Into The Forest Primeval : High Adventure in New Guinea Among the Stone Age Tribes of Irian Jaya

Polster, of Mill Valley, Calif., is the author of "A Guest in the Jungle."

Somewhere in the western half of the island of New Guinea, someplace near the middle of one of the largest blank spots still existing on maps of the world, sometime around 3 p.m., Jungle Tim sat on a rock while a dozen neolithic warriors lounged about, watching him scrape ribbons of mud from his pants, his shirt, his ears, nose and, incredibly, from under his hat.

Behind Jungle Tim were a day's worth of steep, treacherous climbs, two or three crossings of the requisite raging rivers and one particularly slippery, 9,000-foot descent, largely via tangled tree roots. Strange noises escaped from his throat, sounds that, when considered as a whole, were something like laughter.

"You know," said Tim, waving a grimy finger back in the general direction of Jenggo Mountain, "calling that a trail gives God less and man more credit than is justified."

I knew exactly what he meant. We were on the first leg of a trek from the tiny village of Kosarek to the not-much-bigger village of Angguruk, a trek where smashing rainstorms and near vertical slopes made many stretches of trail merely a trail du jour , a trek where, as Jungle Tim put it: "If you slipped you would have been dead real easy, or wished you were."

Irian Jaya, formerly Dutch West New Guinea, may be the wildest land left on the planet, its people the farthest back in time. It officially became an Indonesian province in 1969 as a result of the late President Sukarno's carefully orchestrated referendum in which 1,025 Irianese voted against their own independence by the curious total of 1,025 to 0. There are still roving bands of guerrillas who, never invited to the ballot box, seem intent on uniting Irian Jaya with its eastern half, Papua New Guinea, and erasing that incongruous straight line that politically bisects the island.

Roughly the size of California and consisting mainly of mountains and jungle, Irian Jaya is the least developed, least populated and least visited part of Indonesia. Note these gleanings from one of the few travel books I could find that had anything on Irian Jaya: On the capital city, Jayapura, "Things to See--There's not a great deal to see;" on Biak, "Not much of a town;" on Wamena, ". . . not much in the town;" and finally this, "You could make your way by air or sea to Fak Fak, Manokwari or Sorong on the 'bird's head,' but why bother?"

The reason to go to Irian Jaya at all, of course, is to penetrate the interior, much of which is still populated by "former" cannibals and headhunters. Jungle Tim--in real life a mid-40ish attorney from Minneapolis named Tim Heaney--and I were to visit the most untouched part, taking advantage of a pair of little-used airstrips in the lands held by the Yali tribe, or the Yalimo, as the area is called by its neighbors. These two isolated landing fields would save us, round trip, six or eight tortuous months on foot, an overland journey no one ever takes.

We came into the Yalimo after four numbing days of air travel--Los Angeles to Honolulu to Biak to Jayapura to Wamena and, finally, to an aging craft so frail that I could probably have folded it into my backpack. It puttered between, not over, the mountains of the Central Highlands and on to the cluster of thatched huts that was Kosarek, about 35 miles southeast of Wamena.

There had been a small problem with our Jayapura-Wamena connection. It didn't exist because the Wamena-Jayapura flight was 16 hours late and presumed crashed in the jungle. Attempts to find it, I discovered later in the Indonesian Observer, consisted partly of "a bid to encourage the public to search for the missing aircraft" by offering rewards. "It issaid," the Observer went on, "that the prizes include a Johnson outboard motor."

On the strength of this, the air search was scaled down, a substitute plane was dusted off and I and other subscribers to the "lightning doesn't strike twice" theory got where we wanted to go.

My trip had been arranged by Sobek Expeditions, which had billed this as a trip of only average difficulty ("Good health is the only physical requirement"). As a result, I'd taken the matter pretty lightly. In preparation, two or three times a week, my 20-pound son Nick would be stuffed into his babypack and we'd hike our neighborhood mountain.

Having done this sort of backwoods travel before, however, I thought it best to review a worst-case scenario and did so at the last minute, over cocktails in the departure lounge at Los Angeles International Airport. Difficulties seemed unlikely (the cocktails no doubt coming into play here) and all potential problems settled around two improbable possibilities. What if, somehow, the trip was 50 times harder than I'd been led to believe, and what if the guy they were pairing me with turned out to be a marathon runner?

Now, in Kosarek, I watched Tim repack his T-shirt collection--Twin Cities Marathon, Richfield 4th of July Run, The Corporate Marathon, The some other place Marathon, The such and such so many kilometer Run . . . But this seemed unimportant as it had become clear that we were onto something extraordinary.

Half a hundred Yali tribesmen shouldering timeless weapons of wood and stone surrounded us, a like number of women and children swarming in their wake. The pull of curiosity was equally strong on both sides of the culture line, and we all smiled and spoke continually, although not sharing a single word in common.

Most of the men were there in the hope of being selected as one of our dozen porters, despite the minimal amount they earn for such duty. Everyone else had come along because Jungle Tim and I were clearly the most interesting thing to show up in a while.

The Yali make only the most minimal attempts at clothing, the women wearing small bunches of rushes over the genitals, the men penis sheaths and perhaps a bone through the nose, the children usually nothing.

Men begin to wear penis sheaths around the time of puberty. Fashioned from long, hollowed gourds, some stretching more than two feet, the sheaths are a mix of protection, modesty and style. Each man has several, one to fit any occasion, the bright orange calabashes a contrast against their brown-black skin.

At the southern reaches of the Yalimo, warriors also wear coils of vines around their stomachs and chests, and the people of these villages are known as the Yalimek. The layers of thick hoops can measure more than 100 feet end to end and serve as armor, and again, can represent a sort of personal style.

Small in stature, the men just over five feet, the women a few inches less, the Yali nonetheless have a reputation as fierce and dangerous fighters. Partly for this reason the government allows in neither guns nor alcohol.

The Yali's tools are much as they must have been thousands of years ago--stone axes, pointed shards wrapped tightly onto a wooden stick, net carrying bags supported from the forehead, thick bows five or six feet long, and arrowheads carved to a purpose, broad and flat for large game, a triple barb for birds and a notched and tapered black version for settling disputes with finality.

As a rule, when men of the tribe walk about armed and in groups, it's an indication that something may be in the air, and if that rule is to be believed, Jungle Tim and I saw few days of calm. For instance, a month and a half before our arrival two nearby villages had disagreed over either the ownership of a pig or the honor of an ancestor (these carry equal weight) to the tune of 18 casualties.

Apparently somebody kills somebody in the Yalimo every week, but according to our Indonesian guide, Bob Palege, as long as Tim and I made no moves toward their women or their pigs, had previously murdered no relatives and refrained from making the often fatal missionary mistake of pushing them a little too hard to do something they didn't want to do, we'd be OK.

I came to look upon Bob as a truly great guide, one of the few people I'd trust to escort me into parts unknown. I might never have had the chance to form this opinion, however, if we had strangled him that first day as planned.

Picture the well-known view of Machu Picchu, a lush green peak rising through the clouds. Replace the Inca ruins with a village of 10 or 20 domed huts and now picture a land full of nothing but Machu Picchus, and you have the Yalimo.

This is a land of towering jungle, thin bridges of lashed tree limbs swinging at nosebleed heights, cassowaries, wild orchids, birds of paradise and mountain after mountain packed so closely together that traveling across a valley to a point a few hundred yards away as the crow flies may take hours of scrambling down then up precipitous trails often narrower than the sole of your boot.

We had been told that we might find the first day "a bit strenuous," perhaps six or seven hours of hiking. We had been really pushing it for more than eight and were not likely to be stopping here, in the middle of nowhere, for long, so three possibilities occurred to me: 1) The average American was in better shape than most people think, 2) I was in worse shape than I had thought, 3) Something funny was going on.

The Yali porters had repeatedly proved themselves to be good fellows and I passed out cigarettes, turning this rest into a somewhat longer smoke break (a stalling tactic I was to use many times before the end of the journey). To say I was beat is to criminally understate the facts. Jungle Tim, who earlier confessed to running 55 miles a week, had been reduced to a noodle. Still on his rock, he was now looking skyward. It had begun to rain.

"What do you think, Tim? Pretty steep back there, huh?"

"No," and then with real feeling, "merely calling that steep does not do justice to what we've just done."

"Ah hah. A bit strenuous then?"

"No. A bit hellacious."

At this point Bob sauntered over. He was wearing his standard guide outfit: Rambo headband, Harvard T-shirt, camouflage cut-offs and the largest knife in the South Pacific. "Lunch?"

"Well, sure (it was, remember, three in the afternoon), but I was just wondering, uh, where exactly do people usually camp the first night?"

"In Serekasi village."

"I see. And how much farther is that?"

"We passed it five hours ago."

"Five hours ago! Why didn't we stop?"

"I see you guys very tough so I think we can go faster."

Bob went on to elaborate how impressed the Yali were with our abilities and I received this as the worst possible news. Within the first 20 minutes on the trail I had realized I would not be able to carry my own camera, and 20 minutes after that the hand over hand climbing made me forget about taking pictures altogether.

Now that the Yali had misinterpreted my grim determination, I could never let up for fear of losing face in that brotherhood of intercultural, macho camaraderie so important to undeveloped, 19th-Century throwbacks such as myself.

My knees were like liquid, my hands rubbed raw after hanging from all those rocks and I was starving. I said the only thing that came to mind. "Well, now what?"

"I thought we could stay in Pemohan village," said Bob.

"Where's that?"

"Just over the next mountain."

"Ahh."

"But we can't stay there."

"We can't?"

"No. Our porters are having a fight with Pemohan and they won't go there."

"Where will they go?"

"Telam Belam."

"How far is that?"

"We climb up to Pemohan, then down, then one more mountain up to Telam Belam. Maybe four hours."

Tim and I had started to laugh uncontrollably.

"Bob," I said, "have you ever guided people here before?"

"Yes. Two times."

"And they all did what we just did?"

"Oh no. Everybody always turns back after a couple of hours."

I believed I was experiencing real pain. Yet photos of that first day, and every day, all show me smiling. I attribute that in no small part to the fact that I was deep in the Yalimo with no maps, outnumbered badly by semi-reformed headhunters and at the mercy of a guide whose greatest pleasure was "watching my clients fall down."

But in truth, Bob's love of the people and the countryside became so infectious that it offset the physical surprises being heaped on Jungle Tim and me. That and the fact that Bob turned out to be a formidable cook.

Typically, dinner would be a chicken procured en route, vegetable soup and rice or potatoes, all of it liberally spiced and sauced from the collection of mysterious bottles and jars in Bob's portable kitchen.

Still, Tim had a point when he said, "You know, I really wasn't prepared for how dangerous this is.

"When you're trying to cross a slippery rock face on the side of a mountain, grasping for rotting tree roots with no real place to put your feet and at least a 500-foot drop below, what else would you call it?"

Then we'd laugh until Bob served up his usual good-night closer, "Just wait 'till tomorrow."

Very little has been written about the Yali, who have had contact with the outside world only since 1961. At that time, American missionaries forged an agreement to split up the interior, the Protestants winning the Yali district. What the missionaries did not know, however, is that before first contact, low-flying reconnaissance planes had already scared the bejesus out of the Yali, causing the suspension of farming activities and mass slaughter of their sacred pigs.

Because each Yali village usually is operating under some degree of undeclared war with every other Yali village, there were substantial communication problems and most of the Yali were not involved in the 1961 encounter. After a few years, however, the missionaries finally got around to everybody and encouraged all to just talk, visit one another, do a little trading, be friends.

As a result, a series of long-standing but dormant feuds were revived, culminating in the Jaxole Valley massacre where many of the losers were eaten. The Yali blamed the missionaries, the missionaries radioed for the police and the Yali received their first "rifle-shooting demonstration."

Over time the Yali have come to understand that violent behavior on their part can result in punishment from the more powerful "bum-bow" carrying men who cannot speak their language. There have been incidents though. One particularly famous one was the cannibal feast that took place not so long ago on the Angguruk airstrip, our destination.

Angguruk had begun to assume mythic proportions: the end of the journey, the far-off village in the clouds, across the mountains, and we began to chant as we walked, "Angguruk, Angguruk . . ."

Having scaled walls of jungle rising sharply from river banks to mountaintops, and lowered ourselves along cracked slabs of limestone where our descent was little more than a controlled dive, from Kosarek to Wasaltek to Serekasi to Pemohan to Telam Belam to Membohan to Konai to Helariki, it seemed unfair that, for Tim, the worst moments lay waiting in Angguruk.

He had finally taught himself not to look down from great heights: "It was always a mistake," and he had mud-skied Hohi Mountain: "If we'd had to climb it the other way, I don't know how I would have made it. The water was running right over us the whole time."

Jungle Tim had conquered the Kosarek-Angguruk trail. So it was with a well-deserved sense of satisfaction that he savored his dinner, unrolled his camping mattress, unzipped his sleeping bag and unsuspectingly entered The Night of the Cockroaches.

"Jesus, what the hell is that!"

"What?"

"Coming out of the walls."

"Oh, it's cockroaches. Tuck in your mosquito net."

"Aaagh. They're all over the place. This is disgusting."

"Just take a Valium."

"I'm going back to Helariki."

"But Tim, it's dark out."

"I don't care. All the trail had was fear. This is revolting."

The last thing I remembered was Tim, twisting in his bedclothes, screaming and muttering at the same time, "They're going to crawl all over me! Aaaaagh . . ."

Tim survived the night, and eventually there was a plane. Bob bade us farewell: "When you get home, say hello to everybody from Nature Man who lives in the last Stone Age."

And then there was civilization. And cold beer. And another plane. And another. And another. And more beer. And somewhere over the Pacific, someplace near the International Date Line, sometime around 5 a.m. Irian Jaya time, Jungle Tim turned to me and said, "You know, that wasn't so tough."

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