Into the Valley

On our travels, Jean and I have been on many memorable rides that were exhilarating and breathtaking and some were down right frightening. But I believe that our wildest ride was in 1998, into the valley of Balien in Irian Jaya.

Irian Jaya is the western half of the island of New Guinea, which is part of the nation of Indonesia.  This country is largely jungle and parts of it have not been thoroughly explored.  A young member of the Rockerfeller family disappeared while exploring the island, never to be heard from again.  There are reports that cannibalism still exists in some areas.

We had a week left on our four-week tour of Southeast Asia when we arrived in the city of Jayapura in Irian Jaya.  This is not far from where General MacArthur established his headquarters after being evacuated from Corregidor in the Philippines during WW II. The town was much like other third world towns we had visited but perhaps a little more primitive.

The next morning, the fifteen of us on our tour boarded a passenger plane that seated forty or so passengers.  We were on our way to the Balien Valley, which was an hour away.  We were told that our visit to see the Dani Tribe would be the highlight of our trip because it was the home of the penis gourds.  I don’t think any of us knew exactly what that meant.

When we approached our destination the visibility was zero so we returned to Jayapura and were told not to worry, we would take an afternoon flight and the weather should be better.  That afternoon we piled back on the same plane in anticipation of visiting the famous valley.  Again the valley was completely covered by heavy clouds.  Upon our return to the Jayapura Airport, there was some doubt whether we could land there because of cloud cover; however God was looking after us for the clouds lifted enough for our plane to land.  Upon landing, the lone lady attendant stood and complimented the pilot saying that he had been flying only two weeks.

We were taken to a fairly nice resort to spend the night.  The resort was rather haunting to me since it was isolated in a jungle area and we were the only people there except for a few hotel workers.  Before our evening meal, our leader announced that the next day we take a morning flight into the valley on a cargo plane.  We were also told that the cargo pilots were experienced and had landed in the valley and returned earlier that day.

The next morning, we were excited with the confidence that the cargo pilots would make a successful landing and we would get to visit the Dani Tribe.  We and six or so other passengers sat in antiquated seats in the back of the plane.  In front of us was the cargo.

The cargo was twenty-four 55 gallon steel barrels.  We must have been too excited to inquire as to the contents of the barrels.

The plane took off and was climbing to reach the necessary altitude for the flight.  We became alarmed because we could see a clear fluid running towards us in a grooved area in what would be the center aisle of a passenger plane.  We thought that the liquid must be water but it didn’t smell like water.  To our dismay we were told that the fluid was kerosene used for jet fuel.  Two crew members were crawling around on the barrels, hunting for the leaks and trying to plug them with cotton rags.

Fright overcame all of us as word traveled through the group and soon the murmurs heard from the group turned into silence.  No one had to ask if this was a smoke free flight.

Our fears multiplied as we whispered our fears of what could happen.  What if we were to run into turbulence and the metal barrels strike one another causing a spark.  What if the fluid were to penetrate the electrical system.  What if there was a jarring landing, igniting the kerosene.  If we had been knowledgeable about the subject, we might not have been as frightened or perhaps we would have been more frightened.

I am sure that the others were like me and were asking God for help.  I thanked Him for the good life that he had allowed me to have.  I wondered if I had left things in order back home.  I told myself that if we arrived safely, I would kneel down and kiss the earth.

When we arrived at the valley, the clouds had lightened and we landed successfully without incident.  God had answered our prayers.  When we scampered off the plane, I was completely shocked by what I saw and I now knew what was meant by the term, the valley of the penis gourds.  Needless to say, I forgot about kissing the ground.

The men who met us wore nothing but the gourds and perhaps a headgear of bones and feathers.  Some adorned their chest with necklaces of bones, shells or animal teeth.  We could tell that the men of the tribe had to be very vain and be big liars by the size and length and shape of their gourds.

They escorted us to their village where we walked through deep mud and pig poop,  We were entertained by a mock battle.  We met their wives and children.  The women and girls wore nothing but heavy grass skirts.  The style of the skirt determined whether they were married or not.  They also had dabs of white paint over their torso and face.  The men killed a small pig for us and started cooking it over an open fire for us to eat.  We joined them in some sort of a dance.  Luckily we left before the meal was ready.

We spent another day and night in the area and we were so glad that we made it into the valley of the Dani Tribe.  The only casualty was my leather walking shoes.  One of the workers at our quarters cleaned my shoes for me.  When I found them, they were soaking in a bucket of water and had been there for three hours.

Our flight out of the valley was uneventful as was our landing in Java.  We will never forget the Dani Tribe and certainly not our flights into the valley.


We found that some of the Dani Tribe wore clothes.  We found them in markets dressed in worn and dirty garments.  A young lady doctor told us that the missionaries talked some of the tribe to wear clothing but they were not as healthy as those who refused.  The problem was that the clothes were never removed or washed.

Jim Pershall

October 2010