Situated on the east of West Papua’s Vogelkop, the Arfak Mountains are the habitat of some of the world’s most unique and astonishing birds: birds-of-paradise.
Only few people live in the Arfak Mountains and just a handful of tourist guides offer tours and accommodation in the Arfak region. One of them is Hans Mandacan, a Papuan native of Kwau village who speaks English and knows his way around the jungle like no one we’ve ever met before. Like other villagers, Hans used to hunt birds and that is how he knows exactly which bird he can find where and when. Ecotourism in the region should now give the people another source of income. In some communities, a relatively big number of people profit from the growing, albeit still small, numbers of tourists who come especially for the region’s birds-of-paradise.
Getting to the Arfak Mountains: No easy task
The closest town to the Arfak mountains is Manokwari, a small town only accessible by plane from other cities in Papua. Not many foreigners – Bule, as the Indonesians call them – venture as far as Manokwari and we were kind of an attraction there (shouts of “Hallo, Mister!” and screaming schoolkids). The term tourist attraction just got a whole new meaning…
From Manokwari, it’s a two hour drive in a 4WD to the mountains and the road really requires a four wheel drive – for the time being at least. The road is being paved and there are now bridges over rivers which had to be crossed by car just a few years ago. The easiest but most expensive way to get to the Arfak Mountains is to charter a car. Of course it’s much cheaper to travel in a shared car but, obviously, this is also the trickier way. It involves long hours of waiting and not knowing what is going on and when exactly the car will actually drive (and it’d be good to speak more than just a few words of Bahasa Indonesia). Lucky us, Hans was in Manokwari and organized a car. The only thing we had to do was wait in the heat.
Hans’ guesthouse, the Papuan Lorikeet, is far from any of the villages and is surrounded by a beautiful garden. The closest birdwatching hide, a small bamboo hut covered with palm leaves, is only a five minutes walk away. This shelter is across from the bower, a construct or a kind of a hut, of a bowerbird.
The Vogelkop bowerbird, which lives in the Arfak mountains, is an inconspicuous, relatively big brown bird that builds the most extraordinary and astonishing structures to impress females. The male cleans the floor of any leaves and other things, builds an elaborate bower of branches around a small tree, and decorate his “house” with colorful petals, fruits, bug’s wings, and plastic. It’s absolutely delightful and probably one of the most crazy and amazing things I have ever seen. The bower is very neat and tidy, old items are replaced by new ones, and everything is arranged by color – even the old, discarded items that are stacked up in neat piles around the bower. That bird must have a lot of female admirers!
…and two birds-of-paradise
There are two species of bird-of-paradise that can be seen close to the guesthouse. One of the is the western parotia, a mainly black bird who always comes to the same spot to dance and keeps his dancefloor meticulously clean.
The other one is the magnificent bird-of-paradise. The shelter from where to watch this bird is a good hour walk away from the guesthouse and it’s best to get up early and start walking at about 4.30 a.m. in order to get there by sunrise. That sounds early (and it is, of course) but since there’s not much to do in the evenings because there’s neither electricity nor mobile phone reception, you head to bed early anyway.
The magnificent bird-of-paradise really lives up to its name. With every move, the male bird’s shape and plumage color changes; first it appears to be black, then suddenly, it’s green, then blue and yellow. The male only dances when there’s a female around so it takes a lot of patience and long hours waiting in the cool shelter to see it dance – but once you do, you know it was worth the wait! I’ve never found birdwatching very interesting and I was very skeptical before going to the Arfak Mountains (go so far just to watch some birds? Seriously?) but once there, I couldn’t get enough of these birds, they really are magnificent.
A great place for trekking
The birds are the big draw here, but the Arfak Mountains have much more to offer than “just” birds. It’s a great place for trekking (Hans also offers multi-day hikes to the Anggi Lakes), the forest is gorgeous and the climate, due to the higher elevation, is quite pleasant. If you’ve ever been trekking in lowland tropical forest, you know what I mean.
Hans’ house is high above the village with gorgeous views of the surrounding hills and valleys. In front of his house there’s a pole with a plastic container attached – it’s the only place where there’s a mobile signal. Not far from the house but accessible only by a steep, slippery way down is a waterfall. The water’s ice cold but Hans doesn’t seem to mind; he took a shower while we enjoyed the cool spray from a bit further away.
A village in the mountains
Kwau village may just be the most beautiful Indonesian village we’ve ever seen. Flowers surround the small houses, the main road is unpaved (probably only a couple of cars pass through each day), and there’s no garbage lying around. Not a single piece of plastic.
Hans took us to his family’s house where we were invited for (our second) lunch. Family life is still very traditional here: First, the guests and the men eat in the living room and after they’re finished, the women and children eat in another room.
The Arfak Mountains – definitely worth a trip
A trip to the Arfak Mountains is a very special and unique experience. There aren’t many places in the world where it’s possible to watch the extraordinary birds-of-paradise. Plus, the forest is gorgeous, the Papuan people very friendly, and the food good. We ate lots of delicious sweet potatoes – finally something else than the ubiquitous rice. Just don’t be surprised if Hans insists on buying much more food than you, him, and the cook can ever consume in three days. Papuan families are big and even without mobile phones word travels fast in the Arfak Mountains and visitors turn up out of nowhere.
The wonderful birds, the beautiful surroundings, and the good company of Hans (he’s always full of energy and in a great mood) made this place one of the highlights of our trip so far.
You can contact Hans by phone or by email; the best is to write him a text message and he answers as soon as he can (as soon as his phone has signal): +62 (0)81 344 214965 / firstname.lastname@example.org