A Journey to West Papua; Walking in My Grandfather’s Footsteps
An acid green and yellow snake was the first image to appear when I Googled ‘Biak Island’. Rainforest dominates this tiny coral island embedded in Indonesian Papua, where, among hidden villages seemingly untouched for a century, the tropical Biak python found its fame as one of the most beautiful colour-changing reptiles in the world. Few have heard of Biak; even fewer would consider it as a holiday destination.
Amidst the colourful serpents and buried deep in the jungle lies a dark and gruesome history, and the reason for my visit. Biak, strategically positioned among millions of similar-looking spits of land across the western Pacific, witnessed American victory in a crucial battle in the summer of 1944 – at the price of two thousand Japanese burning alive in their cave hideout after American planes poured aviation fuel inside. One of the American lieutenants present happened to be my grandfather.
Flying into Biak, however, beauty disguises ancient brutality. Hundreds of palm trees criss-cross pristine white sands, overlooking corals offering the best diving in the region on one side and scattered wooden beach huts hiding Biak’s native population on the other. Getting there isn’t easy: you have to fly to Jakarta, then, stopping over in the Indonesian city Makassar, fly for six hours across miles of scattered islands to Biak. Virtually on the equator, the humidity upon arrival is as tough as the journey itself.
The main town, Kota Biak, nestles sleepily on the coast and is the meeting point of the few roads across the island. The few scattered streets parade the only tourist accommodation, the fishermen’s marketplace, rows of quaint colourful boats and – since it’s December and thanks to European missionaries, Christianity reigns – brightly decorated festive coconut palms. The sad site of a massacre of Papuan protesters by the Indonesian military back in 1998 has left the town isolated from the tourist trail, ending its dream of attracting masses to its luscious scenery (nonetheless, the fantasy of a luxury hotel remains alive in Google Images). Still, ever-friendly locals offer fresh fish meals and taxi rides in broken English, amidst power cuts and tropical thunderstorms.
But venture deeper into the rainforest and the magic of Biak exposes itself. Using a guide with whom gestures dominate as communication, and a car unequipped for dirt tracks, I stray far off the regular tourist trail – which centres around the deadly caves close to Kota Biak – into the unpaved and mysterious interior. After hours and absolutely no signposts, a cluster of huts materialise out of the dense forest: Saoeri village. Sixty-five years before, my grandfather’s platoon hacked its way to the very same spot through the impenetrable malaria-ridden Japanese-infested jungle, seeking enemy intelligence.
Upon arrival a dozen children cluster around me, who have probably seen neither a young British girl nor such attention to their village in their whole lives. Our guide talks with the elders. Through mostly nodding and smiling and very few words in a common language, I decipher that an old man, who had lived at Saoeri for half a century, remembers not only the war but the exact day bombs fell on his village – the product of the intelligence my grandfather’s patrol had provided. That’s a World War, I realise: when a European high political conflict penetrates a distant and disinterested community, a world away from the beaches of Normandy in every sense.
Compared with its microscopic and largely uninhabited neighbouring islands, though, Biak is a buzzing centre of business and communication. Pay a local fisherman to ferry you to one of them (again, nodding, gesturing and smiling does the trick), and you’ll sail into utopia on a rickety, metre-wide boat coated in peeling paint. Pulau Owi appears wholly uninhabited as seen from Google Earth. From the water all the eye can see is crisp white sand peeping out from underneath coconut trees and dense jungle.
As your boat bumps the shores, children playing on the sand appear, and behind them a strip – just one sand road – of wooden houses emerges from the undergrowth. Untouched by overpopulation, mass-commerce, overbearing infrastructure or even electricity, the only surviving sign of Pulau Owi’s colonial past is a small crumbling church a few metres from the shore, established by Dutch missionaries generations ago. The only signs of ‘modernity’ are the children’s rip-off designer t-shirts, clearly the latest rage. What a childhood – television replaced by beach games, exams replaced by fishing, the fast-paced London life I knew substituted with tropical beauty.
But rewind 65 years. Pulau Owi is razed, swarming with allies, and vital to the American Pacific theatre of war; all that remains of the central airbase is a vaguely intelligible dark linear strip, still visible from the sky. Trek 200m into thick forest and unbearable humidity, and the ground becomes tougher and undeniably flatter. Along with a few bullet-studded palms, it’s the only surviving evidence of the island’s former military glory. It seems an irony of history that Pulau Owi’s distant prominence to the Americans may come full circle, with rumours swirling the island of the impending construction of a luxury resort by an American multinational.
Back in London and back to reality, I sit down at my laptop to upload my photos. I open Facebook, and up pops a friend request from the hotel receptionist in Biak: “Happy Christmas, we hope you got home safely”, she writes. Sixty-five years after my grandfather’s departure with malaria, modern technology let me leave with a new friend.