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The Incredible Danis
An original Dani legend tells of their belief that all people were born white and lived in a cave called Huwainmo. Those that emerged first and went to live in far-off countries remained white, whereas the Danis who stayed longer within the cave and their direct descendants then turned black.
The Danis still retain a very strong sense of their own cultural identity, despite the many attempts to change their beliefs and indoctrinate them into first the Christian and then the Moslem religions. They mostly live in and around the Baliem Valley in the centre of Irian Jaya and are divided into some thirty clans (sibs). The Danis believe that men and birds once lived together in absolute harmony, not realising that they were different from each other. As a result of this former relationship each of the thirty clans has developed an affinity with a particular species of birds, which are themselves then also considered to be clan members. The Dani men mostly walk around completely naked, apart from wearing a strange penis gourd which is held in place by one string at the base and one from the top tied around the stomach. The gourds are called either kotekas or horim and can be of extraordinary length, curved or straight and are invariably shaped depending upon the individual Dani's preference. Each man may own several horim to be worn on different and special occasions. He will often use the small open end to carry tobacco or money or even more bizarre objects. The Dani women are also more or less naked, apart from wearing brief fibre skirts made from grasses or tree bark or even yellow orchids. These skirts are called youngal and are short and slung very low on the hips. They are never removed, even at night, and it is considered bad luck if one is broken.
Conflicts within the clans mostly occur over ownership of pigs and jealousy over women, although occasionally over land rights and property matters. Their original warfare and battles though were often conducted in order to placate the many ghosts or spirits whom they consider sometimes live either within the villages or nearby. These ghosts are thought to control death and sickness and can cause illnesses to their pigs. Some of the ancestral ghosts were associated with vivid geographical features of the land, whereas others were related to the ancestors of tribesmen who had fallen recently in battle. These killings usually had to be avenged very quickly or their spirits would themselves cause great mischief. It has always been very necessary for the Danis to attempt to stay on the good side of the local spirits as they often make visits to their homes and villages. In previous real battles or subsequently in the mock ones, after anointing their hair, faces and bodies with pig grease, they always wear fancy headdresses made of cuscus, tree kangaroo fur and feathers of all kinds, necklaces and bibs of cowrie shells or pieces from the baler shells. Their spears can measure up to nearly 5 metres and they also often carry very long bows and a supply of deadly arrows.
In the past the women would watch the battles from a safe distance, bringing food and water whenever it seemed the men were ready to take a break from the actual fighting. A battle was always commenced by one Dani throwing insults at another. They were usually semi-humorous insults, perhaps highlighting the opponents' sexual inadequacies or other lack of physical attributes. The actual fighting lasted for only ten or fifteen minutes and initially there would be a sequence of small clashes, as many as twenty in total before each major battle, which itself would not last for too long. The warriors were always willing to postpone the action if it rained as they all especially hated to have their furs and feathers spoiled. They particularly very much enjoyed facing each other off in a kind of pretend conflict.
The Danis were never really very angry with each other, mainly using warfare as a kind of showing-off to another clan and before their womenfolk. The shafts of their arrows were always weakened about 10 centimetres back from the tip, to ensure the tip itself would break off within the victim and therefore cause most harm and pain. When someone was wounded his friends would then pick him up and carry him off the battlefield and leave him with the spectators. The death of one of them would not normally arise directly from being hit by an arrow, but from the infections caused through the broken arrow tip being dug out and the wound left open. When someone was finally killed and maybe a battle won, there would then follow two days of dancing and celebration. This was also another way of their calling forth the spirits of their ancestors to witness their success. Each defeat would trigger off a cycle of revenge, as the beaten enemy would try to even up the score by attacking at some time in the future. This might not happen for a week or a month or might only occur after several years had passed.
The faces of the Danis are strong-looking and expressive. They are more deeply-set than the Indonesian faces one sees in the lowlands, with many folds of muscle hardened across their faces. Their skins are very craggy and with lengthy ageing lines. Their facial expressions can change in a moment as they suddenly transform into smiles which seem to move in waves across their faces. When a newcomer turns up to join a group, all the others stand up and greet him with a cry of `wa, wa, wa.' They like to touch him on the shoulder or the body and then will clear a space for him to sit down amongst them. If something amuses them or seems to be particularly interesting, apart from breaking out again with `wa, wa, wa' they also flick their penis gourds with their fingernails. I was told this meant `wow' and was a way of expressing their delight. Danis never wear shoes and their feet are huge and extremely wide, so very different to the ordinary Indonesian foot which is quite small. Some of them have calves like fissured boulders, which seem quite appropriate as they are often jumping from boulder to boulder with extraordinary ease. Their arms are so muscled they sometimes look like bundles of pythons tied up at one end, flailing around independently as their hands move. This makes the Danis excellent to use as expedition porters and to help carry the heavy equipment and stores across the plains and up the rocks and mountains. Their feet, bulging out at the sides, have presumably been genetically shaped from several thousand years of climbing sheer, razor-back rocks to which they cling limpet-like often at impossible angles, sometimes carrying enormously heavy loads. The Danis also have large, muscular stomachs and their buttocks are rather squat and broad -- almost horse-like.
The pig is absolutely crucial to the Dani way of life. It is really the most important thing they possess. They can become so totally miserable at the loss of a pig, perhaps through his desertion, particularly if he was considered a favourite, that a man will often hack off parts of his own ears with a bamboo knife. Pigs are even treated equal to people. Sometimes the Dani men whisper into their ears like little children and they are often fed on bits of cooked food and allowed to sleep close to the fire at night. Like children, the pigs are considered to have souls, but obviously are unaware of any religious taboos they should observe and so can be forgiven for rooting in the spirit gardens or eating food forbidden to the owner's individual clan. However, in the way that human beings are just considered as part of the natural way of life and as death occurs naturally to them, pigs can still be killed, even in huge numbers when necessary, although this is only done on special occasions. In fact nothing important can occur without the slaughtering of a pig. Originally when war was to be waged the pigs were first consulted, then killed and offered to their ancestors in order to bring the warriors good luck. They are a major part of a bride's dowry and naturally a man cannot hope to get more than one wife unless he has a large number of pigs. The most senior village elders can get up to ten wives each if they have enough pigs.
Young boys cannot be initiated into manhood without eating lots of pork and first having a live, squealing piglet held in front of them to charm the bad spirits out of their chests. After the pig has been killed the boys must then go through a mock battle, at the same time experiencing the cold and hunger needed to make each one of them into a man. Funerals and burials of course also take place with the slaughter of pigs. It seems the spirit of the dead man is first appeased by being offered plenty of cooked meat, then it is driven out, before it can do any harm, by other tribesmen rushing through the compound hurling rocks, crying and shouting. The spirit then is forced to leave and must go and live in one of the Dani ghost houses. These are mysterious, square-shaped huts into which no foreigner is ever allowed to enter. They contain bundles of dried grasses, bound up to look somewhat like human beings. Often these ceremonies are celebrated all at once, so that marriages, initiations of young boys, remembrances of the dead, take place in a great pig feast held by a group of villages perhaps every four or five years. The pigs which have been so carefully tended over a number of years are nearly all killed and there follows three or four weeks of incredible gluttony, in which some Danis might eat several whole pigs each. The more you can eat the more favourable the ancestors will regard your village and the better it will be for a future marriage or perhaps a battle.
Roasted or steamed the sweet potato called hepere is probably ninety per cent of the Dani diet. There are more than 70 varieties of potato. The Danis also grow taro, yams, bananas, various greens, ginger, tobacco and cucumber. The gardens are very high-yielding and are sustained by a kind of strangely-sophisticated irrigation system that covers some twenty per cent of the area. The Dani women then scoop the rich mud from the bottoms of the ditches to fertilize the soil where the sweet potato vines grow. The Danis never live in large villages but form small scattered compounds near their gardens. Each compound usually contains some two to five families, who are bound together by a special relationship. Each rectangular compound is surrounded by a fence and at one end stands a domed men's hut to which the women are not allowed entry. Then there are several circular shaped women's huts which are just a scaled-down version of the men's huts. There is also on one side of the compound a long, rectangular cooking shed, sometimes also containing the pig stalls. The men and women always sleep separately and sexual relationships are controlled and limited. This is also to make certain that a mother does not become burdened with too many young children at the same time. The Dani mother is totally responsible for looking after the children. Men's work consists of the co-operative digging, maintenance of the irrigation system, setting up the fences and occasionally building huts and repairing them. Women work in the fields for long, tedious hours, as well as doing the planting, the weeding, looking after the pigs, the children and doing all the cooking. The only animals usually kept are dogs and the pigs. Only the pigs have the run of the land and are allowed to crash through any garden where it is unprotected by a strong fence.
There is a large, locally common spider, almost qualifying as a third domestic animal, which is encouraged to weave on prepared frames. The matted webbing spun by the spider is worked into fabric used for men's head and throat coverings. These throat coverings in narrow strips are considered magical and guard against the attack of evil spirits who usually attack at the throat. Most men and women carry string bags called noken which are made in a very loose knit, rather like long hair nets and can be filled with sweet potatoes, wood, even small children or piglets. The noken are knit from bark fibres that are rolled tightly on one side to be able to string. The colouring is made from various clays, orchid tubers and small ferns. Each noken is usually suspended down the back by a cord circling the forehead. Until some thirty years ago the only tools used were stone axes, scrapers made from stone or from boar's tusks, knives made from sharpened bamboo and wooden spears and digging sticks. Stones had to be carried from the bed of the Yalime River, which is about 150 kilometres north-west of the Baliem Valley in the Nogolo Basin. There are three kinds of stone taken from the Yalime River, the greenish andiba which is particularly hard, a bluish stone called wang-kobme and a black flint stone called kalu. Of course now the Danis can obtain steel axes in their trading, through their weekly markets or in the permanent one situated in the town of Wamena. Traditional Dani trading has always been through the bartered exchange of using seashells (the famous cowrie shells).
Most of the families, particularly those that have related wives live in communal type houses or huts. There is very little privacy and they see no reason why there should be. Invariably there is a central fireplace with it being the women's responsibility to make certain that the fire is kept burning. The women get up first and leave each morning, immediately after dawn, to work in the sweet potato fields or to look for firewood or to carry out any of the other chores that are necessary. The men take things much more leisurely. The huts are often full of roaches and the constantly burning fire is necessary to drive them away. Because of the proximity of living one with another, the Danis are extremely open about the physical side of their relationships, sex between male and female particularly. Even the young men are sometimes bonded together, this is known as Mbai, although only in the sense of being the closest of friends; perhaps a good way to describe this close relationship is that of being blood brothers. They often grow up together, work together, hunt together and even sometimes marry at the same time, so that they can set up a communal home. No one needs to be shy about the intimate relationships between any particular couple. If you come across a couple out in the jungle, even in the most intimate of positions, you do not need to hide yourself from them or not let them be aware that you have seen them. All you should do is jump right over them, yell at the top of your lungs and especially yell out your own name. If this occurs they are then meant to name their next baby after you. If they don't there is every chance the baby will sicken and die.
Another Dani tribal custom relates to the finding of a cassowary egg. It is essential not to pick it up initially; first you must run away, swatting at your ears and your head as if you are being chased by bees, Only then can you go back and pick up the egg to eat it. If you don't do this the egg will definitely be spoiled and uneatable. When someone dies the body is never buried but is allowed to slowly decompose, sometimes over weeks. It is continuously watched over, to prevent it being attacked by dogs or scavengers or other animals. However maggots are allowed to eat through it so that it becomes quite a revolting nest of maggots, but treated as occurring within the natural cycle of the life process, of which the tribesmen feel such a part. To our senses this may seem somewhat barbaric but the Danis are from a totally different world and this is their world. Skulls are always collected and stored, although they cannot be removed until they have separated on their own accord from the spinal chord. The Danis wait for the body to decompose and for it to fall apart, leaving only the skull as the final necessary part to retain. Eventually the clean, white skull is decorated, with even the eye sockets and nose holes being filled with beeswax and other substances. Sometimes they leave the skulls in certain places to ward off evil spirits or to frighten away their enemies or even as a sign of the way to follow. Occasionally the desiccated bodies of very important tribesmen (Big Men) are kept for supernatural purposes and it is possible to see their mummies housed separately within the village.
The Danis have many ancient songs, although it is rare to hear them sung nowadays, except in the privacy of their homes or the separate men's houses which are sometimes called Jeu. Invariably when they get together they love to smoke some strange kind of leaf or reed which has a very heavy and pungent smell. They also love to dance, but the men dance with each other, yelping and wriggling, each one laughing and jerking his hips in a way that shakes the penis gourd in the most extraordinary manner. Perspiration pours down their bodies and flies around the room, everything seems very disconnected and strangely shadowed in the flickering light from the inner fire. Mostly this is accompanied by incessant drumming. The songs are invariably of their past battle glories, of the times when headhunting was totally permissible and it was the way in which their enemies were finally defeated, so their heads could be displayed as trophies to the women and children of the village. The women are only allowed to enter the men's rooms when food is being served. They may not remain but after serving the food must retreat, so the men can continue with their dancing and antics which are hilarious to watch, full of fun, merriment and the very essence of the Dani way of life itself.
The Danis live their lives free of the constraints of modern society and follow ancient rituals and customs of honour and respect. They are not afraid and yet understand fear and truly understand, although without being aware of it, the Zen concept and the search to live without ego. At times we all yearn to escape, often not knowing from what, and in Irian Jaya perhaps there exists one of the answers. D.H. Lawrence wrote a poem he entitled Escape which starts, 'When we get out of the glass bottle of our ego and when we escape like the squirrels in the cage of our personality and get into the forest again, we shall shiver with cold and fright.' In the land of the Danis yesterday does not seem so far away.
Why New Guinea
The accounts of the greatest explorers hold a tremendous fascination for me. I have always been intrigued and inspired by the lives of men such as Marco Polo, Vasco Da Gama, Christopher Columbus, Abel Tasman, Richard Burton, John Speke, David Livingstone. Livingstone had also been `lost' until that heroic journey to find him by the intrepid British-American journalist and explorer Henry Morton Stanley, himself passing into the folklore of the great travellers with his understated and almost zen-minimalistic words `Doctor Livingstone I presume.' My book shelves are full of stories of their extraordinary exploits, courageous treks into the unknown, daring journeys to inaccessible jungles and faraway mountains. Perhaps Cesare Pavese summed it up well with his wonderfully optimistic approach, `The only joy in the world is to begin'.
Africa is a continent rich with exploration stories and adventures, its diverse countries full of wonderful and amazing vistas of astounding scenic beauty. Although it has always been known as the dark continent, Africa has never experienced darker times than during this last decade or so, when so many of its countries and territories have been decimated by droughts and famines, as well as savagely scarred by massive inter-tribal wars and conflicts which have been fought without mercy to either side. By these natural and unnatural acts, hundreds of thousands and possibly millions of mainly innocent peoples have been devastated, maimed or slaughtered. Many brave charities and relief agencies have tried their utmost to halt this destruction and to repair some of the enormous damage done to the paper-thin fabric of so many exotic and special African communities; but they are indeed themselves fighting an uphill, extremely costly and probably losing battle. They need all our help and encouragement and I had been looking for a way of showing my own support for their valiant efforts.
There are some things in life you need to learn or to be taught, there are other things that happen for no apparent reason but which can have an impact on you beyond your wildest imaginings. You can always choose to be an onlooker, a spectator, a witness, when something momentous or dreadful is happening to others, about which it seems you can do little. Nevertheless, no matter how small the part you choose to play, it is always preferable to doing nothing. Your heart, your mind, perhaps your very soul, can also bleed with their pain, the torment some people are experiencing and you long to reach out and somehow help or at least let them know you care.
I had climbed and trekked in several parts of Africa, in that magnificent and beautiful continent, which somehow seems almost out of place, out of time, in this very last part of the twentieth century. Perhaps technology is just too powerful a tool, too much a modern magic, for the simplistic virtues of primarily agricultural countries which only want or need to move at their own gentle, unhurried pace. I have met so many wonderful Africans, full of humour, warmth and dignity, although they had little else, yet they deserved so much more and were now receiving so much less.
I was also feeling the stirrings within me to re-visit the mountains, to re-experience Nature at its rawest and most unexplored, to climb once again. It was perhaps a time when I felt the need to distance myself once more away from the trappings and the traps of our Western world, to shake off some of the bonds of civilization and to remember what it was like to feel not being totally in control and not knowing what the next day would bring. It is my way of journeying back to a time that all of us have experienced, when we had no idea what the future holds, what our individual destinies might be, not even remotely having a concept of how we would end up. Mostly we have all turned out so very differently from how we once imagined, guessed or even hoped we might. The refrain from a signature tune of an old television series kept coming into my mind, `Whatever happened to you, whatever happened to me, what became of the people we used to be.' Of course luck and opportunity play such major parts in shaping our destinies but it is up to us what use we make of them.
Particularly I knew I was drawn to and wanted to help, in some small personal way, the peoples of the African country Rwanda. More importantly, perhaps influence others, either directly or indirectly, now or in the future, to stop and to think, hopefully encouraging them to give some support to the many Rwandans who are so desperately in need. The ferocious and deadly warrings between the Tutsi and the Hutu tribes that had taken place and were continuing in Rwanda were almost too painful to contemplate. Genocide had once more became a media word that was used daily until it had again become commonplace and had started to have the minor impact on most of us of our cornflakes and toothpaste. These terrible and base karmic influences were absolutely devastating the country. Apathy and ignorance were being allowed and even encouraged to flourish. We are all diminished by the hurt and pain others suffer; it is vital to realise and accept that everything in the Universe is connected, everything is osmosis. In all conflicts when any person seeks revenge, it is necessary to remember the old adage, `First dig two graves.' That most devoted of relief charities, the Red Cross was working valiantly with the Rwandan people, as it does in so many other troubled areas of the world, so I decided my next expedition and mountain climbs would raise much needed monies for its vital work in Rwanda. Its refugees had poured into their neighbouring countries, Burundi and Tanzania particularly, but those countries, endeavouring to provide sanctuary of a sort, had their own considerable problems to deal with. The Indian philosopher, Krishnamurti, cared deeply for mankind and his books are a wonderful resource. In his, The First And Last Freedom, he states `To transform the world we must begin with ourselves; and what is important in beginning with ourselves is our intention. The intention must be to understand ourselves and not to leave it to others to transform themselves. This is our responsibility, yours and mine, because, however small may be the world we live in, if we can bring about a radically different point of view in our daily existence, then perhaps we shall affect the world at large.'
Previously I had mountaineered in two African countries, Kenya and Tanzania and climbed their highest mountains, Mt. Kenya and Mt. Kilimanjaro in order to raise funds for some children's charities. This time I decided I should choose a more remote place, possibly on the other side of the world, but also with high mountains and use my journey there to fundraise for the Red Cross. Eventually I located the mountains I was looking for on the island of New Guinea, in the Indonesian part called Irian Jaya. They were the highest mountains in Australasia, both in excess of 4,800 metres, and I decided I would try to look for and join an early expedition to climb them. Indonesia is known as the land of dragons and fire and perhaps now I would find out why. Through my continuing interests in travel and mountains I had also come across the books of the Austrian adventurer and writer, Heinrich Harrer (once tutor to the present Dalai Lama) and learned that he was the first person to climb Carstensz Pyramid, the highest mountain in the Continent of Australasia. Carstensz Pyramid (Puncak Jaya) is just a few degrees from the equator line and located in Irian Jaya. Although discovered by the Dutch explorer Carstensz in 1623, Heinrich Hatter was the first person to climb to its summit and he only accomplished this in 1962.
Due to Indonesia taking control of Irian Jaya from the Dutch in 1963 and its Government's considerable concerns about security, it had imposed severe restrictions on access to Irian Jaya and its mountains and for many years refused permits and permission to visit the area. Therefore until fairly recently it had not been possible to climb in Irian Jaya and only lately had these controls been somewhat relaxed. Carstensz Pyramid is also one of the Seven Summits (the highest mountain on each continent) and those mountaineers who want to achieve the Seven Summits need to include a climbing expedition to this exquisite but inaccessible place. I had been working with Rebecca Stephens, the first British woman to reach the summit of Everest and we were planning for her also to become the first British woman to climb the Seven Summits and of course she needed to achieve Carstensz Pyramid. (In fact she was subsequently successful in this). Therefore I came to know more about this distant Indonesian territory and about the mountains of Irian Jaya and particularly the extreme logistical difficulties of reaching them. Apart from Carstensz Pyramid there is also another very interesting mountain close by, Ngga Pulu, a glacial mountain. Ngga Pulu had originally been the highest mountain on the island until the continuance of global warmings over many years had reduced it by some 20 metres, although that difference varied from year to year, depending upon snow falls and rock movements. Carstensz Pyramid is also snow-capped, but is mostly a very tough rock climb, whereas Ngga Pulu is mainly a steep glacial climb, particularly treacherous over the final ice and snow sections.
Through Harrer's writings and my own research I learned that on Irian Jaya, in and around The Baliem Valley, lived one of the strangest and most primitive tribes that still exists, the extraordinary Danis. This tribe, cut off from contact with the outside world over many centuries, were truly still deemed stone-age and they lived in jungles and lowland areas which were virtually unmapped and unexplored. It would also be a glorious opportunity and great adventure to meet the Danis, to observe their customs and the way they lived today, their lives so very little changed over many thousands of years.
I had climbed the two highest mountains in Africa, so perhaps now I could try to climb the two highest in Australasia. Of course that should not and would not be my primary reason. That must remain the need to seek donations to help the Red Cross in their important work and with their further fundraising. However there would undoubtedly also be the exhilaration of the expedition itself by which I hoped to achieve that objective. From now on, during the days I would make my plans and during my nights dream of travelling to the remote Irian Jaya region and meeting the incredible stone-age Danis.
This inspiring book tells the story of Neville Shulman's journey to the mountains of Irian Jaya in Indonesia, on the island of New Guinea -- one of the remotest areas in the world. It is a remarkable story told by a man who thinks nothing of abandoning a hectic work schedule to undertake challenging and often dangerous adventures, always with a single goal in mind: to raise money for charity. This time it's for The Red Cross, for its work in Africa; and it's clear this adds an urgency to Neville Shulman's already unfaltering mental resolve to overcome any obstacles that might be placed in his path.
His choice this time offers many a challenge. Irian Jaya is an extraordinary and rare place, the interior of which remains virtually untouched by modern man. Few visit because of its remoteness, and because of continuing internal political conflict; and indeed, I consider myself very lucky to have been able to visit the place myself, to climb its highest peak, Carstensz Pyramid. The mountain was first climbed as recently as 1962, by Heinrich Harrer. It's a lovely, rugged peak; but it is the journey to the mountain, through dense jungle and over high swampland, accompanied by local tribespeople naked but for a penis gourd, or grass skirt, carrying loosely-woven sacks of sweet potatoes upon their backs, that I shall remember always.
As Neville Shulman details in this book, a number of indigenous tribes - often dubbed `stone-age' because of their dress and their relatively simplistic way of life - live in the jungles and valleys of Irian Jaya. Until only a few decades ago, many of them practised cannibalism - and, fiercely proud people, they continue to resist Governmental efforts to change their ways.
This book offers a rare insight into the customs and rituals of these people. Journeying through their villages and invited into their homes, Neville Shulman paints a sympathetic picture of the colourful, eccentric characters he encounters. He describes his trek through the jungle and across that high swampland to Carstensz Pyramid and another of Irian Jaya's high peaks, Ngga Pulu.