West PapuaThe Lake Where Dreams Come True
West Papua: The Lake Where Dreams Come True
Like many adventurous travellers, I flew to Jayapura in West Papua with only one goal in mind: to cross the border to Papua New Guinea (PNG). So I planned to spend just a couple of days there on the way though. However, it didn’t take me long to change my mind and decide to stay longer. Even before I arrived in Jayapura, as the plane from my overnight stopover in Makassar began to descend, I looked out of the windows and was blown away by the beauty of Lake Sentani and the surrounding hills emerging out of the dawn mists below.
Once on the ground, I left the airport car park and waited at a nearby junction where my Couchsurfing host, Nesty, picked me up on her motorbike and took me to her house in the nearby village of Doyo Baru, twenty minutes drive away. Her house was simple, but functional, and I had my own room – a luxury when Couchsurfing! Nesty is what I call an almost local – she’s actually from the Indonesian island of Flores, so definitely not Papuan, but she’s lived there long enough to know the area really well. After dropping me off, she headed into work while I took a nap. After spending all night on planes and in airports on my way from Bali, I needed it.
At 3pm, Nesty slipped out of her office early, picked me up, and off we went to the Teletubby Hills. Yes, you read that correctly, the Teletubby Hills! I have no idea what they called them before the 90’s childrens’ show, but even the official Indonesian tourism Website uses this name! You can check it out at http://indonesia-tourism.com/papua/jayapura/teletubbies_hill.html. They do look remarkably like the hills in the TV show, but the scenery surrounding them, and especially Lake Sentani, make them far more beautiful (plus they’re not inhabited by weird mutant baby things). I realised immediately that this was the area that had taken my breath away on the airplane that morning.
We parked the bike at the bottom of the hills and followed a narrow dirt track that led steeply upwards. The grass on either side of the path looked just as green as it had from a distance (although admittedly not as green as on TV). The path meandered across the top of the range of hills along the side of the lake and we followed it at a leisurely pace, stopping occasionally to admire the lake below or chat with some friendly locals who were out for a stroll, while politely ignore the various couples camped out in the little seating areas along the path. We found our own seating area and chatted for a while as we watched the sun set over the hills on the far side of the lake. Pointing to a long chain of hills that stretched out into the lake for several kilometers, Nesty told me that her dream was to walk all the way to the end some day. In her three years living in West Papua, she’d never walked much beyond the point where we sat, less than half an hour’s walk from the car park.
As the night came down, we scrambled back across the hills in the rapidly dwindling light, trying not to slip on the rough path, which was quite steep in places. When we reached the bike, Nesty told me, “My eyesight’s not so good in the dark, so you’ll have to drive!” Luckily, I’m quite happy riding a bike in most conditions (I survived biking Timor Leste, so anywhere else is child’s play), so I was very happy to oblige, and ended up being her chauffeur for the rest of my stay! On the way home, we stopped at a couple of local shops and bought some eggs for breakfast the next morning.
The next day, Nesty had to work, so I made breakfast while she got ready, which turned out to be the start of a tradition that lasted the duration of my stay. So I became both chauffour and chef (I almost became French…)! Always happy to help out a friendly Couchsurfer, especially as Nesty kindly organised for me to go on a day trip with her friend Leo and his colleagues.
Leo works for a company that installs electricity cables and pylons to supply power in West Papua and, luckily for me, he had a meeting in Demta, a coastal village about two hours’ drive from Sentani. He was a bit surprised that a foreigner wanted to go with them, but was happy for me to come and also spoke very good English. The journey was beautiful, along a rather rough road through the dense Papan jungle. It reminded me of Rambo. Luckily for me, we had a large pickup from Leo’s company, so we hardly even felt the bumpy road.
When we arrived at the company offices in Demta, the building was dark and not a soul was to be found. A few phone calls later and Leo discovered that there was another meeting of the company in his office in Sentani that day and everyone from the village was there! So he’d come all this way for nothing. “Well, if we can’t go to the meeting, we can show you around instead,” Leo announced. So, as usual, it was my lucky day!
First we drove down to Demta’s pebble beach, which lay beside a beautiful bay, enclosed by lush jungle-covered hills, the perfect place for taking a few selfies. Or at least it would’ve been if the sky hadn’t been so overcast. Then we visited a waterfall just up the road and Leo and I climbed it, scrambling precariously up the slippery rock surface, especially me in my $7 shoes that I’d bought from a Chinese shop in Timor Leste. They had no grip whatsoever!
On the way back to Sentani, we stopped at a beautiful jungle pool by the edge of the road, ate our lunch, and swam in the crystal clear waters. We even drank from it, it was so clean. There was a fallen tree right across the pool, perfect for walking out above the water and jumping in. Leo, his male colleague and I stripped down to our underwear and had a ball racing up and down in the water. Unfortunately, his female colleague, being Muslim, didn’t feel able to join us, so was confined to sitting on the bank taking pictures of us (three guys in their underwear didn’t seem to phase her a bit – maybe she was secretly enjoying the view and good on her if she was) and various wild flowers she picked.
Once we’d finished swimming, we dried off and headed back to Sentani, where I said goodbye to my new friends at Nesty’s office. After she finished work, I chauffeured her out to a village at another point on the edge of Lake Sentani. Arriving at a rickety old wooden jetty, we carefully picked our way around the various holes and weak points to sit on the edge and watch the sun set behind the village on the island in front of us. There we talked of our hopes and dreams and Nesty reiterated her desire to walk to the end of the chain of Teletubby Hills stretching into the lake. It was a magical evening, with the dark water shimmering beneath our feet as we dangled our legs over the edge in the twilight.
Once the sun had set, we rode back to the city in the moonlight and went for my first taste of Papuan food – papeda, a gooey substance made from sago scraped from the sago palms that grow in the area, with a bright yellow fish soup. There is a very special way of eating papeda, which involves taking two wooden forks and rotating them around each other in the air to wrap the gooey mixture around them, allowing the diner to lift it from the communal serving bowl and place it onto their plate. I enjoyed the ceremony around it and learning to properly serve myself, but the papeda itself was fairly tasteless and overall I preferred the sago I would eat later after crossing the border to PNG.
The next day, a Friday, was the third day of my two-day visit to West Papua and I was enjoying it so much that I’d already decided to stay for the weekend as well. That evening, after Nesty finished work, we decided it was time for me to see Jayapura City, the capital of the Indonesian province of Papua and the city where I thought I was going to be staying until I realised the Nesty lived in Doyo Baru (which, typically, was after I arrived…). The road there was busy and not particularly pleasant (honestly, I was so focussed on navigating the rush hour traffic that I hardly even noticed the scenery). At one point, though, we crossed a brand new bridge that had just been constructed over a lagoon. It was so new that it was covered in the parked motorbikes and other vehicles of locals who’d come out to admire the scenery and take photographs. Honestly, the bridge is just a bridge, but the surrounding scenery was beautiful, so Nesty and I stopped and joined the throng.
My first few days in West Papua were a blur of beautiful sunsets and this night was no exception. Jayapura City is nestled between many small hills on the coast of the Pacific ocean and Nesty, my backseat navigator, directed me up a steep zigzagging little road to the top of one of them. Here we found the ‘Hollywood sign of Jayapura,’ an illuminated sign of white letters that reads ‘Jayapura City.’ From our vantage point on the hill, sitting on the structure that supports the sign, we watched the sun set over the city, which gradually became more beautiful as the sky darkened and the lights came on.
By the time we left the hill, we were both starving, so we headed down to the local shopping centre (the last I would visit for a long time, as I headed to PNG), where we ate a large portion of fried rice with salted fish and enjoyed a bubble tea before heading back to Sentani. On the way home, we picked up a couple of beers from a bottle shop that wasn’t technically legal, but operated quite openly, and headed home. Back at the house, we spent a nice evening playing chess on the tiled area outside Nesty’s front door, while her gossipy neighbors peered at us through their curtains or sent their children out to watch the Indonesian girl and this foreign man who had turned up at her house recently.
The next day was Saturday and we both got up late. I’d wanted to go to Tablanusu beach, a couple of hours ride away on the coast, and Nesty had decided to come with me, but when we got up it was raining on and off. While we were procrastinating over another home cooked breakfast, I heard a horn blowing outside. “Don’t mind him,” Nesty said, “it’s just the donut seller!” Unfortunately, by the time she’s finished telling me that they sell donuts for breakfast off the back of a motorbike and I’d rushed outside to have a look, the seller was already long gone.
Eventually, when the rain subsided a bit, we decided to go for it. It would probably stop by the time we arrived anyway, I thought naively. So we set out in the drizzle along a road that went from pretty good in Doyo Baru, to pretty rough two minutes after leaving Doyo Baru, to terrible half an hour later and almost unnavigable near Tablanusu beach. It was so bad that one bridge we crossed had half collapsed on one side. I loved it though, navigating around the huge potholes now full of water, with Nesty hanging on for dear life behind me. My catchphrase soon became, “Are you still there?”. Luckily, I always got a reply!
We were about two thirds of the way there when suddenly the heavens opened and it absolutely tipped. Completely sodden, like a pair of drowned rats, we took shelter under the eaves of a little hut on the edge of the road with a few other bedraggled motorcyclists (bikes and scooters are one of the main forms of transport in this region). Eventually, the rain subsided and, after taking off my shoes to empty the water out of them, we hopped back on the bike and drove on.
Just a few kilometers before our destination, we reached a wide stretch of newish four-lane highway that headed through a deep trough that had been hewn from the mountain, presumably at huge expense. However, it lasted for just a few hundred meters, and then abruptly stopped as the trough ended in a vertical earthen cliff – it looked as though the project had simply been abandoned one day and left half complete. From here, a muddy single-lane track wound down the side of the hill and then linked up to another, even shorter, section of four lane highway, which had presumably been supposed to link up with the one we’d just left a kilometer or so up the hill, but instead ended just as abruptly. I’m not sure why anyone would build a four-lane highway in the middle of nowhere like this anyway, when the roads into the area are so terrible to begin with, but it does seem like an awful waste to have abandoned the project before completion.
From here, a final section of road wound down along the coast to Tablanusu village, affording a beautiful view over Tablanusu bay. According to Indonesia’s official tourism website (https://www.indonesia-tourism.com/papua/tablanusu.html), Tablanusu means something along the lines of the original tribe of the setting sun. A beautiful name for a beautiful village and also logical, as the village faces roughly westwards.
We rode around the village a bit, although this was tough going because the ground was covered in small pebbles, which were difficult to traverse with the bike. A few villagers waved as we passed. Then we settled by the little village dock and ate the few snacks we’d brought with us while watching a local fisherman going about his business. The rain continued, but not too hard. The beach is just slightly to the east of the village and is also covered in black pebbles. Not quite the beautiful white sand beaches that are found in other parts of Papua, especially in the rain, but I was determined to go for a swim anyway, so we rode around to it and I stripped off and went in. Nesty, despite saying she was up for it, chickened out at the last minute and watched from the shore instead. The water was very shallow and it was warmer in than out. However, it was so shallow that I had to swim out quite a long way to reach a decent depth. The bottom was a mass of barely submerged coral and I cut myself on it several times before eventually giving up and coming out. So, not the greatest beach in the world for swimming, but a beautiful place and worth visiting none-the-less.
The next day the weather changed and we had beautiful sunshine. Nesty had mentioned several times her desire to ‘fulfill her dream’ and walk to the farthest point on the string of hills stretching out into Lake Sentani, so we went back to the Teletubby hills to complete this goal, joined by one of her friends. Unfortunately, while we brought lots of fruit (Papuan fruit is really juicy and delicious), we didn’t bring enough water and hadn’t expected the exceptionally hot weather, so after only walking half way, we were forced to abandon the attempt. After sitting in the shade watching some local kids diving from an old wooden jetty for a while, we hitched a lift in the back of a pickup and retreated from the lake of shattered dreams back to Sentani, where we capped the excursion off with a nice Indonesian fruit ice. In the end, it was an enjoyable day despite Nesty’s failed dreams.
The next day, I stayed at home and explored Doyo Baru while Nesty was at work. It’s really local Indonesia and the people are very friendly. I soon realised that when I travelled with Nesty, people pretty much ignored me, but walking around the village alone everyone was waving at me on the street or, if they spoke a bit of English, would come over and try to start a conversation. Well, she does look quite fierce sometimes! I had lunch in a little noodle shop and did a bit of grocery shopping (more eggs for breakfast). In the evening, Nesty and I went to a Hello Kitty themed restaurant! Yes, in this tiny village in West Papua there was a Hello Kitty restaurant. The food was generic Indonesian and pretty good, but the setting was just bizarre.
The next day was my final day in West Papua, or so we thought. That evening, Nesty managed to escape work a bit early and we decided to take a final shot at fulfilling her dream. Leaving the office, we jumped on the bike and drove as fast as was safe over the rough roads to the Teletubby Hills. The temperature was much cooler this time and we stopped the bike at a different location, so the walk was only about 4km. The sunset was particularly beautiful, illuminating the clouds in a shimmering gold.
We stopped several times for photographs, so the sun had already set by the time we finally arrived at the end of the chain of hills. But we made it – Nesty’s dream was fulfilled! We gazed out across the water together in the twilight for a few minutes, listening to the soft lapping of the gentle waves against the shore. It was a beautiful and tranquil place, with just the buzzing of a few insects for company. Which all sounds very romantic until you realise that the insects were mosquitoes and they were eating us for supper! After a couple of photos (if there’s no photo, it didn’t happen, right?) we headed back at a brisk pace.
Admiring the view[/caption]
The roads near the Teletubby Hills are quite rough and, just after we set out on our return journey, so did another bike with two locals guys on it. As they gradually gained on us, Nesty became more and more convinced that they were out to harm us – petty thieves after our phones, wallets and maybe her bike. So I went faster and faster, trying to balance the risk of being mugged with the risk of crashing the bike, until we were flying over the rough potholed road. Actually, I was quite proud of myself, as we put a greater and greater distance between us and them, and they’ve probably been riding those roads all their lives. Which also made me think, hang on a minute, if they really wanted to catch us, surely they could outrun a guy who doesn’t know the roads so well and who only learnt to ride a bike 4 months earlier? Which is when I realised that they probably weren’t out to harm us at all. But by then I was enjoying the adrenaline rush and we hit the tarmac road, so I hit the accelerator and we sped back into town in record time (no speed cameras in Jayapura!).
When we reached the house that evening, the neighborhood watchman came to knock on the door. “We need to register you and anyone you live with,” he announced. He then proceeded to ask a few questions about who I was and whether I was Nesty’s husband. Nesty had already been living there for a couple of months and later told me that they’d never shown any interest in registering her before. It was obviously a thinly veiled attempt to find out what the neighbors had all been gossiping about for the past week – who was that white man living at Nesty’s house? We had to laugh.
The next day I embarked on an epic journey hitchhiking to the Papua New Guinea border, only to find it closed and to have to come back, after which I was stuck in Jayapura for a few more days waiting for it to reopen. Every cloud has a silver lining, however, and I was able to join a motorbike trip to the beach for the weekend with Nesty, Leo and a group of their friends. And as an added bonus, the next day I caught the donut seller! I can’t say the donuts were great – they weren’t – but the experience of buying donuts for breakfast off the back of a motorbike is pretty unique. And I didn’t have to cook eggs that day.
Nesty and I got up early on the Saturday and stocked up on snacks and other essentials ready for the motorbike trip to the white sand beaches of the Demta coastline. We met Leo and some other friends on bikes and headed off on the three hour ride, Nesty perched, as usual, on the back of the bike. A couple of the guys had large dirt bikes and bags of shiny-looking camping equipment – they obviously knew what they were doing (and how bad the roads would be). The drive was beautiful of course, tearing first along the winding road by the Teletubby Hills, then around the edge of Lake Sentani and finally through the luscious jungle towards the coast.
During the first half of the journey, the road was beautifully smooth, a rarity in this part of the world, although in some places the tarmac was smooth but not flat. We found this out the hard way as, overtaking a truck at 70kph, a couple of undulations in the tarmac caused Nesty and I to literally fly up out of our seats for a split second. Fortunately, my, “Are you still there?” still got a reply. Later, the road deteriorated rapidly into the usual potholed mess (although still far better than what I would soon experience in PNG).
We arrived in Demta and hung around for a while until another car load of friends arrived, but at this point it was already dark, so we had to ditch the plan to take a boat to the white sand beaches. Instead, a local guy offered to show us to another beach and camping area along the coast a bit, so we followed him on our bikes along a road that began as rudimentary tarmac and gradually deteriorated into a rough dirt track (anyone notice a trend here?). The worst part came as we were descending a steep hill on a rough gravelly surface. From my experience of riding a bike in Timor Leste, I knew that I needed to brake constantly to stop from going too fast and losing control on the rough road, but also couldn’t brake too hard or the bike would skid and we’d fall off anyway. With the extra weight of Nesty on the back, it was a real challenge.
I took the slope slowly and we were doing well until suddenly there was a cry and then a crashing sound from behind us. I stopped the bike a little too fast and we skidded slightly, but fortunately I’m strong enough to be able to support it with my weight and kept us upright. The guy behind was not so lucky. He was riding one of the flashy dirt bikes, which should’ve been more stable on the rough gravel than our little automatic scooter, but there was one problem – the bike was a little too big and his feet couldn’t touch the ground easily! So, when the bike skidded, he was unable to stabilize it with his feet and went over. Luckily, he was not badly hurt and after a short stop managed to hop back on and continue.
When we arrived, we found an area near the beach that was designated for camping, with a couple of little wooden huts, open at the sides, and an area for pitching tents. Everyone got to work collecting firewood, making coffee, pitching tents and preparing the evening meal. I helped with the fire and was grateful that the people in charge of cooking were so generous. They prepared an amazing spread, with barbecued chicken, eggplant, and a variety of other foods – great for me and Nesty, as all we’d been organised enough to bring ourselves were some instant noodles and biscuits. After dinner we chatted for a while, threw more logs on the fire, and eventually curled up on the sheltered wooden camping platforms and went to sleep.
The next morning we awoke and surveyed the scene. The beach was okay, but really nothing special, especially by Indonesian standards, and the sand was a muddy kind of brown colour, so we decided to pack up and go to the beach where the group had been previously instead. We rode back along the road, which while still gravelly, seemed much easier in daylight. When we reached the village, we found a boat, which took us along the coast to another beach. I could see immediately why the group wanted to change location – this beach looked like the kind of place that Jack Sparrow would end up stranded in Pirates of the Caribbean, with white sand, dense jungle and a few wild pigs thrown in for good measure. The only thing missing was a secret stache of pirate rum.
Some of the group soon got a fire going and began cooking breakfast while me and a couple of the others swam in the sea. The sea was fine, but there was quite a lot of weed and sea cucumbers on the bottom. When we got back to the beach, we drank some coffee and guarded the cooking area from the pigs, which kept trying to make off with our food! I hadn’t slept much the night before and at one point dozed off to sleep on the beach in the warm sunshine. I was woken with a start a few minutes later by one of the pigs, which had decided to test whether my toes were food! Luckily it didn’t bite too hard, but it was a weird sensation to wake up to. After breakfast we hiked through the bush a little way to a nearby waterfall and took selfies by the beach.
Our final stop during the afternoon was another beautiful white sand beach that the boat dropped us at for an hour on the way back to Demte. This sheltered cove was the perfect place to swim and play in the sea with no weed or other debris on the seafloor, just brilliant white sand, gentle waves and warm waters. When it was time to leave, I swam out to where the boat was moored with the boat’s owner and scrambled up over the side. After we picked up the others from the beach and the boat set off back towards Demta, we saw a natural phenomena that I’ve only ever seen that once in my life – a completely circular rainbow in the sky above us. As you can see, I tried to take a photo of it. With the naked eye, I could see all the seven colours of the rainbow, so the photo doesn’t do it justice, but even so you can see that this is not an everyday sight. It was a fairy tale ending to a fairy tale story in the fairy tale land of West Papua.
Finally, we headed back to Demta, paid the boat owner, a friend of one of the guys, 50k rupiah (€3.34/$3.63) each and got back on our bikes. We were all exhausted and the journey back was long and arduous. I have never been so glad to see the Teletubbies as I was when we rounded a bend and they came into sight by lake Sentani, indicating that we were almost home.
The next day I bussed and hitchhiked my way back to the PNG border again and this time finally made it across. I really enjoyed my time in West Papua – the people I met, the beautiful scenery, the relaxed atmosphere and, of course, my awesome Couchsurfing host Nesty. It was even better because it was so unexpected. I would highly recommend it to anyone looking to see a different side of Indonesia.
More Stories from Indonesia
I loved Indonesia and spent a lot of time on the island of Timor. I also visited some off-the-beaten-track places, such as Sunda Kelapa harbour in Jakarta. Check out my other stories here:
- Unlike some other parts of West Papua, no permit is required for foreigners to visit the Jayapura area. If you go to other areas, check whether a permit is required first.
- Bikes/scooters are a great way to get around West Papua. Don’t learn to ride here though. If you haven’t ridden one before, go somewhere easier first, like Laos or Thailand (but definitely not Bali – most of the bike crash scars I’ve seen come from there and I have seen many). I learnt on the Takhet loop in Laos, which was perfect. The roads are generally well tarmacked and there aren’t too many other vehicles.
- There are quite a few Couchsurfing hosts around West Papua, so I would recommend this as a way to explore the area with a local and make new friends at the same time.
- To get to the white sand beaches near Demta, ask the villages about hiring a boat. As you leave the bay, the beaches are to the right (east), about 20-30 minutes away on calm seas.
- If you want to visit Papua New Guinea as well, the land border near Jayapura is PNG’s only land border and is a great way of reaching northern PNG. You will notice the stark contrast between Indonesian Papua and PNG as soon as you arrive at the town of Vanimo on the other side of the border. The two places are only about 100km apart, but could almost be on different planets. This is also a good place to start for visiting the Sepik River region of PNG if you’re travelling on a budget, as flights into Port Moresby and then on to other parts of the country can be quite expensive. My flight from Bali to Jayapura (the airport is actually in Sentani) via Makassar was about 2.5m rupiah (€164.44/$178.43), which might not sound that cheap, but just the domestic flight from Port Moresby to Wewak, the gateway to the Sepik River, usually costs about €150 ($167).