The Eternal Baliem Valley

A disappearing world

Early 1930 of last century, a well-off business man first explored an area far east of what was then Nederlands-Indië. He found tribes living in semi-Neolithic circumstances in the Baliem Valley, a patchwork of neat gardens, fenced off by stone walls, forest clad mountains and ingenious irrigation systems. An article in the National Geographic in March 1941 exposing the region to the rest of the world. After that, more teachers, doctors and nurses came to the place in growing numbers.

Yet up to this point in time, the Valley remains one of the last places on the face of the Earth where people continue living in semi-neolithical circumstances. Upon the spectacular approach by air, you’ll notice the total isolation of the area. Sealed off from the rest of the world by mighty mountain walls and without any roads leading from the coast to the inner region, the Valley keeps its own secrets.

Villages of no more than a few families are dispersed throughout this rough and mountainous region. Dani is a generic name of a series of tribes, until recently adhering to a neolihical lifestyle. Only by the sixties of last century, they adopted the use of iron. Their dark complexions underline a Negroid origin, something which differentiates from the other Indonesian people. There are numerous tribes residing in the valley, having quite different languages and customs. The eastern periphery of the magnificent valley is claimed by the Yali, Kimial, Ok and Eipomek. It is relatively easy to find their villages under the shelter of rainforest and highland.

Within the small town of Wamena, you’ll find most Dani people clad in westerns style clothes. If you venture out however, chances are high you’ll have an encounter with a fascinating Dani in full regalia or, shall we rather say, lack of it? Indeed, the Dani people much prefer to walk around naked save for a koteka or a tube-like yellow gourd, worn over the penis. The bodies of the male Dani gleam with pork fat, applied to fight of the cold. At an altitude of 1.600 m, temperature can be quite low, especially at night. The Puncak Jayawijaya, a roaring mountain is permanently covered with snow, despite its location on the equator. You’ll quite never forget meeting an awful-looking Dani, bearing the tusk of a wild pig at the tip of his nose. Despite their groovy looks, these are quite gentle people, shaking your hand politely and always having time for a small chat.

Likewise, women don’t wear terribly much clothes. Just a skirt, entirely made of natural materials will do. It is the women’s duty to carry out the heavy work on the fields. Observe the noken, typical cloak-like bark string bags, carried half over the head. Heavily loaded with cabbage, sweet potatoes and sago, they resemble a blanket. A woman covered in river mud, is in grief. A less innocent way to show mourning, is finger amputation, a fate that only women will befall. Despite serious efforts of the government to halt this practice, they continue being reported occasionally.

The Baliem Valley remains one of the most fascinating places on the planet, where man may confront it its prehistoric past. But even in the remotest of area. Civilization is seeping through and will not be kept at bay. Maybe the time is right to visit the wild beauty of the Baliem Valley and its remarkable people. Before it is too late…