After days of travelling into the Indonesian wilderness by river, it’s time to hit the jungle trail. The real Papua adventure starts here.
In the first part of my Korowai travelogue, I left the comfort of the Papuan highlands and journeyed to the remote village of Mabul.
This time I plunge deep into the heart of the jungle, almost die crossing a swamp, and visit my first Korowai treehouse.
Welcome to the Jungle: Part 2 – Into the green inferno
I woke as the first rays of sunlight broke over Mabul.
But there wasn’t much choice.
Our tents were pitched in the hallway of the chief’s house. From dawn villagers had been stomping past us along bare wooden floorboards, carrying planks and tools to the backyard.
Before our jungle jaunt began, the village chief – who’d introduced himself the previous evening as John – wanted to finish some home improvement work.
The boss was adding an extra room to the back of his hut. Even though he was joining us on our gruelling trek, John wanted to get the floor finished before we set off.
No sleep in the mighty jungle
As we ate breakfast and watched the villagers at work, my head span with exhaustion.
Sleep in the Papuan wilderness is tough. Even after dark the air is humid, warm and still.
Since leaving the temperate comfort of the Baliem Valley, I’d hardly slept a wink.
At night I couldn’t bear to lie under the restrictive outer shell of my tent, and instead rested under just the inner mesh.
It would have been more comfortable to sleep in the open air. But as Papua is home to the most aggressive mosquitoes I’ve ever encountered – the little bastards will even bite your face – it would’ve been madness to doze al fresco.
A tour of Mabul
After breakfast I took a stroll around Mabul to steel myself for the journey ahead.
The village is a strip of dirt with a row of simple houses on either side. But in comparison to the rickety homes we saw on the banks of the Brazza, the houses in Mabul are sturdy and solid.
Housing subsidised by the Indonesian government is, in most cases, better than what local communities can build themselves.
It’s no surprise that many Korowai choose to leave the jungle for a more comfortable life.
Mabul’s most notable sight is a tiny church on the edge of town, which was built and funded by Christian missionaries.
The church is isolated from the rest of the village, and with its striking paint job feels different to other more practical structures in Mabul.
It’s as if the church is watching over the village, keeping a close eye on the people who live there – a domineering design I saw in other villages across Papua.
A home in the wild
After my whistle-stop tour of Mabul, I returned to John’s house.
As he was still busy building, the chief gestured that I should have a look around his home. He was clearly proud of the work he’d done so far.
Inside, I was struck by the sparseness of domestic life in Mabul. No furniture, no luxuries, nowhere to relax.
There was an old black and white television on a shelf, but it wasn’t plugged in.
There’s one electricity generator in Mabul, and it’s only switched on at night.
I don’t know if John’s vintage Vortex would even be able to pick up a TV signal this far in the wilderness.
But while the chief’s house didn’t feel homely by Western standards, his children’s school notebooks were a warm and familiar sight.
Like kids in every classroom around the world, the Korowai children had defaced their exercise books and scribbled over the grinning pop stars on the covers.
Black teeth and goofy glasses are funny wherever you go, I guess.
Global graffiti conventions aside, it was weird to see Western sports stars on the covers of some notebooks, including one of my fellow countrymen, Wayne Rooney.
He was the last person I expected to see in the depths of the Papuan wilderness.
The village people
Like in Patipi Dibawa, the villagers in Mabul were curious about our group. They gathered outside John’s house to try and catch a glimpse of the pallid explorers.
At first the villagers were shy, and peered through grimy windows and half-open doors to steal a look at us.
Eventually a group of three young girls plucked up the courage to come inside, and were soon followed by women and children from neighbouring houses.
The language barrier meant we couldn’t have any meaningful exchanges with our hosts, but it was still fun.
The villagers were fascinated by the screens on the backs of our cameras, and how they could see pictures of themselves instantly.
We spent at least an hour taking pictures and showing villagers their own images (and worrying about our dwindling camera batteries).
Hanging out with the locals and briefly becoming a part of village life was the highlight of our stop in Mabul.
The jungle beckons
After we’d entertained the crowds, our guide, Marius, told us he’d hired a group of villagers to accompany us into the jungle.
It was time to start our trek.
Today we’d hike to a camp halfway between Mabul and a remote Korowai compound, a journey of around eight hours.
As we left town, we were followed by a group of children who shook our hands and laughed, while their parents waved from the verandas of their homes.
The last sight as we left town was a low-standing, traditional Korowai treehouse that was home to one Mabul family.
Marius told us the owners had chosen to leave the jungle to be near their friends and family, but refused to live in a government home.
You can take the Korowai out of the jungle, it seems, but you can’t always take jungle out of the Korowai.
For the trek we were joined by John and five villagers, who carried most of our expedition gear.
But our companions were more than packhorses.
The villagers had made the journey to the compound countless times, and knew the jungle like the backs of their hands.
They were also fiercely resourceful, and knew what to do when the jungle landscape changed and we had to deal with the unexpected.
Without them, we wouldn’t have lasted a minute.
Although I’d spent months preparing for my Korowai adventure – and knew exactly what I was getting myself into – I learned a few sobering lessons during the first hours of our expedition.
If you ever follow in my footsteps, here are a few things you need to be ready for in the jungle.
Lesson 1: The jungle is wet
If you’re a fan of action movies, you might expect the jungle floor to be dry and solid – a sure-footed platform for Indiana Jones to escape angry cannibals, or for Tarzan to run with the apes.
But the jungles of southwest Papua are relentlessly wet, slippery and muddy.
Less than an hour into the trip, my rubber boots were flooded and dirty brown water was slopping over the rims.
My boots were designed for a building site, and were much too short for jungle swashbuckling.
At times during the trip we had to blindly wade waist-deep through stagnant pools, and scrape tiny leeches from our clothes once we were back on dry land.
Looking back, I should have worn chest waders.
Lesson 2: The jungle is green
That may sound bleeding obvious, but the relentless hue of the jungle becomes overwhelming.
Everywhere you look is green. Green. Green. Green. Fucking green.
In the murky half-light, where the sun is blocked by the thick jungle canopy, an oppressive atmosphere festers.
Travellers are lulled into a zombie-like state, and I zoned out for long periods and didn’t notice the passing of time.
In rare moments when the leaves were punctuated by the vibrant red of jungle plants, our spirits soared.
My companions were also glad that I’d chosen to wear cheap rubber boots, as the garish yellow provided some relief in the jade gloom.
Lesson 3: Jungle bugs are horrific
I’m not normally bothered by bugs and spiders. But the creepy-crawlies we encountered in the Papuan jungle were monstrous.
Unlike their paltry cousins in the West, the insects and spiders in Papua are freaky and enormous. As they creep, their unnatural size exaggerates their slow, sickly movements.
Our guides soon realised we were fascinated by the monster insects, and delighted in showing us the preposterous creatures they spotted along the way.
Since my Korowai trip, any squeamishness I had around insects and spiders has gone.
Compared to the insects you find in the depths of the jungle, the pests we flee from back home are pathetic.
Lesson 4: Log crossings scare the crap of me
This picture shows me edging across my first jungle log crossing.
Seconds later, I almost plunged into the swamp.
I slipped as I stepped onto the opposite bank. Thankfully my reactions were quick, and I managed to grab hold of a vertical pole driven deep into the swamp below.
I ended up with the rubber soles of my boots slowly sliding off the log, struggling to keep the wobbly pole upright as the weight of my backpack dragged me down.
I thought my trekking days were over.
Moments later I was hauled to safety by one of the Korowai. But the damage was done.
I’d lost my confidence for log crossings, and had to be helped during the rest of the trip to cross makeshift bridges.
Our cook, Teron, took the lead, and always made sure I was safe whenever it was time to cross a river or swamp. He did this while carrying his gear. And a machete. And the raw eggs he’d lugged all the way from Wamena.
Even now, years after the expedition, I often sit bolt upright in bed, my heart thundering as I think about jungle crossings.
As I’m clumsy, the thought of edging across a mossy log fills me with terror.
But log crossings are unavoidable in the Papuan wilderness. There were many more to come as our adventure unfolded.
At one point during the first hours of our trek, Marius told us to hang back as our Korowai hosts started chopping down trees.
Seasonal rains had flooded a deep basin that stood between us and our destination, and the only way to get across was to build a series of precarious, zigzagging bridges.
Knowing how nervous I was, the Korowai added wobbly handrails at waist height, which I gripped with white knuckles as I edged my way across.
But as there was no solid ground below, and the swamp water was an evil shade of burnt copper, this perilous crossing still haunts my nightmares.
I smell a rat
Around an hour from our destination, excitement swept through our Korowai guides.
As one they converged on the exposed roots of a tree, and began digging furiously with their bare hands.
Marius told us they’d spotted a jungle rat. The Korowai consider these rodents a delicacy, and they all joined in to try and catch an unexpected snack.
We winced as we watched our companions reaching blindly into tunnels, seemingly unconcerned that their grasping hands might be ripped to shreds by vermin.
After 10 chaotic minutes the chase was abandoned, and the Korowai conceded their prey had escaped.
But even though the hunt was unsuccessful, it was fascinating to see the tribe work as a team.
Barely a word was uttered during the chase, and the Korowai worked together silently and swiftly, driven by experience and instinct.
I’m still surprised the plucky rat was able to escape.
Home for the night
We eventually emerged from the jungle into a clearing. In the centre stood a basic shelter, next to a muddy river.
It was a relief to feel the sun on our skin again.
Exhausted, thirsty and wringing with sweat, we changed our clothes and collapsed in the shade.
But there was no such luxury for the Korowai. Within minutes of arriving they’d started work on extending the shelter, and building a wooden fishing platform by the water’s edge.
Like John in Mabul, our industrious companions were reluctant to waste time, even after a trek that left their Western companions sticky and drained.
My first Korowai treehouse
After lunch, Marius had a treat. He revealed he was going to take us to visit our first Korowai treehouse.
The treehouse, he said, had recently been abandoned, so we had freedom to explore and take photos.
Abandoned treehouses are common in Korowai territory. As the tribe is nomadic – and their homes normally last a maximum of five years – they regularly abandon houses when searching for food and resources.
Treehouses are also left behind when key members of the tribe die.
The Korowai believe that death is brought by demon-possessed male witches, khakhua, and homes are said to be cursed when a family member passes away.
Sadly, there are also many abandoned treehouses as members of the tribe turn their back on traditional life to settle in government housing.
We were also delighted when Marius told us that a local Korowai woman and her granddaughter were going to meet us in the treehouse.
At last, after days of travelling, we were about to meet our first true jungle dwellers.
Building Korowai treehouses
The treehouse was a short walk from the shelter. It stood in the centre of a clearing and, despite being uninhabited, looked magnificent.
The Korowai live in treehouses for a variety of reasons.
First and foremost, it allows them to escape the mosquitoes that swarm near ground level at night. Most Korowai treehouses are 8-12 metres high, which is more than enough to escape nocturnal bloodsuckers.
Treehouses are also used for protection. Inter-tribal fighting is a problem in Korowai territory, and living high above the forest floor is a shrewd way to hinder night-time raids.
In regions were tribal warfare is common, treehouses have been discovered up to a dizzying 35 metres high.
Recently, a BBC documentary was a source of controversy, as it was alleged the director asked the Korowai to build unusually-high treehouses as it made for better television.
That may be true. But on our boat journey along the Siret, we caught sight of a few Korowai homes that stood unnervingly high above the jungle canopy.
How Korowai houses use the jungle
Korowai houses are built around a large banyan or wanbom tree, which acts as a central pillar. Smaller trees are then used at the corners for support and balance.
The results are eerily natural. When looking underneath a Korowai home, it looks as if the trees naturally lifted the house into the air.
When building a treehouse, the Korowai construct the floor first, which is made using the toughest wood available.
The treehouses can hold as many as a dozen people and livestock, so the floors need to be able to stand the test of time.
The floors also feature sections that are open to the jungle below, in case the fire pits used for cooking get out of control.
If the flames get feisty, the Korowai just kick the burning embers into the gap. Genius.
With the floor in place, walls and a roof are added. They’re made from sago wood bound together with raffia palm fibres.
The final touch is to smear animal fat at the threshold of the house and along the ladder – to protect against evil spirits – and cut small holes in the roof.
These holes are a doorway for curious jungle animals to enter the house. But when they creep inside the animals are trapped, and become an easy meal for the Korowai.
Exploring the Korowai treehouse
When I climbed into the treehouse – and with recent memories of slippery log crossings fresh in my mind – I was shocked by how secure it felt.
I expected the house to rock from side to side. But as I walked around the floor felt solid, even though there were large gaps where I could see the jungle below.
Although the house was abandoned, signs of life were everywhere. Hand-woven bags hung from the ceiling, there was a pile of fresh ash in the fire pit, and processed sago was piled on plates made from tree bark.
But what struck me most were the bones that were pushed into every crack and crevice.
As the Korowai have a history of cannibalism, it was disturbing to see some suspiciously large bones.
Marius told us that the Korowai love to collect things, and use the bones of animals they’ve killed as decorations and trophies.
He assured us that none of the bones were human. But, looking back at my photos, some still look fishy to me…
Meeting the Korowai
While taking photos of the treehouse, we heard chattering outside.
The voices were high-pitched and fast. A machine-gun patoia of curious words that tripped and tumbled over each other.
This was our first experience of the jungle Korowai dialect, an unusual sound we were surrounded by over the coming days.
We watched as a Korowai woman climbed the steep ladder into the treehouse, pushing her young granddaughter ahead of her.
Despite being almost 10 metres above the ground, the youngster was unfazed by the climb.
Unlike the Korowai we’d met in Mabul, the pair were dressed in traditional clothes, including necklaces made from shells and handwoven grass skirts.
The woman greeted us with a warm smile, then took a seat and invited us to join her.
Marius, who spoke a little of the local language, chatted to her on our behalf.
He told us the woman was happy to meet travellers, and show them what life is like in the jungle.
But she was puzzled by why outsiders wanted to come so far into the wilderness.
“This is just how life is for us,” she said. “This is the way we live.”
As we sat together, the woman casually wove a grass skirt. She rolled the fibres on her thigh, then carefully twisted the strands together. It’s a slow process, and a skirt can take many days to finish.
As the woman worked, her granddaughter patiently waited and played with her sleepy pet piglet.
At one point she plucked a large bone from the floor and began sucking on it, again stoking our fears of cannibalism that was a dark undertone during the expedition.
As dusk approached, Marius said it was time to head back to camp. We left the Korowai family in the treehouse.
The woman continued to weave, but the curious child followed us to the treehouse entrance and watched as we disappeared into the jungle.
We walked quickly back to camp, knowing it wouldn’t be long before the mosquitos began to swarm.
With another early start ahead, we decided to call it a night and get some rest before our final push to the Korowai compound.
But as I struggled to sleep in the sweltering heat, I only had one thing on my mind.
To leave the camp we’d need to use a log bridge to cross that filthy river.
After today’s brush with death, the thought of another slippery crossing kept me awake for hours.
Next time: The Korowai compound, processing sago and eating grubs.
Check out the expanded Welcome to the Jungle, part 2 photo gallery.