Papua, the largest and easternmost province in the Indonesian Republic covers the entire western half of New Guinea, the second largest island in the world after Greenland. (The eastern half of New Guinea is known as PNG, the Independent State of Papua New Guinea which became independent from Australia in 1975.) Papua covers 410,660 square kilometers (158,510 square miles) and makes up 22% of the total land area of Indonesia. Its population is less than three million.
Papua is a huge expanse of tropical rainforest. It has the tallest tropical trees in the world and immeasurable and largely unexplored biodiversity. There are regular reports of scientific expeditions discovering new and unknown animal and plant species. The province also contains the highest mountains between the Himalayas and the Andes, rising up to almost 5000 meters, covered in snow. In the north and the south the rainforests fuse into extensive wetlands and swamps that stretch for hundreds of kilometers.
The people of the island can be divided into more than 250 groups; they are an incredibly diverse mixture of cultures and languages. Papuan languages are unlike any other language families in the world; between Papua and PNG the island of New Guinea is where we find the highest number of different languages in the world: 1000 out of the world’s total of 6000, They can be classified into dozens of families but there is also a number of totally unrelated languages that are as different from each other as English is from Chinese. This diversity can be understood when we consider the origins of the inhabitants of the island and its human history. The very earliest people who came to the island from mainland Asia arrived 40,000 years ago during the Pleistocene Ice Ages when sea levels were 100-150 meters lower than today and the Asian continent was still connected to the modern islands of Borneo and Java. At that point Asia was nearly 1000 miles closer to Australia and New Guinea than in present times. The early migrants probably crossed the relatively narrow channels between the islands on bamboo rafts. At the time Australia and New Guinea were still joined together so present day Australian aboriginals and New Guineans share the same Asian ancestors. It was about 30,000 years ago that the first people reached the cold New Guinea highlands. Thus the human societies of Australia and New Guinea developed in substantial isolation from their ancestral lands. The new country they found was an endless range of deep valleys separated by high peaks and few easy passes in between, so over thousands of years there was little contact between neighboring tribes. The extreme isolation of their development is reflected in the languages spoken today.
While present day Papuan Highlanders are mostly descendants of the earliest inhabitants, the ancestors of the tribes in the lowlands reached the island as part of a second wave of Austronesian migration around 3,600 years ago. By then sea levels had risen but these later arrivals probably crossed the wider expanses of sea on double outrigger canoes.
During Dutch colonial times Papua was a neglected backwater and it was only in the 1930s that the first Europeans entered the Highlands. Netherlands New Guinea remained Dutch until 1963. After an interim period of UN involvement Papua formally joined Indonesia in 1969.
Jayapura, the provincial capital city on the North Coast is situated on a beautiful bay that makes a good natural harbor. It was in Jayapura that General MacArthur won a strategic victory against the Japanese and assembled his fleet for the invasion of the Philippines. The airport is near Lake Sentani at a distance of 40 kilometers.
In Papua there are virtually no roads outside of the few major towns and flying is the only practical option for covering longer distances. The main gateways are Jayapura, Timika and Sorong although there are also limited flights to Fakfak, and Manokwari. The best way to visit the Asmat, ‘the best woodcarvers of the stone-age’ is by boat from Timika, a coastal town in the southwest; the only way to visit the Dani, ‘the gentle warriors of the highlands’ is to fly from Jayapura to Wamena, principal town in the Baliem Valley. The climate is tropical, warm and humid along the coast and in the lowlands, cooler in the highlands. In the monsoon season rainfall can be very heavy; the best time to travel in Papua is between May and October when the weather is relatively dry.
The Raja Ampat archipelago consists of some 600 Islands and islets that straddle the equator in the area off the “Birds Head”, the extreme northern tip of Papua. Literally translated Raja Ampat means ‘the Four Kings’ and the name dates back to the time that the islands were ruled from the North Moluccan sultanates of Ternate and Tidore. (Each of the four larger islands in the group, Waigeo, Salawati, Batanta and Misool used to have an independent ‘raja’) Most of the islands have rugged and steep coastlines and are covered with virgin rain forest. The larger islands are lightly populated, but most others are uninhabited by humans. Until the turn of the century the name Raja Ampat was still completely absent from Indonesian travel brochures and very few people in the travel business had even heard of the name. However, in the course of the past ten years the area has been thoroughly surveyed and it has been identified as one of the most noteworthy ecological niches on the planet, on a par with the Great Barrier Reef and Galapagos. Marine biologists have concluded that Raja Ampat is home to seventy percent of the known coral species on the planet. Many fish, corals and crustaceans that live in these waters are found nowhere else on earth. It is truly the world’s most pristine destination. Even the most jaded divers who ‘have seen it all’ will find themselves mesmerized by the unique beauty of this underwater paradise.