I'm going ahead in hopes of climbing Puncak Jaya (aka Carstenz Pyramid), at just over 5,000m (16,000ft) the highest point on the continent of Oceania (Australia, New Zealand, et all), and thus one of the seven summits.
I know very little about the peak. The climbing is supposed to be fairly easy, but the mountain is surrounded by serious jungle in one of the least explored regions left on earth.
But sadly, not quite unexplored enough. Nearby is the Freeport mine, the world's largest gold and second largest copper mine. At close to US$1 billion a year the mine is also Indonesia's largest foreign tax payer and right now all that money goes straight to Jakarta.
The Irianese have never been all that keen on being part of Indonesia and the mine has become a focus of the secessionist movements. Access to the area has always been tightly controlled but right now the army has it completely shut down.
My plan is to try an bribe my way into a permit and then charter a missionary flight to the nearest town. I'll try to hire a local guide and then make my way to the mountain dodging the army, terrorists, and local tribesman for whom the good old headhunting days aren't that distant a memory.
It's all a bit of a long shot and it's doubtful I'll even make it out of Jayapura, but as usual I plan to give it an honest try.
The flight is in three hops: Manado to Sorong to Timika to Jayapura. Sorong is just another small dusty airport, but Timika was interesting, if not ominous. It's the service town for the mine, but it looks and feels like a military base. We are herded off the plane onto a bus and then locked in a chain-link cage cum waiting room while the plane is tidied for departure.
It was worth the inconvenience though because right after take off we fly along the mountainous spine of Irian Jaya, and even though we are just south of the equator, I get tantalizing glimpses of snow covered mountains peaking through gaps in the clouds.
|Puncak Jaya? I as never able to find out...
I make a circuit of all the travel agents, trying to find one who seems familiar enough with the mountain to really know what's needed, yet still optimistic that it can be accomplished on short notice.
On my last try I find my calo at a high-end tour agency. He tries calling the head of police at home, but reaches only the son, dad is "on siesta," but my man assures me that he'll work something out for my tomorrow morning.
In a county where "no" almost always means, "how much?" I've finally found a real no. The permit can only be issued from Jakarta, and that usually takes six weeks. There just isn't anyone locally to bribe, and even if there were, the answer would still probably be no.
It seems that the last party to attempt the climb ran into "trouble" with the local people and were turned back, so now tourism in the area is being rethought. Of course, no details on this incident where available...
Rats. I've had amazing luck all over the world just showing up and making a plan, I suppose my luck had to run out eventually, but this wasn't the place where I wanted it to happen. Puncak Jaya is the whole reason I've come Indonesia, and especially, this far-flung bit. It's very frustrating to come this far, and then be turned back by bureaucracy. There seemed to be such a plethora of more interesting ways to fail...
Down by the seashore I found a few pleasant little restaurants, much nicer than anything in town. One dining area was even circled by a child sized train modeled after San Francisco street cars!?
I finished my day as usual, at the post office internet cafe. But as I left with a cheerful, "see you tomorrow." The woman replied, "Oh, we won't be open tomorrow. You know about the demonstrations, don't you?"
No, I didn't.
The street is quiet, too quiet, and all my usual breakfast haunts are sealed shut behind heavy metal grates. With little else to do, I grab my camera and head out to see what's going on.
Free Papua from whom? Why from Indonesia of course.
Indonesia was colonized by the Dutch until the end of WWII when they were forced by international pressure to withdraw. They remained in Irian Jaya though until 1962 when under US pressure they finally relinquished that as well. A UN mandate in 1962 directed Indonesia to allow the Papuans a free choice in whether to join the then nascent Indonesian Republic, but the election, a "consensus of elders," was widely believed to have been a sham.
This is a forbidding land of rugged mountains, impenetrable jungles and vast swamps, but it also sits over incredible mineral resources. The native people are racially and culturally distinct from the rest of Indonesia (itself a melange). They are a tribal people, dark skinned and fuzzy haired. Although widely Christianized by missionaries they still live and dress much as they have for hundreds of years and they have long resisted the Indonesian influence.
For Indonesia, this both the cash cow and the new frontier. The Freeport mine is Indonesia's largest foreign tax payer and Indonesia has an active transmigration program. People are encouraged to move from the crowded islands of Java and Sumatra to the wide open, albeit inhospitable, spaces of Irian Jaya. On the street I've met a lot of young optimistic Indonesians who have come here to seek the fortunes.
But, the Papuans see all this as the exploitation of their lands and the dilution of their culture; conflict seems inevitable.
Throughout the 1990s there have been sometimes violent clashes between government forces and pro-independence groups. As recently as 1998 even displaying the proposed West Papua flag was considered a crime and harshly dealt with.
But, with independence in East Timor and the strengthening separatist movement in Aceh these are delicate times in Indonesia and the current government seems willing to listen, at least for now.
I'm not quite what the criterion for weapon was though, because there were many tribesman about armed with bow and arrows and even the city folk carried stout wooden staves.
Political speeches aren't that interesting when you don't speak the language so I was touring the area when I came on the troops guarding the parliament building. A hundred or so police in full riot gear, enduring the tropical sun, waiting.
|Police in riot gear keeping a close eye|
I stood back stunned, thinking I was about to witness a massacre, but it was all obviously prearranged. The soldiers looked on passively as the demonstrators entered the parliament courtyard, reformed at the doors, and resumed with the speeches. The free Papua pseudo-soldiers again formed a line keeping the stray trouble maker away from the guys with guns. The whole thing was incredibly orderly and peaceful. It was obvious that both sides wanted it that way and I've been to many a rowdier sporting event.
|Demonstrators head for the parliament building.||Speaking for independence.|
Some of the speakers were sedate and some fiery, some led songs and other prayers. The crowd was an incongruous group of tribes people in ceremonial finery, militiamen in uniforms and field equipment, business people in suits, and all the rest that you find on the streets of Indonesia.
By the end of the day the soldiers had put down their helmets and shields and were standing in the shade lending an ear. May it always be so peaceful here.
At the police station, it became apparent that I had been "marked" and investigated for shooting pictures at the rally. They knew who I was and which hotel I had been staying at, etc...
They questioned me at length about why I was in Irian Jaya and just to be sure I knew the rules, they went over the "dos" and "don'ts" of our surat jalan in excruciating detail. "You will not work, You will engage *only* in tourist activities, You will not photograph anything even vaguely military, etc..."
|It takes several pigs to buy a good wife.||Tuk with a Lani tribesman.|
I race over to her hotel for the surprise reunion and a quick version of this story before together we run back to the airport and make our escape to Jayapura.
The journey is a study in contrasts. Our taxi is manned by a crew of three adolescent Indonesians. The numbers needed, they explain to us, "for safety," holdups and extortions are common on this road. The official manning the Indonesian border post performs a little extortion of his own and takes 40,000Rp. (US$5) from us.
I relent and give up the money because Tuk and I don't have ongoing tickets and a different official at the Papua New Guinea consulate in Jayapura has warned us that we'll be turned back by PNG Immigration (unless of course we pay him for the "ongoing tickets viewed" stamp).
But at the PNG border, the situation, things couldn't be more different. The Immigration official never asks about the tickets and instead offers us a soda and the use of his phone. Taxis are scarce here but we are welcome to wait, and have a friendly chat while we do. Eventually they organize a ride for us, "for free," they finally manage to convince me.
So much for the horrors of Papua New Guinea.