Seeking paradise in Manokwari

Fringed by alluring beaches, Manokwari in West Papua is the gateway to mist-clad highland forests filled with the singing and dancing of birds of paradise. Fatris MF of Colours explores its natural wonders – and the area’s spiritual significance.

Words by Fatris MF

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More than a century and a half ago, British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace arrived at a small settlement on the Bird’s Head Peninsula of Papua. Dorey was the name of the village mentioned in his writings. There, he huddled up inside a cabin, daydreaming about the dense forests of inland Papua and all the species of fauna living there.

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“A place which contains so many strange, new, beautiful natural objects compared with other parts of the world,” Wallace wrote in his book, The Malay Archipelago. The forests, he wrote, were thick, dense, and so difficult to penetrate. Even more so, because he and some of his men were suffering from a fever.

Today, the small settlement Wallace visited has transformed into a municipality known as Manokwari, the capital of West Papua. I am eager to see what Wallace was dreaming about: a forest filled with the chirping and prancing of the heavenly birds he called ‘birds of paradise’.

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At three o’clock in the morning, my friends from PT Gapura Angkasa, Deni Karnabi and Gunardi, who helped me with this trip, pick me up from my lodgings. We travel by four-wheel drive to reach the forest. Our double cabin vehicle cuts through the darkness of the early morning, navigating the sharp bends and steep roads. Seeing majestic, brilliantly plumed birds dancing in their own habitat is worth a certain degree of struggle, don’t you agree? But the effort is forgotten the instant we arrive in Kwaw village, in the cold highland district of Mokwam in the Arfak Mountains.

The dense greenery is hidden by the early morning mist, which gradually lifts to reveal multiple layers of forest.

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The Arfak Mountains come into view: green and cold, with tightly packed trees, deserted valleys, and people venturing out of their wooden houses dressed in thick clothes, their arms folded across their chests as they try to stop the cold pervading their bodies.

A young man by the name of Seman Mandacan takes us into the forest, which is only a stone’s throw away from the road. The cool morning air is filled with the sound of birdsong. Seman tells us to sit down and hide inside a hut covered with leaves. Between the narrow cracks in the hut’s walls, he says we will be able to watch the clever birds prancing around to impress their partners while making their nests.

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I presume the clever birds Seman mentions are those Wallace refers to in his book. But our guide describes so many different types of birds, and their behaviour, that I fail to memorise them all. The Arfak Mountains are home to numerous species, from the Vogelkop bowerbird (Amblyornis inornata), which is good at nestmaking, to the yellow bird of paradise (Paradisaea minor), which dances niftily in the treetops, to the Arfak parotia (Parotia sefilata), a bird with antennae that prefers to dance on the ground.

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I leave behind the entrancing birds of the Arfak Mountains to sink into a seat in the Aston Niu Manokwari restaurant, looking out across the open ocean in the early afternoon.“It’s a combination of forest and sea,” says chef Slamet Ponco, bringing out a tasty dish made from tuna and banana heart.

A young lady called Fransince Magdalena offers to take me to Petrus Kafiar Beach to look out over the Pacific Ocean. From there, we go to other beaches, drinking fresh coconut water and sitting on a wooden platform looking into the clear water at Bakaro Beach.

As Fransince and I gaze out, 60-year-old Lukas A. Barayap sits down beside us, chewing betel as he starts a deep conversation. “We reap what we sow. Nobody reaps goodness if he sows only evil,” he muses, as seagulls caw on the horizon and waves crash blindly into the mouths of coral. Barefoot, Lukas invites me to go with him towards the sea’s edge. His body is strong, wiry, muscular. He enters the sea carrying several lumps of soil filled with termites.

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“God bless the sea, God bless Manokwari too,” he says to himself, perhaps continuing his thread from before. He quotes from the Bible, also from the Qu’ran. After that, he falls silent. He gazes into the vast ocean. One or two boats sail past and he continues to sprinkle the termites, calling to the ocean dwellers in his own unique way. Fish begin to swim towards the place where Lukas is standing. “I used to be able to call bigger fish than these. Fish bombing must be stopped, we cannot allow this sea to be slowly destroyed,” Lukas says, this time not quoting the words of God. He tells me he has been guarding the beach and coral reefs from damage for many years, and as a reward for his hard work, a few months ago he was summoned to Jakarta by the government to be given a 2019 Kalpataru Award, the highest recognition for Indonesian environmental champions.

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To borrow Lukas’s words, Manokwari is a town that is blessed; messages regarding God’s blessings are found on signs at crossroads, on school walls, and in homes. This is the place where Christianity was introduced to Papua, as a result of the work of German missionaries Carl Wilhelm Ottow and Johann Gottlob Geissler, who arrived in 1855. “Im Gotes mName Tu Betraten (In God’s name we set foot in this place),” were their exact words, now engraved on a monument on the beach of Mansinam Island, a popular destination for religious pilgrims. As you would expect, looking for a house of worship in this part of the world is an easy undertaking, whether you’re Protestant, Catholic or Buddhist.

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On Sundays, the roads are quiet and the churches are full with congregations proclaiming the name of God. I am staying in a hotel next to a church and, on Sunday morning, I awaken to the faint sound of a spiritual chorus.

Where else should I visit? “Let’s go to Mansinam Island,” say Deni and Gunardi, their eyes lighting up. Since I am the tourist, I follow along wherever they want to take me. We come to a small harbour, where we wait for a man by the name of Nikolaus Manim.

“Don’t fret, you can find everything in Manokwari. All the tourist attractions, all the indigenous territories,” says Niko, a middle-aged man who is head of the tourism and sports division in a local office.

“I come from over there, the Arfak Mountains,” he says, pointing towards the row of dark blue hills, like a giant fence surrounding the town. “This is Lemon Island, there are lots of lemons here. If you go diving over there, you’ll see a shipwreck. It’s all beautiful,” continues Niko. The sea is crystal clear, the fish and coral easily visible. After sailing around, we arrive at Mansinam Island. Only a few steps from the harbour, I am surprised to see an inscription on a wall. It commemorates the arrival of the missionaries Ottow and Geissler on February 5, 1855.

“On February 5, 2020, there will be a festival. It happens once every five years,” explains Deni. We drive to the top of a hill where we see a statue of Jesus, placards, and a church. Many families make a pilgrimage to this island to remember the two men who brought the doctrine of salvation.

On returning to the mainland, I go back to Aston Niu to once more enjoy the view of the mountains and the calm sea. I visualise the forest, full of birds singing, and think of Lukas and the fish in the open sea. Perhaps, in an empty bay somewhere in Manokwari, a boat will dock, and I imagine Fransince Magdalena smiling as she looks out across the vast Pacific Ocean.

Jakarta to Sorong


Flight Time 4 hours 35 minutes

Frequency 7 flights per week

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From Colours December 2019

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5 Senses – Taste
Banana Heart

A meal of banana heart, a local speciality, and fresh tuna is a perfect combination of the mountains and sea of Manokwari. You can enjoy this dish, created by chef Slamet Ponco, at Hotel Aston Niu Manokwari. Don’t forget to sample the delights of Hawai Bakery Monokwari and pick up a selection of unique gifts at Rendani Airport.