Papua Travel Information - Southern Papua
Southern Papua: Swamps, Tree-Houses, Art & More

Southern Papua is a good example of how fame doesn't necessarily lead to crowds flowing in. It is home to two of Papua's most famous ethnic groups, the Asmat woodcarvers and the Korowai tree-house dwellers, yet it remains the least visited and least accessible part of the island. It is quite poorly connected to the rest of Papua, and also to the rest of Indonesia, and once here, transport still remains an headache for those planning to explore this vast region unless they are very wealthy and/or have lots of time on their hands. Those lucky enough to be in the latter category should find plenty to keep them busy here. Before heading to the Asmat region, it is worth pausing in Merauke to visit nearby Wasur National Park, which looks like small bit of Australia's Northern Territory and is the best place to see wildlife in Papua. Roads lead from Merauke into the interior for a distance unmatched in Papua, though these road-accessible areas are not as interesting as many others, and are in fact home to plenty of Javanese transmigrants. Those looking for the exotic usually head for the huge swamps of the Asmat region, once famous for its vicious headhunters who are today better known for producing the best tribal art in Papua. Their shields and statuary are all available for purchasing these days of course, and you may also get to see some of their intricately carved, traditional men's houses. At festival times you might also see them in spectacular traditional finery, but otherwise, the people and the villages can look disappointingly "modern". To find more traditional, striking architecture and people wearing traditional (un)dress, you must travel further upriver to the Korowai region. The Korowai, stars of many a glossy magazine article, still live in their famous treetop houses, and - at least when tour groups visit them - will appear in their very limited traditional attire. Further west along the southern coast, the Kamoro people also produce unique, if less famous and less colorful art than the Asmat. They live around the city of Timika, which is the gateway to nearby Tembagapura, site of the World's largest copper and gold mining operation. Timika itself is not an appealing tourist destination by any accounts, but it has the best air links in this region, making it a handy entry or exit point. Well, happy exploring!

Attractions Off the Track Getting There

Main Attractions

Merauke is famous as the easternmost town in Indonesia. It is located on the south coast of Papua, near the PNG border.
The population is mostly Indonesian, as Merauke is a centre for extensive transmigration areas.
For some local colour visit the markets, where Papuan hunters sell kangaroos!
Wasur National Park

This park east of Merauke along the PNG border is the best place to see wildlife in all Papua. Much of it is a seasonally flooded plain with marshes, eucalyptus forests and termite hills, similar to Australia's famous Kakadu NP. The local fauna is also very similar to Australia's - kangaroos are easily seen.
The Asmat Region

This swampy area stretching inland from the south coast is famous for its warlike past but is nowadays pretty civilized, with everyone wearing modern dress.
However it is also famous for its wealth of primitive art, and that remains worth looking at.
Note that this is a very expensive area to explore though, and is probably only really worth considering for the very wealthy or the serious lover of tribal art.
Korowai Country

The lowlands just below the central mountain range are the most traditional part of Papua. Several tribes here, such as the famous Korowai and Kombai, live a semi-nomadic lifestyle in small family groups, and build the famous treehouses.
Many don't speak Indonesian.
The Korowai area attracts a steady stream of expensive "adventure-tours", and has now become something of a tourist trap, where "perfect primitiveness" and even "first-contact" is routinely staged for visitors - along with extra high tree-houses built for photographers' benefit.
In reality they also wear some modern clothing and many of them spend some time in permanent villages.
However the more moderately high tree-houses still exist for real, and the Korowai way of life still remains very traditional.
Off the Beaten Track
The Digul River

The Digul is the longest river in the southern half of Papua and there are several important, largish towns along it.
There are even occasional boat services quite far inland here.
Nevertheless the upper reaches of the river remain unspoilt, with rainforest, rich birdlife and even treehouses.
The Brazza River

The Brazza River is one of the most remote areas in the Asmat region.
It is noted for its own unique style of carved shields, featuring small eyes on them.
The villages here tend to be very small and otherwise seemingly unexotic though.
The river itself is not too scenic either, with the forests along its banks now appearing secondary after having been logged in the past.
I imagine that by going hiking off the river itself, things should get more interesting!


Dekai is the main town in the Brazza River region, situated some 15 kms off the river itself, but linked to it by a road. Administratively, it is the capital of the Yali-dominated Yahukimo Regency, and thus technically part of the Highlands! In practical terms it is in a typical interior lowland area of the South, whose native people are the Momina who were once tree-house-dwellers.
Currently, Dekai is undergoing an almost surreal contsruction boom, and is the single most expensive place I have seen in all Papua! However, it has a daily air link to Wamena, making it a very useful stepping stone between the Highlands and the South.

Getting There and Around

By Road/Sea

The border between Merauke and Papua New Guinea is closed for foreigners.


By Air

The only airport in the South that received flights from western Indonesia when I last checked was Timika, served by both Garuda and Merpati flights from Bali.

By Sea

Connections are much poorer than to northern Papua, and are pretty much limited to Pelni's unreliable Tatamailau, which comes from Java through Nusa Tenggara and Southeast Maluku to Timika and all the way to Merauke. A few Perintis ships also connect Timika with Southeast Maluku.


By Air

You can fly from Sentani to both Merauke and Timika, and the latter may still have an air link with Biak, too. Dekai in the interior is linked to Wamena. The popular Korowai region is mostly reached by chartered flights from Sentani or Wamena - no regular ones come here. Within the South, Merauke is the main hub, with flights to the Asmat region. These have long been very heavily-booked and unreliable.

By Sea

Only irregular Perintis ships connect the south coast with the rest of Papua - flying is definitely preferable.

By River

Rivers are perhaps the main roads in southern Papua. Some are big enough that even the odd Perintis ship can go upriver to places like Senggo and Tanahmerah. Cargo boats carrying supplies and building material are another option. Elsewhere, and to reach more interesting villages, you will often have to charter a longboat, which can be very expensive! Count on several millions of rupiahs for a trip that may only take half a day.

By Bus

There are bits and pieces of roads around various towns in the South, but the only road of any real interest is the one going north from Merauke. It is probably the longest in Papua, and public buses serve transmigration settlements along it whenever the weather allows it. It has in theory almost reached the Highlands, but parts of it may not be passable. Unless the weather is really bad, you should be able to get at least as far as Asiki on the Digul River, from where you could continue inland by river transport.


Ojeks or minibuses could be rented to take you places close to the main towns, such as to Wasur National Park.