The disputes surrounding Carstensz Pyramid began in 1623, the year the snow-capped peak was first sighted by the Dutch explorer for whom it is named. For more than two centuries, Europeans denied the possibility that glaciers could exist on a tropical island. Confirmation of the snow did not come until the 1920s, and the actual summit and its true elevation would not be established for another fifty years.


With that issue settled, another flared, when the world’s largest reserves of gold were found directly beneath the mountain top. In the 1960s, an American mining company using Indonesian labor started digging for gold, silver, and copper. These men were among the first outsiders the local Dani tribesmen had ever seen. Quickly, the population of miners (called “the straight hairs” by our native guide) swelled to 18,000, and greatly outnumbered the curly-haired men who were still living in the Stone Age. This culture clash eventually resulted in a native rebellion that would come to the attention of the world in 1996, but was already simmering in 1992. This explains the tension we encountered when we brought our native guide to the mining hospital for emergency treatment and were detained and briefly incarcerated for trespassing on mining company land.

When we were released, we became guests of the mining
company and stayed in a guest house reserved for visiting executives. Our hosts took us on an extensive tour of the mines. We witnessed the open pit, a massive crater that now measures now more than a mile wide and reaches a depth of more than 550 meters, the excavation of which is projected to generate six billion tons of waste, much of it toxic, before the job of taking all the metal is done. We saw rivers that were “dead”, notably barren of any normal vegetation growing along its banks and said to be without fish, from years of tailings flushed into their waters.
The dispute that brought me to Papua (then known as Irian Jaya) seems anachronistic in the age of satellite imaging, but it’s one that has yet to be resolved: whether the seventh continent is Oceania (which includes all the islands between Asia and the Americas) or Australia. I contacted the Royal Geographic Society in search of an answer, but they weren’t able to provide definite advice, either. A representative wrote to me, “I think it’s all a matter of definition dependent upon chosen criteria: underground ones or above ground ones”—the continental landmass of Australia or the tectonic structure that encompasses that landmass as well as the island of New Guinea, in other words. “Which are the relevant ones for mountain climbers on the Earth’s surface?”
That uncertainty, along with my interest in the indigenous culture of the region, led me to Carstensz Pyramid. But at my first glimpse of the mine and its alteration of the land and the people, on a scale I could barely comprehend, the importance of the geographical distinction fell away.



From the Stone Age
March 1995

“This is already much more primitive than I expected it to be,” said Alex, my traveling companion, looking out the window of the Twin Otter at the crowd of people lining the grass runway. The plane came to a halt, and we followed our native Papuan guide, Onnis Banto, down the narrow steps and around back to the cargo door to help off-load our gear. Indeed, it appeared that the short plane ride had carried us back in time. Many of the villagers were naked; those who were clothed looked as though they were in a state of flux over it. Only the uniformed Indonesians carrying automatic weapons betrayed the present century. When the propellers stopped spinning, the armed guards maneuvered into strategic positions around the aircraft, as though their menacing presence kept the natives, a few of whom carried wooden spears, at bay.

“Aloo, aloo-oo! Selamat!” a man called out in a friendly singsong voice, as he waved in our direction. Onnis signaled to the guards that it was O.K. to let him through.

Family and old friends among the Dani greet each other with a special handshake. They link index fingers and pull them apart sharply, making a snapping noise, and continue to do so for some minutes until they are satisfied. “This is my cousin, Justinus,” Onnis said, introducing me to the sturdy fellow over the sound of ecstatic pops. “He is coming into the mountains with us.”

Alex Lowe and I had come halfway around the world to climb Puncak Jaya, the highest peak between the Andes and the Himalayas. What interested us the most, however, was the opportunity to travel through dense rain forests to the base of the snow-capped equatorial summit with a band of indigenous Dani tribesmen, said to be the last primitive people on Earth.


While the western half of New Guinea, which is the second largest island in the world behind Greenland, had “belonged” (in the European view) to the Netherlands since the 1600s, the Dutch spice traders were principally interested in its usefulness as a port. Either lacking the interest or the means to penetrate its dense rain forests, they never knew that other people had been living there for about 50,000 years. Christian missionaries found the Dani tribe in the 1930s, a date well after all the world’s people were believed to have been discovered. Using small aircraft to overfly the jungle, the missionaries rapidly succeeded in modifying, if not thoroughly converting, the ancient animist culture with a measure of Christian faith.

Cannibalism was officially outlawed in Western Papua (then known as Irian Jaya) during the mid-1960s, after Michael Rockefeller, of the great steel age tribe, was lost there and believed to have been killed by headhunters. But even today other primitive customs have managed to survive, in spite of contact with the West, including mummification, ritual mutilation, and, of course, the native costume.

At first, it was maddeningly awkward to look into the eyes of a man wearing a penis gourd. Instead, I stared at my own feet, bashfully tamping blades of grass into the mud with my toe. “You don’t have to be shy about seeing Dani man in the koteka,” Onnis said reassuringly. “He is proud to have this.” Indeed, Justinus was wearing nothing but the hard case of an elongated yellow squash and a headdress of cassowary feathers, yet he seemed as confident as a dandy in a well-tailored suit. Grinning broadly, he nodded toward my bag, and mimed an offer to carry it into town. The awkward duffle weighed almost as much as he did. He lifted it easily onto one shoulder and headed off down the muddy path.

“Bare feets are best for walking here,” Onnis kindly suggested. Indeed, my flip-flops gave little traction in the wet clay. He steadied my elbow as I slipped off the sandals and felt the cool red ooze squish between my toes. He, on the other hand, remained in his lug-soled climbing boots, and, in spite of the heat, wore a full alpine climbing suit, as many clothes as I’d brought for the coldest day in the mountains. Within moments, a group of villagers had gathered around us. Amid them, he looked like an action hero, just stepped from an adventure movie.

“These people,” Onnis said, gesturing grandly toward the crowd, “they know me because I am the Bwuya.”

“The what?”

“Boo-aye-yuh,” he said slowly, emphasizing the last syllable. “Yes, they know me. I am only man to walk from the Dani homeland to the Asmat region on the coast. That is why I am called the Bwuya, which means in Dani language, ‘The Crocodile.’” He pronounced it crocko-deel. “I crossed many deep rivers, some, where lives the crocko-deel, but I don’t get eaten. So I, too, am crocko-deel. And Sandy,” he paused, lowering his mirrored sunglasses to meet my gaze. “You may call me Bwuya.”

He pulled a fresh betel nut from his pocket and confidently tossed it into his mouth. The fibrous green-hulled balls have a mild intoxicating effect when chewed. “Do you have lots of girlfriends?” I asked, certain that this charismatic and handsome young climber, reputedly the sole native to have stood on the summit of Puncak Jaya, would be very popular among local women. But he shook his head slowly. “Not many, just two. One from Europe. The other from America. Maybe you know her?” He perked up at the prospect. “She is Kathy, from Ohio.” The juice from the nut, now crushed, had stained his lips, tongue and teeth the color of watery blood. I told him I didn’t know Kathy and he went on, “I not want to marry Irian lady. I want European wife. Or American. Do you have lady friend who maybe I can marry? Promise that if you like my work, you’ll send one to me as a thank-you present!” he begged.

By the time we reached Ilaga, I was covered to the knees in mud. Bwuya suggested a foot bath in the clear stream which ran through our camp on the outskirts of town. “While you do that, I’ll make lunch,” he offered.

“I hope you like simple food, because I will be cooking for you from now on,” he said. “Usually we hire a special trekking chef, but they are all Indonesians, and, you know, now is a dangerous time for the straight-hairs to travel in the mountains.”

I raked a hand through my own straight hair, and he sensed my alarm. “Oh, no, it’s ok for you to go into the mountains, as long as you have the Bwuya to guide you,” he reassured me. “Now, here are our plans. ”

It would take two days to clear the jungle and three to cross the high plateau. Depending on the weather, it would take one or two more to get to base camp. Adequate rations of fresh sweet potatoes, the staple of the Dani diet, were being harvested. The porters had been lined up; an easy task since they were all his relations.


On the day of our departure, Alex and I were ready to go within an hour after sunrise, but Bwuya was not. One of the porters had mutinied, frightened by the stories of the fighting in the hills. Bwuya would stay behind for a few hours or so, and get a replacement for the man.

The raised track was simple to navigate as it curled through the ancient farmsteads. Whole families rose from the fields of sweet potatoes to have a look as Alex and I walked by. We ascended the Ilaga River drainage, where the valley became steeper and settlement steadily diminished, and the route became a faint cleft in a tangle of foliage.

When Bwuya appeared on the trail later that afternoon, he had undergone a transformation. He was stripped naked to the waist and crimson orchids had been carefully tucked into the armbands which encircled each bicep. “These flowers make stronger walking,” he claimed, flexing an arm to emphasize the point. His skin had been oiled. “This makes body handsome in sunshine.” About his hair, which was caked with red clay, he said, “This make cooling effect, for easier walking.”

Bwuya explained that the path through the jungle had been cut generations ago. “This very old route used by Papuan people gathering medicine plants.” I grappled through the tangle of vines for a branch to steady myself as he plucked a lacy leaf from a low-growing fern and brought it to me. “This fern is very delicious and healthful for eating,” he said. As I munched on the crisp leaf, he held up another which looked almost the same. “This is awor,” he claimed. “It’s very hard for anyone but the Dani to tell one from the other, and important not to confuse the two. This one makes women barren forever.” I spat the sample out, just in case, and Bwuya laughed.

A few miles on, I smelled fire, then I heard whoops and hollers. The porters stood atop a grassy hill, signaling their farewells to Ilaga, visible in the valley below. “Oooh-oooh, oooh-oooh. Aah-way, aah-way,” they sang, stomping the grass with their bare feet so forcefully the ground quaked beneath me. Just in case the smoke signals and the chanting weren’t enough to reach Ilaga, one porter worked the reflection on a pocket mirror in the direction of the village, and soon, we could see similar flashes in response. Satisfied that the message had been received, the men soon turned their attention to the fire, and the sweet potatoes that roasted in the coals.

The occasional violet primula nestled at the root of the hardy alpine grasses on the Zengillorong Plateau, a sign that we had gained some altitude in three days—we were at 11,000 feet. A hillside of giant tree ferns and a pile of stone monoliths in the distance reminded me of the surreal landscape surrounding the sister summit on the equator, Mt. Kenya. A porter indicated our route by holding up two fingers in a “v,” mirroring a notch in the ridge line on the distant horizon. The clouds which had been gathering all afternoon eventually released their load of hailstones. As the precipitation turned to drenching rain, we darted into a cave where, it was agreed, we should stop for the night.

The silvery morning light revealed a complex maze of waterways which had swelled with the overnight deluge. We zigzagged across the high plains seeking the dry ground, but hidden springs, falls, sump holes, rivers, lakes and marshes made progress over virtually flat terrain more challenging.

On the fifth morning, we awakened before dawn to a sky filled with high clouds. They diffused the light of the near-full moon, and cast a blue glow across the mountain landscape, now visible to us for the first time. “You don’t think that craggy ridge line on the horizon is Puncak Jaya, do you?” Alex asked.

The natives used to call the peak at the heart of the “Land of Eternal Snow” Nemankawi. They believed that the spirits of their dead relatives dwelled up there. Jan Carstensz, a Dutch explorer, was the first European to spot it in 1623, on a rare clear day, while sailing along Irian’s southern coast in search of spices. But seventy-five miles of thick jungle separated him from the base of the range. In his honor, the distant summit was called Carstensz Pyramid by the Europeans, but, due to its inaccessibility and the fact that it is so rarely visible, it was soon forgotten.

It was the missionary pilots who brought it back to the attention of the West, and made it possible for European climbers to make the first ascent in 1962, by the route we were following. At the same time, to the south of the rugged limestone summit, Western geologists discovered a more consequential prize within the isolated mountain range: one of the planet’s richest reserves of gold and copper. The event catapulted the then-independent island-nation out of the backwaters of the South Pacific into the forefront of international affairs.

While the Papuans share a common ancestry and customs with their fellow New Guineans, today Irian Jaya is the westernmost province in the archipelago-nation of Indonesia. United after World War II, the 14,000-or-so islands dot an area of the Indian and Pacific Oceans greater in size than the continental United States. Indonesia is one of the most populous nations in the world, most of which is concentrated near Jayapura, the nation’s capital, 2500 miles east of Irian. And the country has the one of the largest standing armies in the world; in the early 60s, after the discovery of the Ertsberg mineral deposits, the Indonesian government threatened to use that force to seize the otherwise economically and politically useless and culturally foreign lands of Western New Guinea. In 1963, the United Nations ceded control. To help secure their dubious right to occupy Irian Jaya, the Indonesians instituted a policy of transmigration—like China’s in Tibet, and the former Soviet Union’s in the Baltics—offering incentives to the Asian-born citizens to move there, a practice which masquerades as progress but inevitably suffocates indigenous culture to death.

“It is Car-tens!” exclaimed one of the porters, pointing to the peak. “Car-tens! Car-tens! Oooh-oooh, oooh-oooh. Aah-way, aah-way,” they all joined in, beginning another rumble. But then Bwuya hobbled from his tent, and the men, aghast at the sight of him, fell silent.

He was hunched over like an old man. His skin no longer glistened, but was powdery grey. His breath rattled when he uttered the dreadful word. “Malaria,” he said.

“Let’s turn back—we can make it to Ilaga in four or five days,” I suggested, but Bwuya flatly refused. He demanded that we continue on to a nearby copper mine, still two days away. Alex and I checked the map: several miles over a very steep pass, then sharply downhill for a mile to the north boundary of Lorentz National Park. It would be tough carrying an ill man over that terrain. “But simpler and safer than returning through the jungle to Ilaga,” Alex reasoned.

After that, saving Bwuya’s life became the top priority for all of us. Having established the action plan for evacuating him together, we formed a bond with the porters as people do in a crisis. “Bagus! Abu up!” we cheered, in the only two words of Indonesian we knew, the Dani version of a battle cry.

The next morning, Bwuya lay on the ground in our camp, stripped to nothing but his undershorts. He was sweating and foul-smelling, but in one of the lucid moments preceding the next malarial bloom, I managed to convince him to eat sugared rice and to drink weak tea, which he promptly vomited. I also offered him an anti-emetic suppository. After he initially tried to eat it, I gave him full instructions on how to use it, but I don’t know if he did; in any case, he kept vomiting. It’s not the malaria itself that kills people, it’s the dehydration. Bwuya was deathly ill. He lapsed into a deep sleep which lasted for the rest of the day, and twitched like a dog chasing rabbits in his dreams.

The porters took advantage of the day to rest and hunt. They knew it would be strenuous work carrying Bwuya over New Zealand Pass and down to the mine. At midday, the youngest porter came into camp with an animal carcass draped over his shoulders and his pockets stuffed with dead songbirds. He pantomimed the events leading up to the kill, which he evidently managed with a wooden stick in one hand and a collapsible umbrella in the other. He wanted me to take a picture of the trophies, which I did. Immediately afterward, the porters commenced skinning the little beasts, tearing fur and feathers from flesh with their teeth. The bloody mess was then roasted whole in the ashes, beaten with a stone to crumble the bone, then chopped into equal parts. Both Alex and I politely declined the portions we were offered.

Bwuya began the steep ascent to New Zealand Pass on foot, but, predictably, he was soon supported on the shoulders of the men. The mountains around us were arranged in a horseshoe lying east to west, with a large lake in the middle which reflected the craggy ridgeline 4000 feet above. This, I supposed, was the closest I would come to seeing it on this trip.

At the top of New Zealand Pass, we split up. Most of the porters turned west toward base camp, where they would stash all the gear except the light daypacks which we carried. Bwuya and the three men who alternated carrying him on their shoulders staggered far behind. Alex sped ahead in search of help and had vanished from sight. I walked alone to the crest.

Even more astonishing than the view from the portal is the sound of the earth exploding. Mountains were being leveled by men. In contrast to the primitive world of virginal rainforests and grasslands we had crossed, this seemed a hellish mirage on a colossal scale. I dearly hoped that help could be found there.

By the time I reached the roadhead, Alex had already enlisted the help of group of hikers, Western-born mine company employees out on a day trip. They had offered a lift in their jeep to a first aid station, which they said was a few miles down the road. As yet, however, there was no sign of Bwuya and his bearers, and we could see the path was clear to the top of the pass. Nevertheless, concerned by our circumstances, they kindly offered to wait. Running into them, it seemed, had been a stroke of sheer luck.

“If it’s a bad case of malaria,” speculated a sandy-haired fellow from Houston, “they’ll probably just take him right down to Tembagapura,” referring to the town below the mine. Alex and I marveled at how far away it had seemed on the other side of the mountain, and yet how close to “civilization” we’d been all along.

Finally, Bwuya appeared on the trail, bobbing like a limp ragdoll atop the porters’ shoulders. It had taken them nearly ten hours to walk seven miles, a distance that they would have ordinarily covered in four.

The small medical clinic the mine employees took us to had only basic first aid supplies, and he had a fever of 105 degrees, intermittent bouts of delirium and a diagnosis of severe dehydration. The young Indonesian EMT inserted a glucose drip intravenously, gave him an Ibuprofen, and announced that it was all he could do for Bwuya. “He needs more than this, but he’ll have to go to the hospital in Tembagapura. And in order to take that trip, he’ll need to get government permission.”

One of the hikers made a call to the executive in charge of indigenous affairs. After a brief conversation, he hung up, obviously perplexed by the result, and recited company policy to us. “He says that there’s nothing the mining company can do for Bwuya, it‘s a government problem. As a courtesy, the mining company will keep Bwuya here for the night and treat him, but you two have to go back to the jungle with the military police. They will send someone to pick you up in a few minutes. I’m really sorry. Because if you had permission, you could have come into town with us. I bet a shower and a cold beer would have hit the spot for you two.”

“Well, instead, is there anywhere we can make a phone call to the U.S. before we leave here?” My instincts told me that it would be wise to seize the opportunity to register this significant change in travel plans with someone back home.

A block of executive offices was located across the road from the first aid station. From there, I called a friend in Brooklyn who had a young baby, the only person I knew who would certainly be home on a Saturday night. “Are you awake?” I asked her. “Are you sure? Please get a pencil and paper because I’m going to tell you some important information about where I am. It may seem like nothing special, but you must track down my husband or call someone in the State Department and just recite these facts.” I gave a brief account of the emergency and our current whereabouts. “We may become separated from our guide and without him, we’re lost in the jungle.” In our haste to evacuate Bwuya, we’d violated the cardinal rule: Be Prepared. Lacking food, water or warm clothes, we didn’t know where we’d wind up next.

“I probably will not get another chance to call,” I said, “but tomorrow, with the information I have given you, please try to find out what happened to the guide—and to us.”

The Army jeep was parked outside with the engine running. We asked for a final word with Bwuya. The petty officer ran a hand through his oiled hair before he nodded an exasperated “yes.” Inside, Bwuya was already on his second bag of fluid and had regained consciousness. “They took my three men back to the jungle already,” he reported anxiously. “And that’s where they’re taking you. Oh, Sandy! Oh, Alex! My life is very important to me. I do not want to die here,” Bwuya pleaded.

Speaking to no one in particular, the officer bleated commands, then motioned us to leave. It was raining hard when we climbed into the cargo-hold of the vehicle.

He eased into the driver’s seat and reclined its back to a position where he could hardly see over the dash. In low gear, the jeep crept slowly upward through the fog. “We can’t get out of this truck at the trailhead, Alex,” I stated defiantly. “It’s dusk, and soon, it will be dark. It’s more than five miles uphill to base camp and we’ve only a vague idea where it is located. For all we know, the porters are all gone back to Ilaga. If we get out of this truck, we haven’t a chance of being readmitted to the mine. We won’t see Bwuya again.” In the front seat, the squat officer was telling jokes over his radio.

The jeep came to a halt at the jungle’s edge, and after a few closing snorts and chuckles, the officer signed off the radio and came round back, carrying a large black plastic bag. “Here’s food,” he sneered, opening the gate. “Now, get out.”

From inside, Alex accepted the heavy bag gratefully. We hadn’t had anything to eat or drink since dawn. Still seated, we carefully opened the foil-wrapped balls the bag contained. “White rice, white rice and…more white rice,” said Alex, taking inventory. But the fourth packet held spicy bits of bone and gristle. “This, I think, must be the famed Indonesian specialty: roast dog!” We gnawed ravenously at the fatty bites of meat, and sopped up the sauce with the gluey rice balls.

The officer was getting restless and started stroking his hair again. As we licked red goo from our dirty fingertips, he barked, “Get out and go back to the jungle!”

“No,” I insisted. “We’ll die if we go back in there.”

Perplexed, he ran back to the front seat and switched on the ignition and the radio. This time, without so much as a burp or a laugh, he called out in a shrill staccato. Several voices came on in quick reply, and they erupted into a great commotion over the airway. It seemed that a calamity was in the offing.

Soon, several vehicles surrounded us, some with emergency lights flashing. “Did you see Midnight Express, Sandy?” Alex asked, laughing nervously.

Four men in hardhats hurled the cargo door open. “You can’t stay on Indonesian government property any longer.” We went through it over again: we could not get to base camp alone, without our Papuan guide who was in the clinic. Finally, a call came over the radio, and the men darted into their jeeps.

Our driver led the convoy down the hill. Armed guards waited for us outside the checkpoints along the mine road.

“Where are you coming from?”

“Trekking from Ilaga—but we left our guide in the clinic, and we would like to see him again.” We waited while the guard made a phone call to check our story.

“There is no one in the clinic named Onnis,” he claimed, hanging up the receiver. “You two better go to the main security station.”

We dragged our bag of meat and rice from the jeep, along with our daypacks, unsure of when we might see our next meal, and armed soldiers escorted us into a freshly painted white cubicle, lit by a fluorescent bulb. The concrete floor was recently poured, but, other than a tiny wooden bench, there was no furniture inside. “O.K., you sleep in here. There’s a heater on the wall over there,” said the one who spoke English so well, and left, locking the door behind him.

Before we could fathom the improbability of the day’s events, there was a knock, and a soft-spoken soldier entered and introduced himself as Bob. He propped his rifle against the wall and said he’d been sent to search our bags. We offered the food sack first. After that, he carefully inspected the backpacks and inquired about nearly every item they contained.

Looking through a camera viewfinder: “For what are you taking pictures?” Trying on some knit gloves: “Where do you use these?” Opening the umbrella: “Are you expecting rain?” He thumbed the bristles of my toothbrush, smelled the sun cream, examined the inside of a toilet paper roll, and finally, at the bottom of my pack, found the false bottom, where I had hidden several thousand dollars in small denominations in case of dire emergency.

It must have looked like a million to him. He called to another soldier, who was standing outside the door, and said something about taking a “shot.” I thought that surely our hopes for climbing this mountain, and maybe any other, were over now.

The fellow returned, bringing Bob a camera. “No, no!” he protested, “You take the shot of me with the Americans and all their dollars.” He positioned himself between the two of us, fanning himself with the thick stack of greenbacks. Afterward, he carefully returned them to the formerly secret compartment. Content, at least for the moment, he left the room.

I think they were curious, more than anything else. Looking back, it provides a plausible explanation for why the soldiers kept barging in, throughout the night. We were probably the first prisoners in a long time that they’d held captive in that remote military outpost. But the frequent visits made us edgy and nervous.

In the pre-dawn, after we’d somehow managed to fall asleep, they pounded on the door for the umpteenth time. A man of higher rank than any we’d encountered so far stood in the doorway and greeted us with a cordial smile. “Hello. We’ve come to welcome you to Tembagapura.”

We were pleased to see that Bwuya dozed in the back seat of the idling truck that was waiting outside. He jolted upright as we opened the door. “Oh, they tried so hard to catch Bwuya! But I am not called ‘the Crocko-deel’ for nothing. I gave them a real test finding me!” he exclaimed. He told us that after a few bags of I.V. fluid they had declared him fit, so he was driven to the trailhead and instructed to go back to Ilaga. “But then, afterwards they realized that I am the most famous Papuan man, and that they had made a big mistake. So they came back into the jungle to find me. Many men with guns were searching. But I am clever at hiding from them. So it took a long time. When they find me, I ordered them to release the two of you, and let us all go to Tembagapura right away. It’s a nice place. You will like it there,” he said, before drifting back into unconsciousness.

Our first stop in town was the hospital, where Bwuya was met at the curb by two orderlies. “Do you really think we’ve been moved here because of Bwuya?” I asked as I counted the number of bedrooms in the lavishly appointed guesthouse where they had taken Alex and me.

“Look! Fig Newtons, six flavors of breakfast cereal, candy bars, o.j., pancake mix, cheese, and no barbecued dog meat, songbirds or endangered marsupials!” Alex said from the kitchen. “Someone must want to make us feel really comfortable here.” Without anyone as yet to thank, we decided to go to sleep.

A mine executive appeared on the doorstep the following morning. “I’m here, with hat in hand, to apologize for the terrible mistake,” he said. “The communication between the military and the mine company isn’t always perfect, and I guess you two have been victims of that. I’m really sorry. I hope we can make it up to you.”

It seemed that my friend in Brooklyn had managed to reach people in high places: first she found my husband, who called on friends of friends. It was, ultimately, a call from the United States State Department that had caused our transfer from the freshly painted cubicle to the gilded cage.

We were taken to Bwuya’s bedside at Tembagapura Hospital, where his condition had been pronounced stable.

“Oh, yes, we’ll take good care of him, don’t worry. There isn’t a finer hospital in Indonesia than ours,” the executive boasted proudly over a dinner he hosted for a few mine employees in our honor. Maybe the executives, like the soldiers up at the mine, didn’t get many outside visitors. In any case, they claimed they’d never met anyone who was interested in climbing Puncak Jaya, let alone motivated enough by the prospect to walk for six days accompanied by a band of Papuans.

With an armed military escort, the summit of Puncak Jaya is only a day away from Tembagapura. We probably could have made the walk faster without them. It took time to coax our porters from their hiding places in the caves and the trees. “Oooh-oooh, oooh-oooh. Aah-way, aah-way,” we called into the forest. We hoped they’d trust the familiar sound.

They emerged, one by one. We spoke the only words we knew to communicate the news of Bwuya and our plan. “Bwuya o.k. Tembagapura. Bwuya malaria o.k. Bagus! Abu up!” and finally, “Car-tens!”

“Oooh-oooh, oooh-oooh. Aah-way, aah-way,” the Dani continued, dancing up the trail. It was raining hard, but the weather had little effect on our spirits. Surely, the dead souls who dwell in the mountain range had never seen such a comical troupe on the march. The gun-toting soldiers were in such bad physical condition and so ill-prepared for the climate in slick leather-soled Army boots, quilted snow parkas and ski hats, and overburdened with heavy pre-historic backpacks, that we had to stop time and again to wait for them to catch up.

The porters, still in their shorts, t-shirts and bare feet, had painted themselves with ashes, mud, and red sap. Some wore feathers and flowers in their hair. They had been restored to the proud Dani warriors we’d met in Ilaga almost two weeks before. The celebration of our reunion with them and honoring Bwuya’s returning good health continued into the afternoon. The boys from the Army looked on hungrily (it was, coincidentally, Ramadan, and they were required to fast) as the Dani roasted the last of the sweet potatoes at base camp that afternoon. I knew then that it was for them I had come to Irian Jaya; the opportunity to climb the peak was just an added bonus.

The Papuans and the Indonesians waited together in camp while Alex and I easily made our way to the summit of Puncak Jaya. Of course, it rained most of the time we were up there; the clouds broke just long enough for us to make out the shores of the Arafura Sea on the southern horizon, the waters where Jan Carstensz himself had sailed on that other clear morning, three-hundred seventy-two years earlier.

“Did you make it to the top?” Bwuya asked eagerly, his healthy glow visible once again. He surely would have leapt from the bed to greet us if he hadn’t been restrained by the I.V. drip tied to his arm.

“Yes, yes, but we’re more interested in hearing about you right now, Bwuya,” Alex said.

“Well, of course, they take special care of me here, because they know I am the Crocko-deel, the only man to walk from Dani home land to Asmat.” He recounted the tale again.

“You know, when they threw me back into the jungle a few nights ago, that was because they didn’t recognize me, but then they realized their mistake. Now they are making up for it. That’s why they have been taking care of you so well, too—because you are the friends of the Bwuya,” he stated, as surely as though it were fact.

“Oh, it must have been very hard for you to climb it without the Bwuya to show you the way.” He was right. It had been a bittersweet victory, indeed, without Bwuya standing by our side on the summit of Puncak Jaya, each of us an illustration of mankind’s age-old obsession with the significance of a view from the top of his world.



Puncak Jaya/Carstensz Pyramid
Picture 1: Sketch of Dani warrior by Sandy Hill
Picture 2: Dani tribesmen and me, Photographer: Alex Lowe
Picture 3: Our route to the summit
Picture 4: Alex Lowe and me at the summit, Photographer: Sandy Hill
Picture 5: 1936 photo of the icecap at the summit, Photographer: unknown
Picture 6: Dani warrior photo from a vintage postcard, Photographer: unknown
Picture 7: Sketch of a rufescent imperial pigeon, Sandy Hill
Picture 8: Alex and me with the porters and an executive from the mining company, Photographer: unknown
Picture 9: On the summit, Photographer: unknown
Picture 10: Sketch of West Indian creeper, Sandy Hill
Picture 11: The summit, Photographer: Sandy Hill
Picture 12: Porters carrying loads through the jungle, Photographer: unknown
Picture 13: Sketch of awor, Sandy Hill
Picture 14: Dani tribesman from a vintage postcard, Photographer: unknown
Picture 15: Tribesmen, Photographer: unknown
Picture 16: Onnis Banto (Bwuya), Photographer: Sandy Hill
Picture 17: Sketch of climbing gear, Sandy Hill
Picture 18: Bwuya, Photographer: Sandy Hill
Picture 19: Sketch of lorikeet, Sandy Hill
Picture 20: Dani people, Photographer: Sandy Hill
Picture 21: Dani warriors from a vintage postcard, Photographer: unknown
Picture 22: Sketch of kavavar, Sandy Hill
Picture 23: Dani warrior from a vintage postcard, Photographer: unknown
Picture 24: Sketch of climbing rope, Sandy Hill
Picture 25: Dani woman from a vintage postcard, Photographer: unknown
Picture 26: Sketch of climbing rope, Sandy Hill
Picture 27: Our porters, Photographer: Sandy Hill
Picture 28: Dani tribesmen, Photographer: Sandy Hill
Picture 29: Sketch of betel-nut palm, Sandy Hill
Picture 30: Sketch of route, Sandy Hill
Picture 31: Dani people lined up along the runway, Photographer: Sandy Hill
Picture 32: Notes on Dani phrases and Carstensz Pyramid, from my diary
Picture 33: Drawing of region from vintage map
Picture 34: Songs that mention rain, from my diary