Travel in the Baliem Valley

The Baliem Valley sits in the centre of the Indonesian half of the island of New Guinea. The valley is walled in on both sides by the high mountain ridges of the Sudirman, Maoke, Star and Jayawijaya ranges. The valley its self is at an altitude of between 1600-1700m with its surrounding peaks rising to over 4000m.

As a consequence of its geography the valley was not know to the outside world until 1938 when a reconnaisance flight from a zoological expedition flew over it. Even to this day the only practical way to access the valley is by flying to the airstrip of Wamena. Prior to the 1940's the communities of the valley lived in a way that had changed little since the stone age, including using polished stone for blades and axes.

There are three main tribal groups living in the valley; the Yali, the Dani and the Lani. Each tribe has its own distinct language and cultural practices. All do share some common practices, one of the more famous being the penis-gourd or Koteka, worn by most of the men of the tribes. Many of the men will little else, other than perhaps a wooly hat!

Inevitably, with different tribal groups all occupying a single 'walled' region, there was a long history of some degree of inter-tribal conflict. Legend had it that some tribes would also eat their vanquished enemies. Nowadays the annual Baliem Valley festival plays host to a mock war where the tribes meet and celebrate their own and their shared cultures.

The tribal communities largely live by subsistence farming. They cultivate sweet potatoes, sago palm and taros, a broad-leafed plant that is mainly grown for its root tuber or 'corm'.

Raising pigs is also another essential part of the local food supply. Pig feasts therefore form a very significant part of the cultural rituals of the area such as celebrations. Pigs also usually form the dowry given by the prospective groom to his bride-groom's family. Social superiority is also inevitably measured in part by the number of pigs a family own.

The cultural rituals of the local communities have evolved over millenia and most of the practices can be traced to the essential aspects of survival in a remote and isolated region. One example is the taboo associated with sex for a woman within 2-5 years following giving birth. This would ensure that each child received undivided attention through their most vulnerable early years.

Local village houses are made from the natural materials available to them. The Dani build oval-shaped huts with a framework of wood in-filled with straw and heavy thatching to keep out the rain. Open fires are used cor cooking and also to keep out the mosquitos.  

The best time to visit the Baliem Valley in terms of weather is the season from March til September. This will ensure that you miss the worst of the regions high rainfall. However, even during this time the global location and local geography make it inevitable that there will be some rain and possible disruption to the internal flight to and from Jayapura.