How to sum up the strangest 36 hours of my life? Exhilirating - yes; confusing - yes; terrifying - sometimes; amazing - always.
Where to begin? As a planner and worrier by nature, I tend to get stressed when I'm in situations where I don't feel in control. And yet I continue to put myself in those exact situations. This expedition has so many different elements with the potential to go wrong, most of which I can't really influence. I could have been refused a travel permit, I could easily miss flights due to bad weather in the mountains, I could run out of money or I could have a major kit malfunction in the extreme weather conditions in the Central Highlands. However, having overcome one of my major worries by getting my travel permit, I turned up at the AMA hanger at Jayapura airport with a burgeoning sense of excitement. I was finally on my way to the Star Mountains. Besides my excitement, I was also conscious that I was really flying into unknown territory - I knew almost nothing about Bime and even one of the AMA pilots I spoke to could only tell me it was a grass airstrip at about 1,800m. He couldn't tell me if there was a police post or how many people lived there or any other basic information.
Nevertheless, it seemed that the gods were smiling on me - at the airport, I was able to fill my fuel bottle with Kerosene and because two Indonesians had chartered the flight, I didn't have to pay a penny. The Cessna Caravan was stripped out so I was pushed right up at the back seat for the 1-hour flight to Bime. As we took off over Lake Sentani, I could see a lot of deforestation around the city and lots of palm oil plantations, but within a few minutes we were gaining altitude over unbroken forest as far as the eye could see. For the most part it was undulating terrain, punctuated by broad, brown, sweeping rivers. After about 25 minutes, we started to pick up altitude again and the towering clouds in the distance signalled that we were approaching the Central Highlands. Very soon, the earth began to appear crumpled and we started crossing deep ravines and sharp, forested ridges. I spotted an airstrip carved out of the mountain away to the left and thought that we would bank left to line it up. To my surprise, we headed straight for a high ridge ahead of us and as we popped up over it I saw Bime airstrip directly ahead of us on the westerly slopes of a steep-sided valley. As we sped in for a bumpy landing I caught my first sight of the local villagers and my stomach leapt - I suddenly realised that as soon as the plane took off again I would be here alone in one of the world's most remote locations with no way to communicate with the local people!
The plan rolled to a stop at the apex of the runway and turned in a tight circle. The pilot, and Indonesian guy named Arnold, disembarked and opened the doors and I followed the two other passengers out. I didn't want to approach anyone directly for fear of offending them so I waited until Arnold had run his checks and asked if he could translate my purpose. The local Kepala Desa (headman) stepped forward and Arnold explained that I wanted tiga orang (three men) to accompany me to Puncak Mandala. The headman seemed to suggest that this was OK. Then another villager stepped forward and asked in (very) broken English if I needed help with my bags. His name was James and he told me he spoke Pidgin English and that he was the only person in the village that did - he was employed in the Kantor (District Office) as assistant to the District Officer, who was absent. That was a stroke of luck for me because when I explained that I had brought a tent, he insisted that I would stay in the District House, meaning I would at least be dry and comfortable for one night.
To my surprise, the District House had running electricity. James explained there was a small water powered turbine further up into the mountains that provided Bime with 24 - hour electricity! The house I was staying in was a simple wooden affair with two small bedrooms and a living are. It also boasted an indoor latrine, which I was grateful for. Very soon, James abandoned me and I understood that he would speak more with the Kepala Desa to figure out if we could leave the next day. I was then pretty much left to my own devices for most of the day until late afternoon when a guy turned up at the door - he didn't speak English but was very enthusiastic and it was clear that he wanted to join me on the trek to Mandala. After an animated conversation that somehow made sense despite neither of us speaking the other's language, Manius left and I spent some time testing my satcomms again (they worked!) and cooking some food. A little while later James arrived again with food that his wife had prepared (rice and vegetables). All the rice that was available in the village has to be flown from Jakarta because they can't grow rice in the Star Mountains – the staple diet is potatoes. James disappeared again and I waited patiently for him to return so that I could ask him about the plan for the next day.
After dark, James and several others turned up to the District House. James informed me that he had been in radio contact with Oksibil, the capital of Pegungan Bintang (Star Mountains) regency. The Kepala Desa from there had decided that I couldn't proceed and James informed me that he would fly into Bime the next day to discuss my options.
After a promising start, this was a real blow and I had a sinking feeling that things would not go smoothly. My mood was quite black and I started thinking that James and the others were only interested in how much money they could get out of me. At about 7 p.m., I went to bed but had quite a troubled sleep because I couldn't stop thinking that this could be a disaster for the expedition.
Day 7 - 25th November
Next morning I was woken about 3 a.m., by the incessant crowing of several village cockerels. I tried to doze until 5 a.m., then decided sleep had escaped me so got up to see if I could catch my first Star Mountains sunrise. The sun rose around 6 and as I gazed over the village I felt incredibly privileged again to have had the opportunity to visit the area, which so few Westerners have ever seen.
However, this was tempered by the fact that I was concerned about having to spend another night in Bime with no guarantee that I would be grated access. I knew the terrain that I would have to cross was exceptionally difficult and I knew that somehow I had to be back in Jayapura by 6th December at the latest. Losing days would make any attempt to reach the summit of Mandala futile. The best I could hope for would be to trek in as far as possible and try to catch a glimpse of the summit. James turned up to the house around 7 a.m to tell me there was a change of plan – now, the Kepala Desa would fly to Jayapura the next day and James and I would fly to meet him there. I explained to the best of my ability with the enormous language barrier that I hadn't known that I needed permission from Oksibil and that had I known I would certainly have done so. I think one of the reasons why it was difficult to gain access was because James's boss, the senior District Official of Bime District, was on leave. I got the impression that James did not want to get himself into trouble and lacked the authority to make any decision. Therefore, he would discuss the situation by radio with anyone who would listen.
Having accepted that I would be staying only one more night in Bime, James asked if I wanted to have a look around the village and local area. I jumped at the chance; up to this point I had really just stayed in the District House because I wasn't sure what was appropriate and what wasn't – for example I knew from previous expedition reports that often the women in villages are hidden from visitors and I didn't want to offend my hosts any more than I had already done just by being there.
With James, Manius and his two kids we left the compound and walked up the path adjacent to the airstrip, then crossed a small river, following a path cut into the steep hillside. At the top of the small ridge was another small settlement and there I was introduced to the Kepala Desa of this settlement, who was sitting on a log and handling a large parang (knife). He had visited the Distrcit House the previous day and was happy to meet me again. There were a few children sheltering from the hot morning sun under a simple wood and grass structure. Two young men approached and explained as best they could that they attended school in Borme, some distance away, but that they were back in Bime for the school holidays. They were dressed like proper Gangsta rappers but were very friendly. They spoke very broken English but joined us with a small posse to visit the local District school, which was set in a prominent position on a nearby west-facing hillside.
The school was formed of 3 wooden buildings and each Grade had their own classroom with simple wooden desks and a blackboard. Nixon was one of the students from Borme and he told me he was in Grade 3 and was 16 years old. I was constantly surprised when I asked people their age to discover that I was much older than most of them. For example, James was only 26 years old and I would have guessed he was more like 40. Similarly, I would have guessed that Nixon was in his mid-20s. I guess it's still a very harsh life in the Star Mountains, even if you live in a village next to an airstrip. Although they now have 24-hour electricity and access to satellite TV, access to basic healthcare is limited and there is a huge reliance on the few missionary aviation organisations that serve the various remote airstrips that are spread around the Star Mountains.
Primary education in Papua is now free to all pupils, thanks to the Government working in partnership with NGOs. However, parents then have to start paying 50% of school fees beyond this and University education must be fully paid for. There are several missionary organisations that sponsor bright pupils but for most Papuans, it's exceptionally hard to access those opportunities and jobs are very scarce and hard to come by.
However, it was great to see that the local community has a school and to meet a couple of younger men who had been able to see life beyond Bime. Although the traditional way of life has almost disappeared in Bime itself (I only met one elderly man who was wearing a penis gourd), it's unfair to not give poorer communities the chance to develop as they wish.
As we were planning to walk to another local community, James was called back to Bime from across the small valley – he was required to take an urgent radio call. We sped back across to Bime itself and James asked me to wait back at the District House again. About 30 minutes later, James reappeared with more news – I was now to leave Bime immediately – there was an AMA flight flying into Bime in half an hour and I had to be on it. The previous day, I had joked with Arnold, the mission pilot, that I would call him to come and rescue me. Now, it seemed like he was coming to rescue me after all. I packed my kit up as quickly as I could, gently reminding James that he still had my titanium cooking pot and spoon. I knew when he offered to wash it the night before that he had his eye on it and thought it would make a fine addition to his cookware collection!
I hauled my kit up the path to the top of the airstrip and waited at another of the wood/grass shelters where about 25 people from the local community were waiting. I was able to grab a couple of photos with Nixon and was asked to take a photo of one local villager's rock collection, which I happily did. Very soon, the low drone of the Cessna's engine could be heard in the distance. In no time at all, the small plane was zooming to a halt at the top of the airstrip. It's fair to say that Arnold was surprised to see me! He said it was no problem for me to hitch a ride back to Jayapura, so I climbed in with promises from James that we could fix this. I wasn't sure how that would happen, given that I had no way to contact him or, in fact, anyone from Bime. During the flight, I started to review my options:
1. Give up on Mandala and enjoy some rest at the hotel in Jayapuar and explore the local area
2. Try to meet the Kepala Desa at the airport , get his permission to go back and go back to Bime immediately
3. If I got permission, postpone Mandala to the end of the expedition and figure out instead how to get to Wamena to attempt Puncak Trikora.
Option 1 was ridiculous so I dismissed those thoughts from my mind. I decided that I would make up my mind between Option 2 & 3 after (I hoped) I was able to talk to the Kepala Desa the next day.
The views across the mountains on the flight back were just as mind-blowing as the way out, but my mind was preoccupied by how to figure this situation out. Once we landed back at Jayapura, I immediately enetered the AMA office to try to find Bob, the Operations Manager, who was becoming a key figure in my life! Unfortunately, he was not in his office, but at least I knew that the KD was flying tomorrow from Oksibil, which was at least something to work with. I took a taxi back to the hotel and settled back into my room, keen to upload all my photos to facebook and to update all my sponsors and supporters with my news.
As I waited hours at the hotel for my pictures to upload, I texted Bob to ask him to let me know when tomorrow's flight from Oksibil would land. He phoned me and I tried to explain my position and he agreed to phone me in the morning once the arrival time was confirmed. This information reduced my stress levels a bit as I now had a clear goal to focus on – to convince the KD that I should be allowed back. During the early evening, as I was trying to write my diary on the hotel terrace, two Papuan men approached me and asked if I knew of an American who had wanted to fly to Bime. I exaplined that I was that American and then decided not to go into too much detail about the War of Independence and the fact that my predecessors were on the losing side. One of the men spoke passable English and explained that, although he was originally from Bime, he studied across the border in Papua New Guinea. I invited them to join me and then 3 more Papuans appeared from nowhere and joined us. My life was becoming truly bizarre at this point and I had to pinch myself to check I wasn't dreaming.
The young man who spoke English explained that his father was a representative of the KD and head been asked to come to find what my intentions were, in order that he could report back. At least I now had a way of definitely setting up a meeting. I explained clearly that I was very sorry that I had not asked permission and that I was very grateful that they were giving me this opportunity to explain myself. I told them that I was there to try to get a picture of the ice cap on Mandala's summit and that I would like to document the lives of the local villages by taking photographs. I was told to write this down, along with basic details about myself. So, now they think I'm descended from William Wallace and that my Uncle is the President of Scotland. They seemed happy enough and we parted on the understanding that the KD would visit me at the hotel tomorrow. They asked my room number but I decided that I didn't necessarily want 5 Papuans coming to my hotel room first thing in the morning!
Day 8 - 26th November
Bob phoned me at 06:30 to say I had to be at the airport at 08:00 sharp. My sleep patterns were still all over the place and I dashed into the shower and ran for breakfast. I had decided that rather than wait for the KD to come to my hotel, I wanted to meet him off his flight. This was because:
1. I wanted him to know how important he was in my eyes, and
2. I had about $5,000 cash in my room and over £5,000 worth of equipment and didn't want them to see any of this
When I arrived at the airport, Bob asked me how much luggage I was taking – the language barrier struck again. Bob was convinced that I was flying back to Bime this morning, instead of meeting someone from a flight. He also told me that there was no AMA flight from Oksibil this morning so I ran out of his office and nearly knocked over one of the Bime representatives. He explained that the KD's flight was landing at 09:00 so I waited with him for an hour, eager to catch sight of the KD and wondering what his mood would be like.
The KD appeared with a big smile and as I stepped forward to shake his hand, he grabbed me in a bear hug, although given the that the typical Papuan is less than 5 feet tall, it was around my waist. I was really happy that he was pleased to meet me and also very happy that I had made the decision to meet him at the airport. He took me by the hand and ushered everyone to a taxi. Although he didn't speak any English, I felt confident that I could work something out with him. I'd already decided that the maximum amount of money I could realistically afford to pay for a 'permit fee' would be $500, but wanted to negotiate to around $300.
At the hotel, I ordered tea for everyone and we started a discussion. They explained that we would have a break in the discussions around 1 p.m., in order that I could get some rest. I wondered how much they had to say, because my piece would be short and sweet! I explained again my position and then explained that I was respectfully asking his permission to complete the important project. This time I explained in detail that I was in Papua on behalf of the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust to photograph Papua's glaciers and that the Queen, as patron of the Trust, gave the expedition her blessing. With a flourish, I produced a Letter of Support from the Director General of the Trust, asking for any assistance that they could provide., This turned out to be a master stroke and I suppose that is exactly why the WCMT issue such a letter in the first place.
I also explained that if the KD was kind enough to give me permission to return to Bime and allow me to access Puncak Mandala, I would have to postpone my visit until after I had completed the Carstensz Pyramid leg of my expedition. He agreed to consider this as part of the decision-making process.
After I had finished explaining how important I was (which took about one hour), they informed me that they would now leave to discuss amongst themselves and would return at 1 p.m., and that I should get some rest ( I must have looked tired). I was feeling pretty crappy through a combination of lack of sleep and a heavy cold that had come on the day before and would have jumped at the chance to get some rest, but I decided to take the calculated risk to go back into Sentani town to book a ticket to Wamena for the following day. I was pretty sure that the KD would allow me to visit and felt I could convince him that I should postpone to the end of my trip. I therefore wanted to make sure I could fly to Wamena in the Baliem Valley as soon as possible to make an attempt on Puncak Trikora. I asked at the hotel reception if they could help me book a flight for the next day, but when the hotel manager phoned his friend at Trigana Air he was told that all flights were full. He suggested to go directly to the ticket office to try to figure something out. I went straight to the Trigana Air office near the airport and was able to book a ticket for the 08:00 flight the next day to Wamena and also booked a return flight for 4th December, which would allow me to meet up with the Carstensz Pyramid team. I also phoned a hotel in Wamena and booked in.
My plan now was to fly to Wamena and then try to fix sopmething on the ground. In email correspondence with a couple of local agents from Wamena, they ha offered prices that were outwith my budget – I really wanted to organise a Trikora climb for less than $1,000 but wasn't sure if this would be possible. As a last resort, I was prepared to wing it and try to get my own way to Puncak Trikora, risky as this was.
Back at the hotel, the KD and his associates returned just after 1 p.m.. The KD produced a number of documents for my perusal, including a very useful map, something that I had struggled to get hold of in the UK, despite visiting the library of the Royal Geographical Society. He also had some historical geological and other scientific reports from European bodies, the most recent being a geological expedition from Frei Universitat Berlin in 1982. A couple of documents had a copy of a photograph of the glacier on Mandala's summit that was taken in the early 1950s by a US reconnaisance flight. I had seen a copy of this photograph in a book written by the first party to summit Mandala in the 1950s (a large-scale Dutch scientific expedition). However, I have never been able to find any other photographs of the summit elsewhere.
He expounded the following extraordinary facts about Mandala:
1. It's the highest and most important mountain in New Guinea
2. The glacier is permanent, will never melt and has been there since God created the Earth
3. The mountain is needle sharp and impossible to climb – I would be unable to take a photograph of the summit
4. Bime is 1,300 km away from Mandala
5. Despite the distance above, it can be reached in two days walk from Bime
6. I would need a team of at least 20 porters because so many were likely to die on the way
7. Even with all my fantastic Montane clothing, the cold would blow most of it off and I would probably also die
I thanked him for the information and told him that if I could get a photograph of Mandala, it would be a huge news story in the UK and that was why I wanted to save Mandala until last, because it was so important. I exp[lained that I hope on the first two mountains I woul dbuild up my strength to be able to tackle such a mighty mountain. Regardless of the fact that I would be walking to my certain death, he agreed that I could try to reach Mandala and supported my project. He then produced an official 'permit', which reads as follows:
Subject: Main connection of the people of Stare Mounatin District of Papua and the Sub-District of Bime and the whole of Republic of Indonesia.
With the Respect of Hon. Mr. Ricard, I'm the Member of Stare Mountain District. On behalf of my people in Bime Sub-District, we would like to ask you,
What benefit will we get apart from your travelling to Bime sub-district and the resources and minerals there?
Please, our motives is that you must help us and developing our sub-district of Bime so that we may work together and help each other by multilateral/bilateral system.
Thank you very much
I thinks this means I have free access to Bime and all the villages en route to Mandala. I was asked to pay just a small token of appreciation in travelling expenses that amounted to less than $70. I actually really enjoyed meeting the KD and he seems genuinely pleased that I will return. The only small problem I forsee is that he told me he will keep me in Bime for one month and advised me to send an email to my new employer explaining that I will not be returning to Scotland. Maybe I should just marry a girl from the Star Mountains and raise pigs.............
It feels great to have at least one issue settled and it will be good to go back to Bime knowing at least partly what to expect – I've no doubt that there will be huge frustrations and delays when I get there but I have some flexibility in my schedule and will do all I can to make this work.
On a lighter note, I managed to watch some of the movie 'Misery' on TV, which I'd never seen and would now like to watch in full, and later in the evening E.T. was also showing and I watched a bit of that. But I was so tired I put my head down at 20:00 and fell immediately fast asleep.
Day 9 - 27th November
It was another early start this morning at 04:30. I packed my kit (again) and had a quick breakfast before heading to the airport for my 06:00 check-in time against an 08:00 departure. The check-in queue at the Trigana Air counter gave me goosebumps – it reminded me of the check-in desks for local flights at Khartoum Airport in Sudan. I've been trying hard to forget my experiences in Sudan, but the disorganised chaos brought back unhappy memories for me. However, I soon realised that, unlike in Sudan, there was some order behind the chaos. The girl behind the check-in desk also took pity on me and called me forward, then accepted my overweight bag with no charge. She told me my flight would start boarding in 10 minutes, which was 1 hour 45 minutes ahead of schedule – luckily my biggest fear in life is missing a flight so I'm always at the airport in good time and I made it on OK.
While I was walking to the plane, two Indonesians in their mid-20s asked what I was doing in Papua – turns out they work for Worldvision, an international Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO). On the 40-minute flight, we shared stories of lazy local staff members as though we were playing Top Trumps!
The flight into Wamena is incredible – the plane has to pass through an opening in the mountains and suddenly the whole Baliem valley opens up in front you. The Baliem Valley was only discovered in 1936 by coincidence by a mail aircraft and had a self supporting agricultural system of high standard, despite having had no previous contact with the civilized world. Now, Wamena is home to 10,000 people but there are still no roads into Wamena from anywhere so all goods have to be flown in, which pushes prices up and makes life expensive for the local residents.
At the airport, the NGO staff explained that my hotel was within walking distance, which cheered me up because I have already started to lose patience with the fact that people will rip off tourists at every opportunity. For me, walking for 10 minutes with two bags is preferable to paying 10 dollars for a two-minute taxi ride.
At the hotel, I had a taste of what to expect when I asked if I could get breakfast if I paid for it. They said no. I immediately hated them all and decided to be an annoying guest. I asked if they knew where the internet cafe called Papua.com was located and the receptionist proceeded to draw me the worst map in history. As I write this blog update 12 hours later, I still haven't found this place. I was looking for this cafe because I had been advised by my PR Alex that if I could seek out a Japanese man called Fuji he could change my life (i.e. organise my trip to Trikora). Having failed to find said cafe, I passed a cafe called Hotel Pilamo and went inside for breakfast. I checked my laptop and was surprised to see a wifi connection. It didn't belong to the cafe but I was grateful to hijack it nevertheless. I had been in email contact with a couple of guides several months previously but was not happy with the prices they offered. However, I decided to try to phone both of them now that I was in Wamena and had my travel permit to see if they would be willing to negotiate.
The first guy I called had come highly recommended on several internet forums, but when I tried his number it didn't connect. The second guide answered and I arranged for him to come to the cafe to discuss a trip. He spoke really good English and over a cup of tea (and several cigarettes for him) he explained that he had been sponsored by a priest through school (which is how he had learned such good English), that he had 7 children, including 6 daughters and that each time one of his daughters marries he receives pigs as a gift from her husband's family. It really pays to have daughters in Papua. The local population come from the Dani tribe and he explained that very few people now live the traditional way.
Then, we started to negotiate. I explained my position that I didn't have a large budget and that I wanted to be as quick (while staying safe) and as minimal as possible. Over email his lowest price had been $1,750 but his opening price was this time was $3,000 and I immediately told him that if he didn't give me a serious price I would simply fly back to Jayapura the next day. I don't actually have access to lots of cash in Papua so I told him my limit was $1,000 and eventually we settled ona price of $1,200, which I am relatively happy with. I know that the most expensive part of the trip is renting a 4WD vehicle for the 2.5 hour drive to Lake Habbema and back. The cost of fuel in Wamena are prohibitive since, like all other goods, it has to be flown in from Jayapura.
Unfortunately, I hadn't learned anything from my experience negotiating access to Bime and I assumed everything would be taken care of. However, a couple of hours later, the guide turned up at my hotel to continue negotiations and finally left 3 hours later. I think trying to organise access to these mountains will be more time-consuming and exhausting than actually climbing them! So, now I'll be accompanied by a guide who doesn't speak great English, a cook (for the guide) and two porters. The guide will not actually climb to the summit with me but just make sure I get to the mountain. I have to but 10 packets of cigarettes to smooth our progress with the OPM and also have to make a 'donation' of 500,000 Rupiah, which equates to about $60 USD.
Officially, Lake Habbema and Puncak Trikora are off-limits to tourists, but this being Indonesia, anything is possible at the right price.