination for hiking and camping. It is home to the Dani and Yali tribes, many of whom work as porters and guides for the travelers who trek here.
A view of the Baliem River from the top of the valley.
The outside world discovered Baliem Valley in the 1930s, and missionaries first arrived in the 1950s. However, in comparison to most current hectic societies, remains relatively undisturbed. It is a peaceful place split by the steady rapids and the persistent roar of the Baliem River. To trek through the valley, we first had to get to Wamena, the capital of the Jayawijaya Regency, the most populated town in the valley, home to a small airport and generally where adventures begin.
A stop at the market for supplies.
Wamena is the starting point for treks and tours through the valley and down to Asmat lands in the south. You can walk the in under 1-hour. Basic comforts are available, such as hotels, restaurants, transportation, a grocery store, and an open-air market.
Anything not grown here must be flown in, pushing the prices higher than in cities like Jayapura, though they remain far from astronomical by western standards. Wamena is isolated, landlocked and accessible only by commuter plane or via the one crater-ridden road in the south which is prone to flooding and traveled by few for this reason. The Trans-Papua highway is currently being constructed to make the city accessible by road. Until it’s completion, the most straightforward, safest way in is a 40-minute commuter flight from Jayapura.
Village Goats just outside of Wamena.
Once you arrive, you can hire a taxi to take you to the trailhead, or you can hire a guide who will make all of your arrangements. Along the trek, you will come across churches, which also serve as schools and community centers. If you are without a guide, you can ask to camp at the centers for a few dollars. It is wise to arrive with local currency in your pocket, as the banking options are limited in Wamena and tribes will only accept notes. No coins.
Locals wash food and clothing at this river crossing located at the head of the Baliem Valley trail.
If you would like to hire a guide in person, you can try at the airport or your hotel. People here need the work and are happy to help you. Many of those living in Wamena and the surrounding villages do attend church services on Sunday, and some shops and restaurants are closed, good to note when choosing which day to begin your trek. If you are planning to start your trek on Sunday, you may find it easier to change to Monday to ensure that any supplies and labor you may need is on hand.
A man displays his mummified ancestor. Kept in the family home for protection from predators and evil spirits.
There was not much available online for Wamena when we decided to travel here. Luckily, Jefalagi Papua Tours in a search for companies based out of Jayapura. The owner, Athen, put us in touch with our guide Harriman who made all the necessary arrangements.
We were traveling to Kri Island in Raja Ampat to do some scuba diving once we finished our trek, (Read more in our post, Scuba Diving Kri Island, Raja Ampat). Working with Athen and Harriman saved time we desperately needed to make it through the valley in time to catch our flight and continue our travels.
Hagi-Hagi was one of the first Dani we met with. A gracious and curious host, asking Harriman to have us write his name in our language so he could see how it appeared. A small action that brought surprise and laughter.
Harriman hired local porters to help carry supplies and gear and arranged for us to camp at villages along the way during our week-long visit. He also knows the local tribes and speaks a good amount of both Dani and Yali in addition to being fluent in English and Bahasa Indonesia. The opportunity to talk with Harriman and the porters was invaluable and made for an incredible experience.
Harriman, loved by all, pictured here with members of a local Dani tribe. He sings traditional Dani songs with the elders and encourages them to teach these songs to younger members to preserve their heritage and language.
Originally from Sumatra, Harriman says he started his walkabout when he was just a boy because he wanted to see what was happening in the world. It got him in some trouble when he missed school, but his treks and travels suit his wise, humble demeanor and genuinely seem to be his calling. He's been around Papua for more than 20-yrs and leads tours throughout the region. A good friend to the tribes, he holds sincere respect and appreciation for their customs and heritage.
Though tribes do rely somewhat on the resources offered in Wamena, their lifestyle is very basic. Only recently have some villages even begun to acquire steel tools. Many continue to use those they have carved and pounded themselves out of stone and animal bones. Making ends meet by selling and trading their handicrafts and the produce grown in their village gardens.
Before you leave each village, the tribe will lay out their goods for you, hoping that you will buy something from one or more of them. Most are not willing to budge much on prices, which were not low. Rings and bracelets woven from local grasses were most reasonable, but if you would like to take home any other crafts be prepared to pay between USD 20-50.
Dani and Yali women and girls gather to sell their handicrafts, including the woven bags they wear from their heads and shoulders to carry their babies and necessities.
You are not obligated to buy anything, of course. Though, with a refusal, you may be in for some persistence and unhappiness from the villagers. Tribesmen will also reenact a battle for you. The mock battles are a bit gimmicky, but they are another way the tribes work to generate income to support themselves. With younger generations now attending school, parents need money for things they cannot make themselves, like school supplies. Education may lead to these children having more opportunities when they reach adulthood. Older Dani and Yali’s now finding themselves in a society so different from they know, face more of a struggle.
Dani men reenacting a battle for tourists.
In recent years, local laws have been put in place to discourage tribes from battle and cannibalism, charging and imprisoning those who take a life. Suffering consequences for such things may seem very reasonable to those of us who grew up within this type of legal system.
However, the tribes have remained isolated for most of their existence and developed their laws and means of survival. Providing them with a few days trek work as a porter cost very little, so why not let them carry your bag? If you would like to do more, pens, notebooks, toothbrushes, and small candies for the children are sincerely appreciated. Enough for the children of one village can be purchased in town at the Wamena supermarket for just a few dollars.
Tribal women cut off the upper half of a finger to morn their dead. This woman grieves for four close relatives she has lost during her lifetime.
Most people we encountered along our hike were quite friendly, warming quickly at the sight of Harriman and graciously welcoming us as his friends. We were able to communicate with everyone and learn about their lives and traditions with his assistance and translation.
The hut where we spent our first night.
One local practice is hut warming. It is common practice here to keep a small fire burning inside the unventilated huts for cooking and warmth. Guest huts do not include fire pits as the smoke can be overwhelming to those who are not accustomed to it. The valley can get quite chilly, especially at night, but we were reasonably comfortable in our sleeping bags.
The wife of the pastor who hosted us for our final night before hiking back to Wamena.
We were sad to leave, which is a telltale sign of a wonderful journey. Overall, our time here will always remain among my fondest memories, and one day I hope to see the Danis, the Yalis, and Harriman again.
One final view from the top.
Baliem Pilamo Hotel
Jalan Trikora No 114 Wamena Jayawijaya Wamena, Wamena Kota, Wamena, Jayawijaya Regency, Papua 99511, Indonesia
Phone: +62 969 31043
You may need lodging the night before or after you complete your trek if you are catching a flight out of Wamena. Baliem Resort Hotel was the easiest to contact from afar, but we preferred to stay in town where we could have more freedom to explore Wamena and customize our itinerary. Most of what we read from other travelers said that Hotel Baliem Pilamo is considered the best hotel in town. At that time you could not book online or even find the phone number for Baliem Pilamo Hotel, but they come up in search engines now and seem to have registered with some online booking sites.
The staff at Hotel Baliem Pilamo are helpful and friendly, there is a restaurant, and you can get laundry done. They will help you find guides and drivers if needed. It is essential to understand that the cleanliness and comfort here is not what you see in more developed tourist cities. The food is fine, but not exceptional, there are spiders and mosquitos, and those who travel less modestly may not be comfortable.
From Jakarta, Indonesia we flew to Jayapura, which took about 7hrs 45mins. Next, we flew 35mins to Wamena
Small planes cannot offer a generous baggage allowance. Passengers can check up to 10 kg/22 lbs and carry-on one piece of luggage weighing up to 7 kgs/15 lbs. Some exceptions were made for our scuba diving and sports gear at the discretion of the airline. You can also pay for overweight luggage. I believe this was a dollar or so per kg when we went but it is always best to check with the airline for the most up to date information.