I spent 2 weeks in the Indonesian province of West Papua, on the top of the Vogelkop peninsula, between October and November 2012. My main goal was seeing and taking pictures of Birds of Paradise, and i opted to visit 2 locations : the Arfak mountain range south of Manokwari, and the Islands of Salawati and Batanta off Sorong.
Traveling to this part of the world is usually considered at least “difficult”, and therefore most people wishing to visit the place for birding do so in joining a tour, or have their trip arranged by a local specialized agent such as the Papua Bird Club (http://www.papuabirdclub.com). I tried the second route but response was slow due to their busy schedules, and as i found myself alone for this trip it turned out that the price they would charge for a single person would be outrageous. Nevertheless, Shita Prativa of the Papua Bird Club was helpful and provided me with information and contacts in order for me to arrange the whole trip on my own. I also got in touch with Manokwari based Charles Roring (firstname.lastname@example.org), who specializes in ecotourism in the area and I signed up with him for a 2 night camp in a Lowland forest location nearby a display site for Lesser Bird of Paradise, but it turned out to be a fiasco as the local guides never showed up… So i decided to go directly to the village of Siyoburi in the Arfak mountains, which is the area’s birdwatching Mecca.
Both locations have been visited by a number of birdwatchers in the last 15-20 years, and a quick search on Internet will yield several useful trip reports. There is one i recommend in particular, as it provides good details on both birding and logistics : http://www.papuabirdclub.com/TR_Nick_Brickle_2008_3.pdf. In my short report here below i will just emphasize the changes i found on the locations, and the particular aspects of arranging your own trip on the spot.
Key points :
– Zeth Wonggor is still the birdwatching rainmaker of the place, and birding in Siyoburi area means using his services one way or another. The trick is to contact him however, as Siyoburi is outside of mobile network coverage area… There are 2 possible tactics : trying to call/msg him (+62 (0)85254053754) until he picks up the signal when going down to Manokwari, or simply turning up at Siyoburi and getting things arranged on the spot. Both tactics have proven to work, but Zeth is a busy man and during the June-September peak season regular birdwatching tours will have booked his services well in advance. The good news is that Zeth actually runs a real organiation and has several assistants who are also very knowledgeable on local birds so that visiting groups or individuals will always be taken care of somehow… in my case, i could only contact Zeth on my day of arrival in Manokwari, and as he was about to leave for a trip to Bali (!) i was put in the hands of Eliakim who turned out to be a great guide.
– From Manokwari there are 2 options to go to Siyoburi (elavation 1500m, about 2h drive) : a truck that departs from the main market some time in the morning bringing back locals to their village (8 USD), or chartering a 4WD (100 USD one way). Your hotel will be able to find the car, and as you have no network connection up there it is safer to agree on a pick up day and time with the driver if you want to travel back the same way. One important point not to be ignored : in West Papua foreigners need a permit issued by the local police (‘Surat Jalan”) even for sightseeing activities. You therefore need to report to the police within 24 hours of your arrival in West Papua, tell them your planned itinerary and date of departure, and it will be issued in a couple of hours. If the police officer tells you it takes longer, it means you’re invited to contribute to the local police charity fund in order to speed it up… (100 k IDR will clear the problem)
– You need to bring food with you from Manokwari, not only for yourself but also for the guide and the porters you will possibly hire if you plan to camp in the forest for example. Enough rice (i took 5 kilos for 6 nights and it was just enough) and some fish/meat/eggs are the essentials, as you’ll be able to buy veggies from the village if you don’t bring any. In Siyoburi above the village there is a “rumah turis” for visitors with 4 rooms with wooden bunker beds, a cooking area outside and a bathroom with running (cold) water from the stream. No electricity, so bring the lighting of your choice. A woman from the village will take care of the cooking.
– All prices are fixed and as of my visit, they were : 250 kIDR/day for guiding, 70 kIDR/day for the bed, 100 kIDR/day for cooking, 100 kIDR/day for porters, and an additional one-off 200 kIDR that goes to the community. So overall, a 6 nights stay set me back 6.6 mio IDR, food and transport included. I spent 4 nights in the guest house, and 2 nights camping on the ridge at “camp X/Jepang”, elevation 2100m, using 2 porters for the 3 days trek. Basic camping equipment such as a sleeping bag and a pad are certainly useful (bear in mind that nights at Siyoburi are fresh, and chilly above 2000m), you don’t need a tent for camping as porters will bring a tarpaulin sheet.
– Forest clearing is gathering pace around Siyoburi, unfortunately for birdwatchers. In addition, a new road leading to the village of Kwai was being cut at the time of my visit, passing just 100 meters away from the spot for Magnificent Birds of Paradise. It is simply inevitable, and most villagers will certainly see their living standards improve substantially out of this, but the constant noise of chain seesaw and caterpillar engines made my birding experience less enjoyable.
– Around Siyoburi, Zeth and his crew have set up hides for displaying Magnificent Birds of Paradise and Western Parotias. Black Sicklebill and Arfak Astrapia are found higher on the ridge, mostly above 2000m, and i had good view of both species during the 2 nights/3 days camp. Unfortunately i missed out on the Long-tailed Paradigalla, which usual sighting location is now threatened by forest clearing, and on Buff-tailed Sicklebill, which can be found in a lower elevation area, near the village of Mokwam.
– Birding is generally difficult in Arfak and the rest of Papua, birds being particularly shy due to traditional hunting pressure. This is compensated by the incredible sighting skills of the local guides and their excellent knowledge of birds, from calls to feeding and roosting habits. Especially if you have little or no knowledge of New Guinea avifauna, more than anywhere else you need a guide to see the birds in good conditions. Photography was difficult too, and only from the hides i could get decent shots of visiting birds. Visiting at the tree fruiting season also meant that no fruiting tree was particularly busy with birds… I basically spent more than half of my “useful” time in hides, staying 3 times at both the Magnificent BoP and the Western Parotia hides. This was not very productive and even though BoPs were definitely around, frequently calling, they did not display at all (it was late in display season but i could have been more lucky) and showed only very briefly in front of the hide.
– BoPs put aside, most notable sightings were : New Guinea Harpy Eagle, White-striped Forest Rail (Magnificent BoP hide), Modest Tiger-Parrot, roosting Feline (just behind the guest house!) and Mountain Owlet Nightjars, Spotted Jewel-babbler, Lesser Ground Robin, Lesser Melampitta, Smoky, Green-backed (Magnificent BoP hide), Ashy (WP hide), Blue-greay and Garnet Robins, Papuan Treecreeper, Rufous-sided and Western Smokey Honeyeater, Vogelkop and Cinnamon-browed Melidectes, Spotted Catbird, Vogelkop Bowerbird.
Back to Manokwari, it takes a short flight to Sorong (3 or 4 daily) to reach the gate to the Raja Ampat archipelago, mostly famed for its great diving spots. Thanks to Shita of Papua Bird Club, i was given the contact of Cyau (+62 (0)85254477744 , no english spoken), who has a ready-to-charter boat available for birding and diving trips alike. The 4 days/3 nights trip was priced at 8.5 Mio IDR, with more of half of that money going into fuel for the 4×40 CV outboard engines. A pretty powerful setup that shrinks the 70km or so journey from Sorong to Wailebed on Batanta to less than 2 hours. At such a speed, the opportunities for seabird watching en route were also shrunk to minimum. Before heading off to the islands, i had to buy food supply for myself + 3 people crew + 3 guides in Batanta/Salawati… 8 kg of rice for 4 days was barely enough. But as one of the boat crew turned out to be a skilled spear fisher, a large supply of fresh reef fish was also available.
Salawati being only separated from Batanta by a 3km wide strait, visiting both islands in one trip is easily done. This is all the more interesting because their geography are substantially different, and their birds as well. Batanta is a hilly island with little or no coastal plain, whereas Salawati is flatter with swampy lowland forest along the coast. Batanta has Wilson and Red BoPs (shared with Waigeo Is further north), but Salawati has a similar avifauna as the mainland, with King BoP and Western Crowned Pigeon being the main targets.
I managed to get views of the 3 BoP species, with up to 8 Red BoPs displaying high in the canopy of a large tree just outside the village of Wailebed. Wilson BoP occurs above 300m elevation in Batanta, so it takes a bit of a hike to reach the display sites. None was active unfortunately, and during my 2 visits i had some good but brief views of a few birds moving in the middle storey. On Salawati, the guide Nelman knew a roosting site for King BoP (this bird tends to roost communally), so by getting there early enough we had good views of 2 males grooming themselves in the canopy. The Western Crowned Pigeon stayed elusive for most of the day spent in Batanta, and only on the way back from our last attempt we flushed 2 birds that were feeding on the ground. Other notable sightings : Dusky Megapode (Batanta), Purple-tailed Imperial Pigeon (Batanta), Black Lory (Salawati), Rufous-bellied Kookaburra (Salawati), Hooded Pitta (Batanta).
As for the Arfak, the Batanta/Salawati trip has been done by many birders in the recent past with comprehensive reports available on the net. So just a few points to highlight the conditions at the time of my visit :
– Similarly to Siyoburi in the Arfaks, Wailebed on Batanta is prepared to welcome visiting birders with a dedicated “Rumah Turis” (a small concrete house with no bed/mattress, so do bring your sleeping pad) and guides available to show you around (Chris and Yehuda, both excellent). Prices are almost equivalent to Siyoburi, with the price for a guide coming at 200 kIDR/day, but then they insisted that i needed 2 guides… At Salawati, Nelman is the man, very good as well, but he managed to sell himself more expensively, at 300 kIDR/day.
– Whereas i found Wailebed area in Batanta in good condition besides the clearing around the village, Salawati is unfortunately undergoing rapid and undesirable changes, from a birdwatcher’s perspective : a large “Transmigrasi” settlement area is being developed on the north coast just across from Wailebed, and from there a logging road has been cut along the North coast almost all the way to Northwestern tip. Transmigrasi is the name of a controversial (at least in Papua) Indonesian government policy promoting population transfers from the most populated areas of the archipelago (mostly Java) toward the least populated areas (Kalimantan, Sumatra, Papua). Local Papuans resent this policy because they are progressively getting outnumbered by non-native Indonesians, and as for environment impact, the policy accelerates the logging and conversion of forested areas into agricultural land, especially along the coasts and large rivers. This was very visible, and hearable, during my day long visit along the northern and western coasts : every kilometer or so a chain seesaw was in action close to the coast.
But overall it was a great trip, and things went smoother than expected. All local people were friendly and extremely knowledgeable about the birds and their environment, making it a wonderful birdwatching experience. When discussing prices, i never had any “drama-filled” session that are sometimes reported by travelers in Papua, as prices were already set and reasonable. This all makes it very possible for independent travelers/birdwatchers to come to West Papua and save significant money as compared to joining a tour or having an agent to design a custom itinerary. Speaking some Indonesian does certainly help, but most locals speak at least a little bit of English, and with the help of a lexicon one should manage to survive pretty much all situations.