Roadtripping through West Papua

[words & photograph © Mark Eveleigh

This morning I was talking to a photographer friend who’s just returned from a driving assignment that took him overland from London to Mumbai. And at this very moment Narina is driving out of Chiang Mai on her own assignment up to the Golden Triangle and Laos.

With such inspiring friends I’m really in a roadtripping frame of mind today and wish my own journey could only last a little longer. I can’t complain though as we roll through a blissful dawn falling the coastline of Birds Head Peninsula on New Guinea island. Even the dodgy Indonesian girl-pop bleating out of the speakers can’t lower my spirits. By now of course I’m well used to the syrupy sweet chipmunk voices that girl singers have to have here.

The rum-jungle shacks and outrigger fishing boats are familiar too, as are the squadrons of buzzing motorbikes that followed us like an angry swarm of bees out of Manokwari city. But here, far off on the remotest eastern wing of Indonesia and at the foot of Asia, the riders look far more Australasian. There’s something about the flowers and birds and even the chip of the cicadas that seems different from my more familiar haunts on the western side of the Wallace Line.

Pastel coloured, picket-fence churches with misspelled names – Imanuel, Haleluya – and the ragged blouses of the women remain as testament to the German missionaries who brought the ‘good book’ to Indonesia’s bible belt.

We have three or four hours to drive up to Batok Mountains where I am supposed to get some shots for the magazine story I’m working on. But a roadblock has already slowed us down where some villagers were cutting roadside trees (whether legally or not remains unclear). Now another bamboo pole is stretched across the road to bring us to a halt. My driver explains that a Land Rover killed a dog here this morning and the villagers have ‘kidnapped the road’. A group of children surround the car but the situation is basically friendly. I smile a lot and greet the men at the roadblock in Indonesian and with the only word of greeting in tribal Kaka language that I’ve learned. Then I pull out my camera tentatively and the kids’ faces immediately break into beaming betelnut stained smiles.

The driver speaks fluent Kaka and wears a baseball cap with the insignia of his old army battalion. It is hard to tell which of the two factors was most instrumental in easing our passage through the roadblock.

Soon the road has deteriorated into potholes. The driver is really not good enough to be tackling these mountainside roads at this speed. I cringe at his mistimed gear-changes and sit white-knuckled when he overshoots the bends and careers out wildly onto the edge of the gravel. Just a couple of extra metres of uncontrolled high-speed and we would have been spinning out over the ocean far below. I try to evoke that Zen frame of mind that is sometimes the only recourse in remote travel; “when your time’s up it’s up” I tell myself. Nevertheless I wish I could take the wheel myself so at least I’d be the one flying when we eventually take off over the edge.

If you ever get to read this post it will only be because I finally worked up the courage to bully him into slowing down.

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