Tag Archives: climb carstensz

The Balance Test: Are You Ready for Carstensz?

I’m going to go out on a slick, mossy jungle limb and suggest that the core skill of improving balance isn’t receiving enough attention in our fitness training programs. I am fully aware that balance training just isn’t very sexy when compared to running, weights, yoga or other more traditional fitness elements. If, however, you want to succeed on Carstensz – whether on the trek in through the muddy jungle, the ascent of pitch after pitch of 4th and low-5th class gullies, or dismounting the Tyrolean traverse at nearly 16,000 feet – get serious with your balance training!

Sara McGahan steps carefully across an airy gap en route to the summit of Carstensz.

Sara McGahan steps carefully across an airy gap en route to the summit of Carstensz.

Did you know that balance is simply a motor fitness skill? I used to watch people walking slack lines and reasoned that they were aliens – I thought I could never do that! Nothing could be further from the truth. Read this now and believe me later, we can improve our balance just like we can improve our strength and flexibility! Wouldn’t you agree that training to improve our balance and stability in advance of an adventure seems a significantly better option than learning that our balance needs help smack dab in the middle of the jungle? And including balance training into our life is ridiculously simple. Just add 5 or 10 minutes of balance work a few times a week to start.

We took advantage of the waves in Bali before heading into the jungles of Papua. Suffice it to say that Mark Tucker was one balanced surfer!

We took advantage of the waves in Bali before heading into the jungles of Papua. Suffice it to say that Mark Tucker was one balanced surfer!

If you want to get technical, you can use the Romberg Test and Stork-Stand Balance Test to get a performance baseline for your balance. Incorporate balance activities into your daily life/workout and watch your improvement over time! Really easy! Here’s how …

Experiment with these challenges:

  • Balance on a single leg.
  • Hop on one foot.
  • Close your eyes while standing on one leg.
  • Walk the edge of a sidewalk for as long as possible without falling off.
  • Move your legs closer together while doing bicep curls.
  • Look up while doing lunges.
  • Raise your arms overhead while walking the edge of a sidewalk.
  • Carry a light weight in one hand while standing on one leg.
  • Walk a log or a downed tree limb. (Challenging ourselves on unstable surfaces fantastically simulates the experiences we will encounter in the jungle.)
This steep, slick bridge, with its flimsy handrail, was still one of the best bridges we crossed this day. These bridges are regarded as as somewhat temporary as heavy rains often destroy them.

This steep, slick bridge, with its flimsy handrail, was still one of the best bridges we crossed this day. These bridges are regarded as somewhat temporary as heavy rains often destroy them.

While it is true that improving our balance also gains us improvements in coordination, stability, athletic skill, strength, and posture, that we will likely suffer fewer injuries and hopefully trip & slip less, and that we can indeed become better runners, skiers and cyclists, I believe that the true benefit for a Carstensz climber centers around the pure enjoyment of movement through a notoriously challenging environment. I hope you’re standing on one leg as you are reading this!

Got balance? Be inspired to challenge yourself!

Got balance? Be inspired to challenge yourself!

Punjak Jaya: Mountain of the Imagination: An account of the first ascent of Carstensz Pyramid by Philip Temple

The first ascent of the Carstensz Pyramid was made on February 13, 1962 by New Zealand mountaineer Philip Temple (22), Austrian Heinrich Harrer (49) of Seven Years in Tibet fame, Australian rock climber Russell Kippax (30), and Dutch patrol officer Bert Huizenga (25).

Being a bit of a budding historian, adventurer and author myself, I was most pleased to encounter Philip this past month (Sept 2013). He graciously agreed to guest write for this blog, sharing his summit experience as documented in The Last True Explorer (2002). He sent some fantastic photos to boot. Thanks so much to Philip for sharing this dynamic account, which ought to be especially engaging for anyone who has struggled to navigate that summit ridge in less than optimal weather. Enjoy, and read more about Philip here.

Philip Temple, adventurer & author, first ascentionist of Puncak Jaya, in his New Zealand office. Photo by Maja Moritz from www.philiptemple.com

Philip Temple, adventurer & author, first ascentionist of Puncak Jaya, in his New Zealand office. Photo by Maja Moritz from http://www.philiptemple.com.

Tuesday, 13 February:

‘When the alarm rang at 3.30 a.m. I got up without wondering whether the sky was clear or not: something seemed to say – today is the day. The preparations of the evening before had been full and complete with an air of finality about them.  As it turned out, the sky was clear with a spread of stars …’ 

Heinrich Harrer surveying the North Face of the Carstensz Pyramid from New Zealand Pass

Heinrich Harrer surveying the North Face of the Carstensz Pyramid from New Zealand Pass.

We left camp at 5 a.m. using headlamps and torches to light our way across the Merendal, Middenkam and Geledal to the foot of the north face. Any feelings of anticipation and excitement were swamped by apprehension. Would I be good enough for this? My skills and experience were mostly on snow and ice in the Southern Alps; I had little technical rock-climbing ability and this was the first big rock face I had attempted.  At the foot of the face it had grown light enough for us to stash our lamps at the 1936 campsite.  Harrer had decided that I would lead the climb, carrying all the hardware of pitons, karabiners, hammer, etrier etc… plus one of the two light ice axes for the snow we might encounter on the ridge. I would take Huizenga on my 100-foot rope and, from the look on his face as he stared up at the wall, I was reassured that at least there was someone in the party more nervous than I.  Kippax, the most skilled rock-climber in the party, would guide Harrer and carry his movie camera and film.

Philip Temple writing a note to leave in a cairn at the then snout of the Carstensz Glacier (now gone).

Philip Temple writing a note to leave in a cairn at the then snout of the Carstensz Glacier (now gone).

The start of our route followed a wide crack in the limestone wall, which laid back about ten degrees from the perpendicular. The first problem was a jammed boulder. Harrer below told Huizenga to watch all my moves carefully so that he could follow them: ‘He will probably come out of the crack now and go round the boulder’. But I somehow managed to pull myself directly over the top of the boulder and haul Huizenga up behind me.  The crack now widened to a gully with vertical side walls which, another rope-length on, was blocked by an overhang.  I was unable to cope with this and, trying to disguise my humiliation, I waited for Kippax to come up. With calm grace he climbed a 15-foot slab to a ledge that led above the overhang. I tossed him a piton and the rest of us hauled ourselves up on the attached rope.  

I was able to cope with the cracks, steps and exposed ribs that lay above and moved rapidly from belay point to belay point to secure Huizenga’s ascent.  A ledge led to the first prominent verschneidung or dièdre with easier, exhilarating climbing: ‘I yodelled happily as the sun warmed me and I swarmed up. There were about two rope-lengths to its top and Huizenga came up quite easily though always out of breath and often exhausted by the time he reached me’. This was probably from nervous tension as much as physical effort. ‘I avoided thinking about it but I was climbing worse than solo’. I had no belay from him, had to give him instruction and ensure his safety and there was ‘always the danger he might pull me off’.  Although Huizenga often needed a tight rope, and a pull to get him over the difficult sections, he did well in nailed boots and ‘slipped only once all day’.

The Last True Explorer, by Philip Temple

The Last True Explorer, by Philip Temple

A horizontal shelf gave relief before a second and more difficult verschneidung and crack gave access to a wide shelf that had once, |centuries before, supported a hanging glacier. I was wearing leather gloves by now to protect my hands from the ‘needle-like, lacerating’ surface of much of the karst-weathered limestone.  From the shelf, we walked into a snow-filled gully and ramp that took us to the crest of the west ridge after three hours of climbing.  There was no view as the first cold mists of the day swirled up to engulf us.  

A six-foot wide gap in the ridge proved our first obstacle; Kippax and Huizenga elected to jump, Harrer and I chose to use the etrier for a more circumspect climb in and out of the jagged fissure. As I retrieved it, Harrer and Kippax moved ahead into the mist and they were well out of sight when Huizenga and I arrived at the second break in the ridge, one so large that we had identified it as one of the cruxes of the climb. The ridge dropped vertically for about 40 feet to a snow shelf and then another 20 to the upper snow limit of the south wall hanging glacier. ‘A yell came out of the fog: “Two short abseils Phil!”  I looked at Huizenga. Hell!’  What a place and time for climbing instruction.  It began to snow.

I threw a sling over a rock outcrop, hammering away the karst spikes that threatened to cut it clean through, passed the climbing rope through it and then demonstrated to Huizenga how to wrap the rope around his body and lower himself down.  Awkward but secure, he somehow slid down behind me and we climbed along an easy shelf to find Harrer and Kippax in a cave, stamping their feet.  Single-pair-of-socks Harrer was no doubt feeling the cold in his frost-sensitive toes and for Kippax this was a long miserable way from the sun-baked sandstone crags of Sydney.  They pointed to icicles that framed a hole through the ridge.

Harrer indicated that I should continue leading the climb. He needed someone to star in his movie (one that I would never get to see), so  I tried to “look skilled and heroic” as I continued to find a way along the snow, scree and rock shelves of the south face, avoiding the massive pinnacle on the west ridge that we had christened ‘Fog Tower’.  I became increasingly anxious about the time; it was now midday and the snow continued to fall. If the temperature dropped any more, we would have great difficulty negotiating a safe descent over a snow-plastered north face.  

There was still nothing to be seen in the dense cloud when I regained the ridge and moved quickly along, only to be brought up short by yet another major gap which lay at the foot of what we judged was probably the summit buttress. A giant rock flake was wedged in the neck of an almost vertical rock couloir that dropped away into the cloud. The opposite wall was layered with a leering tongue of unstable snow. With minimal security from Huizenga, I climbed into the couloir, manouvred under the flake and, after detaching my ice axe from my back pack, stretched out for a footing in the snow. When I drove in the axe, its spike clanged against the rock beneath and I realised that it might break away under my weight. I packed down each step with great care – heart pounding – and half-slid upwards to reduce the pressure. Just as I reached a handhold of rock, half the snow below me collapsed and cascaded down the face.  Understandably, Huizenga would not follow me and, with belays from both sides of the couloir, he crabbed directly over the flake. Harrer followed him and gave me a secure belay from which I could climb a rock slab and then another unstable slope of snow.

Rock, snow, ledge, rib, the ridge seemed endless and, after eight hours of almost continuous climbing, my energy began to fade. But neither fatigue nor diminishing time would stop me now.  The ridge lifted and narrowed into a smooth snow peak but when I reached the top of this, I looked beyond to yet another rock pinnacle, convinced it must be higher.  The others came up and laughed at my anxiety about which was the real summit.  We could see no more than 20 or 30 yards into the cloud but one thing was certain. Beyond here the ridge trended down. We shook hands and I grabbed Harrer’s head in a mixture of exhaustion and exultation.  

At the summit - Bert Huizenga, Philip Temple and Heinrich Harrer.

At the summit – Bert Huizenga, Philip Temple and Heinrich Harrer.

It was ten past two. We had made it just in time, for it would be too dark to climb after the onset of the long tropical night at seven. We carried no bivouac gear and we barely had enough time to get down. Quickly we took photographs sporting all the national flags – of Austria, Australia, New Zealand, Holland and ill-fated West Papua. We built a cairn and I left my small New Zealand pennant in a cigarette tin with names, times, date and the facetious comment, ‘I’m buggered’, echoing the phrase immortalised in New Zealand rugby history when All Black forward Peter Jones was asked how he felt after scoring the try that had won the test and the series against the Springboks six years before.  What else should one leave at the top of a mountain?

The Culture of Tourism in New Guinea: Insights on Porter Services for Carstensz Pyramid

With the savage recent attack on porters and trekkers on Papua New Guinea’s Black Cat Trail, I wanted to offer some insight, as limited as it will be, intended to help protect porters, tourists, and tourism in the future.

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I advocate that we (visitors to New Guinea) recognize the high value of porters as team members. I believe this understanding can contribute significantly toward developing a healthy tourism culture. Within the context of tourism & climbing in West Papua, I hope that some of the practices described below help foster stronger porter care & appreciation, which subsequently leads to increasingly cohesive teams of tourists (trekkers & climbers) and support (porters). This subsequently can help to build a culture of unity, which can further culturally-appropriate tourism, rather than a culture of conflict, which can arise whenever one group is under-appreciated, taken for granted or misused.

 

A brief history of Carstensz Pyramid in West Papua as a tourism enterprise:

 

For the decade or so following the 1998 stepping down of Indonesia’s second president, Suharto, greater democracy came to Indonesia and West Papua and the concept of developing tourism gained momentum. However, political volatility remained and Indonesia closed Carstensz Pyramid to climbers & tourists from 1995 to 2005. This was due in part to the Free Papua separatist movement of the Organisasi Papua Merdeka, or OPM, which has been fighting for independence from Indonesia since 1965.

 

After Indonesia re-opened West Papua to tourism in 2006, a steady number of people came to trek through the interior highlands to access the climb of Carstensz Pyramid.

 

Though no official data exists to track those who have reached the summit of Carstensz Pyramid, between the first ascent in 1962 and 2005, after which access to the peak was again granted, it had only been climbed by approximately 100 people. Now, with its popularity exploding in part due to the demand created by the new “7 Summits” designation, the mountain experiences scores (some cite hundreds) of successful ascents each year. Even so …

 

Does the jungle never end?

 

… climbing and travelling in West Papua entails a great deal of uncertainty and requires tremendous flexibility. In addition to the drum of equatorial rain and eventual venture to higher altitudes, political and bureaucratic challenges may exist right from the start to hinder the progress of an adventure. Numerous accounts exist of climbers denied Surat Jalans (local police & government permits) or access through tribal lands, of unexplained, cancelled flights into the interior, and of shady, unscrupulous commercial outfitters. On top of all that, accidents and injuries (usually of tourists & climbers) and fatalities (usually of locals & porters) along the trek are not difficult to uncover.

 

While the jungle trek is typically completed in just short of a week of arduous work, the jungle is, at least, exceedingly muddy and slick. I have had people tell me that this jungle trek can feel harder than Everest, though not necessarily because it’s physically harder. Rather, there just isn’t the same, developed infrastructure supporting access and climbing as there exists on Everest. People struggle with the endless muddy, rainy, dirty, steamy, way-out-there feeling the jungle can give. A friend was once asked, “Does this jungle never end?”

The jungle trek can be exceedingly challenging, even for the fittest visitor!

The jungle trek can be exceedingly challenging, even for the fittest visitor!

For many, if not most, the adventure becomes the experience of a lifetime. The satisfaction of having completed the trek & climb and returning home safely is hard to beat.

The thrill of climbing Carstensz completes the adventure!

The thrill of climbing Carstensz completes the adventure!

Porters as a vital link to the success of climbers:

 

Throughout the history of adventures, porters have served as a vital link to the success of climbers. My own personal adventures into the interiors of Tibet, Africa, and New Guinea simply would not have been possible without the efforts of porters who are, I dare say, a universally, under-appreciated group of people.

Porter on Kilimanjaro's Machame Route in Tanzania, Africa

Porter on Kilimanjaro’s Machame Route in Tanzania, Africa.

Porter loads ready to be carried en route to Everest Base Camp, Nepal

Porter loads ready to be carried en route to Everest Base Camp, Nepal.

Crossing the slick logs en route to Carstensz Pyramid didn't seem to challenge our porters at all!

Crossing the slick logs en route to Carstensz Pyramid didn’t seem to challenge our porters at all!

Here are three ways we, as visitors, can make a positive contribution toward porter care & appreciation:

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Select a responsible commercial outfitter.

Start by letting the commercial outfitter you choose know that the treatment porters receive is important to you. Bottom line is that porters need fair wages, substantive meals, proper attire or equipment for the adventure, and warm, dry sleeping arrangements. The hallmark of a responsible company is how well they look after their porters on the trek.

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Interact with your porters.

Talk to folks! Ask about their traditions and villages; share photos or stories of your family. Initiate the relationship by approaching them with appropriate interest. Even if you don’t share a vocabulary of words, body language (a smile, head nod, hand shake, etc.) can express your sentiments well. If you haven’t heard this before, it is well worth recognizing that porters want to be considered part of the expedition team, they enjoy interacting with visitors, and they want to learn and improve their service. In fact, in the sense that this is their land, they truly are the experts, and visitors who take the time & effort to have meaningful interactions with them can learn much. 

Hiding from the rain at Carstensz Base Camp!

Hiding from the rain at Carstensz Base Camp!

Thank your porter.

Show your porters that you appreciated them. Thank them verbally and leave a tip of money or goods. I discuss tipping guidelines below.

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What to discuss with a responsible commercial outfitter or tour operator regarding their porter practices.

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Porter Wages

Porters must receive fair wages. When unscrupulous tour operators withhold promised wages, tension builds and chaos can ensue. No one wants to be ripped off! As with insurance, this is difficult to ascertain, but lower fees and a high turn-over rate can indicate compromised practices. In my post entitled, “Polite! Practical! And 1 for Fun!” I mention an usua me (good man) now working to advocate on behalf of porters to protect against non-payment, which has been a not uncommon and tumultuous issue.

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Insurance

In West Papua, in-country tour operators can provide porters with protection paid out to their families in the event that a catastrophe leads to permanent disability or death. This insurance works differently, even among different tribal groups, than it does, for example, in the United States, but they can be covered nonetheless. If a commercial outfitter offers a trip at a substantially lower fee than others, it could be that they are not diligently ensuring coverage for porters.

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Weight Limit

The maximum visitor weight that a porter should be given to carry is 15 kg (33 pounds). On top of this, porters also carry personal weight of blankets, clothes and food. Generally speaking, an additional porter should be hired for every three porters in order to carry group equipment and food.

 

Meals & Sleeping Conditions

Porters are engaged in physically difficult and mentally challenging work. They are leaving the comfort of their villages and families to venture into the remote and inhospitable environment of the high limestone escarpment of Carstensz. You will be tired & hungry at the end of a day, and so will they.  A responsible tour operator ensures that porters are appropriately nourished and accommodated throughout the entire adventure. In general, porters sleep together in groups, whether in huts, shelters, caves, tents or dining tents. However, truly responsible tour operators ensure that their porters have weather-appropriate shelter at higher altitudes. Porters come from the warmer, lower rainforests and, just like any visitor, are not accustomed to sleeping out-of-doors in the cold of the Sudirman Mountains.

A lone porter strolls across the high plateau en route to the rock towers of Polisinagagelagia, West Papua.

A lone porter strolls across the high plateau en route to the rock towers of Polisinagagelagia, West Papua.

Environmental Impact Education

Outfitters have a responsibility to educate porters on the environmental impact of a trip because porters’ futures are directly tied to the future of the land. Latrine construction, cat-holing, trash management, camp clean-up and other such topics must be included in the vocabulary of every team member, visitor or Papuan. Ask specifically how waste – and especially human waste – is managed at villages, on the trek and on the climb of Carstensz.

Carstensz Base Camp in July 2012. Note the large pile of garbage (in the right foreground) left by a previous expedition.

Equip for the Future

Most of the porters look forward to future work opportunities and are also family bread-winners. Tour operators should inspire and equip porters to develop their skill sets. 

We took time to train groups of porters on how to set up & care for our tents. For most, this was the first time such training had been offered.

We took time to train groups of porters on how to set up & care for our tents. For most, this was the first time such training had been offered.

Tipping and gifting

Tipping should be dependent on the quality of the service you received. However, even if the food was terrible and the porters couldn’t communicate very well, they were probably still working hard to carry your equipment through the jungle.

 

In general, though it varies from tribe to tribe, tips and gifts should be given to the tour operator or lead porter in order that he takes charge to distribute tips and gifts to his team of porters. This honors the Papuan tribal tradition of a providing chief. This is absolutely true of money and even a good idea for gifts.

 

It is a wonderful truth that Papuans also love ceremony. For a closing ceremony, while tips and gifts should be given to the tour operator for distribution, it would be very kind and meaningful to speak good words to the porter team prior to their returning to their homes.

Our closing ceremony included distributing certificates of completion, something our porters could offer as verification of their experience and skill set.

Our closing ceremony included distributing certificates of completion, something our porters could offer as verification of their experience and skill set.

Enjoy!

A nearly perfect practice testpiece: Shuksan’s Fisher Chimneys

I found it! A nearly perfect practice test piece to compliment my prep for Carstensz; not only to see if my skills are up to snuff, but also as an opportunity to do some team-building! … Mt. Shuksan’s Fisher Chimneys route!

The Challenges: We must proficiently cover lots of terrain (both rock scrambling & climbing), be smooth & efficient on mid-fifth class rock, and know how to execute a Tyrolean traverse and multiple rappels!

The Carstensz Pyramid expedition is for adventurers in excellent physical condition with moderate technical climbing ability. Moving on third-, fourth- and easy fifth-class rock, on fixed ropes, and through multiple rappels shouldn’t cause us to flounder or halt. Certainly, the altitude, length of trip, the remoteness of the area, and the technical nature of the climb all contribute to make this a challenging and demanding adventure. On top of that, the Carstensz area is usually rainy and we expect to spend at least some time travelling and climbing in the rain.

Even for the healthiest and fittest individuals, climbing Carstensz requires a high degree of physical stamina and mental toughness!

With regard to fitness and technical training, RMI Expeditions emphasizes starting sooner than later, intentionally developing both your fitness and your technical skill sets, and the closer you get to departure, the more your training ought to resemble climbing in New Guinea.

The Solution: We must get a healthy dose of rock climbing under our belts, practice the technical climbing skills (the Tyrolean & multi-pitch rappels), and find routes that challenge us both physically and technically (like Fisher Chimneys!)

Carstensz climber, Sara McGahan, doing “homework” at Linville Gorge, North Carolina

Getting multiple “practice” pitches under my belt along the Tieton drainage in Washington

I had a chance to climb Mount Shuksan via the Fisher Chimneys route on the mountain’s northwest side this past weekend. The route offers lots of moderate, enjoyable climbing. The alpine rock and glaciated terrain which make up the climb are not difficult – but there is a lot of it! The climb takes every bit of three full days. Except for the fact that the Chimneys route includes some glacier travel, it gives a taste of the fitness and technical climbing demands rolled into one adventure that makes it a perfect test piece for a future Carstensz climb.

 

A lengthy approach, which included climbing the actual “Chimneys” (better described as steep, rocky gullies) with a moderately heavy pack felt more like “climbing” than “practice!”

Climbing with packs and in alpine boots is an important component of the adventure, as this is exactly how we move on Carstensz.

The summit (the exact halfway point of our adventure!)

The Carstensz Pyramid adventure throws much more at us than just fitness and rock climbing demands, but practicing diligently heads us in the right direction … and it is downright fun!

 Enjoy!

Carstensz Summit July 2012

We just returned from a phenomenal experience in Papua! It was everything we hoped for and a bit more!

Here are a few photos of our time in the jungle, among the people, and on the peak. Scroll over the photos to read a brief description and stay tuned as I continue to contribute short articles of interest each month.

Enjoy!

Our Connection with Carstensz

About Alex’s Carstensz Connection

In the early 1990s, while guiding on Mt. Rainier in Washington State, I met Amy Meredith. Amy had grown up as a missionary kid in the jungle highlands village of Hitadipa, very near to Carstensz Pyramid, in what we know today as West Papua. The friendship between our families grew over the years and she has been an unbelievable resource in the development of this adventure.

As we collaborated to build this adventure, it was important to all of us (me, Amy, our Papuan friends) that we create a program with high regard for the indigenous peoples, their ways of life, and their native lands. Our program truly does this. The many programs where foreigners come in only to grab a summit, seemingly without those regards, were viewed in less than endearing terms by the Papuans. We wanted no part of that!

Our decision to utilize a Moni tribesman as tour operator highlights our value to highly regard the indigenous culture. Masmus, as he is affectionately known, is currently the only indigenous Papuan tour operator and we are his only client from the Western Hemisphere. According to Masmus, I am “Amy’s little brother from the same net as she,” and as Masmus honors me through his service on this trip, he also honors Amy, whom he has known since childhood. This is a significant relationship which has taken years and years to foster.

About RMI’s Carstensz connection

RMI has been setting the standard in mountain guiding excellence since 1969 and getting safely up and down mountains is just the beginning of our story. RMI has built a four-decade long legacy of safe, successful, and enjoyable mountaineering adventures and now we bring our standard of excellence to Papua.  From the beginning, we have desired to build long-term relationships with local indigenous peoples, relationships which would respectfully balance our visit with the Papuan’s traditional ways of life.

Masmus is the perfect choice as a commercial liaison. He is soft-spoken; a peace-maker, not a warrior. He has a good heart for the Ugimba Moni people. As a young boy, Masmus began working at the Grasberg copper and gold mine. He worked his way up from watering the gardens of ex-pats, to operating super-heavy equipment, and later to serving on the operational safety and education teams. He has both the capacity to connect with local tribes-peoples as we trek through Papuan villages and at the same time be in-tune with the ways of the visiting tourist.

We are in the best hands possible, hands that welcome us in the most traditional Moni greeting, “Amakane!”

Visiting Indonesia (Part 1: Travel Facts)

The following 2 posts spotlight interesting cultural elements of a trip to Indonesia. This particular post provides quick, simple, useful answers to questions commonly asked by travelers. Part 2 will introduce us to the Moni people, from the perspective of an expat who grew up in Moni land.

General Information

Capital City of Indonesia: Jakarta
Capital City of Papua: Jayapura
Currency: Rupiah
Languages of Indonesia: Bahasa Indonesia, English (major cities)
Languages of Papua: 300+ tribal languages
Religions: 6 formally recognized world religions and other traditional faiths

Indonesia at a Glance

The word “Indonesia” originates from the Greek words “Indos,” meaning “India,” and “Nesos,” meaning “island,” together literally meaning “Islands of India.” 17,508 islands exist in the archipelago, stretching for 3,200 miles (5,510 kilometers) between Australia and the Asian Continent. These islands, 6,000 of which are occupied, divide the Pacific and Indian Oceans along the equatorial line. Indonesia has 400 volcanoes, 100 of which are active.

Papua at a Glance

Papua is the largest province of Indonesia, comprising a majority of the western half of the island of New Guinea and nearby islands. The provincial capital is Jayapura, located high on a hill overlooking the sea to the north. Papua is a land of contrasts, with some of the thickest jungles lowland in the world, rugged snow-capped mountain peaks, beautiful sandy beaches, huge stretches of marshlands, and deep river gorges carved through dense forests.

Climate and Weather

Indonesia’s monsoon-type climate changes approximately every six months, although, in recent years, global warming has somewhat disrupted weather patterns. In Papua, regardless of the time of year, the rain is part of the rainforest.

Due to the large number of islands and mountains in Indonesia, temperatures vary. Along the coastal plains, the average is 82°F (28°C); for inland and mountain areas, it is 79°F (26°C); and, in the higher mountain areas, the average is around 73°F (23°C). Like other tropical countries, Indonesia has a high average relative humidity, usually between 73 and 87 percent.

Flora and Fauna

Within the Indonesian archipelago lies one of the most remarkable zoological zones on the planet. Home of the most diverse flora and fauna in the world, Indonesia has 10 percent of all flowering plant species, 12 percent of mammal species, 17 percent of bird species and 25 percent of the world’s species of fish.

Time Zones

Indonesia has three time zones—Western Indonesia Time which is GMT +7 (covering Sumatra, Java, Madura, West Kalimantan, Central Kalimantan), Central Indonesia Time which is GMT +8 (covering East and South Kalimantan, Sulawesi, Bali, Nusa Tenggara) and the last is Eastern Indonesia Time which is GMT +9 (covering Maluku and Papua).

The capital Jakarta is GMT +7 or 16 hours ahead of US Pacific Standard Time.

Ethnic Groups

Some 300 ethnic groups call Indonesia home, but most (45 percent) of Indonesians are Javanese. In addition, 14 percent are Sundanese, 7.5 percent Madurese, 7.5 percent coastal Malays, and 26 percent are of other ethnic groups.

Languages

There are more than 700 languages and dialects spoken in the archipelago. They normally belong to the different ethnic groups of the population. Some of the distinctly different local languages are: Acehnese, Batak, Sundanese, Javanese, Sasak, Tetum of Timor, Dayak, Minahasa, Toraja, Buginese, Halmahera, Ambonese, Ceramese, and several Irianese languages. To make the picture even more colorful, these languages are also spoken in different dialects.

Bahasa Indonesia is the national language. It is similar to Malay and written in Roman script based on European orthography. English is the most prevalent foreign language. Also, some Dutch is still spoken and understood in the bigger cities and French increasing in its popularity at the better hotels and restaurants.

The Flag

The Indonesian national flag is called Sang Saka Merah Putih or “the red and white treasure.” As provided for in Article 35 of the 1945 Constitution, the flag is made up of two colors, red on top of white. By law, its width must be two-thirds of the length.

Like the country’s coat of arms, its flag is also symbolic. The flag’s red stripe represents bravery, and its white stripe stands for spirituality.

The Garuda

Indonesia’s official coat of arms is centered on the Garuda, and ancient, mythical bird from the country’s historical epics. Like the Bald Eagle in the United States, the Garuda is often used to represent Indonesia.

A great deal of symbolism runs through the Garuda. The eagle is a symbol of creative energy. Its principal color, gold, symbolizes the greatness of the nation. The black color represents nature. There are 17 feathers on each wing, 8 on the tail and 45 on the neck. These numbers stand for the date Indonesia proclaimed its independence: 17 August 1945. The shield symbolizes self-defense and protection in struggle. The five symbols on the shield represent the state philosophy of Pancasila. The motto Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (“Unity in Diversity”) is enshrined on a banner held in the eagle’s talons, signifying the unity of the Indonesian people despite their diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

Traditions, Customs & Considerations

  • Even though hand shaking is deemed appropriate between men and women, bear in mind that a number of Muslim women prefer to introduce themselves to men by nodding their head, smiling, and clasping their hands without any physical contact.
  • Traditionally, when you greet someone, both hands are used when shaking, without grasping.
  • It is considered polite to make a phone call first before visiting.
  • Shoes must be taken off before entering a house or place of worship like mosques.
  • Usually drinks are offered to guests. It is polite to accept.
  • When eating, receiving or giving something, always use your right hand.
  • Your right index finger should not be used to point a place, items or people. Use the right hand thumb and fold the remaining fingers to be more polite.
  • Taking photographs of houses of worships is allowed, however permission should be asked first whenever possible, especially if you want to take pictures of the interior.
  • Most Indonesian Muslims do not consume alcoholic drinks and pork. Hence, the tradition of proposing a toast to honor someone is not generally known.
  • Skimpy clothing in public areas, save from beaches and pools, might warrant unwanted attention.

Fun stuff! Enjoy!