by Samantha Gillison
Good-bye, luxury. Hello, adventure. Samantha Gillison goes on the cruise of a lifetime along the primeval coast where, forty-four years ago, Michael C. Rockefeller vanished
It was as though we had stumbled into an Aladdin’s Cave stuffed with exquisite primitive art. Erick Sarckol, the Indonesian assistant curator at the Asmat Museum of Culture and Progress, had led us over a maze of rickety boardwalks built across tidal mudflats to a simple one-story structure. Inside, wooden carvings representing humans, spirits, and animals peered at us, alternately sexual, threatening, mournful, ecstatic, and tender. The sculptures were covered in curlicues and praying mantises, pig tusks and malevolent ghosts, and all were larger than life, colored white, red, and black. A few so-called soul ships, used in long-ago Asmat male initiation ceremonies, sat on the floor. Each three-foot-long boat held wooden figures of men bowing to a magical turtle, the Asmat symbol of male fertility. Human skulls decorated with feathers and seeds rested in a corner, half-hidden by row upon row of war shields painted in bold abstract patterns.
The four of us, who had come ashore from the Mona Lisa, were allowed as much time as we wanted to gaze at the artifacts made by West Papua’s legendary warrior-sculptors. The artists had meant for their work to overwhelm, and overwhelmed I was, unprepared for the enormity and beauty of the collection. I began to laugh with pleasure, as giddy as when I first saw Michelangelo’s Pietà at the Vatican on a high school Latin trip. And immediately I understood why in 1961, twenty-three-year-old Michael C. Rockefeller, newly graduated from Harvard with a degree in anthropology, had risked—and ultimately lost—his life studying this art (see The Vanishing). The pieces he amassed before his death form the backbone of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection of primitive works in New York City.
Those in the Asmat Museum of Culture and Progress are no less world-class, despite their location on a side street—or rather a side boardwalk—in Agats, the capital of the Asmat region. This territory comprises ten thousand square acres of lowland swamp and rain forest on the southern coast of Indonesian Papua, the western half of the island of New Guinea. The only way to get here, or to leave, is by boat (or chartered helicopter). And once you’ve arrived in the Asmat, the only way to travel around is via canoe or motorboat along crocodile-infested river highways—there are no roads, no airports.
At first Agats reminded me a little of New York’s Fire Island, with its boardwalks and close-together houses on stilts. Except here, the equatorial sun glares down on you from its zenith between midmorning and late afternoon, tropical birds call, opportunistic mosquitoes buzz nonstop, and little boys, shrieking in delight, dive off the walkways into muddy, brackish streams. The people who live in Agats include Asmats themselves and newcomers from other islands in Indonesia who run the small dry-goods shops.
Ethnohistorians postulate that the Asmat people’s earliest ancestors came to New Guinea about fifty thousand years ago as part of a migration out of mainland Asia through the Malay Archipelago. In any event, the Asmat have been living in the forests along the Asmat River for thousands of years, hunting, fishing, and gathering the starchy sap of the sago palm. Before the outside world—in the form of Catholic missionaries and the Dutch and Indonesian governments—started arriving in the 1950s, they were a fierce warrior tribe who led raids against one another and ate their slaughtered enemies. Cannibalism and head-hunting, which persisted until the early 1970s, figure largely in Asmat cosmology, art, and religion.
I had heard about the Asmat all my life: My mother is an anthropologist, and I spent several years of my childhood in neighboring Papua New Guinea while she conducted fieldwork. As a teenager, I interned at the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing of the Metropolitan Museum, learning about the magical, intricate carvings that the Asmat created for use in their ritual feasts. Furthermore, I had just spent two years working on a novelization of young Rockefeller’s tragic trip to the Asmat, The King of America. Curious to finally see this legendary place and learn how much of its culture was intact, I booked an Indonesian cruise that traveled the length of the West Papuan coast, starting in Sorong, on the western end of the island, and ending in the Asmat. It was meant to be a two-week voyage (although engine trouble and bureaucratic quagmires extended it to nearly three) on a pininsi, a traditional Indonesian schooner that is a distant cousin of the Chinese junk and is small enough to explore coastal inlets and reefs. I was the lone American among the twelve passengers. All but a Catalan couple from Majorca, a world-traveling French nomad named Bruno, and the photographer Brigitte Lacombe were on a tour organized by a French travel agency specializing in far-flung destinations. The agency also sent along Yves Paccalet, a naturalist who had worked with Jacques Cousteau for twenty years, to be the Mona Lisa’s resident nature expert. While the others were excited to be on such an exotic adventure to West Papua, none of them were as Asmat mad as I was.
In the Denpasar airport on Bali, we all met up with Étienne Lheureux, the cruise director and captain, a Belgian expatriate who had worn a bright pink polo shirt so we could pick him out of the churning crowds. The chaotic domestic terminal at Denpasar is a thrill in itself: full of surfers of all stripes, soldiers, French tourists, and Indonesian families. The air is sweet with burning incense and clove cigarette smoke, there are little banana-leaf-packet offerings of saffron rice to the goddess Saraswati everywhere, and fresh-cut gardenia blossoms float in bowls of water. It took another three flights to finally reach West Papua, the long journey extended by a series of just-missed connections on irregularly scheduled routes. In another place at another time, this would have deeply annoyed me, but here it had the opposite effect, heightening my sense of anticipation. I felt as though we were, to paraphrase the British art critic Sacheverell Sitwell, passing through the suburbs of a new, fantastical world.
Nonetheless, we were a bleary-eyed group by the time we arrived in Sorong in the early evening and boarded the Mona Lisa. I was so tired that I barely noticed the crew of ten, the seven black sails, or the wide communal dining table that I would grow so fond of over the course of our trip.
To take advantage of daylight for sightseeing, snorkeling, and hiking, the Mona Lisa sails—well, motors—at night, and we woke up the first morning off the coast at Batanta Island. We had dropped anchor in a lagoon opposite a tiny fishing community of thatch-roofed huts. The villagers, explained Lheureux, harvest sea cucumbers and mother-of-pearl. Palm trees lined the beach, and a few overturned boats basked lazily on the sand. A French couple jumped off the boat into the warm aqua-blue ocean for a swim while the rest of us sipped coffee and gazed out at the vista. The smell of wood smoke from the village’s cooking fires drifted over. It was like a dream of the South Pacific: the soft wind, the forested hills in the distance, the sound of a rooster crowing.
A boat carrying villagers came to take us into the lowland rain forest to look for birds of paradise. I decided to stay and meditate on the view. Having grown up with my father, a wildlife photographer whose passion is birds of paradise, I didn’t think this group would see any: His rule of thumb is that to spot one in the wild you must be very lucky, have excellent local intelligence, and be in position and silent well before dawn. It was already 7:30 a.m., and the equatorial sun was strong. Indeed, a disappointed group of bird-watchers arrived back at the boat in time for lunch. I maintained a tactful silence.
After eating, we wound our way through the waters off Batanta, where the rain forest dripped down to the beaches. Clouds of fish jumped into the air in silvery flashes of greeting. It was hot—hot like New York City in an August heat wave, except of course that we were on a boat, with soft breezes washing over us and an endless shallow green sea below. There was something surreally peaceful about motoring through this undiscovered world, drifting by deserted beaches and over coral reefs that flickered iridescent blue with darting parrot fish.
We never saw another passenger boat on the whole trip. It is expensive and logistically difficult to travel along this, the easternmost island of Indonesia. And, Lheureux blithely informed me, Australian boats avoid the Papuan coast because they’re worried about pirates. Pirates? Our captain, who has sailed in this part of the world for fifteen years, seemed to think it was a risible fear. I decided to follow suit.
Sailing on the Mona Lisa is not a luxurious experience. The hundred-foot-long wooden schooner is, however, aesthetically pleasing—and ruggedly comfortable. There are six passenger cabins off a narrow hallway, with a shower at the forward end. An indoor dining/living area leads out onto the deck. Some of the cabins have skylights, although the one I shared with Brigitte did not. The cabins have little sinks and are somewhat claustrophobic if you’re in the top bunk but are quite okay from the bottom. All in all, it was a perfectly fine boat to live on for two weeks—especially if you slept on deck, as Brigitte and I quickly decided to do. Every night the crew supplied comfortable mats, sheets, and quilts, and we lay underneath a sky lit by thousands of stars, lost in the Southern Cross while Jupiter and Venus blinked at us.
The Mona Lisa sailed south, away from the Papuan coast to the Misool Archipelago, where we encountered karst formations, limestone islets that have been pushed up by shifting tectonic plates over the millennia. From a distance they appeared as a series of enormous bulbous gray forms sticking out of the water. Up close they looked like dramatic lunar rocks capped in rain forest. As we approached, Lheureux mounted the rigging in excitement, climbing almost to the top of the mast. Millions of years ago, Paccalet told us, these limestone lumps were coral reefs. Out popped digital cameras, disposables, the new Leica bought just for this trip, and a frenzy of clicking and shutter-snapping ensued. Lheureux told us that there are almost no visitors here besides the odd group aboard a sailboat like his and a few fishermen who collect shells, which are sent to Java to be made into mother-of-pearl buttons. But mostly it is a hidden place.
A frigate bird flew in circles over our boat as we got ready to snorkel near Sabuda Island. The sea was breathtaking, a labyrinth of karst formations. Acres of coral spread underwater, and Paccalet identified the various types for us: elkhorn, brain, and plate. Brilliant yellow and purple tubes protruded from the reef, pre-vertebrate creatures that belong to a scientific family more than 450 million years old.
Anyone who complains that there is no more wilderness hasn’t taken six planes to Papua, hopped on a pininsi schooner, and spent two days sailing to arrive in a place as close to terra incognita as you can imagine: uninhabited stretches of primary-growth rain forest framing bays of pristine reefs where hornbills, eagles, frigate birds, and cockatoos fly overhead and improbably colored tropical butterflies flutter. Strewn on the beach are dozens of giant clamshells, their wavy mouths agape—massive, ugly-beautiful things that seem like prehistoric artifacts. Although we hadn’t even reached the primeval estuaries of the Asmat, we were already deep in another, older universe.
As we headed back to the Papuan coast that night under a sky blotted with thick clouds, the Mona Lisa hit rough seas. I sat on the bridge’s roof, looking into the vast darkness as the boat pitched in the waves. When the clouds finally parted, the full moon was immense in the equatorial sky, lighting everything in an otherworldly silver-white. I thought of Magellan and Columbus and the Stone Age Polynesians setting sail for the unknown. And what, as a landlubber, I had never really understood I now saw as clearly as the moonlight glowing on the waves: Part of the urge to explore the unknown is the sheer pleasure of sailing in the unknown.
At dawn we sighted the famous Kiti Kiti Waterfalls, a freshwater river that spills from a rocky forty-foot cliff into the sea opposite the Papuan coast’s Fak Fak Peninsula. We dropped anchor at a small beach nearby and hiked into the rain forest. Brigitte, the ship’s cook, and I went off on our own, exploring a mossy green forest full of orchids and hanging vines and the smell of wet earth. Three agile wallabies bounded past us, and pelicans soared overhead. Farther up the hill, we were met with a thrilling clamor of calling birds, buzzing insects, a rushing river. I began climbing a partially felled tree but stopped abruptly when I heard piercing shrieks coming from Brigitte. She had brushed against a tree and was being attacked by biting ants. After a few minutes, the ants retreated and we decided to do the same. Heading back to the Mona Lisa, we came upon a little pool in the river. It was clear and beautiful and reminded me of my childhood in the New Guinea rain forest. I couldn’t resist and, in my underwear and sneakers, leaped into the most delicious peppery-flavored ice water I had ever tasted.
The next day, we stopped in Kaimana, the oldest port in Papua, established by the Dutch and now run by the Indonesians. About ten thousand people live in the small, dusty town, which has a harbormaster, a market, dry goods stores, a Catholic church, and a mosque. It was here that our trip drifted into a Graham Greene novel. The Mona Lisa couldn’t go anywhere until the harbormaster signed our papers—which he seemed in absolutely no hurry to do. We waited for eight hours, tied up next to a huge Indonesian cargo boat, before he finally complied. Such were the bureaucratic intricacies of sailing in West Papua, Lheureux explained.
Kaimana has a kind of charm, although it is in no sense a tourist destination: It is a resupply port, and resupply we did. Cucumbers, eggplant, fresh peanuts, coconuts, bananas, soybeans, tofu, eggs, several species of fish and squid, gingerroot, limes, peppers—the Mona Lisa’s hold was crammed with the bounty of the mid-Papuan coast.
After an hour back at sea, we were once again floating past inlets and forest-edged bays when we came upon a series of cliffs covered in ancient petroglyphs: hands, fish, intricate and beautiful abstract patterns. Known to ethnologists and historians as the painted sea cliffs of the Bomberai Peninsula (though confusingly located east of that landmass), they were found by European adventurers in 1678, more than two hundred years before anyone discovered the first decorated caves in Europe. Lheureux said there are so many of these cliffs that you could spend a month looking and not find them all. The drawings, millennia old, were the first evidence we had seen on our trip of an original people making their mark on the world around them.
The next day we entered Triton Bay. Motoring slowly through a magnificent series of limestone coves and islets, it felt as though we’d entered the lush tropical world of Gauguin’s paintings of the South Seas. We spent the afternoon in a sheltered bay, ate fresh shrimp for lunch, and snorkeled in the warm sea.
Later, three Papuan men showed up in a motorboat and took Blandine, a Frenchwoman on Paccalet’s tour, and me to a grove of wild nutmeg trees in the rain forest. The branches were heavy with the fruit, which resembles a lemon-shaped pear. Hundreds lay on the ground, ripe and rotting. Back on the boat, we sliced one open and found that the inside looked like that of an avocado: The nutmeg itself is a hard brown seed covered in a brilliant red, plasticky web, which is mace. The cook made nutmeg juice, nutmeg syrup, nutmeg jelly, nutmeg soup. Never again will nutmeg make me think of eggnog.
We sailed west to Etna Bay, smaller than Triton but just as beautiful, where Paccalet led a group on a bird of paradise hike. I decided that I would look for one too—alone. A local man had told us that a species of that family hung out in trees near the shore. A reluctant crew member took me in the Zodiac to a secluded beach. I scrambled through heavy brush, uphill, fighting prickly, tangled vines until I found what I thought was a suitably uncomfortable spot, knowing the bird would accept only suffering as proper homage.
I crouched for forty minutes, smacking at ants and mosquitoes and muttering about malaria, while both of my feet went to sleep. Finally, I sensed that a largish bird had alighted on the upper branches of a nearby pandanus tree. Birds of paradise are unlike any other birds—they have a kind of stage presence: You just feel it when they are around. Finally, the bird hopped into my line of vision. He was a big black thing with a shimmery blue-black bustle of a tail—a glossy-manteled manucode, not uncommon, according to my Birds of New Guinea and the Bismark Archipelago, but so, so beautiful. The resplendent creature left after a few minutes, just long enough for me to get a good look at him shaking his plumage.
As we traveled farther .east, pausing near Uta for lunch around our communal table, the landscape became mudflats, mangrove swamps, wide green plains, and mountains whose runoff feeds the salt swamps. Passing through the port of Amamapare, the Mona Lisa dropped anchor near Timika, a boom town that has grown up near an American copper mine. Timika is considered the doorway to Asmat country, and with its airport, a Sheraton, and the world’s most remote golf course, it is the last major outpost of civilization on Indonesia’s Papuan coast.
We stopped in a narrow muddy river that leads inland from the Arafura Sea to the port of Timika, flowing through swamp and lowland jungle. Although we were still more than two days’ sail from real Asmat country, the scene from the deck of the Mona Lisa looked like old documentary footage I had seen of the Asmat—people paddling long dugout canoes, the brown river reflecting the pure blue sky, and enormous trees bending over the water as though sipping it.
That night we went to a dance in nearby Pomoko, an Asmat village that for some reason had been relocated here. After dinner, we all zipped upriver in a large motorized longboat. The black water reflected the stars, and everything felt alive and lush.
The villagers greeted us in traditional ritual regalia—grass skirts, feather crowns, dog- and pig-tooth necklaces, their faces and bodies painted with white and orange clay—and put on a heartbreakingly beautiful performance. A bonfire burned in the middle of Pomoko and illuminated the dancers around it, who beat on lizard-skin drums, chanted call and response, and did a wiggly-kneed Asmat version of the Charleston. There was so much emotion in this tourist performance that it reminded me a little of the ritual theater I saw as a child in New Guinea in the early 1970s.
The next morning, Brigitte and I went back to see Pomoko in the daylight, passing the rush-hour traffic of dugout canoes in the Mona Lisa’s Zodiac. Birdsong echoed from the forest, and the river widened until everything was trees and sky and briny-smelling water. The tide was high at Pomoko. Canoes tied to posts bobbed in the waves. A woman chest-deep in the water, untangling her shrimp nets, called a greeting to us, and children ran along the shore laughing and waving while Brigitte took photos and I scribbled away in my notebook. I couldn’t believe where I was. I had been thinking, writing, and dreaming about this country for so many years. Just this one little village was more beautiful than anything I had fantasized—imagine what could be awaiting me in the Asmat region proper.
That afternoon, most of the passengers left the Mona Lisa, driving into Timika and then flying back to the real world. The trip had fallen victim to Murphy’s Law (or Merpati’s Law, to use an Indonesian surname): Between the harbormaster in Kaimana. and engine trouble, we were two days off schedule. Only Bruno, Jaume and Catalina (the Catalan couple), and I stayed on to travel to Agats and the heart of the Asmat.
Rudy Karundeng, the business manager of Mona Lisa Cruises, flew in from Bali to join us for the final five days. With only four passengers, the trip took on a contemplative, voyage-of-exploration feel. I became keenly aware of time passing as we headed east: the sun traveling across the sky, the crew praying at dawn and evening, the brown sea’s different moods.
Jaume dropped two lines and caught a mackerel. He marinated it in Papuan garlic, Balinese lemon, and Spanish olive oil he had brought with him all the way from Majorca. It was by far the best fish I have ever eaten—full of the taste of the sea, the oil coaxing the mackerel’s flavors from its flesh. The clear aqua waters of the fantasy Pacific were long gone: Here, branches and logs from the mountain runoff bobbed in a coffee-colored sea. It was humid too; we were on the threshold of the monsoon, and every once in a while the sky grew dark and unleashed a downpour.
Bright sunshine lit up Flamingo Bay. We were at last in the Asmat. On the muddy shore stood the town of Agats, a series of rickety-looking houses on stilts. While we drank our coffee and ate some delicious pancakes drowned in nutmeg syrup, a steady stream of people paddled out to the Mona Lisa in dugouts. Before breakfast was over, tourist carvings, baby parrots, and magnificent orchids, their roots still dripping with earth, had appeared on board for sale.
Only a handful of visitors a year make it through the logistical obstacle course to get to the Asmat. That first morning, a few local guides came to welcome us and to drum up some business. One of them told me that there were fewer boats this year than in the lean years since 9/11. But even with so few tourists, I worried that there was really nothing left of the original way of life. As Rockefeller wrote in 1961: “Asmat is a culture where art is a necessary and integrated element. There can be no war, no feasting, without tremendous effort on the part of the sculptor.” The Asmat warrior-sculptors carved because they had to make the tools for their rituals. What happens to the art, I wondered, if you dilute the culture with a half-century of Christianity, poverty, and harsh colonial rule, both Dutch and Indonesian?
I needn’t have worried. The Catholic mission that has been here since the 1950s has in fact protected and nourished Asmat creativity. Many collectors and Asmat-lovers return here over and over again, promoting the area and its art, helping the people to earn money through creative endeavor and thereby maintain their cultural identity.
That afternoon, we left the museum stunned, our heads full of swirling abstract images, meticulously carved figures, human-bone daggers, lizard-skin drums, spirit masks, and canoe prows, all of which sang the song of Asmat life. We walked past the Catholic church—built in lines that echo Asmat architecture—to the end of the boardwalk, where we were greeted by giggling, dancing children and then terrified by young men who jumped out of the bushes, chanting and thrusting spears in our direction, re-creating a headhunting attack. Even from this made-for-tourists performance, you could feel how ferocious the raids must have been. Finally, we stood in front of a long-house and watched a traditional dance, enraptured by men in full-length spirit masks representing the avenging dead, chanting Asmat songs to the beating of drums.
A local guide beckoned me over. He introduced an elderly Asmat man, saying, “This is Leo Bewerpitsj. He was on the boat with Rockefeller that day. He swam for help.”
Bewerpitsj opened a plastic bag and pulled out a laminated plaque. It was a proclamation from Nelson Rockefeller, thanking him for helping with the search for his son.
At sunset on our last night in Agats, the waters of Flamingo Bay glowed an iridescent orange. The sun turned a deep bloodred and spilled its liquid color onto the clouds. As Claude Levi-Straus wrote in Tristes Tropiques, it is only possible, as a modern traveler, to chase after vestiges of vanished reality. But how exquisite and moving the afterimages of Asmat culture are. In that moment, there was only the sky above and a dugout canoe being paddled slowly across the muddy waters of the Arafura Sea
Places + Prices
by Samantha Gillison
Until very recently, West Papua was known as Irian Jaya. It shares the island of New Guinea with an independent country, Papua New Guinea. Given the vagaries of Papuan time and tide, allow at least two days of land time on either side of your cruise—at worst, you’ll have some extra beach time in Bali. Cruises typically leave from Timika to explore the coast’s bays and islands, and send passengers into the interior in motorized longboats from Agats. A particularly good time to go is October, during the weeklong Asmat art festival in Agats.
Although you will be warned that there is nothing authentic left to buy in Agats and the more remote villages, there are some lovely handcrafted pieces around: sculpture, jewelry, woven bags and baskets, and bark-cloth paintings. While haggling is de rigueur in most of Indonesia, in the Asmat you are generally dealing with truly impoverished craftspeople who ask for one-twentieth of what you would pay in a gallery. In other words, no bargaining necessary.
While vaccinations are not required, a regimen of antimalarials is advised. Of vital importance are insect repellent, sun block, lightweight long-sleeved clothing, binoculars, and a flashlight.
The country code for Indonesia is 62. Prices quoted are for the current month. The nearest U.S. consulate is in Bali, at 188 Jalan Hayam Wuruk (361-233-605; http://www.usembassyjakarta.org/bali.html).
Because of mechanical problems I experienced aboard the Mona Lisa—as well as uneven service and food—I would instead recommend booking on the Katharina, its sister ship, through Rudy Karundeng (361-283-824; two-week cruise, $3,100 per person, including round-trip airfare from Bali). Stateside, you can contact Mary Crowley and her staff at Ocean Voyages, who specialize in exotic charters and inspect the vessels and their crews regularly (800-299-4444; http://www.oceanvoyages.com; two-week cruises, $3,000-$6,000 per person). Bear in mind, however, that any cruise here is particularly prone to delays and itinerary changes.
The Asmat Museum of Culture and Progress in Agats is a must-see—not only for its extensive collection of art and artifacts but for its succinct introduction to Asmat culture and cosmology (902-311-38; firstname.lastname@example.org). If you’re in New York before your trip to the region, the Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is the premier place to learn about the Asmat and their art (212-535-7710; http://www.metmuseum.org).
After a long flight, recover at the lovely Patra Bali, near the airport (361-751-161; http://www.patra-jasa.com/bali; doubles, $150). The Sheraton Timika calls itself an eco-resort with what is arguably the world’s most remote championship golf course. Hendrix, at the front desk, is charming and able to handle all kinds of crises and special requests (901-394-949; http://www.sheraton.com/timika; doubles, $60-$75).