I just spent two days in a region of New Guinea called the Asmat. To bring our ship up miles and miles of wide, shallow river lined with mangrove forests, we had to send two Zodiacs out in front of the ship to read the depths. The Zodiacs were equipped with digital depth sounders to read the depths out in front of the ship. I volunteered to help take soundings from one of the small boats on the journey into the Asmat starting around 10 pm. The ship didn’t drop the anchor until nearly 3 am, almost 5 hours later.
For several hours my job was to watch the tiny screen of the depth sounder and radio the bridge with our depths at regular intervals. A second Zodiac meanwhile did the same thing on the other side of the ship; both of us well out in front. The idea was that if we suddenly came into shallow water we could tell the bridge in time for the Captain to slow the ship down before they were in danger of running aground. It was a long, tedious 5 hours, getting soaked by water coming over the side of the inflatable boat and trying to concentrate on the small screen in the light of my headlamp. Between the splashing waves and my own waves of exhaustion, the only excitement came when we started to get into some deeper water near the village of Agats, and finally dropped our anchor.
We were welcomed by an armada of canoes paddled by warriors wearing war paint, headdresses and ropes of beads, shells, and huge carved bones. There must have been 200 men and boys in the canoes, who paddled out and around our 10 zodiacs. At first they paddled out in a long line and then they were surrounding us and then cutting through the middle of all the boats, grabbing a hold of the Zodiacs on either side as we gently towed them along and closer to the village. The whole time, the warriors were chanting, singing, yelling and hitting the sides of the canoes with their tall paddles in perfect sync with one another. It was amazing. Eventually, they let go of our boats and took off in front of us to lead us into the village and the muddy shore.
All of us scrambled ashore and walked around the boardwalk community greeting the locals, taking photos of the smiling, laughing kids, and watching the various welcome ceremonies going on all around us. The Asmat people performed traditional dances, ritual warfare, and the erection of two Bis poles in front of their long house.
It was spectacular to take in all the colors of the people painted with ochre (rusty red), lime (chalky white) and charcoal (jet black) and to see their ornate beaded necklaces, headdresses, armbands and traditional satchel-like bags. There was also the frenzied activity of the dances and mock battles, the hypnotic sounds of the rhythmic singing and chanting, and the mingling smells of the mangrove mud, the lack of waste treatment, and the pervasive Indonesian clove cigarettes in the air. The heat was brutal and everyone gratefully headed back to the ship for lunch at midday.
The word Asmat means “people of the wood,” or “people of the trees” and it is immediately clear why they came into this name as they eek out a living along the shoreline living within the mangroves. Their lives are decorated with gorgeous symbolic woodcarvings; especially the tall poles ritually carved for their ancestors known as Bis poles.
Everywhere we went, the village kids followed us waving and laughing, and about 30-40 kids either paddled out to the ship in small hollowed out log canoes, or swam out nearly half a mile against a strong current to reach the ship. They jumped around the Zodiacs tied off the marina deck, did flips into the water, and accepted pastries and chocolates from the ship’s crew.
The local kids were incredibly respectful of our boats and belongings, and never tried to take advantage of the situation or steal anything. I was really impressed with their behavior, open friendliness, and not least of all by their fitness and ability to swim, paddle canoes while standing up, haul themselves up into boats and hop around from boat to boat. I watched kids pulling in fishing nets from open canoes and collecting little silver fish for dinner or for the market, and everywhere along the shore they were swimming or playing in the water. These are clearly natural water people. Most kids in the western world would have seriously struggled to keep up.
The next day, after more slow travel up a second river system with the Zodiacs feeling out the bottom and finding our way out in front of the ship, we came to another remote village known as Awer. We spent a second day in the Asmat visiting the village and then using the Zodiacs to explore small side tributaries into the deep recesses of the mangrove forest. The highlights of the Zodiac cruise included watching hundreds of white Imperial Pigeons fly overhead heading home to roost for the night, and finding creeks lined with arching red mangrove trees and filled with the sounds of strange bird calls. Just before heading back to the ship, my boat found a couple of tall trees with a Collared Kingfisher and Rainbow Bee Eaters hunting and settling in for the evening. I feel very privileged for having had the opportunity to visit this part of the world. It is very remote and difficult to access and the people here know time, and have a sense of place that is very different to my own existence.