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West Papua’s “Tree People” Expedition: An Interview With Expedition Leader Adam Piotrowski

“There are some places in this world that none have thought to venture to before. And West Papua in Indonesia is one such place. Between inflows of the Brazza and Elianden Rivers, and south from the Jayawijaya Mountains, this region is wet, swampy and deep in the rainforest (the second biggest in the world!). It’s also home to the Korowais, one of the most isolated and unknown tribes.”

-By Chuin Ying

But this October, all of this will change. In a once-in-a-lifetime 13D12N adventure, a small group of guides, porters and a cook will venture here — and you’re invited. In an exclusive interview with Blue Sky Escapes, Adam Piotrowski, the lead guide for this eye- and heart-opening journey, shares with us why this unique expedition offers a rare opportunity to spend time among indigenous people who have only recently made contact with the outside world.

You’ll come face-to-face with the world’s last living cannibals, stay in “houses” hung atop trees 40m above the ground, witness ancient animistic rituals, and so much more. It’s a portal back in time to the Stone Age, and this exploration is not one you want to miss.

This article contains explicit content which shows nudity and graphic images that may be sensitive to you or others.

Discover the Korowai Tribe from Blue Sky Escapes on Vimeo.

Tell us about this upcoming expedition and why it’s important for travellers to venture here.

West Papua is one of the most isolated and least known places on earth. There are more than 300 different groups of indigenous people dwelling in the deep jungle, far beyond the reach of modernity, and speaking completely different languages. The Korowai tribe are some of the last remaining seek-and-gather groups of nomadic hunters in the world. Travelling to Papua and visiting Korowais is literally time travel back to the Stone Age. It is a rare opportunity to meet people who, just one generation ago, were not even aware of the existence of an outside world. It is also a unique occasion to learn more about the natural history of humankind and gain an entirely new perspective on what life is.

By going on this expedition, one can also witness a genuinely fascinating process of transition from prehistory to modernity. This process is swift though, and we must understand that we are looking at a world that is about to fade away. The long journey that took our ancestors in different parts of the world hundreds and thousands of years has, for Korowais, been an experience of just one generation!

Their 50-year-old tribesmen used to practice ritual cannibalism (it’s very likely that occasionally, they still do), made their houses on top of trees, and believed they were the only people in the world (and the jungle was the only world they knew). Today’s 20-year-old Korowais are keen to move to the government-run villages, where there are outsiders, electricity and mobile phones. They dream about that big world out there. This encounter is not easy, and the outcome of it is still unpredictable.

Will they manage to adapt while preserving their tribal identity and cultural heritage? Or will they perish, consumed by modern civilisation? One thing is clear: the last moment to see the legendary “Tree People” still living in their traditional treehouses is now. In five to 10 years, there might be nobody left in the jungle.

“In five to ten years, there might be nobody left in the jungle.”

Expect to cross temporary bridges constructed by trees on this daring expedition — a daily occurrence for the Korowai people
Expect to cross temporary bridges constructed by trees on this daring expedition — a daily occurrence for the Korowai people

How safe is it?

The expedition is safe. Korowais are one of the friendliest and most open people I know, even during “first contact” situations, which we have experienced a few times in the past years. We will be moving mostly on flat terrain; there will be no mountains to climb or any risky activities. Sometimes we will need to cross a river, but on those occasions, we usually build temporary bridges. There will be porters and our experienced local guides will be ready to assist the expedition party at all times. We have radios and satellite phones available too in case of any emergencies.

Still, however, this is an expedition to one of the most remote parts of the world, so people who are considering coming must be aware of the general conditions in the jungle. The terrain is wet and swampy, so participants need to be ready to get wet and dirty. There are mosquitos, so anti-malaria prevention is required. It’s not an easy trip, where one can take a hot shower in the hotel room after an exciting day in the jungle. It is a serious expedition, but I can promise that it will be an adventure of a lifetime.

Sago grubs are a base of the Korowais' daily diet, as shown here by an elderly tribesman

You’ve been exploring West Papua since 2004 and visited Korowais over 30 times over the last 15 years. How has the community changed from your first visit to the most recent one?

When I went to visit the Korowais for the first time, most of them were still living in the jungle at isolated treehouses occupied by single families. They were all hunting, fishing and gathering wild fruits; and those skills were essential for survival in the jungle. Sago palm and sago grubs were a base of their daily diet. Trade was limited to barter, and money was barely in use. Most of the Korowais were still using simple stone tools, such as stone axes, or knives made of bamboo and bones. Steel tools were a rare and desired luxury, which we were trading a lot during our early expeditions in exchange for food or accommodation. Quite often, we would meet Korowais — mainly elder ones who lived deep in the jungle — to whom we were the first foreigners they saw in their lives.

Now, over a decade later, their lives have changed dramatically. More and more Korowais have decided to move to the villages, where they live in much bigger communities than they used to back in the jungle. On one hand, there are more comfortable conditions for a living. The government offers them free permanent housing, and there is electricity and even a school (rarely visited by any teacher though).

On the other hand, this new lifestyle exposes them to the challenges they are not yet ready for. Bigger communities run out of food much quicker than small self-sufficient families scattered across the jungle. Hunting and gathering food in the rainforest is no longer sufficient. Korowais don’t even know primary agriculture and they cannot farm. Therefore, they need to buy food from Indonesian traders. That makes them dependent on money, which is very difficult to get.

The very concept of money has a massive impact on Korowai’s traditional social structure. In the jungle, they are all equal, and they only take as much as they currently need, so the status of the man depends on his survival skills. In the villages, people start accumulating wealth. Some people get wealthier than the others, and that leads to jealousy and conflicts. A new generation of Korowais born in the villages quickly lose their abilities to live in the jungle, so soon they will have no choice but to venture to distant towns and cities to seek their fortune. Will they manage? They might find it very challenging as they lack proper education and face significant cultural differences.

During the expedition, you'll stay in one of these magnificent treehouses some 40m above the ground

“You wouldn’t believe how absurd we sometimes seem to Korowais and how often they laugh at us, considering our concerns or expectations as totally irrational and ridiculous.”

Interacting with these people must be unlike anything we can imagine. How have your journeys there changed you?

I guess the most life-changing experience for myself was realising how helpless I was in the jungle. All the knowledge, expertise and technology we have — everything that determines who we are in the outside world — is utterly irrelevant in the wilderness. It’s made me very humble and taught me to appreciate the small things, and to be grateful for all the advantages I have in my everyday life.

These treehouses are built as high up and as sturdy as possible to protect against wild animals and the natural elements

How has the Korowai tribe been able to isolate themselves from the outside world for so long?

The Korowai tribe is a small group of nomads dwelling in one of the most remote and impenetrable parts of the jungle in Papua. Reaching their territories mean crossing Jayawijaya mountains from the north, or travelling up the rivers from the south; passing territories of previously hostile Asmat and Citak Mitak tribes. As they used to live in tiny groups in treehouses scattered across hundreds of miles in the rainforest, it was also tricky to spot them from the air.

Korowais living traditionally in the jungle leave almost no trace of their existence, so finding them without first knowing their location was practically impossible. The Dutch missionaries who made the first contact with Korowais in 1979 went to their territories on purpose, following the leads given by other tribes.

“Korowais living traditionally in the jungle leave almost no trace of their existence, so finding them without first knowing their location was practically impossible.”

Korowais are nomads, and for this reason, this journey is unpredictable. Travelling through this part of the world also forces one to step out of their comfort zone. In your experience, what is the beauty of such an expedition, and how can it enrich our selves?

The beauty of stepping out of our comfort zone is that we can learn a lot about ourselves. Encountering people so different from us is a bit like looking at the mirror — we can see things about ourselves that we wouldn’t usually see. You wouldn’t believe how absurd we sometimes seem to Korowais and how often they laugh at us, considering our concerns or expectations as totally irrational and ridiculous. It’s good to be able to sit among them and laugh at ourselves. It’s good to be able to look at ourselves from a distance. Those are very precious moments and I’d say that those are very enriching experiences.

A portrait of a Korowai tribeswoman shows her wearing handmade jewellery made out of animal teeth and wood

What can we learn from these tribespeople on a human level, and what can we learn from them as a civilised society?

It depends on what we mean by a “civilised society”. I consider the Korowais as a very civilised society. They have everything they need to live and they don’t want more. We have so much more and yet it’s never enough for us. They have mastered their way of living, and they have precise purposes. We are always full of doubts and we need all the likes and followers on social media as reassurance that we matter at all. We can learn from them a lot; especially those simple truths that so easily get forgotten in the modern world — that relying on each other is the key to success. That cooperation is more effective than competition. That living in balance with nature is better than exploiting the environment. That true happiness lies in every day small things, and that worrying about things out of our control makes no sense.

One of the most amazing things about Korowai’s traditional society is how much effort they pay to avoid escalation of any conflicts. Another thing is that Korowais hardly lie at all. No, they are not saints, but lying in their traditional society deprives them of their social function. To put it simply, when you live in the jungle, and you need to rely on each other to survive, there is not much to lie about!

Tell us about the Netflix documentary about the Korowais, and how the decision was made to film the tribe.

“Jungle Business” is a documentary film made by my film crew under the patronage of National Geographic Poland. It focuses on the process of transition from the traditional, nomadic life of Korowais in the jungle to the sedentary lifestyle of Korowais who moved to the villages.

The film tells the story of Josef, a middle-aged Korowai (he doesn’t know his age) who has been working with me during my expeditions for the last 13 years. Josef lives with his two wives and children in the village of Mabul, where he has established himself as a very respected man. One can tell that he is an excellent example of the successful adaptation of the indigenous people with the modern world. But Josef is a man torn between two worlds, and he still regards the jungle as his natural environment.

Our crew joined him on a trip to visit part of his family that still lives in the forest and continues with their traditional life. They couldn’t adapt to the new conditions of the outside world. We wanted to film the meeting of two generations of Korowai people — those of the “first contact” with the next generation of Korowais who have found themselves to be more comfortable in the villages and keen to adapt to modernity.

By documenting this event, we wanted to capture the moment of change, which probably marks the end of the traditional lives of one of the last seek-and-gather tribes left on the planet.

There are still clans that refuse to deal with outsiders, who they perceive as evil spirits of deceased relatives. What happens then if we encounter these clans, and what can you tell us about the Korowais’ spiritual universe?

There are still clans, and perhaps the whole tribes of indigenous people who have decided not to make contact with the outside world. I think there might only be several groups like these left in Papua.

In January 2017, I organised a survey expedition to Bird’s Head Peninsula in West Papua to follow up on rumours about some previously uncontactable tribe dwelling in the area. As a result, we were the first group of outsiders to visit a small village in a very remote part of the region. It wasn’t a “new” tribe but a small clan of the Mariasi tribe who had decided to keep out of sight.

It’s important to understand that “first contacts” usually happen on the initiative of the indigenous groups. They come out seeking trade or lured by curiosity. Sometimes, some dramatic event — a tribal war or an outbreak of some disease — forces these groups to look for help outside. If they didn’t want to be contacted, it would be almost impossible to find them. This is why these kind of encounters are usually peaceful, and yet it takes a lot of ice-breaking.

In the past, it just so happened that we found empty houses in the jungle whose hosts fled before us in fear. The reason for that is their strong belief in evil spirits of the dead that wander in the forest and can cause harm to the living. They call it laleo, and they believe that those spirits are of white colour. It’s no wonder why the arrival of the first Western missionaries to Korowais spread havoc and panic among the jungle.

Thank you for sharing so much with us and our readers! Finally, please complete this sentence: Immersive travel is…

A journey to people, not to places.

Photo credit: Jan Konikowski; Adam Piotrowski

For more information about this incredible 13D12N expedition, please contact us.

“It’s important to understand that “first contacts” usually happen on the initiative of the indigenous groups. They come out seeking trade or lured by curiosity. If they didn’t want to be contacted, it would be almost impossible to find them.”

“It’s important to understand that “first contacts” usually happen on the initiative of the indigenous groups. They come out seeking trade or lured by curiosity. If they didn’t want to be contacted, it would be almost impossible to find them.”

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