After we published our story about our Baliem Valley trek, Michael commented about his own experience when he did the same trek back in 1993. Given how remote Papua still is today, and how untouched Papua tribes and traditions must have been, we were eager to hear more about Michael’s experience then. We are pleased today to share his story with us, together with photos from his trek.
Papua Tribes and Traditions
The Baliem Valley is home to three different tribes, each with its specific culture. These tribes live in the Baliem Valley mountain range: the Dani tribe at the bottom, the Yali tribe in the southeast, and the Lani tribe to the west end. As a reference, the first missionary arrived by plane in the mid-1950s, a place that still today as no paved road.
Among the other 20 or so different tribes in Papua, the Korowai and Asmat tribes are the most famous ones due to their customs of cannibalism that it is believed they still practice today.
Since the trek was over 25 years ago, Michael did not write about the trek itself since some of the details are fuzzy. However, it remains as one of his most memorable adventures. The original photos were slides that he scanned to make digital jpegs. The photos are not arranged in chronological order but allow us to glimpse in time past.
Tell us about yourself
My name is Michael McKee, age 67, a retired chemistry professor from Auburn, Alabama. My wife, Nida McKee, is Indonesian. We have a farm (8 hectares) located between Medan and Berastagi on the island of Sumatra where we spend three months every year.
Flashback to 1993′ Papua Tribes
You visited Papua in 1993. You must have been among some of the first pioneers to explore the region. What made you choose to travel to Papua?
I spent a sabbatical in Canberra, Australia and wanted to do something different.
At that time, Papua was still called Irian Jaya.
I got off the plane in Wamena and found a guide (US$25/day, I think). Together we hired a cook and porter and bought all of the stuff in the Wamena market (mainly tobacco, tea, sugar, rice, and canned tuna fish). I had a sleeping bag but no tent or cooking equipment.
[ Click here to see how to prepare your Papua trip.]
If you are unsure what to take on a trekking trip, this ultimate adventure packing list might be a useful list for you to check.
On the Baliem Valley Trail
I needed a Surat Jalan (travel permit) that was checked one time at a police checkpoint at the beginning of the trek. There were no guesthouses. In one village there was a house that I used. In one village, I slept in the traditional round men’s sleeping hut. Otherwise, we used crude shelters. I saw one Westerner (briefly) during the entire trek.
Ancient Papua Traditions
I spoke some Bahasa; my guide spoke some English. We were a group of five, so we did not make a big impression. We did not get to see any traditional performances. Although I watched some locals make a fire with friction at about the same time it would take me to light a match. We bought sweet potatoes and vegetables along the way. I have to say that food was short supply. Not long after, the government had to supplement their food with rice.
On this photo below, the Papua woman has no finger left on her hand. Traditions in Papua required a finger to be cut on women’s hands for each death in the family.
A Yani man was wearing traditional outfit while working his field. Note the koteka was sticking out.
The koteka is a penis gourd traditionally worn by Papua males. The sheath is usually carved out a dried-out gourd.
The trail was bad. It rained every day. I was never dry. My guide took a route around Mt. Elit because he thought the way was too dangerous (for me). The guide was aware that he was responsible for my safety. The government police knew who was my guide and where I was going. He did not want anything bad to happen to me.
I have been to many different countries, but Irian Jaya was the most challenging trekking. I have trekked in Nepal (Pokhara to Muktinath, Jomson trek) and Ladakh (Lamayuru to Zanskar).
Next Travel Plan
I travel every year with my wife to our farm close to Medan on Sumatra where we grow palm oil and tropical fruit.
Thank you, Michael, for sharing with us your experience trekking the Baliem Valley back in 1993, and for these fantastic photos!
Baliem Valley Trekking: The Ultimate Modern Adventure
These incredible photos from Michael show how traditional Papua was just barely 20 years ago. As we did the same trek recently, we saw how the traditions are still active in Papua tribes. While we did get to see that many traditional outfits, the culture has changed little. Watch below one of our vlogs from our trek to see how the life and trail are today.
Travel Tips for the Baliem Valley
- Check out our How to prepare your Baliem Valley Trek for travel tips.
- You don’t need a guide if you don’t travel further than the first villages, but you do if you travel deeper into the jungle. Do ask around about guides, not all are good or trustworthy.
- You don’t have to speak Bahasa to get around. Download Google Translate offline before you go.
- Easy day hikes around Wamena, Baliem Valley main town, will take you through small villages where you can still feel some of these traditions.
- Read about the Papua tribes and traditions, and the Papua history, in general. Highly informative!
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February 10, 2018 at 2:23 am
I hadn’t head of these Papua tribes before but it’s utterly fascinating. Travelling there in 1993 must have been such a (scary) adventure. ANd the thing with the cut off fingers? Was that just for women? I cannot…
February 13, 2018 at 4:13 am
Given how remote and how isolated Wamena and Papua are in general, I can’t fathom how it must have been then. As far as we know, the finger cutting tradition was only for women. We were told it no longer happens.
February 9, 2018 at 6:04 pm
You had an awesome experiense treking in Papua. It was shocking to know that some tribes still practiced cannibalism and cut off fingers for every death in a family only 25 years ago. Do they have the same practices now? I see that most of the Papua people wear regular clothing now compared to just a little cover a quater a century ago. It was a very interesting article and the photos were unique. Thank you for sharing.
February 10, 2018 at 7:01 pm
The cutting off the fingers no longer happens, from what we were told. But we did come across elderly women with such hands. The clothing and lack of headdress is the only thing that seems to have changed during that period. The trails, the men’s huts, the log bridges, the carrying of goods and kids by the women – still the case nowadays. Papua still is a very traditional place to visit.