The World's Greatest Walkers: Intrigued by Tales of Long-Distance Trade Routes through the Jungles of West Papua, Will Millard Set out on a Gruelling Journey to See If These Mysterious Paths Still Existed
Millard, Will, Geographical
The gentle rattle of sweet potatoes colliding with each other inside the deep-bellied pan indicates that our meal isn't too far away. The headman reaches out a wrinkled arm, pulls off the blackened lid and squints through the steam. 'A little longer,' he says, beaming, before returning to his tobacco, rolled tightly within a single dried leaf.
My small team is focused solely on food. We've walked a long, difficult day through thick montane forest and now everyone's hungry, but nothing in this village happens ahead of its time.
A small child concentrates his attention on rolling the polished skull of a tree kangaroo around in his fingers; a large pig oinks warily from a darkened corner; and the potatoes rattle on. It's a scene that hasn't changed in centuries.
I'm rapidly reaching the climax of a five-month expedition in West Papua, Indonesia's easternmost province and the western half of the giant, reclusive island of New Guinea. I had arrived on these shores looking for answers. I'd heard rumours of vast networks of hidden pathways and superhuman feats of endurance. The greatest trade route you've never heard of spread out across the most macabre collection of geographical extremes, but finding any evidence of the routes today had almost cost me everything.
I first became obsessed with uncovering these trails six years ago. In 2007, I moved to West Papua as an English teacher and had, quite by chance, stumbled across a reference to this hidden system in a dusty university library just outside Jayapura, the Papuan state capital.
'In their trading, the Kapauku do not limit themselves to partners of their own tribe,' wrote Leopold Pospisil in The Kapauku Papuans, a seminal anthropological account of his experiences living in the Western Highlands during the mid-1950s. 'Indeed. the Kamu valley constitutes but a segment in a chain of intertribal trade that starts in the south at the Mimika coast of New Guinea and continues through the Kapauku territory into the interior, at least as far as the Baliem valley, or even further.'
If the Kapauku were part of a trading chain in the Western Highlands, then what was to stop every major tribal group of the province being similiarly linked? Soil sampling in the Baliem Valley recently revealed that the sweet potato, originally a South American vegetable and now the staple crop across the highlands, had arrived some time during the seventh century In a region with no motorised transportation until the 1960s, this could only have happened if tribal people had been actively walking and kayaking goods from the coasts into the hinterland through hundreds of kilometres of vast swamplands and forest, and right over one of the Southern Hemisphere's largest mountain ranges.
I was staggered. West Papua has been populated for 45,000 years. Not only do these routes play out along some of the harshest environmental extremes on the planet, they are also almost certainly among the longest running in human history, and yet we know virtually nothing about them.
In 2008, I left my teaching position to concentrate on finding these routes and the next year. I received the Neville Shulman Challenge Award from the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), which led to the discovery of a fully functioning 250-kilometre stretch of the network in the mountains in the far west of the province. But I still felt some distance away from really cracking the sweet potato puzzle.
What was clear, however, was that the well-travelled spud was just one of dozens of coastal imports to the highlands: bright-white cowrie shells were the established currency, domestic dogs had spread throughout the island, steel axes had replaced stone, and bird of paradise tail feathers were ubiquitous in the septums and lobes of the most vaunted highland warriors.
I scrutinised the few maps I had. …