Tuesday, 3 August 1993

IRIAN JAYA July /August 1993: Lake Habbema trek

Introduction.  There are superb birds to be found in any part of the world but the area that stands out as probably having more than anywhere else, and so is perhaps of the greatest attraction to the travelling birder, is New Guinea.  Not only does it have most of the world’s Birds of Paradise (including all of the best ones) but it has a mystery and remoteness, not to mention a hint of danger, that make it an almost irresistible destination.  The down side is that many New Guinea birds are very shy and hard to find (the male Birds of Paradise are still hunted for their feathers) in quite tough terrain while its remoteness makes it expensive to get to and it is even more so when there.  By 1993 New Guinea was becoming a rather obvious ‘gap’ in the places Nick Preston and I had visited and we felt the time was right to take the plunge that summer.  We quickly ruled out visiting Papua New Guinea as we could not afford to go on a tour or stay in the very expensive lodges there.  Neither did we feel confident of sorting out ground arrangements ourselves in a country known for its sporadic violence.  Irian Jaya, the Indonesian half of the island, seemed the obvious destination, more so as we’d had a successful trip to Sulawesi and Halmahera the previous year and Nick obtained a very helpful report from David Gibbs.  The downside of Irian was that the infrastructure was less well developed making us more reliant on internal flights which were notoriously unreliable.  Also English was less widely spoken and our Bahasa Indonesian, the official language, was limited to a few words.


just some of the reasons one might wish to visit New Guinea
Not to be put off we soon recruited Garry Edwards and Barry Stidolph and started booking flights.  This blog recounts our trip but as with most of mine it relies on inadequate notebook entries and somewhat unreliable memories.  It is mainly illustrated with scanned images of prints taken at the time with a pocket camera but I also took a slide film but the colours have degraded quite badly.  The images taken on the Lake Habbema trek, where we retraced our steps on the way back, may not be in chronological or even geographical order.  After an almost complete lack of success in getting any bird photographs in Sulawesi the previous year, and conscious that the terrain would be even tougher I left my SLR camera and telephoto lens behind.  It was probably the right decision.  More foolishly, as I was paranoid about carrying too much weight, I left my Leica binoculars behind and took a light pair of Swarovski 8x20s.  They were fine when I found a bird but their narrow field of view made it much harder than it already was getting onto anything in the first place.

Barry left a couple of months before us taking the slow route to Jayapura, via most of the rest of Indonesia.  Garry, Nick and I flew more directly, although it was still a long and arduous journey with stop-overs and/or changes of plane in Abu Dhabi (where I saw two Hoopoe Larks running around on the tarmac), Jakarta, Ujung Pandang (seeing Lemon-bellied White-eye and Flyeater) and Biak.  We met Barry in Jayapura on 26 July, found a hotel (the Mansapur Rani) and made for the nearest police station to get our Surat Jalans, the permits needed to visit pretty much anywhere outside of a few towns and Biak.
heading east over Indonesia



27 July.  After a brief attempt to access decent habitat in the nearby Cyclops Mountains, where the rather uninspiring Mimic Meliphagia was the only new bird identified, we headed for the airport for our flight to Wamena to find we’d been bumped off it.  Barry instigated a sit down protest at the only check in counter which we monopolised and, whether as a result or not, we were put on to the next flight.  We arrived in Wamena at 3;30 pm only two hours late.  We needed to find a guide who would put together a trek to Lake Habbema for us as we’d not arranged one in advance and had refused the attentions of a couple of ‘wannabees’ in Jayapura who were not convincing enough for us to fork out for their plane fare.  Before we could catch our breath and look around for any Tourist Information that might help with a guide we were approached by John Tabone.  He seemed very knowledgeable and friendly and after a short negotiation we agreed that he would put together a week long trek to Lake Habbema for us.  Jon took us to Losmen Syahril Jaya a short walk away and while we were getting sorted out left to take our Surat Jalan to the local police station, check on his crew and arrange a vehicle charter for the morning.  John returned with his cook, Holyk Meyaga, and we visited the local market to buy enough food and other supplies to last ten of us a week.  I didn’t have a clue as to what we’d need but John and Holyk clearly knew their stuff and Barry was on the ball too.
view of the Cyclops Mountains from Jayapura
flight to Wamena
first sight of Baelim Valley
descending over Baelim Valley
view from Wamena airport
28 July.  We set off in the back of a pickup for an hour’s journey along a rough road to Beneme.  From here we would be on foot and our porters (Dilatus Waida, Sem and Yacob Tabuni and Lukas Elopeze) and Holyk shared our rucksacks, their meagre kit and our food between them.  These were very tough guys and once loaded they set off at a fast pace.  We followed in a more leisurely fashion being led by John, not that we needed much guiding at this stage as the trail was quite obvious.  I had to pinch myself that here I was trekking in the mountains of New Guinea.  Our plan was to reach Dyela that day, a fairly steady, undulating five hour walk through mainly open, cultivated country.  After a couple of hours we caught up with the porters who had a brew on and were preparing a meal.  This was to be the pattern for the trek.  Our porters would go ahead and just when we were beginning to tire, or feel hungry we’d come across them with a fire going, a brew made and food on the stove.  Perfect!!  Birds were good too, if rather thin on the ground, with a male Superb Bird of Paradise, 2 female Splendid Astrapias, White-eyed Robin and Fan-tailed Berrypecker the best of the 26 species seen.  At Dyela we put up tents and had a superb meal.
setting off from Beneme.  Some of our team loading up, watched on by locals in western and traditional dress (if you can call it that)
Garry, Barry and Nick, all as stunned as I was that we were actually about to set off into the New Guinea highlands
the first part of the trek was through heavily cultivated land
although it was interspersed with forest patches


at this stage the the trail was easy to follow and relatively flat
Barry, Nick, me and some of our 'support team' taking a break.  Barry reflective, Nick studious, me wrecked (and we'd hardly started)!  I'm not sure how I'm so much muddier than Barry and Nick either!
29 July.  A tough day.  From Dyela we walked up to Pos III.  I say walked and it started off like that but we were soon in the forest and the trail deteriorated and became very muddy.  Past Yaugabema the trail climbed steeply and following it became a scramble in the mud.  Ordinary mud might not have been too bad but this was really thick sticky mud, so much so that the front half of the sole of my stout walking shoe came unstuck and flapped around with every step.  Later I found a spare shoelace in my rucksack and tied the sole in place but it was only partially successful.  There were times when I wasn’t the only one thinking I wouldn’t make it to Pos III but I did, tired and wet.  We camped and were treated to another superb meal - I never realised how nice sweet potatoes were.  It was another low species day, not helped by my having to spend so long concentrating on not slipping over on the trail, and I only managed to see 19 species.  However they did include King of Saxony and Superb Birds of Paradise (a female of each), Spendid Astrapia (4 females), a male Loria’s Bird of Paradise (now a Satinbird), Black-breasted Boatbill, Mountain Peltops and Modest Tiger Parrot.
Nick's repack attracted quite a crowd at Dyela
'fortified' hill-top village, the spiked wooden fences were not just to keep their animals in
local villager on the trail, he certainly did not make us feel overdressed
remnant forest on the distant hillside

30 July.  We packed the tents and continued slowly climbing through the forest to the pass.  From here the terrain flattened out with boggy grassland and isolated patches of trees on ridges.  Wet feet were becoming the norm for this trip and we squelched on to Danau Habbema where we found what looked like a newly built hut.  It wasn’t occupied, we had seen hardly anyone since leaving Yaugabema the previous day, or securely fastened so we took advantage of it.  It was nice not to have to put up a (damp) tent but the hut was completely empty (we slept on the floor) and a bit drafty and so probably not as warm.  John and the rest of our guys were in a more traditional hut nearby and we joined them for meals.  Down by the lake we found Salvadori’s Teal and towards the end of the lake a group of three very impressive MacGregor’s Bird of Paradise, our main target species for this part of the trip, although it is now considered to be a honeyeater!  Just 19 species for me again although as well as MacGregor’s they did include the superb Crested Berrypecker, Island Thrush, Short-bearded Meledictes and Western Alpine Mannikin.
Garry and onlooker on the trail above Pos III
montane forest near Pos III
above the tree-line


distant view of Lake Habbema, note how boggy the foreground is.  Even Wellington's wouldn't have kept our feet dry.




distant view of MacGregor's Bird of Paradise - very impressive in flight and brighter orange than we were expecting
not bad perched either
... even if it is a honeyeater
Lake Habbema
hut at Lake Habbema used by our guys
fire going, kettle on ...




me and friend
Alpine moorland
31 July.  An easy day around Lake Habbema and the Pass, or it would have been had the grassland where we unsuccessfully looked for Snow Mountain Quail not been so boggy.  24 species today although two were unidentified and another was just a silhouette.  The best were 2 MacGregor’s Birds of Paradise near the Pass, a pair of superb Painted Tiger Parrots, Crested Berrypeckers, White-winged and Mountain Robins and Salvadori’s Teal.

me at Lake Habbema
later with the clouds coming in



what was I thinking taking 8x20 binoculars?



1 Aug.  We walked slowly down through the damp forest to Yaugabema although the birding wasn’t much easier than it had been coming up.  The trail was no less muddy and it needed even more care not to slip over.  We were treated to 6 MacGregor’s BoPs around the Pass as we left while the other species seen included King of Saxony BoP (sadly just a female), a pair of Brown Sicklebills, Splendid Astrapia (3 including a superb male), Papuan Lorikeet, Hooded Cuckoo-Shrike, Black Sitella, Crested Berrypecker and Torrent Lark.  Still only 28 species but 9 were new.  We camped in a clearing putting our tent up next to a hut our guys were using and where we had another superb meal.  In hindsight we should perhaps have spent two days on this section as we doubtless missed a lot of good birds, including Archbold’s Bowerbird which we failed to find the bower of.
Barry, Garry, me and Nick
the pass


Barry on the trail
slippery log crossing ahead


Nick's tent in the clearing at Yaugabema
hut at Yaugabema
Nick and Barry enjoying a brew by candlelight
2 Aug.  We birded around Yaugabema for a couple of hours in the hope that the tent change might dry out but it did not.  We did however see the female King of Saxony BoP again.  Once packed we continued slowly to the edge of the forest above Dyela.  My main recollection is being last in line and catching up with the others just as they’d found a Blue-capped Ifrit climbing up an obvious bare trunk to our right.  Unfortunately there were two obvious bare trunks and I looked at the wrong one, realising my mistake just too late to get onto the bird before it flew, probably not helped by only having brought 8x20 bins with me.  I waited some time but unfortunately it did not reappear.  We continued to the river where we got involved in an altercation with some locals, or at least our guys did.  It seemed to revolve around our use of the hut at Yaugabema which they wanted paying for.  As we’d slept in our tent and according to our guide John the hut did not belong to these villagers anyway we were advised to continue.  We did and our guys soon followed after a bit more shouting.  They were obviously a bit concerned as we walked quickly past the next village, our original destination, and continued after dark to reach Senokolik.  This was a ‘friendly’ village and the guys, and we, were quite relieved to get there.  The head man told us the other village were ‘bad men’ and if they came to his village he would kill them.  Having heard stories of village warfare and payback it was hard not to believe he was entirely serious, although at five foot nothing in his bare feet I'm not sure how much of a threat he would have been.  We were put up for the night and treated as guests of honour.  Another day during which I saw 28 species including Plum-faced Lorikeet, Black-throated Robin, Crested Berry pecker, Blue-faced Parrotfinch and Splendid Astrapia.
clearing at Yaugabema
Garry on the trail

looking back up to the pass
me wearing sytlish elephant trousers, colour co-ordinated to hide the mud, legs of different lengths from walking on hillsides
rest stop for our guys


Nick crossing the bridge
trouble at the bridge


3 Aug.  We spent the morning slowly walking back to road, mainly through cultivated habitat.  Despite birds being easier to see I still only managed 26 species, certainly this is not a place to visit for a big day, but they did include Superb BoP (a displaying male and two separate females),  Back on the road at Beneme we didn’t have to wait too long for a bemo to Wamena.  We returned to the hotel near the airport and said goodbye to John and our guys who had been really excellent.  They looked after us so well that we wished we could have taken them with us for the rest of the trip.
Chief of Senokolik, he spoke more fearsomely than he appeared 
Senokolik chief and our support team, John in white
us (less Barry who took the photo), our team, Senokolik chief and villager






rest stop, final day
local school kids
our support team, a better bunch of guys it would be hard to imagine
us and our guys in the garden of Losmen Syahril Jaya









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