The Mek of Merengman

I’ve been writing this particular blog about my adventures with Mark and Olly for some time now. To see the rest of the blogs in sequence click here. But if you haven’t the time to read the backstory, here is the story so far.  I produced a series of eight one hour documentaries for Travel Channel and Discovery in the remote rain forests of West Papua two  years ago that was great adventure. 

Along with explorers, Mark Anstice and Olly Steeds,  a production crew from Cicada Films and many local ‘Yali’, porters we climbed into the mountains of West Papua in search of the ‘Mek’ people. This elusive tribe have had little contact with the outside world for thousands of years.

Heading towards Mek Territory

Heading towards Mek Territory

The previous year, Mark and Olly had lived in with the Kombai people in the swamps of West Papua. During their three months there, the two explorers became aware that things were changing fast for the native people of Papua. Money, religion, politics, education, logging, military action, disease, metal goods, converse sneakers, tee-shirts, cheap chinese lighters; all these things and many more were flooding into these remote and ancient cultures, altering them irrevocably.

Spurred on by this experience, Mark and Olly decided to go to West Papua again, but this time they were to go high into the montains to make a series of films see with the Mek people. It was a big ask. The territory was ferocious and there was little guarantee the tribe would allow them to stay for the four months the two explorers and our film crew needed to really get under the skin of village life.

The Mek tribe of around two thousand people had been known to the outside world for many years. But there were small villages on the edge of Mek territory that we hoped still stood on the cusp of modernity where we could still learn of the old ways while witnessing how the tribe adapted to the new.

The blog picks up after we’d been four days into the expedition and just spent an uncomfortable night in a village called ‘Tohamak’. Our guide, the ‘Legendary Bob Pelege’ had hoped the villagers might let us stay. But in the end it was a rather disappointing encounter. The villagers were Mek people but they had moved further into modernity than we’d hoped for. This was demonstrated when they asked us for $800 dollars to kill a pig for a feast of welcome. 

Wild boar jawbones on the edge of Merengman territory

Wild boar jawbones on the edge of Merengman territory

Our porters were from the Yali tribe and the Mek are their traditional enemies. The tension in the village was palpable as we tried to sleep in a village where not so long ago we would have been killed and eaten for such a transgression. Come first light we head further into the mountains.  Bob planned to take us to the village of Merengman. It was two days walk away through ever worsening territory but it was there that he believed we’d find what we were looking for. I was sick with nerves by now.  Months and months planning were hanging in the balance. 

Day five’s march was awful with leeches, vertical walls of vegetation, torrential rain and a gnawing uncertainty about whether I was leading the expedition towards disaster. A night camp made in the pitch black under what seemed like a waterfall didn’t help the mood either. But on day six when we encountered a staff of pigs jaws we knew we were nearing what we hoped would be our final destination.  This frightening totem marked the territorial edges of  Meregman. I  felt  exhausted, worried but elated mostly. All the hard work, all the blood sweat and tears had all lead to this point.

Chief Markus gives us a traditional Mek 'welcome'

Chief Markus gives us a traditional Mek 'welcome'

The following day, after little sleep, we edged  closer to the village. Bob knew that by tradition, no stranger would be allowed to enter the village without a show of strength. Less than two hundred meters from the village a tribesman who turned out to be the chief himself, leapt from behind trees and challenged us to leave his territory. We spoke English, the porters spoke Yali and and Indonesian and a few words of Mek. Between, Bob, Olly, Mark and the porters, we managed to get the Chief, Markus, to allow us to enter the village.

The villagers of Merengman meet their first westerners

The villagers of Merengman meet their first westerners

It was an amazing sight. The villagers looked on with a mixture of  anxiety and curiosity. Ed Kelly, the camerman and director allayed people’s fears by letting them see and hear what we were recording. We’d decided that if we found somewhere that would let us stay we would share our world with them as we hoped they would do with us. 

We'd decided to let the villagers know from the start what were were doing

We'd decided to let the villagers know from the start what were were doing

Chief Markus called a meeting of the elders and after some debate they decided to let us stay and see what we were made of. Exhausted but elated we started to make camp and prepare ourselves for what we hoped would be the long haul. We were in.

Chief Markus addresses the elders

Chief Markus addresses the elders

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