The legendary Baliem Valley is the most popular and most accessible destination in Papua’s interior. The Dani people who live here were still dependent on tools of stone, bone and wood when a natural-history expedition led by American Richard Archbold chanced upon the valley in 1938. The Dani have since adopted various modern ways and new beliefs, but the valley and surrounding highlands remain one of the world’s last fascinatingly traditional areas.
The main valley is about 60km long and 16km wide and bounded by high mountains on all sides. The only sizeable town, Wamena, sits at its centre at an altitude of 1650m. The powerful Kali Baliem (Baliem River), running through the valley, escapes through a narrow gorge at the southern end. Amid this spectacular scenery, the majority of Dani still live close to nature, tending their vegetable plots and pigs around villages composed of circular thatched huts called honai. Roads are few, and the raging mountain rivers are crossed on hanging footbridges that may be held together only by natural twine.
Christian missionaries arrived in 1954 and a Dutch government post was established in Wamena in 1956. Since the 1960s, Indonesia has added its own brand of colonialism, bringing immigrants, government schools, police, soldiers, shops, motor vehicles and becaks (bicycle rickshaws) to the valley. Big changes have been wrought in Dani life, but their identity and culture have proved resilient. Tensions between Dani and the security forces and Indonesian immigrants periodically erupt into violence, most notably during a large-scale uprising in 1977 and again in 2000, when clashes led to a temporary exodus of non-Papuans.