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

April 29, 1990|JAMES POLSTER | Polster, of Mill Valley, Calif., is the author of "A Guest in the Jungle."

ANGGURUK, Indonesia — 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?

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