Baliem Valley, an immense bowl located at an average altitude of 1600 MASL, is a product of millions of years of tectonic shifts. One could say that Mother Earth was elated at the moment of its creation. The beauty of its landscapes and the fertility of its soils are undeniable. The climate surrounding this valley is very pleasant.
The Baliem Valley in Papua is famous for its breathtaking scenery and its charming inhabitants. The Dani, Yali, and Lani Tribe have occupied this great valley for thousands of years. However, it was only in the 1920s that this valley was discovered. That’s right, it was discovered less than 100 years ago during a Dutch military mapping expedition when they flew over an uncharted great valley that noticed people living there.
On their next military expedition, this time on land, they discovered that the inhabitants practiced farming and breeding livestock. Sweet potatoes and pork were their main commodities. They also learned that there were three great tribes that divided their territories in this valley. Each tribe had several clans and sub-clans that formed a particular alliance. Wars between different alliances were considered normal.
On the south side of this great valley, there is a trail for people who are interested in walking through a variety of terrains. It is called the Kurima Trail and it is very famous abroad. Much information on this trail can be found on the internet but, of course, it would be in English. Not a lot of people share their trekking experiences in Indonesian, which is unfortunate.
Exploring the Kurima Trail
We started our journey from the city of Wamena by renting a minibus busuk (rotten minibus), a term used by our guide. We did not have high expectations for the means of transportation on this side of Indonesia. After all, we only needed a vehicle that could take us to our destination; it did not need to be fancy. But the minibus busuk was not that awful; it looked solid, the brakes worked, and the seats were still neatly arranged. As it turned out, the vehicle was strong enough to carry us, 12 adults (10 travelers from Jakarta, 1 local guide, and the driver), and all of our equipment (10 duffel bags, 10 large bags filled with our equipment, 3 sacks of cooking utensils, and 10 boxes of mineral water).
Once we arrived at the end of the road, in an area called Sogokmo, we were picked up by people who would carry our things. It was obvious that we would not have been able to carry all of those bags, sacks, and boxes ourselves. We had decided since the beginning to involve the locals in our journey in order to build friendship and, of course, to avoid excluding them as mere observers while we explore their territories. We thought that this was fair. We would be able to enjoy exploring its natural beauty and they could gain something from our presence.
After spending 1,5 hours inside the minibus busuk, we started to walk towards a village called Kilise. Our starting point was still located in the Wesaput district, Jayawijaya regency. A district in Papua was equivalent to a kecamatan (subdistrict) in other areas of Indonesia. After we walked across a small river with strong current, we finally entered the Kurima district, which was a part of Yahukimo regency. It was a border area. From the Kurima district, we would have to walk for 6-7 days in order to reach the center of Yahukimo regency in Dekai. Yes, it was that far in time and distance. No road had been created for vehicles. The inter-regional transportation, of course, was nonexistent. We could have flown from Wamena to Dekai if we had the money to rent a small plane.
We walked side by side from Sogokmo to Kilise. In total, there were 10 local tourists, one guide, two chefs, and 20 carriers. We walked at a very relaxed pace and often stopped to capture and savor the beautiful landscapes. Once we arrived in Kilise after three hours of walking, we passed by a beautiful village. “Wa wa wa wa wa wa,” uttered the locals simultaneously. It was their way of welcoming us to Baliem Valley. Their smile and hospitality were sincere. It cured our exhaustion from walking up and down hills. We slept overnight in several honai (traditional house of Papua). The village was located on top of a canyon so we stood at the same height as the clouds. Cool air embraced us from inside and out.
After finishing a bowl of warm soup, we immediately headed to our honai. We lied down and wrapped ourselves with blankets in attempt to fall asleep. The locals considered 7 PM to be nighttime. However, it was too early for us who were so used to the city life and to roam around until midnight. But, of course, there was nothing else that we could do in Kilise. The village was already empty, not a single person was out. There was no electricity and the cold only intensified. Our best option was to sleep.
I woke up too early – I had never slept at 7 PM before – due to sleeping too early. This was my personal opinion. When I opened the front door, the village was already lively. Children were already running around, mothers were carrying vegetables to different directions, and the men were preparing to carry their local commodities to the market. Busy, even though it was only 6 AM. Apparently, this area was one Wamena’s food suppliers. It was only normal that they had already been working this early in the morning.
We followed Kilise’s early morning rhythm. After we cleaned ourselves and ate breakfast, we continued our journey. Our goal that day was to reach Ugem, a village located higher than Kilise, on the opposite hill. To go there, we must first go down the hill to the Baliem River and then head up again to Ugem. While crossing this great canyon, we continued to be mesmerized by its beauty.
A chance to exchange information
Our journey was certainly not as easy. The road going down was steep, we had to cross the strong currents of Baliem River on a frail hanging bridge that swayed and wobbled by the slightest wind, and then slowly go up a trail of 60 to 70-degree slope. But we did not complain. Beautiful sceneries sedated us. Excluding the time we crossed that frail hanging bridge, we continued to smile and laugh. As we crossed that hanging bridge one by one, almost all of us suddenly remembered God and begged Him for forgiveness.
The path was challenging. We arrived in Ugem just before sunset. Once again, we stayed overnight in a village that often receive guests. According to our host, Mr. Simson Siep, who worked as a teacher and as the school principal of an elementary school there, we were their first Indonesian guests in a very long time. They were quite amazed because they were so used to receiving foreign tourists. Their guestbook was full of them.
The next morning, we prepared ourselves to continue our journey to a village called Pilaba (or Pilawa). Ugem was located at a very high altitude, which filled our morning journey with fogs. We walked between clouds. We walked with the locals who wanted to go to a church at the neighboring village. It happened to be a Sunday and everyone went to church.
The roads ahead were very narrow. The largest path was only 2 meters wide, while most of the trails were only 80 cm to 1 meter wide. If we were to cross paths or wanted to pass others, one of us must stop and let the other pass. It was impossible otherwise. There was no road. However, we were grateful that the trail to Pilaba was straight and only slightly sloped downwards. That way, we could fully appreciate Kurima’s scenery.
We walked very slowly that day and were amused with the carriers’ behavior. They preferred to walk with us even though the items they carried were much heavier. It was actually their chance to exchange information with us. Along the way, they asked a lot of questions about news outside of Papua. They also took advantage of this occasion to share some local tips and tricks. For example, on very sunny days, the locals would use betel leaves to cool their body.
“Take a wild betel leaf and put it over the parts of your body that feel hot,” advised one of our carries when he saw our face reddened due to the heat. His name was Televisi Kogoya. That’s right, Televisi (Television), that was his real name.
We followed his advice and he was right. The parts of our body that felt hot from the sun immediately cooled. That day, we looked like soldiers who used camouflage in the middle of a battlefield. If one leaf fell or had lost its cooling property, we would just take a new one along the way. The leaves were our fashion item that day. I will always remember his brilliant suggestion. Betel leaf can cool down your body. Thank you, Televisi!
Understanding the Astounding Baliem Valley
In Pilaba, we stayed overnight once again at a teacher’s house. This time it was an ordinary house, not a honai. Again, we discovered a guestbook full of foreign names originating from different countries. We quickly filled our names to prove that domestic travelers have also visited Pilaba. We meant no harm; we just felt deep concern because a place as beautiful as this, filled with incredibly friendly people, had been visited by only foreign travelers. If those foreign travelers were to develop and harness its potential, Indonesians would all protest. Immense jealousy, no doubt. But Indonesians never even bothered to visit this place, never tried to get to know its people, let alone to understand its potential. Cold air reminded us to stop this train of thought and go to sleep.
On the last day of our journey, we headed back towards Sogokmo to find the minibus busuk that would take us back to Wamena. The road was not far, only a two-hour walk down a low slope path. This time, we crossed the Yetni River whose current flowed to the Baliem River. The suspension bridge to cross over the Yetni River was in a very good condition even though it was not made of concrete. This sturdy suspension bridge with cable handrails were painted bright yellow. Every single part of the bridge was painted yellow! When we asked why it was so, one of the carriers explained that this bridge was built by the government during orde baru (the New Era) and was painted yellow at the time. Okay, we understood. To no one’s surprise, the bridge was called Jembatan Kuning (Yellow Bridge) up until now. Even if the bridge were to be renovated or entirely repaired, it would still be painted yellow. A reminder from past would always remain.
As soon as we reached the minibus busuk, we said goodbye to our carriers but, apparently, they also wished to go to Wamena as well. Our guide explained to us that they wished to shop in the city because, now, they had money from working as carriers. Alright. We decided to rent another minibus busuk so we could go to Wamena together. Fortunately, there was one waiting for passengers nearby. And so once again, together, we went to Wamena. We parted ways in front of our hotel and they went to the market. We did not know whether we would have another occasion to meet these kind and friendly people.
Finally, I understand why it is so easy to find information about the south side of Baliem Valley in English. In addition to its magnificent land, those foreign travelers must have been amazed by its inhabitants. Amazed by their warmth. These people live in two worlds, traditional and modern world. But their kindness and sincerity do not fade. They are hard workers and do not dramatize life.
The location of their homes and their living conditions are very difficult and strenuous – no roads or even safe walkways, no electricity, unkempt health clinics – and let’s not talk about BPJS health insurance. Although there is an elementary school in each village, there are only two teachers in each school; it was the maximum number and had already included the school principal. You can only imagine what the situation would be like if one of the teachers were to fall sick or had urgent family matters. Let us reflect on those conditions.
Form that moment on, I became obsessed with sharing my experiences in the Kurima Trail, especially to fellow Indonesian travelers, in the hope of increasing its fame in Indonesia. In the hope that we can all recognize its magnificent land and beautiful inhabitants, and deeply understand them. In the end, I hope that the increase of Indonesian visitors would bring good impacts to the locals on social, economic, and civilizational base. And I hope that we could all feel the warmth within the cold cloak of the south side of Baliem Valley.
Translated by Shofa Fathyamala